Borderline Sanity

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

Border
crossings and embassies often succeed in making it feel like someone’s
scraped the lining of your stomach with a cold blade. They’re there
to “help us," but as can happen in the case of policemen and governments,
one isn’t always too convinced. That you aren’t committing a crime
or smuggling contraband or thinking about overthrowing the world
makes little difference. Embassy and border officials maintain a
unique capacity to look at you as if you were.

Tariq
Ramadan must have had that cold blade to the stomach lining sensation
when he was told last July that his freshly stamped visa to the
United States had been freshly revoked, without explanation. If
he had been a liar and cheat of Ahmed Challabi stature, his visa
would assuredly have remained valid. But Ramadan was an academic
headed for the University of Notre Dame, where he had been appointed
a post as professor of religion, conflict, and peace-building. His
visa was yanked under the Patriot Act.

“Ah,”
one will reflexively think. “There must have been some rhyme and
reason to it.” No doubt. But there is strong doubt that the rhyme
and reason for revoking Ramadan’s visa goes far beyond paranoia,
bigotry, and the persistent tradition of bureaucratic insanity that
has tainted the visa business for years. The chances are 99 out
of a hundred that Ramadan is guilty of nothing more than being Muslim.
Yet, there is that 1% chance that he might be an Al Qaeda operative
who’d cleverly wormed his way into the Peace Studies Program at
Notre Dame. Mother Teresa, for that matter, might have been a transvestite.
Donald Rumsfeld might be an undercover Mennonite theologian, and
you or I might be alien spores intent on colonizing planet Earth.
There are infinite possibilities as to what one might in fact be.
Common sense bids us reject the more ludicrous.

One
would like to think that ludicrous decision-making is the exception
in America’s consular section. Tariq Ramadan’s experience calls
to mind the recent high profile turning away of singer Cat Stevens,
and of Ibrahim Ferrer, the guitarist denied entry to the U.S. given
his highly suspicious motive of intending to accept a Grammy Award.
Who knows what havoc the 76 year old Cuban might have unleashed
had he been granted a visa? Decades back the visa people advertised
their potential for insanity by refusing entry to novelists Graham
Greene and the Nobel Prize winning Gabriel Garcia Marquez –
something about an all night revel with Fidel Castro rendering them
unfit to enter the Land of the Free. Increasingly, even visitors
to the U.S. granted visas have been saying to hell with it; for
example, Indian-born Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry, who’s decided
the indignities he’s encountered traveling while brown at U.S. airports
are simply not worth the trouble.

For
every high profile indignity there are many times that number incurred
on just plain people. I’ve taught overseas for years and could tell
a thousand stories about people like Farah, one of my favorite sixth
graders at an American embassy school long before September 11 “changed
everything." Farah was so excited about her upcoming trip to the
States. And then one day, so humiliated. It turned out that children
with Libyan fathers, even well-connected, intelligent, and respected
Libyan fathers, did not merit a two-week vacation in Florida. I
could tell you about Toki, an outstanding student and devout Christian
whose integrity is beyond reproach. That is of course, my opinion,
but it is an opinion based on two years of close contact. Toki had
everything ready – his acceptance letter from the University of
Missouri, his money, his positive attitude, even his luggage. Then
he was denied a visa. He’d been guilty of that most nefarious of
consular section crimes – existing while Nigerian. A less resourceful
person would have given up, but Toki immediately began looking elsewhere.
At the last minute, he was accepted at a college and granted a visa
to Canada, where he is doing exceedingly well in his studies. Canada
has Toki’s gratitude and good will, his potential, and not least
his tuition money. That the University of Missouri and America were
not allowed to reap these windfalls seems to me not just bad business
and bad hospitality, but little short of insane.

The
most recent and perhaps most ludicrous of my visa tales involves
a British citizen (entirely Caucasian, apolitical, and secular,
for the record) from that not particularly terrorist hotbed of Torquay
in southwest England. Andrew had been living and working in Morocco
for upwards of twenty years. That last detail is apparently what
prompted the customs people in New York City not to allow my old
friend and former colleague to pollute U.S. soil last summer. It
didn’t matter that Andrew had been in the U.S. each of the prior
eight summers working at a camp in upstate New York. It didn’t matter
that he had spent a year coaching soccer at a liberal arts college
in Indiana. It didn’t matter that he has worked as a physical education
instructor for nearly two decades at an International American School
or that a fair proportion of his students are U.S. embassy children.
It didn’t matter that under any gauge conceivable Andrew bears as
much resemblance to a terrorist as Shirley Temple. It didn’t matter
that Andrew admires (or used to at any rate) America. In New York
City last summer he was told to get on a plane, go back to Morocco
or Torquay or whatever un-American sounding place he claimed he
hailed from, and not bother to reapply for a U.S. visa for another
ten years. No explanations given.

I
have a fairly personal reason for contesting the sanity of some
of the people assigned to letting the good guys in and keeping the
bad guys out. Many years ago I married an alien – not the mantis-featured
variety that frequents Roswell, New Mexico, but a Moroccan. At first,
I’d fancied she was a human being – it was only after a visit
to the U.S. embassy in Rabat that I became fully aware of her alien
status. We’d gone there to apply for a tourist visa to the States.
It seemed routine. My wife had been to the U.S. half a dozen times
before marrying me, a red-blooded (sort of) American. She had a
master’s degree from Indiana University where she’d gone on a Fulbright
Scholarship. She’d led groups of students to the States on white-bread
programs like The Experiment in International Living. She’d visited
the States as a tourist on several occasions, spoke fluent English,
had a long-term job contract binding her to Morocco. Well, to make
a long story short, she was not granted a tourist visa. The consul
who made the decision was arrogant, oblivious, irrational, mendacious,
condescending, and endowed with an unusually porcine set of jowls
(not, God forbid, that I am holding a grudge 15 odd years later).
I had to go to the States alone that summer, and spend most of it
trying to persuade my family that the alien was not really the insidious
creature her visa rejection hinted at. My feelings about the world’s
greatest democracy have never been quite the same since.

There
are many fine and qualified people working in American embassies
and in American customs. It is not my intention to say there are
not. And being a consul or border official is not an easy job. It
is not my intention to say that it is. It is merely my intention
to suggest that a degree of horse-sense and a modicum of discernment
might be a useful pair of qualities to insist upon when the state
department goes about filling consular posts. Meanwhile, we may
as well expand our stock of venal and incompetent border official
stereotypes to include not only indolent Mexicans, leering Turks,
grease-palmed Africans, inflexible Germans, chauvinistic Frenchmen,
and the entire host of lesser nationalities to make room for clueless,
bigoted, and questionably sane Americans as well. It seems only
fair. We may be thankful that clueless, bigoted, and questionably
sane American bureaucrats are not yet the norm. But with the Patriot
Act on their side, and an administration supporting a clueless,
bigoted and questionably sane war, who’s to say they may not become
so?

January
1, 2005

John
Liechty [send him mail]
currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare
  • LRC Blog

  • LRC Podcasts