“Passports” by Rich Furman


We recited vows as poems, while our hippie rabbi strummed his guitar and hummed nigun that shivered our bones. We shattered glass under our shoes, symbolizing the rejoining of our souls which were splintered apart at birth, and I became the father to two girls, ages three and seven. Marriage became my passport across a terrain of laughter and obligation.

And when the marriage ended my passport was revoked. I traveled as a refugee with a counterfeit passport, confiscated in a wordless space of dusty statelessness. I have not seen one of my daughters—I am still allowed to call her that—in over three years.


In the 1980s, during the dirty wars in Central America, death squads “disappeared” hundreds of thousands and forced many rural poor from their lands. Students and intellectuals were found on mountain roads as detached bodies and heads, hacked by machetes, genitals stuffed into mouths that could not confess fast enough by roadside’s rotting heat.

In Antigua, Guatemala, I met a young Mayan Kaqchikel poet in a dance club. We trekked together for two weeks, ringing the foothills of three emerald-green volcanos, passing through dozens of small Maya villages, sleeping on burlap sacks on concrete floors when a town was too small for a pension. When we became tired, we took a bus to Chimaltenango, and from there, hitched a ride in a pickup to her family’s small home in Comalapa. Over stewed chicken, blue tortillas and coagulated black beans, her father begged me to sell him my passport, so he could travel to El Norte for work. I didn’t even have time to consider the request, or how I felt about it. My poet friend and her mother were livid, dishes and Kaqchikel-words flew, in the only moment of Guatemalan rage I ever witnessed. Her father, who had remained silent with his head slightly bowed, raised his eyes with a shrug of his shoulders.

“I am sorry, but this is what we have come to.”


A small mask, perhaps four inches long, two and a half inches across its place of greatest width, has been with me for nearly all my fifty-plus years. The day my wife demanded a divorce, I smuggled his small, chipped and worn, geometrically-featured wooden head—the totality of him—out of the house in a large, tan envelope I hid between ungraded student papers. Once in my office, I locked him in my filing cabinet, secure and secret enough to have been approved to guard the findings of my academic research.

But what did I really know of him, other than what I remember my father once telling me? A Dan passport mask. Dan were, or are, if they exist—I didn’t even know that—an African tribe. Liberia or the Ivory Coast, I think.


My Funk & Wagnalls New Comprehensive International Dictionary of the English Language is 2,106 pages, two volumes that I have hauled across five borders.  Passport is found on page 923, the last word on the bottom left column, near the back of first volume: a means or authority to pass; that which empowers one to arrive at anything.


What does it mean that my mask is a “passport” mask? Did his carver shape him with an important journey in mind?


On June 20th, my wife left our home for the last time. Shortly after this, I bring him back to 3215 South 7th Street, an American Craftsman in Central Tacoma, French and English lavender out front, behind the white picket fence that she thought was cute. As I watch the locksmith change the deadbolt on the front door, I remove him from the leather bag the girls gave me for “New Dad’s Day” about seven years ago. I tear apart the envelope, remove him from the stale, trapped air, and place him on the mantel, next to the two bone Peruvian carvings I brought back from Cusco.


Children can help us understand the essence of things, so I ask a nine-year-old girl at the table next to me—I have never seen her before—at my favorite coffee house, enjoying a hot chocolate with her mom.

“Do you know what a passport is?”

“Of course!” her eyes do not attempt to hide her pity; this is something I clearly should have clearly known.

“A passport is for traveling to another country.”

“Is that all?” I push.

She sighs a bit, and lowers her voice, splaying her hand apart, moving them forward and wide toward me, as if she is about to grab my face and hold it her hands, and slowly explain something she has been trying to teach me for years.

With a softened pity, she looks from me to her mom, and then back to me again, and with a patience that she seems rehearsed, she tells me: “It’s that simple.”


