In January last year, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13769. Its title was "Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States". Its unofficial title was the travel ban – or, more specifically, the Muslim ban.
The order halted all refugee admissions for 120 days and suspended the Syrian refugee system for the foreseeable future. In addition, it banned the entry of people from seven countries with a Muslim majority – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – for 90 days.
Protesters condemned a violation of the constitutional principle of not discriminating on the basis of religion. Trump supporters argued that the president was simply making good on his campaign pledge of protecting the homeland by way of “a total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration.
A clear message emerged: “making America great again” involved prioritising, generalising and demonising.
A year on from Trump's divisive decree comes a book which challenges it. Banthology is a collection of specially commissioned stories by authors from those banned nations – or to give their US designation, "Countries of Particular Concern".
As the book’s editor Sarah Cleave explains in her introduction, the idea behind the project was “to champion, give voice to, and better understand a set of nations that the White House would like us to believe are entirely populated by terrorists”.
The stories tackle various themes connected to the ban, and encompass a range of styles and perspectives. The selected writers constitute an eclectic mix. Some are more published than others. Some have more than one string to their bows and combine fiction-writing with poetry, journalism or activism. Some still live in the unbeloved countries; others have sought refuge and a new start in exile. All have singular voices worth listening to.
The book's first story is by Sudan's Rania Mamoun. Unlike the other tales which, for the most part, deal with transit or resettlement, Bird of Paradise is about a woman who is stranded, or "rusting away", in an airport lounge. She has been there a week and has eaten all her food and spent all her money. "All that remains is regret." Her life, it transpires, has been one of limits and restrictions. She replays memories and reveals how her domineering brother Ahmad regularly spoiled her fun, whether beating her as a young girl for going out without his permission or killing her dream of studying at the University of Khartoum.
When the narrator tells us that she wishes she had been born a bird, Mamoun threatens to undo all her good work with an all-too obvious symbol of freedom. However, the story is redeemed by the woman’s vivid recollections and the last haunting image we have of her: not moving on, but stymied by a mysterious force.
Syrian author Zaher Omareen provides a markedly different state of affairs in his compelling page-turner of a tale, The Beginner's Guide to Smuggling. His male narrator is very much on the move and has been since he washed ashore in Greece. The taste of the sea still lingering on his tongue, he walks the streets of Paris in the early hours of the morning searching for the address of a man who will drive him to Sweden. There he will seek asylum. As he walks, he recalls the life he left behind in Hama and his adventures in Europe – from watching "the zombies emerging daily from the sea" on the island of Kos to taking risks travelling on fake Greek and Hungarian IDs. Omareen goes on to plot the last leg of his character's journey and keeps his reader in suspense with a nail-biting "routine check" on the German-Danish border.
Many stories feature characters that look back while moving forward. Ubah Cristina Ali Farah's Jujube focuses on a young woman who has fled war-ravaged Somalia for Italy, but hopes to be reunited with her mother and sister in the US. Past horrors loom large (a city burns like "a filthy firework"; a neighbourhood is stormed by men "meaner than stray dogs"), while in the story's devastating last line, future prospects appear dim.
Two stories play out in adopted lands. Fereshteh Molavi's Toronto-set Phantom Limb examines an Iranian man's sense of displacement, exploitation and loss. Anoud's Storyteller consists of an uncompromising trawl through the catalogue of hardships Jamela endured in her early life in Iraq; and in its tough, terse closing pages, a brief unflinching account of her downward spiral in her supposed safe haven of London.
Given its subject matter, it should be no surprise that Banthology is flush with chaos and carnage, thwarted dreams and missed opportunities. But that isn't to say the book is uniformly depressing. All the stories are composed of different shades and textures, and each ends up relaying something vital.
The grimmest tale, the aforementioned Storyteller, charts a childhood shattered by car bombs, sanctions and premature deaths, and culminates with Jamela not in despair, but rather in a rage, shaking her fist at Trump on TV. Elsewhere, Omareen's smuggling story is streaked with caustic humour – thanks to his narrator's gripes about the "linguistic waste" in the French language or the overweight, overexcited migrants that sent him and his suitcase overboard: "Everybody should go on a mandatory diet before getting into those death boats."
Two boldly original stories stand out. Najwa Binshatwan's Return Ticket is a savage satire in which America is ruled by a prison warder and has become a nation of ever-rising walls, cut off from the rest of the world. The collection's final tale, Wajdi Al-Ahdal's The Slow Man, explores plight, flight and closed doors through allegory, and has similar heft to one of Kafka's parables.
Now and again we encounter sketchy characters or weak formulations (“I was heart-broken; empty like a word without any letters”). But no single story disappoints, and each writer (and translator) deserves enormous credit for contributing to a worthy enterprise and committing a small yet supremely effective act of defiance.