Apparently 'Pakistani' in French means 'terrorist'
I was stopped by four armed men in uniform who spoke to me in loud French. I had no idea what I had done wrong.
I experienced it again yesterday; I re-lived what it feels like to be accused - accused when you don’t even know why you are being charged. Again, I lived through the humiliation of someone pointing his finger at me and saying,
“Hey you… You look like a terrorist.”
The temperature in Lille was cold; six degrees below the freezing point, to be exact. The behaviour of the four men around me was colder.
I had noticed them the moment I had gotten off the train that had brought me back to Lille from Paris. I thought that I was being over imaginative when I saw the men following me. I entered the small souvenir shop on the platform to look for some fridge magnets. I did not find anything worth buying, so I turned back and came out of the shop and that was when I was stopped by four armed men in uniform who spoke to me in loud French.
I had no idea what they were saying.
“I have no idea what you are saying,” I tried to cooperate. “I don’t understand French.”
And then I heard the dreaded words.
“Pakistani?” said the short man, while the tall one standing next to me put his hand on my camera bag.
“Yes,” I replied as calmly as I could. “I am from Pakistan.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Just visiting,” I said.
It was a dumb question.
“What do you have in the bag?”
“It’s a camera.”
Meanwhile, the tall man had already taken the camera off my back and was opening it. A crowd of more than a dozen people had gathered and was looking at the scene. Their English was limited. They were continuously asking me questions in French which I was unable to answer. I shrugged my shoulder in helplessness because that conversation was going nowhere.
At that very moment, a girl, probably in her mid-twenties, stepped towards us despite the risk that I could have blown up everyone with the ‘bomb’ attached to my body.
“They are asking you to open your jacket,” she translated for me.
I opened the zip. I was wearing a sweater underneath and a thermal shirt under the sweater. My fault, I feel cold at times.
The man said something again.
“He is asking why you had closed the jacket from the front.” The girl translated, and for the remaining conversation she was my voice to them and their voice to me.
“Because it’s cold,” I said.
That, too, was a dumb question.
“Where did you get this camera?”
“I got the camera from Pakistan and the lenses from Thailand and the UAE.”
“When did you get it?”
“I don’t know. Around three years ago, I guess.”
“Cash or credit?”
“I don’t know. I don’t recall. Credit card probably. How is that relevant?”
“Do you have an ID?”
I opened my wallet and took out all the cards I had – My emirates ID, business card, National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP) and health insurance.
The armed men said something to the girl and returned my camera bag to me. The girl said something to them in return. They walked away. The crowd started to disperse.
“They were asking me if I was with you,” The girl told me. “I told them I was just helping; they told me to tell you to carry your passport in your pocket all the time.”
“Thank you for your help,” I was genuinely thankful to her. “If you weren’t here, I would have had to spend the night in the lock-up, or probably worse. Merci (thank you).”
“It’s okay,” She smiled. “I don’t like them.”
I put on my gloves, my cap, zipped my jacket again and started walking towards the exit.
It is partly my fault too. When I travel, I usually don’t shave and end up growing thick stubble, despite knowing how I was treated by the Greek embassy in 2010 for having a beard and ‘looking like a terrorist’. Partly that, and partly because when I am a Pakistani, I am answerable to any first world father of my leaders, even if they want to know whether I paid for my camera with a credit card or by cash.
But I am not exactly certain about what infuriated me.
Was I humiliated because I was ‘randomly’ chosen for that interrogation?
Or was it because it was embarrassing to face this on a crowded platform?
Was I hurt because they were rude?
What stung the worst was that it all started with ‘Pakistani’?
Lille is a beautiful city, but sadly, I will always remember it with a bitter taste in my mouth.
Read more by Sami here, or follow him on Twitter @SamiSaayer