This article is adapted from the book The Wrong Kind of Muslim, by Qasim Rashid.
I walked out onto the main street. Rabwah, Pakistan after dark is exciting. Shops are still open and the aroma of fresh fried delectables command the air. I walked past Tahir Heart Institute, a state-of-the-art cardiac center that provides free or near-free medical care to all Pakistanis, regardless of background. Pausing to admire it, I heard a voice call out to me to stop walking any further.
Thinking perhaps it was Uncle Bashir, I turned with a smile. Jogging up to me instead was a Pakistani police officer ready to draw his pistol.
The police officer's left hand was up, making the "stop" motion, the other securely on his holster. He was slender and tall; easily around 6'3, and in full uniform. I want to say that his giant mustache added to his intimidation factor, but it's more likely that I was paranoid about how tightly he gripped his pistol.
"Don't tell them that you are an Ahmadi Muslim! That's the single rule! Do not tell them you are an Ahmadi. Just ignore it and move on."
I wasn't sure how to react, but stood still for the moment to let him know I wasn't going anywhere. It isn't necessarily smart to run from a man clutching a gun.
"What are you doing here?" He demanded to know.
"Why did you stop me?" I replied rather glibly.
"I asked what you're doing here." He demanded again, taking a step towards me.
"I'm walking." My reply was ruder than I'd intended. But nothing could've prepared me for his response.
"I know what you're doing here. Where's the bomb? Where'd you put it?!"
"Wha.. What?? Bomb? What the hell are you talking about?"
"Don't get smart with me, you son of a bitch. You goddamn Americans! Where's the bomb? Where is it, you terrorist?!"
The police officer took another step closer, one hand still in front and the other tightly clutching his pistol. It occurred to me that there was nervousness in his voice. At first, it surprised me that he knew I was American. But I quickly realized how foreign I looked from the way I dressed, the way I walked, the way I combed my hair even. When he heard me speak in my accented Urdu, it confirmed that I was definitely either American or Canadian. He probably just guessed American, and guessed right.
My secret identity revealed, I decided to switch it up to English, having no idea whether he understood English or not. I figured it couldn't possibly get me in any more trouble.
"Alright, pal, listen. Slow down. You have no idea what you're doing, and you need to take your hand off your gun." My American humility showed through clearly. He became tenser. I countered by putting my palms out to show I had nothing to hide. "There's no bomb, I'm not a danger to you, and I'm only heading home." I found myself echoing a statement I'd made to police in post-9/11 America on more than one occasion.
"You not terrorist? Prove!" he said in his broken English as he pulled his gun partially out of its holster.
"Wait, what? I said slow down! Prove I'm not a terrorist?" How the hell was I supposed to do that? I paused because I couldn't believe the question. I had to deal with proving I wasn't a terrorist every time I flew in America since 2001. Every time I crossed the U.S.-Canada border I was "randomly stopped" to be searched, sometimes for hours. And traveling with my U.S. Marine brother wasn't any better. Once while crossing through Cornwall in Ontario, Border Patrol actually separated us and interrogated us about one another for four hours.
I'd been pulled off planes, interrogated in back rooms with a "mirror" on one wall, and frisked up and down. I'd had all my books and home videos copiously examined by airport security. I'd been pulled over dozens of times and let off with a warning while never actually told why I was pulled over in the first place. I'd dealt with the stares and the uneasy fellow travelers. I'd been randomly selected for a search so many times that the customs agents at O'Hare Airport actually recognized me, and I them.
Now, back in Pakistan in 2006, the land of my birth, the land of my ancestors, as I came to reconnect with my roots, I had to deal with...the exact same damn thing? What the hell was this world coming to? I was furious inside. Unfortunately for me, the cop didn't care.
"Look, this is ridiculous, how the hell do I prove to you I'm not a terrorist?"
He responded by gripping his gun tighter. He was getting impatient.
"Look, if I was a terrorist I would've..." I was about to argue that I would've looked like one, but the argument immediately failed in my mind. Let's face it; I was in my early twenties, brown, bearded (I had let it grow out for a few weeks), not from the area, and walking alone in the dark. For someone looking to stereotype, particularly under the veil of anti-American prejudice, it didn't take much to convince him or her that they'd uncovered a CIA agent looking to cause trouble. Such conspiracy theories run rampant in Pakistan. To be fair, they're not all conspiracies, but that wasn't helping my case at the moment.