Call 911! There’s an Arab on the Train!
A couple of years ago, an American friend of mine asked me: “Would you want to live in the U.S. ?” I replied in the negative: “Why would I want to live in country where I’m treated as terrorist until proven otherwise?” She said that my expectations were inaccurate; that I would blend in, and go unnoticed in an international city like New York.
Being the skeptic that I am, I had to see for myself before I could make a final judgment.
I arrived in Boston on June 20th, 2009, knowing that I would have to go through “Secondary Screening” at the airport. The waiting room had a weird mix of people: a Lebanese kid (he looked 16); a Russian young man with missing papers that was trying to weasel his way in; a bunch of disgruntled Spaniards, including a plane crew, that were irked by the fact that they would have to go through the humiliation of secondary screening. My experience was not so bad, I waited for a little over three hours before my turn came up and I was asked a couple of trivial questions about my parents before being allowed out. That was anticlimactic. It was an inconvenience, but it was still easier for a Syrian national to be granted entry to the U.S. than to some Arab countries.
Up until last week, my stay in the U.S. had been one smooth ride. I had been pleasantly surprised to have no incidents, no one with nasty prejudices. I had been treated as any other human being. Then came a trip to Washington D.C. where I opted to take the train because flying for a Syrian in the U.S. does not go without hassle. To my surprise the train had no WiFi so I unfortunately chose to watch an episode of Al Jazeera documentary in Arabic called The Story of a Revolution ( حكاية ثورة Hikayat Thawra) on the Palestinian struggle against Israeli oppression and occupation, and yes, the oppression of the various Arab regimes that were trying to use Palestinian suffering for domestic political gains.
Halfway through the episode I noticed a hawk-eyed middle aged man ogling my screen with a death stare. I did not pay much attention to him and I went back to my documentary. Minutes later I hear him on the phone talking about me to what I assumed to be 911. He was on a rant about a terrorist watching a video in Arabic, at one point he said something about Jihad as well. He was soon yelling profanity making sure I could hear it though he wasn’t saying it directly to my face, things like: “What the fuck is this shit,” “I’m not putting up with this shit.” He soon proceeded to leave the cart, I assumed he was also going to report me to the train’s staff as well. I took advantage of his absence and called 911 myself and told them that there was a guy acting in a threatening manner because he saw me watching a documentary in Arabic on my laptop. They advised me not to confront him and just move to another cart for my own safety.
Needless to say my train ride was ruined because I was paranoid that at any given stop the police might want take me away or that highly disturbed old man would decide to do a preemptive strike and attack me himself. I wanted so bad to confront him myself, call him out for the ignorant racist that he is, but he looked crazy enough that any exchange of words with him would make him physically violent immediately. Even though I believe I did that right thing by not confronting him, every time I think about it I regret not giving him a piece of my mind.
You might have heard about the college senior that’s suing after he was held for over five hours after an airport screener found his Arabic flash cards and a book critical of us foreign policy, and you might know that U.S. airports make passengers that carry certain passports go through heightened security measures (the list of countries is politically loaded and has nothing to do with national security any way you look at it.) There was also the case of the Iraqi immigrant that was denied access to a JetBlue flight until he covered a T shirt that said “We will not be silent” in Arabic and in English. The U.S. has gone a long way since Rosa Parks defiantly declared that she had the right to sit anywhere she wanted on the bus, but it still has a long way before allowing tokens of Arab culture and language onto their trains and airplanes.