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I

am standing at the customs desk at Chicago O’Hare. I am tired, hungry and ready to go home. I have just traveled 30 hours from my grandmother’s funeral in Pakistan, and I haven’t slept in two days.

But I am a hijab-wearing Muslim coming from a suspicious country just two weeks after the August plot to blow up several planes in mid-air. So I have been personally escorted by an airport official to the customs desk, where he has handed the two men behind the desk my passport and left me to await my fate some 20 feet away. One man walks away, while the other waves at me to come over.

Airport Official: Can I see your passport?

Me: Um, you have my passport. (I think: The official just gave it to him—what is he talking about?)

AO: I don’t have your passport.

Me: (Huh?) Yeah, that official just gave it to you …

AO: What official?

Me: That guy who just walked up to the desk—he … he just gave you my passport.

AO: I didn’t see any guy.

Me: No, that guy who just came up to the desk with me—he walked with me and gave you my passport!

And this is the exact moment that I realize three very, very serious facts: a) He is not joking, b) I don’t have my passport and c) I have no way of proving that I had actually traveled with a passport and that I was an American citizen.

They’re setting me up, and they’re going to throw me into Guantanamo. They’re throwing me into Guantanamo, and nobody will ever find out where I am.

I’d like to tell you that I stayed calm, assured that this mix-up would soon be fixed. Alas. Instead of reacting with serene nonchalance, I immediately launch into hyperventilation mode: “Ohmigod. Oh. My. GOD. They’re setting me up. They’re setting me up, and they’re going to throw me into Guantanamo. They’re throwing me into Guantanamo, and nobody will ever find out where I am. Nobody’s going to believe me when I say I had my passport.”

And so I stand there, contemplating the possibility of being sent to a remote Cuban prison without the benefit of due process, for the rest of my days. I weigh my options. And then I cleverly go with the only one open to me: Parrot what I’d just said, hoping desperately that this time they’d get a reaction.

Me: No, the guy who was with me—he just came and gave you my passport.

AO: You don’t have your PASSPORT?!

Ah. So much for that plan.

Me: No, the … the Chinese guy… the … he just came up and gave it to you. A minute ago. (Insert weak and faltering voice here. I turn around and point back to the red line I had come from, as if I could conjure up the man who’d brought me here. Was he Chinese? I’m not sure. Even though a part of me was, even at this moment, wondering whether it wasn’t racist to identify him through his race. As if this was the best moment to reflect on the appropriateness of political correctness.)

AO:
Your passport’s back at immigration?

Me: No, my passport’s not at immigration. There was a Chinese guy, and he just walked up to you, and he gave you my passport!

We volley back and forth a few more times, until finally, the other man returns with an open passport in his hand—an open passport with my picture on it.

“There it is! That’s my passport!” I squeal triumphantly. Finally. I can move on with my life.

Well, not quite yet. Apparently I’ve made quite an impression with the Department of Homeland Security database, because a third official comes and takes my passport away for a further check, leaving me passportless yet again. Hysteria returns.

We Americans are very used to our freedom of speech and thought. But we now give them up freely, in exchange for the privilege of flying to our destination.

In the meantime, my official at the desk decides to start searching my bags. The suitcase checks out fine, and we chit-chat about what I do while he sorts through my clothes. Then he gets to my backpack—and promptly removes every notebook and starts not just flipping through, but actually reading, through each page.

And this is really the point of my story—we Americans are very used to our freedom of speech and thought. But we now give them up freely, in exchange for the privilege of flying to our destination. Speech has traditionally been protected unless it constitutes a “clear and present danger.” But this was no public speech—these were my personal notebooks, and in any other situation, under any other circumstances, no government official would have had the right to look through and examine them, to question me about private thoughts that I’d written in my own notebook, for my eyes only. But we have slowly ceded our rights to our own private thoughts at the airport, until we agree—or are forced to agree—to let airport officials read and sift through our personal data.

I consider objecting to his reading my papers, but decide it’s better to let him. Objecting would only make me a more suspicious character than I already was. And then I realize that this official has opened up one notebook and is quietly and intently reading something I’d written, engrossed in the pages. And then I realize what it is that has interested him so.

Some background: I happen to be an Ahmadi Muslim, and our position on terrorism is very clear. We are absolutely against it and do not believe that Islam condones this kind of behavior under any circumstances.

My uncle, who lives in Pakistan, had been getting ready to travel to Mauritius, where he was to give a speech on Islam. I had helped him polish up the English in the speech, and it was these notes on the speech that were engrossing the official right now. The topic? How terrorism was forbidden in Islam. It also contained words like “Qur’an” and “jihad” in it.

Imagine a world in which Christians were suspect for using the terms “Jesus” and “Bible,” or where Hindus were considered dangerous for using the terms “Krishna” and “Vedas.”

And so, when the other airport agent returns with my passport, this official shows him the notebook, and they proceed to question me about it. “What’s this?” asks this second official. So I tell him, “It’s a speech my uncle was writing on how suicide attacks are not allowed in Islam.” But I wonder whether he will believe me. After interrogating me about what I do and where I study, the official leaves again with my passport—and the notebook. I wait some more. Finally, he returns and tells me I am free to go, but not before carefully copying my passport number on the paper that contained the details on where I live and what I study.

I shouldn’t have to “choose” between being a Muslim and being an American, because I can’t choose—I am both, and they are not incompatible.

I leave, relieved but shaken. Almost everyone has read 1984, Orwell’s grim prediction of a future in which having certain thoughts makes you dangerous. In my case, it wasn’t even that my thoughts were dangerous (Remember, I’m against terrorist attacks. I think they’re horribly, horribly wrong.) Rather, any Islamic discourse has been deemed dangerous: commonplace terms like “Qur’an” and “jihad.” Imagine a world in which Christians were suspect for using the terms “Jesus” and “Bible,” or where Hindus were considered dangerous for using the terms “Krishna” and “Vedas.” It has gotten to the point that an entire religious language and discourse has been hijacked by terrorists and given new meaning, robbing peaceful religious people of their very means for communication and discussion.

During World War II, we put Japanese Americans in internment camps in the interests of national security. It only stood to reason, the thinking went, that those of Japanese heritage would choose Japan over America, that they could not be loyal to the country of their origin. Only later did we see the injustice that had been perpetrated. We stand to make the same mistake again, giving up our more important civil liberties for the sake of an ephemeral and perhaps imaginary security. But I shouldn’t have to “choose” between being a Muslim and being an American, because I can’t choose—I am both, and they are not incompatible.n

Nakasha Ahmad is an avid road-tripper.
Published on November 6, 2006.
Photography: Vikram Tank for Nirali Magazine.
Comments are closed.
  1. March 23, 2007, 4:17 pm Gabe

    I hope that at some point you won’t have to decide which identity means more to you…a muslim or an american.If it comes to that, where would you prefer to be? The comforts of america with a phobia of Islam, or Islamic Pakistan with the mullahcracy?

  2. April 2, 2007, 9:54 am Indian-American

    Very good article. Thank you for sharing your experiences — even though they were so scary.

    Your experience with US Customs reminds me of my own experiences crossing “Checkpoint Charlie” between West & East Berlin decades ago.