Fear, Loathing and Ethnic Profiling

My short visit to Quebec was nearing its end. After a magnificent week of visiting friends, I was ready for my trip home: New York City, USA. I had crossed the border many times in the past. But this time I was exceptionally anxious, unsettled and feeling insecure. I remembered the fear and anxiety in my last visits to Iran -- my place of birth, my original home. Now, thousands of miles away from Iran, I was engulfed in the same feelings of fear and vulnerability.

Saturday, May 18, 2002. I said farewell to my friends, put my bags in the car's trunk and headed towards the U.S. border at 7:30 in the morning. Highway 15 South, a cold and cloudy morning: I unzipped the side pocket of my knapsack, got my American passport out, checked all my documents, lined up behind the other cars -- others with New York and Quebec license plates -- and slowly approached the passport control. A middle-aged woman with short blonde hair and a blank face: she took my passport without smiling.

"Where are you going, sir?" she asked authoritatively. "Home, New York City," I replied. The officer inquired about the places I visited, the names of people I met, and my profession. I responded calmly. Leaving her booth, she asked me to open the trunk and remain inside my car. I acted accordingly.

My car had to be searched. I waited in the car and watched with anger and frustration as other cars passed me by. I stared at men and women driving through the border, unquestioned, not suspected of an uncommitted crime. Male, young, Middle Eastern: I was singled out, questioned and later interrogated like a convicted criminal. I was nervous, doubting my own innocence, feeling the need to justify my activities and existence. I remembered having the same feelings when I was arrested, beaten and jailed in Tehran for an innocent act of walking in a park with a female companion not related to me by blood or marriage.

Returning to her booth, the officer filled out a form, placed my documents in a bag and on the windshield, and demanded that I proceed to the garage behind the booth and remain in the car. My hands over the steering wheel, I waited in the garage in fear. Two armed officers left the building facing my car. Slowly walking toward my car, hands over their guns, they surrounded the vehicle.

"Step out please," said the officer on the driver's side. I was asked to open the trunk, take my bag, leave the trunk open, and stand beside my car. Moving back, the officers stood one foot behind me -- one on my left, they other on my right. Their hands nearly touching their guns, they escorted me to the building. All my moves were closely watched. They were prepared to shoot. I was technically under arrest.

Standing between the officers, I was asked to place my bag on a long metal table, proceed to the counter, remove everything from my pockets and wait. I was given a form to fill out. Having left my reading glasses in my knapsack in the car, I requested permission to get my glasses. They conceded. Hands over their guns, they escorted me to the car. Surrounding the car from a two-foot distance, they watched me take my knapsack from the car, and escorted me back to the building. Shaking in fear, I stood before the counter and filled out the form. Staring at my shaking hands, an officer emptied my knapsack. The other returned from searching my car.

I was no longer being searched for illegal objects in my car. The car was clean. They were now interested in my identity, activities, exchanges and purchases, friends, travels, and all that made me different from the men and women who were allowed to cross the border without questioning. Every card and every piece of paper in my wallet was checked. I was asked to explain my credit card receipts. A $500 bill from a small-town garage for the purchase of four new tires led to suspicion and more questioning. A receipt for an airline ticket to Atlanta raised further alarm.

"What was the purpose of your trip to Atlanta?" asked the interrogating officer. "My book was featured at a conference." I replied. He asked about the subject of my book. "Do you travel a lot?" he asked while leafing through the pages of my passport.

My nervousness increasing with every question, feelings of anger mixed with violation overcame me. I felt invaded. Flashbacks from Iran reappeared. I saw myself back in the custody of the guardians of the Islamic Republic, remembered leaving Iran without saying farewell to my loved ones. I was an activist and a critic of the Islamic Republic; a citizen of the United States; a frequent traveler -- all the prerequisites to be a suspected agent of the Great Satan, the United States of America. I was a perfect target.

Thousands of miles away, I was now in my new home, a haven from the everyday violence of the Islamic Republic, its repressive laws and practices, and its violation of people's basic rights. But, once again, I was a target. I had the perfect profile of an imagined terrorist, a Moslem fundamentalist, an agent of the Islamic Republic and its global network. For the first time in my life, I felt the heavy burden of homelessness. I had no home. I was not acceptable, but rather the object of official and intrusive investigation.

The interrogation ended. I was seated in a corner. A new officer arrived. More questions were asked and finally I was cleared. "Have a good day," said the first interrogating officer. I left the building, sat in my car, drove slowly away, and began my search for a new home.

Behzad Yaghmaian is the author of "Social Change in Iran: An eyewitness account of Dissent, Defiance and a New Movement for Human Rights."

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