“Excuse me sir, may I speak to you for a moment?” a man in a suit asked me at the departure gate. “I’m a police officer.”
I already knew he was a police officer long before he spoke to me. I spotted him as I was lining up to get my passport and boarding pass checked.
After 11 years of dealing with all types of officials, government, prison, police… you learn their body language and can spot them a mile off.
“Under legislation given to us by the Government, we are allowed to…” he continued.
“Schedule 7? Yes I know,” I interrupted him with a smile.
“I was waiting for you guys at security control, then at the x-ray machines,” I smiled at him. “I was beginning to think that you weren’t going to come for me so I’m glad you did come.”
“So you were expecting to get stopped?” he asked.
“Yes, of course. As a Muslim passenger you expect to get stopped every time you travel but it’s no big deal. You go ahead, officer,” I replied to him with a big smile.
He asked me some questions about where I was travelling to [within the EU], for how long [two nights], why, where I was going to stay, personal details etc. and I answered all his questions.
I already knew that under this legislation you are only legally obliged to answer the officer’s questions about yourself, not about anyone else.
He was looking at me closely in the eye every time he asked a question to check my body language for any discomfort associated with lying.
I have to say he was polite and respectful to me throughout the conversation.
Perhaps he knew who I was?
Judging by his questions I don’t think he knew who I was. He just stopped me because he thought I looked like the sort of person who might be travelling for the purposes of engaging in terrorism.
A strange logic, because if I was travelling for the purposes of terrorism, I would already have had my cover story prepared and I would have changed my appearance to blend in with my fellow passengers.
Even though this examination was in full view of the other passengers, this didn’t bother me.
If I was allowed to board the aircraft, then the other passengers would think, “Well, he’s been cleared so he’s OK.”
And if I was detained or not allowed to board the aircraft, then I would not be there to see the reactions on the faces of the other passengers.
So either way, I was in a win-win situation.
“So how did you get to the airport this evening, did you just come by train for example?” he asked.
“Is that supposed to be a trick police officer question to catch me off guard on the day of the Southern train strike?!” I smiled.
“Oh, no! I didn’t know there was a train strike,” he laughed.
“How much money are you carrying?” he asked.
“£150 and my cards,” I replied as I put my hand into my pocket and began to take out my wallet. “Do you want to see the money?”
He said that he didn’t.
Then he asked what was in my bag. I unzipped the top of the bag where I had put my black Nike sports shoes.
I didn’t tell him that I bought these shoes at a federal prison in Pennsylvania to wear on my journey home from prison 18 months ago. Then again, he didn’t ask about the shoes.
He didn’t bother searching my bag. I think he believed my answers. Or maybe it was my lucky Nike shoes?
The whole encounter did not last more than 5 minutes. This officer seemed like an ordinary guy doing his job, not a psychopath.
A psychopath would have probably made me take out all my belongings right there infront of all the other passengers.
The officer then gave me a leaflet with ‘University of Cambridge’ written in big letters.
“Cambridge University is conducting a survey on the experiences of people who are stopped at the airport. If you are interested, you can fill it online with 14 days.”
With that he shook my hands, “Thank you sir and sorry for holding you up.”
“Goodbye officer and remember that life is the savings account of respect. The more you give, the more you get in return.”
As I walked off I couldn’t help but smile to myself imagining the expression on his face when he entered my name into the system back at his office.
I boarded the aircraft and to my pleasant surprise I found that the only two empty seats on the aircraft were… next to me! So I had three seats all to myself.
I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. But I don’t believe in coincidences either.
At least I didn’t have to worry about my neighbouring passenger hyper-ventilating when I whispered my Arabic travel supplication.
In any case I had a pleasant flight and a pleasant journey back.
I was disappointed no police officers stopped me when I returned to the UK two days later as I was hoping that I would be able to convince them to give me a lift home after the heavy snow cancelled my coach.
Alas, I had my five minutes of importance on my way out and that was that.
Let’s face it, being stopped at the airport when you travel is part and parcel of life for a Muslim in the modern world.
Without meaning to belittle the experiences of other people who have either been denied from travelling or missed their flights because of these stops, it is important we don’t get too upset about these stops.
Yes, it is racial/religious profiling. Yes, airport stops should be intelligence-led, not appearance-led. Yes, most passengers who are stopped will find it embarrassing. And yes, it can also annoying and an inconvenience.
But the way to deal with it is by expecting to be stopped every time you travel and so planning to get to the airport early.In other words, take it in your stride.
That way you won’t be disappointed when you do get stopped.
But look on the bright side of the joys and benefits you get when flying while Muslim, as I discovered last week:
1.While rushing to catch a flight, you get the opportunity to catch your breath instead and remind yourself (and a police officer) of your name, date of birth, who you are and where you are heading. It’s called reassessing your priorities in life.
2. You get some extra space if no-one wants to sit next to you on the plane.
3. You get to participate in a University of Cambridge survey.
Now tell me that isn’t a good deal?
But seriously speaking, respect to all those Muslims who laugh about their experiences at airports instead of crying about them.
When you can laugh at a situation, you show that it doesn’t bother you one bit. Not one bit.
And if you find it hard to laugh at your own experiences, then watch this short clip by American Muslim stand-up comedian Azhar Usman (a trained lawyer by the way) titled, “Flying While Muslim.”
Have you had any funny experiences while travelling? Why don’t you share them below?
You can read my story of why I spent 11 years in prison here.
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