New Internationalist

I am sick of my anti-terrorism kit

So I am standing behind all shapes, sizes, colours and obviously nationalities at Dubai International Mall, otherwise known as Dubai International Airport, waiting to surrender my boarding pass to get on this Emirates flight to Frankfurt.

In front of me is a small family: an old woman flanked by her two sons. The woman wears a black hijaab, covering her hair and arms but revealing an old and somewhat perplexing face. The elder of the two boys, skinny and tall and no more than 18, handles the passports and boarding passes as they approach the flight attendant at the boarding counter.

Remember, this is the final step. The visas have been issued, their luggage already checked-in and they are simply boarding the plane, after arriving from someplace else. But the woman tearing the boarding passes and wishing travelers a good journey looks at the small family's passports and begins the second longest inquisition of modern times: 

Woman:               Where are you going?

Boy:                     To Frankfurt

Woman:               Okay. Why are you going to Frankfurt?

Boy:                     To visit my father

Woman:               What is he doing there?

Boy:                      He is working there.

Woman:               Okay. What is your father's name (she looks at his passport)

Boy:                     Abul Mohamed Jamal Mustapha... (the rest is inaudible for me)  

Woman:               You missed one name.

Boy:                     (He clarifies, pointing to something that I cannot hear)

Woman:               So when last did you visit your father?

Boy:                     About nine years ago.

Woman:               Why so long ago?

Boy:                     Because..... (again I cannot hear the rest)

While I am watching the circus act play out, wondering when the boy would lose his patience and scream out something random like, 'Okay Okay! I like looking at granny porn', I am called to the other counter by another woman to board the flight.

I pass by the family and look at their passports which reveal their Pakistani nationality. My eyes wander to the name-badge of the woman at the counter who suspiciously looks like my aunt Katie back home and easily resembles the average Savatri from Bangalore, and it reveals unsurprisingly: 'Gayatri'.

I squirm at the fair assumption that 'Gayatri', like thousands of other migrant workers in the UAE, was really an Indian national taking prestige and honour, already far up her rectum, to a new level of perversity as she takes the mickey out of this family trying to get to Europe.

Of course, whether she was Indian or even Taiwanese (though I seriously doubt the latter) is hardly the point.

First, 'Gayatri' is really just a flight attendant and not an immigration officer. Second, the boy who can't remember his father's fifteenth name is not some indentured labourer hitchhiking through the galaxy, nor is he on the first leg of his journey that normally stirs the most frenetic check-ups.

He was already in Dubai International, about to board a connecting flight to Frankfurt, meaning that all check-ups had already been completed. Airlines must check that visas are in order (ie: issued) to protect themselves in the event that a visa is a cranky fake on arrival, since the airline would have to fly the miscreant back to the place of departure at their own cost.

Asking why the boy hadn't seen his womanizing father for nine years is hardly verifying an already legitimate visa.

But our tall Pakistani friend continues bravely - dealing with the entire rhetoric of air travel soaked in a terrorism discourse that makes him a beggar in every airport he ventures into, and turns his admission onto every flight into an act of self-paid charity.

In theory he could've told Gayatri that he was actually visiting her sister in Frankfurt. In reality, of course, he has to talk to Gayatri with his eyes to the floor until she favours his crossing into the plane that will take him to the much fabled land of Europe.

Instead of raising the alarm about her clearly prejudiced questions, he treats the obstacle course like a monk seeking the highest levels of tolerance, patience and spirituality.

But what choice does he have?

He is brown. Strike One. He is Muslim. Strike Two. To open his mouth and act too smart - then he would be really 'out'.

Sure we all remember 9/11 and London and Madrid and Hiroshima and Nagasaki but when did racial profiling become fair discrimination in a universal sense because of an overwhelming stronger terrorism concern?

This is why it was almost funny to hear Obama thrilling us with his Quranic quotes and earnest ideologues calling for ending mistrust and clash of civilizations anecdotes, when the nature of travel and mobility today suggests that it would take decades or a bigger threat like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to thwart years of strong Islamophobic propaganda.

Case in point, I am convinced the Russians are still coming.

Obama also said improving exchange programmes and building online communities where youngsters in Kansas could flirt with youngsters in Cairo would help toward developing positive notions of intercultural dialogue, but the online and the real world, as the couple will surely find out the day they decide to move beyond cyber sex, are literally world's apart. Put simply, how long do we wait before North Africans or South Asians or Arab-looking heroes are no longer treated like lepers with suicide bomber tendencies at airports en route to the Western World?

