Francisco Anzola, Old Cairo Skyline, licensed under CC0 1.0.
The word for invoice is the same in Arabic and Italian: fattura. We learned this, my mother and I, on the outskirts of a cemetery in Naples, as we tried to navigate the final arrangements for the transfer of my father’s body. It was a beautiful day, sunny, the sky Riviera-blue, and somewhere in the periphery of my vision, focused on this undertaker in his ill-fitting suit, there was a family mourning their own newly dead. They were of this place. We were not. Helplessly, my mother struggled to make the man from the funeral home understand what she was asking for, until finally, exasperated, she blurted out the word in Arabic, and the man nodded. By chance, our languages overlapped; we were understood. The man disappeared into a nearby office and, a couple of minutes later, returned with the bill of sale. In a few days we would need to show this document to a military inspector at the Cairo airport, when we returned to bury my father in the city of his birth. For the last twenty-eight years of his life he had been a migrant and now, in death, he would go home.
I come from a long line of malfunctioning hearts. My grandfather died just before my father was born. My father made it to fifty-six before he died suddenly of a heart attack while on a cruise with my mother and her siblings off the coast of Italy. In the days that followed, as we trudged slowly through the bureaucratic mire trying to give him the burial he wanted, I found myself slipping in and out of communion with all the lives we could have lived, all those small coin-flip moments that make up an unanchored life.
In much of the Arab world, it is customary for a boy to take for his middle name the first name of his father. My middle name is Mohamed. My father’s middle name is Ahmed. It goes like this, as far back as there exists an accurate record.
In addition to being my father’s name, Mohamed Ahmed is one of the most common combinations of first and middle names in the world, and it just so happens that there’s someone on Egypt’s terrorism watch list with the same name. We found this out one morning at the Cairo airport as we awaited a flight to Libya.
Having grown sick of being poor, being hassled by the ubiquitous cops and soldiers that prowled Cairo in the years after the president’s assassination, my father did what so many Egyptians of his generation did, and tried to find work in another country. An accountant by training, he eventually got a job offer working in Tripoli, which he accepted. I was four at the time. We packed our bags, we readied to leave.
Not long after we got to the airport, my parents and I were escorted into the secondary screening area, where we waited for hours until finally the men detaining us became certain my father couldn’t be the man they were looking for. By then, our flight had already departed. The job offer in Libya was revoked; my father missed his chance to get out, only to be offered, a short while later, employment as a junior accountant in a hotel in Qatar. He knew almost nothing about the tiny peninsular state that juts out the eastern edge of Saudi Arabia, but he accepted, because what mattered was to leave. A short while later my mother and I followed him to a country that, over the next couple of decades, would become perhaps the richest nation on earth, flush with more oil and gas money than it could possibly use.
This is where I ended up spending my formative years—the Arabic accent scrubbed clean off my tongue by years of British and American schooling—instead of Libya. Nothing I have ever done, nothing I’ve achieved or struggled for or chased after, has had a more significant impact on the trajectory of my life than a random case of mistaken identity at the Cairo airport a few months before my fifth birthday.
It was a long form full of questions, but the only one I remember was about Nazis. It asked whether my parents or I had ever supported the Third Reich between the years of 1939 and 1945, or something to that effect. We had been vacationing in Florida for the summer and we wanted to extend our stay, which meant re-applying for a visa, which meant filling out one of these forms, an interrogatory listing of all the worst ventures in which a person could possibly engage—human trafficking, terrorism, genocide. Dutifully, we checked off No, No, No, always on the lookout for trick questions—“Have you ever not engaged in terrorism?”—always aware that we were the only party in this interaction for whom things could go wrong.
Westerners don’t tend to think this way, but in the part of the world I’m from, we talk about passports in terms of their power—a metric related to the number of countries any particular citizenship allows you to visit without a visa. The Japanese passport is probably the most powerful in the world; its holders can visit more than 190 nations without having to affirm they’ve never aided the Nazis. My old high school friends Naseem and Rami, who for a while had no formal statehood and were forced to rely on Palestinian Authority travel documentation, held one of the least powerful. Every border became a carnival of indignity.
To navigate the world this way, roughshod on the back of a weak passport, is to become malleable. One must contort themselves into the shape of the admissible. It’s a subtle, delicate art. The smallest hints of an accent, the slightest stuttered syllable or twitch of the eye in response to a question about the purpose of a visit might cause things to topple.
