Mustafa emerged from the tunnel that led him out of the airplane and stepped into the airport. There were numerous lines of people facing glass booths; he joined the shortest line, and stood behind a couple he recognized from the airplane. “Akhi, my brother,” he said to the husband in a gray, ironed suit, “where is the restroom?”
The man ignored Mustafa, leaned toward his wife, and whispered into her turquoise hijab. She giggled, stealing a look at Mustafa from the corner of her eyes.
Mustafa took a step back and kept his gaze on the white and black-dotted tiles. He knew this was a punishment from God. He should have listened to his mother’s plea to spend Eid at home. But his visa was due to expire, so he couldn’t afford another day. Now, in the airport, he dragged his suitcase and felt heavy with dread at the list of names in his back pocket. Next to each one was the amount he owed, a thousand dollars in total for his plane ticket.
At the booth, a blond woman in a blue uniform asked him something he didn’t understand. She wore a badge on her chest like she was a police officer, but didn’t carry a gun or a baton the way American cops did in the movies he saw in internet cafes in Yemen.
“Bathroom?” he said, remembering the word from the three months of the English institute he attended before his migration. Back in the airplane, the seatbelt light had turned on while he was on his way to the lavatory, and the attendant he met halfway smiled and ordered him back to his seat, repeating with every step they took, “we’re landing, we’re landing.”
“Passport?” the blond woman said with a raised eyebrow. She was chewing gum with a vigor that reminded him of his aunt Khadijah, who could pop Gum Sudani between her teeth like the sound of the cherry-shaped holiday snap pops.
Mustafa slid his passport across the desk. The woman pushed his hand back and sucked her teeth. “You’re on that line,” she said, pointing over his shoulder. Mustafa walked away toward the back of a line that curled around like a sleeping snake.
Even though he won his visa from a lottery pool, he pretended he was handpicked for his credentials, namely, his bachelor’s degree in Business Management. Here he would make enough money to replace his father’s Peugeot sedan with a Toyota Land Cruiser. For his mother, he wanted to renovate the house by covering the brick walls with drywall and paint, putting tiles on the cement bathroom floor, and replacing the electric burner with a gas stove. As for himself, at thirty-two, he couldn’t afford any more rejections, seven failed marriage proposals were enough; he would save enough for a dowry that would turn him into a prize in a game show.
Finally, he arrived at the booth. Behind the desk sat a man with the same uniform. He had brown hazelnut skin like Yemenis from Aden, and his scruffy stubble and shaved mustache made him look like a pious scholar.
“Salaam,” Mustafa whispered.
The man looked at Mustafa while pulling down his short-sleeved top that was stretched tight on his hard muscles. His bicep alone, Mustafa realized, was the size of his own thigh.
“What’s your name?” the man asked.
Mustafa smiled at his failed assumption and was excited at the familiarity of the question.
“My name is Mustafa Kaid Mustafa Muhammad.”
The man paused for a moment, then pointed at the green passport in Mustafa’s hand.
While the man was flipping through it, Mustafa asked, “Bathroom?”
The man shook his head without looking at him. “Do you have the manila envelope for me?”
“Manila?” Mustafa said, almost to himself.
“Yellow,” the man said, drawing in the air with his finger a shape of a rectangle.
“Ayoh, Ayoh, yes,” Mustafa said. From the satchel he had bought before his first year at university, he took out the envelope and handed it over. It was given to him at the embassy when he picked up his visa and was warned from opening it until he reached the US.
The man placed the papers side by side with the passport. Then he looked back and forth between Mustafa and the visa page. His friends used to call him ‘lizard face.’ Because of his small frame, warm honey eyes, and thin lips. Mustafa was wearing the same white button-down shirt from the photo. He had also shaved before he had the portrait taken, and again before he traveled. Americans, he understood, didn’t like beards.
The man told Mustafa to take a step back and look at a webcam, then pointed for him to place his fingers on a device with a glass emanating green light. And before he let Mustafa go, he asked him to sign and date a paper from the envelope. 24 November 2009.
“Welcome to America,” the man said, handing back the passport.
“Thank you,” Mustafa said. “Bathroom?” he remembered to ask.
