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     Volume 7 Issue 2 | January 11, 2008 |

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Writing the Wrong

Alexander Detained

Sharbari Ahmed

The following is a nightmare and a very real possibility.
Usually I fell asleep in any moving vehicle I was not driving, but I was wide-awake when we pulled into the bucolic left wing university town of New Paltz, New York. Protestors choked the small main street that ran through the town. The Ford Taurus could not make it through. It was stopped at a crosswalk as the lights changed from red to green and back to red again. The signs screamed: New Paltz is not Dachau! Stop the illegal detention of Americans! Remember the Japanese internment! And a picture of the president made to look like Hitler. I recognised the young mayor of New Paltz who had, in previous years, served jail time for marrying gay couples in the town square. He had become a hero of a new civil rights movement that was gaining momentum. I wondered as I watched him if I was looking at a future president.

The mayor stood in the front of the protestors yelling into a megaphone. I rolled down the window to hear what he was saying but the male agent rolled it back up again. He did not even glance back at me when he did this.

We drove onto the State University Campus. It had been taken over. There was no barbed wire or tanks. The campus was leafy and peaceful but I could not see any students lounging in the quad. There was a checkpoint, which had once been the campus security station. Now concrete dividers stood in front of it. There were several Peter Pan buses in the parking lot. I saw groups of weary people disembarking from the buses, clutching their belongings. Some had brought too much and were lugging their stuffed suitcases across the parking lot gravel. Mothers carried children in baby bjorns. Many women wore hijab. Some older men were in skullcaps and long tunics. There were black people, blonde people, Asians. Heavily armed soldiers stood around directing the human traffic towards different buildings. There were also lines of people leaving the campus and getting on the buses. I half expected to see Mr. Abdellah, who owned a recently closed falafel joint near me, and his wife standing in a line awaiting their fate.

The Ford Taurus carrying me pulled up in front of a brick dormitory. I was told to get out.

“Where is my son?” I asked again.

“You'll see him in a moment,” was the reply. The male agent carried my luggage to the curb. He told me to walk into the building, to the first floor and gave me a curt nod. He had never once removed his sunglasses.

“Agent Miller will take you to your son,” he said. He shook my hand and got in the car and drove away leaving me and agent Miller; a woman as stoic as her partner, standing on the curb.

The quiet brick exterior belied the chaos inside the building. The narrow corridors were clogged with anxious people. Several official looking people in suits were trying to calm them down. The question that was being asked over and over again was, “why are we here?” The air in the corridor was filled with sweat and perfume. I saw several deshis or South Asians, probably Bangladeshis or Pakistanis, stare at me. An elderly man holding his grandchild tugged at a suited official's sleeve and was batted away.

“I'm a professor of economics at London University,” he said. “I have never been so humiliated in my life. This is illegal.” A younger woman took the child from him when he became so agitated he almost dropped the little girl. The official peered at him over her glasses and told him to calm down or she would move his family to the back of the line.

“What line?” he said. “What are we waiting for?”
“Look,” the woman said. “We do things differently in this country. Maybe you need to go back to yours.”

“Gladly!” the professor said. “I will leave right now! Let me go home.”

Agent Miller ushered me past them into a small square office down the corridor. From the size and contents of the office, it looked like a supply closet. There were cleaning products and three vacuum cleaners lining a metal shelf behind the desk where a dark haired woman sat.

“This is Yasmina Salim,” Agent Miller said. She backed out of the roomthere was not enough space to turn aroundand left me alone with this new person.
“I want to see my son,” I said.
“You will,” the woman said, without looking up from her paperwork.
“May I ask a question?”
“Go ahead.” She rifled through her purse and took out a piece of gum. She didn't offer me any.
“Why was I personally escorted here when others were shoved on to buses?”
The woman looked up then. She was Hispanic. Her eyes were small and close together. “You don't know why?”
“That's why I am asking.”

She started looking through a tall stack of files and papers, I think in search of the answer. I looked around the stifling office. It was untidy. It had a small window, more of a slit actually, that let in very little light. She pulled a file out of the stack. She read the contents for what seemed like a minute or two and then looked up at me.

“You are a writer?”
I nodded.
“In December of 2005 did you publish a collection of short stories entitled Detained?
“And who published these?” She turned a paper over searching for the answer.
“They were self published,” I said. “But I have a publisher now who is interested.”

The woman nodded at me without looking up. She read a bit more and then closed the file.

“There was a story entitled Harem about a woman who is thrown into prison by the FBI without provocation.”
I nodded again.
“What made you write a story like that?”
“I make up stories. I am a fiction writer. I don't know. The times we live in I guess.”
“It was very critical of the US government and“ here she paused to re-check the file, which she now kept open. “and described Halliburton as building facilities that resemble concentration camps.”
“Yes it does. But it is a work of fiction,” I said.
“Excuse me? Can I see my son now?” My voice was starting to take on a hysterical quality.

The woman ignored me. I heard yelling outside the door. She looked up at the door, concerned but did not get up. When there was no more yelling she addressed me again.

“Why mention Halliburton by name? Everything else in the story is fictionalised. Yet you mentioned this company by name.”
“They are a defense contractor,” I said. “I wanted to give the story an air of authenticity.”

She sized me up with her small eyes. I was not trying to be flippant. Or maybe I was but it was done unconsciously.

“But what has this to do with my little boy?” I said. The tears were back afresh. I controlled them with effort.
“We are at war. This is a very special time,” she said.

To be continued:

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