Power and Politics - I am Not the Yellow Peril

The life and times of an Asian American activist who tells all the truth (and dishes news and analysis) but with a leftwards slant.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Travelling While Brown: Tribune staffer detained for speaking Arabic

When we talk about a post-9/11 America, we often mean how our national security is threatened, our anxiety is increased and how we have to be more "on guard." We see this caution carried out in random searches on the NYC subway, and in the judging eyes of fellow airline passengers. What we don't talk about is how this culture of fear has decreased feelings of security for Muslim Americans, South Asian Americans, Arab Americans, and anyone who looks like they might be any of the above.

In the Sunday Chicago Tribune, Ahmad A. Ahmad says that he decided to take a train to New York City instead of a plane because he was sick of getting searched 8 out of 10 times. The train ahead went off the tracks, so they had to get on buses. He called his mom to let her know that he would be delayed, a fellow traveller heard him speaking Arabic, and called the police while claiming that Ahmad was going to blow up the train. It's a strong, coureageous piece, and I recommend reading the whole thing:

So there I was, 30 minutes outside Albany, waiting for a bus to pick up the displaced passengers. A middle-age tall, muscular white man came up to me and started asking questions.

"Are you Jewish?" he asked.

I was caught off-guard.

"No, I am Jordanian," I replied.

"Why are you going to New York? How many times have you been to New York?"

The questions kept coming.

I knew where this was going. I could hear it in his voice.

I shot back. "Where are you from? How old are you? What part of New York do you live in?" He said he was Italian, 41 and from Brooklyn. As the buses arrived, the man said to follow him to the bus for New York City.

He said he and his girlfriend were also heading there. I was skeptical but grudgingly followed him. I decided to call my mother in Chicago to tell her what happened. We spoke in our native tongue, Arabic.

The man whispered something into his girlfriend's ear.


How many of us have experienced this, or have friends who've undergone the same thing? At least he had the guts to stand up and fire questions back at someone who has no authority to be interrogating a fellow passenger. People assume that just because someone looks different that it's their perogative to question their existence, their birthright, their citizenship. These people are never satisfied with the answers that I give them: "I'm from here. Corner of Main and Appleton." If they press, I feign ignorance of their objectives: "Before that? *bats eyelashes in mock confusion* Well, we moved from the city a few years ago. Why? Where are you from?" but in Ahmad's case, it became situation critical.

I heard sirens approaching, and the bus suddenly came to a stop on the side of the highway. Police cars came--so many I couldn't even begin to count them. The man and his girlfriend ran down the aisle, past me, and off the bus.

We all stepped out to see what happened.

There was the stranger, pointing to me, "He is going to blow up the Amtrak!"

The man told police he understood Arabic and had overheard my conversation. He thought I was talking to some terrorist cell when I was chatting with my mother.

The police put me in the back of their vehicle. Dogs were sniffing around, and officers from the state Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Unit were interviewing my fellow bus passengers.

My cell phone was low on battery and had turned off, but they would not turn it back on. For all they knew, it could have been a bomb. I was shocked, confused, speechless.

The authorities questioned me for nearly three hours at an Albany police station.


Fortunately for him, the police figure out pretty quickly that his accuser is a lunatic who speaks no Arabic, and they let Ahmad go.

Just when I was leaving, I saw that man again.

He cursed at me and called me a terrorist. "Come and fight me!" he yelled. "You're lying out of your teeth! You know you want to blow up the Amtrak!"

I know people say Americans are living in a new America, after what happened on that Tuesday morning four years ago.

For the majority of Muslims, who are peaceful, law-abiding citizens, we, too, are living in a new America.

This is our reality.


When you essentialize people, you reduce them to their physical characteristics. You judge them based only upon what you can see, or hear in some cases. People have asked me if I'm Mexican or American Indian based upon my features, which bewilders me. I guess to some people, all brown-skinned people look similar. But what Ahmad points out with simple dignity the loss of freedoms that have disproportionately affected a part of our America. Call it "Flying While Brown" or "Travelling While Brown." It's an insidious meme/stereotype that worms its way into our eyes and ears from our TV screens, and it riddles our brains with holes, turning countryman against countryman (and woman.)

Wedge politics of this, the basest nature, turns us against some of the weakest people in our country, those who deserve the most protection because they are the easiest to scapegoat. This isn't a new phenomenon, it dates back to the Yellow Peril and the fear of the Other. It's "give us our planes back," "Stop stealing our jobs," "Nuke China!" and "You look like you just bombed the World Trade Center." It's the same old diversionary tactic, the same closed-off look in some people's eyes that has persisted since people migrated to other regions and immediately remarked on each others' differences, and unable to communicate, watched as "they" came closer and closer. Uncertain of "their" intentions, we built forts to better distinguish "us" from "them" and showy weapons to demonstrate our might. Frightened of "their" intentions we posted guards at the borders and encircled our women and children. Someone heard a noise, we all jumped to arms, and all was lost.

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