And sure, put into perspective, this treatment is not as bad as walking around Baghdad with your goat and being shelled, or planting some opium in Peshawar and having rockets light up your fields, or sitting up with your suffering children because of the after-effects of white phosphorous. Of course, undressing and embarrassing yourself or having cheeky security personnel check out your anus simply because of a flawed classification system can never be as bad as losing your limbs.

Forgive me for being petty, but either way, I am pretty sure I am no longer comfortable with continuously pulling out my anti-terrorist kit every time I travel.

For someone who hates shaving facial hair, I have to first pull out the razor blades and take that haircut.

Then it is my vocabulary that must be tied up. Since 'bomb' is pretty much a part of every Muslim's upbringing these days, I need to discipline myself not to shout out 'I will bomb this place' as the knee-jerk reaction to all things we Muslims don't like. Then it's my luggage. Instead of spraying my bags with religious phrases asking God to protect my travel, I spray my bag with Rough Rider condoms. Finally, it is image. I switch into the typically under-nourished journo mode, strutting around in slightly torn cargos, sneakers and a hoodie boasting the latest i-pod headphones as I seek to look too scruffy to be a fresh puppy out of a madressah aus Kandahar and too stupid to be a polished undercover pilot in an Armani suit. Finally, stay away from all contentious behaviour at a 5km radius from all airports and it should all be fine.

And it works. It always does. No one interferes, and, mostly, no one bothers.

But for this to work, all parts must function in unison.

For example, the last time I was in Europe I decided not to shave before my return flight out of Amsterdam - as a slightly demented social experiment - but mainly because shaving during a European winter is like melting the hairs on your balls with heated tweezers.

I flew out of Europe three times in three years and you would think airport security would now offer me a drink as their local homey, but this one time I refused to shave my six day unkempt beard and I'm picked out like Ahmed the plump chicken terrorist asking to be slaughtered.

My bags were turned upside down, my passport put into some CIA type gadget to verify authenticity and the questions posed bordered on the insane (What is the capital of Mongolia?), while ordinary law-abiding Europeans were forced to point at me as they explained to their little Heidi, Heinrich and Hannah why the queue resembled a lunchtime traffic jam.

I am South African, so the interrogation almost always takes a lower priority than the search for curry powder laced with marijuana. My chance of being a dangerous radical is miniscule since the local Jamiat Ulema is a pretty impotent gizmo of clerics rather than some Interpol-referenced terrorist movement claiming Fordsburg in Johannesburg for an autonomous Muslim state.

In contrast, if you're coming from Pakistan, a nation confused into a country and now in absolute chaos, you might have to prove you are a homosexual seeking asylum in Europe, since your nationality makes all attempts to clean up your image null and void. And even if you do get the visa, proving you actually plan on returning home alive rather than as a burnt out fire cracker, the whole world is really still against you.

Patience for the brown man in these times is a crucial survival tool, or so I learned some years back when I had an altercation with an employee of the low cost Condor airline in Frankfurt airport.

What started as a mere request, albeit an important one on my part, became a proper ding-dong when I threatened to report him to his company for barking at me like a stray wanker. He suddenly changed his tone and motioned close to my face, popping that elusive space bubble as he pretended to help me. But all he really did was read out my full name very slowly, 'Mohamed Azad Ebrahim Essa', emphasizing each name and when he was done, looked me straight in the eye and said even more slowly, 'Are you sure you really want to fly?'

Being a slow sod, it took me a whole five seconds to realize what he meant and I blinked as I felt fire rage through my lungs like a lion without a roar and I nodded profusely with a smile. 'Okay,' I said, 'I understand. I understand completely.'

'Siegfried' had my passport after all and I had an important flight to catch. On returning my passport, I thanked him for his time very politely and walked away, biting my lip as specially created fumes lit my path. I finally turned around, called out his name and showed him the finger.

I remember thinking special paratroopers would break through the airport windows and take me away, Minority Report style but none of it happened.

Siegfried was a prick, even the average neo-Nazi would battle to be such a goon. I should have reported him. But I didn't have any proof, or any real argument. What was I going to say exactly?

I was young and stupid.

But let that happen today. I would get his surname, blog about it violently and send the link to his mother.

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