“Over there,” the man said, pointing across a busy hall.
On his way, while he dodged people who were walking toward the luggage area, he kept his eyes on the stick figures on the wall. They were nailed next to each other on a column that separated two curved entrances without doors. Before he could turn towards the restroom, Mustafa heard someone yell from behind him.
He saw the man from the booth pointing at him. Mustafa waited while the man maneuvered toward him. Once the man caught up, he grabbed Mustafa by the arm. “There has been a mistake. I need you to come with me. You’ve been selected for a random screening.”
Mustafa didn’t understand what the man said to him. In the English institute, he had only learned basic conversation questions and answers: what time is it, it’s twelve o’clock; what’s your favorite color, my favorite color is blue; where are you from, I’m from Yemen.
The man walked beside Mustafa against the stream of people past the booth, past the blond woman, and the tube that connected the airport to the plane. Then at the end of the terminal, the man opened a door that led to a carpeted corridor. Mustafa realized where the man was taking him. Back home, his cousins had bet that he would visit the room. He accepted the bet, boasting about his lottery visa that would grant him special treatment. “They will spread the red carpet for me, ya habibi,” he told them. They laughed and agreed that if he lost he would buy each of them an iPhone.
“Leave your bag here,” the man said. There were other suitcases, some standing on four wheels, others leaning against the wall. Mustafa’s black carry-on, which he bought on credit, he laid on the ground. “Come,” the man said and Mustafa followed him. Near the first two suitcases, made of hard silver aluminum shells, they went through another door.
It was the room. Mustafa almost smiled. It was windowless, long, and narrow. The tiles were white, the walls were painted white, and the four rows of foldable plastic chairs sitting to his left were also white. It felt like walking into a hospital waiting area.
“Here,” the man said, pointing at a chair, “no talking, no phone, no eating, and no bathroom. You understand?”
“Yes,” Mustafa said, understanding only half of what the man said. He sat on the middle chair of the last row. In front of him was a young bearded man, whose fingers were counting, and his lips were moving, immersed in supplication. In the first row he recognized the couple he spoke to on the line earlier.
“She will call you soon,” the man said, pointing at a woman sitting at a desk in the front of the room. She had rich dark skin and wore a navy blue headband that held tight to the front side of her head, giving the high ponytail of her braided hair a defining look. On top of her uniform, she wore a sleeveless black sweater with her badge hanging like a necklace and a pink pin attached to where her heart would be. She was looking at Mustafa like she had seen him before.
Across from her sat a man with a shiny bald head that reflected the fluorescent light from the ceiling.
When the man who brought him left, Mustafa unhooked his belt buckle.
Kayla Smith adjusted her headband, tucking loose baby hair from her two weeks old braids at the sight of him bringing yet another passenger. After she was done screening the one sitting across from her desk, the couple in the front row were next, then the young bearded man behind them, and now one extra. For the twentieth time today, she calculated how long it was going to take her to drive to Jersey City. Forty minutes for the Belt Parkway, twenty around the horn of Manhattan, then twenty in the Holland Tunnel. She was determined to make it on time for dinner.
Eric walked towards her, his muscles screaming for attention . “I’ll bring you his file in a bit,” he said, leaning toward her shoulder.
“It’s my half-day and it’s already three-thirty.”
“I called Robert, he’s stuck in traffic,” Eric said.
“The same shit happened last Thanksgiving,” she said.
“I’ll call him again. I would help, but I’m on check-in duty today,” Eric said.
Last year her family had waited until the food turned cold before she arrived home. Her mother was mad at her for three days, and her husband only spoke to her when she addressed him. And this year was worse because her mother-in-law was going to be there.
When Eric was gone, she turned to the passenger in front of her and asked, “How long did you stay in Sudan?”
The man stared at her. His soft brown pupils had that gray ring around them that her mother has. Then the man looked over his shoulder like someone was going to answer the question for him, and said with a tired voice, “No English.”
“Ok, wait,” she said, dialing the extension for the operation room from the phone on her desk. She gave the operator the man’s passport number to do a background check.
She hated this, interviewing immigrants who didn’t even know how to spell their names. Four years working at the TSA and she was still stuck as a Transportation Security Officer. She quickly found out that the promised opportunity to climb the ranks of the organization she read about on the TSA website was a lie.
