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Posted on Sep 27, 2011
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.
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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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