TORCH: An Alien, Ineligible for Participation



Everybody is arguing whether or not it is a BAN. Call it what you want, it is about keeping bad people (with bad intentions) out of country! (February 1, 2017)

Stockholm’s Arlanda airport is curiously empty when I get there to board my flight. I’m traveling to Slemani, in Iraqi Kurdistan, to visit my parents, but Sweden has recently banned all direct flights to Iraq for reasons that have yet to be explained, so instead I’m flying via Qatar, at an exorbitant added cost and with an eight-hour layover. The continued perks of being Kurdish.

While I sit in a surprisingly trendy-looking airport bar drinking the first of many Bloody Marys, I receive a text from a cousin, wondering if we are now allowed to travel to the US. Over the past few weeks, I had received several texts like this from concerned friends and family (and even sent out a few of my own), desperate attempts to decipher what our current status was. Was another cousin, a Green Card-holder with an American spouse, able to travel abroad for work? And was I now banned from entering the United States, due to my having both Swedish and Iraqi nationality? “I heard that dual nationals are okay,” one friend says and sends a link to an article from the Guardian, which is followed a few minutes later by another message containing several angry emoji and, “Never mind, just read they can still reject you ffs.”

My answer to my cousin’s text is the same as that to all the queries about the Muslim Ban and its consequences: nobody seems to have the faintest idea what any of it actually means. The one thing we do know is that women and children who have experienced more horrors and jumped through more inhumane bureaucratic hoops than most people can begin to imagine are now left to die simply to appease the whims of venal politicians who have sold their voter-base on the absurd notion of a Trojan horse of refugees coming to commit acts of terrorism while forcing Sharia law upon unsuspecting Americans.



I still can’t believe we left Iraq without the oil. (January 23, 2013)

A drooping Turkish flag appeared at the horizon, assuaging the fears of my parents who had been exchanging nervous whispers that the taxi driver was, maybe, lost. “No worry, see?” he said to us, smiling, as though he, too, were somewhat relieved to have found the checkpoint that would allow us to illegally travel to Iraq.

The checkpoint consisted of a flimsy prefabricated booth inside which several uniformed men would sit, bored, leafing through the passports of those who wished to venture through the no man’s land that led to Iraq’s Kurdish region. Their presence was partly to imbue a sense of authority over the proceedings and partly to collect an assortment of fees and bribes as facilitating the passage of Kurds back and forth had turned out to be a surprisingly lucrative business.

The reason bribes and hidden checkpoints were necessary was that a no-fly zone had just been proclaimed by the United Nations in the north of Iraq after the first Gulf War, which allowed the Kurds who lived there to have de facto autonomy over their region. Which in turn meant that exiled Kurds could, for the first time in decades, return home.

Kurds didn’t have access to either Iraqi passports or visas and the mere act of flying into Baghdad airport would have resulted in immediate imprisonment, but the no-fly zone allowed for entry via borders that were no longer controlled by the Iraqi army. The process of passing through these borders, however, were anything but simple: a multitude of arrangements needed to be made with drivers on both sides as well as with the people who could get your name on the list that the border guards consulted. Then, twice a week, for a few hours at a time, if you seemed agreeable to the soldiers checking your papers, you could be allowed to drive across the no man’s land where another car that you had pre-arranged would pick you up and drive you to your city of choice.

The border beyond the city of Diyarbakir was an easier route for us than through Iran or Syria due mainly to the fact that we did not need a visa to get to Turkey, having acquired Swedish nationalities after having arrived in Stockholm in the early 80s as refugees. But Turkey had its own challenges, particularly the fact that you were not allowed to tell the border guards where you were going. Oh, of course everyone knew that you were crossing into Iraqi Kurdistan, but if you uttered the word “Kurdistan,” you would not be allowed to cross the border. According to Turkish policy, there is no such thing as Kurdistan, which therefore cannot be a place to travel to. Instead you were meant to speak in odd riddles, to mention “that over there” and point in the general direction of where you were going. The more brazen would name the city they were traveling to, but that’s about as precise as you were allowed to get.

