On the flight from Delhi to Washington D.C., I spent a good two hours staring at the customs form that I was required to fill out. I had completed every section of the form, except for one. I just wasn’t quite sure if mentioning Pakistan and Afghanistan in the box that asked me to list the countries I had visited was such a good idea. As I wrote down the other countries I’d been to on this trip – Australia, Singapore, Thailand and India – I seriously wondered if I could get away with not listing the other two. (Of course, I wasn’t about to risk it and so I wrote them all down in the end.)
Several hours later, on the ground in Washington D.C., I approached the Immigration Counter and handed over my form. The Immigration Officer swiped my passport, glanced at his computer screen and almost immediately stamped me back into the country. But just before I started to walk away he asked, “So you went to Afghanistan and Pakistan. How was it?” The only reply that I could muster up was a quiet, “Very interesting.”
He then called the next person in line and I turned away, relieved beyond belief at how well that had gone. Of course, that relief lasted a mere six seconds, right until the moment when a Customs Officer approached and asked me to step over to one of the inspection tables.
The following hour and a half of my life is a period of time that I will never forget and truthfully, never really want to endure ever again.
MY FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH A ONE-SIDED MIRROR
After another quick swipe of my passport and after reading the words “Pakistan and Afghanistan” on my form, the young Customs Officer immediately ‘invited’ both myself and my trusty backpack into a small interrogation room for a chat.
Once inside the room, the Officer began to inspect the contents of my backpack. First, he opened the front pocket, and immediately became suspicious of a collection of books that I had purchased in a bookstore in Delhi. There were five books packaged together, each containing the sayings and lessons of a different spiritual figure who had influenced India, including Buddha, Vivekananda, Nanak Dev, Gandhi and yes, the Prophet Mohammed.
Of course, the Customs Officer ignored the other four books and while holding up the book of quotes from the Prophet, proceeded to repeatedly scream “Do you believe in the words of the Prophet Mohammed?” over and over again while standing one foot away from my face.
Every time I tried to mention the other books, and the one time I tried to ask why that question was even relevant, I was immediately cut off and told to be quiet. So in the end, the only reply I gave to his question was, “What?”
THE INSPECTION CONTINUES…
The next problem began when the Officer picked up one of my pairs of pants and a shiny, unused bullet fell out of the front pocket. And while I will admit that the appearance of a bullet is always somewhat suspicious, I honestly felt that the additional screaming that was thrown my way as a result of this discovery was more than uncalled for. Without asking any questions at all, the Officer simply acted as if he had found a piece of evidence that undeniably linked me to terrorism.
As a side note, the bullet was given to me as a gift by a child who had taken me on a tour of his neighborhood on the outskirts of Kabul. I had been walking around on my own when he suddenly came out of nowhere, grabbed my arm and stopped me from walking up a hill that turned out to be littered with land mines. This kid had practically no possessions to his name, yet he wanted to give me a gift for spending some time with him. And so he gave me a bullet that he had found and had always kept with him for good luck.
After the bullet, came the burqa. I had purchased a deep blue burqa one day in Kabul in order to show my friends and family the reality of what it’s like to wear one of these things. As the Customs Officer pulled it out of my backpack, he demanded an explanation and even suggested that I had used the burqa in order to move undetected throughout the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. As his suspicion grew, so did my confusion at the manner in which this interrogation was taking place.
THE BOX OF CANDY
Up until this point, I had really hoped that the Officer would not look in the side pocket of my backpack. But when he began to unzip the zipper, I had no choice but to take a deep breath and prepare for his reaction.
In that pocket was a box of candy, although this was no ordinary box of M&Ms. It was a box of “Osama bin Laden Kulfa Balls” a popular hard candy that can be found throughout the tribal areas of Pakistan. And on the front of the box, one finds an image of Osama himself alongside a tank, missiles and fighter jets. Naturally, the Customs Officer wasn’t too thrilled with me having this item in my possession and he again made the grand assumption that this box of candy linked me to terrorism.
“I could arrest you right now! Do you want me to arrest you?“, he started to shout repeatedly.
Eventually, I just gave up trying to offer my explanations and stopped answering his questions altogether.
