The Return

Mona Kareem
translated by
Sara Elkamel

I sat in the chair opposite him before he said I could. Fear had paralyzed my knees; my back could only lean against the wall. As he pulled the door closed and leapt toward his desk, I quickly went over the key milestones in my life, which I had charted and rehearsed aloud in the days leading up to this trip. It suddenly annoyed me that I made no effort to study stars or insignia patches; maybe then I could have guessed his rank. Do I ask him? Do I preface my question with the word “sir,” which I have never before used, but which often materializes in the movies—at times to the benefit of the protagonist, at times to his detriment. “What are you doing here?” he asked with a sigh. “I came here because I am from here,” I said. “How could you be from here when you do not live here?” he asked. “I am from here. I left ten years ago,” I said. “That is impossible. No one has ever left this place, at least not as far as we know,” he said. “I swear to you, sir, that I departed from here on August 16, 2011—in fact, it was a few meters away from this office. It was during the former president’s era,” I said. “Firstly, we have never operated this airport in the summer, when the country becomes an inferno. And secondly, we do not have a president, so how could another possibly precede him?” he said. “Please. There is no need for these games. You know very well which president I am referring to, the same one who locked half the population behind the wall and left the second half stranded on the outside,” I said. “I have spent my entire life here,” he said, “ and I have never seen a wall.” “Well, it exists. The ancestors built it. It is the same wall that let the Trojan horse in,” I said as my forefinger sketched a line in the air, stretching along the coast before rising again to draw a full circle, only oddly shaped and jagged. “If your destination is Troy, then you are in the wrong place,” he said. “I did not mean Troy literally. I meant it as a poetic epithet,” I told him. “Look, if you would like to enter, there is no objection. But I simply wished to explain to you that this airport only allows entry,” he said. “And where do I find the exit airport?” I asked. “We are still thinking about it,” he said. “The airport issue?” I asked. “We have yet to decide how to let people out, and for what reason,” he said. “But I have another life there. I am just here to look in on the life I left behind,” I said. “I apologize. Those are the rules,” he told me. “It is either you cross the wall one last time, or else go back to Troy.”

Mona Kareem is a stateless poet, translator, and scholar born in Kuwait in 1987. She works as an assistant professor of Middle East Studies at Washington University, St. Louis, and has published three poetry collections in Arabic. She holds a PhD in comparative literature from the State University of New York at Binghamton.
Sara Elkamel is a writer who holds an MA in arts journalism from Columbia University and an MFA in poetry from New York University. She is the author of the chapbook Field of No Justice.
Originally published:
May 31, 2023


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