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Thursday, November 15, 2001

Book Reviews

Stateless People

Well-Founded Fear by Tom LeClair. Olin Frederick, Inc., Dunkirk, 293 pages, 2000, $21.95.

What is the Kurd to do with a set of facts that surround and envelope his head like the iron mask of Alexander Dumas, in a land of arid sweep seared by delay? He is in flight from here, in flight from there: from Baghdad to Teheran, from Teheran to Baghdad, from Ankara to Damascus, from Damascus to Hell. It is a triangle that transforms the captive Kurd into a conscript in the service of one regime as it fleeces another. Should he take it upon himself to rebel, all he will retrieve is the liberty of a sailboat that has no sail, heading into open ocean to be snatched by the eagle of the sea.

Salim Barakat, Kurds on the Firing Range

In the author’s note at the end of his second novel, Well-Founded Fear, Tom LeClair informs and maybe assures the reader that his book is a fictional story, with some dose of reality due to the authenticity of some of the documents he uses. Although we might all agree that this is a common practice among contemporary writers, the note itself raises the question of historical fiction, its epistemological reliability, and, ultimately, I believe, the question of what it means to write and refer through fiction to a particular past and present that remain, even today, outside our world-view or, to go a bit further, outside any orthodox historical or political discourse.

Like many contemporary novels, LeClair’s is a hybrid. The author emphasizes and challenges the binary opposition between fact and fiction by introducing legal documents from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). On one hand, this documentation supplements the narrative with some historical authenticity. On the other hand, it exposes us to the bureaucratic inadequacy of the UN system that deals with refugees. The title of the novel itself is a legal phrase that justifies the offer of asylum to someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution. The problem, however, is the reliability of Narratives that the refugees provide us with, the impossibility of knowing and deciding exactly who is telling the truth, or what, after all, is a “well-founded fear.”

The narrator of the story is a young American lawyer, Casey Mahan, who is an examiner of applications for refugee status at the UNHCR office in Athens. Her job is to interview, evaluate, and make the appropriate recommendations, mostly for Kurdish refugees (“the world’s oldest refugees”) who apply for asylum. The refugees must provide the UNHCR with the appropriate documentation and Narrative that will justify their “well-founded fear” of persecution. But for Casey:

the Narratives are personal and persuasive, but a very close reader – a former student of metaphysical poetry, an attorney trained to examine every letter and digit – spots the single word, the foundation of the applicant’s claim, and wonders if the applicant was describing motivation – “I feared” – or action – “I fared,” a wayfarer who ended up in Athens.

The narrator’s detailed description of the asylum process exposes the arbitrariness, blindness, and politics of bureaucratic apparatuses – and ultimately the failure of humanitarian organizations – in the face of universal human rights. It also provides the reader with the historical and political context of the plight of the Kurdish people and the hypocrisy of Western powers. It is through her position as an interviewer, her exposure to the individual and collective documentation of atrocities, and her friendship with one of the refugees, Ziba, that Casey becomes a secondary witness to the Turkish and Iraqi atrocities against the Kurds – as well as to the silence and failures of Western politics and consciousness. Understanding the arbitrariness of the system, Casey realizes that it is only through personal involvement that she can make a difference. Her friendship with Ziba and sympathy for the Kurds’ plight convince her to intervene on behalf of Ziba’s brother, Dr. Osman Mamozin, who is jailed in a Turkish prison as a PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) sympathizer.

I have to trust myself, that I can pull this off. I won’t have any support from Human Rights law. Out in Eastern Turkey, I’ll be outside the law. Lawless, like the stereotype of the Kurds. If the Turks see through my story, I may be detained, but I know I won’t be tortured as Ziba was….Osman didn’t have the UNHCR lawyer’s luxury of accepting some applicants for aid and refusing others. Now the doctor can’t help himself. He can’t even smuggle out a letter, tell his story. For some reason, I remember Huck’s Jim and other stories I read as a girl, about maidens rescued by heroes….Even the much older Greek story of Euridice. “Wide justice,” her name meant. “Do justice” is on the lintel at my law school. “Do right,” the nuns said. “Do well,” my father used to say. Do something.

