BAR Book Forum: An Excerpt from Belén Fernández’s “Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World”
The US is a nation of freedom: the freedom to carry or be shot by a firearm, and to go into eternal debt.
(The following is an excerpt from Belén Fernández’s forthcoming book, Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World.)
“One gets the sneaking suspicion that America’s customs and border agents are in fact not genetically human.”
Granted, the U.S. was by this point pretty much dead to me, as I had determined from periodic visits that it was in the interest of my sanity to avoid the country altogether. Frida Kahlo once observed: “I find that Americans completely lack sensibility and good taste. They are boring, and they all have faces like unbaked rolls.”And yet this, perhaps, is the least of the problems.
For an introduction to the ills of the tasteless nation, one need go no further than airport passport control, a delightfully criminalizing experience that leaves one with the sneaking suspicion that America’s customs and border agents are in fact not genetically human. Needless to say, the U.S. welcome can be a great deal more traumatic for noncitizens and/or persons suspected of Arab/Muslim identity. I myself can confirm more hospitable reception by immigration personnel everywhere from the Number One State Sponsor of Terrorism to the Number One Producer of Drug Dealers and Rapists.
Before I definitively wrote off the homeland as an acceptable travel destination, obstacles to smooth U.S. entry had ranged from having visited Syria—for which activity the explanation “I have friends in Syria” was deemed insufficient (“Why do you have friends in Syria?”)—to the matter of my inability to answer the question “Where do you live?” in any sort of remotely coherent, less-than-super-sketchy fashion. Obviously, in the end I was always admitted to the country with passport in tow, the pages of which were emblazoned with inspiring reminders ranging from “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time” (Thomas Jefferson) to “...That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom” (Abraham Lincoln, and to hell once again with separation of church and state) to “The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class—it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity” (Anna Julia Cooper, black feminist born in 1858).
“The government continues to deny humanity to numerous categories of humankind.”
The inclusion of this final (most accurate) sentiment certainly spices up the passport, but it’s presumptuous coming from a government that—more than a century and a half after Cooper’s birth—continues to deny humanity to numerous categories of humankind. This same government also happens to enforce a domestic system characterized by structural racism and a criminalization of poverty, meaning that much of the United States’ own population has yet to be granted its “birthright.”As for other manifestations of “freedom” and “liberty” in God’s favorite nation, these might comprise the freedom to carry a firearm, the freedom to be shot by someone carrying a firearm, and the freedom to enter into eternal debt in exchange for education, housing, nontoxic food items, and health care.As George W. Bush once eloquently put it: “Freedom is winning.”
In December 2017, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights found that, despite the constant theme of “American exceptionalism,” the contemporary U.S. has “proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth” and in fact conducive to “public squalor,” with no less than “one quarter of youth living in poverty.” Among the myriad issues highlighted was the “role of corporations in preventing rational policy-making and advocating against reforms in order to maintain their profits at the expense of the poorest members of society.” Case in point: “the corporations running private for-profit prisons.”
While the U.S. “spends more on national defense than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, [the] United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined,” the report notes, U.S. infant mortality rates were as of 2013 “the highest in the developed world.” Furthermore: “Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy, and the ‘health gap’ between the U.S. and its peer countries continues to grow.”To be sure, none of this information is enormously bewildering given U.S. leaders’ prioritization of corporate freedom and the health of the arms industry over the actual health of the people allegedly being protected via gargantuan defense budgets ($717 billion for Fiscal Year 2019).
“Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy.”
Another perk, then, of evading the homeland at all cost is that the risk of pauperizing oneself for life in the event of medical emergency is much less in other locales. In Venezuela in 2009, [my former hitchhiking companion] Amelia and I availed ourselves of free health care services on various occasions, primarily for the novelty of being attended to in a context of compassionate solidarity rather than one of economic exploitation—an arrangement I dare say inspired greater feelings of personal security than did, say, the knowledge that my government could nuke the world at any second.
In 2006 in Cuba—another territory where health care was viewed as a right instead of a grand moneymaking opportunity—we also had free checkups, although the Cuban heart surgeon at whose Havana home we were staying recommended his preferred santería priestess to us for additional feedback. The priestess diagnosed me with some internal pelvic problem requiring treatment in the form of a ritual with eggs and aguardiente. I assumed the procedure would be pelvically invasive, but it turned out that I simply had to sit next to a glass of aguardiente while the priestess rubbed a hardboiled egg on my stomach and swatted me with some herbs. I was charged a dollar to cover the cost of the materials. As I had not been aware of any problem in the first place, I was in no position to judge the effectiveness of the intervention, but there were certainly more boring ways to spend a couple of hours.
