I easily forget how blessed I am to live in Canada. How blessed I am to be able to actually be free to express myself. How blessed I am to never be treated like a criminal for doing charitable work or attending political rallies. How blessed I am that the word “Palestine” doesn’t illicit the same sort of suspicious glances and aggressive questions from those with authority.
I guess it takes just one tough interrogation by the U.S customs for me to remember how blessed I really am.
Full of exhaustion and emotionally drained, I had fallen asleep with complete ease in an awkward position not long after boarding. When a deep voice beckoned for passengers to have their passports out not too long after, I quickly awoke and tried to brush off the haze that was both in my eyes and mind. I grabbed my passport and put my head against the seat. The officer was a couple of seats away.
My stomach began to churn, but I stopped it. Sana, there is no reason for you to worry – you’re a Masters student at a respectable university, you have a clean record, you’re an engaged citizen, you’re a published writer, AJE is gonna hire you one day to serve Riz Khan and Josh Rushing coffee and you’re amazingly goodlooking – why the hell should you be worried?
Perhaps being Muslim; born in Pakistan (abundantly clear on my passport); with a huge visa for Pakistan in my passport; rocking the head veil; doing MA research on Palestinian refugees and interning for the summer in Washington D.C. for an organization called the Jerusalem Fund didn’t really help my case.
The young officer, perhaps in his early thirties, with a clean-shaven head (is this done to appear more intimidating? Because it works like hell) was smiling and joking with the passenger sitting behind me. He had worked his way quickly up the aisle, sending this one girl, who seemed to be Russian, up to the dining cart for further ‘clarification.’ Regardless of that, he seemed to be a bit laid back but firm. Nothing I hadn’t experienced before.
I saw him behind me and prepared my best “I’m probably going to shit my pants when you ask me anything more than the usual questions, but I’m going to ever-so-obviously hide my fears by putting on this huge smile and acting super chill” face.
He didn’t seem to like my face too much.
Upon seeing me, his smile fell immediately. He asked for my passport and I, wide-eyed (more so than usual), handed it over. He, rather rudely, asked what I was doing up in Canada. I told him I lived there. He responded “No, what do you do there?” to which I replied I was a student. He then asked where I was going and why. I stated I was off to Washington D.C. for an internship. He asked for papers and I, sheepishly smiled and said I had none as it was an unpaid internship and I had been told by both the Canadian and American embassies that I wouldn’t be requiring any papers if the internship was unpaid.
Clearly the dude didn’t get the memo. He told me to grab my massive carry-on and get up to the interrogation car.
I was the only one told to take her bags.
Once in the HellHole Car, I looked around amused at the people who slowly filled up the empty spots. A woman wearing rich African clothing, presumably East African; a dutch woman; the Russian girl; a German boy with poor English an East Asian girl with poor French but satisfactory English (they were a couple); a Spanish woman and some other people whose possible reason for being there I couldn’t really discern.
And while everyone else was given forms to fill out, I was just told to sit and wait. And I did. Twiddling my thumbs, playing with my face. Rummaging through my bag to find lip gloss. Anything to keep me from crying as the situation became slowly clearer to me.
The first officer approached me again and said he needed to see my papers for internship; he couldn’t just take my word that it was unpaid. He asked me who I was working for and when I told him who it was and what they did, he became a bit more rigid. He told me to stay put, he had to speak to the other officer – clean shaven guy who would later act as though we were sitting in some Scorcese film taking place in Boston.
The car emptied and I was the only one left. The first officer came back and asked me if I had any proof for my internship. I said if there had been internet, I could have proven it. He asked me to try it out on my laptop or to see if I could find any documents on my laptop to corroborate my claims. As I took out my laptop, he noticed a sticker I had put on the front of my Macbook which reads “Diplomatic Immunity.”
What I had regarded as a nerdy joke funny to really no one else but me, became an immediate concern for the officer as he asked me quickly if I was a diplomat. When I said no, that the sticker was a joke, he just stared briefly at me, as though waiting for some sort of explanation that would offer the humour clearly missing.
He began rummaging through my bag, looked at a smelly pair of shoes, bananas, juice, hesitated on my copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (thank god they didn’t see Tariq Ramadan’s Radical Reform ..oh dear god) and then found my planner. He began sifting through my planner, carefully reading everything I had written.
He stopped and asked, “Why do you have all this stuff for Haiti?”
Momentarily confused, I remembered what he was referring to. I replied that following the recent earthquake, I had helped organize a fundraiser for a local ngo in Montreal doing sustainable development in Haiti. I told him it was a concert of sorts, with poetry of sorts being read. He interrupted me at this point and asked if I did poetry and I replied yes. He then asked if I had ever raised money for the United States. Holding back the first snarky comment to hit my mind, I stuttered no. He then asked where I was originally from and I replied Pakistan, confused as it was pretty damn clear on my passport that he was religiously reading that I was from the country his country was currently having a field day with drone attacks. He quickly then asked if I had ever raised money for Pakistan “or other such countries” to which I replied that I had not, just done some peace relations work here and there. He continued to give me a cold look. He then said “It seems as though you attend protests. Do you?” and without thinking and believing to sticking to the truth at all times, I replied “yes.”
