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#11: 'I am stateless, and I carry that with me wherever I go'
Mona Kareem on writing oneself into existence, the problem with individualistic activism, and taking a proletariat approach to creating poetry.
This week we welcome the brilliant poet and academic, Mona Kareem.
In this conversation, we talk about Mona’s shifting relationship with identity, statelessness and what it means to be Arab-American, as well as her writing process and the power of the collective
Dr Mona Kareem is the author of three poetry collections. Her poetry has been translated into nine languages and has appeared in POETRY, Poetry Northwest, Michigan Quarterly, Poetry London and Modern Poetry in Translation, among others. Kareem holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and works as an assistant professor of Middle East Studies at Washington University, St. Louis.
To better understand what it means to be Bedoon, go read Mona’s essay: Mapping Exile.
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This interview has been edited and abbreviated for clarity and length.
To kick us off I’ll start with a question that is often very loaded for people with more than one sense of home, and I'm especially interested in how you interpret this question as someone who has an experience of statelessness: where are you from, Mona?
To be born stateless is to be born denied an identity. Usually people struggle with being indoctrinated into identity and think about how they can break free from it, critique it, or reimagine it. But in my case, I was born with an identity denied to me and the indoctrination happened in different ways. There is this idea that stateless people in Kuwait are fighting to be naturalised and that we should therefore emphasise that we are waiting, which is a discourse of sameness — the idea being that we are the same as other Kuwaitis. But that discourse didn't reflect my reality. I saw firsthand, since I was a kid, how my reality was much different from those of Kuwaitis, closer to that of immigrants although with some differences.
“There are many millions of us around the world who have been displaced. It is such a normal story yet so catastrophic at the same time”
My grandparents came from Iraq as oil workers but that land was basically borderland. They were shepherds who moved between what is now Kuwait and Iraq. But in their time, the countries weren't bordered as nation-states. When they became oil workers they would go to what is called Kuwait to work and go back to Iraq to live. That generation was the first to be trapped in this issue of being questioned on where they come from. For a long time, I tried to identify myself by my background story but this was not enough either. Then I came to the US and thought, oh now I’m just an Arab in America. I’m an immigrant, hiding under that bigger umbrella. But that doesn’t really answer everything. It doesn’t help you process your reality.
In the past few years, I started to realise that just because this identity hasn't existed as a category before — to be stateless, to be Bedoon (which in Arabic means ‘without’) — that doesn't mean it's not a valid category. It’s only been on the agenda since, I would say, the 90s, when a generation of Bedoon writers became the first to imagine this identity. Without seeing the word, they would explain its reality through poetry and novels. Then when the Arab Spring happened we became a political group. Suddenly you are not just a temporary legal issue you are actually part of a group targeted systematically, and this oppression formulates your identity. So since the Arab Spring, I've been using this marker like, yes — I am Bedoon. And using this marker is really violent because when you say it people will ask you two things. One, “what does this mean?” And second, they will ask you “why?” I wish I knew why. You cannot really rationalise the violence of the state. The third question people will sometimes ask is, “but where do you think you belong? Do you belong in Kuwait or Iraq?” As if it's for me to decide. I have made a conscious decision to insist on the scattered label. I am stateless and I carry that identity with me in whatever context I am in. In the Kuwaiti and pan-Arab context. I say, this is my identity and you need to respect this. If you don’t know why this is, just go learn about it.
That idea of identities and how they become political categories is so interesting. One thing I pay attention to in my own work is how we conceptualise our sense of race or see ourselves in racial terms. You’re living in the US and have touched on how being seen as Arab-American might erase a part of your identity in a way. I wonder how you understand yourself in racial terms in the US? And how has that conceptualisation of yourself changed over time?
In the US, I really have no issue identifying as Arab-American. I love that there is a community of Arabs. Most of them were born and raised in the US. That’s not my story but I still feel at home and loved within that community. I just believe that once I leave the US that label expires. It is valid for those who actually were born and raised here because this is their entire experience, defining themselves at the heart of empire. So I identify as Arab. But identifying as Arab-American is not very accurate. Although I do push that immigrants who come as adults should still be able to say they're Arab-Americans, or they're Americans, or whatever they want. This should not be a policed category. But I push against it when it erases me in the sense that, when I was at Kuwait airport this January and I was denied entry, I was effectively exiled. The police officer at the border said “Well, you're American. When Kuwaitis get denied visas to America we don't say anything so I can deny your visa.” My personal and family history with Kuwait as a state, one that is entirely based on being a Bedoon writer and activist, all that is replaced with suddenly being seen as American and being denied a visa on those grounds. That was when I became aware you cannot control how you are identified. We have histories and pasts and entire lives in other countries and we still live those lives, even if we are banished from them. I guess this goes back to the idea that identity is this political category and violence is inherent in these categories.
