outright. France once again did away with them in 1860, at least until the Franco-Prussian Wars of 1870-1, after which the passport as a necessity of international travel spread around the globe. The twentieth century saw the League of Nations move to standardize passports in response to the European refugee crisis after World War I, when governments sought to track, assist, and repatriate huge numbers of displaced people—1.5 million from Russia alone, along with Belgians, Poles, Lithuanians, Serbians, and Turkey’s expelled Armenians and Kurds—but it also saw the rise of an open border system in the European Union.
I don’t know any of this at 10:00 on a November evening in 2017 in Beirut. All I know is that it feels like my passport, which I’ve carried all around the world but have never obsessed over, contains a piece of my soul. Without it, I feel vulnerable. Exposed. Illegitimate. As if everything I know to be true about my life— who I am, where I live and work, to whom I’m connected by blood and choice and circumstance—could be seen as f iction, and there is no way, without that small paper booklet, to prove otherwise.
The website for the American Embassy in Beirut is clear: to replace lost or stolen documents, you need to appear in person and only with an appointment. I click the online scheduling portal, calculating that if I go in f irst thing Monday morning, I might be on my way home by mid-week. But the embassy’s scheduling portal doesn’t work, or so it seems until I realize that there are no appointments available on Monday. Or Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Or Thursday. I keep clicking into the following week, the desire to stay in Beirut evaporating now that the departure date is uncertain and my choice in the matter gone. That’s the difference between travel and migration: in the former, we carry the expectation of returning at will to where we came from — home. In the latter, travel involves a trade-off, one place for another, one culture for another, a fully-formed past and precarious present for the possibility of a safe or stable future, and the price must be, among other things, a deeply unsettled sense of who you are.
The State Department travel warning plays in my mind. The U.S. government advised us not to come to Lebanon, and now the embassy won’t help because the punishment for disobeying is that they wash their hands of you. This is how things feel in 2017, when the U.S. president f ixates on a wall along the Mexican border and stokes white supremacy and refuses to help refugees and enacts a ban on visitors from predominantly Muslim nations because, he said while running for off ice, “our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.”
In a gorgeous, powerful essay, “War in Translation: Giving Voice to the Women of Syria,” Beirut native Lina Mounzer writes of translating Syrian women’s accounts into English, conscious always of the potential for misinterpretation. “We know how language can be used to beat the rhythm of the war drum, mustering ranks upon ranks of public support. We know how language itself can wage war against us, by mimicking the same casual dehumanization of a bomb. Everyone you know and love: terrorists. Militants. Strategic targets. Collateral damage. The leveling of your neighborhood: an unfortunate mistake. The razing of your city: the birth pangs of a new Middle East. Seven dead, twenty wounded. Forty-one dead, ninety-three wounded. 1.2 million refugees. 2,000 migrants.”
Dehumanizing language has always been part of my government’s foreign policy, but never more so than under the current president. On the campaign trail, he pledged to deport Syrian refugees, stating, “They could be ISIS, I don't know. This could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time. A 200,000-man army, maybe.” Since the election, he has referred to immigrants
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