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Border patrol: a Muslim’s story

An essay by Mohamed Hassan on being stopped, searched and suspected at airports around the world.

I have always been obsessed with airports. The wide open terminals. The warm neon glow of duty free stalls preying on sleepy guilt. The scent of dispensed coffee, industrial floor cleaner and endless possibility.

As a first generation immigrant, stretched across oceans and timezones, I have spent a lifetime staring up at a flight display board and thinking about my place in the world. As a kid who wore the question of belonging like an ankle monitor everywhere I went, airports were a magical realm where no one belonged. Like me, everyone was a stranger on a journey. Everyone was seeking something they were missing, and this was the inbetween place. Not heaven nor hell. Neutral. Safe. 

  

My favourite is Singapore Changi Airport, with its endless sprawl of stores, waterfalls and indoor cinemas and you feel like Keanu Reeves waltzing through a simulation. By far my least favourite is Denver Airport, between the nauseating 60s pastel decor and the inexplicable acid daze murals of burning forests, children carrying swords draped in the flag and zombie Nazi officers lording over a sea of displaced mothers. Seriously, look it up, and then read the conspiracy theories.

I admit it's a peculiar topic to be talking about right now, given our current collective anxiety around international travel, and any place with surfaces touched by a million people. I’ve read a dozen accounts of overcrowded flights, passengers refusing to wear masks and shortages of hand sanitiser bottles, as I prepare myself mentally to book my flight back to London. I have pushed and delayed that inevitability, dreading the thought of leaving the sanctuary of New Zealand to return to the chaos beyond the bubble.

What weighs on my mind most is the trip itself. The thought of spending 30 hours in a sense of hyper awareness, unable to take off my gloves or mask at any point, unable to sit on any surface without wiping it down first with disinfectant. Washing my hands over and over like Howard Hughes in a public bathroom, paranoid about everyone around me.

As news stories emerge of Kiwis returning from abroad, some unintentionally but predictably carrying the virus we had declared purged just weeks ago, the public mood is beginning to turn. As the daily case numbers peak their head up again slowly, calls for the borders to be shut are growing. It took only one or two instances of broken quarantines for the backlash to intensify, for returnees to be branded selfish, ungrateful and dangerous. Some want the government to charge for the privilege of safety, others want to ban flights from specific countries perceived as more risky.

And here, as a poet, I would be remiss not to draw parallels with my own experiences as a Muslim. Beyond all the romantic notions I hold of airports, there is a darker underbelly I have become increasingly conscious of. In a time of globalisation and mass travel, airports are also a No Man’s Land, where freedom of movement can be upended in the name of national security.

Growing up, I watched my hijab-wearing mother pulled aside and swabbed for explosive material every time we transited in Australia.

Over the past 20 years, airport security measures have continued to tighten. Sweeping counter-terror legislations were passed under urgency to grant customs agents the right to detain and search travellers for hours, unlock their phones and laptops, question them about their travel histories, the contents of their bank accounts, the nature of their personal relationships. Secret lists are made by immigration agencies to highlight high-risk countries, and by extension, ethnicities, and map them over passenger logs to select the best candidates for special treatment.

Growing up, I watched my hijab-wearing mother pulled aside and swabbed for explosive material every time we transited in Australia. Each time we were told it was a ‘random search’ and asked to sign a waiver that offered us the option to comply or be detained.

When I was old enough to travel by myself, I inherited the privilege, watching my name trigger security systems at every passport control desk. Each time I fight the urge to reach up to the glass and explain that this happens a lot because of my common name and because of my profile as a military-aged male from a Muslim background who could be radicalised at any moment. Instead I wait quietly while several phone calls are made, my details checked against several other lists, and eventually I’m allowed a visa after holding up the queue of irritated arrival passengers.

This is the best-case scenario.

*

In the US they stamp your passport with ‘SSSS’ and send you to a room in the back with all of the other travellers stuck in limbo on the gates of promise. At LAX, a sympathetic customs officer sighed at the screen, and asked me if I always get stopped at airports. A less sympathetic one led me down the hall and smirked as he opened the door and told me to keep my phone shut and my bags outside.

"Welcome to paradise," he said.

There were maybe 50 of us here, mostly Arabs and Asians, alongside one bewildered White guy in the corner. A dozen desks lined the wall, where irritated staff loudly interrogated passengers with basic grasps of English. They asked them about their employment history, academic transcripts, relationship status, while being reminded periodically they could be flown back to their home countries at the snap of a finger. One South Korean woman was asked to explain why she had once been suspended from a business course. I was released three hours later, after they called the reception at RNZ to make sure I was in fact still employed there. It was humiliating.

A month later, Donald Trump was elected President, on a platform that included banning Muslims from entering the country. He signed the policy into law within his first weeks in office, unleashing chaos in airports around the country. Thousands were stranded, placed in detention centres or forced to pay for return flights and miss out on scholarships, employment opportunities and family visits.

"Mohamed Hassan. Born in Cairo. Muslim. Security threat. Suspect. Terrorist..." The author awaits a flight.

In response, protests occupied the terminals. Lawyers from the ACLU showed up to offer immigration advice to travellers trapped inside and confused. Muslims prayed together in front of the airline desks, their allies surrounding them in silent protection. It was an America battling its own demons. My Muslim friends in Denver and LA told me they were tired of fighting for their dignity.

*

When I became a journalist, I inadvertently unlocked a new host of challenges. It seemed while half the world was suspicious of Muslims, the other half felt the same about reporters. I was now being flagged on two separate lists.

At Tel Aviv airport, they confiscate your passport and send you to a doorless room in the corner of the terminal. There is no fanfare. You’re not told what’s happening or how long you will wait. You make conversations with the Palestinians huddled around you to pass time, and eventually an IDF soldier takes you into a room and asks you to explain your life.

