|Have a good day
I was different from the men and women who were allowed to cross the
border without questioning
By Behzad Yaghmaian
June 20, 2002
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. 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. 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 my 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 pocked of my knapsack, got my American passport
out, checked all my documents, lined behind the other cars-others with New York and
Quebec license plates and slowly approached the passport control.
A middle-age woman with short hair, stocky, blond, 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
other cars passing me by. I stared at men and women driving through the border, not
questioned, 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 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 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 towards my car, hands over their guns, they surrounded the car. "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
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 piece of paper in my wallet
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 by every question, a mixed feeling of violation and anger
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. An activist and critic of the Islamic Republic,
a citizen of the United States, a frequent traveler: I had all the prerequisites
to be a suspected agent of the Great Satan, the United States of America. I was a
Thousands of miles away, I was now in my new home, a
haven away 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 on a corner. A new officer arrived. More questions
were asked. Half an hour gone, I was cleared. "Have a good day," said the
first interrogating officer. I left the building, sat in my car, slowly drove away,
and began my search for a new home.
Behzad Yaghmaian is professor of economics at Ramapo College. He is the author
Change in Iran: An Eyewitness Account of Dissent, Defiance, and New Movements for
Rights, (SUNY Press, 2002).