Photo credit: Hoda Ghods
After I saw an article, Seven Hours in Tehran, published in American Libraries in early April each re-reading of it saddened me more than before. The author, Leonard Kniffel, reports how his invitation to the opening of the New Building of the National Library of Iran ended in overnight airport detention and an unexplained deportation. What interested me most was his human bewilderment arising from a Kafkaesque situation. As an Iranian experienced living in a country ruled by Khomeini and his followers, I could easily sense the frustration caused by such an unjustifiable incident. Yet, as a Canadian citizen working at Yale as a Persian Specialist Librarian with a TN visa, I could not have imagined that the same thing would happen to me – but in America.
Not having found a rewarding professional job in Canada, I decided to apply in 2004 for an opening position at Yale University Library. The Sterling’s fame as one of the most prestigious academic libraries of the world, along with the prospect of developing a Persian Collection for the library, helped drive me there. Before receiving the job offer I paid a short visit to the United States, and as a Canadian citizen born in Iran I encountered a cold welcome that included questions about my relatives in Iran – alive or dead – my citizenship, and my travels to Iran, among other things. However, I was not registered and fingerprinted. I answered all the detailed questions accurately and honestly and at the end I thought the officials had all the information about me they required: my background, my profession, my family, and even my friends. It couldn’t be more complete. After a while I made a short trip to for the job interview, and again I experienced the same process.
But getting a visa for work seemed something different. I tried to inquire about requirements and was told that only at the port of entry would I learn if I would be admitted. Since I had resigned my job in Canada, I was nervous when I awaited my turn to face the official at Pearson airport. Nevertheless, I was sure I wouldn’t have a serious problem. I sat before the officer and submitted my documents, including official translations of my educational papers. He began to question my qualifications for the Yale job Library and I became anxious about missing the plane. He said that the translation done by the official Canadian translator didn’t prove that I had a Master’s Degree in the Library Science. I explained that I was not responsible for the translation, that the Comparative Education Service of the University of Toronto had considered my qualifications to be comparable academically to a Canadian Master’s degree based on this translation, and that my U.S. employer trusted these credentials. He became angry and asked if I was trying to question what he was doing. I emphasized that all I meant was that my credentials were valid for Canadian officials as well as for the American employer. He left, then returned with another officer who angrily repeated his words. Finally I was told to submit my credentials in Persian. I said I didn’t have them with me because I had never thought my Persian educational papers would have comprehensible for them. However, the Persian originals were at home and I could get them. I left my luggage at the airport, took a taxi home, and picked up the documents. Naturally I missed my flight, and after waiting for hours for another interview and watching nervous Iranian- born passengers in the waiting area, I appeared before a friendly looking official who smilingly took a quick look at my educational papers in Persian and said soothing words.
I might have asked him how he could trust words in an unknown language with a different script while his colleague hadn’t trusted written words in his own language. But the idea of questioning officials’ expertise in evaluating educational documents didn’t come to mind.
Thus I entered the United States as a Canadian citizen with a visa for work in mid August. In the following months, crossing the border [Peace Bridge]to visit my family and friends, I answered honestly and accurately the same questions I was asked the first time as a visitor: When did I leave Iran? When did I become a Canadian citizen? Had I traveled to Iran since then? Did I have any plan to go there? Who were my parents? Were they alive or dead? Dead or alive, were they Iranian? What were their dates of birth?
One night in late April 2005, just half an hour before midnight, sleepy and tired after a short visit to Toronto, I got off the bus and stood in the line to be checked. Because of the frequent trips, I knew the faces of some officers and hoped to be called by someone who looked friendly, just because I liked to feel that I’d be welcome. I tried to spot a familiar face at one of the booths. Every time I heard “Next” I wondered who would interview me this time. It was like a guessing game, or maybe, a game of chance. But I found myself in front of an unfamiliar face. The young stout official didn’t return my “Hi” with a smile. His face like a metallic mask, he didn’t bother to look at me. Instead, he looked at my passport, then at the screen, muttering, “You were denied at first.” Staring at his cold look, I said, “No. I was asked to show my original educational papers…” I stopped saying more, for he had disappeared with my passport. After a while he returned, asked a few questions, then disappeared again. The third time he appeared, still without looking at me directly, he told me to go back to the waiting area and take a seat. Before sitting down, I looked at the wall clock. It was past midnight and there were no passengers left. I thought, “If I miss the bus, I won’t be on time to start work.” The bus driver appeared for a moment. “Please wait for me,” I asked. “I can’t,” he said. Angry, I recalled that on previous trips the bus hadn’t left passengers behind. “It’s not fair,” I said. “It’s not fair to bother others for you,” he retorted and ran off.