On our first trip back in 1993, my parents were positively giddy with anticipation at reuniting with siblings that they hadn’t seen in over a decade. During the long drive to the Turkish border, however, they started to fidget, speaking in short, cryptic fragments that were intended to keep my sister and me from worrying (the effect on us was, unsurprisingly, the opposite). My mother then turned to us and said in a fake-excited pitch that when we got to the border we should not say anything at all, especially not in Kurdish (a language which, courtesy of “not existing” was banned in Turkey at the time), and to not utter the words “Kurd” or “Kurdistan” under any circumstances.

This was confusing to us, but we were duly silent, the guard’s questions directed at us met with blank stares as our parents explained that we did not understand English. Or Turkish. Or Arabic for that matter. The guard looked at us with suspicion and eventually waved us through in exchange for a twenty-dollar bill.

My return through the same route a few years later did not go as smoothly: I had foolishly brought with me an assortment of Kurdish flags and an old map that had “Kurdistan” written across that I had intended to give to friends as gifts. These were all confiscated, the guard simply tutting in disappointment as he found them beneath my clothes. I was traveling on my own for the first time and had, in addition to a lot of confiscated presents, years of pent-up anger from having undergone these absurd interactions.

“Where have you been?” the guard asked, a Kalashnikov rifle hung from his shoulder, motioning for me to close my suitcase now that it was clear of offending items.

“Oh, you know, over there,” I said, giving my best non-answer.

“Where is that?”

“Slemani?” I attempted.

“And where is that?”

He needled me a while longer, perhaps sensing that I would snap, which I eventually did, enraged at his petty assertion of power. I ended up yelling that I had just been in Kurdistan, and that I was a Kurd and that my parents were Kurds and that their parents were Kurds.

(This outburst went about as well as you’d expect.)

With a quick hand-gesture he summoned a colleague who promptly escorted me to a small building where I was kept in a room for many, many hours. At the end of the day the first guard unlocked the door and told me to get out. My suitcase was still on the table where I had been told to leave it.

They never asked me a single question or said anything about why I was being held.



If our border is not secure, we can expect another attack. A country with open borders is open to the terrorists. (July 31, 2014)

To the untrained eye the Kurdish alphabet seems indistinguishable from Arabic, the right-to-left squiggles arousing immediate suspicion amongst Western authorities. So for years now, any trip to the US requires a detailed digital cleansing ritual: I go through my phone deleting texts and messages written in Kurdish for fear of US immigration officers seeing them and demanding an interpreter be found (which, since Kurdish is a pretty small language, can take many hours if not days, and so you are held until someone can be found to translate a distant relative’s birthday wishes into English). For obvious reasons, I won’t be bringing any books in Kurdish or Arabic, but I have found that even books in English can lead to long interrogations. So I go through my to-read pile, trying to find the most innocuous title, wondering if W.J.T. Mitchell’s Cloning Terror about the use of images after 9/11 will arouse suspicion. Or Theodore W. Allen’s The Invention of the White Race. Best to avoid nonfiction entirely and only bring novels, and novels by people with white-sounding names, at that. So no Rabih Alameddine, no Reza Negarestani, no Bhanu Kapil. In the end I settle for Lorrie Moore’s short story collection Bark, deeming it least likely to offend the immigration officers.

Once reading material has been chosen and my phone has been sanitized from my native language, it is time to sanitize the self. I shave off my beard which may be coded “hipster” in my Stockholm neighborhood, but communicates “terrorist” in American airports. I dress as though for a job interview instead of a grueling transatlantic flight: preppy blazer, polished shoes, and ironed shirt. I take a long, hard look in the mirror before heading to the airport.

Of course all my efforts are in vain as the immigration officer sees, immediately upon opening my passport, the numerous Iraqi stamps incurred upon visiting my parents over the years. He tells me to follow him and leads me to what my friends and I have come to refer to as the Muslim Room. I’m led across the baggage claim area where Taylor Swift’s newly released “Welcome to New York” is playing on a demented, dystopian loop, towards a small room hidden away in the back and am told to leave my carry-on in a pile outside the room and to wait. I don’t object or ask any questions. I’ve been here before.

