Silence

Salar Abdoh teaches at The City College of New York. His most recent novel, Opium, is published by Faber.

www.faber.co.uk

Sad bully with a big badge

The border guard's narrow face is softly sadistic. It may have to do with the wraparound shades he wears, so that I cannot see his eyes while he, easily, can scrutinize me like a hawk. I'm not doing well at this US/Canadian land crossing. I feel guilty, slightly criminal. Why? Because this is how I often feel. It's a habit one picks up after having been profiled enough times, been pulled enough times out of lines – men and women always giving the stare, runny-nosed children gawking. Who's that criminal? Look at him, they've caught him at last. What's he got in his shoes? I always try to think of my strategies for travel beforehand – don't smile, smile a lot, talk clearly, just murmur, look in the officer's face, don't look in his face. But none of my strategies ever work. Maybe, I think to myself, it's the curse of the middle name I never use. Mohammad. Sometimes I think if I were rid of the M word, I'd be home free. But it's not like that.

"Where will you stay in Montreal?"

"Hotel."

"Name of hotel?"

I stumble over the name. I swallow hard, so that the man in the booth sees my Adam's apple bob down and up.

"You have relatives or friends in Canada?"

I tell him yes and yes and he asks if I'll be seeing them. "Don't know yet," I tell him.

"Don't know? You don't know what you're going to do when you travel?"

Isn't that the whole bloody point of travel?

I have that sinking feeling now and so does my brother, who is sitting in the passenger seat and for maybe the thousandth time in our lives is telling me, "Easy does it bro, don't rile the man up."

Then I'm angry at my brother. And I think: maybe I shouldn't have started calling him Sid when we came to America. Something about this name Sid that smacks of trouble. George doesn't get you in trouble. Lawrence, I'm certain, does not get you in trouble. But Sid? Sid himself – full name Sardar Ahmad Abdoh – is trouble enough. The only other time we went to Canada together, he got into a fight with a mercenary bartender in Windsor, Ontario and we were promptly booted out. This time we've driven the length of New York State in the shabby old Ford Focus that he refuses to bury in the graveyard – seven hours of driving in a car whose driver's side window has to be propped up with a tree branch to remain closed. I mean, I wouldn't trust us either if I saw us in the rearview mirror.

Two Iranian-born US citizens going where to do what? The border guard folds a yellow slip in our passports and tells us to pull to the side and go inside for some questioning.

Sid reminds both of us to stay cool and that it'll be OK. But my sinking feeling won't go away and I want to slap him on the back of the head and stand in that North American no man's land and shout how this beautifully crazy brother of mine is an engineer for a Fortune 500 company and I'm a professor and we're not lying and we just wanted to be someplace different for a weekend.

Who'd believe us, though? Silence at times like these is better. Speak when spoken to. Just answer the questions. Don't aggrandize yourself. Don't make empty threats. Don't say you're going to write a letter to God or to the Canadian Consul. Plus, I have to remind myself that it's not just this border, it's all of them. Didn't that kid pull you out of line last summer in Tehran just to give you the Persian welcome? You look too happy, you were drinking on the plane? What I wanted to tell him was to kiss my arse, that flying on a KLM flight, I had every right to drink to my bladder's content until the plane touched down on Islamic Republic soil. I said no such thing, of course.

Or how about three years ago when the soldiers made my Kurdish driver and me dance before the Iraqi border? What's a man to say, I object? And what about the year before last when, by some exquisite feat of security masterminding, the guards at Heathrow managed to separate an Afghan family I'd been travelling with from New York, so that the parents ended on one side of the international line and the kids on the other? Try explaining the situation to the overtaxed fellow in Terminal 4 and guess what? When he pulls your elbow past your right ear to direct you to the man who can "guide" you, do you pull your elbow back and say, Let go my arm you sod; I'm just trying to help, aren't I?

No. You keep your mouth shut. Besides, this time around it's just Canada, for God's sake. It's not like the fate of the world rests on Sid and me being let into this great big silence of a country perched over its rowdy neighbour down below. So what happens next is we enter the border crossing's waiting/interrogation room, where a Senegalese man who hasn't figured out he can speak French to the Quebecois security officers keeps repeating, "I'm a soccer player. SOCCER. I play soccer and," pointing to his left, "this is my captain, CAPTAIN." On the other side of the room three young Arab bodybuilders are smiling; looks like they're going to be let through after all - a weekend of wine, women and song in Montreal. And then there's the elderly and courtly, quiet Native American couple. It's them I feel the most for. They shouldn't be in this room at all.

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