Internment by Samira Ahmed

For Thomas, Lena, and Noah.

Hearts of my heart, the reasons for everything.

And for everyone fighting for liberty and justice for all so that this nation, of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from this earth.

Though you muffle my voice, I speak.

Though you clip my wings and cage me, I fly.

And though you batter my body,

commanding me to kneel before you,

I resist.

—Ali Amin

I strain to listen for boots on the pavement. Stomping. Marching.

But there’s nothing. Only the familiar chirp of the crickets, and the occasional fading rumble of a car in the distance, and a rustle so faint I can’t tell if it’s the wind or the anxious huff of my breath. But everywhere it’s the same as it’s always been: the perfectly manicured lawn of Center Square, the gazebo’s twinkling fairy lights, the yellow beams from the porch lamps at every door.

In the distance, I see a funnel of smoke rising into the air.

Most of the town is at the book burning, so I should be safe.

Or, at least, safer.

I don’t measure time by the old calendar anymore; I don’t look at the date. There is only Then and Now. There is only what we once were and what we have become.

Two and half years since the election.

Two years since the Nazis marched on DC.

Eighteen months since the Muslim ban.

One year since our answers on the census landed us on the registry.

Nine months since the first book burning.

Six months since the Exclusion Laws were enacted.

Five months since the attorney general argued that Korematsu v. United States established precedent for relocation of citizens during times of war.

Three months since they started firing Muslims from public-sector jobs.

Two months since a virulent Islamophobe was sworn in as secretary of war—a cabinet position that hasn’t existed since World War II.

One month since the president of the United States gave a televised speech to Congress declaring that “Muslims are a threat to America.”

I thought our little liberal college town would fight it longer, hold out. Some did. But you’d be surprised how quickly armed military personnel and pepper spray shut down the well-meaning protests of liberals in small, leafy towns. They’re still happening, the protests-turned-riots, even though the mainstream media won’t cover them. The Resistance is alive, some say, but not in my town, and not on the nightly news.

Curfew starts in thirty minutes, and this is a stupid risk. My parents will absolutely freak out if they find that I’m not in my room reading. But I need to see David.

I force myself to walk calmly, head forward, like I have nothing to hide, even though every muscle in my body shrieks at me to run, to turn back. Technically, I’m not doing anything wrong, not yet, but if the police stop me—well, let’s just say they have an uncanny ability to make technicalities disappear.


Slow down.

If I rush from shadow to shadow, I will attract attention, especially from the new motion-sensitive security cameras mounted to the streetlamps. Curfew hasn’t started yet, and I’m allowed outside right now, but it’s already dark. Even here, where almost everyone knows me and my parents—maybe because of that fact—my heart races each time I step out of the house. I cross at the light, waiting for the walk signal, even though there are no cars.

I spy a flyer for the burning taped around the lamppost at the corner: JOIN YOUR NEIGHBORS. The words are superimposed on a cascade of banned books, dangerous books. A hard knot forms in my stomach, but I keep walking, eyes still on the poster, and bump headlong into a woman rushing in the opposite direction. She stumbles and drops her bag. Books and flyers fall to the ground.

I bend down to help her pick up her things. “Sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was going.” I try to be polite, deferential. Stay calm, I say to myself. It’s not past curfew yet. Don’t act guilty. You’re not guilty of anything. But these days, actual guilt is an afterthought.

The woman keeps her head turned away from me, refusing to meet my gaze, shoveling the books and papers back into her bag. I reach for two books and glance at the titles before she grabs them from my fingers. Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. Nameless Saints by Ali Amin—my father.

For a split second, she looks me in the eye. I suck in my breath. “Mrs. Brown, I—I’m sorry—” My voice fades away.

Mrs. Brown owns the Sweet Spot on Jefferson Street. She made my favorite birthday cake ever, a green-frosted Tinkerbell confection for my fifth birthday.

She narrows her eyes at me, opens her mouth to speak, and then clamps it shut. She looks down and pushes past me. She won’t even say my name. Her flyer for the book burning somersaults away in the breeze. I shrink into myself. I’m afraid all the time now. Afraid of being reported by strangers or people I know, of being stopped by police and asked questions to which there are no answers.

I pick up the pace to cross the town square, staring straight ahead, wiping the fear off my face, fighting the tears that edge into the corners of my eyes. I can’t suffer looking at the university’s gleaming glass administration building—all clean lines and razor-sharp edges that cut to the bone. David’s mother teaches chemistry at the university. My dad teaches poetry and writing. Did teach, I should say. Until he was fired—mysteriously deemed unqualified for the tenured professorship he’d had for over a decade. That’s another “Before”: two months since my dad lost his job.

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