Interviews

An Artist Talks About the Trouble of Flying While Muslim in the US

Kameelah Janan Rasheed, "How to Suffer Politely (And Other Etiquette)" (2014) (photo courtesy the artist)
Kameelah Janan Rasheed, “How to Suffer Politely (And Other Etiquette)” (2014) (all images courtesy the artist)

Last week, Brooklyn-based artist Kameelah Janan Rasheed was on her way to a four-day trip in Istanbul, hoping to explore a metropolis known for its architectural marvels and history. But instead of a much-needed vacation, Rasheed endured a humiliating episode at Newark Liberty International Airport that consisted of her being searched, extensively questioned by various security agents, and ultimately removed from her flight for a second round of questioning.

Kameelah Janan Rasheed (photo provided by the artist)
Kameelah Janan Rasheed

Rasheed is African American and Muslim. She wears a headscarf and has a nose piercing. She is an educator and Fulbright scholar. During her ordeal, she was questioned by numerous security agents, who prodded her about her motivations for traveling to Istanbul alone, how she could afford her ticket, why she was traveling on a one-way ticket (which she wasn’t), and other questions that she found circular and confusing. They searched all of her belongings in front of other passengers in the security area and even flipped through her day planner.

“[The agent] … took about a good minute and a half to look through specific things that I had listed [in my day planner], and then I had a paperclip of notes, things that I had to transfer from one notebook to another, and there were some Arabic prayers on top, so she took time to look at that,” Rasheed told Hyperallergic. “I don’t carry deeply personal things with me just because I don’t want them to get lost, but it was more a situation of, if you think I’m stealthy enough to travel to Istanbul to join ISIS, do you really think that I would put ‘join ISIS’ inside of my daily planner? It seems ludicrous to me. The whole situation seemed ludicrous to me.

“Then she told me at one point, ‘Why, if you’re going to travel, [would] you carry a laptop,’ and I said, ‘I don’t understand your question.'”

After clearing the airport security hurdles, Rasheed was allowed to board her plane, but her relief was short-lived. Soon afterwards, she was approached by security agents who told her she was no longer allowed to fly and proceeded to escort her off the plane for another round of questions, this time by the FBI.

One of the works in Rasheed's "How to Suffer Politely" series. (Used with permission from the artist)
One of the works in Rasheed’s ‘How to Suffer Politely’ series

Always an optimist, she remembers that her first reaction when she spotted the agents approaching her on the plane was one of hope. “I thought, ‘You know what, maybe they’re bumping [me] up to first class because they realize that they fucked up.’ Then I was like, ‘No. My day’s not going to go that well.'”

As she was being removed, Rasheed turned to one of the agents and said, “I already know how this is going to go. You want to make a scene of this.” The agents started lecturing her about safety, and Rasheed replied, “‘I don’t feel safe right now. I feel ostracized and humiliated.’ … [The agent] literally said to me, ‘Do you think we’re not going to search you just because you might feel ostracized and humiliated?'”

The whole process was infuriating, Rasheed said: “I had a very rough couple of years for a bunch of different reasons, but I just really wanted to take a damn vacation — I saw the two flights and I booked the tickets and I just wanted to be somewhere else for four days. My first response was extreme anger, because I had been working so hard on shows and working so hard at my nine-to-five job, which is really 60 to 70 hours a week, and that, with a full-time art practice, which is also 60 to 70 hours a week … I just needed a break, and so my first response was anger.”

The episode is unfortunately not very surprising to people familiar with the opaque security apparatus that governs US border controls. While such byzantine treatment of non-US citizens is commonplace — particularly citizens of Muslim-majority countries — US citizens are often spared. Rasheed is uncomfortable knowing that many of her fellow Americans have “some sense of comfort with other people being treated that way, but think we should not be treated that way.”

Rasheed feels that she’s been marketed in the media as a type of “perfect victim. They’re like, ‘She’s a Fulbright scholar, she’s an artist and a Stanford graduate, an American citizen, and she was treated like this.’ It doesn’t matter if I worked at McDonald’s and just recently immigrated from Bangladesh, I should not have been treated like this.”

Yet US citizenship has its limitations, she believes. “I think being an American only counts if you pass as an American, and the reality is I don’t pass as American,” she says. “I’m black. I’m also Muslim, and so in many ways, because I have a scarf on my head, I’m not considered a full American. So I don’t even get to count myself in that discourse. I do not expect to be treated well in most situations regardless of my education and background and affluence, but I definitely don’t expect to be treated well at the airport — because even though I have an American passport, I am still forever a foreigner. I’m still assumed to not be from here. In fact, many comments on the articles that have been posted have been, ‘Go back to your country.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m here.'”

The comments on stories circulating in various news outlets have been all over the spectrum. Many are supportive, while some commenters on reports like the one published in the Daily Mail are weary of her. “I don’t believe your story,” Ranger7, from Texas, offered. Another commenter, Barnegat, on a story published on NJ.com offered this advice:

Ms. Rasheed, how about understanding our fears of terror in these times and wear attire that does not make fellow travelers uncomfortable when you travel on an airplane? I know your rights permit you do wear whatever you want, but use some common sense. It’s a different world we are now living in, and people want airport screeners not to take any chances.

A spokesperson for US Custom and Border Protection, speaking to NJ.com, denied that Rasheed was detained for being Muslim and explained that customs is not involved when people are leaving the country, even though the initial report of her plight in Al Jazeera cited “customs” as being involved.

The whole episode has erie resonance for an artist who has dealt with many of these issues in various ways in her own art. In a 2014 series How to Suffer Politely (And Other Etiquette), Rasheed created large-format digital prints that explore how suffering, anger, and other responses to trauma are policed in a way that doesn’t disrupt oppressive institutions and systems. “Even when someone does something horrible, you’re still supposed to engage with grace,” she explained. “I was constantly reminded [during the airport incident] to be more polite. [An agent said,] ‘You know what, I know this might be frustrating for you, but you need to be polite.’ I just looked at them, because I rarely get told to be nicer as you rifle through my panties and my notebooks and my planner and all my personal belongings.”

She was eventually allowed to travel, but the second delay meant that she missed her flight. The airline offered Rasheed another ticket, but she chose to stay home, fearing more complications and being targeted again.

Officials at United Airlines told WNYC that they planned to issue a refund to Rasheed, but the artist told Hyperallergic that she has yet to receive any such notification or the money.

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