What is your relationship like with Kuwait nowadays?
It’s really a mindfuck — sorry to use that term. In 2011 I was 22 or 23 years old and I got a scholarship to go to graduate school. At this point I was already very politically active, going on Arabic TV channels and talking about the Bedoon. I was a journalist in Kuwait and there were protests at this point so I already had a public profile. But when I got to the US, Kuwait refused to renew my passport. My family tried to do it, and they were also refused. So this forced me into applying for asylum.
In my essay, Mapping Exile, I talk about how I waited 10 years with the hope that when I became American it would be easy to go to Kuwait as a tourist. When I finally went in the summer of last year, I was interrogated for five hours and signed a pledge not to speak about politics. I got to spend five weeks with my family. It was the first time I saw my grandma in 10 years. I saw the places from my memories and it felt so good. I felt safe. But when I went again in January, I didn't expect to be banned from the country. I thought, at worst, they would question me again and let me in. But to my surprise, that is what happened. I have heard similar stories of this happening to Bedoon with foreign passports. I just felt enraged and traumatised really, to be physically in Kuwait but told I cannot enter. The horrifying part is my family don't have valid passports; Kuwait refuses to renew their travel documents.
So I try to stand up for myself. I go on social media, spoke to the US embassy, I made a big fuss and it was trending in Kuwait for three days. There were many sympathisers but also many trolls and racist attacks. So, how do I feel about Kuwait? The place itself, I am connected to it. I felt that when I went in the summer. I felt how good it is to be there (even though it is a dull place really, not much happens there.) It’s not that I would ever want to live there, to be honest, unless it changes radically. But still, I had this romantic relationship with it, a nostalgic view. But I am also carrying this tension of, wow, this is the place that brutalised me. Yet it is the place I was formulated as a human being and also my family is there. What is sad is that there are many millions of us around the world who have been displaced. It is such a normal story yet so catastrophic at the same time. I don’t know what else to say except that this is how I feel about Kuwait, this tragedy and love at once.
You briefly touched on some of the troubled assumptions that exist around being Bedoon. I wonder what is something you wish more people knew?
Even as a person who is, let's say, historically a victim to these structures, it makes me really sad that it took me such a long time of embracing decolonial education and knowledge to realise nation states are a fraud. Borders are fraudulent and it's all colonial legacy, and it's violent. Many of us who belong to oppressed groups — or people who are sympathetic and allies — still fall for the logic of these states. We are expected to explain ourselves and our histories through these structures of where we integrate. People will ask if you were in Kuwait before the establishment of the nation and it ties into these ideas of who is native or not. These ideas are xenophobic and anti-immigrant. Something I always do in my practice, whether literary or academic, is to align myself with someone who just came to Kuwait yesterday to work as a domestic worker. This person has a right to live in this country, to build it. I don’t want to fall for this logic of, No, I’ve been here for generations, I am native enough, I am similar enough to you, I speak like you, I come from your culture, Muslim and Arab and so on. At the most optimistic, it's assimilationist, so I just wish people would stop forcing the logic of nation-states. This region was part of an empire, the British and before that the Ottoman. So how come, suddenly overnight, we have to explain that we belong? I do believe I have a claim to both Iraq and Kuwait. Both of them would deny me but that doesn’t mean anything. I hope one day we will liberate our imagination and speech from the violence of nation-states and colonial legacy.
How much do these tensions in identity that you experience continue to inform your work? And what other kinds of themes are you thinking around?
I wrote Mapping Exile when my asylum was accepted. But I always felt there was something missing from the essay. I kept going back to it and then in 2021, there was a special issue about the Gulf for The Common magazine. They asked me for something so I thought maybe it is time and it did really help me finalise the essay. The editors helped me realise what was missing. They said, “You assume we know what Bedoon is, but we don’t.” The truth is, I don't assume, but I just really don't know how to define it. How do I tell people in 2000 words?
But I challenged myself. I tried to tell an intergenerational story of what it is to be Bedoon through my own personal narrative. So that essay felt cathartic, to be honest. On the one hand, it was written and published in English and I thought it was nice that people with different experiences of displacement or family loss were able to relate. The Bedoon may be a small minority but all humans share experiences of separation and loss. But on the other hand, when it was translated into Arabic it suddenly did the rounds on Twitter and people were touched and sent me beautiful messages. In Kuwait, it's taboo to talk about how many of us were exiled to Iraq after the Gulf War. At least 120,000 people like my mom’s family were sent away overnight. After the occupation of Iraq, the borders opened and they could see one another again. But being people without passports — or being an Iraqi and entering Kuwait — is difficult.
