MANY HAVE SAID IT before me. I will say it again: I am not a terrorist. Why I have to defend myself follows.
At the invitation of five distinguished US universities and one literary review, I applied for a visa to the US on 12 January 2015. On February 2, my interviewer told me that my application needed “further processing” for “several weeks.” The embassy’s website says: visas are regularly issued within 4 days. Today, 350 days have passed and I have yet to receive a reply.
My name probably appears on some list. I assume this because within 24 hours of submitting my application, a US embassy official called and asked me to fax my travel-log for the past 15 years, which I did. The employee who interviewed me later said that that was “highly unusual.”
The purposes of my visit are literary, scholarly, and educational: receiving an award for my book of flash fictions, The Perception of Meaning; discussing new Arabic writing; contributing to a translation master class; and (inevitably?) discussing my region’s disastrous situation. Arabic literature is distinctly underrepresented in American publishing; only 0.0013 percent of US books produced annually are translations of Arabic texts. I think this contributes to “the lack of understanding” and the great divide that separates the Arab world from the American public.
I am a writer from the Arab world, an artist of words and imagination. I am a negligible part of a 0.0013 percent “minority,” whose millennial and diverse cultural heritage includes the invention of the alphabet and a language spoken by 300 million people inhabiting the heartland of the globe — the Middle East that is today infested by war and intervention, which are precipitating the exile of millions of its inhabitants to the four corners of the world.
To ease your mind, Mr. President, let me relate some personal details. I don’t know how to shoot a gun and, unlike 43 percent of American households (Gallup estimates), my house does not contain a firearm of any sort, and never did. Moreover, I am repulsed by the act of killing — not just humans, but also animals. I am a vegetarian for ethical reasons related to the cruel treatment of our fellow planet inhabitants, and you can find glimpses of this stance throughout my fiction.
Other personal details to share: I’ve never bombarded cities crowded with innocent civilians with annihilating nuclear weapons (Hiroshima, 1945). I’ve never mobilized armies to invade other countries (Vietnam 1965), raising havoc and leaving behind chaos and a civil war (Iraq, 2003). I’ve never operated prisons where massive violations of human rights would occur (Abu Ghraib, 2003) or caused innocents to die under the label of “collateral damage” (Amiriyah shelter, 1991) or supervised secret renditions and torture and held people prisoners outside judicial custody (Guantanamo, 2002). I’ve never bombarded hospitals killing patients and medical professionals (Kunduz, 2015). I’ve never shot unarmed people because of their color and race (Ferguson, 2014). I’ve never supported coups against democratically-elected governments (Chile, 1973) nor have supported and maintained close economic and military ties with an oppressive regime (Saudi Arabia), concluded nuclear deals with another (Iran), or sponsored colonial-settler state terrorism (Israel).
From my position as an insignificant member of the world, I am unable to influence events the way governments with their political, economic, and military arsenals can. But I have protested such policies and practices with my pen. The least anyone with a minimum sense of justice and a concrete conviction about liberty and equality can do is to speak his mind about the general good of humanity and the planet; to speak out against those who are blinded by power and profit, but unmoved by tragedy; and to denounce bigotry and the demonization of “others” — “others” who should be harnessed, broken in, or else annihilated.
Mr. President, I am not religious; in fact I am critical of religions, a so-called progressive who still fights for political and social liberties, and for an end to oppressive regimes, so let me share this with you: Terrorism is not just the product of extremist individuals or groups; it is also to the product of states and global powers. People that are bombarded, invaded, and killed by regular armies are also terrorized. Terrorism is the product of government policies and continued practices as the US rose to global dominance. Terrorism is the product of Colonialism and Imperialism — big old-fashioned concepts that remain eminently relevant today. Via colonialism, the global south was plundered, its peoples impoverished, their societies malformed, before being bequeathed crippled “states” headed by oppressive, corrupt, and subjugated regimes. Via Imperialism, interventionism and dependence were maintained. As if this were not enough, the bequest kept on giving, nurturing our fanatics: the Afghan “freedom fighters” against the Soviet Evil that were supported, trained, and financed by the US government were the precursors of the Taliban and al-Qaida, which in turn found fertile ground in Iraq, following the US invasion of that country and its sponsorship of the sectarian policies that eventually gave birth to the Islamic State. Taking into account this track record, I am surprised that the US and Europe are shocked by the cumulative problem of refugees, terrorists, and seemingly unstoppable chaos.
Censoring the arts, suppressing critical analysis, and silencing secular voices only fuel the war/terrorism machine. Demonizing entire populations maintains the stereotypes and misinformation that then insure your people’s silence, their ignorance, and most of all, US corporations’ profits. While I get to be placed on some list, actual murderers (disguised as state leaders and officials) get glorious receptions, diplomatic immunity, and VIP treatment. Why should I, who decides to write about all this, be held in contempt? Or be randomly selected in your airports for detailed inspection and interrogation? Or possibly be stabbed or shot in a hate-crime on your streets? I cannot start wars or bomb cities or deploy missile systems or overthrow rulers, but I bear the image that your colonialist past and imperialist present have imprinted on my back, and I am prevented from showing American people my real self: the “other” side of the story.
Your government’s policies induce hatred, Mr. President, and I will not fall for that trap. I will maintain and cherish the dear friendships I have with people in your country, and I shall continue to criticize and oppose the policies that keep us apart. Next April, a special issue of Amherst College’s literary review, The Common, dedicated to contemporary Arabic literature in translation, which I co-edited, will be released in the US, with a lineup of 25 Arabic authors, five artists, and 19 translators, representing the wide literary variety of countries, styles, generations, and genders in my region. This is how we try to reach out to people in the US. I know that deep down “we the people” share the same aspirations of equality, liberty, and dignity.
Writing is the tool I use to communicate, Mr. President, not the gun. I am throwing the gun you’re trying to slip into my hand back to you.
Hisham Bustani is a writer from Jordan. His fiction in translation has been widely published in US literary reviews. His book, The Perception of Meaning (Syracuse University Press, 2015) was awarded the prestigious Arabic Translation Award from the University of Arkansas in 2014.