The trouble with traveling while Arab

vintage TWA airline timetable

Traveling While Arab can mean a whole different timetable. (Photo by Jeremy Keith via Flickr)

I waited too long to book a flight home to visit my family in Amman to be picky about my flights. The only option under $2000 was a four hour layover at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.

The price and timing was fine.

The racial profiling and accusation that I might be a terrorist was not.

The first leg of the trip, Seattle to Amsterdam, took ten hours. We had a party at our house the night before that ended at 2:30am, so I’d hoped to sleep most of the flight. But I only slept for maybe five disjointed disturbed hours. So by the the time I got to Schiphol Airport, I was destroyed.

Schiphol Airport sign Amersterdam

Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport has tight security and a reputation for racial profiling. (Photo by Roger Price via Flickr)

I had to hunt down the ticket counter where I could recheck-in to get the boarding pass for the second leg of the trip. But the counter would not open until two hours before the flight, so my hopes of sleeping for a couple of hours at the airport were dashed.

Across from the Royal Jordanian gate were a number of soldiers wearing blue uniform and carrying extremely large machine guns. The sight startled me. At first I thought something was happening. But it was only the El Al, the Israeli airlines, gate. So, I knew the presence of the soldiers was regular protocol.

I got in line for the flight to Amman, but the line was moving so slowly since everyone had to go through another security check, that I decided to leave the line and walk around close to the gate until the line eased off a little.

And that was a mistake.

After a few minutes of walking, two tall soldiers in blue uniforms approached me to ask why I got out of the line. They were carrying incredibly large guns that stretched from their shoulders to their knees, with smaller guns, handcuffs, what seemed like small spray canisters, strapped around their belts.

TSA Body Scanner Images

Images produced by the new Pro-Vision full body scanners, recently introduced in airports around the world. (Photo by TSA)

I told them that the line was moving slowly, and that I was too tired to stand still, so to stay awake I opted to walk around. They told me that if I were tired I should sit down. I told them that I prefer walking since I have been sitting down for hours before and would sit down for hours to come. They gave me a strange look but left me alone.

Ten minutes later, when I went beck to the line to check-in, the same two soldiers came back and pulled me aside.

They took my US passport and boarding pass. They asked me the same questions about getting out of the line and many more questions: why was I so tired, where did I come from, where was I going, why was I going there, why did I get out of the line, why didn’t I want to sit down, what do I do for a living, did I know who they were.

I answered their questions and to the last one, I said that all I know is that they are harassing me with all their questions. They insisted that they were not harassing me that I was acting nervous.

They asked me again if I knew what they did. I said I did not. They then told me that they were trained to spot terrorists and that I was acting nervous. At this point I was losing my mind; I was delirious, angry, and being labeled as a terrorist. I told them they should be better trained in order to differentiate between being nervous and being exhausted. At this point they gave me back my passport and boarding pass and I went back in the check-in line.

At the security check, I put all my things through the x-ray machine and I went through the surrender machine, aka ProVision whole body imaging machine. When I came out the security lady took me aside, told me to stand for a body search. But instead of checking my body with a hand-held detector, she spread her fingers of both hand wide and immersed them through my hair. She squeezed my hair twice. When she did not find what she was looking for she let me go.

The author’s suspect hair-do.

I just want to repeat for the sake of emphasis: she searched my hair.

All I could think as I boarded the plane is that I knew I should have stuck to the boycott of this airport that I’d maintained since 1997, due to their reputation for racial profiling of passengers, especially Arabs.

Racial profiling and harassment complaints against Schiphol airport have been ongoing since the mid 1980s. This is a direct result of the intimate involvement of ICTS International, an Israeli company based in Amsterdam, that provides aviation security at Schiphol Airport as well as nine other airports, including Boston’s Logan Airport. The company was established in 1982 by former members of the Israel’s internal security agency and the Israeli airlines, El Al.

Of course after September 11, 2001, we got more comfortable with profiling and were encouraged to say something if we see something.

But profiling didn’t stop the so called “underwear bomber” from getting on a plane at Schiphol bound for Detroit in 2009 with a bomb hidden in his pants. Fortunately the bomb failed to detonate.

More recently, on September 10, 2011, a Frontier Flight 623 had three suspicious passengers who were seated in the same row, two men and a woman. One of the men was airsick and got up to use the loo, the other man got up as well and used another lavatory, while the woman stayed seated. This suspicious behavior that was reported to the ground by the flight attendants. This resulted in the plane being escorted by two F-16, landing in a remote area of the airport, surrounded by police cars, and bomb-squad boarded the plane where they handcuffed and detained the three passengers: an Arab-American woman and two Indian men. The three were not charged with anything. Surprise surprise.

