[Reader-list] Arabic is sortof illegal in US airports

Patrice Riemens patrice at xs4all.nl
Tue Aug 22 18:06:53 IST 2006

bwo Dave Boyce/ the Hippies list


Thursday, August 10, 2006
back from the mideast

I just came back from a short trip to Jordan and Syria. The trip to Syria 
was so fast, but I managed to visit some Lebanese refugee camps. I am so 
impressed by the Syrian people's generosity in receiving Lebanese 
refugees. The Syrian government didn't even have to send food or supplies 
to the refugees because of the overwhelming grassroots support. When I was 
in the school/refugee camp, many neighbors were walking in with food and 
clothes. Neighbors donated mattresses, TVs, satellites, money, and other 

The other thing you can't miss in Jordan and Syria is people's anger 
against the US. On more than occasion, I got shouted at because I live in 
the US. The most interesting incident was during a visit to a Lebanese 
refugee camp. I was called by two young Lebanese people, and they asked me 
whether me and the rest of the delegation visiting their shelter where 
coming from the US. I said yes. They said: "you better get the hell out of 
here unless you want us to make a scene". I tried to explain that we are 
the "good" Americans who are against the war, so they said go back home 
and change your government. "you can't come here visit us in a shelter 
that we were sent to because of your tax money and your bombs, and expect 
us to be nice to you". So me and the other Americans got the hell out of 

The trip to Jordan was more productive and organized. I managed to put 
together a couple of meetings with Iraqi parliamentarians representing the 
major groups in the parliament. One meeting was with two MPs, one 
representing the biggest Sunni Group, and the other representing the 
biggest Shia group in the parliament. They gave the US delegation that 
accompanied me a strong and united message against the US presence in 
Iraq. It was a clear Sunni/Shia demand to end the occupation and set a 
timetable for withdrawing the US troops. Another meeting was with MPs and 
some other NGO representatives of mainly secular and liberal Iraqis. We 
had some other meetings with Human rights organizations as well. Read Tom 
Hayden's piece in The Nation for more details about our meeting in Amman.

That week in Jordan and Syria was so intense. I came back to DC for a day, 
then I took the bus to New York to watch Fear Up: Stories from Baghdad and 
Guantanamo, and participate in some discussions.

The next day, I went to JFK in the morning to catch my Jet Blue plane to 
California. I reached Terminal 6 at around 7:15 am, issued a boarding 
pass, and checked all my bags in, and then walked to the security 
checkpoint. For the first time in my life, I was taken to a secondary 
search . My shoes were searched, and I was asked for my boarding pass and 
ID. After passing the security, I walked to check where gate 16 was, then 
I went to get something to eat. I got some cheese and grapes with some 
orange juice and I went back to Gate 16 and sat down in the boarding area 
enjoying my breakfast and some sunshine.

At around 8:30, two men approached me while I was checking my phone. One 
of them asked me if I had a minute and he showed me his badge, I said: 
"sure". We walked some few steps and stood in front of the boarding 
counter where I found out that they were accompanied by another person, a 
woman from Jet Blue.

One of the two men who approached me first, Inspector Harris, asked for my 
id card and boarding pass. I gave him my boarding pass and driver's 
license. He said "people are feeling offended because of your t-shirt". I 
looked at my t-shirt: I was wearing my shirt which states in both Arabic 
and English "we will not be silent". You can take a look at it in this 
picture taken during our Jordan meetings with Iraqi MPs. I said "I am very 
sorry if I offended anyone, I didnt know that this t-shirt will be 
offensive". He asked me if I had any other T-shirts to put on, and I told 
him that I had checked in all of my bags and I asked him "why do you want 
me to take off my t-shirt? Isn't it my constitutional right to express 
myself in this way?" The second man in a greenish suit interfered and said 
"people here in the US don't understand these things about constitutional 
rights". So I answered him "I live in the US, and I understand it is my 
right to wear this t-shirt".

Then I once again asked the three of them : "How come you are asking me to 
change my t-shirt? Isn't this my constitutional right to wear it? I am 
ready to change it if you tell me why I should. Do you have an order 
against Arabic t-shirts? Is there such a law against Arabic script?" so 
inspector Harris answered "you can't wear a t-shirt with Arabic script and 
come to an airport. It is like wearing a t-shirt that reads "I am a 
robber" and going to a bank". I said "but the message on my t-shirt is not 
offensive, it just says "we will not be silent". I got this t-shirt from 
Washington DC. There are more than a 1000 t-shirts printed with the same 
slogan, you can google them or email them at wewillnotbesilent at gmail.com . 
It is printed in many other languages: Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, English, 
etc." Inspector Harris said: "We cant make sure that your t-shirt means we 
will not be silent, we don't have a translator. Maybe it means something 
else". I said: "But as you can see, the statement is in both Arabic and 
English". He said "maybe it is not the same message". So based on the fact 
that Jet Blue doesn't have a translator, anything in Arabic is suspicious 
because maybe it'll mean something bad!

