Ending with an
My name is on a U.S. security watch
October 27, 2004
No doubt about it: I am being
monitored by the Department of Homeland Security.
I have been stopped, searched and interrogated 3 out of the 4
times that I have passed through US borders in the past four months.
What started as a "routine and random check" two months
ago at JFK airport in New York turned into individual interrogations,
a two-officer escort from an airplane, and an active file with
name on it.
Hard not to get paranoid. Last night I waited 15 minutes before
entering my building because there was a cop standing outside.
I am currently on one of "The Lists." There are quite
a few lists at the moment, and apparently they contain a mish-mash
of names. That includes any person whose family name ends with
an "i"; any man whose first name has any combinations
of the three letters "HMD" having to do with the word
Arabic (Ahmad, Hamid, Hamed, Mohammad, Mahmood ... ), and such
dangerous public figures as Cat Stevens and Senator Edward Kennedy.
I fall in List Number One: Esmaeli. As in: from the family of
I was first identified as a risk to national security a month
ago when I arrived after a six-week stay in Europe. One look at
my US passport and the passport control guy led me to the JFK airport
security office. I was let go after my passport and NY State driver's
license were taken and copied, and two phone calls were made about
Round two was the trip out of JFK two weeks ago. This time the
Air France employee at the gate put four "S"'s on my
boarding pass and asked me to go get inspected. I told the woman
who was escorting me to the inspection point that I think I am
being profiled. She looked and sounded genuinely embarrassed, and
then earnestly added that I should probably get used to it.
So I was searched, de-shoed and undressed as much as decently
possible in public. The guy even put his hand under my shirt. But
it was all good-natured. I asked him if he found anything other
than a fist full of hair, and he laughed uncomfortably. The only
nastiness came from one of the French employees of Air France.
But that's normal. Anyone who has ever dealt with French bureaucracy
knows how getting trapped in a compromised situation gives ample
opportunity to their petit-bureaucrats to make digs and jabs
that they think they can get away with. When I lived in France
an American Refugee Travel Document, I had to stand in various
French gendarmeries, immigration centers and airports and take
their nastiness with little ability to respond.
Now that I am no longer 'under-status'-ed, there was no
reason to accept any BS, so I gave the woman at Air France a piece
of my mind and complained to her superior officer before getting
on the plane. It's probably not a good time or place to unload
resentments stewing from 'Junior Year Abroad', but it felt
good and 15 years too late. I got off to Paris and then Prague
with no other incident.
On the way back to New York last Wednesday, they didn't wait
for me to make it to the gate at Charles de Gaulle. They called
my name on the loudspeakers of the airport. Waiting for the interrogator
at the gate, I saw the roster of passengers sitting on the desk
and the words "no fly" handwritten next to my name.
But after another round of questions from a member of the airport
security and an interview with the International Air Security Agency,
I was allowed on the plane.
On the plane, the captain announced the rules for international
travel. For the sake of security, no more than three people could
wait in the aisles around the bathrooms. Furthermore, you could
only relieve yourself in the bathroom of your own class. I am not
sure if this was because of MY presence on the plane, or because
this last leg of the trip was on a US carrier rather than Air France.
In any case, we land in JFK with no incident of over-congregation
or the crossing of class barriers for the bathroom. Before deplaning,
the captain made an announcement that airport security has requested
for all passengers to show their passports on their way out of
At this point, I am still not aware of the nature of
the problem and my role in the afternoon's theatrics. But it
becomes clear that there is nothing routine about all this when
officers at the airplane door escort me away without finishing
with the rest of the passengers. One of them has a fax paper
with my name and information on it.
"Is that my name on that piece of paper?
"Excuse me, officer, why do you have a piece of paper with
my name on it?"
"I'd like to know why my name is in the hands of a police
officer. Can you tell me, please?"
And he just mumbles something in the vicinity of 'routine'
and 'just doing my job' and I just got more angry.
I am still not aware of the seriousness of the events until the
two officers bring me over to the two plain-clothed federal agents
waiting outside the security office. They are nervous and clumsy
enough for me to see the folder with my name on it. I inquire where
I could obtain a copy, a request which they dumbfoundedly ignore.