I was called to another room. This time it was a young officer with a sweet smile who told me to sit on a bench and wait. I complained about missing the bus and he tried to ensure me that everything would go well and I’d be able to catch the next bus. I asked why they hadn’t started. He replied that I had to wait for the investigator and went away. When he came back, my passport in his hand, he asked, “Have you ever been to Zimbabwe?” He was still smiling sweetly. I laughed. “Zimbabwe? No,” I said. He went away and came back again. “Are you sure you didn’t go to Zimbabwe?” I was sure if the first customs officer had asked me such an absurd question, I wouldn’t have been able to control myself. But there was something in this one’s face and smile that didn’t let me be angry. “Since my arrival in Canada, I was either in Canada or in the States,” I said calmly. After he left, I suddenly felt helpless. Was it a trick? Some entrapment? Or one of those fatal errors that happened to the least lucky people? Did my name look or sound like an African name? Zimbabwe: all I knew about it was a name on the map of Africa. For a moment I felt ashamed I didn’t know more. In order to control my fury I tried not to think about Zimbabwe by watching two American teenage girls who had driven to Canada by mistake and had been returned by Canadian customs officials. The girls were excited, not frightened, and one of them, ignoring the sign about not using a cell phone, was reporting their adventure. They went off with a guard. I didn’t know how to keep myself busy until a guide took me to an immigration office waiting room in an adjacent building.
I began to pace this square new waiting room with a glass door to an office. My chronic back pains started to act up badly. Once or twice somebody advised me to sit down, relax, and wait my turn. I explained that I preferred not to. Finally I was called in by an officer who looked serious but not, like the first, robot-like. He asked some questions and said that I should be registered and fingerprinted. I said that I’d crossed the border many times during the last eight months. He said that I had the right to ask for the supervisor. I said I wanted to do that. The supervisor was a young woman, whom I remembered as being polite and gentle. I remarked that I remembered her; she said she didn’t remember me at all. I explained my situation and said that I didn’t see why I needed to be registered since I had lived and worked in the States for more than eight months and there had been no change in my situation, unless the regulations had changed. I said that if I was among those who had to be registered, why hadn’t I been on my first entry into the United States as a visitor or as someone with a TN visa? They could have refused or withdrawn a work permit. She said registration could happen any time and they were not supposed to tell me the reason why. I repeated my argument and she kept declining to explain why they had changed their treatment of me. Finally she told me that my only option was to accept the procedure, or decide to go back to Canada. I asked how I could go back to Canada when I had a U. S. job and had transferred all my personal belongings. How could I leave my car and other belongings and return jobless to Canada? She left me alone to make a decision. I turned to the serious looking officer and stretched out my hands. He said a few words about the procedure and asked me to swear an oath. I did and he fingerprinted me. I automatically answered some questions. He told me to go back to the waiting room and wait for the next step. I felt nauseous, I had headache, back pain and, worse than all these, I saw that I had missed not only the second but also the third bus. From time to time I was called in to answer questions and called out to wait more. The questions were so varied and different that I had to keep switching my mind to another to find the right answers. Now I knew that I had been recorded and videotaped.I desperately needed to see a smile on the serious-looking officer’s face.
Eventually the officer told me that the information had almost all been processed and that the next step would begin shortly. I said I wanted to go to the rest room. The officer told the supervisor about my request. While escorting me to the rest room, he asked me if I had any weapons. I held out my handbag to him because I was sick of silly questions. How could he be so machine-like and not see me as a middle-aged, fragile, defenseless woman! How could he be so ignorant about my 30-year background as a librarian after having examined my papers for hours! Declining to look into my handbag, he repeated the question. I don’t know why I sarcastically said, “Yes, I do.” He asked, “Do you have a knife?” I said, “Yes, I do. Why don’t you check my bag?” He nodded and refused to take it. I went to the bathroom, not caring about how stupid I had been. When I returned, the supervisor came up and asked me if I needed coffee or tea or anything else. I just shook my head, heading for the waiting room, my eternal destination.
