Riding the nearly-empty subway to university one afternoon, Rasha accidently makes eye contact with a homeless man and “finds the connection rapturous.” Later, she writes about it in the notebook where she composes poetry and collects her favorite quotes: “his captivity reminded me that I was free.” Nineteen-year old Rasha and her family have just spent three months in prison.
This initial anecdote shows the connection between Rasha’s depth of empathy and experience of suffering; she is not celebrating her freedom at the man’s expense, but rather realizing that she no longer takes her freedom for granted and has the potential to connect with (and, presumably, do something to help) those who still lack it.
Rasha is petite, modest, with the “hard fragility” of “a pessimist brimming with humanist hope.” Born in Syria in 1983, she moves to Brooklyn with her family on a tourist visa at the age of five. Syria is embroiled in violence under the authoritarian rule of Hafez al-Assad, so Rasha’s family quickly applies for asylum in the United States as her father works his way up at a discount clothing store in New York. Rasha asks her mother about Christmas and learns about her Muslim identity—while the family is not devout, Rasha’s mother instills “the simple values of honesty, compassion, and the protection of her honor” in her and her siblings (two older, three younger, including two born as American citizens).
Contrary to the stereotype of Muslims as promoting violence against the United States, the United States actually saved Rasha’s family from violence; similarly, whereas traditional values play an important part in her early life, these beliefs are not because of religion, and Rasha never saw the world in terms of an us versus them dichotomy of Muslims versus Christians. Rather, her family’s hard work and emphasis on morality are clearly also American values.
In 1996, with their asylum applications stalling, the family returns to Syria; Rasha finds school difficult. They discover they have won a green card interview, but since they have left the United States, they have already lost eligibility. Instead, they manage to get a visa for a visit back to the United States, where they reapply for asylum. They move back to Brooklyn, which feels like home, seven months after landing in Syria. Rasha goes to James Madison High School and grows close to two other girls, Gaby from Ecuador and Nicky from Azerbaijan. After graduation, Rasha’s family buys a house in Bay Ridge; in September 2001, she begins college. On September 11, Rasha’s mother says she cannot go to school because the subway is broken—there has been an “accident […] with a plane.”
Notably, after eight years, Rasha’s family still did not have asylum status, which attests to the complicated and sluggish character of the American immigration system; contrary to much political rhetoric, it is not easy to come to the United States. But Rasha’s loyalties are resolutely to the United States, and although she identifies with other immigrant students in Brooklyn, she has little concept of her Arab or Muslim identity as being unique.
One night in February of 2002, Rasha is shaken awake by the police in the middle of the night to find her entire family arrested and fifteen officers occupying their house—an FBI agent explains that they are under investigation “for possible terrorism connections” and could be detained and deported. The family’s two younger boys, who are United States citizens, are left at home under the care of the men renting downstairs rooms. The family rides to Manhattan’s Federal Plaza in a windowless van and is thrown in a holding cell. There they are interrogated—the officers show them pictures of suspected terrorists and ask them about their past whereabouts and activities.
Rasha and her family’s arrest comes completely out of the blue, with no warning or clear pretense, although it remains to be seen whether the government has any legitimate basis for detaining them. Taking them in the middle of the night and leaving the two young boys alone seem like particularly draconian measures, but the boys’ freedom from arrest also shows the enormous benefits conferred by US citizenship—and yet these benefits seem distributed arbitrarily, for Rasha also grew up in the United States.
Years before, in Syria, Rasha learned to shoot a gun and worship the nation’s president in school. While her family was critical of Assad, she realized she could repeat their feelings in public and began to strongly value the freedom of speech she had in the United States. In the holding cell, Rasha’s father pleads to simply have them deported—instead, they are investigated and detained by the INS; a condescending officer tells them they should have expected this in “times like these.” The family is split up and sent to three separate detention centers.
Again, there is an enormous rift between how Rasha and her family see their relationship to the U.S.—a country that offered them freedoms (but is now taking them away)—and how the INS officer does in assuming that they should understand that their freedoms are contingent and depend on the “times.” They are detained without charges or explanation, which would be a clear violation of constitutional due process if they were US citizens (and is generally considered a violation of human rights).
