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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Jordanian poet and UK citizen unable to fly to US to give inaugural address at New York University

Amjad Nasser an acclaimed Jordanian poet and novelist was invited to give the inaugural address at the Gallatin Global Writers series on September 30 this year.



As a law-abiding UK citizen Nasser did not even require a visa to fly from London to New York City to give the talk. However, when he arrived at Heathrow Airport he "was carrying his books and an official letter of invitation from New York University" according to organizers of the trip. Just as he was about to board his flight an attendant at the gate told Nasser that someone from US Homeland Security wanted to talk to him.

The conversation that Nasser reports is so weird that one might think that Nasser was reporting something from a novel he was writing:"The strangest 'conversation' ensued: Your name, your father's name, your mother's name, your paternal grandfather, your maternal grandfather, your great grandfather, your height, your weight, the colour of your eyes, of your hair ... at this point I told the homeland security person: It is turning white now! 'What was its colour before? Brown?' he asked. 'No, black,' I said." Perhaps there were other questions that might have some relevance but surely not these questions. What have the names of your grandfathers and great grandfather got to do with security? When the conversation finally ended Nasser was informed that he could not board the plane. The plane had already left without him in any event. The Homeland Security Officer would not discuss the reason why Nasser was denied permission to go to the US.
As the NYU site of the organizers reported:On Saturday evening, Amjad Nasser was prevented from boarding his flight from London to New York after he was interrogated by homeland security authorities at Heathrow airport. He was never given a reason. Nasser, a British citizen, was carrying his books and an official letter of invitation from NYU.The reading of Nasser's writing will take place as scheduled, in protest of this occurrence. Nasser will join us from London via Skype, and Sinan Antoon will read the English translations of this work as planned.
 In 2012 Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan was refused a visa to tour the US with a Palestinian American poet even though the ACLU and PEN America urged that she be allowed to join the tour that coincided with a release of a book by Zaqtan by Yale University Press. The problems for many Arabic speaking authors who may be asked to speak at literary events is the very process itself, as much as the not very common denial of a visa. Zaqtan finally did get a visa over a year later, after a great deal of pressure on the government and many letters of support from prominent writers. Not many organizations are willing to spend that much time and effort to finally enable someone to appear.
 In 2012 the New York Times reported that requests for standard foreign performer's visas had gone down by one quarter between 2006 and 2010. In former times exclusions were often of leftist authors such as the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Graham Greene, now the exclusions seem to be shifting to authors with Arab names.
 In 2011, Tim Supple, a UK theater director was able to bring a pan-Arab group to Toronto Canada to perform a new version of the classic "One Thousand and One Nights". The company was able to obtain visas for all the troupe to enter the UK and Canada. However, he had to cancel his planned engagement at the Chicago Shakeseare Festival when a total of 40 members of the group were subject to further scrutiny. Time simply ran out. The problems involve not just security hold ups but also sometimes exorbitant costs for the process.
 In 2006 the Halle orchestra from Manchester in the UK canceled their US tour that included a performance at Lincoln Center when the administrators calculated that the cost of complying with US visa regulations for the group of musicians and staff would cost more than $70,000. The process is required to be self-sustaining hence it is understandable that there will be some fees but Homeland Security will speed up your service for a mere $1,225 per application over and above the $325 filing fee. The extra fee is supposed to guarantee a response within two weeks but administrators complain that often Homeland Security does not meet its own deadlines.
The government recommends that performers and groups submit all their paperwork at least ninety days before they need the visa. However, administrators say that up to six month delays are not uncommon, making planning very difficult. Palma Yanni, a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association who deals with the visas said: “Everything is much more difficult. I didn’t think it could get worse than it was after 9/11, but the last couple of years have been terrible. It just seems like you have to fight for everything across the board, even for artists of renown. The standards have not changed, but the agency just keeps narrowing the criteria, raising the bar without notice or comment, reinterpreting things and just making everything more restrictive. We call it the culture of no.”

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