Revealing and riveting, Mohamed Hassan’s new book How To Be A Bad Muslim highlights what it’s like to navigate the world as a young Muslim man.
Every New Zealander should read the poetic series of essays that rip our inherent prejudices wide open, for all to see.
His work illuminates the privilege many of us walk around with, an upper hand and that’s invisible only to those who get to wear it (by no actual merit of their own).
The below extract has been edited for length, the chapter in the book includes stories from Egypt and Tunisia as well…
I have always been obsessed with airports. The wide-open terminals. The warm neon glow of duty-free stalls preying on sleepy guilt. The scent of dispensed coffee, industrial floor cleaner and endless possibility.
As a first-generation immigrant, stretched across oceans and time zones, I have spent a lifetime staring up at a flight display board and thinking about my place in the world. As a kid who wore the question of belonging like an ankle monitor everywhere I went, airports were a magical realm where no-one belonged. Like me, everyone was a stranger on a journey. Everyone was seeking something they were missing, and this was the in-between place. Not heaven nor hell. Neutral. Safe.
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My favourite is Singapore Changi Airport, with its sprawl of stores, waterfalls and indoor cinemas so endless you feel like Keanu Reeves waltzing through a simulation. My least favourite is Denver International Airport – its nauseating 60s pastel décor and inexplicable acid-daze murals of burning forests, children carrying swords draped in the flag and zombie Nazi officers lording over a sea of displaced mothers. Seriously, look them up, and then read the conspiracy theories.
Beyond all my romantic notions, however, airports have a darker underbelly I have become increasingly conscious of. In a time of globalisation and mass travel, airports are also a “no man’s land” where freedom of movement can be upended in the name of national security.
Over the past 20 years, airport security measures have been tight. After September 11, sweeping counter-terror laws were passed under urgency to grant customs agents the right to detain and search travellers for hours, unlock their phones and laptops, question them about their travel histories, the contents of their bank accounts, the nature of their personal relationships. Secret lists are made by immigration agencies to highlight high-risk countries – and by extension, ethnicities – and these are mapped over passenger logs to select candidates for special treatment.
Growing up, I watched my hijab-wearing mother pulled aside and swabbed for explosive material every time we transited through Australia. Every time, we were told it was a “random search” and asked to sign a waiver that offered us the option to comply or be detained.
When I was old enough to travel by myself, I inherited the privilege, watching my name trigger security systems at the passport control desk. Every single time, I fight the urge to reach up to the glass and explain that this happens a lot because of my common name and because of my profile as a military-aged male from a Muslim background who could be radicalised at any moment. Instead I wait quietly while several phone calls are made and my details checked against several other lists. Eventually I’ll be allowed a visa after holding up the queue of irritated passengers.
This is the best-case scenario.
In the United States they stamp your passport with “SSSS” – Secondary Security Screening Selection – and send you to a room in the back with all of the other travellers stuck in limbo at the gates of promise. At LAX once, in 2016, a sympathetic customs officer sighed at the screen and asked me if I always got stopped at airports. A less sympathetic one led me down the hall and smirked as he opened the door and told me to keep my phone shut and my bags outside.
“Welcome to paradise,” he said.
There were maybe 50 of us, mostly Arabs and Asians, alongside one bewildered white guy in the corner. A dozen desks lined the wall, where irritated staff loudly interrogated passengers with basic grasps of English. They asked about their employment history, academic transcripts, relationship status, while reminding them periodically they could be flown back to their home countries at the snap of a finger.
One South Korean woman was asked to explain why she had once been suspended from a business course. I was released three hours later, after they called the media company in New Zealand where I worked, to make sure I was in fact employed there. It was humiliating.
A month later, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, on a platform that included banning Muslims from entering the country. He signed an executive order to that effect in his second week in office, placing a ban on travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries. It unleashed chaos in airports around the country. Thousands were stranded, placed in detention centres or forced to pay for return flights, and missed out on scholarships, employment opportunities and family visits.
In response, protesters occupied the terminals. Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union showed up to offer immigration advice to confused travellers trapped inside. Muslims prayed together in front of the airline desks, their allies surrounding them in silent protection. It was an America battling its own demons. My Muslim friends in Denver and Los Angeles told me they were tired of fighting for their dignity.
As a Muslim I was used to being hit with airport security checks, but when I became a journalist I unlocked a new host of challenges. It seemed that while half the world was suspicious of Muslims, the other half felt similarly about reporters. I was now being flagged on two separate lists.
