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Letters from Nowhereland
If I were a cartoon, my jaw would have been on the floor and my eyebrows just below the ceiling

R. Faze
April 14, 2005

My Dear Cousins,

By now you know something has happened and not simply because it’s been a while since we wrote and even longer since we’ve seen each other; long absences are part of life when you are scattered around the world. So, I’ll tell you a few things about what happened.

For the past two years, as you may have heard, I’ve been a freelance writer. Not really much of a ‘real’ job. Definitely not something our parents would approve of, what with the low pay, lack of benefits, the uncertainty and all that. The newspaper that buys most of my articles, an English language paper, called The Daily Gomi, is based in Tokyo. The ‘gomi’ in the name means ‘garbage’; their slogan, printed in the top left hand corner of the front page in boldface italics, in deep navy blue, reads, “All the news that’s not, but said to be the news so we print!”

My immediate editor, Robert Bane, and his immediate boss Mr. Fujiyama, and his superior Mr. Yamaguchi, who is the publisher, all agree that to take the piss out of the news in, what they like to call, ‘the correct spirit’, you must be upfront about it. No one can sue you that way.

I like their approach. It makes my job more interesting. Since I work freelance, as you may know, my pay is not that good and I am free from any benefits. But being free has its advantages, be they mostly for others. I decide my own schedule and I’m free to do and learn many different things at once. It is also beneficial to my boss. If an article truly and really stinks up the affairs of the rich and the powerful upstairs, they don’t have to go through the embarrassment of having to fire me. They can merely not publish anything I send them; no explanations given, no faces lost.

The satirical spirit of the work does make for more interesting bosses, though, compared to what most other mainstream journalist grunts these days get to call ‘editors’; humorless, untalented, smug thought police goons who went to college and learned how to bullshit officially, or else are rich kids smug with connections and even more stupid.

The other advantage is that I don’t have to live in the US.

Well, at least I didn’t, before what happened and I ended up here anyway. But of course as I write this letter, I still do not know where ‘here’ is. I am simply assuming I am in the US.

Confused? You bet. Confusing? That too you can bet.

As was the case this last time, my visits back home to see mom and dad are often short, so while lots of family and friends are visiting and being visited and parties and get-togethers are being enjoyed, I must make sure to take care of some chores and official business too; taxes, banking, a driver’s license that may need renewing, sorting of mail received, sorting of boxes of books/documents sent back home for storage -- you know.

Also, as per usual, I wanted to take advantage of price differences and stock up on some recently published books, and some magazines and journals that are either too expensive or just not found in Japan. So, I went to the local super-bookstore in the town next to the one where my parents live; my parents’ town is too small to be able to afford a bookstore.

As I entered, I remember being confronted with that familiar All-American Mall Bookstore Look; the new fiction and non-fiction, the array of the latest self-help books, as well as books with cover pictures of very fit and healthy looking, sportswear wearing, very golden blond Californian looking men and women holding the ends of towels round their necks. Those, and the Harry Potter series plus the related paraphernalia, from mugs and caps to t-shirts and puzzle books, and all the spin-offs and the look-alike products on the table next to it.

I proceeded to gather my fill of the different news and political magazines, journals and book review/writing magazines, then combed through the books section for some recent and some not-so recent fiction; a couple of recent books by Walter Mosley and Ian Rankin, a couple by Ian McEwan, including his last, Saturday; a copy of The Black and the Red, by Stendhal, to read it from the beginning to the end, once and for all. Also got a copy of the guide to agents and editors (still haven’t learned my lesson that the ‘guidebook’ is as useful in finding an agent as a placebo is in curing cancer). And of course some non-fiction that I had been neglecting to keep up with; necessities of the trade such as Anne Coulter’s trash-talk-prancing-as-commentary How to Talk to a Liberal, and Slander; Michelle Malkin’s In Defense of Internment; Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback, and The Sorrows of Empire; Imperial Hubris by “Anonymous” and some of Ward Churchill’s books including the one about the Roosting Chickens. All of these books, including the guidebook to agents and editors, in my humble professional opinion provide miles and miles of juicy material for great satire.

