A London-born writer never felt he truly belonged in the places he and his family were from: India, Pakistan, Britain. In America, finally, he feels free—and at home
By AATISH TASEER
July 1, 2016
“Welcome home, sir,” the immigration officer said when I presented him with my green card at John F. Kennedy Airport in May. Three very sweet words, and they made me smile: As a South Asian male, with a Muslim name, I had hardly ever before entered the U.S. without being carted off to secondary screening. Now, married to an American, I was entering for the first time as a permanent resident.
And already I could feel the warmth of the American welcome. Here, at last, was a country where a document meant something! I was overcome by what must be one of the most unfashionable emotions of our time: boundless, unqualified love for America.
Just weeks before, in early March, we had been at 26 Federal Plaza, a bureaucratic behemoth in lower Manhattan, where, deep within a warren of foam ceilings and fluorescent light, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are housed. The paperwork was in—endless forms, passport photos, long-form birth certificates, immunization records, pay stubs, tax returns. We had paid a small fortune in legal fees and were now at that most coveted juncture in the life of an immigrant, a subject of lore: the green-card interview.
If I could establish that my marriage to the tall white man from Tennessee, sitting next to me, was real, I would become a conditional American. If not… My Indian mother’s words rang in my ears: “You will be arrested for green-card fraud and never allowed back into America again!” As we waited our turn, Ryan—the aforementioned tall white man from Tennessee, who also happens to be a lawyer—said with infinite patience: “That would be true if we were committing fraud. But we’re not.”
His belief in his country and its system astounded me. I had never known anything even vaguely similar in the places I came from. In fact, it had been a particularly bad month in the old countries. In India, where I grew up and where my mother lives, university students had been dragged off to jail on charges of sedition for attending a protest at which anti-India slogans were shouted. As for Pakistan, a crowd in the tens of thousands had just poured into the streets to bid farewell to the man executed the week before for assassinating my father in 2011. My father, then serving as the governor of the province of Punjab, had provoked the ire of fundamentalists by defending a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.
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Sedition, blasphemy: This was the darkness of my world, what I was running away from. And these things never come in isolation. The sort of places that haul people away on charges of sedition and blasphemy also generally give a rough time to two men wanting to get married. (As a legal matter, same-sex love is punishable by life in prison in Pakistan and is “against the order of nature” in India.) I was tired of countries like these. It was what I hoped my emigration to America would allow me to turn my back on.
And yet a mood of general pessimism settled over me: Would America really be different? Was Ryan’s trust not a little misplaced? I mean, the laws under which we were married were themselves brand-new, and now, here we were sitting in a government office, demanding a green card. It felt like a joke that had been carried too far.
But as I watched Ryan, patiently awaiting his turn in that room full of couples of other shapes and sizes, I began to realize that the gulf in our attitudes—my nerves and distrust, his preternatural calm—wasn’t simply a matter of temperament. It came down to two fundamentally different experiences of nationhood and citizenship.
My background was like an education in comparative nationality. I was half Indian, half Pakistani, with a British passport. And if the experience of these different societies had taught me anything, it was how little papers mattered. Your passport was a mere document. What mattered—and, as you went East, the question became increasingly direct—was who you really were. That is to say: how you fit into the deeper historical organization of the society, of which citizenship was only a bland and imperfect expression.
In Pakistan, what mattered first and foremost was who your father was—nationality but, more important, faith. Was he Muslim? If so, what kind of Muslim, Sunni or Shia? Pakistani society had once been plural, but the country’s transformation into an Islamic republic meant that faith and nationality were inseparably fused, and Sunni Islam formed the invisible underpinnings of what it meant to be Pakistani.
India was more complicated, but there too, inclusion in society depended on a set of categories that ran far deeper than citizenship. It was, as the writer Siddharth Deb calls it, a “high-context culture.” From the moment you arrived—sometimes from your name alone, which often revealed caste, religion and region—the immigration officer was busy making judgments about who you were that mattered infinitely more than what document you presented, in my case a Person of Indian Origin card.
“Aatish Ali?” one said to me just a few months ago as I arrived in New Delhi. “Quite a name you’ve got there.” The subtext was: You’re not part of the Hindu majority, so not part of the deeper organization of caste. The fact that I spoke English would have given him an intimation of class, and by the time he waved me through with a sneering, “Well, go on then, Aatish Ali!” he would have computed a whole range of information and bestowed upon me an identity from which there was no rescue. It was oppressive.
Belonging was what it really came down to, and I have to confess that Britain, the country of my birth, was terrible in this regard. The U.S. may have had the more traumatic experience with race, but it had led, in my view, to a more sincere reckoning. The racism that I experienced in Britain was insidious and casual. It was not part of a society coming to terms with a difficult racial history; it was a society telling you in the clearest terms that you would never belong.
It formed an unbroken thread in my life there. There was the man who accosted me, as a boy of 13, outside Madame Tussaud’s with the offer of an intoxicant of some kind. “Take this,” he said, “and you’ll be as white as a snail.” There was the taxi driver who, right after the London bombings of 2005, responded to my request to be dropped off on the other side of the street with: “You really think you ought to be talking to me like that after all your people have done?” And just the other day, on book tour in London, there was the distinguished old man, with a pleading look in his eyes, who said, “Tell me: When you’re done promoting your book, will you go home, or will you stay on?”
