WANJURAH: My experience at Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk Airport after the recent terror attack
What really annoyed me was the fact that he was exceedingly polite even when apparently discriminating against me.
Even with my cap lowered, I could feel his eyes on me moments before he beckoned me. From nasty encounters with “security-conscious” immigration desks, I have acquired an instinctive sense of impeding harassment like a boy walking past the hood bullies. You know for certain you’ll survive the encounter. The unknown is how long and how nasty it will be.
“Please stand aside sir. Could you please remove your cap…Great. Now please tell me where is your final destination? And why were you in Kenya? Whom did you interact with? Why are you travelling so light? Are you sure this is the only luggage you have? And why are you having two laptop bags? Did you pack them yourself…?”
Past experiences have taught me the folly of losing your cool with this line of condescending questioning. But rather than my Istanbul interrogator reading innocence in my calm-as-cucumber mien as I hoped, it seemed to amplify his suspicions that I was a seasoned jihadist traveller.
He studied my passport. “Could you please, sir, explain why you were in Senegal? Whom did you meet while there and why?” The question threw me off balance because it was completely unexpected. I couldn’t even remember which year I had made the trip. I confessed as much. My failure to recall the finer details of a trip four-and-half years ago was such a big crime that I was referred to what he called “Mr Manager!”
Anger began to smoulder inside me. As if reading this, he came over and stood so close I picked the scent of Kaluma on his nostrils. For a Turk, he was conspicuously tall. But his huge girth also made for a big standout. It was a fat contrast to the well-toned physiques of majority of Kemal Ataturk airport officers. The beautiful women officers with their body-hugging pants are a refreshing breather for a weary traveller. I suspect their shape counts for something in the recruitment process.
He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I’m so sorry sir. But I’m sure you know of an attack here a week ago. They (terrorists) pretended to be travellers just like you. I’m so sorry but one of them had a cap like yours…even height was just as short as you. You know we can’t afford to take anything for granted… we just want to be sure. Terrorists are bad…If at all you’re from Kenya or is it Somalia as your looks suggest, I’m sure you know this. Bad people…Al-shabaab and Daesh…blood brothers…”
In spite of my anger, the suggestion that I could pass for a Somali tickled me. It reminded me of an encounter with a Nairobi jewellery hawker some years ago. I was stuck in traffic on Parliament road when the hawker, brandishing a fake gold-plated chain, walked over and in rapid Somali, offered it for sale.
I pointedly told him I didn’t understand the language. He asked if I’d grown up in Eastleigh. I had not. He switched to Swahili and lectured me about the “idiocy” of forsaking one’s language. I insisted I was not Somali. He patted my hair and, as a parting shot, retorted: “hata ukikataa, nywele ni kama yangu tu (even if you deny it, your hair and mine are the same). To date, memories of the encounter provoke bouts of uncontrolled laughter in my relative who witnessed it.
While my interrogation went on, I couldn’t help notice the apparent discrimination. Many of the travellers for the Manchester-bound flight were Britons. White bearers of the burgundy-coloured passports were hardly questioned. But even Asian and blacks UK nationals had to answer awkward questions. Those with Asian and Northern African passports especially had it rough.
The only black young man who was apparently part of a coterie returning from a shared summer holiday flew into an understandable rage when he was the only one in the group flagged aside by immigration. The officer muttered about a history of trouble with black travellers. The victim correctly noted the airport attack was actually the work of East Europeans “who were more white than black!”
“Mr Manager” turned out to be a mean-looking guy standing next to my interrogator. Without looking at me, he asked me for ticket printouts for my UK-exit journey. Luckily, I had retained them. He asked for my resident card. I had it. He asked me for my student card. I had that too. Apparently lacking anything else to ask, he said: “just go” while waving his hand dismissively. The tone was more resigned than friendly!
With heightened security, I presume there are, globally, many travellers who share my Istanbul experience. I have read of far nastier encounters. To be fair to Turkey, just like Kenya, frequent and deadly attacks have understandably raised her prickliness and suspicions. She cannot afford to drop her guard. The same officers who catch flak for security hawkishness will be mercilessly pilloried for perceived laxity in the event of an attack.
But it’s a thin line between thwarting terrorism and turning well-intentioned preventive measures into profiling manifestos. The danger with the latter is that it can push fickle victims into the bosoms of states haters. Even worse, it can be the perfect terrorists’ recruitment agent. If some security agency consistently brands you are natural fit for a terrorist group, you might be sufficiently angered to sign up for your membership someday.
We shared this dilemma with a seatmate en route to Manchester. She was a huge affair, probably in mid-fifties, who kept complaining about the small legroom of the plane. She was returning from holiday in Tanzania and proudly wore her sunburns like battlefield scars. I didn’t mind her showing off her roasted arms. But when she raised her skirt for more revelations, I remembered my Sunday school lessons and discovered a sudden need to tie my shoelaces!
I nevertheless liked the sound of her observations on Tanzania and President Magufuli. She had been a faithful tourist to Kenya for 12 years. A keen follower of Africa developments, she had read about the newly elected leader and his austerity zest that was reportedly sweeping through the nation.
With her reticent friend who threw disapproving stares at our airplane friendship, they had ditched Kenya for her eastern neighbour. But the outing was a disaster or so she claimed. She complained about everything – from the heat to the traffic jam.
Unlike Kenya, Tanzania lacked what she described as a “holidaying spirit.” I don’t know what she meant. But it sounded like the right thing to say about my country!
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