Guilty for looking Arab and Muslim in America

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For the record: I am a Palestinian/Muslim/American who has been in living in the US, Michigan to be specific, since my arrival in 1969 at the age of 8. In Palestine I lived through the 1967 war and was forced to live in caves with my family as well as others from my village as we fled the Israeli onslaught and sought shelter in the ancient caves that surrounded our village. Fear, hunger, and thirst were our constant companion as we struggled to survive. In fact, if it wasn’t for my mother’s emphatic pleas and survival instincts, we, along with dozens of others, would have been blown to bits by an Israeli missile that was directed at the mouth of the cave which we had just evacuated mere moments before. As a 6 year old child, I was witness to death and suffering. I remember my mother yelling at me not to ‘look’ at we passed the bloated bodies of dead Palestinians decaying under the summer sun. The smell of decaying human flesh and the sight of the dead is something that I will never ever for! get.

The Israeli conquest, occupation, and oppression of my homeland and its people had been firmly seared into my conscience and memory. The purely racist attitudes of the Israelis towards the non-Jewish inhabitants of the Holy Land were always evident and on full display whenever I ventured back home to visit my family. Israel had institutionalized discrimination and racism. It was evident and affected every aspect of every day lives of the non-Jewish residents of the Holy Land.

Last weekend, I decided to take my family and a friend of ours, an Israeli Jew, who was in town visiting us, to spend a weekend in Northern Michigan where I have a place. I had fallen in love with Michigan’s Northern country long ago when I first visited there along with my dad as a child. It was a ritual for me to spend summers up there on the lake and the surrounding natural beauty of the area.

When I got married in 1981, I shared my love for Michigan’s North with my Palestinian wife and she too fell in love with its beauty. We continued to be frequent visitor’s there and in fact, my oldest child took his very first steps in Traverse City in 1988. In 1997, I decided that I might as well buy a place in the Traverse City area because we were going up there quite frequently. I have many wonderful memories of the times that my children and I have spent in the area.

We arrived in Traverse City on Friday evening and decided that we would get up early Saturday morning and take our guest to a tour of the area by driving along US 31 which runs along lake Michigan and travels north through Charlevoix, Petoskey, and then ends at I-75. From there we would go across the Mackinac Bridge to St. Ignace and maybe Soo.

We started off in Traverse City and made our way through the quaint small towns, stopping frequently to walk, take pictures, and enjoy the beautiful sights on such a relatively warm, sunny, spring Saturday. Most of the residents in this area are very polite and friendly, but we did encounter the odd glance because my wife wears a scarf on her head.

After many stops and about 3 hours, we were at the end of US 31 and were about merge on I-75 heading north to the Mackinac Bridge. As I was merging with the traffic, I noticed a cream colored vehicle with green stripes parked in the median. I checked my speed to make sure that I was not speeding and then noticed that the person inside was looking through high powered binoculars. We went pass this vehicle, but I noticed in my rearview mirror that he coming across and was following behind us, though keeping a bit of a distance away from us. After about 5 minutes, he sped up and was directly behind me when he turned on his flashing lights.

I pulled over to the side of the road and was wondering why he was stopping me of all the people that were traveling on the freeway, some going quite a bit faster than I was. As the officer approached my window, I rolled it down and greeted him. I then noticed that he was not a police officer, but a ‘Border Patrol’ officer. He didn’t smile; he was ‘all business’ as he asked me the country of my citizenship. I replied ‘American’. ‘Really’, he said, ‘And where were you born’? ‘Jerusalem, Palestine’, I replied. He then went on to ask what I was ‘doing here’ and where I was headed. I explained to him that I was enjoying a drive with my family and that I was heading to no place particular, just seeing the sites of ‘my state’. He then asked me where I was coming from and a few more meaningless questions, then said I was free to go and walked away. I then noticed that my children looked visible shaken and scared. They were just staring at me.

As I was driving off, I started to get upset, especially when my youngest son, Omar, said to me, ‘Baba why didn’t you tell him we aren’t terrorists’. ‘Is it because we are Muslims’? I drove for about 4 miles, my son’s words still ringing in my ears, and then I pulled over and motioned for the Border Patrol officer to also pull over.

This time, I was the one with all of the questions. He came to my window and I proceeded to ask him just exactly why he had stopped me of all people that were driving on the freeway that day. He responded that it was because my vehicle’s back windows were tinted. I explained to him that it was ridiculous because all of the vehicles like mine came with factory tinting for the back windows. I even pointed this out to him as many of the vehicles that passed us had in fact the same type of tinting on their windows. He then said he could not tell how many people were in the vehicle. I asked him if that was a crime. He replied no. I then told him that I had noticed that he was in fact looking through high powered binoculars and could see directly inside my vehicle as we were headed straight at his vantage point when he first saw us. He admitted that he was looking at us through his binoculars. I then asked him if it wasn’t the fact that my wife was wearing a scarf on her head that! made him suspicious. He denied this. I then asked him just exactly what was he ‘looking for’. He replied that they had received ‘unspecified terror threats’ and that he was looking for ‘visitors’. I then asked him if he was not in fact looking for people that he didn’t think ‘belong’ up here. He said yes. I then said to him if my ‘middle eastern’ looking features and the fact that my wife was wearing a scarf did not make us ‘out of place’ in ‘white people country’. By now he was getting quite uncomfortable with my questioning and was starting to ‘reach’ for excuses.

I asked him how old he was (30) and explained to him that I had been a resident of Michigan longer than he had been alive. I also explained to him that I had a couple of condos in the Traverse City area. Just then, our Israeli/Jewish friend started in on him. She told him that she was ‘an Israeli Jew’ traveling with her Palestinian/American Muslim friends and that this kind of behavior reminded her very much of the racism and discrimination that Palestinians face every single day in the Holy Land. He told us that he was ‘just doing his job’ and I told him that I understood this, BUT I wanted to know the criteria he had for racial profiling. He denied that he was racially profiling us, but made a lame attempt to excuse his behavior by trying to compare what he was doing to what I would do if I was the owner of a store and a ‘leather jacket wearing young man with ripped jeans and an earring happened to walk in my store’. Would I have not given him ‘extra attention’.

After a few more moments, I ended my questioning by telling him that today, I was no longer proud of being an American citizen. In fact, I was ashamed of my country which treats me in the same manner that the Israeli government treats my people back home in the Holy land. I then told him, if I was in fact a terrorist (or fit the profile) would I be inviting unwanted attention to myself by having my scarf wearing wife with me, sitting in the front seat? Would I be driving around with my 3 children with me, windows rolled down? Would I have an older Israeli Jewish woman in the car with me, stopping numerous times to take pictures, for coffee, and other snacks? Would I be driving my vehicle in broad daylight?

I resent the fact that I was being singled out along with my wife and children and that we now felt that we were no longer ‘Americans’, but foreigners and strangers even in ‘our own country’. Quite a few people who heard of my experience try to tell me that if I were living anywhere else in the world, I would not have had the opportunity to question the way I was being treated, BUT they seem overlook the fact that I do not live anywhere else and that I am after all an American. I have pretty much resigned myself to the fact that no matter where I travel, I will always be singled out for special attention at airports, BUT not while I am enjoying a car ride with my family in home state.