The first time I travelled to Israel, all of my paperwork was sound and I carried two different accreditation letters, one from my news agency and one from the Israeli Press Office. This meant I only waited for an hour and a half, as opposed to the 10 hours my friends with Palestinian lineage endured. I was ordered to surrender all my footage to a military office for approval before I left the country, which of course I did not do.

I left my Egyptian passport at home and bought a visitors visa when I landed in Cairo. I was pulled aside by a police officer who snatched my papers from my hands and flipped through them metres from the arrivals door. He asked me what I was doing in Turkey, and I told him I was an English teacher as nonchalantly as I could, after practising it a dozen times under my breath on the plane. In the lobby outside, my family listened to every announcement in case I’d been arrested. When the police later raided a relative’s house and locked him up for protesting, they barked questions about which foreigners had stayed with him recently. His parents quietly asked me not to come back.

Six months later, a Palestinian filmmaker we tried to bring to Istanbul disappeared an hour before boarding his flight from Cairo. For weeks neither we, nor his family, knew of his whereabouts, or if he was alive. He was sent back to Gaza with stories of torture and beatings at the hands of Egyptian police officers.

I began hearing stories from friends and others in the Muslim community about being stopped, searched and questioned for hours while returning to New Zealand.

In Tunis, where I arrived to attend a friend’s wedding, I absent-mindedly wrote ‘media’ in the occupation box on the landing form. At the security desk, a sleepy clerk frowned and stared at me, before asking if I was a journalist.

It seemed Tunisia, the only country to escape the crushing counter-revolutionary forces that had flattened the Arab Spring hopes of its neighbours, still hated journalists. I panicked, and stared back at him for what I am convinced were at least five seconds of dead air before meekly responding with a simple: "No." His eyes moved back to the form, then he shrugged and stamped my passport.

*

In 2016 I began hearing stories from friends and others in the Muslim community about being stopped, searched and questioned for hours while returning to New Zealand. My friend Jaballah urged me to come to the mosque and cover what was going on.

So I followed up. I accompanied him to evening prayers and just after the sermon, I asked the imam to make a small announcement about the story I was working on. When ishaa prayers were over, I spoke to no less than 25 people. A Syrian refugee told me he had been stopped every time he entered the country, and that he was sick of it. A Somali man said his wife was held back for eight hours despite being visibly pregnant with three children in tow. A young Tunisian man said he’d been stopped on his way back from Sydney, and didn’t understand why.

The government at the time shrugged it off, insisting there was no way to determine a person’s faith based off of their appearance and passport, and hence profiling wasn’t happening. The Muslims I had spoken to felt differently.

A year later I saw it firsthand. After flying for 21 hours from Turkey to Auckland, my first overseas stint under my belt, I picked up my bags and texted my dad to tell him I had landed. He and my mum waited outside the arrivals gate with a flat white and a "welcome home" balloon. They’d be sitting outside for four hours, unsure of where I had vanished, or why I wasn’t answering any of their calls.

I’d made it to within 20 metres of where they were standing before a customs officer tapped me on the shoulder in the middle of baggage claim and told me to follow him. I was sat down on a table to the side of the X-ray machines and the contents of all my bags were searched with excruciating detail. I was asked questions about my whereabouts over the past year, why I was living in Turkey, where I had travelled and why I was back. My laptop and phone were confiscated and scanned in a closed room, and I was asked to explain individual photos that raised eyebrows. Whenever my phone began to ring, I was told that I wasn’t allowed to touch it.

I realised in that moment that despite being a journalist who had covered the experiences of Muslims pulled aside for questioning, I had no idea what my rights actually were. What I was allowed to refuse without being arrested.

I walk through terminals with my body tense and a smile I stretch around my ears...I don't want to think about my identity as a virus.

My New Zealand passport, which has shielded me from dispossession, state repression and granted me the privilege of unrestricted travel, couldn’t protect me here. Between the check-in desk and the gangway, surrounded by overpriced perfumes and mountains of Toblerone, was where the dignities my parents migrated to earn suddenly failed me.

What I remember most clearly were the reactions of my fellow travellers, staring as they passed me on their way to citizenry. A mix of intrigue and surmise that they had stumbled into an episode of Border Patrol, and this was the moment they’d get to see an officer lift a sack of cocaine from the lining of a duffle bag as the music swelled and a sardonic narrator chimed in: “For this weary-eyed young traveller, looks like the party’s over.”

Despite my white-passing face, my blue eyes and my most honest intentions, here I was reduced simply to my name, my place of birth and what was left unspoken in the margins. Mohamed Hassan. Born in Cairo. Muslim. Security threat. Suspect. Terrorist. It is a reality magnified for others with darker complexions than mine, with hijabs and kurtas that betray them.

I’m not sure who to blame for all of this; my colleagues in the media and their lust for hyperbole, the politicians lullabyed into the arms of dog-whistle populism or the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks that had irreversibly changed international travel forever.

What I do know is that sense of unimpeded adventure that rushed through my veins each time I stepped into an airport is starting to fade. Slowly I am starting to dread the superficial niceties of terminal security guards, the passport control clerks with a million questions, the vacuum of time between my passport being scanned and my visa stamped where anything can happen.

I’ve stopped asking my parents to pick me up from the airport. I walk through terminals with my body tense and a smile I stretch around my ears. It is a mask I wear to protect myself from suspicion. To protect others from fear. I take it off in the bathroom and exhale.

I don't want to think about my identity as a virus. It would break my mother's heart. It is not an inheritance I wish to leave the children I one day hope to have. Instead, it is a story I am retelling in my own words, glumly, humorously, poetically, over and over until one day it belongs only to me.

* The first in a series of essays made possible with the support of the Mātātuhi Foundation *

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