Rasha, her mother, and her older sister Reem go to Bergen County Jail in New Jersey, where they are strip-searched, photographed, and locked in a filthy, overcrowded holding cell for six hours, and then in another holding cell for two days. Rasha’s mother manages to call her brother-in-law and explain their circumstances. They then end up in yet another cell and realize they are “going to be staying for a while.” Guards watch them constantly and their blankets are like “hairy cardboard.” Rasha is soon “extremely depressed” and feels powerless and suicidal, barely able to eat. Then she grows furious: she has not committed a crime but has “been abducted” by the state.
Rasha is depressed not only because of the horrible conditions she is forced to live in, but also because she has no idea why she is in jail or when, if ever, she will be released. The government leaves her in a state of emotional and legal limbo, with nothing to look forward to and a sudden, serious reason to distrust the government she had previously appreciated for granting her family asylum. Her tale is significant because it offers a perspective usually silenced: that of someone deemed unworthy of basic human rights.
Rasha watches her mother pray and befriend other inmates. Meanwhile, Rasha grows closer to her sister Reem, with whom she shares a cell. The other women are Muslims there for similar reasons, Israelis and Russians there on immigration charges, and African-American and Latina women there on drug charges. Most have committed their crimes just for the sake of survival; unlike on TV, they treat one another with the humanity and goodwill they were denied by the government. But the abusive guards treat them like “a subhuman species.”
Much like many Arab and Muslim Americans on the “outside,” Rasha’s mother finds solace through religion and empathetic relationships with those who share her predicament—they are also imprisoned for trying to evade adverse circumstances and achieve the comfort so often advertised to the world as the “American Dream.”
Gaby and Nicky are confused: Rasha has disappeared. A family friend of Rasha’s explains what happened, and they are all frightened. Luckily, Rasha’s family gets attorneys, but they are still miserable in prison—Reem develops a rash from the blankets, but the prison guards ignore her. After three weeks, the women are transferred to the same facility in Brooklyn as the men. Conditions are marginally better there, but Rasha begins to see her future fade away as she realizes “as a detainee she had no idea when she would be let out.”
Rasha’s incarceration traumatized those around her, too—unlike with normal criminal charges or immigration cases, she disappeared without a trace, and Rasha’s family has to take all the initiative to keep the outside world informed of their status. The prison guards seem unwilling to empathize with their predicament and therefore unable to see them as fully human. Social divisions translate into psychological ones, much like in the broader patterns of discrimination that Du Bois argued created a “veil” between the worlds of whites and minorities.
Helping their mother keeps Rasha and Reem sane—when a tyrannical counselor denies her the right to call her son, Rasha’s mother is distraught, but the girls convince the man to permit the phone call. Rasha’s mother befriends an Egyptian woman brought to detention straight from the airport, even though she has a valid visa, as well as a Nigerian born-again Christian woman who gives her holy water that eases the pain of her gall stones. Once, they distract their mother from the sound of two inmates having sex nearby. When she starts getting letters from Gaby, Rasha realizes that “I’m being remembered.”
Needless to say, this is a less than ideal way to grow up: Rasha and Reem are forced to suddenly play adult roles, caring for their mother in their alien and threatening environment. The prison is its own kind of cosmopolitan community, full of confused immigrants from various parts of the globe, and it is worth asking what the U.S. stands to gain from incarcerating (rather than deporting) immigrants. As Rasha soon discovers, there is profit in the prison system.
Suddenly, near the beginning of May, Rasha and her whole family are freed with no warning or explanation. An immigration officer tells them they have a court date, but also a valid case for residency. Outside, the sky is “glorious and familiar”—Rasha has not seen it for months. The family reunites at home and solemnly eats dinner. The next morning, Gaby and Nicky learn that Rasha is free; Gaby rushes over to Rasha’s house and they reunite in tears.
Rasha’s family never gets an update on their case or the reason for their detention; they are freed as abruptly and bafflingly as they were first abducted, and while they are overjoyed to be free, their battle continues because they still have to defend their immigration status. The fact that they are lucky to have a residency case implies that other detained immigrants may not have been so lucky as to be able to stay after being freed.