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Stay on? It was the only nationality I’d ever had. I was born in London; I’d lived and worked there. On paper, I was as British as the Queen. And besides, what about all of our shared commonwealth history? What about Kipling and cricket and the Raj? It meant nothing, and that was the point. No amount of cultural assimilation can ever make you British if you aren’t already—a fact all too evident over the past week, with dozens of spontaneous racist attacks across the country in the wake of the Brexit vote.
But back to Federal Plaza in Manhattan. America was different. I just didn’t know it yet. My experience of nationality had made me so cynical that even as I sat waiting to be called for my interview, a dark mood came over me. I began to doubt whether my interviewer could act in good faith.
After all, just the year before, there had been the incident of the county clerk in Kentucky who had refused to marry same-sex couples because of her religious beliefs. What if we were to get someone who felt similarly but was less forthright, someone whose beliefs and prejudices prevented them from doing their job?
Out of my distrust, I conjured up a range of profiles of people who would be hard-wired to treat me unfairly. I was full of these dark imaginings—Ryan was sanguine, checking his phone—when an attractive black woman in her mid-to-late 30s appeared with our file and asked us to follow her into her office.
Inside, after taking an oath, we were subjected to a perfunctory line of questioning, designed to establish whether we really knew each other. We were not, though we had prepared for it, asked the names of our first pets, our many half-siblings or distant relations. We were not, as in the 1990 Gerard Depardieu movie “Green Card,” asked the color of each other’s toothbrush; or how old I was when I first read Proust; or whether Ryan liked salt on the rim of his margaritas. We were asked some very basic questions, and yet I managed to fluff the first one:
“When was Ryan born?”
“Feb. 3, 1985,” I said easily.
“Are you sure it’s February?” the interviewer asked.
“Oh, no. Forgive me! It’s Jan. 3, 1985.”
Ryan looked aghast; the interviewer smiled.
It was roughly at this moment—just as things could have gone hideously south—that a moment of grace began to shine through the fog of nerves and bureaucratic repartee. It happened so swiftly that I was hardly able to catch it. When did we go from showing her pictures of our wedding and handing over proofs of cohabitation to discussing the interviewer’s three (or was it four) children? When did we start discussing our future children? Had we considered surrogacy? Were we thinking of adoption? And then the next thing I knew, the interviewer was saying: “I’m going to go ahead and approve your application…”
I could have wept. It was all so humane. I thought of the other places I had known, places I belonged to: Pakistan, where my father’s assassin was celebrated; India, which was busy demanding pledges of loyalty from university students. I thought of my cold, loveless relationship with Britain.
Then I thought of America, and a wave of optimism came over me. This is how a country earns the love of its citizens: It ennobles their relationships; it takes seriously their happiness; it acts on the assumption that people are basically good and, if given half a chance, will realize their better natures. Most of all, it creates the conditions—even here, in this dreary government office—for them to do so.
Some lines from the novel of a friend—Zia Haider Rahman’s “In the Light of What We Know”—went through my head. The central character, Zafar, speaks of an experience I was to have myself a few months later upon entering the U.S. for the first time as a permanent resident: “If an immigration officer at Heathrow had ever said ‘Welcome home’ to me,” Zafar says, “I would have given my life for England, for my country, there and then. I could kill for an England like that.”
Aatish Taseer’s green card
Aatish Taseer’s green card PHOTO: SPENCER HEYFRON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
A week or so later—just as I was heading out for a run—my green card arrived in the mail. It was a sleek, handsome thing, full of an understated dazzle. I carried it around with me in my pocket for days. It was the first official document from any country—and I’d had quite a few—that I was proud to possess. It felt like an achievement.
My life had been a strange combination of deep roots and homelessness, and America seemed like the obvious answer. This may be an odd thing to say, with Donald Trump darkening the horizon, but perhaps it is in times like these that we need most to be reminded of who we are—or, at least, who we are capable of being. And, yes, I use the first person plural deliberately.
In 1967—27 years after he had escaped the terrors of the old world, first in Bolshevik Russia, then in Nazi Germany—the Paris Review asked the Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, “Do you consider yourself an American?” He had, in the bargain, lost a country, a language; his father, a liberal like mine, had also been assassinated. In the U.S., Nabokov had made himself over from scratch.
None of it could have been easy. What America offered him, as it now offers me, was the opportunity to slough off the demands of the past. As a college student at Amherst, I had been unnerved by this aspect of the U.S. I thought my sense of self depended too much on the knots of intractable history that were integral to identity in the old world. I was afraid that identity in America would feel too thin, too much a thing of ink and paper.
What I had not counted on was what a relief that could be. Fifteen years later, it was what I had come back for. It was an immense freedom. No cultural attachment, no matter how great, can compete with it. The relief of being free of the past, and safe in the future, is audible in the reply that Nabokov gave to the Paris Review. He said, “Yes, I do. I am as American as April in Arizona.”
I hope one day to be able to answer similarly myself. Happy Fourth of July!
–Mr. Taseer is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Way Things Were.”
Categories: The Muslim Times