Inside the Muslim Room talking is discouraged, you are not allowed to use your phone in any way, and it’s even forbidden to go to the toilet. You are meant to sit still until you hear someone attempt a botched pronunciation of your name, calling you to one of the desks for interrogation. This process often takes hours. Sometimes you’re not even allowed to bring a book, but on this occasion, Lorrie Moore is allowed to keep me company. I have a hard time focusing on her prose, however: a crying Iranian woman is being told that she is being deported for whatever reason and a young New York taxi driver of indeterminate origin is being grilled for not having declared that he had been sentenced in court for petty theft. I check the big clock on the wall and know that my wife, who has flown in a few days before me, will be worried by now. An hour passes, then two. More and more people with brown skin fill the room to the extent that some now have to sit on the floor. As always there is one token white person, looking utterly bewildered, while the rest of us simply look weary. Today the token white person is a middle-aged woman from Poland who asks, over and over, how long this will take. She has people waiting for her, she says, they will be worried by now.

I look at the tired and overworked immigration officers who with a single stamp can have you sent back to whatever country you’ve come from. I try to guess which one is kindest, which one I should be hoping to stand in front of. When my name is finally called (“Angry? Angry is mail?”), the officer turns out to be a kind-faced giant. I dare to relax a little bit. As I answer his questions, I realize that I am fortunate enough to be talking to someone who knows what Kurds are and has watched enough cable news to have heard that the Kurds are the ones fighting ISIS. “You’re the good guys, right?” he asks, and I nod, affirming his simplistic dichotomy of there being good and bad guys based entirely on ethnicity, agreeing with anything he wants to hear, just so I can get out of this room. He asks me my wife’s name, where she is currently staying, and types my answers on a keyboard. By now I have been desperately needing the toilet for the better part of an hour and am hoping my fidgeting as a result of an overfull bladder isn’t seen as suspicious. I imagine a headline: Deported Kurd suspected to be Islamic fundamentalist because he really had to pee. After another twenty minutes or so of questions he stamps my passport. “Welcome to America,” he says and I hurry out of the room to find the nearest toilet.

In the cab, I think of all the people I saw in that room who were in tears, who were made to buy tickets to return to their home countries. “But I have a visa!” one young woman who had come to visit a sick father kept repeating, to the immigration officer’s indifferent shrugs.



Because the ban was lifted by a judge, many very bad and dangerous people may be pouring into our country. A terrible decision (February 4, 2017)

In 2011 I was living in Dubai and working for a Kurdish-owned company. The owners of said company had recently agreed on commercial terms with an American engineering firm and were beginning to plan a business trip to the US, where they intended to sign a multimillion-dollar agreement. I assisted with the paperwork, filling out the visa applications, following the consulate’s instructions as closely as possible. Fees were paid, photos were taken to exacting standards, myriad supporting documents were printed out and notarized.

The day of the interview we went to the consulate at the allocated time and were made to stand outside for over thirty minutes, in the scorching Dubai summer heat. Due to security concerns, one is not allowed to wait indoors. Even to make your way to an American embassy is an exercise in humiliation, a process more arduous arguably than that of any other country. When my bosses were finally allowed in, they were instructed to leave behind their phones, their briefcases, their laptops. Only allowed passports and supporting documents were allowed.

Their interview didn’t go well: the consular officer found their claim of a multimillion-dollar agreement suspicious, the draft contract they brought with them not sufficient proof of any real intent to enter into a business agreement with the American company in Texas. One of the company owners pointed out that this could all be verified by searching online, to which the interviewer responded that it was not his job to search for information online; it was their job to prove what they said was true. And apparently neither an invitation letter, draft agreements, nor any of the dozens of documents they had brought with them counted as proof.

A month after their interview their passports were returned to them with a slip of paper stating that they did not qualify for a visa under Section 214(b). To find out what this actually meant, we were instructed to visit the consulate’s website which stated that “the applicants were unable to sufficiently demonstrate strong ties to their home country that will compel them to leave the United States at the end of their temporary stay.”

In the end, the signatories from the American company flew over to sign the contract Dubai instead. They, of course, did not need a visa at all.



Less than a week after we leave Iraq, the country is already unraveling. We got nothing from the Iraqis and now our sacrifices will be wasted. I told you so, Iraq is imploding—it doesn’t have a chance—where is the oil that we should have taken? (December 22, 2011)

After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, exiled Kurds who had previously not been allowed to have an Iraqi passport were now able to request one and, in 2005, I decided I should get a passport as well.

