A Saudi Arabian man’s first journey to the United States becomes a legal nightmare in Mohandis’ debut novel, based on his real-life experiences.
“I wish you wouldn’t go to the United States,” warns the narrator’s father when he learns that his job will soon take him from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to Boston. “The situations there are neither smooth nor settled.” The year is 2003, and his father’s concern stems from America’s heightened security measures following the 9/11 attacks. Despite this, the narrator dismisses both his family’s concerns and his own anxieties before boarding the long flight. Unfortunately, his landing in Boston is just the beginning of a long ordeal within the American legal system. He describes the arduous process of clearing customs with a Saudi passport, finally arriving at the final checkpoint, where a customs officer finds suspicious, penlike containers in his backpack. From there, the narrator’s experience with U.S. bureaucracy goes from annoying to Kafkaesque. Unable to explain where the containers came from, he’s arrested for taking explosives on a plane and intentionally providing wrong information. He never gives or gets a clear answer as to how the explosives ended up in his backpack; he only describes his experience as a suspected terrorist. This isn’t a sensationalized story of torture; instead, it focuses on the tediousness of the legal process and the nature of interrogators, whom the narrator describes as behaving “like mean wolves.” As interesting as the subject matter is, however, Mohandis’ narration and dialogue can be overly static and formal. He also focuses most of the book’s energy and detail on the buildup to the narrator’s arrest, leaving the events of his incarceration and trial feeling brief and skimmed-over. The book is most powerful when the narrator lets his emotions shine through, such as when he imagines an impassioned letter he wishes to write to the president or gives a final summation of his time spent in America: “I was disconnected from the world for almost two months in a country that makes and fabricates the news.”
An important perspective on the challenges of the American justice system, but it may leave some readers wanting more.