Ever since 9/11, when I pass through customs in US airports or in Spain, I usually get a bit of special treatment. While the other people from my flight go through, one after the other, I'll stand there holding up the line, under the suspicious glare of a border officer struggling to pronounce my names and to determine my true intentions in his country, awkwardly trying not to seem racist. After a few minutes, the effect is compounded by the nervous whispering from the people behind me, wondering what exactly is taking so long. Some time of nervous staring and awkward silence later, sometimes after calling a supervisor, I'll finally pass. Everything on his face tells me he'd rather have me strip-searched, my luggage dismantled, and my butt shipped to Guantanamo Bay because you never know.
I don't blame them. By all odds and logic, I should be a terrorist. I fit the profile pretty well. Few of my experiences illustrate this better than my first trip into Spain, for an audition at the school at which I was ultimately accepted. Let's examine the factors that contributed towards a disastrous arrival into Barajas airport, in Madrid.
The very first problem was the timing. I arrived only a few days after Spain suffered the biggest terrorist attack in its history, (on March 11, 2004) the infamous bombing of the Atocha train station. It wasn't certain if the attack was by Islamic terrorists or by ETA (the basque separatist terrorist movement), or if there was some previously unheard link between the two. Which leads me to the second problem; my last names.
You can't get more basque than the first of my last names, and my second last name is completely Arabic. My first names are Ahmed Fernando Ben-Mohammed. That is one very unusual combination. The media was fearfully speculating about a link between ETA and Islamic terrorism, three days later I show up at Barajas airport. My physical appearance didn't help. Back then, in bad taste, I let my beard grow really long. I looked exactly like the guys on Al-Jazeera. I also get quite nervous with all kinds of policemen, for no reason at all; I'll start to stutter and sweat. I looked like George from Seinfeld, in that episode where he eats spicy chicken.
When I was younger I traveled a lot, so my passport had visas from quite a few countries, including Iran and Egypt. It didn't help that, being a poor student, I had to take the cheapest flight possible. I had been traveling for almost 48 hours. With no American visa back then, my itinerary was something like Morelia-Chihuahua-Mexico City (stay there for about 15 hours)-Frankfurt-Paris (about 8 hours here)-Madrid. It just seemed like I was trying to hide something with such a roundabout itinerary. My passport is Mexican, so my mother tongue was supposedly Spanish, but this was my first time in Spain so I had a hard time understanding everything they said (which didn't help matters any). Everything they said sounded like growling to me, they speak so fast. To a Mexican hearing it for the first time, it's like listening to someone grunting with his mouth full of wads of cotton.
I had a Koran in my luggage, which didn't help to diminish suspicions. I'm not saying they give Muslims a hard time at Barajas, I'm just saying that I looked like a really suspicious Muslim. I remember spending at least an hour longer than necessary going through customs. I had already talked with at least four different officers asking me the exact same questions, and my luggage was checked over and over again. I started to get nervous, expecting a big strong thug with an elbow-length latex glove to show up at any moment. If you've lived in Spain, you know that the country completely shuts down on Sundays and religious holidays. It's like a small town, everything is closed, and it's impossible to do anything. I remember calls to the school where I was going were useless, being a Sunday.
Finally, with no evidence to my being dangerous, a lot of awkward standing around, shuffling of feet and mumbled apologies, they let me go.
It's funny. I'm a quiet guy. I read a lot and sit around all day playing things like Mozart and Bach on the piano. I'm pretty much the complete polar opposite of a destructive maniac. I guess there is something a bit exhilarating about being considered dangerous. Being a classical musician isn't really considered a very manly profession. I suppose that going into a plane or an airport and having people nervously look at you is an interesting change of pace.
I don't blame them at all. I really do look like a terrorist.