My brother lives what can be described as the semblance of the American Dream. He owns a house, with a two-and-a-half-car garage, in the suburbs west of Chicago. He is married and has two children. He works for a large corporation. All he’s missing, it seems, is a dog. There was a fish, but it had to be given a burial at toilet water.
On Saturday, as he relaxed at our mother’s house and tuned into the National Geographic Channel to watch the “Hunt for Osama bin Laden,” there was a knock on his door. It was an FBI agent. The agent was looking for me. Now that the hunt for bin Laden was over, I suppose it made sense that it was time to find me. The American Dream can last only as long as you choose to believe in it. I stop dreaming a long time ago.
The agent at my brother’s home was polite and insinuated that agents had to interview me tonight, wherever I may be. Apparently, in what Fox News had characterized as a “wild goose chase,” the FBI was scrambling to disrupt a potential terrorist threat involving men of Arab descent who speak English and may have American citizenship. If you are into keeping stats, I am of Arab descent, depending on the historian you speak with, of course, because Egyptians can be Afro-Arabs. I do speak English, and as one of the agents would say, without an accent. Lastly, I am an American; my very Egyptian father was born in Minnesota. Somehow, with this very specific description, the FBI had flagged me. I mean, I would flag me.
The agent talked to me through my brother’s cellphone and asked me to wait two hours until agents in North Carolina could get ahold of me. It was 10:30 pm or so as the black sedan pulled into the parking lot of the University Inn in Chapel Hill. I marked them from the bar, where I decided I might as well drink two Yuenglings and two shots of Jameson to “relax.” The bass-filled din from the music inside the Time-Out Sports Bar filled the parking lot as the two agents showed me their badges and thanked me for taking the time to meet with them.
This was not my first “interview” with the feds. In 2006, the FBaI sent an agent to question me on a “lead” that I had left a “suspicious message” on a Texas constable’s answering machine in my capacity as a newspaper reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Four years later, and on the eve of a decade into the War on Terrorfilled with two wars, several military “interventions,” thousands of people killed and civil liberties dissolving into thin airit seemed as if I was working on a trifecta of “interviews” from the G-men.
I had been “flagged,” the agents would later tell me, for my “travel patterns.” In my work as a media development consultant for the past three years, primarily focused on the Middle East and North Africa, I travel the region training journalists, Internet activists and youth on new media, online security and freedom of expression. I’ve worked in Iraq, Jordan and Egypt, where I was born.
As we ambled into the hotel, the federal agents and I talked about football and my shoes, which lack credible support for running. I suggested that we sit on a black leather couch, with me sitting in the middle. I figured nothing can’t get more awkward then three people sitting on a couch with the two on either end asking questions of the one in the middle. The agents chose to sit in their own chairs on either end of the couch I planted myself uponalso awkward. While one agent took notes, asking about organizations I worked for, noting my job and what countries I had visited, the other agent explained that they were following up because my “name had come up.” My name comes up a lot, mainly among scorned ex-lovers. The agents assured me that my story seemed benign, and the report they would write would be similarly boring. I apologized for wasting their time and not being incredibly interesting.
Once we shook hands and they had left, I stood in the hotel lobby and shook my head. It was clear that the American Dream, was not just the house and the white picket fence, but it was also a uniquely American fantasy that security lessons had been learned during the past decade.