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Transition 10.4 (2001) 88-112

The Wood of the Moon

Abdulrazak Gurnah

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Refugee. Asylum. These are not simple words, even if the habit of hearing them makes them seem so. I arrived at Gatwick Airport in the late afternoon on November 23 last year. It is a familiar theme in our stories, leaving what we know and arriving in strange places, carrying little bits of jumbled luggage, suppressing secret and garbled ambitions.

For some, as for me, it is the first journey by air, and the first arrival in a place so monumental as an airport. I walked through the tunnels, past rows of seats and large glass windows, signs and instructions. I walked slowly, anxious at every turn, relieved at the appearance of each new instruction. They took me away at the passport desk. "Passport," the man said, after I had been standing in front of him for a moment too long, waiting to be found out, waiting to be arrested. His face looked stern, even though his eyes were blank. I had been told not to say anything, to pretend I could not speak any English. I wasn't sure why, but I knew I would do as I was told because the advice had a crafty ring to it, just the kind of resourceful ruse the powerless would know. They will ask you your name and your father's name and what good you have done in your life. Say nothing.

When he said passport a second time, I handed it over, flinching in anticipation of abuse and threats. I was used to officials who glare at you for the smallest mishap, who toy with you and humiliate you for the sheer pleasure of wielding their authority. So I expected the immigration hamal behind his little podium to register something, to snarl or shake his head, to stare at me with that blaze of assurance with which the fortunate regard the supplicant. But he looked up from leafing through my joke document with a look of suppressed joy in his eyes, like a fisherman who has just felt a tug on the line. No entry visa. Then he picked up his phone and spoke into it for a moment. Smiling openly now, he asked me to wait on one side.

I stood with my eyes lowered, so I did [End Page 88] [Begin Page 91] not see the approach of the man who took me away for questioning. He called me by name and smiled as I looked up, a friendly, worldly smile. As he strode briskly ahead of me, I saw that he was overweight, and by the time we reached the interview room, he was breathing heavily and tugging at his shirt. He sat down and shifted uncomfortably, and I thought of him as someone trapped in a form he disliked. I was afraid that his distemper would indispose him toward me, but then he smiled again.

We were in a small windowless room with a hard floor, with a table between us and a bench running along one wall, lit with hard fluorescent strips. He told me his name was Kevin Edelman, pointing to the badge he wore on his jacket. May God give you health, Kevin Edelman. He smiled again, smiling a lot, perhaps because he could see how nervous I was, or perhaps because in his line of work it was inevitable that he should take pleasure at the discomfort of those who came before him. He had a pad of yellow paper, and he wrote in it for a moment or two, taking down the name from my joke passport before he spoke to me.

"May I see your ticket, please?"

Ticket, oh yes.

"I see you have baggage," he said, pointing. "Your baggage identification tag."

I played dumb. You might know ticket without speaking English, but baggage identification tag seemed too complicated.

"I'll have the baggage collected for you," he said, keeping the ticket beside his notepad. Then he smiled again, interrupting...


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