What's in A Name? Ask This Traveler
By Diana Abu-Jaber
Saturday, August 20, 2005; A17
My heart plummeted when the man at the immigration counter gestured to the back room. I'm an American born and raised, and this was Miami, where I live, but they weren't quite ready to let me in yet.
"Please wait in here, Ms. Abu-Jaber," the immigration officer said. My husband, with his very American last name, accompanied me. He was getting used to this. The same thing had happened recently in Canada when I'd flown to Montreal to speak at a book event. That time they held me for 45 minutes. Today we were returning from a literary festival in Jamaica, and I was startled that I was being sent "in back" once again.
The officer behind the counter called me up and said, "Miss, your name looks like the name of someone who's on our wanted list. We're going to have to check you out with Washington."
"How long will it take?"
"Hard to say . . . a few minutes," he said. "We'll call you when we're ready for you."
After an hour, Washington still hadn't decided anything about me. "Isn't this computerized?" I asked at the counter.
"Can't you just look me up?"
Just a few more minutes, they assured me.
After an hour and a half, I pulled my cell phone out to call the friends I was supposed to meet that evening. An officer rushed over. "No phones!" he said. "For all we know you could be calling a terrorist cell and giving them information."
"I'm just a university professor," I said. My voice came out in a squeak.
"Of course you are. And we take people like you out of here in leg irons every day."
I put my phone away.
My husband and I were getting hungry and tired. Whole families had been brought into the waiting room, and the place was packed with hyper children, exhausted parents, even a flight attendant. Scanning the room, I realized that the place resembled a modern Ellis Island. But when my father immigrated to this country from Jordan more than 45 years ago, he didn't have any trouble. "They let me right in," he said. "One of them wanted me to change my name, but I stuck to Ghassan Abu-Jaber!"
Forty-five years later, I was stuck on the border. Something in me snapped. "There isn't any legitimate reason that you've sent me here -- it's just because of my name! You just grab anyone named Abu-Jaber or Abdul-Rahman or Al-Hussain! Isn't that right?" The man smiled blankly. "I'm not at liberty to discuss this case," he said.
I wanted to scream, to jump on a chair and shout: "I'm an American citizen; a novelist; I probably teach English literature to your children." Or would that all be counted against me?
After two hours in detention, I was approached by one of the officers. "You're free to go," he said. No explanations or apologies. For a moment, neither of us moved, we were still in shock. Then we leaped to our feet.
"Oh, one more thing." He handed me a tattered photocopy with an address on it. "If you weren't happy with your treatment, you can write to this agency."
"Will they respond?" I asked.
"I don't know -- I don't know of anyone who's ever written to them before." Then he added, "By the way, this will probably keep happening each time you travel internationally."
"What can I do to keep it from happening again?"
He smiled the empty smile we'd seen all day. "Absolutely nothing."
After telling several friends about our ordeal, probably the most frequent advice I've heard in response is to change my name. Twenty years ago, my own graduate school writing professor advised me to write under a nom de plume so that publishers wouldn't stick me in what he called "the ethnic ghetto" -- a separate, secondary shelf in the bookstore. But a name is an integral part of anyone's personal and professional identity -- just like the town you're born in and the place you're raised.
Like my father, I'll keep the name, but my airport experience has given me a whole new perspective on what diversity and tolerance are supposed to mean. We're told that these heightened security measures are intended to keep us safe. Instead, what seems to be happening is that we're kept in a state of heightened anxiety, trying desperately to separate "us" from "them," when in fact, there can be no separation. The world is a place of nuance, flux, hardship and complexity: We all live together in it. The real safety will come from learning how to live together better, not from trying to push others out.
I had no idea that being an American would ever be this hard.
Diana Abu-Jaber is a novelist.