Review: “Stranger in the Pen” by Mohamed Asem

Author: Mohamed Asem
Publication Date: October 25, 2018
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir
Format: Paperback
Find it on: Perfect Day Publishing, Goodreads

Synopsis

July, 2016: Three days after the terror attack on Bastille Day, Mohamed Asem is detained overnight by British immigration officials without cause. In an elegantly digressive, self-interrogative style, Asem describes the boredom and uncertainty of confinement, and how this specific kind of helplessness leads, inevitably, to a self-reckoning. What series of events has led to this moment? As a teenager, he was stranded in Paris with his mother during the first Gulf War, while his father remained in Kuwait. He spent his twenties dutifully trying to follow the blueprint for manhood back home in the Middle East, only to cast it all aside after his mother’s early death. Stranger in the Pen examines the burden of being disconnected from one’s homeland, unpacks the emotional toll of racial profiling, and illuminates the quietly surprising ways in which grief can change one’s life.

From Perfect Day Publishing

Review

TLDR; solid book bringing modern airport immigration and detention policies to a relatable personal level.

This memoir recounts the author’s trauma and personal reflections following the aftermath of his airport detainment. Starting with a quick prologue, he shares reactions of his family and friends to his experience which range from sympathy to resignation at the state of the world. He is encouraged to put his ordeal to writing, which is where the heart of the story begins.

I’d describe this book as a reflection on the current state of global immigration policies and local race relations brought to a personal level, making their impact relatable by focusing on an individual’s experience. Subtly, there’s also a more cerebral introspection of what it means to call a place home. (In the author’s case, owning a flat and job in the UK for a few years but considering Kuwait his home.) Current policies and training don’t seem to have a strong enough way to parse these nuances, or perhaps fear prevents us from trying to truly understand. The author calls for us to empathize with the impact on peaceful, law-abiding citizens who have their lives upended. His own situation aside, the author also points out the even more harmful impact of restricted travel policies to those with non-traditional lifestyles – souls with nomadic inclination who travel without truly calling a place ‘home.’

An additional element at play in the story (and present in many people’s lives today) is the personal internal vs presented external. In other words, how does your identity present to others when we act as what we consider our normal selves, compared to when we manage our spoken language or thoughts in certain situations? What do we consider the true pieces of ourselves, and do we risk sharing that with others? Identity is such a huge piece of the human psyche, and this story touches on the trade-offs between showing your true self versus being more strategic about what we share.

Overall this was a slim book with an important message that didn’t try to force a viewpoint, but merely presented the author’s experience openly as a fellow human. I felt the book could have been elevated further by including more emotion/human connection (felt a little flat at times) or refocusing back to global statistics at the end. Would recommend this if you’re looking for a quicker read that brings airport and immigration policies to a relatable level.

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