You Are Not You!

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Refugees / IDENTITY

You are not You!
Iraqi dissident writer Zuhair Al-Jazairi prepares
to leave his country – and his identity.

Through prior arrangement, I met a man who seemed in haste; he moved and spoke rapidly like a bird. He placed the false passport in front of me saying briefly: 'As from now, you are no longer who you are. Forget who you are and assume your new identity. You are a Jordanian merchant by the name of Nadhim Kamal, passing through by chance and in a hurry, huh?' He did not look at me as he spoke, nor did he wait for me to ask anything, but continued, pointing as he did so, to a page in the passport: 'The task is quite simple: just sign and write the date here in this triangle and place your trust in God.'

I examined the passport many times. I wanted to feel the delicate fingers that had made it and placed my picture on it. Happy and yet scared, I was now in possession of the instrument of my salvation or possible downfall. This passport put an end to my hesitation and delays and left me with one route to take, a risky one. As I turned the pages, I also wondered about the cruel, doubting eyes that would be examining it at the checkpoint. The guard would slowly come up to me to make the fatal statement: 'That is not you!' However, I warded off this possibility with an irrevocable decision. 'What does it matter? Hiding is a greater risk!'

You are not you.
Illustration: Mohamed Bushara

In this new, secluded house on the edge of Baghdad, time was a burden which was painful and humiliating. Every morning the couple would leave for work saying their goodbyes to me with some pity. Every now and again the owner of the house received 'unsafe' friends. I would then disappear to another room with a novel. However, my attention was diverted from the pages of the book as I found myself ashamedly eavesdropping on people who were unaware that the walls had ears listening to their passive conversation. They discussed the recent football match and real and fictitious sexual adventures during their recent visit to Poland. With nervous pleasure I listened to the voice of this friend I used to meet frequently when I was 'alive'. He sounded more coarse to me. I could not see his face but could imagine his eyes protruding whenever he was involved in serious discussion. Their conversations were fleeting and constantly changing, not allowing room for silence, as if through words they were hiding something horrible within themselves. I felt their voices become hoarse with fright when the discussion moved to me. One of them spoke of his last encounter with me and my son at the market, but I could not recall such a meeting. Another fabricated a lie to invigorate the discussion. A third alleged he had seen me the day before my arrest, torture and probable death, while I lay there hiding behind the walls. I smiled in disbelief that the person they were referring to was me.

Before leaving, I began to practise the role of the new identity I had assumed with my new passport. During my roaming in the house where I was hiding, again and again I would stand in front of the mirror, staring at the tense veins in my face, which had become more sullen and gaunt. My voice hissed: 'You are not you, you are a Jordanian merchant named Nadhim Kamal!' I bit my lips to take a grip on the rebellious scream within me, against this self-denial.

Within weeks I was wearing my mask: a moustache I had grown, a shaven head and the narrowing of my eyes to fit the dark, medical glasses. I had trained my voice to speak with the accent of a Jordanian Palestinian and simplified my words to suit the style of a salesman eager to persuade a customer. As I took on the role of the other person, my face became more pale and gaunt. I noticed as I stood in front of the mirror to chase away what remained of me 'Remember well. You are not you!'

When my date of departure had been determined, I left my hiding place for the city. For the first time I joined the stream of workers heading for work. I wore an old, grey jacket and carried 'his' briefcase, with a packet of cigarettes in my pocket and I imitated 'his' cautious walk when I crossed the road. Yet I committed the first error of a man in hiding. I was unaware that during my absence, the road had been made one-way.

The extract by Zuhair Al-Jazairi is reprinted with permission from Bend in the Road - Refugees Writing edited by Jennifer Langer and published by Five Leaves. The book is now out of print. A new collection edited by Jennifer Langer entitled Crossing the Border - Voices of Refugee and Exiled Women, is published this year by Five Leaves.

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New Internationalist issue 350 magazine cover This article is from the October 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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