Last Reviewed on April 16, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1325
Layla Amin cautiously ventures outside, knowing curfew will begin in thirty minutes. If she is caught, her parents will be in trouble with the government.
Layla’s family is Muslim, and there is a Muslim ban. The president has declared that “Muslims are a threat to America” and has begun to relocate people, citing his ability to do so in wartime.
Staring at a poster which advertises a book burning, Layla inadvertently bumps into Mrs. Brown. Mrs. Brown cannot look Layla in the eye, because she is carrying Layla’s father’s books to burn. Although Layla apologizes, Mrs. Brown merely hurries away.
Layla pushes on, determined to see her boyfriend, David. She thinks about what her father has lost: a tenured professor of poetry and writing at the university, he was recently fired.
Layla’s risk is greater than David’s. He is Ashkenazi Jewish, not Muslim, so he is not targeted. Because Layla is Muslim, however, he is forbidden to see her. When the two were suspended from school for kissing, the principal lectured her parents, not David’s, about staying in one’s place. Layla didn’t understand why her parents chose not to defend her, and they have homeschooled her since then.
Relieved to see David, Layla tries to pretend they live in normal times.
Suddenly, their phones flash a reminder to watch the president’s weekly National Security Address. David rails against the president’s bigotry, but Layla is only concerned about getting home to avoid trouble. They promise that their relationship will not end, despite David’s parents forbidding him to see Layla. David vows to fight society’s unfairness, revealing that there are groups already fighting. Layla feels he is only trying to make her feel better. She thinks about how lies are accepted in an attempt to survive.
The two fall silent as they see a beam of light move slowly across the lawn. David insists on walking Layla home, but they are stopped by a voice shouting for them to halt. David screams for Layla to run to safety.
Layla races into her house, slamming the door behind her, and faces her shocked parents, Ali and Sophia. They plead with her not to leave again, as the consequences for the family could be dire.
Layla questions their silence during this time of injustice. Ali reminds her that they are Muslim Americans and considered enemies of the government, merely because they answered the census truthfully about their background. When Layla retorts that they should have lied, Sophia explains they will never deny their heritage. Layla angrily brings up crimes against Muslims, but her parents steadfastly believe they must abide by the government’s rules.
Layla recalls life before the current president’s election. During the primaries, the then-candidate proposed a Muslim registry and called people that greeted each other with a Nazi salute “very fine people.” She thinks about the fake news, the president calling refugees criminals and rapists, and the people who voted for a candidate who tweeted hate-filled messages. She is angry that people only pray for better days rather than do something about the hate crimes.
Fearing punishment, the Amins keep the television tuned to the president’s address while they do other things.
Hearing a car outside, Layla peers out the window to see two men in suits approaching their front door. She is seized with terror and tears down the stairs, ready to accept blame for her transgression. One of the men points a gun at her, and as Ali moves to shield his daughter, the man throws him to the ground. The family is informed that they are being relocated.
One of Ali’s poems, entitled “Revolution,” reverberates through Layla’s mind: “Speak the truth while it is still alive.”
Forced to surrender their phones, the family hurriedly sets about packing. Layla leaves important tokens behind, refusing to allow the enemy to touch them. The three are ushered into a police car driven by the police chief, a family friend.
In the darkness, Layla spies someone running toward the car. Thinking it's David, she calls out his name and tries to roll down the window, but it won't budge. She stares at her broken reflection in the window.
Layla is shocked at the police chief’s calmness. She attempts to engage him in conversation to remind him that they are not only human beings, but friends.
In Los Angeles, Layla and her parents are processed along with hundreds of others for relocation. ID numbers are stamped on their wrists. Layla cannot resist several sarcastic comments, making Ali and Sophia uncomfortable.
On the train that will take them to their new home, Layla begins to recite a poem. Usually, she and her father take turns reciting lines, but this time Ali remains silent.
Later, while her parents doze, Layla explores the train and runs into a threatening guard. Frightened, she mumbles an excuse about looking for the bathroom. Just then, a government Exclusion Guard steps into the car and rescues Layla. As he talks, Layla notices a tattoo on his arm: two crossed arrows with an “N” in between. In her mind, she nicknames him Compass Tattoo.
The train arrives at Independence, California. Layla meets a girl, Ayesha, with whom she shares a love of Star Wars. During the bus ride, Layla notices they pass Manzanar, a former Japanese American internment camp.
Upon their arrival at Mobius camp, Layla wonders if the relocated Japanese Americans during World War II felt as detached from their bodies as she feels now. Noticing the armed Exclusion Guards, Layla feels they are marching like ants into a trap. Suddenly, a little boy screams and runs. The guards aim their guns at him, and one pins the boy down on the ground while the mother pleads for his life. Compass Tattoo steps in to extricate the child. Acknowledging Layla’s stare, he walks away.
The camp is arranged in blocks of mobile homes, but Layla knows “it’s still prison.” Inside their trailer is a common area fitted with cameras. There are two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a shower.
Ayesha and Layla explore the grounds of the camp. Seeing the electrified fences and armed guards, Layla notes that the federal Exclusion Authority built this camp and wonders what else they might do to people “when America isn’t looking.” Ayesha shares her father’s words of wisdom: fear makes you more alert.
A young man, Soheil, argues with the guards, and his friends pull him away before he is hurt. Soheil tells them they’re in a prison camp and should be afraid. He believes that fear compels people to act.
Layla tries to break the tension by asking Soheil where he lives. He responds that his home is with other Arab Americans. It is only then that Layla realizes people are segregated in the camp by nationality.
Layla walks to orientation with her parents and is struck by the many races and nationalities present, by the “Americanness” of the group.
The Director welcomes everyone to the camp, but he has a threatening air about him. Layla is shocked that he speaks as if he’s an entertainment director, not a prison warden. He reveals that every block has “minders,” people of the same ethnicity who “speak your language” and are there to help with the transition. The Director’s menacing tone is clear as he reminds everyone that he sees everything on the cameras.
A woman suddenly stands up and shouts “Traitors!” at the minders, who have agreed to help the government. Guards seize her, but because she struggles, they tase her and forcefully remove her, to everyone’s horror.
Layla and Ayesha meet each other’s families and their minders, Saleem and Fauzia. As they walk, Layla stumbles. Compass Tattoo catches her eye, then quickly turns away.