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.
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.
At the same time, I understand why the U.S. was alarmed by the Islamic Courts, which offered refuge to terrorists. The invasion by Ethiopia, Somalia’s historical rival, gave U.S. bombers cover to go after Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the al-Qaida operative called the “mastermind” behind the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 and an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, on the Kenyan coast, in 2002. The U.S. bombers fumbled, according to news reports, succeeding in killing approximately 70 sheep and pissing off a few nomads. But Fazul was killed in June, chalking up another hit for the Obama administration’s surprisingly steroidal counterterrorism effort. (If only the president could be so macho when he deals with Republicans.)
After I met my husband at a writers conference on Lamu, I realized that the notorious Fazul had not only spent time on the archipelago, but had married a local girl, a 15-year-old student at a madrassa where he taught under a pseudonym. I went back to the island, partly to see if my nascent romance was anything more than a holiday fling, and partly because I thought I should try to cover the story. I was tired of editors telling me that I was a good writer but the environment didn’t sell. So I tried to convince myself that I could write a story about Fazul, even though I considered both radical Islamists and George W. Bush delusional, testosterone-crazed morons who should be paying attention to their respective economies instead of engaging in pointless wars. I was more interested in Fazul’s wife, who had been picked up by Kenyan police, than Fazul himself.
I did a week or two of cursory reporting before heading up to the Laikipia Plateau to research an environmental story. I discovered that the woman detained by Kenyan authorities was actually Fazul’s first wife, not the local girl he had married, who had since divorced him. I also discovered that the Muslim women in Kenya were not necessarily eager to be liberated, or talk to the American media, even if one played the sisterhood card. Their sisters wore veils.
In the end, what I got was a personal rejection letter from David Remnick at The New Yorker. And I got married. Not such a bad deal.
Four years later, I find myself appalled that nobody in the U.S. media includes the fact of our involvement in the Ethiopian invasion when writing about the current famine in Somalia. Increasingly, evidence shows that famines occur because of poor governance, not inadequate food, so our role in the country’s destabilization, which also unleashed the Somali pirates, deserves a mention, especially in light of the terrible suffering of the Somali people.
Our experience on 9/11 indicated that while the American people are oblivious to the role our policies may have played in the famine and destabilization of Somalia, our security forces aren’t. There are now an estimated 1 million Somali refugees in Kenya, many applying for—and getting—humanitarian visas that allow them to enter the U.S. Are there Somali refugees in the U.S. who have a grudge against their adopted country? No doubt. The U.N. now estimates that 750,000 people may die as a result of the famine. Twenty-nine thousand children under the age of 5 have already died. This is a high price to pay for fighting al-Qaida, and Americans are not the ones paying it.
The two faces of America, one the benign visage of the Statue of Liberty, the other the aggrandizing militaristic empire, are hard to reconcile even if you grew up with them. Seeing my husband grapple with the enormous diversity of this country, the ethnicities, the politics, the class divisions and cultures, I can’t imagine that Somalis are any less baffled, not to mention frustrated. And humiliated.
As the agent’s questions wear on, my husband lapses into silence, letting me answer for him. I can see that the immigration guy is just doing his job, but the situation is terrifying and even I can hear my braying, nervous laugh.
Satisfied with our answers, the agent tells us that he’ll note that our marriage is “real,” which will help us later. (Later?) There’s just one thing: He is supposed to have a cop look through my husband’s suitcase, but it’s already been loaded onto the plane. He asks the airline people to hold the flight, promising them it will be only five minutes.
We follow the agent back to the jetway. Halfway down the corridor, he stops.
“Wait a minute,” he says. “You should wait here so … ”
“To save us embarrassment,” I say.
“You got it.” He smiles reassuringly. A minute or so later, he is back.
“They can’t find it,” he says. “But I’m afraid if they take it off now, it won’t make it back on the plane with you. Just go ahead and get on the plane.”
I look at him in amazement. Worried that the airline will lose our luggage, he is not going to bother to check it. We thank him and scurry onto the plane.
My husband is embarrassed and I feel badly for him, but I also feel the same way I have felt ever since I returned from Africa. I feel safe. I am glad my husband is here, and I am 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.
Unlike so many of my liberal friends, I don’t discount the vehemence of anti-American feeling or the fragility of civil society. Certainly I worry that “the system” has the latitude to lock people away in places like Guantanamo Bay whether they are guilty or not, and I am disgusted that the American people have been drugged by a steady diet of celebrity journalism. But as I remind my husband, during World War II, the U.S. herded Japanese-Americans into internment camps with no evidence they had any involvement with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The immigration guy isn’t responsible for American foreign policy. Inside the borders of our country, he was nice and respectful, which is more than you can say for government officials in Kenya. And in the end, we made it onto the plane.
But there was a weird coda: My best friend, who is renting us her mother’s apartment in San Francisco, told us that two FBI officers had showed up at her door the previous morning. Sensing that they weren’t on high alert, she joked around, telling them I was probably more of a troublemaker than my husband, an easygoing guy whose only political activism was agitating for payment for his fellow players on a soccer team nearly 20 years ago.
“I think they were just doing, what’s the word, due diligence,” she said.
I relay the story to my husband.
“The system works,” I say. “What do you think?”
He points out that the security agents should have questioned him after he went through the TSA checkpoint, which would have saved him the embarrassment of being pulled off the plane.
“It could work better,” he says.
Yeah, I think. And it could work a whole lot worse.
Susan Zakin is the author of several books on the environment. Her most recent book is “The Afterlife of Victor Kamara,” a novel. More at www.susanzakin.com.
AP / Wilfredo Lee