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     Volume 4 Issue 9 | August 20, 2004 |

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Ordeal at JFK

Srabonti Narmeen Ali

When the Virgin Atlantic Airlines landed at JFK International Airport, I couldn't wait to get out of my seat. After a gruelling two-day journey which included stops in both Dubai and London, I needed to actually be outside of an airport and feel fresh air in my lungs -- as fresh as it can get in a polluted city like New York, that is. Nevertheless, I was excited. Nothing could get me down. Well almost nothing.

At Immigration, I handed my American passport to an unsmiling Indian lady named Chopra, who fingered through it for what seemed to be about ten minutes, before motioning at me (might I add that she did not bother speaking to me -- perhaps she thought little Ms. Ali the 'Moslem' could not speak 'Ungrezee' as well as her) to follow her to the dreaded "room" on the other side. I have heard of this room from my Muslim counterparts all over the world. They are taken in there for random reasons. Some of them are questioned, some of them are stared at and some of them are just plain harassed. Which would it be for me, I wondered, as I walked behind Chopra Madam.

After what seemed to be an agonisingly long walk down from stall thirty one to the little "room" next to stall one, Chopra handed yet another unsmiling officer my passport and walked away without a second glance.

"Ma'am, please step inside and leave your bags outside," a tired, grumpy voice interrupted my thoughts

I wanted to ask who was going to take care of my bag, but thought better of it. Obviously the rule, 'Please do not leave your baggage unattended' did not apply here.

I drew a shaky breath and went into the "room." Once inside I sat there while no one looked at me or spoke to me. This is a new phenomenon. I've heard a lot about the "room," but never have I heard that they actually studiously ignore you for fifteen minutes. Finally one of the staff took my passport and looked at it for about another ten minutes, after which he proceeded to make photocopies of it. He handed my passport back to me and looked away, going back to other important pressing matters.

"Um, am I free to go?" I asked, hating myself for the whiny, scared tone of my voice.

"Yes," he answered, not looking at me.
As I was walking out with my baggage, I turned one last time and burned eyes through stall thirty one. As if she felt something, Chopra turned and looked at me. Our eyes met and I was almost tempted to make a rude gesture, but I stopped myself. There's no telling what kind of repercussions that would have in a place like JFK. They would probably think I was doing morse code in Arabic and with my luck, they would arrest me.

The only thing about me that fits the profile of a so-called Muslim terrorist (I'm assuming that was the reason I was taken to the "room") is my last name. Other than that, I do not have a beard (at least I hope not), and I do not look like I'm carrying a bomb hidden away somewhere. It's bad enough when people who you do not consider as your own treat you with disrespect and discriminate against you. It's ten times more humiliating and angering when someone who you can culturally associate with does so. Chopra may not be Muslim, but she was from the subcontinent -- a fellow deshi.

Many people may argue that Chopra was just doing her job. I don't think so. She was trying to prove to her fellow immigration officers that she is just as ignorant as they are. She was trying to show them that she associates more with the American world than she does with the South Asian world. Poor Chopra. She has spent her whole life in a foreign country pretending to be someone she is not, trying to gain acceptance by discriminating against her own kind. Yes, Chopra, I took it personally. I feel sorry for you, whoever you are, because whether I am red flagged at JFK or not, at least I know who I am and I am proud of it.


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