A Slap in the Face: A stark reality of life as a refugee
Abbas Khider's novel, A Slap in the Face (Seagull Books, 2019) opens with an intense, and at first impression, violent scene. Karim Mensy, an Iraqi refugee, ties up a German immigration official for the sole reason of having an audience to listen to his hidden story. It is a palpably tense introduction which sets the pace for Karim's narrative unfolding against a backdrop of perpetual injustice, discrimination, exploitation and navigating the trajectories for survival.
For many refugees, no way out is a reality. The smuggler route from Iraq to Paris does not materialise and Karim ends up in Germany, where he faces ongoing bureaucracy preventing him from living a free and fulfilling life.
It is in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's downfall and the US occupation of Iraq that Karim receives his letter informing him of his impending repatriation.
The threat lingers like a verdict over his life; when faced with its reality, Karim's urge to make his story known before yet another forced decision to avoid a forced return to Iraq opens up the secluded world of refugees.
Karim's observations of his host country makes up for the limited interaction he has with the German people. Survival is paramount; hence the importance of taking note of his surroundings and finding ways to make himself less conspicuous to avoid harassment by police.
He describes the police presence thus: "I had no choice but to get used to them, regarding them as a familiar recurring nightmare I no longer needed to fear. You can combat ghosts simply by refusing to take them seriously."
It is through Karim's first encounters with the authorities that we get an indication of why he fled Iraq – the revulsion of the officers when he was asked to strip upon his arrival in Germany and subsequent detention. However, the details are not revealed until later. In his adolescence, Karim developed gynaecomastia – a hormonal condition that caused breast development. This is compounded by his being called for mandatory military service, at which point he asked his father to help him travel abroad.
|Some refugees engage in illicit activities to supplement their meagre income|
The author's focus on refugee interactions between themselves and their host society is an eye opener. It is through the refugees themselves that the reader learns about the bureaucracy and labelling of refugees in order to determine who qualifies for residence; this also includes what narratives are preferred by the authorities involved in decision-making.
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Refugees who have already experienced the trauma of delays and rejections advise Karim that the truth doesn't work.
Meanwhile, Karim is forced to seek illegal employment to make ends meet. Some refugees engage in illicit activities to supplement their meagre income, thus increasing their present alienation. Karim seeks to alleviate himself from his predicament, yet opportunities are expensive.
His quest to learn German, for example, and further his studies, is also restricted. Upon enquiring, he is told, "first you have to work and pay taxes for a year, and then we can fund a language course for you." Logically, Karim retorts, "But how am I supposed to work for a year, or even find a job in the first place, without knowing the language?"
In relationships, Karim does not fare any better. His affair with Lada, a married woman with a two-year-old daughter, gives Karim an imbalanced sense of companionship which is, perhaps, preferable to nothing.
Yet this is another inconsistency in his life which furthers his sense of isolation when he is beaten up by her husband’s friends and Lada breaks off the relationship.
Post 9/11, refugees live a heightened fear of being singled out and profiled. It was also the time when Karim was brought in for questioning regarding any links to terror groups. However, the most striking of Karim's reflections on this period is the merging, in terms of memory, between the US bombing of Iraq and his life in Germany.
"It was ludicrous," he says. "Everything took place simultaneously, and everything seemed to take place simultaneously inside me."
|Khider has written a book that is at once crude and sensitive, interspersed with humour that only lasts a few seconds|
The psychological toll upon refugees is starkly portrayed in the novel. Desperation and betrayal move hand in hand for Khaled, who sets up Karim for a sexual encounter without his knowledge and when confronted, retorts, "I sold you to him. For a hundred marks. Sorry, but I'd pimp the whole hostel for a hundred marks."
Rafid, Karim's friend, ends up in a psychiatric unit after his application for asylum was rejected. Karim visits him before his planned escape to avoid repatriation and his gladness at having met his friend soon dissipates into sorrow. His tears stop when he realises it was raining, at which point it seems, Karim was jolted back to his impending tasks and escape.
Khider has written a book that is at once crude and sensitive, interspersed with humour that only lasts a few seconds before the reader realises that the elicited smiles are all at the expense of the oppressed, in this case, the refugees.
This is perhaps the strongest realisation that bridges the gap between the concept of refugees as portrayed by media and politics, and the refugees' humanity, tarnished by the constant closing doors of opportunity.
Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger specialising in the struggle for memory in Chile and Palestine, colonial violence and the manipulation of international law.
Follow her on Twitter: @walzerscent