“You’re all clear, you can go now.”
When the bald man reached the door, he murmured something, and the other passengers laughed.
“Back there, tone it down.”
She was sure it was something about her. Maybe he made fun of her weight, which had gone out of control since she gave birth to her daughter. That was three years ago, and she couldn’t get rid of the overflowing gut that spilled over her belt.
“Next,” she called, pointing at the couple. Usually, she would have to interview them separately, ask them the same questions then compare the answers. But she didn’t have the time to do that today. Also, their files were immaculate. Both graduated from Ivy League schools, the husband was a lawyer, and the wife was a resident doctor, and both were born in Brooklyn. But the TSA guidelines didn’t care about passengers’ achievement records. From the first week on the job, every officer was given a list of selected countries that required screening, even if the computer didn’t flag them. When she was first hired, the Training Department drilled her on the list so much she no longer had to look behind her badge where she taped it— she memorized it like a poem.
Syria, Algeria, Libya,
Cuba, Somalia, or North Korea
Iran, Lebanon, Sudan, or Afghanistan
Iraq and Yemen
In the beginning, it bothered her when she took people out of the line solely because of their nationality. How was it different from stop-and-frisk? she asked her husband one night. He said it was logistically the same, but different in that it scared people from attempting a terrorist attack. She wasn’t convinced, but it was a job that paid the bills. Eventually, she became numb to the procedure.
The couple came from Yemen. It was their first time visiting since they migrated when they were children. Instead of asking them the standard question, Kayla told them, “You know, you should apply for a Global Entry. It’s an online application that will save you from getting screened again.”
“Thank you,” the husband said.
Kayla looked up from the wife’s file and told her, “you’re probably the first Yemeni woman I interviewed whose listed occupation is not a housewife. Your parents must be proud!”
“What’s wrong with being a housewife,” the wife snapped.
“Habibti, it’s all right,” her husband said, placing a hand over her shoulder.
“I didn’t mean it in a bad way. It’s a compliment,” Kayla said. This is what I get for complimenting the skinny bitch.
“It’s all right, it’s all right. Are we done here?” the husband said.
“Yes,” Kayla said, deciding against running a background check only because she was determined to make it to dinner.
The wife rose and walked away, while the husband collected their passports before running after her.
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.
She looked at her watch, it was quarter till four.
She should have quitted her job when she was offered work in her daughter’s school as a security officer. She would have taken the pay cut, and there was no mobility like the TSA promised. But she would have been part of a union and it was walking distance from her house.
She raised her hand for the second to last person to come forward. He was a bearded young man that fitted the stereotype of the Training Department signs for suspicious individuals. He was a college graduate, bearded, and worked as an electric Engineer. She asked him the standard questions and ran his passport number.
“I was screened on my way out,” the young man said while Kayla was waiting for the headquarters background check response, “and now on my way in. Nothing changed in two weeks. I just went on a pilgrimage.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s random, you know.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said. The smile on his face disappeared.
“You’re clear to go.”
“Happy Thanksgiving,” he said before leaving his seat.
Once he was out, she picked up her radio and changed the channel.
“Eric, where is the file?”
“Eric?” she bleeped again. Still no answer.
She got up and walked towards the door.
“Wait here,” she told the last passenger when he tried to hand her his passport and manila envelope. “I’m getting something, I’ll be right back.”
Back home, when Mustafa had to relieve himself while on the road in his taxi, he often parked on the shoulder and squatted behind a rock or a bush. If he was on the mountainous highway, where only a single file of cars drove up and another drove down, he used an empty bottle. Driving a taxi was a go-get-it kind of job. You didn’t know when a customer would hail and pay your rent. So sometimes he would hold it, picking one customer after another from rush hour until dark, then he would look for a mosque to drain his agony.
In the room, the bearded young man in front of him looked over his shoulder then his eyes fell on Mustafa’s opened buckle.
“Pardon me! I have to use the restroom,” Mustafa said in Arabic, sitting up and fastening his belt.
“You’re going to be here for long, akhi,” the young man said. His beard grew down his chin in gentle waves and his eyelids drooped lazily.