Modern passports give adults and accompanied minors the ability to cross borders and enter other countries. Officially, they announce citizenship, legal identity, and provide details such as city or province of birth, a passport number and the date the document expires. An applicant must insure that the name on his or her passport matches all entry forms.  On my passport, three names trumpet my arrival: Richard Craig Furman. Two of which I never use, and almost don’t recognize as representing me. Rich Furman does not exist in moments of passage from one world to the next.


A few days after I bring the mask back home, I transfer him from the mantel to the stand besides my writing chair. I place him between two books, Eduardo Galeano’s Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone and Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. He belongs within my radius, next to my writing chair, and its fading yellow leather, pocked and cracked and irreplaceable, beside the blankets on my lap upon which the dogs sleep. Now he proudly rests, not even two feet away from me, almost exactly at eye level. He could oversee my writing, if his inclination were to supervise. I know so little about him, have no insight into his dreams, his will, that which makes him laugh. Even worse, I do not understand the texture or color of his grief.


In the language of the Dan, the word for mask is Ge, yet Ge is also more than a mask, and refers to many complex and compound phenomena. A young scholar, Daniel Reed, spent two years living among the Dan in the Ivory Coast. In his book, he needed over thirty pages to explore the subtleties of Ge. Ge is spirit, the energy of a spirit, the way of the Dan people, the energy of the forest, the reincarnated energy of ancestors, intermediaries between ancestors, the performance of a masquerade, and yes, a mask.


A passport contrasts the relative omnipotence of the State to the fragility of the self. We enter another country and encounter strangers, unknown others who hold our lives in their hands, who might perform rituals and customs we can’t understood, might have fought on opposing sides of wars, pray to mysterious gods. Presenting a passport to the officials of another land says, this is who we are, we are of another place and another people, please grant us safe passage.

We feel vulnerable and ecstatic, a profound sense of possibility but also a hint of fear, when we place our passport into the hands of an immigration officer, and she peers into our eyes, judging, assessing, evaluating.

And then she lets us pass.


Why do I ascribe life to him? Have I somehow understood, felt something living in the fissures of a former tree? Perhaps merely longing, alone for the first time in years, for something, someone—to what? Protect me? Save me? A passport for unchartered terrain?


It seems that some scholars disagree with calling the tiny wooden-heads of the Dan “Passport Masks.” It is, of course, a metaphor, one with complexities and contradictions. They contend that the modern, physical passport-book is public, bureaucratic, and signifies the relationship between an individual and the State. Ma go, translated as “little heads,” as they are sometimes called, are personal and private, stashed with other sacred objects. In all the time he spent with the Dan, Daniel Reed never saw a Ma go, save for onesmade solely to sell to tourists.They are not worn by tribal performers, those hidden in full-size masks, who flail in ecstatic reverie, between the spirit world and our own. Although to the Dan, separations between the two worlds do not exist, the Ge lives within the mask, is the mask, and is the wearing.

The Ma go are too small to cover the face, to conceal identities that move between this world and the one beyond, the realm of the forest. But they still exist within both, the Ma go, both symbolic of the spirit and manifestations of the spirit. Tribe members remove them from their sacred storage before their journeys, to accompany them as they leave their village worlds and risk movements among strangers. Having a Ma go in their pocket or in a leather pouch protects them from malevolent spirits or strangers. The carriers of the Ma go and modern passports, each hope to be allowed safe passage.


My first passport is dated June 3, 1975. The front cover, a blotchy specked-green, has been stamped at the center a gold eagle with a shield for a body that appears to be the U.S. Constitution, but the details are undefined. The word PASSPORT, blocked and bureaucratic, below in smaller letters, in cursive, “The United States of America.” At the top of the front cover letters and numbers were formed by a crude machine that punched out tiny circles—a primitive, pre-computer anti-counterfeit measure. Inside, the front-pages are typed on a slight slant, imperfect, my name, place of birth, and date of birth, August 6, 1965. I do not recognize the boy in that small, square photograph as me, except for the smile, smirk rather. Forced or not, it is always the same, my smile jutting my lips at an angle, as if they are attempting to kiss my eye.


