The Best-Kept Secret: Fiction and Foreign Detention
By Nina Reis
The facts alone will not save us.” What does that even mean? What is meant by facts? And who do we need saving from? Ever since I read Ruha Benjamin’s piece Racial Fictions, Biological Facts and discussed the article in class, the concepts of fact and fiction have been distorted in my mind, reconsidered, changing shape. We like to believe we navigate a world of objective facts, of scientific naturality and neutrality, and that there is a truth. Like the presence of stars in the nightsky, the daily rhythm of sunrise and sunset – consistency reassures us, provides certainty in a far too complex reality. Some truths just have to exist. But what if some facts would need to be fictionalized, imagined, to be truthful?
Alle Dagen Ui is a graphic novel by B Carrot and Saied. Talking to them both, what strikes me most is the insistence that this is not B Carrot telling Saied’s story, nor is Saied using B Carrot to convey his experience. Rather, Alle Dagen Ui, meaning “Days of Onion”” in English, seems to be an energetic collaboration, a converging of two and many more perspectives, bringing nearer a hidden away reality. Because that’s what the detention centers are: places of limbo and lingering – for the Dutch authorities, out of sight, out of mind, seems to hold: a reality not acknowledged is not existing.
Alle Dagen Ui tells the story of an Egyptian man, who had to flee his country due to his partaking in protest against Al-Sisi’s takeover in 2013. Egypt isn’t safe for him anymore and he flees.The original idea of New Zealand abandoned, he ends up in the Netherlands, at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, more by chance than by intent. He does everything as would be expected of him: he goes to the immigration authority and states the intent of his presence – “I have problems, I want to apply for asylum”. And then the waiting begins. First in a small room at the airport the immigration security takes him to, and then for the next 13 months in the Schiphol foreign detention center. Right next to the criminal detention, with no real access to the outside world apart from visiting volunteers and security guards. Except, in contrast to the criminals, he did nothing wrong. “It’s really unfair to just lock normal people into detention or prison.”
Waiting, waiting, waiting – in there, it became clear to Saied that the moment he got out, he would share his story. Coming to the Netherlands with the thought, “It’s a really nice country, they respect human rights, they will help me”, he eventually experienced one of the best kept secrets of the migration system, the foreign detention centers . In contrast to the AZC, the centers for asylum seekers, these places supposedly house immigrants awaiting repatriation. Or in other words: imprison them as they await deportation.
A law student who visited the center in Rotterdam describes it as a weird atmosphere, “it was basically like a prison”. The freedom of movement of the people in there is absolutely restricted, and while inhabitants get to go into a small garden once in a while, concrete walls and security cameras dominate the building. It’s a well-known fact among those volunteering and visiting these centers that the Netherlands sometimes tries things out in foreign detention first, before implementing change in its prisons. Phones are forbidden; after all, the secret wouldn’t be so secret anymore if they weren’t.
B Carrot, as part of a group of volunteers who visited people in these detention centers, in Rotterdam, Schiphol, and Zeist, says “this is a place where stories are not allowed to come out of officially. And I somehow wanted to share these stories, but it was always very hard to find the right approach”. Meeting Saied was a lucky coincidence for her, at a dinner of a mutual friend. “A lot of people come out of these places and they are not in a place to share what happened to them. It was really special of Saied to want to share his story.” Saied continues on where B Carrot left off: “Not enough people know about this, so that makes it (even) more important to share my story, what happened to me”. From that evening on, since that dinner party, it took them more than two ears to create the book, from talking to research to writing and drawing. For Saied, “I did the easy part in this. I just sat with B Carrot, saw what she drew. For me, it was just telling her everything that I remember.” B Carrot disagrees, saying that emotionally, Saied definitely did the harder part. At the beginning, she felt uncomfortable taking up so much space within the narrative and wanted to refrain from changing the story in the slightest way. There is this tension between wanting to truthfully tell a person’s story, and the artistry of story-telling itself. “It’s not an easy balance to find - it’s not my experiences, it’s not my emotions, it’s not my consequences (...) At the end, the importance of bringing the story out is what kept me going, and not too much doubting ‘am I allowed to do this’. It’s not his voice, but it’s his voice through my work.”
The facts alone won’t save us. How can you tell a story about an experience the government denies? What can you write about a place no stories are supposed to be told about?
“It was important for me to come to the core, to the truth, of the story.” But Alle Dagen Ui is not really Saied’s story to a hundred per cent - “At the beginning, I really thought it has to be one to one, how it really happened. But my professors helped, with their experience in storytelling. It’s all a true story, but it’s also adapted to being read as a story. (...) Everything that is described in the book happened and the events are true, but it is a fictional book and not a documentary.” Sometimes you need to fictionalize the facts to convey the truth. Especially as the Dutch government refuses to acknowledge the graphic novel, claiming it is a work of fiction. But that doesn’t make the story any less true, though. As Saied says, “when I saw the book, I really remember everything.” For him, the story, his personal experiences, are best told through the graphic novel. Drawing makes a hidden place more visible than mere words ever could, and images evoke empathy. Fiction is a way to tell the truth that is hidden away, to publish the story that would otherwise not exist due to power mechanisms. While the truth may be objective and constant, which truths are known, and which remain in the shadows, is subject to hierarchy, to who has power. If you are stuck in foreign detention, you have none.
The Netherlands pays a lot of money to keep people in other countries, and it pays a lot of money to deport people. These detention centers have existed for more than 10 years and are tax-financed; the one in Schiphol, where Saied stayed, was even closed down a few years ago due to its costs. Foreign detention is different from an AZC: “In the center, the goal is to deport people, and if they cannot deport you, they just throw you into the street. Most people in the centre were released at some point, into illegality, with their cases still not resolved or even opened up.” Saied tells of his own experience, “once I was released, nothing happened. They just put me on the street without any help.” He had to figure out shelter, food, work, getting his asylum process started, himself - 13 months after he had first arrived at Schiphol airport with a passport in hand and no crime committed.
Fleeing from Egypt due to his participation in anti-regime protests, having been elected inside the detention center to speak up for prisoners’ rights, Saied is not giving up. People are not allowed to share stories from inside the center, but this was Saied’s life. “We have to untangle ourselves out of the idea that migration is something that is happening to us in modern times - migration has always existed. It is rather something happening to refugees,” B Carrot says, before Saied and her draw attention to the causes for migration: economic inequality, climate change, and conflict (one that very much involves European weapons). Saied went to the European parliament many times to speak on behalf of undocumented and detained people - but only press releases do not stop the weapon trade of EU countries with Egypt. But maybe comics can.