I felt sharing this personal story gave others permission to talk about who in their family was exiled and it was also cathartic for them. Before that essay, I always talked about identity or exile, but in subtle ways in my poems. After it, and after this experience at the airport, I have all the reasons and all the permission to just go for it. So I am writing (and I am almost done with) a new poetry manuscript. A lot of it deals with these themes unapologetically, without having to be hesitant about whether people will know the references. I have reached the idea that maybe there is not a precedent, maybe people don't know, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't write yourself and your experience into literary texts. Because that's how you create yourself, you begin with the written form.
When we were organising this interview, you mentioned that you block off your mornings to write. As a writer who has a very chaotic schedule, this really caught my attention. I'm interested in the practice of poetry writing for you and how that's developed over time. In a very practical sense, what does writing look like for you now?
I started writing when I was a teenager. I was mainly a poet so for a long time I would wait for inspiration. Then when I was inspired I would write a bunch of poems at once. I had times when I was super prolific and then years when I wouldn't write. It was, as you said, chaotic. But I feel like a combination of things changed my relationship with writing. First, when you become an immigrant and you are living under late capitalism, your time is not yours. You always have to do double the labour for everything. Even if I resisted, capitalism forcibly disciplined me. Especially being in an academic setting and being underpaid and overworked, I found myself at a point where I was like, I may not be able to write unless I respond to this new structure.
So I needed to come up with a solution. My relationship with writing used to be staying up late at night and writing poems. Now it is more of a proletarian relationship (because the proletariat wakes early in the morning and works). Before I didn’t think about my writing as work but now I do. And I don’t mean it is something dull and burdensome. I really enjoy writing and feel unburdened after I write. But this is what I do: I wake up and I do not go on the internet, I do not use my phone. I just drink coffee, read for half an hour and then try to write for a couple of hours. Then by 12, I take a shower, go to the office and do everything else.
It’s always fascinating to hear how other people work! I’d like to ask, what is something you have changed your mind about lately?
I keep having this conversation with my closest friends about the responsibility of individuals. Within feminism and identity politics and all of these counter-movements, there has been a lot of emphasis on our individual responsibilities. For example, how do you address racism in the workplace? Throughout the decade I’ve spent in the US I’ve been learning a lot about this and feeling excited about it, thinking about how I can translate these beliefs into my daily life. But I recently changed my mind on this because it is exactly the capitalist liberal illusion to think that individuals are responsible for undoing oppression. We can only do something if we are organised into collectives. The idea that you as an individual within an institution can do something just puts all the responsibility on us. We feel that we need to take a stance in every situation. But we need to know there are limitations and you decide what lines you want to cross and what sacrifices you are going to make. I feel like I was burdening myself with so much responsibility out of political commitment only to realise that this commitment has to be collective.
And sometimes that individual commitment, when it's misplaced, can feel oppressive in itself?
What is the text that has had the most significant impact on you? I’m looking for any kind of cultural artefact that's really changed the way that you think about the world.
There are so many. That's why I'm grateful to literature. But I guess two come to my mind. The first is Albert Cossery. He is an Egyptian francophone writer from the 40s. I guess he's considered surrealist. I only went to him a few years after the Arab Spring when I was feeling so much despair and when we thought we were going to liberate the world. When we felt the sorrow, the defeat, had friends in prison and all that. But Cossery has this playful way of asking us how we divest from society, from mass production. And asks, how do we divest from elite culture? He does it in very subversive and shocking ways. Specifically, they shock bourgeois tastes and ethics and so I loved it because I thought, here’s a piece of literature that you can enjoy and laugh at. It’s absurdist and obscene and also very anti-capitalist, anti-conformity and anti-authoritarian all at once.
Years later I read this essay by Amitav Ghosh about petrofiction, about Cities of Salt. He has a wonderful review of Cities of Salt and talks about how important it is, saying it is the only novel that succeeds in addressing the encounter between oil and humans. He says this encounter is normally impossible because it happens in the middle of nowhere, we don't see it. The oil gets sold in invisible markets. He loves the novel. But at the same time says it ends with Arab workers uniting but excluding South Asian workers. This is because it was written in the context of Arab nationalism. Ghosh says this is the failure we should look at from this distance: we fight based on social class especially when we are talking about oil economies and the new oil states. That shifted everything in my head because I always felt were was something troubling about all the class and racial segregation in the Gulf, where I grew up. But I was never able to articulate what was troubling about how these identities were manipulated and how they don’t reflect our class positions.
Amazing! I'm not familiar with them so I'm looking forward to having a read. I love getting to ask all these people whose work I admire who influenced them — although then I am left with this huge reading list that I can never ever actually get through. Thanks for your time today. So what are you doing next?
Um, nothing. I am working at the office I have another meeting to go to. But I actually have a poetry book coming out in London in July. And next year I have a new poetry collection in Arabic coming out. And when it comes to my academic work, I'm still working on my book.
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