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Suleiman’s Travels

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Posted on Sep 27, 2011
AP / Wilfredo Lee

By Susan Zakin

“Honey, I’ve been thinking we should hyphenate.”

My husband shoots me a pissed-off look.

“You know, Zakin-Suleiman. Or Suleiman-Zakin.”

“We can talk about that later,” he mutters.

We are halfway down the jetway, waiting to find out whether we can get back on our flight to San Francisco. A flight attendant’s voice had come over the loudspeaker, asking my husband and another guy with a Muslim name to get off the Delta flight scheduled to depart from JFK. It is the 10th anniversary of 9/11. When I booked our tickets using frequent flier mileage, I barely made the connection. What can I say? I spent most of my career as an environmental writer. Hurricane Katrina looms larger for me than 9/11 in “American exceptionalism is dead” symbolism. An alternative theory was proposed by my then-therapist, who believed that people with intrusive mothers tend to zone out on large public events they can’t control.


Square, Site wide
Whatever. All I know is that what happened to us over the next few hours was very different from the experience of Shoshana Hebshi, the half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife strip searched by Homeland Security officers on that same day. Our experience made me think that America was getting it right when it came to security. What roils me is average Americans’ ignorance of their own country’s foreign policy.

I wasn’t quite so Zen when I heard my husband’s name over the PA system; I shot out of my seat even faster than my beleaguered significant other. My husband is from Lamu Island, off the Kenyan coast, one of those hippie highway destinations, like Ibiza, frequented by ex-models, minor royalty and various Rolling Stones. I am from the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I do most things faster.

“Sorry! Common Muslim name,” I explained to the blond, tired-looking man in our row as I stepped over him.

“I’m Finnish,” he said, waving his hand, as if to say, we Scandinavians are too evolved for all your crazy American paranoia.

Needless to say, I had more bags than my husband, so he went on ahead while I wrestled with my laptop, shoulder bag and overstuffed carry-on. When I reached the waiting area near gate 26, I was relieved to see him seated across from a very large man with curly brown hair. At least they hadn’t whisked him into an interrogation room. The man, who wore a name tag that identified him as an immigration official, gestured that it was OK for me to sit down.

“Have you been out of the country recently?” he asked my husband.


“When did you leave?”

I watched my husband struggle. It was a real DSK moment. Not because my husband wanted to lie, but because exact dates and times aren’t as important in Africa as they are here, except among the highly educated. Half the Africans I’ve met don’t know how old they are, much less the exact date they traveled somewhere.

“Early May,” I said. “He went back to take care of his kids.”

The rest of it pretty much went like that. The immigration guy asked questions. Sometimes one of us answered, sometimes the other. I found a way of inserting the fact that I was Jewish and originally from New York into the conversation. I also mentioned that I was a reporter. Not exactly marriage material for a devout Muslim, much less a card-carrying Islamic extremist.

All the agent wanted to know was whether my husband had been to Somalia recently or donated money to Somali organizations. My husband got a little huffy, which sent me into a panic. You had to know the back story to understand his reaction. The coastal region of Kenya, where my husband’s family has lived for about 800 years, is next door to Somalia. Kenyans tend to consider Somalis ratfuck crazy, not to mention heavily armed. Somali bandits have been coming over the border and causing various kinds of mayhem since the 1960s, when a commentator, no doubt a devoted listener of radio serials, coined the term “The Shifta Menace.” (Shifta is the word used in most of East Africa for bandit or rebel.) Somali bandits are blamed for any crime that hasn’t been solved yet, from poaching to the recent kidnapping of a British tourist.

The U.S. government’s attention to Somalia as a potential terrorist threat struck me as well placed. Few Americans even know that in late 2006, the United States supported Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia.

The U.S. supported the Ethiopian invasion because of a perceived rightward tilt of the Islamic Courts Union, which ruled the country at the time. The courts had provided Somalia’s first stable government in 16 years. The courts had been relatively moderate, and some observers contend that U.S. pressure was partly to blame for the regime’s alliances with Islamic fundamentalists.

I’m dubious about that contention. But I agree with Aidan Hartley, a Kenyan-born journalist who has probably covered Somalia longer and better than any Western journalist. Hartley has warned of an anti-U.S. backlash. In Somalia, Hartley wrote, the U.S. may be “helping to transform a backwater tribal conflict into what could turn out to be the worst Islamist insurgency in the world after Iraq and Afghanistan.”

So far, Hartley’s words have proved to be prescient. With the ouster of the Islamic Courts, Somalia became “Mad Max” land again, with key regions controlled by Al Shabab, a fundamentalist group that announced in February it had aligned itself with al-Qaida. Recently, Al Shabab suspended aid programs organized by the U.N. and others, exacerbating the flood of refugees into Kenya.

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By oakland steve, September 29, 2011 at 11:19 am Link to this comment

This is the worst written item that I’ve encountered in TruthDig.  It has the feel of a rambling disgorgement on a right wing radio talk show, with the author breathlessly trying to impress the listeners while making her points before the host cuts her off.

One pearl of wisdom that stuck with me was her statement that “Unlike so many of my liberal friends, I don’t discount the vehemence of anti-American feeling or the fragility of civil society.”  I am duly impressed that she has any friends, and that she manages to keep some.  I never knew that it is common among “liberals” to discount the vehemence of anti-American feelings in the muslim world. Learning is fun.

In three pages, the author convinced me that I never want to meet her or read anything else she ever writes.