“I’ve been waiting for two hours.”
“Your mercy— O Allah!” Mustafa said. He didn’t have hours in his bladder muscles, maybe half an hour was too much.
“Eid Mubarak!” the young man offered.
“It’s Eid day, and we are here, away from our families. May Allah forgive us.”
Mustafa felt guilty. He had told his mother if he traveled the day after Eid, he would arrive in New York with an expired visa. He wanted to at least give himself a day in between, so as not to run the risk of being sent back.
“Do they stop you every time you travel?” the young man asked. His Arabic had a hint of a foreign tongue, emphasizing the letters kha and Qaf.
“It’s my first time,” Mustafa said, unable to resist a smile.
“Congratulations!” the young man said, forcing himself to whisper this time. If they were outside, Mustafa was sure they would have been hugging like they were friends meeting after a long separation.
“They stop me every time,” the young man said after allowing for some silence between them. He kept looking back and forward between Mustafa and the woman in the front. “Because of my name, they always say.”
“What’s your name?” Mustafa asked.
“Swear by Allah!”
“My name is Mustafa Muhammad.”
They both faced the front and held their breaths from laughing.
The bald man from the front of the room walked by grumbling, “This habla doesn’t know how to do her job.”
This exaggerated Mustafa’s and Muhammad’s laughter.
The woman yelled from the front, and their laughter reduced to their shoulders bouncing.
Then she called the couple sitting on the first row, who, after their interview, stormed out of the room. Mustafa didn’t know what went wrong, but he felt satisfied.
The woman called Muhammad up, and he only sat for a few minutes. On his way out of the room, he whispered to Mustafa, “Allah be with you.”
His turn had come. Things went quicker than he had anticipated for everyone before him, and soon he would be relieved from the spasms tightening his gut.
Instead of calling Mustafa to the front, the woman left her desk and walked toward him. He took his passport and manila envelope and held them ready. She stopped by the door, and he noticed on her chest, the pink pin was in the shape of a twisted ribbon. She sized him up, and he noted the creases on her forehead. He wondered if he was in trouble for talking and laughing with Muhammad. She opened her mouth, and before she spoke, he handed her his papers, hoping she would figure out that he was a lottery winner from the envelope.
She told him to wait and left the room. He was about to ask her if he could use the bathroom, but the words twisted in his stomach.
She closed the door, and he was alone.
Where is Eric?
Kayla tried to call him, but it went straight to voicemail. In the main office, she saw a few headquarter liaisons, who were meant to conduct the background checks on passengers before they landed at the airport, and who instead spent their day talking about movies and shows they watched.
“Anyone seen Eric?” Kayla announced.
“No,” a voice said from behind one of the cubicles that only revealed half of the people’s faces.
She considered asking whoever was in the Image Operator Room to locate Eric through one of the airport cameras. But she decided against it. Last year was the last time she entered the IO Room. Since they installed the full-body scanners the room had turned into a lounge. TSA officers hung around eating and watching passengers’ naked bodies on the full x-ray display. After working there for one day, she vowed never to step into that room again. Officers made fun of passengers’ folds, piercings, hernias, and even mastectomies. Kayla had wanted to break the piled screens when she thought about her mother, who was a breast cancer survivor, being laughed at behind closed doors.
Before leaving the office she called, “How about Robert, did anyone see him?”
No one answered.
The next flight was landing in half an hour, she must leave before then. She took out her phone and called Robert.
“Partner Smith!” Robert said, picking up on the last ring before the voicemail message.
“Where are you?”
“I’m on my way, just stuck in traffic.”
“You live in Jamaica.”
“I’m coming from Long Island. I spent the night at my in-laws’.”
“Listen, Robert, I have a dinner to get to in New Jersey, if you are not here in the next thirty minutes, I’m leaving.”
“You’re not going to believe the name of the town,” he said, asking to be entertained.
“You know what? I’ll let you handle the case I have on your own. Which we don’t have a file for, plus the cases from the arriving flight. And, I will not answer your phone calls to address any of your questions.”
She hung up. “Not this year,” she said to herself.
She headed back towards the room to get the passenger’s passport to look up his file and run a background check.