In one of the most memorable episodes in the book, Casey travels to Diyarbakir in order to obtain Osman’s release from prison by promising the extradition of a PKK member by Greece, under US pressure, to the Turkish authorities.

But if Osman’s release from a Turkish prison, his eventual arrival in Greece, and the romance that develops between him and Casey might have led to the proverbial happy ending, what actually follows gives an unexpected twist to the plot. After reading about Osman’s torture while in Turkish hands, including the injection of a toxin into his body, Casey tries unsuccessfully to secure an American visa for him to study and research the effects of the chemical warfare against the Kurdish people in northern Iraq. When nothing seems to work, Casey marries him, thus securing his visa.

The plot here takes an unexpected and thrilling turn. Osman leaves Greece without saying anything to Casey. His plan is to terrorize the US from the inside since he blames it for the Kurds’ plight due to US support of the Turkish government. Casey thus finds herself suddenly in the position of having helped to realize Osman’s plans, and she flies back home in order to track him down. As it turns out, Casey is a bad reader herself, who fails to recognize/read the problems of reliability in the narratives of Osman and Ziba, who are not who they claim to be. But the narrative itself raises the question of its own reliability for the reader as well. In an ironic twist, Casey finds herself betrayed by her altruism, experiencing some of the same emotions and fears of persecution that she witnessed as an interviewer of refugees.

Trying to work up courage to go through passport control, I examine myself one last time. I have all my limbs. I’m not carrying explosives, just some tapes from UNHCR. My passport is my own. These are certain. Look right into the policeman’s face, as Ziba did mine at her interview. No tremoulisma. No reason for the examiner to look at the name on the passport. Match my face and photo. That’s me, no lie. I’m entitled to leave. No translation required, no quid pro quo.

In the last few chapters of the book, we follow Casey’s pursuit of Osman in America, their encounter in Chicago, and Casey’s discovery of Osman’s intention to terrorize Americans in their own land – very much like the Kurds’ experience – because of America’s support of Turkish policies. For Osman’s

purpose is not public terror, but private fear, officials’ fear of revealing my presence in America and their fear of keeping it secret. Only this fear can change foreign policy in the congressional committees where Kurds’ fates are decided….People will leave their homes and live in RV’s or trailers or tents. Others will leave the country. Americans will no longer fear the water in other lands. Americans will be aliens. Like betrayed Kurds, Americans will live in refugee camps.

How can we react to these lines without thinking of the recent tragic events of September 11 and their aftermath? How can the reader be assured that what she is reading is just a fictional story? How can we convince ourselves that this is happening somewhere else, or that we don’t have, like Casey, a “well-founded fear of future persecution,” or that we are not vulnerable?

The book ends with Casey’s final meeting with Osman in Denver, where she is determined to stop him by any means from executing his plans. Osman is dying from the poisonous injections that he received during his Turkish imprisonment, but at the same time he is desperately driven by his desire for revenge. Unable to persuade Casey to assist him, and perhaps unable to proceed himself with his own plans, he disappears in the same way that he appeared at the beginning of the novel. Maybe, as Casey reminds us, all he wanted was for her to become his mouthpiece: “fright, flight, fight, write.” Or maybe he is just a reminder of our sense of vulnerability and even the well-founded fear with which we live.

There are many things to be said about the last couple of chapters of LeClair’s book, but I will let readers decide for themselves. There are many reasons, however, why LeClair’s book is worth reading. Besides any echo of recent events, the story itself is an excellent and thoughtful commentary on our collective and individual blindness, as well as on our responsibility for the plight and suffering of the Kurdish people. The novel seems to bear witness, by finding “idioms” (as the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard reminds us) to what in the past has been silenced and threatened, but at the same time it questions its own authority and sense of legitimation. The author’s use and manipulation of language, and its bureaucratic referentiality, can only remind and warn us that we are running out of alibis when it comes to human rights, and that the figure of the refugee represents the radical crisis of our humanity. Today, the massive movement of stateless people and the thousands of refugees crossing the borders of Europe question and challenge our political and cultural realities – as well as, ultimately, our perception of laws concerning human rights, asylum, and hospitality.

Apostolos Vasilakis teaches literature and philosophy at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
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