That Muslim Look

‘Looking Muslim’ is already problematic for some travelers

by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Speaking as someone who apparently “looks Muslim” – whatever that means – it’s hard not to be interested in what Richard Prosser, the New Zealand First MP wrote. Prosser has since apologized….but I’m not going to bother with the idiocy that is “Wogistan”. His rant happened to touch on annoyances that accost me whenever I travel. The New Zealand passport exhorts officials, on behalf of the Governor-General and the Queen “to allow the holder to pass without delay or hindrance”. What Prosser probably doesn’t realise is that life as someone who looks like his worst nightmare is already challenging enough, in this transient and globalised world.

My name is Brannavan Gnanalingam. It’s a long name. It’s apparently unusual, but there you go. I’m not changing my name to Max Power. I was born in Sri Lanka. I left when I was one year old. I have been told that I bear a slight resemblance to Olympic champion runner Mo Farah. It’s probably simply because I have dark skin and a shaved head. Farah, a Somali-born English citizen, who lives and trains in the United States, had been detained in the States following his gold medal triumphs in London (the security official clearly hadn’t seen the meme of his joy at winning). Apparently showing his gold medals wasn’t proof enough that he wasn’t a terrorist. I have also been told that I bear a resemblance to Joe Rokocoko, or at least did, when I had hair. I’m not sure if Rokocoko’s had any travel issues, but I did meet someone who was arrested in Azerbaijan along with his Fijian travel companion, because the Azerbaijani officials didn’t know where Fiji was.

Part of the illogical nature of Prosser’s rant revolved around the assumption that the world’s Muslims apparently all look alike. Islam has 1.5 billion followers. As for the rest of us, who apparently look like “Muslims”, it seems we should also be banned from taking Western airlines (though a few of the “top ten” airlines are run by Muslim countries, so I presume they’re not on the ban list). I presume Prosser simply meant anyone with dark skin.

It’s already difficult to travel with these already held assumptions about Muslim (and dark skinned) men. I acknowledge that travelling is a privilege, and I’ve been fortunate to have a curiosity that I’ve worked hard financially and intellectually to try to satisfy. I hope to continue to satisfy it. The more you learn, the more you want to learn. There’s nothing quite like meeting new people, trying new food and drink, seeing life-changing things on a daily basis, and simply living life. But I dread airports. I dread border crossings. Since I love travelling, they’re quite difficult to avoid. On the basis of being a non-criminal, atheist New Zealander, it’s something I naively assume I can get over with as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the border officials frequently don’t share my desired efficiency.

The banal kind is the “random” check that is anything but random. Just last week I travelled to Berlin to cover the Berlin Film Festival. I was the one person on my flight who had the “random” check. As I walked away, the official who checked me said “He’s from New Zealand” to his colleague – little realising (if I’m being charitable) that I was able to understand what he said. But that’s only the tip of the treatment. A random check in Athens by police on the streets was only saved when I knew who Ray Sefo, of all people, was: my mate, similarly sick of my random checks, tried to win favour with our detaining officers by asking the one who wasn’t frisking me what he liked doing – he said he liked kickboxing. I asked if he knew Ray Sefo. We were let go soon after.

Then there’s the suspicious thumbing through of the passport by airline check-in counters. My passport has been checked by supervisors in New Caledonia, Cyprus and Greece along with the original checks. I got pulled off the plane while boarding in Greece by a flight attendant who was convinced she was about to bust an international terrorist ring all by herself. My photo page on my passport has a gouge mark from when a Turkish official scratched it vigorously to check if it was real. Officials in Morocco and Egypt have held my passport and asked where I was from: just in case I forgot in between passing it over to them and being asked the question.

Chinese officials held onto my passport, incredulous that I was replying “yes” to their question of “are you from New Zealand”. My fiancée and I got into an argument with a Chilean official both when entering into, and leaving, Chile. It’s hard to argue at 3000m in altitude but luckily my fiancée is fluent in Spanish. I was fortunate enough to go to the Philippines on a school trip at the age of 16 – though I was the only one of my classmates held back from boarding by the Filipino officials for security reasons. It was pretty embarrassing as a teenager, being stared at by everyone else while waiting for one of my teachers to convince the officials that I was one of them.