In the corridor, she remembered how nervous she was on her first day of work. She used to ask passengers all the questions on the standard script the Training Department provided. but by now she narrowed it down to a feeling and decided to ask one or two. She wasn’t interested in catching the next terrorist, all she wanted was to do her job, cover herself, and go home. Everyone in the department knew that their methods didn’t work, not even those body scanners. One time a passenger from California went through the scanners with a gun turned sideways in his pocket— it was invisible on the x-ray screen. Days later the man was caught in Brooklyn by the NYPD after an attempted armed robbery at a gas station.
“Sit there,” Kayla said to the passenger back in the room. His passport and manila envelope were still on his lap.
“Let’s see if we can get through this quickly.”
She sat across from him and asked, “Can I see your passport?”
He gave it to her along with the manila envelope.
She looked his papers over. Shit. This would take at least two hours. A visa lottery winner was the worst. A background check was not sufficient. She needed to build him a file.
“My name is Officer Smith. Mr. Mustafa Muhammad, I will be asking you some questions, nothing serious, just a mandated procedure. My colleague has informed me that you have been made aware that this is a random selection interview because it’s illegal to profile any individual based on their race, ethnicity, gender, or religious belief. The answer to the following series of questions will be kept on our record for future interviews. So, we shall start… Why did you wait until the last day before your visa expires to travel?”
The passenger was silent for a few seconds. He looked nervous.
“No too much English,” he said.
“No way!” Kayla said, picking up the phone. “Can you get me an interpreter?”
“What language?” the operator said.
She looked over the visa page, “Arabic.”
“Give me a second, I’ll connect you with someone.”
Robert better arrive and take this case from her. Otherwise, she was going to miss dinner again. She noticed the passenger shifting in his seat. Why did he wait until the day before his visa expired? Often, immigrants, especially lottery winners, came during the first or second week after they received their visas. She recalled once, an Egyptian couple that came the day after.
The passenger suddenly raised his hand like he was in a classroom and said, “Bathroom, please?”
Kayla’s cell phone rang.
“Not now,” she said to him and stepped out to answer the call. It was her husband, but when she picked up she heard her daughter’s voice. “Mom, when are you coming?”
“I’ll be there soon, baby.”
“Grandma said you will not make it.”
“I’ll be there I promise,” Kayla said, stepping over the coffee-stained carpet in the corridor. “Tell your granny that I’ll be there.”
She looked at her watch, it was already four.
“Where is daddy?” Kayla asked her daughter.
“Hello.” Her husband’s voice came on and she imagined him pushing his full-rimmed eyeglass against his nose like he did every time he answered the phone.
“I’m running late. These assholes are not helping. I still have one more case, and the next flight is landing any minute now.”
“Tell her,” she heard her mother say from the background. “we’re not waiting.”
“Your mom is not happy.”
“I’m not happy either.” She was just steps from the main office, but she didn’t care who heard her. “You think I’m having fun here? The guy doesn’t even speak English.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. Your mom expected you to make the mac and cheese.”
“I will not let this douche screw me over this time.”
“Just do your best.”
“That’s not the point. It never is.”
She hung up and called Robert, but he didn’t pick up the first two times, then it went straight to voicemail on the third.
She walked back towards the room. In the corridor, she saw the passenger’s carry-on. He came from the Middle East without a suitcase, something to note in his file. She opened the door to the room. Empty. The passenger was no longer there. No, no, no.
The woman just said no, and left. Did she even understand what Mustafa said? He wasn’t sure. He should have used the lavatory in the airplane, should have pushed the attendant, ran, and closed the door behind him.
In the room, he couldn’t take it anymore. He collected his papers, got up from the desk, and walked towards the door. He felt a sharp stab below and it stung him with every step. He walked past his bag, past the second door, and past the check-in area. The maze of retractable belts was deserted. The check-in booths were half empty. The muscular man wasn’t there. He saw the sign for the restroom. The only way to keep it clean was to walk in small steps, one foot in front of the other. Soon he would be relieved, then the stupid officer could make him wait for five hours. He didn’t care.
