“Ask her if she’s pregnant,” the officer said. “Are you pregnant?” I parroted in Arabic. “No,” she said. “She says no,” I told the officer.
The woman was Somali wearing a beige-on-beige one-piece dress that came just above her knees. Her arms and legs thin wires; her face eaten in and it was obvious that she was seven months pregnant. The officer looked her up and down imagining what aside pregnancy could account for her protruding belly.
“Tell her not to lie to me,” the officer said filling out the yellow deportation form. “Don’t lie to him miss. It’s better for you and me and your baby. It’s obvious that you are pregnant so just admit it…” I started to rattle. “Hey!” the officer interrupted, “That’s too many words for what I asked you to translate.” He held up the yellow form as if saying – I can write one for you too if you keep this up." Only, he already had.
I was in Chicago O’Hare and was not let back into the country due to some visa issues. “We have a problem,” Robert the immigration officer at the counter said looking at his computer screen, “You don’t have a visa.” “Why? What did I do?” I asked trying to sound as pathetic and needy as I could. I even tried to force a tear.
Robert knew what I was doing so he returned the favor with complete attempted false sympathy, but I could see right through it. I felt insulted. I wanted genuine sympathy from a man who just met me and probably deports hundreds of people a day.
Robert continued looking at the computer screen, “So … why does the computer say that the FBI thinks you train terrorists?” My ego inflated. I can take Robert. I can take the whole airport if I wanted to. I started to daydream of the possibilities this simple accusation opened for me. Does Robert think I am dangerous? Is he going to call for backup? Will this cause a scene?
As I daydreamed I couldn’t help but smile. This irritated Robert, thinking it insulted his fake sympathy. “Why are you smiling? Did you know about this?” Robert asked. “No, I didn’t.” I said and continued daydreaming.
The holding cell Robert put me in already had three other people. I was stripped of all my possession except for my clothing and locked in. Wanting to make small talk I asked everyone why they were in too. I wanted to show-off my new credentials, and what better way to do it than in a holding cell with other would-be criminals.
The first man sat up on the top bunk and in thick English said, “In Portugal, they think I killed my wife.” The second man sleeping on the bottom bunk said without budging, “In Portugal, they think I was with him when he killed his wife.” Why they put the murderer and his accomplice in the same room was beyond me. They obviously feed off each other and function best if separated.
I consoled myself knowing that no one in that cell had anything on them except their clothing. I didn’t really want to find out what the third man was in for. I looked around the cell and saw that the bathroom had no door and no toilet paper. I decided there was no way I could sleep here. I banged on the door and yelled for Robert. When Robert came I pleaded with him to let me sleep in another room. “I’ll organize your office, I’ll give you all my cigarettes, I’ll clean your shoes…” I was hoping he would hear the sincerity in my voice and take pity on me – false or real.
Before I could finish my list another immigration officer stepped in and said, “I’ll handle this, Rob.” He was short with pasty white skin and black hair. His navy-blue polyester uniform firmly stretched over his rotund frame. His badge read “Michael.” He wanted to show me that he was a “nice guy” and knew about the world and cultures. He wanted to show me that not all Americans are the same; he was different. My ego deflated and I was more than happy to indulge his fancy at sophistication and worldliness.
He suggested I translate for him and other immigration officers at the airport since an Egypt Air flight was arriving and no one on staff spoke any Arabic. In exchange, I’ll get a room of my own, a decent dinner, and he’ll even let me smoke inside a non-smoking airport.
After my 6-hour translation shift and three hours of sleep I was back on the returning airplane. I was the last person on and two officers escorted me to my seat all the way in the back of the plane. Everyone on board knew I had done something wrong. They sat me next to a man no more than 40 wearing a peach colored polo and pleated kakis. The cabin crew started eying me as I was taking my seat, curious why I had returned when they delivered me just the day before. A few started to congregate towards the back of the plane where I was sitting.
“Monsier, pourquoi vous-ici?” (Why are you here?) Denise the flight attendant asked. “Um, they think I train terrorists so now they are sending me back.” “Americains! Zut!” the other cabin crew-members exclaimed. The captain was there too and joined in, “C’est tres stupide!” “Oui!” I agreed. “Tres!”
The man sitting next to me did not share the same level of anti-American sentiment as the French cabin crew. He was from Oklahoma and this was his first time going out of the country. He raised his hand and Denise responded., “Oui?”
“I would like to change seats,” he whispered covering part of his mouth so I wouldn’t hear. “Monsieour, pourquoi?”
“I don’t want to sit next to him,” he said pointing at me. I turned to look at him telling him with my eyes, "I can hear you, asshole." Denise looked at her colleagues down the aisle. They exchanged meaningful glances then turned to the man and said, “I am sorry, but the plane is full. You have to sit next to terrorist trainer, ok?”
Jacob Arsalan is an attorney and writer that has published widely on legal reform, politics, and women’s rights. He is a fresh new voice in creative non-fiction, bringing humor and unique insight into the challenges faced by the Middle East and the United States alike. He currently lives in Amman with his wife Helen.