I arrived into Newark last night and as feared I was detained by the INS, or homeland security, or some organization for some time. I would have taken some ethnographic fieldnotes had I not worried that such activity would have put me into REAL trouble. The detention room is much like the DMV (only scarier). You sit with lots and lots of people, waiting for your name to be called. Luckily, as an American citizen, I was fast-tracked. But some folks had been sitting there for well over five hours. Some had children with them. It was sad. Oddly, the system felt like a game of “Press Your Luck“. There were rooms to the back, but for the most part we were all processed right in front of the waiting room. And we could all see and hear each other person being processed. The reason it was like, “Press Your Luck” was that there was CLEARLY one guy who was a “Whammy”. Every time he was done processing one person everyone froze in fear that they would then be called up by him. As that meant: bad news, or at least a very hard time. I wondered if this guy was actually mean, or simply had been allotted the task for the day.
He clearly wasn’t a nice guy. He constantly made comments about how “[Insert your non-white nationality here] are everywhere,” such as, “God, you Indians are everywhere.” And he threw out accusations constantly, about how people were trying to screw the system and he was going to make sure they got burned. But I wondered if he was just the bad cop for the day – being given the people who the supervisor decided needed to be harassed. But harassment was the name of the game. There was not much dignity in that room.
After 9/11 my parents suggested that I change my name. In fact, they strongly encouraged me to do so. I thought that they were ridiculous. I like my name. My first name is both Irish (Seamus) and Pakistani (Shams, Shamsul, Shamus). The name is interesting. My parents encouraged me to become “Seamus Khan O’Malley” – O’Malley being my mother’s maiden name. My father has no attachment to his name. Khan is not his “real” last name. He changed it before moving the US, figuring that his rare village name would be largely unrecognizable and/or pronounceable by Americans. So he settled on Khan. He has few romantic feelings for Pakistan. And now that I am on a “No Fly” list, and consistently detained at airports, they are starting up again with the name change idea. I suspect they will be more persistent this time. I get offended by their request. But it’s odd. It is their name they have given me. In some ways they have more claim to it than I. It marks my connection to them. Yet in changing it I feel it would be giving in to the man, and giving up on a bit of myself. And it is silly to think that a simple name change would change my position on some no-fly list. It might even be a further flag.
But I will say this: it is wearing on me. As I first walked up to immigration, the processing official said to me, “Welcome Home”. But as he later lead me into a back room, filled with dark skinned people, crying children, and harassment, I felt very far away from home indeed.