With alluring and peculiar prose and a playfully erratic approach to structure, Ghalib Islam’s debut novel mirrors the anxiety of buckling under the burden of surveillance.
November 25, 2014
“Fear, he decided, was their chief governing principle. It was meant to make you want less, to efface the past and to tether the imagination so no future but theirs could be loosened into the world. It taught you how to tighten your own rope so the neck would bear not marks.”
—Fire in the Unnameable Country, Ghalib Islam
“Whatever one man does, it is as if all men did it.”
—The Shape of the Sword, Jorge Luis Borges
I’ve been flying since I was four and have never been afraid of it. I love reclining, watching ten episodes of Brooklyn Nine Nine, eating what I pretend is space food, and trying to work up the courage to steal the beautiful safety cards. I like the lurch in my stomach when we start shifting skywards, and I don’t mind the pressure pain in my ears when we come back down. Flying is no problem for me—but I’m terrified of airports.
At the airport, I’m anxious, chattery, and prone to pissing my nerves out. All I want to do is get into that cylinder on the runway and move through air.
When I went to South Korea in 2010, I made sure to fly out of Toronto via Vancouver instead of LA or San Francisco. In 2012, I moved to Melbourne and searched fitfully for a flight going east, through Abu Dhabi instead of the United States, even if it cost more and added hours to my journey. I’m afraid of all airports but the American security presence haunts me especially—I only have to think of Syrian-born Canadian Maher Arar, who in September 2002 on the way back from a family holiday, was renditioned on a stopover in New York, sent to Syria, and tortured for a year. Giuliano Zaccardelli, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Commissioner at the time, admitted that he knew shortly after Arar’s arrest that he was innocent, but it didn’t seem to matter. The narrative of his life bent forever because of bad luck. Arar had been spotted having lunch with a “person of interest” and the RCMP then fed the CIA bad information based on its surveillance. They were likely meeting as Syrian immigrants who wanted to share lunch and bolster their networks. Even this innocuous act of “good” immigrants trying to get by can turn dangerous now. How likely is it that something like that would happen to me? What does it mean that it’s even a possibility?
Dread, fear, anxiety, and the apparatus of the surveillance state are what Canadian author Ghalib Islam examines in his debut novel, Fire In the Unnameable Country. Islam vividly renders the anxiety that comes from living under a constant eye and the destruction of the individual that this produces. The novel is indiscriminate: the idea of state and nation, rather than any particular state and nation, is its main target. Islam’s impressive feat is his ability to examine political ideas within a strong fictional narrative. How are the policies of the West connected to the East? How do political structures impact individual lives? How do you look back at your history and what do you take forward? Throughout, Islam is careful to articulate these individual ideas and show us what one means to another. The themes are fortified by the gorgeous aesthetic oddness of the prose; there are no “hot and rainy” days in FITUC, instead we have, “Always the heat or the equatorial rain in the unnameable country, which is not like the heat, but falls like a photograph. It’s always already a memory. Disappears into the dust faster than you get a chance to soak your nose in it.”
Islam uses a playful approach to structure—dropping in and out of first and third person points of view and bending punctuation laws to mimic thought—to give us a history of the unnameable country (alternately described as being in Africa, South Asia, and the Eastern Bloc) told through stories of the Ben Jaloun family. The protagonist and narrator Hedayat, born at the start of the novel, is our main conduit to the history of the country.
Hedayat tells us the story of his grandfather, Zachariah Ben Jaloun, who is arrested for a trivial reason: during a job interview with the Ministry of Radio and Communications, he is called Janoun by the interviewing officer, and, too scared to correct him, Zachariah accepts the name. He is both Janoun and Jaloun. He continues working for the ministry as Janoun for a number of years, until it’s noticed and he’s arrested. Here, Islam describes with eloquence the ludicrous nature of bureaucratic power:
A shadow blocks all the light in the room. It belongs to a man who speaks: Zachariah Ben Jaloun.
Yes, I am he.
Zachariah Ben Janoun.
In the dark, our hero says nothing about the other Zachariah, already understanding the nature of the trap.
Regard, something heavy falls as the shapeless man steps aside. The light moves slowly from the dangling single incandescent lightbulb at the far end of the cell across the room’s dimensions as if crossing the globe. Zachariah sees a folder sitting on a table, which bends and creaks desperately under the folder’s large mass of many loose sheets of paper. Our file, or your file, rather, weighs exactly as much as you do, Zachariah, sixty-four point three kilograms, am I correct.
Zachariah’s partner, Gita, an immigrant in the unnameable country, is also questioned and arrested. Again Islam’s beautiful prose mingles with the bureaucratic absurdity of the situation to create a stark sense of the ludicrous:
What did you think when he first revealed his second name to you; do you think of him as one or the other man when you think of him; be truthful, Gita.
The truth, sir: I think of him as Zachariah, Ben Jaloun is his birth name while Ben Janoun is his name at work.
Do you find it strange one man possesses two names. Might it not be possible you wake up in the morning next to a second man without certainty.
