Monday, June 14, 2010

My Arab-American Experience (3 of 3)

3.    O, Canada

As much as I know my way around the craft of making travel arrangements, things often go wrong. Anything from force majeur to technical malfunction to poor human judgment has happened to me. But what I will describe below was a first.

Since I had some free time both before the BBC event on Monday night and between the event and the reopening of the museum on Wednesday morning, I had planned two personal excursions, unrelated to the professional goals of my trip. I had intended to cross the Detroit River into Windsor, Ontario on Monday morning, and visit friends in Ann Arbor, Michigan on Tuesday.

Eventually, I spent the night between Sunday and Monday and much of Monday morning between my hotel room bed and the bathroom. I'll spare you the details, but let me just say that my body was expelling inexplicable amounts of fluids. Given my recent hernia repair surgery, I was cautious and decided to seek an urgent care center, in the hope to rule out anything like my colon being trapped in some cavity between two abdominal wall muscles. The nearest such medical center was really a small doctor's office in the heart of Arab Dearborn. The receptionist and I appeared to be the only non-Arabs on the premises. I was seen by a doctor, who ruled my ailment a viral infection and prescribed some pills to calm my digestive system and plenty of Gatorade. I picked up the prescription at the Yemeni pharmacy across the street, got two bottles of Gatorade at the nearest Sunoco gas station and went back to my hotel to rest until the BBC event. In a way, that was another component of my overall Arab-American experience. Canada was no longer on my agenda for that day.

Given the short distances and my relatively quick recovery, I thought Tuesday could accommodate both Windsor and Ann Arbor, and indeed, to some degree, it did. On Tuesday morning I made my way in my rental car to Ambassador Bridge, paid the $4 toll and quickly found myself on Canadian soil. Either poor signage or lack of attention on my part landed me erroneously in a truck lane. That, and my non-North American passport, won me an innocent-looking yellow slip. I was instructed to park my car and wait for a customs official.

As soon as I opened the car door, not one, but three uniformed Customs Canada officers surrounded my car. Disappointed not to have found anything in the trunk, they went for the passenger's seat. One officer grabbed my digital camera, and to my astonishment began flipping through the dozens of photos I had taken over the past couple of weeks. Many of them depicted the peaceful, legal, police-regulated demonstration in which I had participated on the sidewalk in front of the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia. We had been protesting the Israeli Navy's brutal attack on a flotilla of humanitarian aid whose destination was the Port of Gaza. The sailors ended up killing between nine and nineteen unarmed humanitarian volunteers and injured tens of others.

The officer asked me about the protest, what was it against, where it was, and whether I had participated in it. I answered truthfully, and then came a surprising question: "Do you plan to participate in and protests in Canada?" I answered in the negative and was ordered to follow the officers into the adjacent building. They already had my passports (both Israeli, but my US visa is in my expired passport, so I need to travel with both) and, still, my camera in their hands. I was ordered to sit in a waiting room until called.

The next step took me to the Immigration side of the building. While waiting there, I needed to use the bathroom a few times (recall my recent illness). The sign the locked door of the men's room instructs potential users to obtain permission from customs officials to enter. When I did just that, the customs officer told me to ask someone from immigration. "You're in their custody now," he informed me. The word custody had the connotation of something a criminal, or suspect, would be in, at which point I recalled that I have a law office in Pennsylvania representing me for the purpose of obtaining my permanent resident status in the U.S.

As I was waiting, many other people came through the same waiting room. Among them were a Turkish-American family, the women dressed in traditional Muslim garb; a Lebanese-American family who was en route to visit elderly relatives in Ontario; an African-American truck driver and his wife and a third friend. I couldn't help but suspecting that the Canadians were keeping themselves busy with some good old fashioned racial profiling. But pretty much each group had some legitimate reason to be questioned: a member of the group with no identification documents, a newborn child traveling out of the country for the first time, and so on. There were also some "regular white folk" in the room at one point or another. There were an American grandma and grandpa taking their grandson camping in Canada with no written consent from the child's parents; a Canadian woman seeking U.S. Resident status.

Interestingly, the non-white people generally said that they usually find crossing the border into Canada more difficult than returning to the States. At least one white party said the opposite. So perhaps there is indeed more racial profiling in Canada than on this side of the border. However, all of these issues the other parties had were solved within thirty minutes, often much less. My wait at the border lasted three hours at this point, during which my BlackBerry cell phone, my only connection to the outside world, was also seized.

The immigration officials mostly ignored me. They summoned me twice to their booth to ask me the same mundane questions previously asked by the customs officers. But after three hours, about an hour of which I spent without my phone, I asked to retrieve the phone and call my attorneys. I was told I was at liberty to use the pay phone in the hall. But I needed my phone to get the number, I explained. The officer wouldn't return it to me. When I asked to speak with a supervisor, another officer appeared. He was at least helpful enough to look up the phone number on his computer. I also told the officers that I no longer wish to enter Canada. I asked to be released to the United States. Their response was that they would only allow that once their examination was over.

That, by the way, was my status in Canada, "under examination." I was told I was not under arrest nor was I being held as a suspect for anything. Yet I was not allowed to turn around. Yet.

I did call my attorneys. They were very concerned and reassuring, but it took another hour for me to be called back to the immigration booth. The previous officer has left, I was told. The good news was that now I was permitted to sign a form in which I asked to withdraw my application to enter Canada and agreed to leave the country without delay. Ironic, I remember thinking. The only delay was imposed by Canadian officials, not myself.

I signed the document and was sent back to my car. A uniformed officer met me there with all of my belongings. I drove back to Michigan, where the U.S. Border control officer asked me, "so what's in Windsor?" "Apparently, nothing," I replied. 45 minutes later, I was reunited with my friends in Ann Arbor, where my only altercation with the law was a $10 parking ticket for a meter two minutes overdue.

This ordeal, too, was for me an Arab experience. Arab-American, Arab with Israeli citizenship, Arab Moroccan in the Netherlands or France, and of course, Arab Palestinian trying to cross anything anywhere where an Israeli official, especially one in uniform, a uniform that I once wore, has to endure. I was screwed over once, in an air-conditioned room in Ontario. Their experiences are iterative, redundant, malicious and prolonged. And I'm sitting in a coffee shop in Philadelphia's gayborhood typing my recollections on my new iPad. Many of the people I described above are lucky to have clean water to drink in their shack in an impoverished refugee camp. 

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