I was intending to stay in Kurdistan for a few years and found that it was easier to get my Iraqi documents in order than it was to get a long-term residency with my Swedish passport. And so, as a direct consequence of the United States ‘liberating’ Iraq, I applied for the passport that would, twelve years later, ban me from the United States following the controversial Executive Order 13769 titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” aka the Muslim Ban.

This ban, worded in the muddled doublespeak that the 45th president of the United States has proven himself so fluent in, allows for the administration to simultaneously indicate to their support base that they are serious about keeping their campaign promise to close the doors to all those pesky Muslims (at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2017, it was argued that if heaven has a gate, a wall, and extreme vetting, why can’t America?) while allowing for the Press Secretary to state it is not a ban, as “a ban would mean people can’t get in, and we’ve clearly seen hundreds of thousands of people come into our country from other countries.”

When this ban on Muslims was first floated during the presidential campaign, the notion was met with outrage from across the political spectrum. And yet, only weeks thereafter, the US House of Representatives passed House Resolution 158, rescinding access to the visa waiver program to those who had been to Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan in the past five years or who had dual nationality from either of those countries. Journalists, aid workers, and children and grandchildren of immigrants became, overnight, aliens “ineligible for participation,” which meant that a European citizen could find themselves not having the same rights as another simply because of where their fathers were born. The resolution passed almost unanimously, to very little attention, and was later signed off on by President Obama. And of course, this is how the West has dealt with us for years: by inserting little snippets of language into laws that make us live under ever so slightly different rules, by using heightened rhetoric about “safety” to turn us into second-class citizens due to our ethnicity and heritage. By creating overreaching and byzantine no-fly lists that include five-year-old girls whose names happen to resemble persons of interest. By insisting on “random security checks” that me and three guys names Mohammed have somehow randomly gotten selected for before or after every flight since 2001.

That a bumbling demagogue would be able to take this institutional racism and weaponize it is, then, not really a surprise. The seeds for this hate were planted a long time ago.

Because of HR 158, I had to go to the US Embassy in Stockholm in the fall of 2016 in order to request a visa that I now needed in order to visit my in-laws in Chicago for Christmas, an annual tradition that is becoming more difficult for me to partake in by the year. Once inside the embassy I looked around at the other men and women of Middle Eastern origin who had become, overnight, second-class citizens. We exchanged glances, each of us understanding why those of us who were sitting there all had the same hair, the same skin.

The older man who interviewed me turned out to be incredibly well-informed about Kurdish and Iraqi politics and sounded almost apologetic: “It’s sadly ironic, isn’t it, this turn of events?” he said as he took scans of my passports.

“As long as it doesn’t get worse,” I said, the election still weeks away, its outcome still unthinkable.



Give the public a break—The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT! (February 20, 2017)

The line to the passport control at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport is longer than usual today since there are no specific lines for EU passport holders. “I don’t understand why we have to wait in line with everyone else,” a young British woman sighs as she glares at me. People start complaining in a multitude of European languages as a tiny brown man is holding up the line by being questioned for several minutes. He has with him a multitude of official-looking documents and seems to have difficulties understanding what is asked of him. The men and women behind him are rolling their eyes and shaking their heads.

When I reach the front of the line the young man who takes my Swedish passport gives it a good glance, then looks at me, then back down at the passport. He wants to know if I am Swedish, as if the document in his hand didn’t already make that clear.

“So you speak Swedish?” he asks when I have informed him that yes I am indeed Swedish. To which I answer yes, giving my best smile, pretending these questions have nothing behind them than simple curiosity.

“Okay, so say something in Swedish.”

I give him a wry look. “Why, do you understand Swedish?”

“Just say something.”

I swallow my pride, performing a sentence in a language that he does not understand, hoping to convince him that Swedish people can in fact look like I do. I speak in the sing-song cadence of a badly memorized poem being recited, and say my name, my age, my place of birth.

The young man looks suspicious.

“Okay,” he eventually says, handing me back my passport. “I guess I believe you.”


TORCH is a monthly series edited by Arielle Bernstein devoted to showcasing personal essays and interviews about immigrant and refugee experiences. You can visit the archives here. For more information on submitting head here.


Rumpus original logo art by Jyotsna Warikoo Designs. Rumpus original art by Wendi Chen.

Agri Ismaïl is a Sweden- and Iraq-based author. His work has appeared in The White Review, The Lifted Brow, Guernica, and Hobart, amongst other places. More from this author →