The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Keeping America safe from foreign poets

“Poetry can be dangerous,” Rumi said, and U.S. Homeland Security isn’t taking any chances.

The Jordanian-British poet Amjad Nasser had been invited to speak at New York University this fall, but on Sept. 27, he was questioned for two hours at London’s Heathrow airport and then prevented from flying to the United States.

PEN American Center in New York and Split This Rock in Washington have issued a public letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson calling this situation an “outrageous violation of Mr. Nasser’s right to travel and of Americans’ right to meet and share ideas with our sisters and brothers from around the world.”

Nasser’s denial of entry was particularly disappointing to Sinan Antoon, the NYU professor who had invited him to deliver the inaugural address at the Gallatin Global Writers series. “I started reading his poetry 15 years ago,” Antoon said. “He was, back then, and still is, at the forefront of the Arabic prose poem. I met him in London in 2005 and then again at the Ledbury Poetry Festival in England in 2009 and have corresponded occasionally with him, especially since he was the culture editor for a major London-based newspaper where I published some of my own poems.”

Antoon said the notion that Nasser might pose a threat to the United States is “ridiculous — unless poetry poses a threat to U.S. interests. He is an internationally recognized poet and a highly respected cultural figure in the Arab world.”

Though Nasser has received invitations from several universities in the past, this would have been his first trip to the United States. About 25 years ago, he applied for a visa to participate in a conference at Harvard University, but his application was denied. He said he was told by a press officer in the American embassy in London that his name resembled the name of someone forbidden from entering the United States.

“So I stopped trying to get a visa to enter the United States until recently when I was asked by New York University,” he said. “I have become a British citizen. I thought that the situation is different from the past. But, as I found out, it was not.”

Nasser was surprised by the agent’s approach at Heathrow airport. “The questions were related to my appearance more than my opinion or my position concerning political or ideological matters,” he said. “It seems to me that they have a name and a description of a particular person. So the first question was about my father and my grandfather’s name and the name of my mother and her family, and where I was born in Jordan, and when I came to Britain. Then questions about my height, weight and the color of my hair and the color of my hair previously and currently. Was the color of my hair brown?”

Eventually, the agent moved on to what Nasser suspects is the real source of concern: “I told them that I work for the newspaper Al Araby Al Jadeed and that I was previously working at Al Quds Al Arabi. [The agent asked] questions about these newspapers’ offices in London.”

At the end of their two-hour conversation, the agent refused to give Nasser any explanation for refusing to let him fly to the United States.

But later, Nasser got what he thinks may be a fuller sense of the department’s objections: “A friend in America contacted some officials who told me that the matter is regarding my work at the newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi, which was classified as hostile to the United States, and because it published an interview with Osama bin Laden and a fatwa against America and things like that.” Or maybe, Nasser thinks, he’s been excluded “because I am a leftist, and I wrote a lot against the policies of the United States in the Middle East, especially regarding the Palestinian issue.”

In response to questions from The Washington Post, Jaime Ruiz, with the public affairs office of Homeland Security, responded via e-mail: “Due to privacy laws, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is prohibited from discussing specific cases.” He went on to write, “The United States has been and continues to be a welcoming nation.”

However, Ruiz noted that “under U.S. immigration law, applicants for admission bear the burden of proof to establish that they are clearly eligible to enter the United States. In order to demonstrate that they are admissible, the applicant must overcome ALL grounds of inadmissibility.”

Overcoming those grounds, though, is especially difficult if the person being denied entry is not told why he is being denied entry.

“There are many literary activities that I am invited to and I can not go to because of this is problem, which is incomprehensible to me,” Nasser said. “I do not belong to any political party now, and I am against the use of religion in politics anywhere in the world. I am of those who say that without dialogue between intellectuals and thinkers in the world we can not bridge the gaps, whether real or artificial. This world is small and we have no other and we have to make it a viable place to live.”

He is in the process of filing an appeal.

A spokesman for Bloomsbury, Nasser’s U.S. publisher, said, “We were aware that he was unable to enter the country. We hope that attention to this matter will shine a light on Mr. Nasser’s novel, ‘Land of No Rain,’ and the work of other Arabic writers.”

Antoon, the NYU professor, is less optimistic. “These are Orwellian times,” he said, “and the surveillance state is protecting us from harmful poetry.”