Chicago Tribune - November 6, 2005
Trouble ahead, trouble behind: America's paranoia
By Ahmad A. Ahmad.
I was 18 hours into a train ride from Chicago to New York City. I don't often get time off, so I decided to visit my sister Abeer and an old friend.
The Amtrak train was four hours outside New York City when we heard the conductor's voice on the loudspeaker. He told us the train in front of us went off the tracks. We were all stuck, somewhere in the middle of New York state, and we would have to wait for a bus to take us to the nearest big city.
In this day and age, it's hard for me to travel anywhere.
I am 22 and an editorial assistant at the Chicago Tribune. I have a passion for photography and reading, and I'm known to play a mean guitar.
I am also Middle Eastern and I speak with an accent. I've been living in the U.S. for 12 years.
In a post-Sept. 11 world, people give me icy glares. Once, a girl at a nightclub who at the beginning of the night was into me (or so I thought) changed her tune when she found out I was from Jordan: "I'm sick of what you guys are doing to my country. Go back home."
And when I check in at an airport, 8 out of 10 times I get pulled out of line and questioned by authorities.
I was getting sick of it. So a few weeks ago I decided traveling by train would give me less grief.
So there I was, 30 minutes outside Albany, waiting for a bus to pick up the displaced passengers. A middle-age tall, muscular white man came up to me and started asking questions.
"Are you Jewish?" he asked.
I was caught off-guard.
"No, I am Jordanian," I replied.
"Why are you going to New York? How many times have you been to New York?"
The questions kept coming.
I knew where this was going. I could hear it in his voice.
I shot back. "Where are you from? How old are you? What part of New York do you live in?" He said he was Italian, 41 and from Brooklyn. As the buses arrived, the man said to follow him to the bus for New York City.
He said he and his girlfriend were also heading there. I was skeptical but grudgingly followed him. I decided to call my mother in Chicago to tell her what happened. We spoke in our native tongue, Arabic.
The man whispered something into his girlfriend's ear.
Once on the bus, the man stepped inside the bathroom. He was there for quite a while. Before long, his girlfriend joined him inside.
This was all a bit odd.
I heard sirens approaching, and the bus suddenly came to a stop on the side of the highway. Police cars came--so many I couldn't even begin to count them. The man and his girlfriend ran down the aisle, past me, and off the bus.
We all stepped out to see what happened.
There was the stranger, pointing to me, "He is going to blow up the Amtrak!"
The man told police he understood Arabic and had overheard my conversation. He thought I was talking to some terrorist cell when I was chatting with my mother.
The police put me in the back of their vehicle. Dogs were sniffing around, and officers from the state Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Unit were interviewing my fellow bus passengers.
My cell phone was low on battery and had turned off, but they would not turn it back on. For all they knew, it could have been a bomb. I was shocked, confused, speechless.
The authorities questioned me for nearly three hours at an Albany police station. They asked me where I was from, whether I was a United States citizen, who I knew in New York City, who I worked for, and why I was traveling alone.
I answered every question in a calm and collected demeanor.
The officers were, for the most part, courteous and understanding of my situation.
One officer, Investigator James L. Rogers of the New York State Police, would later call me twice to make sure I made it to New York City with no hassles. Once the police realized the man couldn't actually speak Arabic, they knew the allegations were baseless, and that he was a wacko, hell-bent on deporting every Muslim back to the Middle East.
Just when I was leaving, I saw that man again.
He cursed at me and called me a terrorist. "Come and fight me!" he yelled. "You're lying out of your teeth! You know you want to blow up the Amtrak!"
I know people say Americans are living in a new America, after what happened on that Tuesday morning four years ago.
For the majority of Muslims, who are peaceful, law-abiding citizens, we, too, are living in a new America.
This is our reality.
Ahmad A. Ahmad is a Tribune editorial assistant - email@example.com