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Hummus and Airport Security: The Life of an Arab on the Terrorist Watch-List

Yousef Abu-Salah, Co-Editor-in-Chief

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Ah, the airport. A place where the diverse people of the world all converge to reach their own separate destinations. A place of great exploration and wonder. A place of incredible possibilities and encounters. As a child, I adored airports, and I yearned to be able to visit them or, better yet, go through them. This innocent love was spurred on by my love for travel and exploration of the unknown, which airports provided with their gateways to the other areas of the world. Yet, this love was short-lived. As a Muslim Arab-American, I soon realized that my heritage would characterize me as a threat to the very place I loved. This heritage would serve as a massive stain on my record, and it would lead me to endure “random” checks and the sort.

I first came to America around the age of eight from the horrors of my native Palestine, and the culture shift could not have been more drastic. Mobs of hijabs became seas of waving hair. The scent of pita bread and hummus in the morning became the sizzling of eggs and hashbrowns. The sprawling sandy dunes became fields of lush green vegetation. This change was overwhelming, and I was unsure if I would really be able to adapt.

Around that time, I had my first encounter with Rhonda and airport security. Even at the age of eight, there was something about me that was deemed a threat, and I was called up to the airport with news that I had now been placed on the Terrorist Watch List. At the time, I barely understood what that meant. But now, with over fifty visits and many ruined plans and experiences under my belt, I know all too well the meaning of such a title. Apparently, I shared a name with a terrorist in Yemen, and that match forced me to be put on the list of which can simply be attributed to protocol.

One of the most prominent and frustrating instances of this can be seen in my time on the Science Bowl team last year, where I was forced to leave for an airport check just as my team had gone to the semi-finals. All that hard work and studying had been for nothing, as I was not even given the opportunity to participate. I had to go back to Jackson and go through the same thing that I had so many times before. So. Many. Times. Sprawling pictures of terrorists are plastered on a wall, and I am asked if I recognize them. I say no, and we move on. For the next few hours, I deal with similar types of tasks, which quickly became a repetitive mess that seemingly takes forever. Ever since that day, I have absolutely despised all the staff that work there as well, with a special place of hate in my heart for the one we’ll call “Beverly.”

Beverly, a single mother, or what she refers to as a “independent woman waiting for my man to return,” is the person in charge of airport security at my local airport who has accompanied me to almost every single check I have had. Our bond has been one of hate between each other, as we do not like each other but are forced to confront one another due to the “protocol” she so vehemently praises. I hate her for multiple reasons that I shall not disclose, because I simply don’t want to.

With this place on the Terrorist Watch List, I have had to endure horrible experiences with airports throughout my life. There is always going to be a guaranteed “random” inspection whenever I go through lines, which has happened so frequently that I am on a first name basis with some of the baggage workers of the Jackson Metro Airport. I must wait hours for them to validate my identity and make sure that I’m not the Yemeni trash that shares my name. I must sometimes ride other planes compared to the rest of my family due to these checks, and that leaves me traveling alone to places I know nothing about. The most frustrating part is that I feel so disconnected from my family during these times, yet traveling is supposed to be the time for bonding.

I am not a terrorist. I have been a U.S. citizen my whole life, and I have not done anything wrong. I do not deserve to be treated like a dangerous criminal, which, I feel, should be obvious. This is not right. This is not the way you maintain peace and safety. The protocol itself must be updated. I have lived in this country for the majority of my life, yet I am constantly reminded that I am an outlier. I am different. Simply for the sake of my name. And that is completely unforgivable. I do not know how much longer I will be on the watchlist, but I eagerly await the day where I can go into the places I marveled at as a kid and not be treated like a criminal. I eagerly await the day where I tell Beverley how I really feel about her without being afraid of the consequences. That would be an amazing sight, wouldn’t you think?

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