The infamous 'Muslim Room' and other travel horrors
"Are you deaf," he sneered at me the minute I approached the counter, I knew I was in trouble.
Recently, I boarded an Etihad Airways flight from Islamabad to Chicago. On a stopover at Abu Dhabi, the plane filled up with a lot of South Asian people; approximately 95% of my fellow passengers were brown. Not being a frequent flyer to the US, I was unaware of the desi population that infests Chicago.
14 hours later...
We finally landed at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. I was tired, worn out and my body ached – as did everyone else’s, I’m sure.
After a long wait, I finally made it to the immigration officer. He asked me a few general questions:
“How long will you be here?”
“Why are you visiting?”
At the same time, he was talking to his colleague behind him about his day at the gym.
After hearing horrific immigration stories from friends and families, this is easy, I thought. But before I got too far ahead of myself, the officer informed me that there was just one more check that I would need to go through before I could enter the United States. What could this be, I wondered.
It was, what I call 'The Muslim Room'.
I call it the 'Muslim Room' because every name that was called out to approach the counter started or ended with Mohammad! Coincidence? I think not.
I actually went to the counter three times mistakenly thinking I was being called, as I, too, have Mohammad as a first name!
18 hours later...
My name finally got called out and it took me a minute to gather myself and head to the immigration officer who seemed agitated.
“Are you deaf?” he said as soon as I approached.
I replied saying, “I didn’t hear you.”
“You were sitting right in front!” He replied angrily.
Not wanting to wait there any longer, I apologised and blamed the delay on the noise coming from around the 'Muslim Room'. The rest went smoothly.
After waiting for hours, the only question I was asked here was how long my stay in the United States was again; after this, I was free to enter the US. I didn't quite comprehend the purpose of being in a secluded room, being asked a question that I had already answered the minute I had set foot in this airport, but then again, who cares. I was free to enter the US!
A few days later...
On my return to Pakistan, the Benazir Bhutto International Airport Islamabad was crowded and hot as always. I made my way to the immigration counter once again after a 14-hour flight- I just wanted to go home and sleep.
I greeted the officer behind the counter. I felt quite relaxed because I was back home. This shouldn’t be difficult, I thought. I belong here.
I was greeted by a rude, insulting stare. After getting my luggage, I headed towards the green channel as I had “nothing to declare” – but for some reason I was rerouted aggressively towards the red channel. Why? I don't know.
However, the one thing that I noticed here was that foreigners are not treated the way as we are in our own country. They are somehow allowed to just breeze through the whole process, while us, Pakistanis are pushed around and made to jump through hoops in our own country!
My fellow passengers weren’t as nice either. My bag was kicked by another gentleman (if that’s what I can call him) for being in the way. And in spite of my protests he ignored me and walked off.
Finally the debacle was over and I headed home.
I’m not a frequent traveller but I have travelled quite a bit and I feel like it is becoming uncomfortable to do so anymore. Yes, uncomfortable - I use this word because of the unnecessary questioning and rude stares that you become a victim of, whether it be in your own country or abroad.
I understand the racial profiling abroad; I feel it’s unfair but I do understand it. We are brown and they don’t like us; this is something we just have to deal with. But, somehow you tend to expect just a little more when you are in your own country. Sadly, even this can’t be found here.
We are treated with aggression and are scorned; we get jeered at for absolutely no reason.
Should brown people just stop travelling?
Follow Aly on Twitter @Mohdalykhan