The federal agents have been obviously waiting for me, but the
police officers lead me into the airport security center and ask
me to sit and wait in a room with other detainees. The security
office is enclosed by a one-way mirror. I am on one side, they
on the other. They were probably looking at me, checking for any
incriminating signs, during the fifteen minutes that it took to
come and lead me into a room for an individual interrogation.
They start by showing me their badges.
"You are with
One of them does most of the talking. His last name ends with
a vowel other than "i." He speaks with a light-yet-obvious
New York-Italian accent.
"Yes we are." He is obviously uncomfortable with my
unwillingness to look scared.
"So you brought me here to see if I've smuggled fresh fruit
"No... uh ... We are
now part of a larger task force having to do with national security."
I am pissed off and look it. "So why are you talking to
He, on the other hand, is being very nice. "Just some
questions, sir. Don't take it personally."
"Don't take it personally? I've been stopped every time
I go through this airport. And this time you come and escort me
from the airplane."
"There are a lot of lists getting crisscrossed. You are
on one of them, so we are just going to ask you a few questions."
"Which list am I on?"
"I really don't know ... there's a bunch of them... "
"Yeah, quite a few."
He smiles at me with his big black eyes. He is very interested
in making me feel comfortable. I am still too pissed to let him.
"But you know, in two weeks you will have the opportunity
to vote for somebody who can make sense out of all this mess. I
am not allowed to talk politics on the job ... I can't tell you
who to vote for ... all I can say is this: you are going to have
a choice as to who will have control over all this; and I hope
you exercise it."
With this, he breaks the ice. He is very handsome and I wish
he would not stop smiling. I think I even start smiling back.
So the interrogation starts. He is taking notes on the back of
another document in the folder. I can't take my eyes off of his
hand as his pen bobs between his hairy knuckles.
His scribbles are now snuggled next to the copies of my American
passport, NY State Drivers License and who knows what else:
-- Born in Iran
-- Came to US 1979, at the age of 11
-- Received political asylum through his mother and then a green card; naturalized
-- Father lives in Tehran, mother in Orange County, California
-- Studied at Columbia University; undergrad and grad school
-- Lives in New York City ... Washington Heights
"You live in the Heights? How is it up there, now?"
"It's Ok. Pretty quiet."
"It's quiet? I used to be up there in the 34th Precinct.
It wasn't quiet when I was there."
"It's quiet now. And I live on top of the hill ... Where
the yuppies are."
Recent travels: Iraq in November and December 2003.
"Why were you in Iraq"
"For work. I was making a documentary about young Iraqis
and American soldiers for MTV."
He asks me what the Iraqis were saying about the US and the war.
I tell him they were generally relieved at getting rid of Saddam,
but that they were also wondering why America hadn't closed their
borders and allowed these fighters to pour into their country.
"Yeah ... it makes no sense. We close down our own borders
and leave theirs open."
I hope that wasn't a set up. But he has stopped writing by this
"So where are you coming from now?"
"I am coming back from Prague. I am making a documentary
about one of those young Iraqis I filmed. The guy was brought
to Prague by Liev Schreiber, who saw the young Iraqi on MTV and
invited him to go and learn about filmmaking on the set of Liev's
The other guy, who has been quiet up to then, interrupts our
flow. "Liev Schreiber the actor?"
"Yes, Liev Schreiber the actor. He is directing his first
film and I am making the documentary about him and this young Iraqi
"Anything else you'd like to know?"
They both look embarrassed. Embarrassed and a little bit more
eager to seem like good guys who are just doing their job. I guess
neither of them can imagine sending an independent documentary
filmmaker to Guantanamo.
"Ok. What now?"
The first guy is really looking to be nice. "We'll do
a quick search of your bags and you can go home ... . I'll try
to get your name off these lists."
"I mean... I'll make a recommendation ... but these things
take time, you know."
"Ok ... But, I'll appreciate it if this doesn't happen again."
"I understand. But I really couldn't guarantee that the
next time you come back into the country, the same thing won't
I thank him again. They lead me out and leave the younger officer
to give a quick uncomfortable look through my bags.
All this would all be a lot more horrendous if it weren't for
the apologetic skepticism of the people who are carrying out the
procedures. It makes you wonder what would have happened if I were
a guy with an accent and a natural fear of police and federal agents,
instead of a smart-ass filmmaker . It also made me wonder how long
this will last and what will happen if the fear and paranoia get