I gave the music CD’s side of the store a miss, since, having watched the total rise at an alarming rate, I decided to rein in the demon demanding more, more, more ... “It’s much cheaper here. C’mon!!! For the same price that gets you ONE book in Japan, you can get three, four, maybe more. Don’t spend money on books when you’re back in Japan you idiot; spend it here and save!!”

But, I shut it up and headed for the line of people waiting to get to the register; feeling better for having stood firm and silenced the devil of perpetual spending.

The line was long for the time of the day. There were about eight or nine people ahead of me, even though it was just before two o’clock in the afternoon.

“We have busy lives,” I was thinking, “Don’t they see this? Why doesn’t the manager on duty pull a few of the staff straightening the books/stocking/taking inventory off the floor and stick them behind the registers for three minutes, which would easily take care of the line? Instead, we are stuck with a big line of people snaking in front of the door, blocking people’s way, wasting our precious times for far longer than necessary.”

You see cousins? See what mundane things we contemplate while waiting in lines! Instead of striking up a pleasant and soothing conversation, instead of creating a bond and some precious warmth with a fellow human in the line, we self-inflict ulcers. We are such fools. So wasteful.

After about ten or twelve minutes of cooking up petty animosities in my head, my turn came up. I smiled, stepped forward and put my basket on the counter, with a, “Hi! How’re you doing?”

The girl at the cash register was in her early twenties at most, had jet black hair that came down to just below her earlobes, which contained several ear rings. She wore a store-issued black t-shirt, was not too cheery to put it mildly, and her eyes looked sharp and intelligent. When she said, “Hi there!” her tone made it clear she was not keen about across-the-counter conversations. I respected that, gave a small nod, and smiled on while keeping silent.

When she got to Ward Churchill’s book, almost at the end of the pile, and as she put it on the magnet to disable the security strip inside the book, a small alarm went off, sounding like a fire alarm that had been diminished in volume considerably. The alarm stopped as soon as she removed the book from the magnet disk.

Very nonchalantly, she turned the book and looked at the front cover. I didn’t understand. She looked up at me, still nonchalantly, not chewing anything, but just opened and closed her mouth for a quick second, perking the corners of her mouth, before saying, “You need to fill out a form to buy this book.”

For a second or two, I thought I did not hear those words. My head turned a little to my left, my right ear turned slightly in her direction, mouth in disbelief, “Say WHAT!?”

“It’s required now. PATRIOT Act. It’s the law.”

“It’s the F*#king LAW?!” I thought, screaming in my head. “What law?” I said out quietly, with a tone of genuine curiosity.

“The PATRIOT Act. Like I said. Look, I just work here, I don’t make the rules. It’ll only take a minute.”

“You just work here? What the hell is this? I ran away from Iran because of shit like this? What the fuck do you mean ‘it’s the law’?” I thought in my head, not daring to mention the dreaded name of our home country; that cursed proper noun, ‘I Ran’, insinuating cowardice. I just looked at her, not saying anything out loud, not knowing exactly how my face looked; contorted or creepily smiling? I was doing my best to not say anything at all; fearful of what might escape my lips.

“Look, if you want, I’ll get the supervisor, and you can talk to him yourself. But if you want to buy the book, you’ll have to fill out this form.”

“OK, forget it! I don’t want the book. Just forget about it. This is totally crazy! I go away to work abroad for a few years, and I come back to a concentration camp!” I said, shaking my head.

“Sir, can I see an ID from you?” was the next thing the girl said. Still nonchalant.

“You what?!” I said to her, thinking, “What’s THIS now? I can’t even express an opinion without being booked?” giving in to over-reaction, some may say hysteria; at least hyperbole.

