These are the Times We Live in

UK passport check
 Overview

Another trip to the immigration office in this poem.

This autobiographical poem details the scrutiny that Imtiaz Dharker faces when she arrives at immigration. She is judged and treated with suspicion on the basis of a combination of race and culture heritage.

Although she could be offended, she recognises that this would be futile as there is an air of suspicion towards people of his background at this time and that means that if you are a certain colour, nationality or have a particularly unusual name, you are going to be viewed with deep distrust.

However, she pokes fun at the process and the scrutiny she is under, before revealing a sadness about this state of affairs.

You hand over your passport. He
looks at your face and starts
reading you backwards from the last page.

You could be offended,
but in the end, you decide
it makes as much sense
as anything else,
given the times we live in.

You shrink to the size
of the book in his hand.
You can see his mind working:
Keep an eye on that name.
It contains a Z, and it just moved house.
The birthmark shifted recently
to another arm or leg.
Nothing is quite the same
as it should be.
But what do you expect?
It’s a sign of the times we live in.

In front of you,
he flicks to the photograph,
and looks at you suspiciously.

That’s when you really have to laugh.
While you were flying,
up in the air
they changed your chin
and redid your hair.
They scrubbed out your mouth
and rubbed out your eyes.
They made you over completely.

And all that’s left is his look of surprise,
because you don’t match your photograph.
Even that is coming apart.

The pieces are there
But they missed out your heart.

Half your face splits away,
drifts on to the page of a newspaper
that’s dated today.

It rustles as it lands.

Imtiaz Dharker (1954-)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Imtiaz Dharker was born in Pakistan, but was raised from the age of 1 in Britain. She is considered one of the most inspirational contemporary poets and much of her poetry looks at her identity as defined by both her birth nation/heritage and her status as a British citizen.

Today she lives in Britain, but also spends much of her time in Mumbai, India. This poem seems to focus on travelling back from India to the UK and the way she is treated by British immigration officials.

Here she is reading the poem – however, there are three parts to the poem and we are only studying the first bit.

I like the poem, but I think her delivery here is a bit on the dry side.

Anyway, hearing the other two parts of the poem should confirm to us the sentiment of the poem, but we shouldn’t mention these other parts in the exam as its only the first part included in our collection.

 

 Themes

Although we again touch upon travel and migration, the main theme here is the views held within society towards perceived outsiders.

Dharker explores the mistrust and judgement in British society, which sees her being treated with suspicion purely on the basis of her name and heritage, with no appreciation of her individual identity and life experience.

Content

We’re invited to look at the situation through Dharker’s eyes (second person perspective) as she has her passport examined.

Although her passport is a British document she is treated with deep suspicion. A close study of our face and then checking each page of the passport carefully, as opposed to the normal glance and being waved through that a white British citizen usually would face.

She acknowledges this is offensive, but chooses not to react because she recognises that all things Muslim and all people with her skin colour are treated with distrust as they are all heaped together as terrorists or members of Al-Qaeda (I’m being a bit flippant here, but this isn’t far from the truth, the trust stems from this idea).

In the third stanza we have a lovely little piece of imagery where we experience disappear and shrink into insignificance, while our passport with a tiny picture becomes the arbitor of our truth.

As the passport is scrutinised, she is judged on the basis of her name. Typically British names very rarely include the letter Z and thus this becomes a suggestion of her being a bit dodgy, as does the fact she has recently changed her address. These details are viewed in the context of whether this could suggest a link to terrorism. Perceived slight changes in her appearance are imagined and seen as a sign that this passport or person might be a fake – a terrorist being smuggled in!

Of course, this is absurd. Dharker is demonstrating the increased scrutiny she faces based on these racist stereotypes. When a white British person with a surname like Smith arrives at an airport they don’t face the same thing. A passport lasts for ten years and thus usually our pictures are somewhat different from the current reality, but for her any difference is seen as a clue to her criminal intent.

– A little aside here. I had this in Uzbekistan last time I entered. The guy could not believe I was the same person as my hair was longer in my passport picture and I’d aged by nine years. It’s the first time anyone has ever dared to suggest I look old, but he’s bloody right! Luckily he didn’t hold me for long as there was  massive queue and I think he figured that my stupid floppy hair ruled me out as being a potential criminal mastermind. –

His scrutiny and suspicion continues to the point that it makes her laugh. She has had the same inspection and checks at the other end of her travel and considers how it would be possible for her to have been switched for someone other than herself. Anyone the immigration official is alarmed by the fact that she, like me, doesn’t quite match up to her photograph! In the official’s mind he imagines her face next to images in his memory of terrorists he’s seen in the papers.

Dharker admits the differences between her and the photograph. She suggests that photographs or the way we look don’t tell the full story of who we are. They look like you, but they don’t say who you are or reveal your beliefs or who you are.

Language and techniques

Deal with the title immediately. It is a phrase that is also repeated twice in the poem. By ‘the times we live in’ she is referencing the fear and stereotyping of the Muslim world or more broadly of anyone with darker skin. This undoubtedly relates to the 21st century war on terror that has left much of the Western world deeply suspicious of people who look like they could be members of Al-Qaeda. The repetition of this line gives the poem a sense of frustrated, but reluctant acceptance of the state of things.

Comment on the fact that Dharker uses a second person perspective – ‘you’, ‘your’ – to force the reader to step into her shoes. She does this so that we can all experience her sense of frustration and feel the mix of anger and shame associated with her being treated with suspicion.

I would also focus heavily on the way she is being judged. Remember she has a British passport and is being judged by British immigration (I’m sure of this as the officer is confounded by the Z in her name, which surely wouldn’t be an issue in the other countries she frequents – predominantly India).

