Bad boys, bad boys…. [insert 90s Cops theme song]
The news of white supremacists mobbing our nation’s capitol has resulted in fear. While there is a long history of oppression in this country, the insurrection by mostly armed white men gave me pause. When I heard the story on NPR, I thought I might collapse. The mob was an assault on everything I know and hold dear as an American — the rule of law, the respect for government, for institutions, for law and policymakers. It was barbaric, awful, and disturbing to see so many white men descend like terrorists on the people who create the laws of our society. I left the kids to the TV, and needed time to process the pain, anger, and confusion: How was this happening? Would they come for us, next?
Instead of processing the pain, I decided to pick up a book.
Internment is Here.
On January 11th, I read Samira Ahmed’s Internment. When Trump was elected, his immigration policies, the Muslim ban, and so much of his hateful rhetoric led me to believe that internment of Muslims was possible. It happened before, to Americans and it could happen again.
In the story, a 17-year old Layla Amin and her family are transported to an internment camp for Muslims. She is a teenager who grows up in a Muslim household with loving parents. She respects her parents; she knows to worship the Creator and not creation. And yet, Layla does not practice those beliefs in very obvious ways. Instead, she organizes a resistance against the oppressors; she quotes her grandma a devout believer; she marches with others who are held captive in this camp; she befriends a corporeal. Layla seems like a typical teenager, doubting her capacity and courage. Her friendship with the solider is probably the most captivating element of this book.
There is content that some parents might find objectionable: She has a boyfriend that she sneaks off to see despite the curfew. At first, I felt she seemed a little obsessed with her boyfriend and I got bored with her obsession and put the book down for weeks. I picked it up during the whole madness of the Capitol, and am grateful I gave the book a chance.
When your whole world is turned upside down, when you feel like you’re living in a nightmare, would obsessing about your boyfriend seem like the worst moral act? In fact, I think Layla’s obsession with her phone and boyfriend David are part of what make her a belieavable teenager. She has no superhuman strengths, powers, or abilities. She has her upbringing as a Muslim, and the belief that internment is not normal. Ahmed depicts Layla’s Indian American parents perfectly — model citizens, who keep their heads down, and follow the rules. It’s possible that without Layla’s intense interest in David, she might have acquiesed to this life in the camp. Her desire to see him again, to get out of the camp, propelled her to feign sorrow and approach Corporeal Jake for help in getting a phone call.
The Soldier That Stole The Book
Jake is a National Guard soldier, who seems to notice Layla pretty early. It is not clear what he notices about her. She on the other hand notices that his forearm is inked with a compass. She approaches him and asks him to help her make a call to David on the pretense of a 1 year anniversary. He helps her. He helps her again to sneak David into the camp. He helps her again, and again. She cannot understand why he helps her, but she trusts him. He is not what we would expect from a military man.
Jake grew up in a military family. He could have been one of those people who stormed the Capitol. Jake is a soldier with a moral compass. He does not believe that fascism is okay in America. His mother taught him to trust his moral compass at a young age. There is a moment when Jake sits next to Layla, when the camp is descending into a bit of chaos and the rules of the camp are slightly suspended. He tells her about his mother and place where he would hike with her. A place where they could breathe. And Layla takes his hands, and just sits with him. I’m not sure if there was a moment more perfect in the story.
Jake was as much a hero in the story as Layla because he gives her hope, brings her news of the resistance outside the camp. She writes about the violence in the camp on sheets of notebook paper and passes notes to Jake to shares the stories with news outlets. While I do not want to share spoilers, Jake sacrifices a lot to make America better. He and Layla are what America is made of.
The dystopian future Ahmed describes in fiction is actually already here. There are many communities that are Otherized, treated as inferior, and made into castes — those who have been in prison; those who do not speak English for instance. So many people are already ghettoized in this country and while there might not be a border town where all the brown people are caged, these cages are sometimes self-created.
The beauty of this book is that it makes you think about the realities we live in; and what assumptions we believe to be true about the Other.