“Sir, the law also requires me to ask for your ID, and to make a note of your interest in this book, and inquire into the exact interest you had in the book, if you show any interest in any way shape or form, even when you don’t buy it,” she said, still sounding much like an un-excited clerical worker at any city hall in the US. “What do you mean? You mean just this one book?” I inquired. “Actually ... Here’s the complete list. Look Mr., I just work here.”

It was a pretty thick book in small cut; like a pocket size paperback of War and Peace, or it could even have been the size of The Tale of Genji.

I re-guessed that I had not over-hyperbolized. If I were a cartoon, my jaw would have been on the floor and my eyebrows just below the ceiling.

Well, darling cousins, what happened next can be said in long hand or in short hand. I give you the short hand for now. Future permitting, you may, if you really want to, read the records of the proceedings, if there are any, for the long and detailed account.

So, here is the short version:

I refused to present an ID, since I was about to buy everything in cash and save myself the interest paid on a credit card purchase anyway, and I told her that. Further, I informed her that the Constitution of the United States of America guarantees me the right of not having to cooperate with their bookstore’s insane policies, whether or not, as she claimed, the PATRIOT Act gave them any such rights for overt interrogation and spying on behalf of a secretive police state. After that, I informed her that their bookstore was so outrageous, that they could by all means keep all those books and magazines of theirs I was going to purchase and that I was taking my business elsewhere, preferably to another country. And then I proceeded to walk out of the store.

As I headed for the door, she called the security, who rushed after me, demanded that I halt, and ushered me to the back of the bookstore, where I was made to sit and wait for a police car to arrive and take me to the main police station. When we got there, they took me out of the car, took me inside and put me in a holding cell. Nobody else was in the cell, and the station was rather empty, pretty clean and nothing like you see in the movies. Nobody asked me any questions. Nobody charged me with anything. Nobody booked me.

The police informed me that no official charges were being pressed nor any official arrest being made by them -- and the officer in charge relaying all this had a way of emphasizing the ‘official’ bit, his voice raised in volume coupled with exaggerated pronouncement, as if talking to a five-year-old. They nevertheless had orders to render me into a not-protected-by-law citizen and were going to rendition me over to the federal authorities, who would be the officially-recognized bodies with the official authority to decide my fate and press the appropriate charges, since my case fell under federal jurisdiction.

So, even though there were no charges made yet, I did have a ‘case’ which fell under federal jurisdiction. This new law is strange.  

After days of transporting me -- blindfolded the whole time -- by air and road, the Feds in turn took me, and had me locked up in a facility, whose location I am not allowed to know.

They tell me I have no right to know where I am. All my outgoing correspondence is read and censored at will. I can receive none, since neither I nor any in my family has the right to know where in this gigantic labyrinth of penal machinery I am locked up. My family cannot even send a letter to be delivered to me care of the federal authorities. I have no rights to make any phone calls. I do not have a right to a lawyer. I do not have the right to remain silent.

I can send letters only as often as deemed appropriate by my keepers. I didn’t want my first letter to go to mom and dad. It would have broken their hearts. You must do something, anything you can, to help. But first you must find a gentle way of breaking the news to mom and dad. Make up some stories and break it to them in stages. After you do that, show them this letter so they’ll know I’m alive and well, and tell them everything will be sorted out soon -- it’s all one big misunderstanding, and as soon as I get to see and talk to some real people, I am sure all will be well again. (Mom, Dad, I love you! I’ll be home soon!)

This new legal system, it seems, is designed to create enemies. Some real and some imaginary, and everything in between. I was not an enemy; just buying books.

So, here we are. Let me finish with some crude advice: be careful to whom and where you speak. Be careful what you say and how you say it when you speak. Be careful whose words you take seriously. And be careful what books you try to buy. Get a job at a bookstore for a couple of months first. Get the inside track before you go out and do something stupid like buying a book.

Peace to you cousins,

R. Faze is a writer. This story is an excerpt from a forthcoming novel.

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