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Welcome back, you are in America now


Wednesday, March 10, 2010
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I visited Egypt last month and spent a week covering a story with PBS News Hour crew. On my last day in Egypt, my family, who complained that I hadn’t spent much time with them, always working and running around, put together a farewell party for me. At my sister’s house, more than 25 of them started trickling in, family by family, kid by kid. We talked, laughed and cried; there was plenty of food and plenty of emotions.

The farewell celebration lasted until 2 a.m. Then I had to leave since my flight was at 4 a.m. No one was coming to the airport with me, I declared to the group. I had arranged for an airport service shuttle to pick me up. The drive to the Cairo International airport was surreal. The Cairo streets were too quiet, enveloped by the fresh cold morning air, a rarity that you should embrace while visiting Egypt. The procedure at the Cairo International Airport is very relaxed with security seeming to share your sadness at leaving.

Egyptian security are the best in the business. As you are going by the “metal detectives,” it seems they very relaxed, more clever and effective than the Americans. They don’t rely on technology that much, and may ignore the beeping red lights but they look in your eyes and study you. “Just go, don’t worry” the guard said, unlike in the States with the homeland security paranoia, where I have been picked out ‘randomly’ at the airport each time I’ve flown since 2001. I even started losing my faith in the theory of probability.

In Egypt, there’s no racial profiling, but there is context profiling, with this simple human-based security system. Still Egypt seems to have a much better national security record than the Americans; the U.S. spends billions of dollars every year on so-called home land security, however Mubarak will arrest more so-called “terrorist suspects in one day than American security catches in a year,” said Salah Hammad, an Egyptian sculptor who is also a friend. The flight left on time.

Now, fast forward 18 hours later when I landed at the St. Paul/Minneapolis airport. As I was getting out of the airplane’s tunnel, I heard ‘Step over here please,”—the soft voice of the young security guard for the U.S. Customs was directed only at me out of all the passengers. Now I realized I’m back in America. Amsterdam also does a thorough security—but one that everyone goes through.

After a brief line of questioning, he marked a code on my custom claim form. After getting my luggage, every time a security person looked at my claim form, he singled me out. Finally, I was instructed to follow the red line. That doesn’t sound good, I thought. What are they afraid of—the plane has already landed and I can’t possibly cause any harm to anybody. “Did you bring any ‘Lebb’ (Arabic for seeds),” asked the customs official, proud of his Arabic proficiency. No, I usually get them from the Holy Land store in Northeast Minneapolis. They took my luggage, opened and searched every inch of it. “You took lots of videos,” commented the overly-friendly female security, and started her interrogation, “What do you do, Sir, and where did you go and why,” the young security who first greeted me at the airplane, joined the search. He found my interviewing notebook, the one I had through the ordeal of the Sinai flood.

It was dirty and yellowed with traces of sand all over, but the security was overly-alarmed by the Arabic writing. He kept staring at my notebook as if he found the Al Qaeda manual. “What is this,” he casually asked. It is not food, I fired back. No, no I didn’t fire, just responded. To ward off any more questions, I dug through my stuff to find the parts to the “baladi shisha” which was a dried coconut shill, a piece of bamboo and a small ashtray. I quickly assembled it for the guard who continued to stare at my notebook. I explained the use and function of the shisha, but he was unimpressed, still intrigued by my Arabic writing in my notebook. They kept me standing for more than 40 minutes, while they took my case apart, all my stuff, my underwear, tapes, personal stuff lying all over the search table.

Finally, the disappointed security guard asked me to pack up my stuff again. “I don’t want to break anything for you,” he explained. Thank you, Sir; it is kind of too late. You have already broken my trust in the whole homeland “in” security business.

My wife was waiting patiently outside the security area, happy to see me walking alone even if I was the last one out. “Welcome home,” she said and we quickly left the airport. As we walked into the parking lot, my face was by the frigid Minnesota weather. Snow was covering everything; wherever you looked it was white. I felt like I was in a gigantic hospital room. I realized that I had left Egypt too soon.

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About Ahmed Tharwat

Ahmed Tharwat is host of the Arab-American show “Belahdan,” which airs Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. on Twin Cities Public Television (Ch 202).

One Response to Welcome back, you are in America now

  1. PrairieGirl

    March 14, 2010 at 5:46 PM

    I am a home-grown Minnesota girl of European descent (i.e. caucasian), and the exact same thing happened to me at MSP customs after arriving here back from Nigeria in 1998 (before 9/11 even). My customs form was “marked,” every last item, even in my wallet was taken apart. They wanted to know if I spent time in rural areas-my shoes could be bringing back who-knows-what terrible piece of dirt or plant! It wasn’t until they found a piece of paper titled “A Prayer for Nigeria” that they finally let me repack everything and let me go. I was the last one too, except for the the young man who was caught with drugs by a sniffing dog. My parents by then were worried, and an airport employee asked who I was and that my parents were concerned. I guess so, after 45 minutes of delay and when every other passenger had passed. I was in Nigeria visiting my fiance so he could get a fiance visa so we could marry. Some threat that was, right?! I really felt like customs must have been bored that day and created such a flimsy pretense to detain me almost just for their own amusement. Then about a year and and half after 9/11, my husband returned to Nigeria for his mother’s funeral, and upon returning here to MSP, he breezed through customs, with a Nigerian passport and just a temporary permanent resident card. I was shocked he passed through so easily, especially after what I had been through. So even if you’re a 45-year-old woman born and raised here and a citizen, even that doesn’t exempt you from that same experience at MSP. I totally agree that the US needs to get more savvy when it comes to screening for the truly dangerous.

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