This article was originally published at CampusProgress.org.
May 19, 2008
I arrived at the JFK airport in New York from Damascus after a layover in Istanbul. The official behind the passport and immigration desk had taken one look at the countries I’d visited and slashed my customs form with a yellow highlighter. I was standing now before a second official. “It’s definitely not Israel. It’s not Turkey. It’s probably not Jordan,” he said, speculating about the reason I was flagged for interrogation. “It’s gotta be Syria.”
He handed me the paper marked by the yellow slash. “Take this to the end of the corridor,” he said. I followed his instructions, and after some minutes of tapping my foot anxiously in a nondescript office, I was called to a different booth.
“What was this, some kind of religious pilgrimage?” the third customs official asked me. From August to December last year, I studied Arabic in the Palestinian territories and Israel, and vacationed to Jordan and Syria. Life in the Middle East is a game of identity, and my own identity had become flexible during my time there. It wasn’t who I was–it was what I was, and where. In the Middle East, the situation determines if it’s better to label yourself as an American, a student, a religious traveler, an Israeli, a Canadian, or an Arab. Guess wrong and a cabbie might overcharge you, a country may refuse you entrance, or a friend could turn his or her back on you. With every border and checkpoint I crossed, I assumed new facets of identity and concealed others.
“No,” I replied. “I was on a leave of absence from university, just traveling. I’m studying the Middle East.”
He typed some things into the computer in front of him and sighed. “Well, they sent you over here for a reason,” he said. “Where are your parents from?”
“Both American,” I told him.
“I mean, where are they from?”
“How far do you want me go back? I think my mom’s parents are British or Scottish and my dad’s family are mostly Jews from the Ukraine and Eastern Europe.” He looked puzzled.
“Let me explain something to you,” he said, his voice taking on a lecturing tone.
“When I come back into the United States after a trip, I get a hard time. People even ask me if my parents were slaves. And I’m an officer in the U.S. Navy. Now why do you think they do that?” he asked me, gesturing to his black skin. “Look at you, and your name, and this list of countries. It’s not right they sent you down here. But now that your name’s been flagged, I just have to put some information into the computer to de-flag it.”
Something dawned on my sleepless, addled mind: He meant I’d been profiled as an Arab. Though singling people out for questioning at airports on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion is illegal, it is widely recognized to be a continuing practice. Apparently the four months I’d spent in the Arab world trying to experience life as a Palestinian had worked better than I’d imagined. It wasn’t the fact alone that I’d been to Syria that the first official noticed; it was the fact that I’d been to Syria and look like I might be Syrian.