22 Dec 2016

This poet flips the script on being racially-profiled by Customs

1:38 pm on 22 December 2016

We thought Mohamed Hassan’s poem was so good, we made a video with him.


Courtship can be a beautiful thing: furtive glances; mixed messages; secret smiles. But sooner or later someone's got to make the first move.

Mohamed Hassan is done beating around the bush and with his poem Customs: A Love Story the Egypt-born Auckland slam poet and RNZ journalist is putting all his cards on the table. And with those dreamy blue eyes, who could resist?

For most, a trip through airport Customs is an exercise in tedium, but for the Muslim community it means much more, and 15 years since 9/11 it remains a place of unspoken racial profiling and underlying Islamophobia.

As a Muslim growing up in New Zealand, Mohamed’s poetry and his work as a journalist delve into a community who are rarely given the chance to speak for themselves.

With this in mind, he made the podcast series Public Enemy. Travelling between New Zealand the US and Australia, Mohamed examines Islamophobia, counter-terrorist policy and cultural identity from the perspectives of Muslims raised in the midst of the War on Terror.

In honour of the release of the very special video edition of Customs: A Love Story, I spoke to Mohamed about poetry, podcasts and putting a new spin on Islam in the media.


What inspired Customs: A Love Story?

It's kind of a running joke for a lot of Muslims that if you're gonna to go the airport you're gonna get stopped and they're gonna check through your bag and then they're gonna tell you it's a routine stop or it's completely random, and inside you're like "I know it's not random". I had written some poems before that mentioned getting stopped at airports and things like that and I guess this was a really lighthearted and satirical way of looking at that issue.

I know for a lot of people it is quite a serious thing and people aren't just stopped for a few minutes. People I know are stopped for hours at a time, three or four hours and it can be quite invasive and really exhausting, and something that makes you feel like you're constantly being picked out.

Customs is a place where racial profiling is still very explicit - is it jarring to be singled out so openly?

I wouldn't say it's jarring mainly because you kind of expect it. Every time I've been to Australia, for example, I've been stopped except the last time that I went there. I went there with a full beard and everything and I didn't get stopped, and it's funny sometimes when you don't get stopped it's even weirder. You start having an identity crisis, and you're like "what did I not look Muslim enough today? What's going on?" You almost get offended, like "what are you saying?"

It happens so frequently to a lot of Muslims that I know that it just becomes a part of that experience. I know people that go to the airport a few hours early just to make sure that they don't miss their flights. They factor that in, that they might get stopped, that they might get questioned and put into a room.

When I landed in LAX in October that was my first experience of actually getting the whole thing. That was for two-and-a-half hours.

What was that like?

My experience was just kind of being taken to what they call the secondary screening room. I was led into this big white room with 50 other people in it, half of whom were Arab. And I just waited for ages and no one talked to me, no one mentioned anything, but they'd yell at you if you took out your phone so you weren't allowed to use your phone.

There was nothing in there except for this tourism ad for San Francisco, and it was this 10 minute long loop of scenic pictures of San Francisco and it just kept playing and restarting and restarting. So for those two-and-a-half hours that was the only way I could tell time, just by the loops of the video.

A lot of the interrogations were happening in the open, so there were all these booths behind me and people being asked the most invasive questions about their relationships and their study history and how much money they had in their pockets.

For me, eventually some guy came out and asked me to tell him my family history, my details and my parent's names and give addresses of where I lived and where I worked and they had to check that.

It was definitely a different experience from some others that I've heard of and that I've reported on where you're taken into a room, everything in your bag is taken out, they take your phone off you and they ask you to enter the passwords and they look through all your photos. They ask you questions about where you've travelled and have you ever been involved in terrorist training or anything like that.

This goes on for three or four hours and they record everything you say. So that was not the experience that I had when I was in America but it's certainly the experience that a lot of other Muslims have had.

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Photo: Luke McPake

What is the feeling among Muslim communities in the US right now?