Rasha’s parents sell their house and she tries to explain to the dean of her university why she disappeared for three months. She feels freer than ever but hears constant talk about 9/11 and wants to scream, knowing the injustice of her situation. Nobody in the family talks about their experiences; Rasha’s older brother Munir, who was in a prison wing full of “violent abuses,” retreats from everyone. Rasha decides that she wants to be like the activists and lawyers who took up their case; she begins working on Middle East peace issues but cannot go to an international conference because of her undocumented status. She realizes how much “people take for granted being a citizen of this country.”
Clearly, Rasha’s family’s trauma does not end when they leave prison; she returns to an atmosphere of constant, unspoken suspicion and continues facing obstacles because of her citizenship status. But she also realizes that her experience connects to broader immigration and foreign policy issues, which shape her orientation toward the future and sense of personal purpose.
Unlike Rasha and her family, most of the people arbitrarily and indefinitely detained after 9/11 have no counsel to help them or family to support them. Many are deported in secret; human rights organizations like Amnesty International recognize that the U.S. government is widely violating basic human rights, but have no power to change the situation. Later, the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General agrees, proposing that perhaps the government should seek “some level of evidence linking the alien to the crime” before randomly detaining people on the basis of race and religion. There are still no good statistics regarding the number of people arrested, but with the usual 24-hour limit on detention without evidence relaxed, the average victim appears to have spent about 80 days in detention.
Bayoumi shows how 9/11 created what many scholars call a state of exception: the government suspended normal laws, procedures, and civil rights in a circumstance it deemed exceptional. Yet it remains unclear what, if anything, these violations of human rights did for the national public good. They cast a wide net based purely on profiles, turning people like Rasha and her family into collateral damage of the War on Terror—which was, and continues to be, waged in the United States in addition to abroad.
This is not an unprecedented policy: the FBI interned more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry after the Pearl Harbor attacks in 1941. The post-9/11 detentions were nowhere near as massive, but the parallels are clear: neither had any effect on national security, and both “exploited the jingoism and the racism of the moment.” Even one of the procedure’s orchestrators later admits that the detentions were mostly for “PR purposes,” so that the government could claim it was rounding up terrorists.
Bayoumi points out the history of arbitrary detention to show how the U.S. has failed to learn from its mistakes. Racism continues to fuel official policy as immigrants are declared enemies based on their country of origin, not their individual actions. They become pawns in a symbolic game: the United States proves its strength and suggests that it has defeated its enemies by punishing people who look like those enemies and encouraging the American public to conflate a country halfway around the world with innocent people at home.
After the first wave of arbitrary detentions, the Bush administration quickly begins arresting Arabs and Muslims who “absconded” deportation orders—in practice, most either never receive their orders or are waiting for appeals. In one scholar’s words, the government is “blurring the distinction between alien, criminal, and terrorist.” The system lets people like Rasha sit in detention indefinitely, without having committed a crime, while both public and private prisons profit from their detention. Rasha’s experience leads her to pursue a career in human rights.
Again, the government uses ambiguous rhetoric to create politically advantageous exceptions to its own policies, which are designed to protect immigrants’ rights. In a sense, it buys into al-Qaeda’s us versus them logic and shows that equality before the law is a mere ideal, not a reality. Bayoumi suggests that the government, by “blurring the distinction,” also leads the way for American culture at large to scapegoat Arabs and Muslims.
The weekend after her release, at dinner with her friends, Rasha is astonished to see the counselor who made her mother cry in prison sitting at a nearby table with his family. She goes up to him and, after he eventually recognizes her, he remarks that she has “cleaned up [her] act.” She explains that she never committed a crime, that he treated her mother disrespectfully, and that he is “a fucking asshole.” She is elated when she returns to her friends, satisfied to confront her jailer “on this side of freedom.”
This unlikely meeting, in which the equality of normal human encounters replaces the hierarchy of prison, symbolizes Rasha’s new life goal: to confront unjust jailers who violate people’s rights. But the guard’s belief that Rasha “cleaned up [her] act” shows that he thinks of her as a conventional criminal; he clearly believes in an idealized version of the justice system, in which only criminals go to prison, but sticks Rasha with a presumption of guilt when the government fails to follow that ideal.