It was a beautiful and sunny day that September 11th and I was in New York’s Central Park biking when I saw the helicopters flying south. Sirens and more helicopters followed. Sensing that something troubling had happened, I headed for home.
On my way into my building, I was stopped by a harmless, mentally-impaired man, a street regular in our neighborhood. With a frantic look, he stuttered out, “Did you hear? The Arabs have attacked!” Then he said it again. “The Arabs” was what I heard as I headed for my apartment, hoping he was wrong. What could he know? I thought, only half-convinced.
By midday, of course, everyone was talking about the Muslims, the Arabs, the Middle Eastern terrorists. I remained in my room, avoiding suspicious neighborhood eyes, watching the Twin Towers crumble again and again on screen. I had lived in the United States for years, but already I feared I had somehow become an outsider — a suspected outsider. I feared the start of a witch-hunt against people who looked like me. Some of my American friends, who had the same fears, called offering, for instance, to drive me to work the next day. “Nobody will bother you if you’re with me,” said one. “Stay here with us and you won’t have to drive at all,” said another who lived near the college where I taught economics.
Long before September 11, I had decided to write a book about the journey of millions of desperate migrants seeking in the West a life free of violence and poverty. The attacks of September 11th narrowed my focus to Muslim migrants who were now regarded as potential terrorists and a threat to national security. As the months passed and the President’s “war on terror” began, I prepared for a long eastward journey of my own in order to follow Muslim migrants west in search of new homes. Expecting to be away for at least two years, I visited Quebec in May 2002 to say farewell to friends.
Early on a Saturday morning, bidding my friends in Quebec goodbye, I drove towards the U.S. border less than an hour away. Lining up behind the other cars, I reached over and unzipped the side pocket of my knapsack, got my American passport out, checked all my documents, and slowly approached passport control. A middle-aged woman with short blond hair and a blank face took my passport.
“Where are you going, sir?” she asked.
“Home. New York City,” I replied.
Where had I visited, she wanted to know. What were the names of people I met? What exactly was my profession? I responded as calmly as I could. She asked me to open the trunk and remain inside my car while she searched it. I complied.
I watched with slowly growing frustration and finally anger as other cars, unsearched, other drivers unquestioned, passed me by. Nervous, beginning to wonder about my own innocence, I suddenly felt the need to justify my activities, my very existence. I remembered having the same feelings when, three years earlier, I was arrested, beaten, and jailed in Tehran for the innocent act of walking in a park with a female friend not related to me by blood or marriage.
Returning to her booth, the woman filled out a form, placed my documents in a bag, secured them under my windshield wiper, and instructed me to proceed to the garage behind her booth and remain in the car. My hands over the steering wheel and so out in the open, I waited there, frightened.
Minutes later, two armed officers slowly approached my car. Noting their hands over their guns, I flashed on the fear, anxiety, and vulnerability I experienced during my last visit to Iran — my place of birth, my original home. Now, thousands of miles away, the same feelings engulfed me.
“Step out, please,” said the officer on the driver’s side.
I was asked to open the trunk, take out my bag, and stand beside my car. The officers now just behind me, one to my left, the other to my right, their hands still poised over those guns, escorted me into a building. My every move was closely watched. They were clearly prepared to shoot and I had no doubt I was at the very edge of being under arrest.
I was asked to place my bag on a long metal table, proceed to the counter, remove everything from my pockets and, again, wait. They gave me a form to fill out. Having left my reading glasses in my knapsack, I requested permission to return to the car. On this, they conceded. Cautiously and from a slight distance, they watched me remove my knapsack from the car. Riddled with fear and anger, I stood once again before the counter and filled out the form while one officer emptied my knapsack and the other returned from a search of the car.
Now — the car being clean — they turned to the part of my life that was far harder to search. They questioned me about my identity, activities, exchanges and purchases, friends, travels, and above all whatever made me different from the men and women allowed to zip cross the border without a question or a thought. Every card, every piece of paper in my wallet was checked. I was asked to explain my credit card receipts. A bill for five hundred dollars from a small-town garage for the purchase of four new tires aroused suspicion and led to more questioning. A receipt for an airline ticket to Atlanta raised further alarm.
“What was the purpose of your trip to Atlanta?” asked the interrogating officer.
“A book I had written was featured at a conference,” I replied. What, he asked suspiciously, might the subject of that book have been?
“Do you travel a lot?” he asked while leafing through the pages of my passport.
With every question, my nervousness increased. I was by now experiencing a regular series of Iran flashbacks. I saw myself back in the custody of the “guardians” of the Islamic Republic. I remembered leaving Iran in July 1999 without even saying farewell to my loved ones. Here at the U.S. border, I fit one uncomfortable “profile” — potential terrorist, Muslim fundamentalist, agent of the Islamic Republic and its global network — there another. I was an activist and critic of the Islamic Republic, a citizen of the United States, and a frequent traveler. In Iran, I fit the profile of agent of the “Great Satan.”
Thousands of miles away, at the very border of my new home, a haven from the everyday violence of the Islamic Republic, I once again felt like a target. The interrogation was halted momentarily and I was seated in a corner to await the arrival of a new officer and yet more questions before I was finally cleared to proceed.
“Have a good day,” said the first officer, and I drove away from the border.
I had made it back, but for the first time in my life, I sensed the burden of homelessness that would be the essence of the next two years of my life as I plunged into a world of Muslim migrants for whom the search for a home — and profiling of every sort — would be a way of life. Not long after, I was on the road, looking for and collecting stories from those who had left their places of birth because of war, violence, and poverty, but found themselves — unlike me — endlessly outside the gates of the new homes of which they dreamed. No one would accept them, nor did most of them have the option of returning to their places of birth. Many were political refugees; going home would only put their lives in further danger. Others had spent their life savings on the journey out. Embarrassed to return empty handed, they felt they had no choice but to keep going.