He looked me straight in the eye, his falling further (no idea how that’s possible at this point) and said to me “We don’t want any protestors here.”
Clearly the right to assemble peacefully means shit in the United States, according to this guy.
My face fell as I began to realize a not-so-awesome outcome that could possibly result from this interrogation. I later also realized that he missed the following words/notes in my planner: Meeting with student about Hizbullah and Abortion-Holocaust 6 pm. I also was confused as to how he determined I attended protests. I would later find out he saw my scribbles in my planner as well as a campaign card for Haiti, by Amnesty International, world-renowned shit-disturber. All he had seen was information I had written down about Haiti. There was no mention of any protest I had attended of any sort in my planner. Fundraising for the poorest country in the western hemisphere in the face of natural disaster, through poetry and music, is apparently equivalent to smashing Starbucks windows.
He said some other things, like how he didn’t want to see me on the 5 o’clock news protesting in D.C and how I did poetry (to which I briefly retorted “Uh, what?” I had no idea that throwing down verse about wearing makeup was a threat to freedom and security everywhere), and went to speak to the other officer.
The other officer (there were four in total, all eyes locked on me) took a seat two tables from me. He’d speak to me while looking outside, occasionally raising an eyebrow, frowning and smirking. Had he slammed the table at some point and gone sorta bi-polar, I would have felt as though I was straight up sitting in some film.
He began asking me questions regarding the organization I was working with. He said “They must work with Jewish affairs, correct?” To which I replied “Em, no, not really..” and he retorted “It’s the Jerusalem fund …it has Jerusalem in it.” And I, not wanting to explain facts and history, just sheepishly smiled and said “no” and then he asked if they worked on Muslim issues. I tried to make it clear that they worked on Palestinian issues, not Muslim issues – they represented all groups present in the Palestinian population and diaspora.
He looked out the window.
He asked how could I afford to live in D.C. How Did I find an apartment in D.C. How long I had been living in Canada. What I hoped to achieve with the internship. If I had applied elsewhere. Had I received internships elsewhere. Why had I turned them down. He asked if the Jerusalem Fund received money from other governments. He asked me about my protest history. What my parents did. If I had ever been arrested. When I replied that I had never been arrested, the first officer spoke with surprise asking me how that was possible when I was a “protester”. As though it was my career.
And I answered every question truthfully. I’m sure my nervousness was apparent as at one point I was unable to speak because my mouth had become completely dry.
I’ve been rudely interrogated before but this experience was really something else. It was terrifying. I was being treated like a criminal. Even I began to suspect myself at one point. I didn’t have a return ticket (I didn’t get one yet because I was unsure about when I’d want to return in august), I was ‘somehow’ able to afford this expensive stay (just barely – help from generous parents and student loans); I was born in Pakistan and was headed to Pakistan in a month and I had no papers to prove my internship with an organization that dealt with American foreign policy’s Achilles heel.
I was terrified. I was expecting them to take me off the train, keep me at customs until I received some sort of confirmation about where I was working. It had happened to my family before, so 11 year old memories and feelings began to resurface and the fear within me quickly spread throughout my body. I had to use my entire strength and ability from crying in the face of these four, rock-faced officers who found everything I said questionable and probable cause.
Finally, after awhile, they seemed to realize I wasn’t any sort of a threat. That I was a graduate student, politically active, who was going to D.C to both do research for her MA thesis, get something on her resume and network. They let me go, but before I left the Filmy-officer asked me why I chosen McGill. At this point, I suppose filled with relief, I told him that I had wanted to learn more about French Canadian culture and improve my French which ironically had deteriorated since Montreal was such an English-speaking city….and on and on and on I went, cracking jokes. He just looked at me. And I returned the favour.
I grabbed my bag, thanked them (for making me feel like a criminal and like shit), and turned away and walked back quickly to my seat.
I’ve had bad experiences at the border before but this, again, was different. Not only was there an assumption of some sort of guilt being made towards me but I began to suspect my own guilt; I began to see things from their perspective. And as soon as I saw it from their perspective, I almost fell apart. Their perspective, both skewed and informed by idiotic policies, could have been grounds for my detention. Such detention perhaps wouldn’t have had any sort of long-terms effects in a physical sense, but the experience is never pleasant mentally. It makes you feel completely inadequate and as though everything you do is a criminal act. I’m just a writer who writes about random things, who is a graduate student doing work on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who organizes poetry slams and attends peaceful protests, who is going to Washington D.C to work on her thesis, network and gain experience. And yet, I’m doing some sort of criminal activity. Perhaps not in the legalistic sense, but in the eyes of those officers, what I was doing – political activism, Palestine, poetry (the hell?)- and who I was – Muslim, Pakistani, veiled – was almost criminal enough in a moralistic sense.
And that’s frightening.
originally from my now defunct summer blog: http://voteforsana.wordpress.com/