It was past 4 a.m. when I was called in for the last time to have my handbag and wallet examined. The officer took out all my papers: my notes of phone numbers, addresses, bank passwords, my friends’ business cards, my credit cards, health cards, driver’s licenses, manuscripts of short stories in Farsi (Persian). He frequently took away documents to make copies. He asked detailed questions about each of them. The questions were so detailed and at the same time so unpredictable and irrelevant that I felt miserable. That I was giving personal information about those related to me made me feel wretched. None of those whose business cards, phone numbers, addresses, or names were in my notebook or wallet had been born or lived in the Axis of Evil, but were Canadian or American friends or acquaintances. Perhaps distrusting his eyes, the officer meticulously asked about the ethnic background of a thoroughly Western name. Then his gloved hands reached a yellow file containing manuscripts of short stories in Farsi. I had forgotten them.My heart started beating so hard that I felt I was about to faint. By no means was I prepared to give explanations about them. A couple of months earlier I had read that a plane had made an unscheduled landing because a steward had spotted a note in Farsi and concluded that it must relate to terrorism. “What are these?” asked the officer, flipping the papers attached by paperclips. “They are writings,” I whispered hopelessly. How could I prove they were short stories written many years ago by someone who had no chance to publish them where their potential readers were? “What writings?” he asked again. “My writings,” I said softly, trying desperately to recover my confidence. He held up one of them and asked,” Anything against the U. S.?” As he avoided looking at me I stared at him and said, “Of course not.” While this question and answer were being repeated for each story in turn, I couldn’t help wondering which profession could be more dangerous to the safety of the most powerful country of the world – a librarian or a writer? Up to that moment I didn’t suspect even for a moment that I was in danger of being accused to any crime, or wrongdoing. However, when it came to writings, I had become unsure; because writing essentially is an act of freedom, and I was in a situation that was absolutely hostile to freedom. Eventually the gloved hands left the yellow file and its contents and grabbed a plastic bag full of almonds and raisins. He said something. Not understanding what he said, I muttered, “Some snacks, help yourself please.” Glancing at me, he said, “I always carry some.” Feeling a lump in my throat, I looked at the clock. It was past 5 a.m. “What shall I do now?” I asked. “It’s over. We call a taxi to take you to the terminal. You pay for it,” he said.
A few weeks later I was on the train to Toronto to spend my short vacation there. On my previous border encounter I had been warned that I must now register my departure on leaving the United States. If I took the bus, the most inexpensive way to travel to Canada, this was impractical, to say the least, because it didn’t stop at U.S. Customs when it crossed. To take the train meant spending five hours in a New York train station for the connection. However, I was thankful that the train wouldn’t leave me behind as the bus had done. When the train approached the border, a conductor distributed the Canadian customs declaration forms. I asked him whether we would stop at the U. S. customs or if the U. S. officials would come on board. He said they might or might not. I panicked. As the train passed through the green landscape I gazed out the window, guessing what sort of ordeal I would undergo this time. I’d been assured that the next times would not be as long and hard, but what if the train passed the border without letting me get registered? I rushed forward in search of the conductor. I explained my situation. He said he didn’t know anything about such matters. I insisted on my obligation and went back to my seat. The train hurtled on and there was no sign of U.S. officials. I jumped up again to find the conductor. I implored him to do me a favor and let me get off the train if they didn’t board it. He assured me that he’d consider my situation. I went back to my place and anxiously waited for them. Finally two young guys in navy blue suits approached. One of them was the officer with the sweet smile. I almost jumped with joy; it was as if I’d seen a very dear friend. He carried my hand luggage and I followed, uncaring about the passengers who stared at me. The other officer looked sympathetic, too. I told them that I’d had a panic attack from fear of not meeting them. They assured me that could not have happened. Outside the train it was cold and windy. I turned my face to the wind and said, “You can’t imagine how glad I was to see you!” Smiling and asking me about my children, they guided me to an empty office. The procedure began and in between being fingerprinted I asked them if I was the only person in the train to have to go through this. “You’re the only one who’s asked for it,” said the officer with the sweet smile, “some people don’t know they have to do that.” Having done the fingerprinting, they started to question me about my trip, the reason why I was traveling to Toronto this time, where I was going to stay, what I was going to do, whom I was going to meet. Examining my belongings, including my papers, was the next step. The process was as complete as before, but without pressure on me, for this time I had the feeling that I was reporting about my plans and my private life to enthusiastic friends. Even when the officer with sweet smile asked about a black smudge of letters on the margin of my daughter’s photo in my wallet, I wasn’t irritated. I took the photo off the plastic and showed it to him: some words on a business card had rubbed off on the photo. While I was being escorted back to the train, I noticed that a woman wearing a sari was being taken to the office to go through the procedure. She looked older than me, and obviously not as content as I was.
