This story is about a friend’s experience while traveling intercontinentally in the eminent Times of Trump. Let’s call him, for the sake of convenience, Max. And also note that he is a US citizen. But I’m getting ahead of myself here because for clarity I must record two facts that Max had mentioned. (Meanwhile another perilous aspect has been added to world history with the discovery of “black holes” in Yemen operated by UAE security elements.)
First, he’d said, if this can happen to Muhammad Ali, Jr it can happen to almost anyone. He was of course referring particularly to two incidents that had occurred to the son of The Greatest who had given his own name to his first born. He was especially asked, repeatedly, about his name. The incidents also involved his mother, briefly.
Ali Junior was twice held up and “questioned” by immigration employees and was let go after they’ve had their fill of insulting the son of someone who was known by possibly everyone on Earth (except probably only to those who’d been living in the boondocks for decades; and that surely is a possibility in these instances too).
The second point Max—whose middle name incidentally is Muhammad, and this is relevant—had mentioned was that he was certain whatever befell him did not have anything to do with his criticism of the incumbent administration in DC via comments and commentaries he has had the temerity of writing publicly and often.
Now let’s get on with his story. As he was transiting through Abu Dhabi airport he was informed that immigration and customs formalities for entry back into the US would be completed there, which of course made the decision by the Customs and Border Protection seem like a good option and a process that would ensure the safety and security of the flight.
But alas, little did Max realize what awaited him. As he proceeded toward the immigration official with his machine printout, a process that completed absolutely smoothly, the agent wanted to know from Max how much money he was carrying and what kind of foodstuff he had with him. Even after Max answered his repeated query about food by stating repeatedly he wasn’t carrying any kind of food, the agent was obviously not satisfied.
The agent, let’s call him Agent 99, also wasn’t satisfied with Max’s response that he was carrying approximately USDxxxx, which was well below the maximum anyone can bring in without making an official declaration. Instead Agent 99 repeated the question about how much Max had with him and also wanted to know what other currency he possessed. After Max had, in spite of increasing dismay, informed the agent that he had BDTxxxx Agent 99 produced an official looking form and asked Max to write the USD and BDT amounts and sign the paper.
During the entire process Agent 99 carried on a conversation with another agent and only perfunctorily paid any attention to Max. By now despite feeling disrespected, insulted and demeaned—mainly because Max isn’t given to taking recourse to untruths easily—he signed the paper believing that would end the irksome progression of events. But alas, yes once again, it wasn’t the end of the churning of the wheels Agent 99 had launched.
Still while conversing with his colleague, Agent 99 told Max to take the paper he was made to sign to another official who, apparently, entered a few details from the signed paper into a PC, called over an employee and asked Max to follow him. By now he was feeling both harassed as well as bemused and was taken into another room where, he was surprised to see, about forty or so people were waiting their turn to be called for “secondary” scrutiny.
Resigned to his fate at this weird turn of events relating to a routine process, Max sat among the others wondering whether he’d be able to take his flight back to the US. Fortunately for him, at least apparently, he was shortly met by a burly officer who for causes yet to be determined referred to Max by his middle name of Muhammad. To Max, of course, this seemed pretty mystifying; after all who calls another person by his/her middle name!
Evidently, this was neither the time nor the place to question immigration officials due to the nature of the evolving universe. Now Agent 98 who inherited Max’s case took him into a small room and once again, like Agent 99, wanted to know how much money he had with him and whether he was carrying any foodstuff. Not satisfied with Max’s responses Agent 98 wanted to physically ascertain the veracity of his statements; hence he counted the money.
Having counted the money and finding that the amount was in the range Max had stated, Agent 98 wanted to know where else Max had kept more money. Not accustomed to being not believed usually and neither wont to this kind of Kafkaesque inquisition all an exasperated Max could do—while risking the inability to help Agent 98 attain his expectation–was to reiterate that’s all that he possessed. Not succeeding in proving Max wrong, now Agent 98 wished to delve further into the contents of the briefcase.
This experience was now almost at the point where Franz Kafka and Albert Camus would intersect. But of course, given the context, Agent 98 hardly required any concurrence from Max to search his attaché case. However, in the space of a couple minutes the ICE agent realized this wasn’t going to lead to further revelations. Hence finally he decided against further travesty and after noting who knows what on his computer he let Max go to board his flight.
Evidently a truck-load of issues, queries and conclusions emanate from this incident. One obvious conclusion is that the agents have little or perhaps no inkling of who or what they’re supposed to be looking for; they clearly don’t have the ability or qualification to appraise a passenger—except maybe possessing only in their memory one of Donald Trump’s favorite expressions: Extreme vetting.
Of course they have no background knowledge of the people they’re assessing, but it would certainly help them if they did. As a consequence they were blissfully ignorant that Max had traveled many times to US of A with J, G, B category visas in addition to having journeyed across the country at the invitation of the State Department decades before he acquired American citizenship. That would’ve told them something relevant.
Obviously, aside from the vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric emitting from the incumbent US prez, in spite of the paradoxical fact that his own forebears were immigrants too, and even though his foreign policy seems to contradict his own stances on this and other related matters, what else makes ICE employees to be over-active in an offshore station is the compulsion to build a case for the utility of such foreign posts.
Therefore it’s necessary for them to create compelling dossiers of all the onerous duties they’ve to perform in alien lands. It’s merely reasonable to expect this much. After all, they must be seen to carry out that “extreme vetting”—even if somewhat irrational–which hasn’t been so simple to implement stateside, what with a meddlesome judiciary ably assisted by incessant POTUS tweets.
As for those governments willingly collaborating in this scheme let’s just say that there ain’t nothing like mutual benefit. Mae West had famously declared, “Flattery will get you everywhere.” For any foreign ruler—and in the extant context it seems most useful for the unelected ones–who remembers that advice it’s a cinch to get along with the present Washington administration.
Or as William Hartung stated succinctly in TomDispatch: “The Saudi regime is playing Donald Trump like a fiddle, with potentially disastrous consequences.” In this ignominious context it does need to be underscored that the aforementioned United Arab Emirates is no less steroid-driven.
As a footnote it maybe noted: Seemingly, the M name–no, not Max—also contributes to these episodes since in the pernicious environment created it generates inimical feelings especially since a “Muslim travel ban” hasn’t been successful yet. Hence Max ruminated: could a totally unintentional bit of innocent miscommunication land someone in one of those “black holes” especially given their proximity?
The writer has been a media professional, in print and online newspapers as editor and commentator, and in public affairs, for over forty-eight years.