“Unlike economic migrants, refugees have no agency; they are no threat. Often, they are so broken they beg to be remade into the image of the native.”
A blend of memoir and reportage, The Ungrateful Refugee packs a powerful punch and should be recommended reading for secondary school aged children.
Dina Nayeri describes her personal experience intertwined with that of the people she interviews as they all flee from persecution and death. Boats are braved and seas crossed by people fuelled by terror, courage and hope. The refugees are rescued and pitied — often by the regimes that created the trouble and strife they are escaping from in the first place. This small but important fact is invariably overlooked as the new arrivals are demonised by populist rhetoric that is bolstered by polices that reek of organised selfishness. Refugees “need friendship, not salvation.”
Nayeri revisits her own chaotic past in 2016 when she becomes a mother. “I had changed my face and hair, my friends, my education, my country and job so often, that my skin felt raw.” The five sections of her narrative — Escape, Camp, Asylum, Assimilation, Cultural Repatriation — recount the fate of individuals from different backgrounds as well as refugee support volunteers, lawyers and other decent human beings. The uniting theme is that refugees be given a voice, an identity, and that their stories be heard.
“You can only accept so much charity before you lose sight of who you once were.”
Dina Nayeri was born in Iran after the 1979 revolution. Her addict father and Christian activist mother had “screaming throwing fights that lasted into the early hours.” In 1985, during a one-year visit to London to see her grandmother and her aunt who married an Englishman, Nayeri was bullied at school. She lost a piece of her little finger after a boy slammed it in the door jamb. Mother and daughter returned to Isfahan, fast.
In the summer of 1988, as the disastrous war with Iraq was ending, the Iranian government tortured and killed around 5,000 political prisoners — intellectuals, students, left-wingers, members of various opposition parties and ethnic and religious minorities. Lessons in a strict Islamic classroom were stressful. Her Christian mother was threatened with death. Passports were cleverly obtained. Nayeri, her brother and mother flew to the United Arab Emirates. They hated Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Battling loneliness, they missed their farm with its cherry orchard like a paradise on earth.
Moving on to Italy, they had no status, and ended up in Barba. The refugee camp was in a husk of a pretty hotel on a hilltop. It was full of displaced families — Iranians, Afghans, Russians, Romanians. Nayeri’s feisty mother who had dispensed with her chador by now, pointed out that “people pay a fortune to visit this country let’s be tourists.” So they toured Pisa, Venice and Rome.
Their final destination is the USA. A woman in an Oaklahoma Church remarks, “Well I sure do get it. You came for a better life.” Is that so? Since when is living in an apartment block for the destitute and disenfranchised better than living on a farm surrounded by a fertile abundant land? Garden and paradise are synonymous with the magnificence and splendour of Isfahan.
“Sometimes all that’s left of value in an exile’s life is his identity. Please stop asking people to rub out their face as a tribute.”
To reduce a refugee to a faceless and threatening stranger is both inhuman and irresponsible. Nayeri goes to a refugee camp to collect stories. There are teddy bears everywhere — a favourite donation — well-meaning but useless. Kambiz Roustayi dreams of being an electrical engineer — he crosses into Turkey in the lorry of a people smuggler. Majid and Farzaneh climb the Zagros mountains to Turkey, cross the Aegean by boat, and enter Europe illegally. Asghar repeatedly smuggles himself out of Afghanistan only to be deported each time he acquires a girlfriend. Valid and Taraa flee the Taliban with their family over one of the world’s most dangerous mountain roads, and crash. Their car had been tampered with. Four of the seven family members were killed.
The interview with Kaweh, an Iraqi Kurd who is detained when he gets to England, is chilling in the way he is shorn of his identity as he is interrogated by a female officer and an interpreter. His name is truncated to fit Western standards. “For years after, his identity card would show his name cleaved in two, the beautiful Persian construction ‘heaven-born’ cut up so that his last name read simply as ‘born’. Hello, Mr. Zadeh, people would say. But Zadeh is only a suffix. Alone, it is unrooted, having been shorn of a birthplace, a poetic reminder of home.”
During the course of the twentieth century, the refugee has defined and exposed the limits of national sovereignty. When you treat people with dignity they are dignified. Our so-called civilised world is lurching into barbarism and cruelty against those seeking help and refuge. Charity workers clash with governments as they fight for the well-being of migrants stuck out at sea.
Nayeri rightly fulminates: “I want to lash out at every comfortable native who thinks that his kind don’t do enough. You don’t know what grateful is, I want to say. You haven’t seen a young man burn up from despair, or an old man faint on a football field from relief and joy, or a nine-year-old boy sing the entire Marseillaise from memory. You don’t know how much life has already been spent settling into the cracks of your walls. With the rise of nativist sentiment in Europe and America, I’ve seen a troubling change in the way people make the case for refugees. Even those on the left talk about how immigrants make America great. They point to photographs of happy refugees turned good citizens, listing their contributions, as if that is the price of existing in the same country, on the same earth. Friends often use me as an example. They say in posts or conversations: “Look at Dina. She lived as a refugee and look how much stuff she’s done.” As if that’s proof that letting in refugees has a good, healthy return on investment.”
The Ungrateful Refugee gets right under the skin of how it feels to be dehumanised by hostile immigration policies, conjuring in the reader a sense of compassion, despair and immense frustration. It is fascinating, engaging and ambitious. Nayeri turns a difficult subject into a readable humane narrative. Impressive, well-written and never maudlin, this is a book which delivers.
The Book of Tehran: A City in Short Fiction (ed) Fereshteh Ahmadi | Comma Press
For an alternative and very different read, The Book of Tehran is perfect. Iran’s location, huge oil reserves and nuclear capabilities generally overshadow the daily life of ordinary people. “Tehran’s political representation on the global stage has been marred by the post-war-on-terror misfortune of depicting everything in black or white.”
The ten stories in this collection are mandatory reading for anyone looking for genuine insights into a people and a culture portrayed stereotypically by a Western mass media which lacks sensitivity to complex realities.
The narratives range from a doomed love affair; Thursday afternoon piano lessons with an Armenian lady in a dusty half-dark room; the fate of Mohsen, a typical Tehran punk who “would wear six-pocket cargo pants, sported Adidas 80s with their backs flattened down, kept a silver-coated dagger tucked in his sock”; a tale of two sisters and their tyrannical mother; tea with affluent neighbours; a wedding . . . Tehran is a young and bustling city. Private and public life is so sharply divided there is almost a sense of it being a schizophrenic society. Truth and trust are major commodities. The pull of home is strong even if the regime is oppressive.
The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri | Canongate Books HB 370pp £16.99 May 2019 | ISBN 9781786893451
The Book of Tehran: A City in Short Fiction (ed) Fereshteh Ahmadi | Feat. Atoosa Afshin-Navid, Fereshteh Ahmadi, Kourosh Asadi, Azardokht Bahrami, Hamed Habibi, Mohammad Hosseini, Amir-Hossein Khorshidfar, Payam Nasser, Goli Taraghi & Mohammad Tolouei | Comma Press PB 208pp £9.00 April 2019 | ISBN 9781910974247
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