Her whole life and who she is  (a very successful person) is diminished as the official ‘shrink[s her] to the size’ of her passport. Not only is this an interesting piece of imagery, but it is a metaphor for the way this treatment makes her feel. For all her achievements and accomplishments, she is judged and made to feel small and unimportant.

The reasons for his suspicious attitude are demonstrably absurd. Her name ‘contains a Z’, which is enough to make him to question further, but is such a nonsensical pieces of information. If her name did not contain a Z would she be above suspicious? Clearly a terrorist or criminal could have a name without a Z – Osama Bin Laden – so this is farcical. As is the fact she ‘just moved house’, which is a fairly common thing to happen and in no way indicates criminal intent. The fact that he has to ‘keep an eye’ on her as a result of her name reveals the racist stereotypes and fear mongering in play here.

However, the third stanza subtly reveals the true reason for the suspicion with a two letter pronoun. She is referred to as ‘it’ – ‘it just moved house’. This is highly offensive, it dehumanises her and is clearly used as a way of showing that the official does not view her as being the same as himself, despite the fact the passport tells him they share the same nationality. However, this reveals to us that his suspicion is based on her skin colour and cultural heritage, which in his mind links to the threat of terrorism.

If you consider Dharker’s life here then you can see just how ridiculous this attitude is. She was raised in the UK from the age of 1. Thus she has exactly the same life experience as the official who deems to treat her with such disdain.

In the fourth stanza, he checks her photograph for a second time. This in itself suggests that he feels he needs to double-check as if he feels they all look the same and that he could have easily made a mistake when checking initially. He also treats slight changes in her appearance – ‘you don’t match your photograph’  (do any of us after a few years?) – as sure signs of her being a terrorist trying to infiltrate the UK for nefarious reasons. ‘His look of surprise’ would surely not be there if he was inspecting a white person who had changed their hair or grown a bit older as we all change during the ten-year life of our passport pictures.

Imagine your mum being treated in this way. She is a middle-aged British lady, hardly a threat of Die Hard proportions. She mocks the suggestions that she could have switch places ‘while you were flying’, pointing out that her passport has already been screened at the other end.

Obviously double checking is in place for a good reason, but she is questioning whether the immigration officials at the other end and all the flight staff would be complicit in this great deception. ‘They made you over completely’ is a sarcastic comment suggesting that this is what it would take for the deception suspected to be possible. This also highlights a societal distrust for other countries and their policies. Clearly this chap does not trust the Indians to have screened her properly or he thinks they are complicit in supporting terrorist activity. Nonsensical!

In the second to last stanza we have another lovely piece of imagery. In the official’s mind ‘Half your face splits away’. With no real reason for suspicion the official is almost trying to find a connection between her and the villains of the day. The fact he searches on the ‘page of the newspaper that’s dated today’ reveals where his racist stereotyping has derived from. The media frenzy against terrorism has built this fear into the British population making darker coloured skin a sign of evil. Dharker is not suggesting she looks like a specific terrorist, but merely that the judgement against people of her colour is ingrained into the media and thus the popular conscience of the British population.

Skipping back a stanza, we have the only real sign of sadness and anger from Dharker. Although ‘the pieces are there’ in her passport to show the basic details about her, ‘they missed out your heart’ and thus the document and details he is using to judge her (and treat her as being other or different), hurt her. Her story and her heart are the same as his, but yet the cynical and judgemental attitude of the society and the media leave them divided.

Finally, what do we make of the last, stand alone line. The dropped newspaper with her face on it ‘rustles as it lands’. Rustling suggests it draws attention to itself and is not silent. This article and this sensation, fear monger reporting sends ripples out into the population making them suspicious of anyone who is different in any way.

Structure

The poem is free verse and doesn’t have any rhyme scheme. I think this is because the poem is primarily narrative and takes us through her story.

Notice that we start with a short stanza where Dharker is checked – everything is normal here and it is quite brief. The second gets a bit longer as she shrugs off the fact he is spending more time inspecting her identity than others. Then, in the third she begins to examine exactly why he is doing this and imagines what nonsensical details are going on in his mind.

It continues in this manner, following her train of thought. The longer stanzas representing her contemplation about why she is being judged and then her frustration with it. Each of the three-line stanzas represent the officials actions.

I’d comment on the stand alone line at the end of the poem. She leaves this idea of the impact of sensationalist journalism – stoking up hatred and fear in the population – upon the way society thinks and treats people with a different racial heritage.

Also, don’t forget the repetition of the title within the poem. You could also comment on its use as a rhetorical question in the third stanza. ‘What do you expect?’ makes it seem as if her treatment is justified, but really when we have examined the reasons she is treated with suspicion we can say that she should expect to be treated just like everyone else and not judged on the basis of stereotyping and racism.

Tone

Although the poem early on says ‘you could be offended’, but decides against it, the tone of the poem represents the fact that Dharker is deeply frustrated with the way she has been treated. She tries to shrug it off, but when she explores the reality of why she is being treated this way she feels saddened and that it is ridiculous. However, she reluctantly accepts that this is a reality that she cannot avoid.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

2 thoughts on “These are the Times We Live in”

    1. Hi Cathy,

      With all due respect… bugger off! I have clearly made a mistake with my pronouns in the overview, but if you read my notes you would see I had correctly identified the gender of the poet. Given the mistake in your comment (sight rather than site) I would think you can understand how easy this is to do! Please remember I do this for free and in my spare time (which is incredibly limited!) and a comment like this does not make me feel like it is worth the bother.

      If you can’t trust me, then by all means make up your own mind and do not accept what I say. I would encourage this as standard anyway, as my notes are always meant to be a starting point to understanding and not a definitive analysis of each poem.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

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