Nov 1, 2021

Mapping Exile: A Writer’s Story of Growing Up Stateless in Post-Gulf War Kuwait

Sitting on a green couch in what is now a bedbug-infested Brooklyn apartment, I suddenly realized that my flight to meet my family for the first time in five years was actually tonight, not tomorrow; 12:30 am, not 12:30 pm. I had planned to wake up early in the morning, make two cups of coffee, and pack a small bag with the few gifts I managed to buy last minute for my siblings. I thought I had more hours to sit with my heavy feeling, which I assumed to be a mix of excitement and longing, but which was rather a combination of wariness and fear, of things going wrong, of encounters no one can prepare for.

In front of the couch, there was a round coffee table, which I circled around in panic, not sure if I could make it to JFK on time, to Kiev on time, to Tbilisi on time. For months, my sister and I had saved and borrowed so we could have this one-week reunion trip in a country we knew nothing about. A few months after my arrival in the United States, the Kuwaitis had denied my application for passport renewal, subsequently making me an asylee. My family’s attempts to get US visas were repeatedly denied, so we began to make different plans. We called embassies every morning, in the United States and in Kuwait. I asked, “Do you accept a US refugee travel document? How long to issue a visa?” while they asked, “Do you accept a stateless travel document? How long to issue a visa?” The mutually closest country was Georgia, a place Arabs have come to discover in the past few years, this time not as conquerors, but as refugees in transit, hoping to infiltrate Europe from her eastern side.

I left Kuwait in August 2011, really the best time to leave Kuwait, when it was 120 degrees Fahrenheit. I knew I would be unlikely to return anytime soon. My dream of leaving the country was as old as my body. Fascinated with the possibility of other places, I was also dulled by my place of birth, but most of all I was tired of being stateless, tired of a state younger than my father telling me I didn’t belong or I wasn’t native enough. On airplanes, I never sleep, nor on buses; something about the presence of others unsettles my rest. I killed the hours making final touches on a translation project commissioned by a white woman who tried to not pay me since she was giving me “exposure to the American literary scene.” A white woman with barely any name, I should say. I began to take interest in my seat neighbors, a mother with three children, after hearing their Arabic. We asked each other the question we tend to ask before getting each other’s names. Her son, born in Bay Ridge, said, “We’re Palestinian.”

Arriving in Kiev, the Palestinians and I got thoroughly searched, the 12-year-old kid, slick again, making jokes about “Us,” that it’s only Us who are made to hold the lines back, who make the crowds huff in frustration. From me, the Ukrainians took small scissors and a tweezer my hairy eyebrows were in dire need of. I grew frustrated and sarcastic, answering every question with a question—I don’t know… because… you know… why… do I have to? These are the coping mechanisms I’ve acquired airport to airport, as a substitute to smiling at those who search and humiliate you. My attitude surprises them, often makes them resort to getting their own managers to deal with a woman who speaks like a bossy American but is not one. Today, like other days, I refused to answer why I was stateless or why I had this refugee travel document. I wore the fuck-it-up attitude and thought to myself, Even the Ukrainians. The year before, Russia had invaded Ukraine, so you’d think they would have had better shit to worry about. I asked that we take a picture together, the Palestinians and I. The mother volunteered as photographer, her kids and I posing and throwing hand signs we couldn’t decode.