After WWI, millions of refugees flowed across borders into war-torn countries that treated them as if they were waves of sewer water. With nowhere to go, they continued crossing, one country to the next. Homeless and nationless, they carried torn rags, cooking utensils, and family photos, if anything at all. Paradoxically, noted Martin Lloyd, in The Passport: The History of Men’s Most Traveled Document, they should have been given heroes’ welcomes. The countries of Europe lost millions of young men to battle. France, Lloyd noted, was a country of old, disabled men.

Champion skier and ice skater, zoologist and statesman, High Commissioner on Refugees to the League of Nations, Fridtjof Nansen believed that if the refugees had passports, many countries would allow them entry for a predefined period to work and would eventually let most stay.  While the refugees lacked a great deal, what they needed most were places to live, work and heal, and for this, they most needed documentation. A tireless advocate for refugee rights, Nansen was a practical man, and knew that many countries were unconcerned with the plight of the roaming and ragged, who spoke strange languages and were feared to carry disease. Yet, nations needed bodies, temporarily, to fuel the coal-fires of industry. With millions on the verge of starvation, Nansen guided The League of Nations to issue passports. Special passports for citizens without homelands, without their own soil. An identity for the discarded, the abandoned, the rootless. Almost a half a million refugees found permanent homes on what were soon to be known as “Nansen” passports.


It’s the morning after I reposition him, I am sitting in my chair. I pick up my mask, and observe, for the first time, the slight bump at the end of the black metal stand that meets his wood-flesh. I pick him up, hold the stand, and rotate him five times until he is liberated from the slightly rusted, metal screw. I am not sure whether to offer him an aspirin or rush him to the emergency room.


Not all countries let you pass with a passport alone. For many, you need a visa as well, a document granted by to which you hope to enter. United States citizens are nearly never granted visas to Libya, Algeria, Iraq and Somalia. Saudi Arabia and North Korea demand that you to have a sponsor who will shepherd you around as if you were a small child in a dangerous playground. Cuba welcomes American citizens, but right now, U. S. citizens are prevented by our government from traveling there freely.


I was born in 1965 in Orange, California, a few-minute drive from Disneyland, days after its tenth anniversary. Several times a year we became explorers, my family and I, trekking interminable distances between fantastic worlds: Tomorrowland, Fantasyland and Adventureland. The borders were open and unguarded, but you still needed your passport, each with a limited number of lettered-tickets. E-tickets permitted you on the best rides, The Haunted Mansion and The Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matterhorn Bobsleds and The Monorail. I always worried that the E-tickets would run out and my adventures would end.


I take him to my favorite coffee house. Given that he is now liberated from the screw torture apparatus, perhaps some fresh air will do him well. Given his lack of mobility—I should feel lucky to even possess knees, even those without cartilage—I clear out the pocket of my black, Japanese raw denim jeans, and place him inside. He barely fits, but it is best to shield him from the intensity of the sunlight of a cloudless Tacoma day. He has been inside for many years. Inside, I take him out of my pocket, and prop him up on a book by my computer for inspiration. I sip coffee, this morning a medium roast from Rwanda with chocolate and fig notes. The capital of Rwanda, Kigali, is 5,552 kilometers over land, across nine countries, from Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast.


In 1987, with my passport in my back-right pocket, I friend drove me from Los Angeles to the border that slices the United States and Mexico. On the American side, groups of Mexican men and women hovered around a few vans, negotiating rides north.

With no United States immigration officials on our side of the border upon leaving, U. S. citizens were free to leave without documentation. We were, however, required to have a passport to travel anywhere more than 100 miles into the Mexican interior. I walked down a long, narrow, outdoor corridor of concrete and metal, until I reached a trailer, not the United States, yet not yet Mexico. As I approached the window and was about to reach for my passport and place it on the small counter, the officer inside waved me on. I was confused, as I did not see anyone else to check my documents, to stamp my passport, to certify that I indeed had left one nation and entered another. I looked back; the Mexican immigration officer was reading the sports section of the El Pais newspaper. I continued until the grey passageway faded, and I disappeared into the bustling streets of Tijuana.


