That 11 September had been a beautiful sunny day, and I was biking in New York’s Central Park when I saw the helicopters flying south. Sirens and more helicopters followed. I headed for home. On the way into my building, I was stopped by a street regular, a mentally-impaired man. He looked frantic and stuttered: “Did you hear? The Arabs have attacked!” I headed for my apartment, hoping he was wrong. What could he know?
By midday, everyone was talking about the Muslims, the Arabs, the Middle Eastern terrorists. I stayed in my room, avoiding suspicious neighbourhood eyes, watching the twin towers crumble again and again on the television screen. I had lived in the United States for years, but I feared I had somehow already become an outsider. I feared a witch-hunt against people who looked like me.
Some of my American friends called, offering to drive me to work the next day. “Stay here with us and you won’t have to drive at all,” said one who lived near the college where I taught economics.
Long before this 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. 9/11 narrowed my focus to Muslim migrants, now regarded as potential terrorists and a threat to national security. As President George Bush’s war on terror began, I prepared for a long eastward journey to follow those migrants in their search for new homes. Expecting to be away for at least two years, I visited Quebec in May 2002 to say farewell to friends.
On my return, I got out my US passport, 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 was my profession? I responded as calmly as I could. She asked me to open my car trunk and remain inside the car while she searched it. I complied.
I watched with growing frustration and finally anger as other cars, unsearched, other drivers, unquestioned, passed me by. Nervous, and beginning to wonder about my own innocence, I suddenly felt the need to justify my activities, my existence. I remembered having the same feelings when, three years earlier, I had been 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, out in the open, I waited there, frightened.
Minutes later, two armed officers slowly approached my car. Noting their hands poised over their guns, I suddenly felt a flash of the fear, anxiety and vulnerability I had experienced during my last visit to Iran – which is my place of birth, my original home. Thousands of miles away, the 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 were now just behind me, one to my left, the other to my right, their hands still poised over those guns; they escorted me into a building. My every move was closely watched. They were clearly prepared to shoot and I had no doubt I was on the edge of being arrested.
I was asked to place my bag on a long metal table, proceed to the counter, remove everything from my pockets and wait. They gave me a form to fill out. Having left my reading glasses in my bag, I asked permission to return to the car. They conceded. Cautiously, they watched me remove my bag from the car. Riddled with fear and anger, I stood before the counter and filled out the form while one officer emptied my bag and the other returned from a search of the car.
The car being clean they now turned to my life, which 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 across 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 $500 from a small-town garage for the purchase of four new tyres aroused suspicion and led to more questions. A receipt for an airline ticket to Atlanta raised alarm. “What was the purpose of your trip to Atlanta?” asked the officer. “A book I had written was featured at a conference,” I replied. What, he asked suspiciously, was the subject of that book?
With every question, my nervousness increased. I was experiencing regular 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 US border, I fitted an uncomfortable profile: potential terrorist, Muslim fundamentalist, agent of Iran and its global network. There I fitted another: activist and critic of the Islamic Republic, citizen of the US; agent of the Great Satan.
I felt like a target again. “Have a good day,” said the officer. I made it back home, but for the first time in my life, I sensed the burden of homelessness that would inform the next two years as I plunged into a world of Muslim migrants for whom the search for a home was a way of life. They went through every sort of profiling. Soon after I was on the road, 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 about which they dreamed. No one would accept them, and few had the option of going back to their places of birth. Many were political refugees; returning would put their lives in further danger. Others had spent their life savings on the outward journey. 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 control the frontiers of wealth? How much of a danger would they seem, coming from such an unknown and seemingly threatening universe?
Months later, I found an answer in the words of a 16-year-old Afghan boy stuck in a makeshift camp in the Greek port city of Patras. “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.”
He was typical. He was living in a tent improvised of plastic and cardboard in a shanty town 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 home in Britain, which, for all he really knew, might as well have been the Land of Oz.
Most of these migrants had arrived in Greece illegally. Many had applied for asylum, but seeing no chance of being accepted, were intent on using Greece to launch themselves deeper into Europe, always hoping for a chance elsewhere. The Greeks were intent on not letting that happen. Being on the southern extremity of the European Union, they had the job of halting the movement of migrants into the EU.
Leaving Greece had to be done clandestinely, away from the watchful eyes of the coastguard officers in charge of protecting the harbour – the border – from the stow-aways and illegal travellers. Violators were guaranteed severe punishment. Showing me his broken arm and smiling, the 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 to the hospital.”
But even those who manage to make it past the guards hardly arrive in the promised land. In France, I found Muslim migrants living in the woods near a highway, like hobos during the American depression. A Kurd from northern Iraq pointed to his plastic and cardboard shack held up by sticks, and said: “This is my home. Take a picture of this. We live like animals here.” As I photographed it, he moved away in shame, adding: “I once had a life.”
These immigrants, at the end of desperate journeys, remain unknown victims of 9/11, men and women suspect because of their religion or birthplace. On the run from war or poverty, looking for a life with security, they discover that wherever they arrive, they are unwelcome, assumed to be a threat. Beaten or abused, they are interrogated and questioned, then deported as potential terrorists.