Photo: Kevin Morris
“You’ll have to step aside.” The German gate agent held my ticket in her pudgy hands. “You cannot board this aircraft.”
“What do you mean? Why?”
She glared at us, a look that said: Stop talking. And I did.
My friend Sholeh and I waited while the she admitted the next 400 or so passengers on the Los Angeles-bound jet. Once all the other passengers had boarded, the agent looked at me over her wire-rimmed glasses and said, “Your name is on the list, Ms. Roberts.”
“Here’s your name.” She waved a computer printout as proof. Among names like Abdul and Akbar was my Wonder bread with jelly name: Suzanne Roberts. There were four names total. I was number three.
“What? You’ve got to be kidding me. Where did you get that list?”
“Ask your president,” she said without the irony that should accompany such a statement. “This list came from the Pentagon. You cannot board that plane.”
I imagined calling the White House, asking for Mr. President Bush. The whole thing seemed like a hoax, like Ashton Kutcher would jump out with a video camera and shout, “You’ve been Punk’d!” And everyone would have a hearty laugh, including the fireplug-shaped gate agent. But even MTV isn’t allowed to make jokes about terrorism in the airport, even for ratings.
In retrospect, being detained in the tidy Frankfurt airport isn’t the worst thing that could have happened. After the first leg of the Air India flight, where the toilets overflowed and diapers littered the aircraft aisles, Germany’s cleanliness came as a relief. But once you have your sights set on home, it’s hard to be told you may not be getting there. Especially because you are a terrorist. And it wasn’t like I could expect Sholeh to wait with me in Germany, could I? I told myself that because I was not a terrorist, they couldn’t detain me. All I had to do was tell the truth.
First question: “Where were you last night?”
“At a hotel in Mumbai.”
Telling the truth proved harder than I imagined. Arranging the truth into something that actually sounded true seemed complicated, so it was the lie instead that tumbled from my mouth. Because who could follow this?
We had spent the night at my friend’s soon-to-be mother-in-law’s apartment. We had originally planned to attend the wedding while in India, but the happy couple couldn’t yet marry because her parents were wary of the match. She’s Brahman and he’s Catholic. And worse: the wrong astrology. But the soon-to-be mother-in-law had to leave town, so we stayed with “the boy from the village,” which village I really couldn’t say. This boy from the village and his pregnant wife had been invited to live in the soon-to-be mother-in-law’s Mumbai apartment for a chance to make it in “the big city.”
The followup question to my making-it-seem-more-true lie: “Were you alone?”
“Aside from Sholeh, yes.” I pointed to Sholeh, who widened her eyes. I wasn’t sure if she was in support, or in opposition, of me and my stories. Or maybe it was just plain disbelief.
“Where were you before that?”
“We were in hotels in Kerala and Alleppey.”
“I don’t remember the names. The something palace.” I turned to Sholeh and said, “Sholeh, do you remember?” She shook her head and gave me a look that reminded me I was lying.
Really, we’d been staying in Kerala with Bijuraj, the journalist Sholeh met on the internet, and his wonderful family. His mother insisted that we call her Amma, which means “Mommy” in Malayalam. Bijuraj had invited Sholeh to read in a communist bookstore, which she did, and he was hoping we would join him the following evening at the book launch party for the recently published writings of Saddam Hussein, who had become quite the martyr in that part of India after his assassination. Much to Bijuraj’s chagrin, we declined the invitation to Saddam’s shindig.
“Are you in conspiracy against the United States?”
“Are you in conspiracy against the United States?”
“Are YOU in conspiracy against the United States?”
“Of course not. No.” I thought about singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” but I couldn’t have remembered the words if someone had a gun to my head — not that I knew anyone like that — so I left that one alone.
They asked me a slew of questions in regards to my occupation, which I carefully answered as teacher and not writer; why I had traveled to India; and who my neighbors were, a tricky question because I had rented out my house to go travel, and I didn’t technically have a home, occasioning another small lie. Finally they determined that I was not, in fact, a threat to national security.
Right before they sealed the airplane doors, they let us on. Because the plane had been delayed for us, everyone turned to look as we dragged our carry-ons (freshly searched) through the aisle.
Once we collapsed into our seats, I asked Sholeh, “What was that all about?”
“Well, you know that interview? I think it was broadcast widely,” she whispered back.
In the courtyard of the communist bookstore, Sholeh had delivered an eloquent lecture on the political situation in Iran, literature, and the relationship between East and West to a standing-room-only audience, who was captivated by her. And I was entranced by the night air, thick with water, by the dim lights, by watching everyone watch her. The sweat rolled down my back, my head light and dizzy in the heat.
After her talk, Sholeh was ushered into the bookstore, where Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Saddam Hussein peered out from book covers on the shelves. A crowd of reporters fought to take Sholeh’s picture, film her, ask questions. One reporter thrust a giant microphone into her face. I took pictures of them taking pictures of her, a voyeur of voyeurs, watching the watchers.
When Sholeh gave a television interview, I was asked to sit next to her. I nodded and smiled as she talked about the people’s revolution of Iran, the poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad, which she had translated into English. When asked why we didn’t go to Saddam Hussein’s book party, Sholeh said, “He’s a terrible man and he has done horrible things to his people.” I smiled and nodded vigorously, trying to look supportive. Then later in the interview, they asked us about our current president. Throughout India, after answering the question, “What is your country?” we would be told, “We do not like your president.” And I would offer, “Neither do we!” which would be met by smiles all around. The Indian journalists interviewing Sholeh felt the same way, referring to Mr. Bush as “blood-thirsty.” Again I smiled and nodded, looking like a pink-faced dimwit with the bindi that our host mother Amma affixed to my forehead to make me look “more Indian.”
Later that night, we watched the interview on television with Bijuraj and his family. Amma clapped proudly. Along the bottom of the screen ran the script: American Writer Suzanne Roberts. My first poetry book had just come out, and I felt like the title “American writer” was a bit generous, but still I felt proud.
“This station is broadcast all the way to London,” Bijuraj said. “I bet there are millions of people watching.” We all agreed what a wonderful thing this was.
The no-fly list followed me to Mongolia and China, and Nicaragua to Panama, where I was again interrogated when trying to come back into the United States. My brother-in-law Britt saw this as a coup d’état for the family. “A terrorist in the family!” he exclaimed with glee, but this was coming from someone who has his Social Security card tattooed on his forearm as a protest against the bureaucracy of the US healthcare system. When asked to show his Social Security card, Britt rolls up his sleeve and says, “I keep it handy. It’s right here.”
Sholeh had apparently checked out okay with the US government, but this “American writer,” with her slim volume of verse, had made “the list.” You know that eerie feeling you get sometimes that you’re being watched? You are.