I was back at the border crossing, as usual half an hour to midnight. Once again was tired and sleepy. In order to have enough time for registration, I rushed off the bus, the third person in the line. The first one was a middle-aged man with light brown skin. He was the only one being called inside. I looked back. The long line behind me and only one booth open was not a good sign. Nevertheless, I thought that the longer the line behind me, the more time I had. Certainly I was not supposed to be left behind by the bus. But the somber face of the man ahead of me as he stood before the unseen officer was not very promising. He looked experienced enough in facing problematic situations. I was curious to find out if he belonged to the club to which I’d joined. Somebody from another counter yelled, “Next.” A couple with sleepy kids went ahead. I tried to guess about the face I was about to see. It didn’t seem I was lucky enough to see that smiling face that night. I was wondering whether I could remember the mask-like face of the officer who had suspected me previously and tangled me so much without bothering himself looking at me for a second to see how I could be a threat. Was he simply ignorant or just one of the dedicated followers of Les Misérables’ Inspector Javert? Undoubtedly nothing but a name in my Canadian passport, the place where I was born, the place honored to be part of the Axis of Evil had awoke his suspicion. Didn’t he know that many Iranian Americans traveled frequently to Iran without having any problems? Or maybe my flaw was that I was a Canadian citizen, not an American one? Maybe I was ignorant in not knowing that Canada was the Axis of Evil, not Iran. I couldn’t reach a conclusion. I gave up thinking and stared ahead. The lucky couple was all set, whereas the somber faced man still stood motionless. I was called and handed over my passport to a young bulky officer who looked impatient enough not to answer my “Hi”. He motioned to me to the digital finger print device. I put my fingers on it. He moaned with dissatisfaction and told me to rub my fingers on my forehead. I did it and tried again. He moaned with more dissatisfaction. A colleague came to him. He grumbled that it didn’t match. Their consultation was not fruitful. He rushed away with my passport. “Oh, no!” I muttered. It seemed to me I was plunging into a new nightmare. Several guys in dark navy blue suits were hanging around. Desperately looking around to find a saviour, I spotted the sweetly smiling officer passing behind the glass doors. Trying to catch his eye, I waved. He saw me and smiled. He came in and without asking me anything said hastily to his colleagues that I was worried about missing the bus. He went away and my only hope vanished. I leaned on the edge of the counter to avoid falling down. The somber-faced man had gone and only few people remained in the line. The bulky officer came back and motioned to me to go the first waiting area. I knew my place. Without any complaint I headed to my bench, sat on it, and stared at my betraying fingers.