We might say, “oh but it was the tenth anniversary of the twin towers.”

“Oh but they were not charged.”

“Oh but…”

Schiphol Airport tarmac. (Photo by Cristian Bortes via Flickr)

We can find excuses. But the reality is that racial profiling is so prevalent that a new phone app called FlyRights was released a few months ago to allow people to quickly and easily report air travel discrimination. The application is a product of The Sikh Coalition, with the support of African American, Latino, and Muslim civil rights groups.

Profiling affects all people of color in every day life; not just airports: Arabs and Indians are terrorists, Latinos and African-Americans are drug and arms dealers, and women of color are drug smugglers and prostitutes. Lovely.

I think that racial profiling may one day come to an end if we admit our own bias, stereotyping, and racism. More than 70% of Americans support racial profiling in airport security. So, whether it is the built in racism within security companies or because we are comfortable with being racist, racial profiling is happening. It is affecting the daily lives of many individuals all over the world, on multiple levels, and it is wrong. No one should have to base their travel route, day, or clothes on what might make them fit least in a racial profile.

So if you see racial profiling, please say something.

alma khasawnih is an immigrant from Far West Asia. Detroit is the city she feels most affinity to, currently lives in Seattle, and wants to grow old in Barcelona. alma is a PhD student in Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington, her focus is street artists and graffiti art in Cairo's Arab Spring. She is interested and involved in Digital and Public Humanities. She finds it relaxing to color within the lines in coloring books.

7 COMMENTS

    • I’m the whitest of white girls, I seriously am incapable of even tanning, and they regularly search my hair at airports, especially if I’m wearing a hat (easiest way to travel with a hat, so you don’t have to pack it). Though I agree racial profiling is a huge problem today and there are clear indicators of this, these ridiculous things happen to me too.

  1. My daughter is bi racial, nigerian and irish. She had experienced the same harassment. We did not sit down like nice little girls! We took it to the media. The entire world read about the gross behaviors of the TSA. My daughter was taught to stand up for what is right, and maybe nothing has changed but what my daughte r gained was her dignity. Keep writing. Words can change the world.

  2. D.S

    I have been checked up quite a few times: It was NOT pleasant. Once I almost missed my plane. I remember people looking at me, watching my little bag of dirty laundry opened-up, my underwears and bras in a stranger’s hands , having to pack up hastily … body-search.
    I had references of friends (phone numbers and adresses)that I was coming to visit:: it never prevented me from being checked up more than travellers with little children, elderly people, and on the whole, passengers whose citizenship, physical traits or religion corresponded more to the local country or final destination of the flights.
    I was a white-skinned ,comely French Christian student with an obvious European style about my manners and behaviour.And yes, I was spotted because different…
    Eventhough there have not been that many terrorist attacks justified by ideological claims of unbearable oppression undergone by world citizens looking somehow like me or born, raised or still having legitimate family connections or natural cultural-religious ties alike mine.

    Obviously your situation is NOT comfortable. But there are issues of security, there is such a concern as public welfare.

    This is the reason why I always pay attention to those unhappy travellers who are selected according to local and international security criterias(Among those : I have seen Catholic nuns, blond-haired tall westerners with diplomatic looks, bachelors of both sexes along with honorable travellers like you) and as much as I can, try to reassure them words of solidarity, and if time runs short a warm greeting, a gentle glance , a trusting smile.
    By the way I do not look at the policemen and policewomen as ennemies of the human race, eventhough I am a left-wing citizen , They too must often feel threatened by the looks of others , must feel the heaviness of their responsibility, and the cumulated stress of risk taking and difficult working conditions.
    (Those who may take advantage of their temporary power in an abusive manner only reflect human fascination for Authority as well expressed by those who tend to reject it almost systematically)

    Much to my sadness, when I read the comments of my fellow liberal citizens of the world , I find their good-heartedness loaded with such self-righteousness and self-indulgence for their own personnal rights that they tend to forget fundamental republican values such as the legitimate concern for common good.

    I am afraid that this habit of complaining all the time in the open i.e in the medias , takes away from the dignity that you are all so concerned about and will devaluate more urgent calls for public attention.

    Avec mes salutaions republicaines,

    Isabelle-Elisheva

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