WASHINGTON -- I was out of the country when I learned that he didn’t want me to come back.
At 4:35 p.m. on Monday, as I worked out of my aunt's home in the suburbs of Ottawa, Canada, I got an email: My just-issued U.S. visa was in my Pakistani passport and ready to be picked up. I began planning when I could go to the post office the next day. I wanted to see that literal stamp of approval in person -- to touch it, to know I could return to the people I love, the work I love. To actually hold the document would be a moment of triumph, a brief respite from the knowledge that my life in the U.S. exists solely at the pleasure of bureaucrats. I had a flight booked for Tuesday night. My suitcase -- which I'd crammed full before leaving D.C., since it wasn't clear how long the visa process might take -- was ready to go.
Minutes later, The Huffington Post and scores of other outlets began reporting that Donald Trump, who's leading the race to be the Republican nominee for president in 2016, wanted to stop all Muslims from entering the U.S. I started getting little news alerts on my phone, explaining that Trump was characterizing all Muslims (more than 1.5 billion of us) as "people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life." Each ping was a reminder that someone with a lot of money and a lot of popular support would like to keep me from returning to my friends and my life. I wondered whether I would trigger Trump's "Muslim" alert. Would my name do me in? The country I was born in? My aversion to bacon? Perhaps we could negotiate if I mentioned that I quite like chorizo?
With my flight a day away, I hadn't yet begun the routine I use to prepare for trips to the U.S. Government and airline guidelines explain some of what you need to collect. They don't explain the code-switching bit: being conscious of what you wear, how you look, how you answer questions. A Pakistani friend once told me she always travels to the States in gear from her American university. It's a way of signaling: I'm normal! I promise! I once told my brother that I'd mentioned to an immigration officer I might travel to Pakistan soon to visit my parents. Shocked, he texted back, "Oh, um." It's best, Muslims tell each other, to be a bit vague to avoid setting off alarms. So we become a little more restrained, push ourselves a little further into the shadows -- so far, in fact, that we're almost choking on all the words we ought to be able to casually share.
I didn't have any clothing that yelled "Yale," but I did hack away at the scruff I'd let grow during my time away from the office. Cardinal rule: don't allow yourself to look in any way like the archetype of the Muslim extremist. (Even if you report on that variant of extremism -- one of many, religious and otherwise, that regularly claim innocent lives -- and know it's not always lurking behind a beard.)
I collected the passport Tuesday morning. The stamp of approval awaited. After more than a year of worrying that it might elude me and shatter my vision of post-college life, there it was -- the magical H-1B visa, distributed by randomized lottery to about 30 percent of foreigners hired by American firms each year.
I got to the Ottawa airport three hours early. I knew what I'd find there, and I knew it wouldn't be as fun as a sparkling new acknowledgment of my right to be in the U.S. It was instead a reminder that I'd be silly to think I had such a right. What I and many others really have is a tenuous kind of privilege.
Muslims soon become accustomed to the back rooms behind U.S. immigration desks. I walked into a familiar too-bright space with signs explaining that electronic items were forbidden (no sobbing along to Adele here) and that I could be fined or jailed for interfering with border security officials.
A young Barack Obama, not a gray hair in sight, watched me from the opposite wall. Hanging slightly below his portrait was one of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. One of the legal minds behind Obama's drone campaign, Johnson is also, I recalled, a top Washington socialite. There's a painful irony in knowing that kind of detail, learning it as part of your job reporting on U.S. foreign policy, and still knowing you're officially, legally, an outsider. At this time a year ago, I remembered, I'd been at a Christmas party hosted by a top U.S. intelligence agency.
I lucked out, I told myself: I had the nicest immigration officer in the world. Or at least one who was a very good actor. The kind, chatty man going through my suitcase asked me questions about my time in Canada, my work in the U.S. and my ties to Pakistan that seemed more thoughtful than intrusive. He stamped my passport, approving my entry to the U.S., and we wished each other a wonderful night.
Trump or no, I'd made it. It'd just be a matter of hours before I could step off the plane at Dulles International, collect my bag and head home. Take that, ya fascist!
It didn't feel like a triumph, though. Instead, it felt like some insidious degree of Trump-ness had already instilled itself in me. That sense of "luck," that craving for a sign that it's all OK between me and the U.S.G. -- that's what I mean.
A masochist of the highest order, I spent the hours before my flight catching up on some national security reading. That's how I spent 30 minutes on The New Yorker's 2005 account of the Bush administration's extraordinary rendition program, which snatched up terrorist suspects from airports -- most of them males from the Muslim world -- and shipped them to jails around the globe, where they were tortured into forced, often false confessions. I read about a well-educated Canadian engineer who was sent to his parents' homeland, Syria, in late 2002. There, officials holding him on behalf of the U.S. "whipped his hands repeatedly with two-inch-thick electrical cables, and kept him in a windowless underground cell that he likened to a grave."
That is not a fantasyland in which Trump is president. That is a past I can remember. That could have been me. The proponents of those U.S.-facilitated cable-whippings are still vocal, prominent and undeterred. I thought about my "luck" again, the luck that kept me safe during those years. The thing about being lucky is how many around you, how many who look like you, are left unlucky. This kind of luck leaves you cheering one moment and breathless the next, your chest taut as you begin to feel like everything inside you could snap at any moment.
I'm lucky to have wonderful friends, mentors and co-workers, folks who sent me messages of support after Trump made his remarks.
I'm lucky to be represented by groups that fight for Muslims in America, and to know that everyone from the White House on down was willing to combat Trump's rhetoric.
I'm lucky to have Obama in my corner -- to an extent.
The president's speech on Sunday was powerful. But I know it won't take back the assaults he's approved on Muslim civilians. And I doubt it will mean much to the throngs of Trump supporters, the radicalized former detainees who continue to threaten all of us, or the millions upon millions of people who have suffered under horrifying regimes in the Muslim world that the U.S. has backed.
Muslims deserve more. We deserve to have our humanity acknowledged -- not only when an easy, laughable target like Trump challenges it, but also when it's assaulted by America's partners, by forces Washington can't bring itself to care about and by the U.S. government itself. We deserve a conversation that features our voices and arguments from people other than conservatives competing to be the most hateful, or liberals sparring for the shiniest pluralistic credentials. I feel ill when I hear Republican presidential candidates talk about barring Muslim refugees from the country. But I don't feel much better when I see liberals eager to bash American imperialism stay oddly silent about human rights violations by non-U.S. actors, and suggest that bloodthirsty dictators like Saddam Hussein are "better" for the world. Whose world is that? What kind of "better" is this?
Muslims shouldn't have to rely on luck, on chance, to make it in. That's not enough.
NOTE: Powers-that-be, please don't read this as an invitation to cancel my visa. I just don't know if I'll get another one post-2016.