Iranian-Canadian writer and activist Fereshteh Molavi recounts one of her many experiences of being held at the US/Canada border. Molavi has a piece in the forthcoming Banthology: Stories From Banned Nations (Deep Vellum Press, US; Comma Press, UK), in which writers from countries affected by the US travel ban respond directly through fiction.
At dawn Election Day in 2016 I was on a flight to the States to attend an author event at the University of California, Santa Barbara. At midnight the bad news struck like a bolt from the blue. The next day, on campus, the disturbed crowd of students protesting, chanting, discussing, and whispering reminded me of the atmosphere of Tehran University during the revolution of 1979, when I was one of numerous young people who were concerned about the future of the country.
On my way back to Toronto the following week, I promised myself not to take a trip to the US for as long as Trump is president. I’m not sure if I can keep my promise, for I have family members living in the States. As a result of Trump’s travel ban it seems highly unlikely that my siblings in Iran will get a visa for a family visit. But the consequences of a prejudiced travel ban go so much further than depriving many people from visiting family members.
Some years ago, while I was living and working in the States as a Canadian citizen of Iranian descent, the term “axis of evil” suddenly appeared and affected the lives of many people, including me. My monthly trips to Canada turned into a series of nightmarish experiences in border crossing—from being interrogated and detained as a terrorist suspect, interviewed by the FBI, and frisked and escorted by officers, to being fingerprinted and missing the bus or the train or the plane. I worked at Yale University for two years, and every time I wanted to go and visit my son in Toronto I had to go through a horrible ordeal in crossing the border, just because I was born in a country that had been branded as part of an “axis of evil” by the president of the United States.
For me, absurd bureaucratic customs policies and regulations in the name of national security resulted in situations more terrifying than nightmares. No wonder I am deeply hurt by Trump’s travel ban.
—Fereshteh Molavi, Toronto, 2018
An Absurd Report
In my serial nightmares there is a border crossing that takes a different name each time. When I wake up, I don’t remember this name. What comes to me first is a huge wave of horror—my fear of the next nightmare. It swallows me and for a while I get lost in the deep down of an unknown ocean. Then the daylight pushes it back, and I find myself alone on a deserted sandy beach with my skin exposed to the viscous bodies of tiny bugs—the remains of the past. I recall lines and shapes, frames and faces, images and hallucinations—all vivid, all without a proper name, but each labeled.
Down there I’m called “the female,” as an officer refers to me in his report to his supervisor. I see the officers’ nametags on their chests and I recognize the letters. In no-name territory, they don’t produce a name. I cannot summon names—either their names or even mine, or those of my son, my daughter, my land, and you. This is an unwritten law, and I know that I am appearing before the law.
It is not a court, but a scene. No accusers, but a bunch of dutiful guys doing a great job in the midst of the never-ending comings and goings of grotesque aliens from some freakish planets. No accused, but an actress in the role of an interviewee. To get through the ordeal, she must suppress her voice. She employs all her energy not to utter a word. But she imagines what she might have reported to you about just one episode of many:
The other evening my daughter phoned to talk to me. My son said to her that I had gone with you to have dinner or lunch. She told me later that she had laughed. At that time, somewhere around the ravine, we were having our breakfast—mine toast and an omelet called something that sounded strange to me; yours pancakes and maple syrup, bacon and potatoes, and coffee, an ordinary meal for you, I guess.
A few days later, at noon, in the familiar customs investigation room, I had my next breakfast—dark coffee without any taste or aroma, in a half-full, half-empty Styrofoam cup. It was my treat, offered by the officer after the detective had left me alone. I sipped my coffee and thought that we would have had our breakfast, noonish, somewhere around the ravine, if I hadn’t had my birthplace in my passport, or if I hadn’t been born with a special label pasted on my forehead.
A couple of hours ago, before the check-in booth once again, as sleepy as I was during all the past episodes or as I would be in all the future ones, I had stared at the black back of the desktop—uninterested in what was on the screen before the goggle-eyed officer. I was thinking about the call I hadn’t made to you early that morning and the hug my son hadn’t given me.
“So it appeared again,” I said to myself when the officer rushed to the other room with my passport in her hand. Avoiding a Kafkaesque interpretation, I recalled a satirical story about an elephant hidden in a file. Any elephant in my file could amuse these officers. Maybe in one of my previous lives I was a dinosaur.
Waiting on a bench, I began to watch the other passengers of the bus that was supposed to take me across the border: they were called, inspected, and admitted one by one. Then the next bus, the next line, the same process. This time, one was separated out—another female, with a light brown complexion, there could have only been a small elephant in her previous life. She sat beside me and smiled. In order not to break the rule of muteness, I didn’t return her smile. Instead, I furtively put an almond in my mouth and began to chew. She asked about my case. I looked at her in the way a meat-eating dinosaur might look at a small mammal. She kept talking to me about a baby shower on the other side to which she had been invited.
As the officer led me to the investigation room, she eyed me nervously. She didn’t seem scared of me; more confused. I took a seat and waited, but it was only when a tall man, in a casual suit, appeared on the threshold, that my skin swarmed with what had remained of my previous presence in the room—like the tiny bugs of a sandy beach. He greeted me, introduced himself, and showed his ID—in the twinkling of an eye and with full courtesy. I only heard one word: “detective.”
If those bugs hadn’t given me a creeping sensation, I might have reacted differently to such a charming detective. “Again another investigator!” I suffocated the furious groan that was about to roll out of my throat. The detective began to apologize sincerely, explaining his agency’s mission and how it served the Immigration Office, and said that since his colleagues knew me, there was no need for another interview. However, “they” had asked his agency to send a detective. He kept talking sympathetically, apologetically, and ended up advising me to speak to “them” and ask “them” to stop the process. He paused, stared at me as one might look at a saint, and continued, “Any questions?” I felt a burning desire to say, “Are you here to ask me or to be asked?” But I didn’t. When he left the room, I let my tears run down my face, and my laughter echo in the void.
Hours passed. The officer had switched from being horrified to confused to sympathetic to apologetic. She spoke with “them,” called “them,” and explained to “them” that they should help me not miss the last bus. Finally she rushed toward me to take me to the booth for the last phase of the ritual—repeating the oath after her, being fingerprinted, and the rest of it. The fast-forward part made the officer sweat and get out of breath.
Aboard the bus, I was looking at the name of my birthplace on the passport in my hand when the officer, panting, rushed up and told me to get off. She reclaimed my passport and left me alone in the corridor to watch the driver start the bus. Another wave, another swarm of tiny bugs! When she returned and handed my passport to me, I swatted my labeled forehead. “What’s the problem?” she asked softly. I looked at her mutely. My stomach rose. There was a big lump in my throat. “Nothing, other than that I have to swallow my . . .” I stopped. “Pride,” she finished for me.