In reality, I have no idea why I bought that box of candy, other than it grabbed my attention, I thought it was interesting and I wanted to take one home. It really was that simple.
A QUICK FLIP THROUGH MY JOURNAL
The next item to be closely inspected turned out to be my travel journal, the 300 pages of which were full of descriptions about the places and people I had met along the way. I wasn’t worried about him reading my journal at all as it certainly didn’t contain anything that this Officer could interpret as suspicious.
So I thought…
Here’s a tip. No matter what the reason, don’t ever write “You can get rid of your US citizenship by going to an Embassy and telling them that you don’t want to be a citizen any more” in your travel journal!
The Officer had opened my journal up to a completely random page and the line above is exactly what he found written. It was perhaps the only line in the entire book that could possibly have made my current situation any worse. Lucky me.
Before I continue, let me be clear. I was in no way at all implying that I was interested in getting rid of my US citizenship. Not even close! I had simply jotted down something I had read in an online article about the rules of citizenship in different countries. Unfortunately, I wrote down that one line and nothing else as I was in a rush that day and had to leave the internet cafe to catch a bus. I meant to go back and write more about the article I had read, but I never did.
And so there it was, alone on a random page of my journal, just begging the Customs Officer to get fired up once again. I certainly wasn’t surprised when he proceeded to read the line out loud a few times, get right in my face and scream, “Tell me now! Tell me you don’t want your US Citizenship and I’ll take it away from you. Right now!”
After trying my hardest to convince him that I did not want to lose my citizenship, the Officer suddenly left the room, returning a few minutes later with his Supervisor. Then, both men spent the following hour asking me a barrage of rapid-fire questions that included, “What do your parents do for a living?”, “Is that your natural hair color?”, “How did you obtain your visas?” and “Were the people of Pakistan friendly?”
“WERE THE PEOPLE OF PAKISTAN FRIENDLY?”
Really?, I thought. You’re really asking me that question?
Well, I could have just said “No, they were all mean and nasty to me” but there was no way I was about to do that to the wonderful people I had met during my travels. The truth is, almost everyone I met showed nothing but remarkable hospitality, kindness and generosity at all times. Almost every day during my visit, dozens of Pakistanis would politely approach me, shake my hand and inform me that they are not terrorists and that they do not support Osama bin Laden. They would then ask me to please return to America and tell everyone I know that Pakistanis just want to live in peace like everyone else. When I tried to explain this to the Officers, they once again ignored me, refusing to believe that there could possibly be even one decent person in that region of the world.
At one point, frustrated by the lack of training/knowledge of the people put in charge of protecting the US borders, I literally pulled out my guidebook and gave them a lesson in geography and in a sense, in reality as well. I showed them excerpts of the guidebook that spoke of friendly locals, must-see highlights and a generally safe environment for travelers. I also attempted to explain that my goal in traveling to this region was to educate myself, not to try and gain admission into a terrorist training camp.
Eventually, in a calm voice, the supervisor asked me one last time whether or not I “believed in the words of the Prophet Mohammed.” (It was as if all Customs Officers had memorized that exact same line.) When I told him that I’m not a very religious person at all, he stood up and much to my surprise, informed me that I was now free to go.
Through a friend of the family who used to work for the FBI, I later learned that as soon as I had left the Customs interrogation room, the local FBI office in Savannah, Georgia (where I was headed to visit my mom) had been notified of my arrival. As a result, the FBI then tapped the home phone at my mom’s house.
Further, for two years, I was given a private pat down and screening every time I went through security at a US airport. And whenever I returned from overseas, I was forced to go through a 30-minute, overly thorough inspection that involved dozens of questions, a ‘test’ about my previous travels and even a complete inspection of all my computer files.
The good news is that one day, it all stopped. Just like that I had apparently been removed from the list as a potential threat and I’ve never been inspected since.
However, I now realize that I should be enjoying these hassle-free Immigration & Customs experiences while I can, because I have a feeling that after this upcoming trip to the Middle East, I’m going to find myself right back in that interrogation room.
Do you have any Customs or Immigration stories to share?