September 4th, 2009
Our leisurely breakfast at Coyoacan was interrupted. “It’s Trisha,” said Pedro, handing over the phone. I had just come from Dublin where I’d been chatting to Don Mullan about how he came across the incredible information that led to the reopening of the Bloody Sunday enquiry. Conversation veered to Pedro and Trish who had been involved in the project. I was heading for Mexico City. Trisha was not in Mexico but she knew I was visiting Pedro and Nadia in their lovely house in Coyoacan and I was hoping to hear from her. I was conducting the inaugural workshop of the Pedro Meyer Foundation. But Trisha’s call was not just about saying hello. The previous night, she had seen my name in a TV programme in the US. I was on top of a list of ‘undesirable professors’ who apparently went round the US making extremist speeches. The list included people like Noam Chomsky, so I was in good company, but I wondered where the extremist label had come from.
As it is, I am labelled a “Special Alien” by US immigration. I generally go to the US at least once a year to speak at the National Geographic. Last year they had also asked me to speak at the PDN (Photo District News) convention at the Jacob Javits Center in New York. Robert Pledge had turned the tables on me and taken advantage of my presence to ask me to speak at the Eugene Smith Award Ceremony at Parson’s School of Design. It was usually I who arm-twisted him into giving time to my students. Every time I arrive in the US, I go through what is now a familiar pattern. I wait in the winding queue at JFK airport. Upon scanning my passport, the immigration officer calls for someone to come over and take me to a separate room. The room, populated mostly by ‘not so pale’ people, is where “Special Aliens” are interrogated.
On my way out, I have to register at the NSEERS (National Security Entry/Exit Registration System) office. This is not always at the terminal I am departing from, so I have to do prior research to ensure I am allowed enough time for this and don’t miss my plane. I have long stopped expecting to catch a connecting flight in the US, and have informed all my associates accordingly. The immigration officials never explain why I am a “Special Alien”, and the last time I applied for a visa, the visa officer in Dhaka, who knew my work, had kindly pointed out that I would no longer be subjected to this procedure. I had happily trotted up to immigration on my next visit, knowing I was ‘normal’ again. But of course it had made no difference. I still ended up in that familiar room. I was asked the same old questions again, and re-fingerprinted and re-photographed for good measure.
Through a link Trish had sent me, I had tried tracing the programme on PBS, but pulled a blank. Rahnuma, who has enough trouble bailing me out (sometimes literally), wasn’t over-excited about this new development. She insisted that I chase it up, and get to the root of the story. She felt sure Brian would be able to dig up the facts. Brian Palmer had turned up many years ago, to do a story on Chobi Mela that Aperture Magazine had commissioned. Last year he had been commissioned by the Pulitzer Foundation to do a film on Pathshala. He had also spoken at Dhaka University of his experience as an embedded journalist in Iraq. His film Full Disclosure had sadly not been completed in time for Chobi Mela V. We had become dear friends over the years. Predictably, it was Brian who came up with the information.
Daniel Pipes on the Fox News show “The O’Reilly Factor” had named M Shahid Alam, an economics professor at Northeastern University, as “unAmerican” for statements he made after 9-11. I don’t know how much lower one’s status can get, but for the moment I was no lower than a ‘Special Alien’. As for having a common sir name, well Shahrukh Khan wasn’t bad company!
Rahnuma steadfastly refuses to apply for a US visa, as the application procedure is so humiliating. She finds the UK visa procedure much the same, and has refused invitations to both countries on these grounds. Many friends have left the US and UK because of the hostile environment. My occasional visits, as a speaker at Harvard, UCLA, USC, Stanford and the National Geographic, or even in transit to Latin America does rile me, but I treat it as a useful reminder of what our relationships with these countries are. Friends have found it strange that I refuse to obtain a British passport. The same friends who thought I was foolish in giving up my membership of the colonial Dhaka Club.
I have little liking for queues, but if that is what it takes for me to be separated from these warmongering “tribes”, I’m ready to put up with a bit of waiting. As for my ‘Special Alien’ status. I wear it as a badge of honour.