Lawlessness & Exile

by Manan Ahmed

I confess that I am familiar with both the exilic and the lawlessness in my own personal journey.

To be an “illegal” has its own history that inevitably divides those who have never had to experience such an ontology from those who can never know the insecurity from a question: how are you here? There are abstract principles that are imagined as if they were universally applied. I grew up in two different kinds of dictatorships—monarchical and military. I have never had the rights of a citizen in this country and have never imagined myself as participating in any liberal democracy with universal rights.

I have however participated in another, the exilic republic, in the legal grey zone, where I stand behind the line and wait for a judgement to be rendered, to be allowed in, to look up, to register my biometrics, my fingerprints, my freedom to follow a direct command to walk this way, and sit that way, and wait, wait for the data to be input and the file to be clicked on, for the moments to fall, thuddingly, as my history, of my deeds, where I messed up, and did not have a good answer to the I-94, where each encounter, all my previous words, are clickable with the initial, only an initial, of the investigating officer, the border agent, the judge, the one who has the right to deny you entry, and ban you for ten years (those were simpler times, no, when Janet Reno was the most terrifying name in my awareness), and there is no end to how long a minute can take.

I have lived in the republic of the border-question for a long time. Why were you there? Being born there is not an excuse. Why did you share his last name? Being born with it is no excuse. Why is it that you work where you work, do what you do, speak what you speak? Why is your beard that way? Why are you a Muslim?

I have lived in fear. When I was younger, I confused fear for the pain of exile. This is a true story. I thought that pit in my stomach was being away from Homeland. I thought that yearning to read an Urdu ghazal was a yearning for the taste of a land I could not access. The funny thing, and yes I only realized it much later, was that I was actually reading the Urdu ghazal, and it was not the land that I was missing; it was a basic sense of security, of knowing that I was not going to be swept up and put behind bars and thrown out, outside the border. That fear is particular. It is not romantic. It is not illustrative of art, or creativity. It is bottomless but is also a very small cage. It is this movement, where you carry your prison on your shoulder. That is what that fear feels like, and no it is not exile.

So here we are on an another long day in another long summer at a long border where families are being corralled and ripped apart as they have been done for ever and ever, legally and morally and triumphantly, in this country, under these many administrations, forever

for the protection of families not-brown.

The visualizations and data produced by this project, we hope, will let people see the cartographies of fear. Some will know the maps, and some will, for the first time, see: that is all we are hoping to do.

Manan Ahmed is an Associate Professor in the History Department at Columbia University.