I don’t know how long I was there and what I was thinking about or if I was thinking at all. When I found myself in the second waiting room behind the glass door to the investigation room, I felt as if I had awakened from a dreamless sleep. I was not left alone for long. Three people emerged from a door, looking as if they were chained to each other. One, with a thick moustache and big brown eyes, looked as if he’d come from the Axis of Evil zone. The other, in a worn black suit, was slim, blonde, and baby-faced. He carried a notebook and a pen in his hand. I could imagine him as a shy and modest clerk, a novice in his profession. The third one, the ox-eyed guy, made any guess improbable. There was something bothersome in his look. I forgot missing the bus and as usual started to weave a story around what was going on around me. After all, I was a writer who enjoyed improvising stories for my own pleasure. The baby-faced guy could be a freshman of a seminary. But why was he here? After exchanging a few words with his companions, he went to a room with a closed door. I started to walk around. The man who was invisibly labeled “Axis of Evil” went out to smoke, and the mystery man took a seat watching me. I put my heavy hand luggage in the middle of the room and kept walking and counting my steps while entertaining myself with my fantasies. From time to time the ox-eyed man and I caught each other eyes. But I had lost interest in him and was impressed by the sadness I could see in the reserved look of a fellow sufferer who was eagerly puffing a cigarette. If he hadn’t looked so grumpy, I would come to him to share a cigarette and sympathy. Somebody told me to sit down. I didn’t bother myself to explain about my chronic back pain. The baby-faced guy came back and the ox-eyed guy said, “He’s down there smoking.” The smoker noticed them and came up. They went to a corner and exchanged some words. After a while, my fellow thanked them, approached the pay phone, and called for a taxi. Bored, I kept counting my steps. Again a guard told me to sit down. I said I wanted to go to washroom. He went in the office. The baby-faced man and his friend went in and out of the waiting room. Nobody heeded my request for the washroom. I sensed somebody had passed me and said softly, ” Hello.” I turned my head and saw the serious looking officer of my first ordeal. He rushed away. “Ah!” was the sound that came from my throat. I felt dizzy; nevertheless I couldn’t help walking around.
Finally someone came up and handed me over to a woman officer. She asked me to take off my raincoat, and whatever I had in my pockets. I left them with her. When I came out of the washroom, she guided me to a small room and told me to wait there. I realized that this room was a special waiting room. I sat on a chair in a corner and felt pity for myself. Now I was not a writer anymore, but a miserable protagonist, trapped in solitary confinement. I could not swallow the lump in my throat. Why should I control my tears? I stood up, ashamed of acting like a victim. I took a look around and noticed the sign about videotape, which drew my attention to the taping device near the ceiling. What would be the reaction of my library colleagues if they discovered I was being detained in such a room? Would they suspect me? Could they look at me as a friend? Would my American friends trust me any more? Could I see once again that magnificent library where I used to experience a spiritual solitude? Was it time to surrender? Yes, it was, for when I saw the ox-eyed man with his colleague in front of me, I was unsurprised. He held out his card towards me, “ we’re from F. B. I.…” I sat on my chair tranquilly, not listening while he introduced his colleague and himself. He started to question me. The questions were more or less the same as before. I said gently that I had already answered all them. He said they worked for a different agency. His explanation was reasonable enough, and I felt I was skilled enough to answer the endless series of questions forever. Not all the questions were the same as before. The shy man who mostly made notes asked me about my properties in the United States, my landlord, and my neighbors. Yet nothing could surprise me any more.
I was left alone again after they had done their job. Moments of suspension were painfully dragging. Suddenly I realized that I had been forgotten. There was no sound and sign of anybody. I jumped up and went to the corridor to find someone. A woman officer, whom I wasn’t sure had been the one who had guided me to this room, said that they knew I was there and that I had to wait. I remembered my previous ordeal and told her I wanted to see the supervisor. She told me to go back to the room and wait for the supervisor. I did. After a while a young officer came to the room and introduced himself as the supervisor. Regaining my confidence, I started to protest. I related my previous ordeal and why I thought there could be no reason I was being questioned again: although I tried to understand and respect their duties and comply with the regulations, I could not accept being treated like this and being investigated by the F. B. I. I asked him what crime or wrongdoing I had committed. I talked about my work, my job, and my duties. And I kept expressing myself until I felt there was nothing more to say. I thought he was lending a sympathetic ear. He explained that the F. B. I. guys were there for something unrelated to me, but at any time and any place and for whatever reason they had the right to question anybody. He tried to soothe me and showed much sympathy. He assured me I would go soon by a bus that was there and asked me to follow him.
I did. In less than half an hour I was in a bus heading for my American destination, New Haven, where I had a place, a library that was not only my workplace, but also my haven, my heaven.
Fereshteh Molavi, author of Thirty Shadow Birds (Inanna , 2019)
New Haven, May 2005