I don’t understand the nature of the question, sir.
The interrogator slips a long thin finger deep inside his ear, so deep it disappears all the way to the knuckle. He twists it back and forth as if adjusting a hidden organ.
Gita is detained for months, tortured and raped. This flexing of power leaves a permanent trace on the Ben Jaloun family when she gives birth while imprisoned—“…so we cannot know,” Hedayat narrates, “whether the father of the child born to her some months later, which she delivered howling alone in the presence of three hundred pairs of eyes with the assistance of only a midwife in that very cell, was Zachariah’s or another’s.” The state has confused the ancestral roots of the Ben Jaloun family. This brutalization of individuals ticks at the core of FITUC.
Speaking about the NSA and CIA in an interview with the National Post, Islam states, “[A]s a brown, Muslim man in post-9/11 society in the West, I presume that such organizations are monitoring my activities.” Is surveillance a reality that artists inside the Diaspora need to confront? No matter how mundane our daily lives are, there will always be the exhausting fear of being watched: the constant pressure to be a “good” Muslim and to live according to the state’s expectations. Is that enough? As Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain recently reported at The Intercept,even prominent Muslim Americans are being surveyed, from Faisal Gill, who worked at the Department of Homeland Security under Bush, to Hooshang Amirahmadi, a professor at Rutgers University. How do these Americans imagine their world now?
For the twenty-four flights I’ve taken as an adult, I’ve always arrived at the airport preposterously early—usually four hours in advance of boarding. The experience has always been middling: when I visited India in 2009, I was tailed around the airport and pulled aside for a “few questions.” Years later, in 2011, a border guard sneered at me, asked if I was Muslim, and then told me I couldn’t enter the country—even with a valid tourist visa—for a pathetic reason (I didn’t have my hotel’s address on hand). And while leaving Australia this February, my electronics would be subject to a random bomb search.
On a trip to Seoul via Vancouver in 2010, I was the first person to check in on the flight. The Korean Air representative laughed at me but I didn’t tell her my reason. I wandered around the airport, waffling over whether or not to buy booze.
Later, on the PA system I heard, “Adnan Khan please report to Gate H25” and I promptly crashed into my luggage cart. I had not felt more afraid in my life. I wondered what my choices were, but there were none, really. I have to report to the gate. I thought about Laid Saidi, an Algerian renditioned to the Salt Pit for sixteen months, because a CIA translator eavesdropping on a phone conversation had been unable to decipher the difference between the Arabic word for tires and planes. According to the New York Times, Saidi “used the word ‘tirat,’ making ‘tire’ plural by adding an Arabic ‘at”’ sound. Whoever was monitoring the conversation apparently understood the word as ‘tayarat,’ Arabic for planes.”
I wondered where I would be sent. I was born in Saudi Arabia, but never held their citizenship. Maybe it would be a new destination, somewhere I could cross off my list. Where was the Salt Pit, anyway?
After five minutes an airline official repeated the announcement and I walked towards the gate. Outside, I could see planes peeling off of the runway. A light rainfall had just started. The slight representative at the desk asked my name. Her hair was tucked in a tight bun and she gathered documents furiously. A few strands of hair spun out of the bun, like spider legs waving in the air. Could I lie to her? There were about 100 school children running around. She was hurried and her frozen face of fake hospitality was about to break—she repeated herself. I confirmed my name and asked if there was a problem. A slab of anxiety cracked in me—I considered blasting off an email to my father to tell him how to find me. How would he find me? What would happen now? When the Washington Post reported on German citizen Khalid-El Masri’s wrongful rendition by an overzealous CIA bureau deputy chief, they described the rendition process as so: “Members of the Rendition Group follow a simple but standard procedure: Dressed head to toe in black, including masks, they blindfold and cut the clothes off their new captives, then administer an enema and sleeping drugs. They outfit detainees in a diaper and jumpsuit for what can be a day-long trip.” CIA officials had confused Masri’s name with a suspected terrorists’. He was taken to the Salt Pit, tortured, his family never notified, and then taken back to Europe and released on the side of the road in Albania once the error was realized.
It did not seem like that was going to happen. This seemed friendlier. Even the CIA would not throttle me with an enema in front of school children.
‘You’ve been bumped.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You’ve been upgraded?’
‘To business class.’ A smile forced its way onto her face and there was a slight twitch behind her expression, as if she couldn’t understand why I wasn’t just happy.
‘Because. You paid a lot for your ticket.’ I had not paid a lot for my ticket—or at least not more than was expected. My best guess was that I was bumped to make room for the school kids, all traveling in a group. I sent my friends an email, leaving out all the crazy bits, telling them that the trip had started well. My palms were sweaty until take-off.
FITUC can be read as a meditation on how our security systems have turned “being in the wrong place at the wrong time” into a deadly cliché. It’s not only Zachariah who has been arrested because of confusion; his son, Mamun, receives the same treatment. The shattering effect of incarceration runs through the novel as we see character after character buckle under the burden of surveillance. What does the state’s appetite need to satisfy itself?
