Us&Them
A Novel
Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

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Immigration

The business starts reasonably enough. The immigration officer is young, she is blond, and she has one hell of a fancy coiffure. Her hair has been swept across her forehad, from east to west, like a wing, inviting us to follow suit. But it falls directly in front of her eyes so that we cannot quite see where she is looking. She chews slowly, methodically, on some very pink gum but asks us to look directly at the camera when she notices us staring at her mouth. She measures us, carefully, one eyeball after the other. There is no puff of air, to gauge the tension, to test the texture of the cornea, to identify our potential for becoming incipient glaucoma patients, but we wonder whether her camera sees how blind we have been all our lives.

"What is the purpose of your visit?" she drawls, in Australian English.

We have been practising all along the queue. We have been repeating the words to ourselves as we shuffled forwards, slowly, with all the other aliens, as the line twisted round and turned back on itself, unfolding inch by inch, like a slow, hesitant boa constrictor. We have rehearsed it the entire length of the impassable fibre band stretched between us and them. And now we open our mouths, and say it.

"To es-see family," we reply. Damning the accent. Wishing we spoke better English.

The young woman has the face of a twenty-year-old but the body of a matron of forty, or someone who has recently given birth to twins. Her breasts can barely stay inside the starched front of her pressed suit. Does she ever worry about whether she really belongs in this country and where she would go if she doesn't? It seems unlikely. The suit must help with all those brass buttons. So must the swivel chair. She is squeezed so tightly into it that we cannot imagine her ever getting out.

"Where will you be staying in Sydney?"

The young woman does not look at us when she speaks. She starts rifling through the passport in desultory fashion. Is she lingering on the photo, double checking it against mug shots of criminals hidden under the desk? Is she calculating our age? We try to imagine her bedtime reading. It is difficult. We try to imagine her bedtime without reading. Or just her bedtime. But the suit takes too long to unbutton.

"Your address in Sydney?" the young woman repeats.

We have written the address on the immigration form she is holding between her fingers, but suddenly, in a panic, we cannot remember what is on it. We crane to the right, to the left to see it, but her hands are hidden behind the ledge of the desk; the form is out of sight. We grip the ledge with whitened knuckles, feeling the sweat rising. Why do these people always ask you to reiterate what you have clearly written down? We guess we must not look so good, bleary-eyed, unshaven, after a fourteen-hour flight. We begin to rummage in our bags, our pockets, the insides of our coats, our jackets, for the scrap of paper on which we had written the address to show the taxi driver after customs control. It seems unlikely we will ever get to customs control or see our suitcases again at that moment. And suddenly, we feel utterly homeless, abandoned. We are miles away from Tehran.

But this is not the right place to feel abandoned. We try to pull ourselves together as we retrieve the address and smooth the paper out. We have been warned, by a cousin of ours who fell foul of the US immigration at one time, that people who work in these positions have been trained, probably by retired Mossad agents, to pick up anxiety pheromones from a thousand leagues away. We must let this blond young woman, who is bursting out of her buttons, quickly know that we are not abandoned, not at all. We have family, we have relatives, we have innumerable friends in high places as well as in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, to say nothing of Paris, London, and LA. We have all the right connections and the right visa too. We are legitimate and there's no way she or anyone else in this country is going to send us back or forwards for that matter to some Papua New Guinean island with a bunch of foreigners. And we stumble over the pronunciation of the street name, sounding hopelessly Iranian. Foreign.

The young immigration officers flips through the passport pages, chewing her gum from side to side. "How long will you stay in this country?" she says, glancing up at us briefly through her hair.

We have been told to lie. "Three months," we reply, a tad too high, too chirpy. "Just to see family," we unnecessarily add. Why did we have to say that? Stupid. If she had asked us whether we were going to visit any other cities in Australia we would have probably echoed Sydney, Perth, Brisbane. But we have been advised, by that same cousin who was chased out of America, to say as little as possible to these people. We try to make up for the mistake by smiling. But she has pulled the passport closer and is really staring at the photo now. She probably thinks we're a forgery because you are not allowed to smile on passport photos anymore and we have aged since that one was taken anyway. We try to look relaxed instead, but it produces an expression of anguish these days. And being unshaven really doesn't help. The immigration officer probably thinks we are mixed up with some kind of extremist group. She has already gauged the opacity of our stroma, the fibres of our pigmented epithelial cells, but we hope she cannot register the beating of our hearts, the intensity of our fear.

The young woman chews slackly, in silence. Finally, she flips to an empty page in the passport. She picks up the stamp in her right hand, flattens the passport page with her left. We find ourselves praying. Thank goodness. Thank heavens. Once that stamp comes down, the visa will be there, in red, in reality. Thank God. We are ready to become believers, to sacrifice ourselves, prostrate ourselvers at her feet, and raise the call, "Allah-u-Akbar—!" We would die for that stamp.

But just at that moment she pauses, the palm of her hand caressing its handle. It is one of those vertical, metallic mechanisms, with a wooden handle and a guillotine interior that chops down on the page in one single, swift blow. Execution. Immortality or annihilation. No half measures. Immigration is not conducive to agnostic propositions. We stare at the stamp mesmerized. We wonder if it is locked or kept open, whether it is ready to use, or in a so-called parking position.

"Where was your port of embarkation?" she asks.

The stamp is poised. We are bewildered. Embarkation. Disembarkation. Is she talking about getting on the truck for the long midnight right to Zahedan? Or walking across the Pakistan border? Or flying from Quetta? Or how we finally left for Lahore after waiting in the little corrugated hut on the frontier for three weeks for our passports? Does she realized she is asking to know when we embarked on our despair?

"Where have you come from?" she specifies. "Which country?"

For a blinding second we have absolutely no idea. Despair is everywhere.

"Iran," we stammer.

"You have just travelled from Iran?" asks the girl, lowering the stamp. Not on the page. It is a statement turned into a question by the inflections of her voice.

We panic. Of course we have not just travelled from Iran! What have we just said? Why, there isn't even a direct flight from Iran to this place, wherever it is.

"No," we hurriedly tell her. "We've just come from Frankfurt. Via Singapore," we unnecessarily qualify. "We have come on the Lufthansa flight."

First mistake. Never admit to the truth, no matter how banal. She has already replaced the stamp on its delicious little, remote little, inaccessible little red ink pad.

"But you are from Iran?" she tells us sternly. Another statement that ends in a rising terminal. Only this is not a question. "You are Iranian," she accuses.

As though we had been hiding the fact. As though it were not written all over the passport she is holding in her hands. As though that wretched document does not clearly state that we were born in Iran, and so of course we come from Iran, as do all our brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins who also had that dubious privilege within the last half century, including those trapped and committing suicide on the Papua New Guinean island and the ones who died or not in Iraq and the others who got kicked out of America and the elderly relative of a good friend of ours who has been stranded in Rome airport because of a strike for the past three days. As if we could be anything but Iranian when we are this dumb, this stupid, this tongue-tied.

"Well, yes," we qualify, "we're from Iran but not today."

That does it.

The young woman glances at us sharply. "One moment, please," she says, and we are signalled to step to one side, and wait.