At Tel Aviv airport, they confiscate your passport and send you to a doorless room in the corner of the terminal. There is no fanfare. You’re not told what’s happening or how long you will wait. You make conversations with the Palestinians huddled around you to pass the time, and eventually an Israeli Defense Forces soldier takes you into a room and asks you to explain your life.
The first time I travelled to Israel, all of my paperwork was sound and I carried two different accreditation letters, one from my news agency and one from the Israeli Press Office. This meant I only waited for an hour and a half, as opposed to the 10 hours my friends with Palestinian lineage endured. I was ordered to surrender all my footage to a military office for approval before I left the country, which of course I did not do…
In 2016 I began hearing stories from friends and others in the Muslim community about being stopped, searched and questioned for hours while returning to New Zealand. My friend Jaballah urged me to come to his local mosque and cover what was going on.
So I followed up. I accompanied him to evening prayers and, just after the sermon, I asked the imam to make a small announcement about the story I was working on. When isha prayers were over, I spoke to no fewer than 25 people. A Syrian refugee told me he had been stopped every time he entered the country, and that he was sick of it. A Somali man said his wife was held back for nine hours despite being visibly pregnant, with three children in tow. A young Tunisian man said he’d been stopped on his way back from Sydney, and didn’t understand why.
The government at the time shrugged it off, insisting there was no way to determine a person’s faith based on their appearance and passport, and hence profiling wasn’t happening. The Muslims I had spoken to felt differently.
A year later I saw it first-hand. After flying for 21 hours from Turkey to Auckland, my first overseas stint under my belt, I picked up my bags and texted my dad to tell him I had landed. He and my mum waited outside the arrivals gate with a flat white and a “welcome home” balloon. They’d be sitting outside for four hours, unsure of where I had vanished to, or why I wasn’t answering any of their calls.
I’d made it to within 20 metres of where they were standing before a customs officer tapped me on the shoulder in the middle of baggage claim and told me to follow him.
“Come with me. Let’s take a shortcut.”
I was sat down on a table to the side of the x-ray machines and the contents of my bags were searched in excruciating detail. I watched as every item was removed and swabbed for bomb residue. My T-shirts. My toothbrush. My underwear. All while passengers looked on in horror as they made their way out to citizenry. I was presented with a list of every location I had travelled to within the last year, and asked to explain each. Why was I in Israel in September? What business did I have in London in January? My phone and laptop were taken to a hidden room and scanned for an hour, and I was asked to explain photos that piqued interest.
“Why are you standing outside the Dome of the Rock with your finger in the air?”
Each time my phone began to vibrate, and I saw “Dad” pop up on the screen, the customs agent told me sternly not to touch it. Suddenly I realised that even though I had reported on this exact situation, I didn’t really know what my rights were. What did customs practices dictate, and which could I refuse without being arrested?
My New Zealand passport, which had shielded me from dispossession and state repression, and granted me the privilege of unrestricted travel, couldn’t protect me here. Between the check-in desk and the gangway, surrounded by overpriced perfumes and mountains of Toblerone, the dignities my parents had migrated to earn suddenly failed me.
What I remember most clearly were the reactions of my fellow travellers, staring as they passed me. A mix of intrigue and surmise that they had stumbled into an episode of Border Patrol and would get to see an officer lift a sack of cocaine from the lining of a duffle bag as the music swelled and a sardonic narrator chimed in: ‘For this weary-eyed young traveller, looks like the party’s over.’
Despite my white-passing face, my blue eyes and my honest intentions, here I was reduced simply to my name, my place of birth and what was left unspoken in the margins. Mohamed Hassan. Born in Cairo. Muslim. Security threat. Suspect. Terrorist. It is a reality magnified for others with darker complexions than mine, with hijabs and kurtas that betray them.
I’m not sure who to blame for all of this – my colleagues in the media and their lust for hyperbole; the politicians lullabyed into the arms of dog-whistle populism; or the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks that have irreversibly changed international travel forever.
What I do know is that the sense of unimpeded adventure that had rushed through my veins each time I stepped into an airport started to fade. I started to dread the superficial niceties of terminal security guards, the passport control clerks with a million questions, the vacuum of time between my passport being scanned and my visa stamped where anything can happen.
I’ve stopped asking my parents to pick me up from the airport. I walk through terminals with my body tense and a smile I stretch around my ears. It is a mask I wear to protect myself from suspicion. To protect others from fear. I take it off in the bathroom and exhale.
I don’t want to think about my identity as a virus. It would break my mother’s heart. It is not an inheritance I wish to leave the children I hope one day to have. Instead, it is a story I am retelling in my own words – glumly, humorously, poetically, over and over – until one day it belongs only to me.