The nonthreatening Muslim: navigating immigration to the USA.

AuthorKhan, Aaminah

"Miss ... Khan?"

The customs official stops, looks up at me, looks back down at my passport, and hesitates. That's always how it starts.

I am an Australian citizen of mixed Turkish and Pakistani descent. I have brown skin and non-Anglo-European features. I'm also Muslim, and when I was younger, I wore a hijab. As a result, I've experienced all the usual kinds of Islamophobic bigotry and ignorance--the yelled death threats from strangers driving past me, the "go back to where you came from" chants as I walk down the street, the "jokes" about me being a terrorist, the questions about arranged marriages and dowries of camels (for some reason, it's always camels). Part of the reason I chose to stop wearing the hijab was that I was tired of not being able to walk through a shopping center without people either whispering behind my back or yelling in my face.

I was eleven years old when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. The world changed for countless people like me permanently because twenty men we had never met and to whom we had no connection did a terrible thing supposedly in our name.

I feel like it's important to mention that I was only eleven because perhaps it will remind you that I was just as helpless as anyone else was to stop the attacks from happening. People seem to forget that.

"Miss ... Khan." Perhaps she thinks saying it again will make it less scary.

The customs official this time around--my third visit to the United States--is a woman not much older than me. She's probably a perfectly nice person in her everyday life. I doubt she would give me a second glance on the street, dressed as I am in a miniskirt, boots, and a thick sweater, my long-distance-flight comfort outfit of choice. But here and now, in the customs line at an airport where she is holding my passport and can see the name printed on it--Miss Aaminah I Khan--she sees me the way she's been taught to see me: as a potential threat.

She avoids eye contact as she asks me all the usual questions, choosing instead to riffle through my passport and visa documents repeatedly as though something within them will make me somehow less of a problem. I watch her look at my passport, then at that paperwork, then at my passport again. I recite prayers in Arabic without moving my lips because I want to calm myself but I don't want to make her even more suspicious of me.

When I do talk, however, I answer her questions in my crisp, careful Australian accent--the product of...

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