She should have gotten a personal rejection letter from TruthDig.

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By Mike, September 29, 2011 at 6:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Craig, it wasn’t Jefferson who made the quote. Here it is:

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” - Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

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By Allan, September 28, 2011 at 7:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The shocking thing about this piece is how completely the author seems to
have accepted, and even taken advantage of, some of the most unacceptable
and racist parts of the experience her husband was forced to endure.  The fact
that two men were called off the plane after it had boarded is perhaps as
uncontroversial as she presents, only a cause of slight embarrassment - but it
appears just as likely that their detaining was an afterthought, based on no
evidence and no threat but simply the sound of the passenger’s names. 
Maybe this is enough justification to the author, who used the fact of her own
Judaism to try to expedite their experience with the authorities (I suppose that
in order to subvert this entire ordeal that behavior is perhaps acceptable, but
the action isn’t even really addressed here, as if it is perfectly justifiable, almost
common sense). 
I’m guessing that the internment camp example is meant to remove some of
the dissonance the author must feel between her uncritical approach and the
reality of executive power abuse in the US, because the example is such a
reach.  Japanese internment camps were reprehensible, of course.  But they
were actually a less potentially subversive practice than today’s brand of abuse
to the long-term safety of citizens’ basic freedoms.  The context of “war” in
each case is drastically different.  The War on Terror, like other concept wars, is
a war against an ill-defined group, with ill-defined goals and whose practice
could go on indefinitely without any tangible results except for an ever-
increasing pricetag, an increasingly hegemonic expansion of executive power,
and a vague feeling of “security” that I actually think is probably more like a
consistently present feeling of “fear”.  Perhaps the sense of fear, both of the
enemy and of one’s own authorities, is a consistent between the two wars.  The
difference here is how deeply the war is woven into non-wartime civilian
society.  In other words, our military and security apparatuses are at war, but
we are not. 
And as racist as the practice of profiling is, my fear is that the exercise of
executive power, within this peaceful civilian mileu, will actually become more generalizable in a way embodied by
Giorgio Agamben’s writing on “Homo Sacer”.  In other words, creating within
each person the potential to be singled out by the state for punishment, despite
his or her record of transgressions, in the service of “stability”.  It certainly
seems that this is the direction that the war is going in, both domestically and

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By Craig, September 28, 2011 at 2:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I believe it was Thomas Jefferson who said something
like “Any society willing to sacrifice liberty for
security deserves neither and shall lose both.”

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By Mohamed MALLECK, September 28, 2011 at 1:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It is hot very flattering that Susan Zakin’s husband’s “only political activism was agitating for payment for his fellow players on a soccer team nearly 20 years”. I am not myself from Lamu Island but from another island, Mauritius, located some distance further from the Kenyan coast. Even then, I am painfully aware of the Somali people’s rage at the time of the “Black Hawk Down” incident, and the horrendous fact, some months before that incident two Dutch soldiers on a UN peacekeeping force had held a teenage Somali boy on a beachside-barbecue-type bonfire, roasting him alive. The picture of their barbaric act had made first-page news in many print media and even on some TV channels. That was around 1991/92. Readers can read about the “Black Hawk Down” incident on the Wikipedia website. By the way, not only is Somalia far more strategically located than Afghanistan as far as the parameters of the Project for the New American Century (check that one also on Wikipedia)are concerned, with bases throughout the country expected to help keep under surveillance the oil assets of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran and the ‘security’ (from Arab oppressors, right?)of Israel, should the military bases located on Saudi soil itself be forced to leave the country, but also Somalia has non-negligible volumes of oil assets of its own. About famine, it has been more than 40 years since Amatya Sen convincingly documented, in his Ph.D. thesis that, historically, it has been conflicts that cause famine, not shortage of food.

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By ugarit, September 28, 2011 at 12:06 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A fairly pretentious piece of little substance or contribution.

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By jojojo, September 28, 2011 at 7:41 am Link to this comment

Refreshing, pragmatic, real-life look at a volatile issue.

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By The Farside, September 28, 2011 at 7:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Zakin is “impatient for the day when we can bring his sons to live in a place where they can grow up without worrying about malaria or periodic political upheaval.” Blah blah! The article is trite vacuous fluff. Style over substance journalism. I live in Africa. Give me Malaria and periodic political upheaval any day, to the constant political oppression of the USA and it’s far
more deadly parasitic diseases of rampant consumerism and voracious globalization.

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By DarthMiffy, September 28, 2011 at 4:25 am Link to this comment

This is what it is coming to? I’m ashamed.

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By Lisa, September 28, 2011 at 1:15 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Hear, hear. Borderline moronic. “.. but because exact dates and times aren’t as important in Africa as they are here, except among the highly educated.” Africa the present continent or Africa of “Tarzan the Ape Man” the 1934 movie?

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By maruata, September 27, 2011 at 7:01 pm Link to this comment

One can’t help but gag at the bitter aftertaste of national pride here… we’re left
with “it could be worse” as if to say “at least we’re doing our best” against the
terrorist enemy.

Basically this could be a Bush Administration piece on the war on terror and why
america should fight the endless war.

A far better solution than getting it right at US airports would be to stop pissing
off the rest of the planet with self-righteous foreign policies.

“I feel safe” ... in America God Bless Us…

The norwegian is indeed way more evolved!

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kerryrose's avatar

By kerryrose, September 27, 2011 at 5:34 pm Link to this comment

What self-satisfied garbage.

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