I’m standing in a long line at passport control, my duffle bag slung across my shoulder. I can’t wait to take a hot shower: this goal sustained me throughout the long plane journey. Of course, my first goal is to actually get into the country. Scanning the row of glass booths where the border officers sit, I wonder which one fate will allocate to me. It’s too early to start predicting who will be free when I reach the front of the line. I count the exact number of travellers ahead of me: twenty-three. The number of officers at work: nine. Really, the line’s not as long as it seems. If these people waiting to be granted entry to Canada were divided into nine lines, there would be two, maybe three people ahead of me. It should be my turn within 15 minutes at most. Long enough to rehearse, one final time, my answers to any questions I might be asked. And long enough for me to become suspiciously nervous.
My record is spotless, but experience with officials has made fear an automatic response. I have to grip my wrists behind my back to stop my hands from shaking. I get a dry throat, so my voice becomes a weak croak, forcing me to cough before each response. I’ve been asked for my papers so many times in France, treated like a foreigner despite being a French citizen by birth. And now, always in the back of my mind, is my younger brother.
My father used to visit America on business. He warned me that officials never smile there; they even treat US nationals with suspicion. Casting my gaze across the faces of the border officers here, none look especially severe. In fact, I catch several smiling as they let travellers go on their way. There is an almost equal number of male and female officers, but I don’t particularly care which gender I get: some consider women softer, but maybe female officers feel they need to compensate by being stricter than the men. I also notice a wide range of skin colours. Again, impossible to say which ethnicity would be preferable. A fellow Arab might have the empathy of shared experience, but there’s no guarantee. I’ve heard enough complaints about refugees from my aunt and uncle in Calais to know that some immigrants erase all memory of their own struggles once they’re established in their adopted country. It’s like racist attitudes are as much a part of their assimilation as speaking French and watching TF1.
I notice that one of the agents is wearing a hijab, navy blue to match her uniform. She’s probably near retirement age, but her face is still beautiful. She reminds me of my unwitting mother-in-law, whose enduring good looks bode well for me and Yasmin. I like to imagine that my wife will always retain something of that beauty that first attracted me. And I’ll do everything I can to preserve the playful and optimistic nature that made me fall in love with her. I don’t want disillusionment creeping in to dull and subdue her beautiful spirit. It’s one of the reasons I want to leave France. Watching my mother-in-law as she glances from the passport in her hand to the face of the person opposite, I imagine I’m the one transfixed by her unblinking gaze.
‘Samir Yacine. What is your reason for wanting to marry my daughter?’
My cheeks burn. The last time I saw my mother-in-law was before Yasmin and I had our small ceremony, attended by just a few friends, at the mairie of the 18th arrondissement. ‘I…I love her. We make each other very happy. I would like to spend the rest of my life with her, to care for and protect her.’
‘Like you protected your brother?’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’ I’d assumed she considered me guilty by association, not personally at fault.
‘Come on, Samir. Everyone knows what happened with him. You can’t pretend you’re not involved.’
‘Tarek will always be my brother, but I can’t agree with what he did.’
‘What kind of older brother are you, that you didn’t protect him from bad influences?’
‘I was working. I’d already moved out of my parents house. There was no way for me to know what he was getting involved in.’
‘And what will you say if the same thing happens to your future son? “I was busy! How was I supposed to know he’d fallen in with the wrong crowd!” Being a family man requires absolute engagement and commitment. Seeing how you failed to maintain that bond with your own brother, I can’t consent to Yasmin marrying you.’
With that, my mother-in-law pounds my passport with a big red stamp: ‘REFUSED ENTRY’.
My gaze moves to another glass booth where a younger, friendlier Indian woman sits. Although her skin is darker than Yasmin’s, there’s something about those brown eyes that reminds me of my wife. The way that they seem to smile even when her mouth is serious.
‘Why do you want to visit Canada?’ she asks, her eyes twinkling at me, as though she doesn’t know.
‘I would like to see for myself what it is really like, to find out whether my wife and I could be happy living here.’ Of course, as a tourist, you should never mention wanting to apply for citizenship: the border official will assume that if they let you in, you’ll decide to stay forever.
‘And why haven’t you brought your wife with you? Shouldn’t she also see for herself what Canada is like?’
An unfair question. Again, she knows the answer, one I would never really give to a border official. ‘We married in secret. She still lives at home, and our parents would become suspicious if we travelled at the same time. Also, my wife cannot travel during the school year because she’s a French teacher. Unfortunately, airline tickets are very expensive during the holidays.’
