One of the interesting perks of being a brown South Asian, travelling anywhere in the world, is the special attention you get from various official quarters. Getting a visa anywhere in the northern hemisphere, for instance, is like winning a lottery and could even count as a status symbol. Prior to such a windfall, if it at all occurs, it will mean filling out pages of a form that can ultimately be published as a booklet of your family’s ancestry and a mini biography of yourself. The unique complexities of being someone from the subcontinent makes the whole process a delightful conundrum—if, for example, your father was born during British rule and lived through the Partition, the independence of India and Pakistan, and then that of Bangladesh, how do you answer “Where is your father from?” Should it be British India, India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh, or all of the above?
Your special status becomes even more apparent when you actually travel and have to go through multiple security checks where you know you will receive extra scrutiny compared to people of any other nationality—well, besides being or even looking Middle Eastern, to certain eyes. Then you get royal scrutiny of a totally different level.
On the plane you know you shouldn’t linger too long outside the lavatories, especially not in front of the exit and definitely not with your partner—two brown people hanging around is much worse than one and can set of the alarm bells in many a paranoid passenger.
The conspicuous way in which a brown complexioned South Asian is treated makes you think you are the most important character among all the other passengers of uninteresting (as far as security personnel are concerned) ethnicities. In fact, sometimes you are so conscious of the extra attention that you may even start behaving strangely—like nervously tapping your leg, sporting an exaggerated air of nonchalance that actually makes you look like you’re hiding something, or worse, smiling at the immigration officer in what you think is a friendly way that proves your innocence but ends up as a sinister grimace that can only spell impending trouble.
Personally, I don’t know what I do to make security personnel be so drawn to me and it has been like this since long before 9/11, when the world didn’t think that every Muslim in the planet was potentially a closet militant. For whatever reason, whenever I travelled to the West I would be singled out from the queue and be subject to interrogation.
Decades later, the legacy has endured and thanks to the horrific terror attacks in the name of religion and a successful global campaign of Islamophobia, I find myself getting undivided attention from overzealous security personnel. When travelling especially to and from the US, it is with almost certainty that I will be picked out randomly among all the hundreds of passengers and then have the privilege of having a generous “pat down” (a euphemism for institutionalised groping) by a stern looking female security officer ominously wearing surgical gloves. The last time this happened was when I was just about to board the plane and the officer just stopped me at the gate and asked me if I would mind stepping aside.
Of course I mind, I wanted to say as my fellow passengers walked by with curious glances, but obviously didn’t, even when in a monotone she explained all the objectionable things she was about to do to me.
One of the weird things I do when embarrassed or, in this case humiliated beyond belief, is to start smiling in a slightly deranged manner which hardly helps matters. So, while being felt up and down in the name of a security check and as another officer went through the entire contents of my humungous bag, all I could do was make embarrassed chortling sounds resembling a duck choking on its own saliva. I am not sure, though, whether I was more mortified by the invasive touching (I almost wanted to tell her to massage my aching lower back while she was at it) or by the fact that the other officer was now going to discover the sachets of instant coffee, creamer, and sugar I had snagged from the airport hotel room along with the balls of tissue carrying discarded gum (I hate littering), chocolate wrappers, a crumpled bag with an extra pair of socks, crumbs from forgotten cookies, not to mention paper napkins with makeup stains, and a half eaten Snickers bar.
Security clearances at airports in present times have definitely managed to strip us of all vestiges of dignity and sense of privacy. Thus, woe betide if you are wearing loose pants that have been kept in place by a tight belt as you will most definitely be asked to take off the belt along with your shoes and jacket—oh your watch, earrings, keys etc. too—anything that may set the monitor off, which in my case could very well be the colour of my skin.
Only a few brave souls are unaffected by the bizarre stripping ritual at security checkpoints. Last year, a young man made news when he walked up to a security checkpoint at an airport in Detroit, removed all his clothes and accessories before approaching the metal detector. When he passed through in nothing but his birthday suit and with flying colours, the first thing he put back on was — his watch. Apparently, the police and the fire department responded but as he posed no threat the police did not arrest him. But then again, he was white and one wouldn’t recommend such flamboyance in the case of a brown South Asian.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Deputy Editor, Op-Ed and Editorial section, The Daily Star.