It is difficult for me to tell you who I am. There are many days where I do not think of myself as a whole person. Some fragments of me were left behind in Sittwe, which I thought of, many moons ago, as home. That episode was imbued with the red of charred flesh, the black of burnt bamboo that twisted into odd sculptures, and the gray of choking smoke. It is a part of my life I try not to think of. But, I have learned over these years that we have no agency over the dreams that enter our minds in the dark. Please forgive my tears, I do not mean to be dramatic. You do not have to look away.
Some shards of me were left on the flimsy fishing boat that bobbed across the Andaman Sea. At that time, I avoided hoping for a concrete destination, only that I survive the nautical days ahead, one after the other. When I look back, it seems almost like a divine comedy that I lived on to relay this story to you. If I close my eyes, I can feel my body slowly rocking to the nauseous, unforgiving waves; the weight of other bodies, alive and dead, pressed against my shoulders. I can recall the nervous laughter and the pained smiles that coupled our predicament: rag dolls toppling over one another in a tight space that reeked of brine, urine and sweat.
Other parts of me were left in the jungle camp that became home for a month. To this day, I cannot tell you with certainty of the location. I suppose that is my identity now. I struggle to pinpoint my place in the world in any corporeal sense. I am floating, and my feet never quite tread the ground. I am the ghost of every transient place I encounter on an aimless journey. A part of me dissolves, perishing at every stop. I cannot bring myself to look at the map, to trace with my fingers the lengths I had been through because it will cause me to lose sleep, leave me wide-eyed with disbelief and also fill me with some wonder. All I can do is look up by looking down. I lay my forehead on the muddy ground, on the damp wood of the crumbling boat, on the green earth under the canopy of trees, and on this cool cement-rendered floor, all to sing praises to the Almighty God, and then move forward, one day after the other.
Now that I have brought you from where I was to where we are, this common land we dwell on, I can tell you my name: Sulaiman. This is the only part of my identity that remains permanent throughout. It is the name of a prophet, who ruled over his fellow man and the supernatural, who could speak to animals and who presided over lands both near and far. I do not aspire to any of that. My only wish is to live with dignity, to have enough food to survive, to have a ceiling under which I can rest. But I take comfort in the legacy of my namesake. I draw strength from it whenever I am paralyzed by fear, when it descends unannounced, locking me in.
For now this land is home. This place binds my brethren; it is a reenactment of our homeland in another land. When I first arrived, I fell to my knees and wept insanely. I saw in front of me faces that looked like my own, speaking brashly and openly. The squiggly Burmese script—little tadpoles and worms twisted into shapes that make sense to me—can be seen and read everywhere. Around every corner, chickens cluck in and atop of cages. Womenfolk squat in front of the shop lots, selling vegetables and fish in colorful plastic basins as their children run about, fearing little. Their faces bear the yellowish paste of Thanakha, some subtly, some boldly, as if no struggle came to be at all, as if no displacement had occurred. I suppose this daily ritual reminds them of their heritage, of their mothers before them, in a land so distant now, it almost seems like a fantasy.
Like many others here, I live above the shop lots in one of the tiny makeshift rooms separated by plywood. Under the midday sun, it boils in here, the gentle whir of the table fan failing to dissipate any heat. The windows are painted in pastel hues of green and blue, with tiny holes here and there for surveillance. We have been told to avoid loitering around these windows, to keep them closed, though we are always tempted to throw them open if only to catch some draft, so we could air out our sticky clothes that cling to our bodies like a second skin. We repeat a narrative of our legality. We own passports and arrived here by plane, we are not aliens. In the first few years, I lived each day with anxiety ringing in my ears. I feared that a misfortune would strike me, though I was spared any sort of authoritarian horror until much later. You will soon find this to be instrumental to my sense of identity.
Able-bodied men and women flocked to the Pasar Borong, an imposing wholesale market behind our row of shop lots, cordoned off by walls the color of dried blood with barbed wires, unwelcome at first glance. There is a hole in the wall, a portal for people to come and go, a permeable barrier between our dwelling and our temple where we would toil for our pittance. The symbolism is not lost on me. I remember the first time I ventured into the market searching for a job. Thanakha paste encrusted my cheeks and forehead, a gesture of naïve hope that the adornment would facilitate my entry into the vocation. I was constantly in somebody’s way, avoiding sinewy men maneuvering vegetable pushcarts with boxes stacked up to their chests. They zoomed past me without so much as a glance, only an impatient grunt to send me backing out of their way.
I was fumbling about like a headless chicken in all that chaos, when somebody pulled me aside and spoke to me urgently while stacking boxes upon boxes of carrots, counting them rapidly. I told the man I was looking for work, and he left me promptly to speak to the Chinese taukeh, conversing in a language that I would eventually pick up after months spent here in the market. I owe Ismail my life for helping me land a job. Through Ismail, the taukeh told me what he expected, the first of which was for me to wipe the dust off my face and grab a pushcart. I was bewildered. I recall the gaping mouths of the trucks on both ends of the market, the heaving sea of people crisscrossing everywhere; I had to clasp my own mouth shut to dilute the look of confusion so apparent on my face. Over time, I got the hang of the job, and after a while, I approached it on autopilot. I learned to use the tiny windows of rest to shut my eyes and try to drown out the buzzing of shouts and laughter, the thumping of boxes on top of one another, the rolling of pushcarts that do not seem to subside.
The first time I experienced a raid in the market, I found myself glued to the floor. I thank God for Ismail, who crashed into me, grabbed me by the shoulder, pulled me ahead as my limbs flailed like a marionette. His shaky voice was a cocktail of terror and excitement as we sprinted away, snaking through tight alleys, putting our ears out for the sound of authority. That night, I could not sleep. People told me that in the past, some were so frightened they jumped into the lake outside the main gate. Their limp, bloated bodies were pulled out shortly by their own after dawn, after the threat of authority had abated. Everything was done before the sun ascended too high that it made no sense to be out in the open, to witness the crude aftermath of death in plain sight. I have never seen the officers in person. I have been told that they come in many varieties. Some relish the opportunity to scare the shit out of us; others perform their duties steely and mindlessly. A few see the fullness of our humanity. They look the other way so long as you pretended to scurry away as they approached at a pace more suited for a languid stroll in the park.
In the aftermath of my first raid, I began saving up money to apply for a blue card, to solidify my temporary identity, though I was cautioned on the futility of the effort. I have heard that the registration process—not unlike my journey—is long and arduous. Some discourage me with stories of blue cardholders treated no differently than aliens, detained and deported back to their nightmares. This gives me no comfort. I have also heard of forgeries setting back our community, perpetuating a stereotype that paints us as caricatures of opportunists and leeches. This frustrates me. But still, I persisted for a few years. That is the only way of being I know of; I take things one day after the other.
Now, I would like to show you my blue card, the tangible proof of my personhood. My name is Sulaiman bin Hussain. See here? This is my picture, taken quite recently. That is my birthday. I look at this card whenever I forget the month or year I was born. It says my country of origin is Myanmar, and though that brings up a fountain of nostalgia, it is no longer home for me, at least not for now. I have hope, but I am no longer naïve. Of course, this card has an expiry date. I do not like to think about that part, I will hold it off to next year. Who knows where I will be then, what I will do? I do not like to dwell on the past. Sharing it with you now has caused me a great deal of discomfort and restlessness. Equally, I do not know the shape of my future, and you cannot pay me enough to find out before its time, before it unfolds as God wills it. As I have told you—and I thank you for listening intently, for seeing me: I can only move forward, one day after the other.
Cover image by The Refugee Art Project