Before he stepped into the bathroom, he heard someone yell from behind him. He saw the white tiles, the gray walls, the white urinals, then a man helping his son wash his hands. Mustafa felt someone embrace him from behind, two stern arms around his chest. The world spun. His envelope fell on the floor, and his shoulder hit the ground, then his forehead. Someone was on his back, pinning him against the ground with their knee. Then there were a dozen legs surrounding him. He held his breath. The father from the bathroom covered his son’s eyes. The warm stream down his thighs, the gushing pressure, the relief. He was a visa lottery winner, he was handpicked from thousands of people. He had shown it to his mother, then walked her from room to room, telling her the things he would cover, the things he would replace, the things would buy. He had his degree in his suitcase, from Sana’a University. His father had driven him to the airport in the Peugeot, and Mustafa promised him a Landcruiser.
The officer from the room arrived. She put one hand against her mouth, and the other against her chest. Mustafa watched the yellow pool inch toward her black boots.
Kayla was in shock. The other TSA officers looked at her for direction, frowning. But this wasn’t in the rule book, and it wasn’t taught in the Training Department.
“I’ll take it from here,” she said. No one said anything.
She picked up the passenger’s envelope from the floor, then walked him into the bathroom. A father and his son stepped over the wet tiles, and as they left she heard them telling people outside not to go in. She led him to one of the stalls, which was too small to fit both of them. She let go of him, and he closed the toilet lid and sat. He was small now, reminding her of her cousin Josh. She gave him his envelope, and he took it and placed it on his lap, covering himself like he was naked.
“I’m really sorry about this,” she said. “I’ll go get your bag.”
She wanted him to yell, to be nasty. She wanted him to snap at her like the woman in the headscarf. But he didn’t. He just sat there, looking at his feet.
She brought him his suitcase and a bottle of water from a vending machine.
While waiting for him outside, she watched passengers come out of the tube, filling the airport ground with confusion. She wasn’t going to make it to dinner, who was she lying to?
“What did I do?” she whispered to herself. “What did I do to this man?”
She wished he was from Saudi Arabia or India. He would have gone through check-in, picked up his luggage, and started his new life in America without any sour memories.
Her phone rang, it was her husband.
“Hello,” she heard herself say.
“Mommy are you coming?” her daughter asked. “We’re serving the food already.”
“Go on baby and eat. I’m sorry.”
She hung up, ignoring the complaints she heard in the background. She no longer felt the urgency to leave.
Then Robert called. She sent him to voicemail.
The passenger came out of the bathroom in black pants and a gray t-shirt. He stood before her and looked straight into her eyes. She wanted him to say something to heal her as much as she wanted to heal him. But he didn’t say anything, just looked at her with disgust.
“You can go,” she said
He turned and walked away without hesitation, his envelope beneath his arm.
“You need a jacket,” Kayla said. “It’s cold outside.”
He didn’t turn back.
Outside, the sun felt welcoming. It was cold, the sort that made his skin feel like a separate organism clenching onto him. He felt the air travel through his nose, shocking his lungs. A tingle in his wet shoes shivered his body. The sidewalk, the pavement, and the crossing lights were dark in color, and clean. He watched other passengers, they were looking this way and that way, their phones against their ears. Others were hugging their parents, siblings, children, friends, lovers. A Taxi driver waved at him, pointing at his yellow car which was the first in a long line of service cars. Kids ran around in circles, tagging one another on the shoulder, hiding behind their parents, and telling each other to stop while laughing. A plane zoomed a few feet away from a train that was running across the airport ground, then it disappeared behind the multi-story parking lot. Clouds formed in shapeless perfection against the bluest sky. A man asked him something, maybe for directions, and he shook his head. The man thanked him anyway.
MOHAMED MORSHED is a writer with a passion for exploring the American Muslim experience, history, and Yemeni culture. Through his fiction, he aims to shed light on the unique challenges faced by Muslim Americans and to promote a greater understanding of the Muslim community. Mohamed’s writing is informed by his own experiences as an immigrant who was born and raised in Yemen and later moved with his family to the US. Currently, he’s working on a collection of short stories that move through history, starting with colonial Aden until the present day. Each story builds on the previous one to create a larger narrative about what it means to be an immigrant, Muslim, and Yemeni American today.
Art: “The Hills” by Angelica Esquivel