In Israel, I was put into a pen for five hours when trying to enter. I was put into a pen with all of the other suspicious looking folk (mostly Palestinians) – including an elderly Spanish couple with a “Muslim name” who were held for eight hours and eventually not let into the country. While interrogated, my interrogator asked me what religion I was. I said “atheist”. “What’s that?” he asked in disbelief. He then asked what religion my parents were. I said “Hindu”. He asked “What’s that?” and put me back in the pen. When I was leaving Israel, I was accorded the highest terrorist rating (with a note put into my passport), given the full glove treatment, and stalked by officials until I boarded the plane.

I’d like to think I’m not the suspicious type. I’m a corporate lawyer, occasional journalist, and novelist. But my CV should be irrelevant. I know of others – people from all walks of life and all religious and ethnic backgrounds – who have similar (or worse) issues whenever they travel. Their only crime is that they fit Richard Prosser’s definition. I’m also fortunate enough not to be Muslim in these situations: I can’t imagine how difficult it would be when one has done nothing wrong. I’m just a tourist, and I hope airport inconvenience and racial judgments are about as bad as I’ll have to deal with – it could be much worse. It’s hard not to view our acceptance of, or at least indifference to, this casual racial profiling as condoning other, more nefarious things done against the same “Others”. It also doesn’t seem to matter if you’re in Western or in Islamic countries themselves – those who fit their assumptions must try and prove otherwise.

The difficulty is having then to try and prove that you’re not a threat. Or, more offensively, prove you’re not Muslim, when that shouldn’t be a bad thing. My life was saved by a Muslim family before I was even born: my pregnant mother was sheltered by our Muslim neighbours during the Black July pogroms against Tamils in July 1983 in Colombo. A mob (who killed thousands in Colombo) was convinced by our neighbour that there were no Tamils nearby.

I’ve had incredible hospitality whenever I’ve travelled in Islamic countries: from Central Asia to the Middle East to West Africa. I’ve met people who are about as far away from the “freedom-hating” stereotype as imaginable. I can acknowledge that it was a very tiny minority of evil people who caused the death and destruction in New York, London, Bali, and Madrid. I can also acknowledge that, like in all ideologies, bigots and muppets have some power (*cough misogyny, homophobia, ethnic prejudice aren’t exclusively Muslim traits cough*). But to have to apologise for being someone I’m not?

But my usual reaction is then to follow the classic self-correcting behaviour I presume is required in order not to fall into suspicion. Self-surveillance if you will. That classic Frantz Fanon-described feeling of shame that comes from being assumed by other people to be something different. The only problem is I don’t know what is required. Suits don’t work. Shaved heads don’t work (just in case they might think I’m Buddhist). Dressing casually in T-shirts has worked so far, but European winters make that a drastic tactic. I try to avoid arguing with officials; instead it’s “yessir” “massuh” kind of stuff. I frequently consider extreme strategies. Perhaps walking around with ham sandwiches? I’m vegetarian. Maybe carry a copy of The Satanic Verses? I find Rushdie’s prose tedious. Perhaps walking around with my pants down to show my non-compliance with Abrahamic requirements? That probably wouldn’t help either. I often wonder, purely from a Situationist perspective, what would happen if I simply state “allāhu akbar” in an airport.

I guess the thing I hate when I travel is that I’m constantly reminded that I’m an “Other”. That I need to prove that I’m an “Other” that doesn’t need to be feared. That my skin colour is the first thing that is, and always will be judged by our supposed “everybody equal” society. That there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s the pretence that random security checks and first impressions are just that: “random”. I had nothing to do with the causes of the fear. Nor do I have any control over the “cures” for these bigots’ fears, but I am expected to know them. It us, to be fair, an irritating burden to carry. So Richard Prosser, I’m going to assume, charitably, that your column was a simple case of ignorance and stupidity. If you want, I’d be happy to have a cup of nice Sri Lankan tea with you to show there’s nothing to be frightened of. Just don’t bring your knife.