With my own modest border experience in mind, I wondered: How would they be treated by the border guards and immigration officers who controlled the parapets of the frontiers of wealth in our world. Just how much would police and citizens, now ever more nervous behind those parapets, view them as a threat? Just how much of a danger would they seem, coming as they did from such an unknown and seemingly threatening universe? Months later, the words of a teenage Afghan boy stuck in a makeshift camp in the Greek port city of Patras — and I heard their equivalent all around the periphery of Europe — offered me an answer.
“We are treated like footballs. They kick us, hit us. Why don’t they just take us to the border and send us back? Death is better than this.”
That sixteen year-old was typical. He was living in a jerry-rigged tent of plastic and cardboard in a shantytown made up mostly of Afghan refugees and potential immigrants, waiting for his perilous chance to hide in a truck or sneak aboard a ship leaving Greece for Italy. Like many other migrants, his dream was to find a new home in England — a land that, for all he really knew, might as well have been Oz.
For the most part, these migrants had arrived in Greece illegally. Many had applied for asylum, but seeing no chance of being accepted, they were intent on using Greece as a jumping-off spot for launching themselves deeper into Europe, always hoping for a new chance elsewhere. The Greeks, on the other hand, were intent on not letting that happen. Being on the southern end of the European Union (EU), they were tasked with the job of halting the movement of migrants ever deeper into the EU. Greece was then the European Union’s gatekeeper and the migrants were to be stopped at all cost. Leaving Greece had to be done clandestinely, away from the watchful eyes of the Greek coastguard officers who were in charge of protecting the harbor — the border — from the stowaways and the illegal travelers. Violators were guaranteed severe punishment.
Showing me his broken arm and smiling wistfully, the Afghan boy said, “I slipped under a truck, but they caught me. They came with their sticks and pulled me out, two of them. They began hitting me hard. I was howling. They were using an electric baton and it went on for five or six minutes. After they broke my arm, my friends took me the hospital.”
An Iranian migrant I befriended in Athens had a similar tale. He too had been caught trying to escape to Italy. The coastguard officers had forced him to lie on his belly on the ground, handcuffing his hands behind his back. Then one of them pulled his hair, punched him in the eye, and kicked him in the back. He nearly lost consciousness.
“They took me to an empty bathroom in the harbor, closed the door, and began a second round of beatings. They beat me for twenty minutes, pounding on my face. My chin started bleeding. They hit me with a metal bar. A tourist entered the bathroom and began taking pictures.”
That tourist saved the young Iranian, but he would be hospitalized for eight days, his mouth cut in many places. “I was fed intravenously,” he told me.
Elsewhere in the EU, and in countries hoping someday to join it, the situation was similar. Among the migrants I met, the Bulgarians were feared the most. An Afghan I ran into in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, described his encounter with that country’s border guards this way:
“I came here illegally from the Turkish border. At the border, I saw the guards set two dogs on someone. He passed out from fear. They really behave in a barbaric way. They beat you ruthlessly. I was caught and deported to Turkey three times. The Turkish guards are better. They take all your money, but they don’t beat you like the Bulgarians. As some of my Iraqi friends said, if a war breaks out between Turkey and Bulgaria, they will be the first ones to volunteer to defend Turkey.”
But even those who manage to make it past the Greek coastguard or Bulgarian border guards hardly find themselves in the promised land of their dreams. In France, for instance, I found Muslim migrants living in the woods near a highway, like so many hobos during the American Great Depression. A Kurd from Northern Iraq pointed to his shack, a mass of plastic and cardboard held up by sticks, and said, “This is my home. Take a picture of this. We live like animals here.” As I photographed his shack, he moved away in shame, adding, “I once had a life.”
As I traveled around Europe, I heard ever more testimonies of mistreatment, and met men and women overwhelmed with humiliation and anger — and with no local friends ready to call and offer them aid or protection. These immigrants, at the end of desperate odysseys, remain the unknown victims of September 11 — men and women who are suspect simply because of their religion or the place where they were born. On the run from the horrors of war or poverty, looking for a life with just a shred of security, they discover that wherever they arrive, they are completely unwelcome, automatically assumed to be a threat. Beaten or abused, they are interrogated and questioned before being deported as potential terrorists.
I returned to the United States in September 2004, swept away by the stories I had collected. One day not long after, on my way to visit friends in Connecticut, I arrived at New York’s Grand Central Station to catch my train. Times had changed. Amid the crowds of travelers were men and women from the National Guard.
Passing the time like so many others until my train was announced, I pulled out my cell phone to call a friend. Still searching the phone for his number, I heard a voice address me. “Can I help you, sir?” Looking up, I saw a woman in uniform. “No, thanks,” I replied, surprised. Staring at me for a few seconds, the woman walked away. I looked around, instantly paranoid, feeling all eyes on me. Without thinking, I sat down on some steps, my phone carefully tucked away in my pocket.
Later that day, I told a friend about the encounter. “Oh, the Madrid bombing,” he said. The bombs in that city’s railway station had been triggered by cell phones, my friend told me. My innocent phone call was a cause for suspicion. I remembered the stories of the many hundred Muslim migrants I had encountered during my journey. This was the world after September 11.
An Iranian-born American citizen, Behzad Yaghmaian has traveled extensively in both the Third World and Europe. From 1998 to 1999 he was a columnist for the popular Iranian newspaper Neshat, and over the past fifteen years he has studied, taught, and written about issues of political economy, globalization, and the Middle East. He is a professor at Ramapo College in New Jersey, and the author of Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West (Delacorte Press, 2005).
Copyright 2005 Behzad Yaghmaian
This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com.