When I walked into Washington's Dulles International Airport with
two suitcases and a ticket to Paris, I was satisfied that I looked
like a Muslim woman. A Hijab left only the oval of my face exposed -
my blond hair was covered, pulled back in a tight bun - and I was
wearing an ankle-length skirt. For good measure, a copy of the Koran
stuck out of my handbag.
The idea to slip
into the skin of a Muslim on a trans-Atlantic flight had come to me
after interviewing dozens of young Muslims in Chicago about their
post-9/11 experiences. One had given me a Koran. Returning to
Washington from Chicago, when I flipped open my suitcase at check-in
to find my passport, the Koran came into view. The United Airlines
agent became visibly uncomfortable. I was searched, and on arrival
in Washington, my checked bag had a security notice inside informing
me that it, too, had been checked.
Many of the people
I interviewed in Chicago had spoken of airports.
"Muslims on planes
are like black people driving late at night," one young man said.
"They are guilty until proven innocent." After several Islamic
scholars assured me that it would not be offensive for me, a
non-Muslim, to dress as one, I decided to wear the Hijab back to
I arrived at
Dulles last Saturday covered in black, not knowing what to expect.
But nobody turned to stare as I made my way through the departure
hall to the Air France check-in desk for flight AF039. People just
went about their business.
The young man
examining passports at the check-in line looked Middle Eastern.
"Passport and ticket please," he said. I pulled out my passport and
explained that I had an e-ticket. "Don't you have a print-out?" he
asked. I shook my head. He looked at my handbag. "Can you swear on
the Koran that you're getting on the 5 p.m. flight?" he quipped. I
assured him that was the right flight, and he waved me through with
a broad smile. "This is not so bad," I thought to myself.
Minutes later I
changed my mind. When a friend who accompanied me to the airport
pulled out a camera to take my picture, the middle-aged man behind
me turned to his wife and said, in German, "Now she is taking her
"Shhh," his wife
replied and giggled.
They didn't know I
was German. When I turned to look at them and then asked my friend a
question in German, their embarrassment was plain. The remark had
been a joke. But it spoke loudly about how Islam and terrorism have
become intertwined in the collective subconscious.
smoothly, but I was feeling self-conscious. Waiting in the security
line, I tried to read people's thoughts: some antipathy, it seemed,
mainly from older people, and a lot of curiosity, especially from
young women. At one point I met the eyes of an Indian-looking woman
with a headscarf. She nodded and smiled. "We're in the same boat,"
her look seemed to say.
A woman security
guard walked along the snaking line asking people to discard their
drinks. When she came to me she said: "I take it you have no drinks
- it's Ramadan, isn't it? Any other liquids?" I shook my head,
impressed by her knowledge of the Muslim fast.
One man in the
line struck up a conversation. "Are you Turkish?" he asked, pointing
at my German passport. "No, German," I answered. "Half-Turkish?"
"No, just German," I smiled. He clearly had trouble categorizing me.
The vast majority of Muslims in Germany are descendants of Turkish
"guest workers" who came in the 1960s and 1970s.
As the line edged
forward, I started chatting with a black man near me. He said that
he was not Muslim but that two of his African-American friends were.
"But people don't think of Muslims when they see black people," he
"It's kind of
funny," he mused, shaking his head after I told him about the German
incident at check-in. "People are happy now when a black man sits
down next to them on the plane. Why? Because he is not an Arab."
At the X-ray
machine I placed my handbag, shoes and jacket on the conveyer belt
and walked through the metal detector. I half expected to be pulled
aside for a search, but nothing happened. I put my shoes and jacket
back on. Then just as I walked away, I heard a polite but determined
voice: "Ma'am. Please step this way, you have been selected for a
"Why me?" I asked.
"It's random, Ma'am," he answered, indicating half a dozen others
who were being searched then: old, young, white, black, Latino. I
was the only "Muslim."
Random. As they
searched my bag, the word transported me back to a recent
conversation with an imam in Bridgeview, a Chicago suburb with a
large Palestinian community.
"When you have
been searched 10 times in a row, it does not feel so random
anymore," he said.
Many of the young
Muslims I met said they dressed in Western styles when they traveled
to avoid being picked out for screening. Amjad Quadri, a 31-year-old
computer scientist who recently traveled to Saudi Arabia and Yemen,
said he had worn baggy jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt, hoping to look
like an American tourist. "I even wore a baseball cap," he said,
instead of his usual kufi, a traditional Muslim hat.
On my way to gate
B-41, I caught my reflection in the window and saw what other people
see. I was no longer just a woman, no longer a German, a journalist,
or a person of a particular color or shape. I was a Muslim. The
hijab defined me.
fellow passengers went out of their way to be helpful, offering to
lift my bag into the overhead compartment and making room when I
passed. I finally sank into my seat, the Koran on my knees. A young
British woman on my right, reading a gossip magazine with close-ups
of celebrities in bikinis, avoided eye contact. The Brazilian man on
my left apologized every time his arm or knee brushed against mine.
Thankfully we were
flying east, so shortly after takeoff the sun was gone and I was
able to eat and drink without blowing my cover. I remembered not to
order any pork and to forego my habitual glass of red wine.
Halfway over the
Atlantic I got up for a stretch and a glass of water, taking my
notebook with me. A Frenchwoman nodded at the pad and asked: "Are
you a student?" I told her I was a journalist; she looked surprised.
"Ah. And who do you work for?" Al Jazeera? Some Muslim newsletter?
her eyes seemed to ask. "The International Herald Tribune," I
replied. More surprise. "Ah. And what do you cover?" Religion?
Maybe she was not
actually thinking those things. I noticed during the trip that I was
constantly reading between the lines. "As a Muslim you feel you can
never have a bad day," Asma Akhras, a Syrian-American math teacher,
had told me. "When you get cranky in traffic or in the shop you feel
you can't show it because you fear that people won't just think
'cranky woman,' they'll think 'cranky Muslim.' It's tiring."
We landed on time
at Charles de Gaulle International in Paris. It was 6:30 a.m. and a
cluster of tired travelers flocked to passport control. One line
stopped moving when an Arab-looking man presented his passport; it
took nearly 10 minutes for him to be waved through.
When a new window
was opened, my line forked and a woman behind me nudged her husband:
"Come, it will be quicker here." As it happened, the officer barely
glanced at me, waving me through in less than a minute.
I picked up my
suitcases from the baggage claim and took a taxi home. At Dulles,
most of the drivers had seemed to be Pakistani and Indian Muslims.
Here, my driver was a Frenchman of Algerian descent. "One day none
of us will make a difference between Muslims and Christians and Jews
anymore," he said.