If I were a cartoon,
my jaw would have been on the floor and my eyebrows just below
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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.