In Amitava Kumar’s A Foreigner Carrying In the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, a non-fiction examination of this appetite, we learn about Hemant Lakhani, a bumbling Englishman who in 2003 tried to sell undercover American agents a missile. It’s unclear if Lakhani, who was sentenced to 47 years in prison, would have wanted to or been able to procure a missile without the involvement of CIA, MI6, and Russian intelligence. Using surveillance records (court transcripts) and his own interviews with Lakhani, Kumar constructs an appealing case for entrapment. Kumar casts doubt on the official narrative of Lakhani as a legitimate threat by suggesting that he was an arrest of no consequence—that actually, he was a man with no terrorist activity planned until the CIA suggested it, and one of no means to acquire a missile without CIA assistance; that he was a product of the CIA lust for terror activity arrests post 9/11. Kumar skillfully shows us an appetite gorging on its people; the same type of government sanctioned blood thirst that eventually traps all the Ben Jalouns.
Kumar doesn’t only implicate the United States in his excellent account, but also India’s treatment of Kashmiri Muslims, and he is careful to draw a global net when illustrating the atrocities perpetrated against Muslims. This is the new flavor of globalization, as Khalid-El Masri tells the Washington Post, “I have very bad feelings about the United States. I think it’s just like in the Arab countries: arresting people, treating them inhumanly and less than that, and with no rights and no laws.”
In Islam’s work, we find a visceral accounting of our humanity that helps negate the faceless thrash of this type of world wide surveillance and configuration of fear. Despair consistently thrums throughout the book to refract what’s happening to so many. When Mamun (Zachariah’s son) is incarcerated early in the novel he inquires about his status:
My name is Mamun Ben Jaloun and I am here because.
Because what, asked the bespectacled man.
Because I’m not certain, I think one of you is supposed to know.
But how are we to know why you are here if you won’t tell us.
Because, Mamun faltered, because you’re officials, it’s your jobs.
The whole room sprang up in a laughter that began and ended exactly together.
Islam never gives the Unnameable Country a singular region, nor its populace a singular ethnicity or language. He claims many different areas and tribes. By refusing these basic ideas of state and nation, Islam shows how the cord of war is woven tightly between all of us, how the West, East, and their atrocities are forever rigged together. It doesn’t matter where we are, he seems to be saying, the structures of domination, surveillance, and fear are controlling us all. He implicates us all in this world wide catastrophe of surveillance, and shows how, as Kumar writes, “it is each one of us who has tortured another human being, or, and this is more dangerous, lived in a world where torture has been practiced.”
I know how I will die—it will be this airport anxiety that chops me down. My father, a much calmer presence than me, recently flew to Nevada with my mother. He noticed the attendant fussing with his paperwork as they checked in for the flight and jokingly asked the elder Sikh attendant if his name was on the “no fly” list. Busy making a call, the attendant waved my father off, saying, “Yes, but I’ll sort it out for you,” and with a few words he cross-referenced my father’s date of birth with that of the suspected terrorist who shared his name, and my parents were allowed to board. It was only a temporary reprieve; my father would have to call the “Canadian officials” to permanently remove himself from the list. But they flew on and enjoyed their vacation—I never would have been able to convince myself to board.
Not understanding our names is the most basic identity confusion to turn lethal. Every day the two syllable clasp of my first name frustrates someone. White people repeat and repeat it, trying out different sounds, reveling in the fun of my name. I don’t mind anymore, but I have to not mind because the other option is too tiring. The gap of language, the structured potency of its oddness, has been turned on us. My father was laughing when he told me the story in the car; he thought it was funny that this cliché of being brown in the West had actually happened to him. It was a Sikh attendant who dealt with it so casually. It was Indians who hated me for being Muslim and didn’t want me to enter the country. It was an Indian immigrant security guard in Melbourne, who seemed more tired from standing on his feet than anything else, who checked me for a bomb. Living in this world, where these surveillance hardships have become internalized clichés —haven’t we gotten used to it?
Kamal Bari is a Toyota plant machinist whose story is one of the many that Hedayat shares for a few short paragraphs in FITUC. Bari complains about strangers who know him intimately, feeling “strange tingles in his body, his mind awash in confusion.” Is he being watched? At the airport, Bari is told that “his name matched another’s and that he was to follow those gentlemen over there.”
Hedayat narrates while Bari is kept waiting,
Dark teeming sweat, ten million maggots per second, hyperventilation, perspiration, inside his body hidden organs were making work, moving fluids from one part to another…The torture within was something else, and his heart stopped beating for no prior medical reasons by the time they came to tell him it was all a misunderstanding, the other Kamal Bari also possessed Hussein as his middle name.
A mistake, an error—a fuck up. Throughout FITUC Islam accomplishes the job of our strongest artists: discovering the right nodes of life for examination and articulating our fears to bring us closer to a truth. For lives lived so closely to a famished edge, in trembling anxiety, Islam’s writing reminds us what it’s like to be bold.