immigrant literature

Demanding to be seen in a faceless bureaucracy

Mohamed Asem's memoir "Stranger in the Pen" reflects on identity and belonging

Mohamed Asem is a man between countries and cultures, which puts him squarely at odds with bureaucratic systems that crave neat little scribbled-in circles. When everything is carefully defined, there are fewer choices. No gray area. Nothing to consider or worry about. So what happens when it isn’t?

Asem is a man of independent means with no permanent ties, free to explore the world when and how he chooses. Yet he learns abruptly, rudely, and quite painfully that “where” is not always a possibility. Not all doors are open to him. In his short memoir (131 pages), Stranger in the Pen, newly published by Portland’s Perfect Day Publishing, Asem recounts in his understated prose how he’s detained overnight at Gatwick Airport in London in July 2016, a few days after the Bastille Day terrorist attack, in which a semi-truck drove through crowds in Nice, France, killing 86 people.

Mohamed Asem for Perfect Day Publishing, June 2018. Photo by Jason Quigley.

Like a film lens moving in and out of a close-up, throughout the airport story Asem deftly weaves in memories and details about the rest of his life, one that defies categories and easy identification so that it stymies Border Control agents. Born in California and raised in Paris and Kuwait, he’s not truly at home anywhere.

His accent doesn’t fit no matter what language he speaks. He’s comfortable with family and friends in Kuwait, but his introverted ways (so “Western”) make him a tough fit in a culture that is so social, and his perpetual single status inhibits his ability to buy property so he can have privacy and write. On top of that, he’s light-skinned because his ancestors moved to Kuwait from other countries, so even in a Kuwaiti airport he’s often asked to get in a line for non-citizens. Where does the meta stop?

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