Meanwhile, a third man walked in our direction. He stood with us without 
introducing himself, and he looked at inspector Harris's notes and asks 
him: "is that his information?", inspector Harris answered "yes". The 
third man, Mr. Harmon, asks inspector Harris : "can I copy this 
information?", and inspector Harris says "yes, sure".

inspector Harris said: "You don't have to take of your t-shirt, just put 
it on inside-out". I refused to put on my shirt inside-out. So the woman 
interfered and said "let's reach a compromise. I will buy you a new 
t-shirt and you can put it on on top of this one". I said "I want to keep 
this t-shirt on". Both inspector Harris and Mr. Harmon said "No, we can't 
let you get on that airplane with your t-shirt". I said "I am ready to put 
on another t-shirt if you tell me what is the law that requires such a 
thing. I want to talk to your supervisor". Inspector Harris said "You 
don't have to talk to anyone. Many people called and complained about your 
t-shirt. Jetblue customers were calling before you reached the checkpoint, 
and costumers called when you were waiting here in the boarding area".

it was then that I realized that my t-shirt was the reason why I had been 
taken to the secondary checking.

I asked the four people again to let me talk to any supervisor, and they 

The Jet Blue woman was asking me again to end this problem by just putting 
on a new t-shirt, and I felt threatened by Mr. Harmon's remarks as in 
"Let's end this the nice way". Taking in consideration what happens to 
other Arabs and Muslims in US airports, and realizing that I will miss my 
flight unless I covered the Arabic script on my t-shirt as I was told by 
the four agents, I asked the Jet Blue woman to buy me a t-shirt and I said 
"I don't want to miss my flight."

She asked, what kind of t-shirts do you like. Should I get you an "I heart 
new york t-shirt?". So Mr. Harmon said "No, we shouldn't ask him to go 
from one extreme to another". I asked mr. harmon why does he assume I hate 
new york if I had some Arabic script on my t-shirt, but he didn't answer.

The woman went away for 3 minutes, and she came back with a gray t-shirt 
reading "new york". I put the t-shirt on and removed the price tag. I told 
the four people who were involved in the conversation: "I feel very sad 
that my personal freedom was taken away like this. I grew up under 
authoritarian governments in the Middle East, and one of the reasons I 
chose to move to the US was that I don't want an officer to make me change 
my t-shirt. I will pursue this incident today through a Constitutional 
rights organization, and I am sure we will meet soon". Everyone said okay 
and left, and I went back to my seat.

At 8:50 I was called again by a fourth young man, standing with the same 
jetblue woman. He asked for my boarding pass, so I gave it to him, and 
stood in front of the boarding counter. I asked the woman: "is everything 
okay?", she responded: "Yes, sure. We just have to change your seat". I 
said: "but I want this seat, that's why I chose it online 4 weeks ago", 
the fourth man said " there is a lady with a toddler sitting there. We 
need the seat."

Then they re-issued me a small boarding pass for seat 24a, instead of seat 
3a. They said that I can go to the airplane now. I was the first person 
who entered the airplane, and I was really annoyed about being assigned 
this seat in the back of the airplane too. It smelled like the bathrooms, 
which is why I had originally chosen a seat which would be far from that 

It sucks to be an Arab/Muslim living in the US these days. When you go to 
the middle east, you are a US tax-payer destroying people's houses with 
your money, and when you come back to the US, you are a suspected 
terrorist and plane hijacker.

If you want to call Jet Blue and ask about their regulations against 
Arabic script, you can use the following numbers:

* If calling within the U.S., Bahamas or Puerto Rico: 1-800-JETBLUE 
* If calling from the Dominican Republic: 1-200-9898
* If calling from outside the U.S. or Dominican Republic: 001-801-365-2525
* Customers who are deaf or heard of hearing (TTY/TDD): 1-800-336-5530

or you can leave them some comments here. Help make the US a better place 
by stopping such unconstitutional violations of our rights.

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