The Back Page

BORDERING ON PANIC

Post-9/11, Muslims like me are suffering close encounters with U.S. Immigration

ADNAN R. KHAN November 25 2002
The Back Page

BORDERING ON PANIC

Post-9/11, Muslims like me are suffering close encounters with U.S. Immigration

ADNAN R. KHAN November 25 2002

BORDERING ON PANIC

The Back Page

Post-9/11, Muslims like me are suffering close encounters with U.S. Immigration

ADNAN R. KHAN

I’M GETTING accustomed to people asking me where I was born. Since 9/11, my brown skin’s been a sort of blinking light to many curiosity seekers, my sleepy left eye a source of worry for the growing list of morphological profilers roaming the streets of North America. I usually respond offhandedly. “Pakistan,” I say, and turn my attention elsewhere as if that should be enough. It never is. So when an American border official posed the same question to me on a recent trip to the U.S., I tried to sound as casual as if it were just another inebriated yokel slurring out a barely comprehensible, “Where you from?” It didn’t work.

I know America has a right to defend its border, but Muslims are increasingly under suspicion these days, even comfortably hyphenated Canadian ones like myself. We should resign ourselves, I suppose, to the cold sterility of waiting rooms at American border crossings where towering models of the Statue of Liberty singe the ceilings and the depressingly happy faces of missing children stare out from dingy bulletin boards. It’s our lot, I fatalistically think, to be subjected to overzealous immigration officials, grilling us to the point of near panic, ignoring language barriers, goading and prodding until we stumble over our words. That’s more than enough to make us look suspicious, besides our place of birth, of course.

For the group of Muslims milling about for hours in the waiting room with me at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge near Niagara Falls, the experience was enough to make them pull a Rohinton Mistry and refuse, as did the author, to enter the U.S. “I’m never going back,” one Pakistani father of four fumed after being fingerprinted and photographed. Another Middle Eastern man, after having his wallet unceremoniously emptied onto a counter before he was whisked away and locked in a back room, only to be released an hour later and told to go back to Canada, refused to discuss his ordeal with me. Both men were Canadian citizens and neither could understand why they

were singled out. A few other visible minorities came in and left within an hour, but for Muslims, it would not be so simple.

By the time my interrogation began, I’d lost all hope of making it into the States before nightfall. The stock questions were asked by a droopy-eyed, uniformed immigration official who finally reached the inevitable one: “What were you doing in Afghanistan? ” I explained that I’m a freelance photojournalist and I was working for Maclean’s at the time. I pointed out the “journalist” credentials clearly marked on the Afghan visa in my passport, which elicited an ambiguous “Hmmm” from my interlocutor. Every answer was recorded on a sheet of foolscap. I asked why and he responded cryptically, “What’s real is unreal and what’s unreal is real.”

That could be the slogan for contemporary America—a fraying of reality in the post9/11 world. And when my car was searched by two white-gloved officials, I felt as if I’d slipped into a David Lynch movie. They dissected my defenceless little Honda and its contents with a zeal that seemed utterly over the top. My notebook and personal

organizer were confiscated and I worried whether I had any cheesy love poetry scribbled into my notes (how embarrassing!) or if my friends’ phone numbers would be copied and filed away for future reference.

When the immigration official ushered me into a back room, drably furnished with a rectangular table and four chairs, my anxiety level skyrocketed. Two casually dressed men entered the room, and introduced themselves as members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Now I was scared.

They pulled the chairs close together, crowding one corner of the table and asked me to sit down between them. The Border Patrol agent and his New York State trooper counterpart rifled through a set of prepared questions. Their knowledge of Pakistani culture and geography seemed minimal, but I thought this might be a ploy. (Was I becoming paranoid?). At one point, the Border Patrol agent casually asked if I spoke Pakistani and I was tempted to respond that while my Pakistani was a bit rough, I could speak Canadian flawlessly. But I refrained. Why tempt fate, I thought, especially when fate’s accomplices had me cornered in a back office of a foreign country.

During the three-hour ordeal, I’d been made to feel like an unwanted outsider, as if I were guilty of some heinous crime and now it was my responsibility to prove my innocence. The alienation I felt was relatively minor for someone with few ties to America, but for the thousands of Canadian-Muslims who have loved ones living south of the border, America’s rejection of their kind wounds deeply.

When it was all over, I couldn’t help but laugh as I drove back over the bridge, picturing my personal profile wasting kilobytes in an FBI database. I’d been grilled by three levels of American security and for what? Had America’s national interest really been served?

Back at the Canadian border, a uniformed official inquired about how long I’d stayed in the U.S. Just a few hours, I responded, too ashamed to go into the details.

“And the value of goods you’re bringing over?” he asked.

“Zero,” I replied.

“Okay, go home.”

Gladly.

Adnan R. Khan is a freelance photojournalist based in Toronto. response@macleans.ca