May 05, 2010
Recently in a Moscow court, a Russian oligarch ignored the cage surrounding him and spoke with a canary’s glee. Mikhail Khodorkovsky—imprisoned in a Siberian gulag since 2005—dazzled the courtroom with his showman’s flair when, in self-defense, he produced a jar of crude oil. Using this prop, he mocked the charge that he had stolen oil from Russia by ridiculing the concept of ownership itself. He illustrated how, if you and I were to exchange purchase and sale agreements concerning this jar, the oil itself would still not change hands—it would remain in the jar on the table. So who owns it? A conundrum if ever there was one. Whether or not you buy his argument, you have to admire his ingenuity. And however harsh Russian justice may seem, at least the convict got a chance to speak for himself. That’s more than you”re allowed if you”re pulled aside because of racial profiling upon entering the United States. If this misfortune befalls you, you”re scarcely allowed to recross your legs without group permission. And, trust me, your legs will cramp.
Let me explain. My partner and I were returning from vacation in the Bahamas via Atlanta, en-route to London. Though in transit, we had to clear US immigration which takes place pre-flight in Nassau, on Bahamian soil. (In case the oil leaks out of the jar.) Now, I”m not about to ridicule the concept of national security. Okay, once I saw a Hispanic fellow bolt from the LAX luggage carousel for the freedom of the arrivals area and the Starbucks stand. He was yards from the finish line when four heavyweight marshals took him down with a pro-football tackle, maced and double-manacled him, never to be seen again. And I”ll admit I was rooting for him. The man was driven. But on this occasion, I wasn”t muling a pound of Bolivian yayo or smuggling a voodoo chicken head in a haemetite box. My crime was—what? Wrong brand of luggage? Never mind what. The ride was just beginning.
My traveling companion was of Iranian descent. She’s been to Iran once, for two weeks only. She grew up in Germany and carries a German passport. She lives in London, works for BBC TV, and possesses a valid work visa for the USA. But her name’s undeniably Iranian, if little else—the long eyelashes aside—and this was enough to have her detained. I followed her in.
We found ourselves in the ‘holding area,’ a featureless room anesthetized by a TV stuck on a domestic news channel, showing Jesse James in a motorbike helmet physically threatening a paparazzi. Unnerving, sure, but just another day in show business? No, the footage was prophetic. So, we waited, quiet but savvy—after all, we had two hours left before our flight. The door to the detention room had two parts, top and bottom, just like a horse’s stable; the top was left open and the bottom bolted. This provided me with some amusement. But after an hour and fifty minutes—as I pictured Delta flight 415 taking to the skies without us—the humor wore off. Two luckless-looking immigrants had already come and gone while we were left, without explanation, to cool our heels indefinitely. It was only when we emerged from our stable to assert our right to be interviewed that the fun began.
An officer told us it was not yet five pm, the flight hadn”t departed. (It was 4:59.) I should return to the holding area, leaving my companion behind. When I stated that I”d rather remain with her, the command was sharp: “You”ll do exactly as you are told.” This over-parenting brought out the infant in me. “No,” I reasoned. “Not until somebody sees us. You have us miss the last flight from Nassau and our connection to London—and you don”t tell us why?”
“If you don”t like it, take British Airways,” an “assisting” officer weighed in. The detainee was now visibly upset at being treated like a terrorist, and when I insisted on pro-action we were herded back to the holding pen like we were the big security breach. I was ordered to sit down. This, to me, was a strange instruction (seeing as I wasn”t being held myself). I demurred.
“You will sit down,” the chief restated.
“The guy’s crossing the line,” a burly officer pronounced when I stayed on my feet. (Two hours in that chair was enough already.) “If we were in America now, your ass would already be in jail!”
“For what?” I asked.
My comment was like catnip. “This guy is axing [sic] for it!” the female officer squealed. “Take his passport!”
“If you don”t sit down right now, I”m going to arrest you right here,” the boss informed me. “So arrest me,” I said, rolling the dice. His face was less than an inch from mine; my personal space was no longer…personal.
“You picked the wrong guy to mess with!” he declared, evidently pleased and channeling John Wayne, method-style. “I”m going to lock you up right now—”
“Do it!” the female officer shrieked. Her expression turned voodoo. “Arrest him!” She”d hexed us from the start.
Four hours later, they dumped us and five cases on the deserted curb of the International Departures terminal. Our hosts had left town the same day. It was past dusk on Saturday of an Easter bank holiday weekend. Nobody was answering their phones. Ten minutes later we watched the officer walk across the parking lot in a Hawaiian shirt, cellphone holstered to his belt like a statement. The magnolia print defused the statement: out of uniform, he was anti-climactic. Weirdly, he avoided us.
One motel, one Big Mac meal, four Kalik beers and twelve hour’s sleep later, we were back in the Nassau airport. This time we were prepped and de-groomed. My companion hid her too-elegant luggage inside a bullet-proof case and decided against the printed-scarf around the waist/bolero look of the day before. We passed through security without saying a word, reached passport control—only to be pulled aside again.
This time I sat out on the interview. I killed my dÃ©jÃ vu before it even started. It was the same storm-trooper vibe: the SS without the organization. In an adjoining room, an American criminal convicted for child molestation was processed three times faster than my companion. She, meanwhile, was fielding questions from a chubby official (50) about whether or not she was a Persian bombshell? “My Persian bombshell,” as the officer generously put it. He asked her where Dusseldorf was, and why she lived there if she was Iranian? He moved from fingerprinting her straight to the topic of mammograms and asked her what she thought about them? (Great, if you have cancer.) He segued onto the topic of Easter “buns”, and asked her if she might just be his Easter bunny? “I haven”t had my Easter surprise yet,” he complained, his hands cupping imaginary breasts/buns in the air. Breasts and bakeries must coincide deep down in the psyche?
“Are we finished?” she asked. “We haven”t even started!” he came back. “Don”t tempt me—I”m married, baby.” When she asked why she”d been singled out for this thousand-dollar inconvenience, he explained it like this: “What do you do when a bouncer doesn”t let you into a nightclub? Huh? You don”t argue with him, you leave. Unless you”re stupid. Now, I”m the bouncer… You get it?” She must have looked askance because: “Look,” he preached. “I”ve got lots of Middle Eastern friends. You know, Bosnians and people. I got four passports myself. I got nothing against you. It’s crazy what happened in I-ran… It’s like all the countries that were under French [sic] rule. When the French left, they woulda taken the wallpaper with them if they coulda…”
Cut to the Cocktails & Cigarette Lounge, Nassau International, half an hour later. Clearance obtained. A rum punch never tasted so good. But despite the strong measures Bahamian barmen pour, a question kept bugging me, and continued to bug me all the way back to London… did we do something wrong?
Finally, it clicked. I guess we were like… the oil jar?