Other internal issues were resolved in Turkey, where in 2007 I obtained a most affordable abortion performed by a doctor in Fethiye named Nezih, who alternately sang songs and told me about all of his village-woman patients who unlike me were tough and needed no anesthetic whatsoever. In Tajikistan in 2016, I checked myself into a Soviet-era sanatorium in the mountains for a couple of nights for a nominal fee, where the only English-speaking person was a maniacal Christian Zionist and former U.S. resident who kept trying to lure me to church with her in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe. Fleeing her presence, I embraced the communication barrier and went wherever the sanatorium attendants pushed me—which is how I ended up in a room with a mass of elderly nude Tajik women and a toilet-seat-type contraption designed to spray water into one’s vagina. Retroactive research revealed that the uniqueness of the water in question had to do with its radioactive radon content.
“I simply had to sit next to a glass of aguardiente while the priestess rubbed a hardboiled egg on my stomach.”
In an extract from Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums published at The Calvert Journal, Maryam Omidi writes that, “[u]nlike western vacations, which Soviets perceived as vulgar pursuits characterized by conspicuous consumption and idleness,” holidays in the USSR were meant “to provide rest and recuperation, so citizens could return to work with renewed diligence and productivity.” Under Joseph Stalin, Omidi notes, “the ‘right to rest’ was enshrined in the 1936 constitution,” and sanatoriums were “designed in opposition to the decadence of European spa towns . . . as well as to the west’s bourgeois consumer practices. Every detail of sanatorium life, from architecture to entertainment, was intended to edify workers while encouraging communion with other guests and with nature.”
The debatable effectiveness of radioactive spray to one’s nether regions notwithstanding, such remedies are undoubtedly cooler than the go-to capitalist approach of medicating everyone senseless. Moreover, a bit of worker edification and socio-environmental communion would prove therapeutic for a bumbling, unbaked-roll-faced population deficient in the natural grace that often attends symbiotic relationships with the earth and other living things.
My exile from the U.S. has been facilitated by the fact that—following the deaths of my non-psychotic set of grandparents and my parents’ own subsequent defection from the country—I no longer have significant roots there. As a child, I was close to my father’s younger sister, who suffered from an unhealthy obsession with the Democratic Party and whose idea of revolution was—literally—allowing Soviet victims of communism access to American blue jeans. This aunt disapproved of my wandering, and decided that her position was vindicated when I received a minor punch to the head after feeling compelled to intervene in a bar fight in Spain in 2003.
When I paid what was to be the final visit to her mansion outside Washington, D.C. in 2004, she informed me that my dead grandmother would have been ashamed of me and advised me to open a bakery with all due haste—this being the standard key to success for someone who did not bake. I dragged my suitcase dramatically down the side of the road for two hours to the Bethesda metro stop, and that was the end of that.
My brother in the Special Forces continued to reside in the States, of course, and during our rare interactions supplied anecdotes from military life, such as a training session in which he and his fellow trainees played a game of good guys and bad guys. The latter were denoted by a garment resembling a keffiyeh, and—lest there remain any doubt about the nature of the enemy—the instructors provided the good guys with encouragement along the lines of “get the fucking Arabs.” From my brother’s later tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, I learned that it was sometimes possible to purposefully misfire projectiles in order to inflict human and infrastructural damage you weren’t necessarily authorized to inflict by your superiors, and that most terrorists were named Mohammad and Abdul. No doubt relatives of Afghan wedding attendees slaughtered by U.S. bombs begged to differ on that account.
On the same trip to D.C. during which I failed to open a bakery, I dropped by Arlington National Cemetery to pay my respects with a couple of beers at the gravesite of my grandfather, decorated war veteran and fan of Heineken. Although the public alcohol consumption and ensuing placement of beer bottles around the tombstone miraculously went unnoticed, I was castigated by a policeman for crossing slightly to the left of the crosswalk on a road with zero vehicles on it. And while institutionalized anal retentiveness among U.S. cops obviously doesn’t compare to other kinds of behavioral repertoires for which the guardians of law and order are known—like shooting pregnant Native American women and mentally ill persons—the crosswalk castigation might just symbolize the oppressively monotonous spirit of America, where the sanctity of THE RULES and the absolute imperative of staying within the lines serves to distract from the possibility that our brief and insignificant time on this planet might be rendered considerably more pleasant for all involved were alienation from the human condition not the modus operandi.
Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work (Verso) and Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon (Warscapes). She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine, and has written for Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, Current Affairs, and the London Review of Books blog. She was born in Washington, D.C.
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