‘If money is so tight, how will you have enough to establish yourselves here?’
‘We will have enough, because we are cautious about what we spend.’
‘And why do you want to move to Canada? France is also a developed country, and you both have your family there.’
‘I feel that racial descrimination is holding me back in France. And there’s family prejudice: my wife’s parents won’t accept me because of my brother’s criminal record. We’d like a fresh start.’
‘I understand. But there’s a lot that can go wrong.’ Yasmin has said this to me many times already. I’d felt relieved the moment we were married: it meant that our parents could no longer prevent us from being together. But family isn’t the only potential source of separation. ‘You might need to move here on your own first,’ Yasmin says. ‘And what if you meet another woman before I have a chance to join you?’
‘That would never happen, Yasmin. I only worry that you will get cold feet: decide you want to stay in France, divorce me, marry someone else.’
‘Sam, forget these fantasy problems! You need to focus on the actual obstacles to overcome. Like finding a job in a new country. And making a successful citizenship application. And before any of that, making it past the border official who is about to ask you questions about your visit to Canada!’
Yasmin’s wise words, just what she would say if she were really here, snap me out of our imaginary conversation. There are only nine people ahead of me in line now. With nine officials to deal with them, in essence I’m next. Time to focus on the real questions and answers. Where am I travelling from? Paris. Purpose of my visit? To sightsee in Montreal and Quebec City. Duration of stay? 10 days. Do I have my return ticket? Right here. Enjoy your visit. This precise moment of my mental rehearsal is punctuated by the thunk of a passport stamp as one of the agents lets another visitor in. It feels like a good omen. I shuffle a few steps forward as the line shortens. As people reach the front of the line, a Chinese woman in a white polo shirt with a ‘Canada Border Services Agency’ logo directs them to available officials. Just five travellers ahead of me. My heart beats a little harder. Now I can start to predict which border officer I’ll get. That one at the end who’s kept the same family standing there for at least ten minutes? Surely it’s about time he made his decision. Will he deal with me quickly after them, or is he just a stickler who gives everyone the full interrogation? I swallow with difficulty, wishing the water bottle in my bag weren’t empty.
I notice an officer working very efficiently, processing twice as many travellers as his colleagues. I hope I get him. His expression is serious but gentle, like he cares about his job, but wants visitors to his country to feel welcome. Does my beur-dar detect a fellow Moroccan? His shoulders are small, his black hair cropped close to his head. Like my brother, he can’t be more than 21 or 22 years old. I imagine Tarek sitting in that pristine glass booth instead of the grubby steel and concrete cell he’ll be confined to for the next several years. At least, that’s how I imagine his living quarters. I used to ask my parents what he talked about during their weekly visits, but my mother would start crying, and Baba just said, ‘Better go and see him for yourself.’ I’ve been putting it off, because I can already imagine the conversation.
‘Sam, why’d you stay away for so long?’
‘Work, bro. We’ve had a new software release, so I had to put in extra hours.’
‘Wow, I’m already forgetting what life’s like out there: having stuff to do. It’s so boring here, man.’
‘Why don’t you study? Some prisoners read law textbooks while they’re inside. You could come out with enough knowledge to retrain as a lawyer.’
‘Get real, Sam. You think any respectable profession’s going to hire someone with my rap sheet?’
‘You can’t give up, Tarek.’
‘Give up? Like you gave up on me? My own brother wouldn’t even come to court to make a statement in my defence?’
‘I already had my fill of dealing with the law, thanks to you. Police coming to my office to arrest me. Some of my colleagues still look at me like they think I’m the criminal. I sat through hours of interviews. The detectives were convinced that I must have been involved in some way, just because I’m your older brother. They thought I might have groomed you, or provided an introduction to those low-lifes. Me! The only place I’d seen villains like that was in movies. I was afraid of being interrogated again if I stood up in court. I’d have been so nervous, the judge probably would have given you an even longer sentence!’
‘All you had to do was say a few words on my behalf, like Mum, Dad and the Imam did. The fact that you didn’t say anything made it look like you thought I deserved whatever I got.’
‘Your actions got you where you are, not mine. Why should both our lives be ruined by what you did?’
Sir, could you please step forward to window 8?
I’d been staring at the agent that reminded me of Tarek, certain he’d be free next. But he’d opened the back door of his booth to call over his manager. He was probably new to the job, and still had to consult with a superior on some cases. Dragging myself back to reality, I shifted my attention to window 8, where a middle-aged white man sat. I sighed and stepped forward.