Text from Disneyland Passport 1960s:

We hope that your visit with us today will be a happy and memorable experience for you and your family. This ticket book is your passport to many wonderful adventures in the Happiest Place on Earth. May your day at Disneyland be a pleasant one. Return and visit us soon.


Two weeks after I entered Mexico like a ghost, I crossed the border into Guatemala. My first morning in Huehuetenango, I wrote a poem at sunrise while eating sticky black beans and fresh tortillas which were even darker. Tempted as I am to present my experience of the border as a narrative, this poem, which I extracted from the yellow pages of a thirty-year-old journal, captures my crossing more fully than I could possibly tell it now.

The Border

When you cross that mile stretch

of brown sterile earth

lifeless save for yucca and anorexic dogs

when you mind flips between visions

of Mayan mystical gurus

that might heal your sickest seeds

and the desolation that shifts under your feet

the desolation of everything you left behind

between photographs of the death squad disappeared

black bars over cigarette burnt eyes

and eternal volcanic cones

reaching towards a point of pureness

that doesn’t seem to exist below

and each step brings you further

from what you thought was you

and closer to what you thought wasn’t

your passport clutched

like a life vest to your chest

your shots, visas, traveler’s checks and dreams

don’t prepare you

for confronting the emptiness that you feel

as you approach the hill

towards the border

Mexican blues becoming Guatemalan vapor.

The dirt covers your shoes

your shoes are your heart

you clutch your travelers checks

it doesn’t seem to help


I lost my passport in Comeaguela, Honduras. In a panic I excavated my backpack, stacked everything in organized piles on the filthy floor where cat-sized rats swam to survive the blazing summer-rain, which flowed down through several holes in the corrugated metal roof. One of many of the room’s defects, but I reasoned it was only two dollars a night, and I thought I would only be there for one, and it was close to the bus station and a pool hall, and I would probably be safe walking around with my machete on my hip. Suddenly the quality of my room was the least of my worries, and after stacking and restacking my belongings four or five times, and running my fingers through and across every surface and opening, after shaking everything at least twice, I ran from my room to interrogate everyone I had encountered since I arrived: the hotel clerk, the three drunks in front of the pool hall whom I played with the night before, the food-cart venders. Nothing.

I returned to my hotel and paid for few more nights. Three buses later, and I arrived at the gates of the US embassy. The soldier in front of the closed metal gate approached me.

“May I help you.”

“I lost my passport and need to figure out how to get a new one.”

“Are you a citizen of the United States of America, sir?” he asked.

“I am. Orange County-born model, August 6, 1965.”

“Welcome to American soil sir, let’s get you taken care of.”

Three days later, I returned to the embassy, and left with passport in hand.  The same soldier opened the gate for me again.

“Everything work out sir?”

I showed him my passport.

“That is the most valuable document on the planet sir.”


Eduardo Galeano noted that anyone who had Jewish blood, even a few drops, was no longer a German citizen nor could marry a German citizen. Months later, on October 5, 1938, the Nazi government required all Jews to surrender their passports so they could be stamped with the letter “J.” Jews had two weeks in which to turn their passports to the local Nazi authorities, or they would subjected to undefined prison sentences. The passports of Jews traveling abroad were deemed invalid until they returned to Germany; they were without citizenship effective immediately.


How did my father procure my mask, from his brother the African art dealer? Or perhaps he was one of the many gifts that my father brought back for his young son while traveling the world. An Indonesian Gamelan. An authentic, arcade-size Japanese Pachinko.  A bronze Nepalese knife, hundreds of years old, that rests on the mantle where my mask used to stand. Why do we bring back pieces of the world to each other?  I did the same for my family. Was it for me, for them, for those in indigenous markets that implored me to compra me algo?

If memory serves me well, and often it does not, my mask has been in my possession since 1970. Common language would be, I have owned him since 1970. Own. Possess. Both seem so problematic, as my mask and I seem to belong to each other.


