The events were like an extra-long documentary film on the life of a small fly in the New York airport. I arrived at the airport at 3:15 and my next flight to Austin, Texas was leaving at 5:40, so I was in a rush, worried about getting my papers stamped and going through security checks. But I never imagined that such a nightmare could happen to me because I have a bit of luck. That’s why I continued smiling when the officer put my passport in a red file folder and asked me to follow him to the interrogation room.
The same thing happened to me at the Washington airport, and the whole thing didn’t take more than 30 minutes, complete with repeated apologies from the officers for the delay, and for their being forced to conduct all these measures. Most of the time, the issue comes down to my name in English, written “Ahmad Salih,” which is a pure Arabic name shared by many. Because of this, things can usually be sorted out by a few questions on my height, weight, eye color. But this time, as soon as I entered the detention room, my smile disappeared and a true state of fear and stress took hold.
The place perfectly resembled any Egyptian police station, except for the picture of Mr. George Bush handing on the wall in place of Mubarak’s, and that the officers’ clothes were blue rather than white. The American officers had the same cold, dumb faces of their Egyptian counterparts. I told the officer at the beginning about my flight leaving in two hours, but he told me to sit waiting until they called my name.
I sat waiting for an hour not doing anything but gazing alternately at Mr. George Bush and at the faces of the officers, and at the hour hand, which wasted an hour of my time to catch the plane with oppressive speed. I began to worry and my stress increased, so I approached one of the officers and told him that I had a plane to catch in two hours, but he glared at me with an air of self-importance and contemptuously scoffed “I can’t help you. I’m just doing my job.”
After about an hour and a half the officer sitting at the desk yelled “Saaylih, Aaaahmaad” so I went over to him, and he began asking me the exact same questions his colleague had asked me, and I gave him the same answers. “I will spend a week in the US, and am here as part of a program organized by the American University in Cairo and USAID to cover the American elections. I gave him the document I was carrying from the university. He read it with intense concentration then asked me his next smart question, “Are you a student?” I responded, “No, I’m a journalist.” His next smart question, “So then, why did the university send you here?” I began explaining to him that the trip is part of a program from the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Studies and its programs are not just limited to students.
This back and forth didn’t happen in the easy manner that I describe here. Rather, it was interrupted by his asking me to remove my hand from the desk, and stand back further from the station so I had to raise my voice. Finally he told me to sit back down and wait. I told him that my flight was in less than forty minutes and that I was a foreigner and wouldn’t know what to do if I missed the plane. He raised his eyebrows, pointed to my passport, and said “I want you to go sit there because what we’re doing is more important than the plane.”
I didn’t get the full meaning of what he said, but did understand that he was a picture of the stupidity of authority. The man had an officer’s power, the entry stamp, and was not afraid to enjoy using his authority to the utmost. The only solution was not to engage in conversation with him or provoke him, and to think about the next step – losing my trip to Austin.
I sat waiting. The room contained other Arabs, a Pakistani woman, an Israeli woman, and, of course, some Latin American comrades. Some of them came in after us, but finished their paperwork and left before us. A Latina chick in a red dress came into the room and got her passport back in under twenty minutes – along with a broad smile from the officer, who then looked back down and went back to glaring.
When I got my passport back after four hours the plane had left and I was alone in the New York airport. I went to the airline counter and told my story to an information desk employee named Said. He smiled broadly and said, “We can’t help you. You need to purchase a new ticket.” Sensing a complete loss, I began to think about the options in front of me, saying to myself, “Why don’t I just go outside and abandon myself in the streets of New York, and begin a new, more bohemian, life?” In reality, I just went out to have a cigarette and tried to think more calmly. Less than three minutes later, as the tips of my fingers were turning blue, I decided against the streets of New York. Generally, I don’t recommend anyone going out in New York in winter.
Finally, I decided to buy a new ticket whatever the price, but immediately hit a roadblock when the employee told me that I couldn’t buy a new ticket. The problem was there were no direct flights to Austin, so I had to wait till the next morning when, at nine AM, I would board a plane to Atlanta, and from there on to Austin. I didn’t absorb the full extent of the situation, but it was clear that I would have to spend the night trapped in the airport.
I tried to call my friends or acquaintances, but the phones were disabled or broken। The one working communications device was a public computer. A dollar got you three minutes of slow internet, so I was only able to send a short email to my traveling companions, before going up to the second floor where the restaurants were to get a bite to eat. Then I began an extended tour of the airport.
Translated by will ward