[The Gallatin School of New York University invited Amjad Nasser, one of the major poets of the Arab world, to inaugurate its Gallatin Global Writers series on 30 September. On 27 September, US Homeland Security at Heathrow, London, interrogated Nasser and prevented him from boarding the plane without giving any reason. The bilingual reading will take place as scheduled in protest of this occurrence. Nasser will join from London via Skype. The following is the essay Nasser wrote after the incident. It is translated by Sinan Antoon]
When Your Name is on the “Blacklist”
I read once that the number of names on the American “blacklist” is around one million. But that was before September 11. No one knows what the number became after it. One may think upon hearing of the existence of this list that it has to do with the names of those involved in practicing, financing, or glorifying “terrorism.” Or the drug lords who destroy the youth of the world. Or the arms merchants who supply peoples’ conflicts with instruments of murder. No, the list had some of the most prominent writers and artists from all over the world who had supported the struggle against colonialism, the right to self determination, or even the struggle against local dictatorships, such as Pinochet in Chile, and others in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Among them were names such as: Marquez, Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, Neruda, Mahmoud Darwish, Dario Fo, Mandela and a large number of leftist intellectuals, including the Greek intellectual, Yannis Milios, who was invited by New York University to take part in a debate, but U. S security at JFK sent him back home after a lengthy and humiliating interrogation.
One the most outrageous incidents of American security hysteria involved detaining the American writer Diana Abu Jaber and questioning her for hours even though she is a well-known novelist. I read her account of the experience of “entering” America in an essay she wrote after being allowed back into her own country.
I have dual citizenship, Jordanian and British (this is a right guaranteed by law in both countries) and have been working in journalism for more than three decades. In fact I have never had any other profession. I have published ten books of poetry, four travel books (which means travelling to many countries) and a novel whose English translation was published a few months ago by Bloomsbury. It is forthcoming in the U.S next year. I also have a beautifully designed poetry book entitled “Petra” which was published a few days ago by an American publisher, Tavern Books, and translated by the American poet and translator Fady Joudah. I have no other activity besides writing. Yet I still found myself on the list of those barred from entering America. Thus, all of a sudden I am on the blacklist. Or perhaps I have been on it from the time of red berets, which has long gone, but without knowing.
This is the story, in brief: I was reading Lorca’s “Poet in New York” on my way to Heathrow airport and thinking of the title. What did Lorca mean by it? Is it merely a predicative title? But what if there is a poet in New York or in any other city. This is not information. We can tell from the title of Lorca’s book. But New York is not just another city and Lorca is not any poet. The presence of a poet whose favorite words are: olives, oranges, vineyard, dirt road, lemon leaves, brooks, a moon dangling from a naked sky by a silk thread, in New York (a city unsuitable for poetry according to him) cannot be ordinary. It is news then: There is a poet in New York! Just as an Arab film that was quite popular in its own day: A Bedouin in Paris. The contradiction exists from the perspective of the filmmakers, just as it exists from Lorca’s perspective, between the poet and New York. As if poetry and New York cannot meet, just as bedouinism and Paris never do.
I arrived at Terminal 5 in Heathrow, the one dedicated to British Airways which was supposed to carry me in two and a half hours to the other side of the Atlantic: New York. The procedures commenced and then an American homeland security representative came into the picture as soon as my name reached the Homeland Security folks who are residing, it seems, in British airports. The homeland security official spoke on the phone to the British employee who was carrying out the usual procedures. At first I did not know to whom the British employee was talking, but then I heard my name repeated a number of times. Then the employee gave me the phone with a puzzled look on his face. “The Homeland Security men want to talk to you,” he said. The strangest “conversation” ensued: Your name, your father’s name, your mother’s name, your paternal grandfather, your maternal grandfather, your great grandfather, your height, your weight, the color of your eyes, of your hair. . . at this point I told the homeland security person: It is turning white now! “What was its color before? Brown? He asked. “No, black,” I said. The “conversation” continued: What will you do in New York? Who invited you? I answered: New York University. Who invited you there? Sinan Antoon. What does he do? He’s a professor, and he’s a poet and a novelist too. How do you write his name in English? Do you have relatives or friends in America? Where do you work now? Where did you work before? What are the addresses of those institutions? Al-Turra? Isn’t that the city where you were born? Where is al-Turra? (If you knew you would never ask, I thought). Where do you live? Is it your own home? Hounslow? Where is Hounslow? And on and on for two hours I was on my feet in front of the counter facing the British employee who gestured to all those standing in line behind me to go and focused on me.
The Homeland Security person who was interrogating me on the phone knew somehow from inside the airport that I am a poet and a writer and that I have an invitation from New York University to give an inaugural reading for a new cultural program. But that did not matter to him. He knew that I was a journalist and that I have never had any other profession my whole life, but that did not matter to him. He knew that I was approaching sixty years of age, but that did not matter to him. He knew, of course, that I have British citizenship, which cannot be acquired, I imagine, by someone “suspicious,” but that did not matter to him since he was exercising his own American dominion on British soil. Despite knowing all this he said: I am sorry. You cannot board this departing plane (It had already taken off) to New York.
- What is the reason?
- I cannot disclose that.
- Do I not have a right to know the reason?
- Just like that?
- Just like that.
* * *
Just like that. I will not be able to continue what I started to think about; Lorca and New York. Because I cannot go to New York, to which thieves, arms dealers, drug lords, and corrupt government officials can go. I thought as I was getting on the subway to return to my home. Had Lorca lived after the McCarthyism (which seems not to have totally ended in the United States) would he be able to enter New York again? My hypothetical answer: He would have been at the top of the blacklist for two reasons. First, he was an anti-Fascist, anti Franco Republican. Second, he penned that immortal invective, not against New York as a city and multitude of humans. But rather as predatory capitalistic relations that excel in transforming sweat, blood, and human wailing into a waterfall of Dollars.
[Translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon. You can read the Arabic here.]