The plane arriving from Los Angeles was going to be a few hours late. The crew on board, we were told, would be the same for our flight back to Los Angeles: the pilots would need to sleep for a couple of hours. There was nothing in the departure area of the Guatemala City airport save for a food-cart and wretched bathrooms, so I found a small patch on the worn-through blue and teal carpet in departure area. I was too antsy to sleep, the anticipation of going home after almost a year in Central America. I was as exited to return as I had been to leave.

Eight hours later we boarded, and my body tricked my mind into sleep for most of the flight. Upon landing, however, I did not feel rested, but ground-down from months of sleeping on beds more treacherous than the active volcanos I scaled, eight of them, from Guatemala down to Costa Rica.

I presented my passport to the immigration official.

“Why is this new?”

I explained how I lost it in Honduras.

“What were you doing in Nicaragua?”

“I wanted to see who and what we were fighting.”

Perhaps that was the wrong answer, or maybe my answer did not matter. I had been flagged, selected for further questioning and examination. I was led to a small office with off-white walls like huge dirty teeth, a small metal desk, chrome and wood like something an almost retired third grade teacher would have filled with student papers about which she no longer cared. For the next half hour, four different immigration officials entered, repeated similar versions of the same questions, apparently testing the consistency of my answers. They ask me for my baggage claim ticket, so they could “assist me in evaluating my luggage,” and within about five minutes they brought me my once dark green, now sun-bleached hard framed-backpack.

They searched my pack with meticulous care, as systematically as I had rummaged for my lost passport a few months before. I told the two immigration officers this as they explored my belongings like archeologists, one reflexively snorted, seeming to indicate an appreciation of the irony.  They flipped through my books slowly, page by page, taking even more time with the two I brought back from Nicaragua: one of poems by Ernesto Cardenal, and a comic book version of Sandino’s rebellion against the Marines in the 1930s.

“Communist shit?” the other officer launched, part question, part comment, part derision.

“History,” I responded.

Fifteen minutes later, they said I was free to leave, and pointed toward the door.

“May I have my passport?”

The more pleasant of the two, dark, tightly-cropped hair, maybe just a couple of years older than I, flicked it across the table with his index finger, as if we were playing a game that I had just won.


I look unhealthy in my current passport picture. Airport personnel frequently give me a double take. It was issued on November 08, 2010.  The one before? I tell people it was lost in 2009, after my wife and I received the diagnosis, the one that meant she might never walk again, that our years would be vessels of pain. The day after we received the news, I drove to the docks after she fell asleep. She swallowed her opiates moments before and crashed hard, so I would have a couple of hours for myself.  I sat on a bench facing the space where the Foss Waterway and Commencement Bay converge, where the industrial gives way to the natural. I reached into my back-left pocket and pulled out my passport, flipped through the pages and admired the stamps. Colombia and Peru, Costa Rica and Guatemala. Some were too smudged and worn to discern, but I could make out where most were from.

I was supposed to travel Uruguay in a few weeks, drink coffee and talk about writing with my hero, Eduardo Galeano. But everything had changed. Now, he is dead.

It takes a good deal of strength to rip to shreds a modern passport with one’s bare hands, and I was weakened by mental suitcases full of resignation. Even though I knew I would need to conserve all the strength at my disposal for the weeks and months and years ahead, I mutilated the passport just the same, and threw the pieces into the water. I watched so much float away.


Rich FurmanRich Furman, PhD, is the author or editor of over 15 books, including a collection of flash nonfiction/prose poems, Compañero (Main Street Rag, 2007). Other books include Detaining the Immigrant Other: Global and Transnational Issues (Oxford University Press, 2016), Social Work Practice with Men at Risk (Columbia University Press, 2010), and Practical Tips for Publishing Scholarly Articles (Oxford University Press, 2012). His poetry and creative nonfiction have been published in Chiron Review, Sweet, Hawai’i Review, Pearl, Coe Review, The Evergreen Review, Black Bear Review, Red Rock Review, Sierra Nevada Review, New Hampshire Review, Penn Review, and many others. He is professor of social work at University of Washington-Tacoma. He is currently a student of creative nonfiction at Queens University’s MFA-Latin America program.