Sometimes a book comes along that fits eerily well into the current cultural and political environment of the times. Internment by Samira Ahmed (Atom, 2019) is one of those books.
First off, content warnings. Internment focuses on racial and religious discrimination, and there are multiple instances of racial and religious hatred, including insults. There are also multiple scenes of violence and several deaths. It’s not hard to deduce that this book draws heavily from the current political climate, so be sure that this book, with its heaviness and reality-based horrors, is something you can handle at the time. It’s not an easy read.
Internment begins in a time when the United States government has begun placing heavy restrictions on the activities of Muslims, from where they work to how late they can stay out (history students, does this sound at all familiar?). Teenager Layla Amin is bristling under the unfairness of it all, but her parents are trying to stay optimistic. All their optimism crashes to the ground, however, when the authorities show up at their house one night to take them away to a Muslim concentration camp in the middle of the desert, run by guards who (for the most part) lack any shred of humanity, with other Muslims charged with keeping them in line (if you’re familiar with the term ‘kapo,’ this would be an example of it). Torn away from everything familiar, Layla can hardly believe that her once-comfortable life in the Land of the Free has been reduced to…this.
Almost immediately and often without thinking through the potential consequences, Layla begins making plans for freedom, enlisting other teenagers she befriends, as well as a sympathetic guard, who helps her contact her non-Muslim boyfriend back home. Slowly, Layla and her friends begin to enact changes around the camp, but the blowback and the repercussions are serious and deadly. The culmination of it all will leave you at the edge of your seat, frantically flipping pages and praying for resolution for Layla and all others forced into this kind of captivity.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: given the current political climate and with daily stories about the horrors of migrants, asylum seekers, and others, including children, in camps with questionable-to-downright-horrific conditions, this isn’t an easy read and will break your heart several times over. Layla is a bit on the young side for her age, and while she’s obviously intelligent, she’s also reckless and doesn’t always think things through (although if she did, I’m not sure this story would have been so action-packed, so her more imprudent nature serves its purpose for the story). More in the interest of brevity, the story concludes much quicker than it would have in real life, wrapping up a bit more neatly than reason leads me to believe it would play out currently, and though the director of Layla’s camp veers slightly toward ‘caricature’ in his overt monstrosity and lack of self-control, Internment is still a chilling, way-too-close-to-reality novel that is worth the read.
In a world where we have camps where children are taking care of other small children, reading this had me rage-screaming in my head, but I don’t regret picking it up- quite the opposite, in fact. Internment will stick with me as I continue to struggle to find ways to voice my fury at the actions carried out by my country. Nothing ever feels like enough, but doing absolutely nothing isn’t acceptable to me: as Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Internment and the daily onslaught of news are both depressing reminders of that.