For years, when I worked full-time as a journalist but before I was granted American citizenship, I entered the United States wielding some of the most bizarre explanations any TSA agent had ever heard—on my way to Andrews Air Force Base to hop a flight to the Guantanamo Bay detention camps, or the time I went to war correspondent training in Virginia before heading off to Afghanistan. But the only time I was taken into secondary and interrogated was when I arrived in JFK and told them I was there to see my cousin. It turns out a lot of terrorists claim they’re here to visit cousins.
To live in Qatar as an expat—the word we use when a migrant is too well-off to be called a migrant—one must secure Kafala, a sponsorship of sorts, issued by a local citizen or company. In order to protect the country’s oil and gas wealth, the Qatari government makes it almost impossible for any foreigner to secure citizenship. Most people who live in Qatar are foreigners, and so are subject to this kind of precarious existence, the possibility of overnight deportation always present. Everyone knows the deal: you come here, you make some money, but you’re a guest, always. There’s no being of the place, only passing through it.
One year, after more than a decade of living in this place, it became clear our time in Qatar was coming to an end. On the last day of August, we boarded a plane to Canada.
I knew nothing about Canada. My first week in Montreal, I got on a bus and try to jam a twenty-dollar bill through the coin slot, expecting change. I had no idea how the bus system worked; there was no such thing as public transit in Qatar. I was sixteen and the prospect of starting from scratch—of acclimating to the way the air turns to needles in the lungs when it’s forty below zero—was unbearable. The world was an onslaught of beginnings.
For a long time my father couldn’t find work in Montreal. His French wasn’t good enough, his credentials insufficient. As we burned through our savings, he expanded his job search outward until he got an offer to work as an accountant in a hotel in Wisconsin, a state none of us could point out on a map. But it paid well enough and there was nothing else going, and so he accepted. There was some paperwork that needed to be completed, a work permit that, his prospective employer assured him, should be fairly straightforward, all wrapped up by the second week of September at the latest. Then the second week of September arrived.
The work permit process stalled; everyone knew why. Eventually, the hotel had no choice but to stop waiting and hire someone else. We never moved to Wisconsin. I imagine another iteration of my family moving into that strange, ghostly neighborhood of would-have-beens, alongside the us that lived our lives out in Tripoli and the us that remained in Cairo. All these aborted trajectories, all these vessels that never left shore.
On a Sunday in August my friend Anna tried to find an Italian translator in Toronto. In order to take my father’s body back to his home we needed to appease the bureaucratic whims of the Egyptian, Canadian, and Italian governments and this required, among many other pieces of paperwork, a certified translation of my father’s Italian death certificate. In Islamic tradition, the dead should be buried within twenty-four hours, but we spend days wrangling all the necessary permissions before we finally travel back to Cairo, our first flight together since the day we came to Canada twelve years earlier.
In Egypt, any arriving body falls under the purview of the military. We landed around three in the morning and my cousin and I accompanied the coffin to a nearly deserted corner of the airport, where a single administrator sat at a desk, bored and irritable.
She checked the paperwork, the documentation from the funeral home in Naples and the translator in Toronto and the Egyptian embassy in Rome. It turns out we had missed a form, without which we were technically engaged in a crime. It was illegal to have transported my father’s body this way, and it was too late to do anything about it.
We stood there for what felt like a long time. Finally, my cousin said, “We just want to give him a Muslim burial.”
She stamped the forms. She let us through.
At the mosque in El Hussein, they lined the coffin next to a half-dozen others, all there to receive the same final prayer from the congregation, and some of the men entering the grand hall mentioned what a privilege it was to have died in these last days of Ramadan, the most blessed month. They seemed genuinely jealous.
We prayed, then we took the body to the place where my grandfather and my aunts were buried. Cairo’s city of the dead housed the living, too, and one of its residents pointed us to the El Akkad mausoleum as though pointing out a neighbor. We carried the shrouded body underground, past the bones of ancestors, past the past. Home.
For years, whenever I thought back to that day, I thought of it as my father’s final migration. But it wasn’t a migration. It was something far more merciful: an ending. It is the most lightening thing, to be done starting over.
Omar El Akkad is an author and journalist. His fiction and non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Guernica, GQ and many other newspapers and magazines. He is the author of the novels American War, and What Strange Paradise.
Omar El Akkad headlines the 2022 PEN World Voices Festival event “In the Same Boat: Narratives of Borders and Migration,” Friday, May 13, 8:30pm, at Judson Memorial Church in New York City. For more information about the festival, please visit worldvoices.pen.org.
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