<%-- Page Title--%> Nothing if not Serious <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 121 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

September 5, 2003

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Entry Denied/Entry Permitted?

Shawkat Hussain

I was in Brisbane when Baghdad fell this year. The date was 9 April 2003. I don't think I would have remembered even such a momentous historic episode as this had it not coincided with another truly unforgettable event more than five decades earlier--my own birthday. After hours of watching the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad Square on TV again and again (I am afraid I might have forgotten the name of the Square) and feeling the additional weight of another year, I decided that I had do something. I realised I was hungry and ordered a pizza from Pizza Hut. A sample of the conversation with the guy at Pizza Hut is given below:

Hello, could I please have a large Supreme Pizza with lots of meat and green pepper and mushrooms?

Sure, sir. Could I have your address and telephone number, please?

Okay, and how long will it take? I gave him my address and telephone number.

About 20 minutes. And your name, sir?

Hussain, H-U-S-S-A-I-N.

There was a long pause at the other end. I reckon the guy was also watching TV and witnessing the fall of Saddam Hussain and Baghdad.

And your first initial?

S. S as in SADDAM. My name is S. Hussain.
Another long pause.

You must be kidding, sir?

No, I am not. I am dead serious.

End of story. My pizza arrived on time and with more green pepper than I expected.

My name is not a burden to me; I wear it lightly and without much self-consciousness. I am a Muslim and over 45, and according to the profiling of aliens by US authorities, not likely to be engaged in unlawful activities like hijacking airplanes or blowing up buildings. I am a lucky man. Besides, I have no plans of going to the US soon.

However, other younger men aged between 15 and 45 with names like mine, who want to study in the US or are already studying there, are not likely to wear their names with such insouciance. All the Hussains and Hassans, all the Mohammads and Ahmeds, all the Islams and Rahmans are immediately suspect. They wear their names like albatrosses round their necks. Being a Bangladeshi does not help either. Bangladesh and Bangladeshi Muslims like Muslims of about 25 other nations are in the terror blacklist. It is unfortunate that my son and many like him, now students in the US, are all irrevocably tied to their paternal surnames and religion.

If I had known this earlier, about 20 years back, I would have seriously considered giving my son a crypto-Muslim name, a name that would disguise his Muslim genealogy, and create some confusion about his religious identity. Consider a name like Tariq Aziz. For years I thought that Saddam's Foreign Minister was a Muslim when he was actually a good Christian masquerading under a Muslim-sounding name. A name like Christopher Purification Adhidary, a real name I assure you, or a name like Sebastian Pramanik or Anthony Biswas could be really handy in situations where religious identification is not desired. But such crypto-Muslim names can only provide momentary respite because you are still stuck with your Bangladeshi passport.

A new US immigration regulation stipulates that all students from the blacklisted countries are to be registered as special registrants and must conform to the National Security Entry Exit Requirement System (NSEER). What this means is that any specially-registered student must inform the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), previously known as the Immigration and Naturalisation Services (INS), anytime he enters or departs from the US at the Port of Entry/Departure. It now appears that a number of students did not know about this little-publicised NSEERS regulation. Some students, I have heard from personal sources and newspaper reports, have been turned back from the US because they had failed to register while departing from the US. Some others I know are getting ready to go soon. Their fate hangs in balance.

Imagine this scenario. You spend almost a year applying to different US universities, writing student essays, appearing in the TOEFL and SAT exams, and preparing all the other things that you have to prepare, not to mention all the money you have spent in doing all this. The coveted acceptance letter arrives one day. And then finally you depart after being given security clearance after weeks of agonising wait. You miss your orientation week, you miss a few days of classes, but gradually you settle in and manage to do quite well in your studies. And then you rush home during summer holidays, failing to register with the INS at the port of departure because you did not know anything about it.

And what price might you pay for this? It is possible that you may be sent back, and it is also possible that they just might let you in. Imagine the psychological state of a young man flying thousands of miles away from home, stopping first at Dubai, then a few hours in Heathrow, and then arriving at the US, only to be told that he can't be admitted because he failed to register while departing. The small print in various cables that I have read suggests that if a student can show good cause for his failure to comply and if he guarantees to comply in future, the immigration officer may let him in. Everything seems to depend upon the good sense, reasonableness, and compassion of the immigration officer.

Can one dare hope that such qualities will prevail in a world increasingly dominated by absurd paranoia and fear of others with different names, different religions, and different complexions? Even as you read this today, I await news of whether a student very close to me has been given permission to enter or denied permission. And while I wait, I will order another pizza, this time from Dominous Pizza in Dhanmandi. [bangla_deshi@hotmail.com]



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