Mona Kareem speaks to managing editor Emily Everett about her essay “Mapping Exile: A Writer’s Story of Growing Up Stateless in Post-Gulf War Kuwait,” which appears in a portfolio of writing from the Arabian Gulf, in The Common’s fall issue. In this conversation, Mona talks about her family’s experience living in Kuwait as Bidoon, or stateless people, and why examining and writing about that experience is important to her. She also discusses her work as a poet and translator, her thoughts on revision and translation, and why she sometimes has mixed feelings about writing in English.
Podcast: Mona Kareem on “Mapping Exile: A Writer’s Story of Growing Up Stateless in Post-Gulf War Kuwait”
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.
Mapping Exile: A Writer’s Story of Growing Up Stateless in Post-Gulf War Kuwait