A slight wind picks up and moves over the lake, clinking rocks together in the wash. Salvador squints into the darkness. The way his fellow construction workers talked about America’s proximity, he’d half expected to sight the faintest outline of one of its cities’ skylines as a shimmer set deep against the horizon. Instead, there’s only the night and, stretching to meet it, the mumbling water.
Sitting on a green couch in what is now a bedbug-infested Brooklyn apartment, I suddenly realized that my flight to meet my family for the first time in five years was actually tonight, not tomorrow; 12:30 a.m., not 12:30 p.m. I had planned to wake up early in the morning, make two cups of coffee, and pack a small bag with the few gifts I managed to buy last minute for my siblings. I thought I had more hours to sit with my heavy feeling, which I assumed to be a mix of excitement and longing, but which was rather a combination of wariness and fear, of things going wrong, of encounters no one can prepare for.
In front of the couch, there was a round coffee table, which I circled around in panic, not sure if I could make it to JFK on time, to Kiev on time, to Tbilisi on time. For months, my sister and I had saved and borrowed so we could have this one-week reunion trip in a country we knew nothing about. A few months after my arrival in the United States, the Kuwaitis had denied my application for passport renewal, subsequently making me an asylee. My family’s attempts to get U.S. visas were repeatedly denied, so we began to make different plans. We called embassies every morning, in the United States and in Kuwait. I asked, “Do you accept a U.S. refugee travel document? How long to issue a visa?” while they asked, “Do you accept a stateless travel document? How long to issue a visa?” The mutually closest country was Georgia, a place Arabs have come to discover in the past few years, this time not as conquerors, but as refugees in transit, hoping to infiltrate Europe from her eastern side.
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My mother cuts the outboard motor. Over the slap of waves on the boat’s black pontoon, I hear the fur seals barking. The cliffs are dotted with white albatross. Seals sprawl along the rocky shoreline: gray fur seals with black, rowdy pups, and brown elephant seals beached like massive timbers. Their smell carries across the water, a familiar, testosterone-laden stink, like a mix of musk and onion rings.
He was, locals agreed, the quintessential Kaverinagar retiree. In his wool-silk trousers, navy-blue sweater, and plaid scarf wrapped tight about the ears, C. K. Rajgopal, former Air India pilot, cut a lithe figure as he strode down Eighth Main. On his feet he wore the ergonomic shoes his son had brought him from America. Designed for trekking—or for Indian sidewalks, his son had said—the shoes had, for the past weeks, felt heavy, like stones tied to his ankles. But this morning, strangely, it was no longer so. Perhaps his leg muscles had needed time to adjust to their new load, perhaps he was rejuvenated by the winter air—whatever the reason, as he made his way to Wodeyar Lake, past the provisions store and the barbershop, still shuttered at this early hour, past the temple and the sugarcane juice stall, Mr. Rajgopal experienced a lightness, as if the ground were falling away from him and he were floating, gliding, over the pavement stones and under the gulmohars, through clouds of golden dust churned by the municipal workers’ brooms.