I was there two weeks before the election and so there was already a lot of fear, a lot of uncertainty, that had brewed over the last two years and certainly ever since Donald Trump started campaigning and saying things like he wanted to ban Muslims or that Islam hates America and all this sort of stuff. It really heightened the climate of hatred towards Muslims. That had kind of died down in the years following 9/11, under the Obama administration and so there was a spike again.

People were terrified and they were telling me that even if Hillary Clinton wins there's still going to be a lot of things that they need to deal with as a country but also as a community. Then when Donald Trump won it was chaos, people were telling their daughters not to wear the Hijab, not to look visibly Muslim, that kind of thing.

And I know that I personally, living in New Zealand, felt this sense of dread after the election because you have this idea in your head about what Donald Trump's election vindicates in terms of the racism and Islamophobia that had been so prevalent during the campaign. In a way, it kind of gave a licence to a lot of people to be able to say a lot of these things openly and to be proud of it.

That was for me, living here, so far away from everything. But for the Muslims that I talked to over there it was horrendous. They didn't feel safe walking in the streets anymore, going to uni, going to school. And there were dozens of attacks that did happen in the days that followed.

Interestingly enough, when I was in Australia just a week after the election, you could already see the ripples that had come across. Australia already had their own far right party that had gotten into power, but it was off the back of the Trump campaign, there were calls for banning Muslims, there were calls for stopping the construction of Mosques and stopping people wearing the headscarf and all sorts of stuff. And all that is happening across Europe as well, particularly in France.

Do you think that ripple effect is making its way to New Zealand?

I think in New Zealand we're quite sheltered from a lot of that stuff. During the podcast I was a lot more interested in delving into the counter terrorism measures in New Zealand. Having said that, there has been a spike over the last two years, with the rise of ISIS, with all that sort of stuff. And I have heard from a lot of people of racial abuse against Muslims, especially Muslim women who are very visible, so I can't dismiss it completely.

I think there is a tendency in New Zealand to think of it as very egalitarian and very free of racism, which is not at all an accurate portrayal of what it's like. I think for a lot of Muslims this is a time of uncertainty because we are afraid of where this trend is going and we don't quite know where it's going to lead.

What has the response to Public Enemy been like from the Muslim community?

I've gotten a lot of really positive responses from Muslims and I say in the last episode that one of the reasons that I did this podcast is for Muslims to be able to hear other Muslims express the same sort of sentiments and share the same sorts of stories, and that will help validate their own experiences.

But also it was also primarily for non-Muslims, to help them understand what Islamophobia is and how it actually manifests itself. And to check in I guess, 15 years after 9/11, with Muslims around the world about what life is like now. We know things were bad straight after 9/11 but are they actually even worse now? And what I realised is that in some cases they are worse. Certainly in Australia it's definitely a lot worse.

Is Australia particularly bad?

Australia has a lot of problems, whether it’s refugees, whether it's migrants, and it's really turned up full volume in the last few years. I think someone like Pauline Hanson has given a voice - the same way Donald Trump has - to a lot of that fear and a lot of that hatred that has been under the surface, and she's now openly saying a lot of things that people didn't feel like they could say.

There's been a lot of really good feedback from Muslims, and there's also been a lot of horrible feedback from people. A lot of it is blatantly racist and blatantly Islamophobic. A lot of people are upset that I somehow didn't strike a balance between showing the good things and the bad things about Muslims which was not the point of the podcast at all. This was about looking at Islamophobia and the experiences of Muslims. What I say to people that think "where's the other side, where's all the terrorism", I'm like "have you been watching the news the last 15 years? That is the other side."

And essentially that is what Islamophobia has been about; that as a Muslim you're growing up in this environment where you're constantly bombarded with all these horrendous images of the worst kind of manifestation of you. You're seeing people that look like you, that believe in the same religion, but they're killing people and they have guns and it's really surreal.

And if that is all that you're seeing, and that's all that you know other people are seeing as well, then it really impacts on the way that you can identify with yourself and with your community, and how confidently you're able to live in a society where you are always in two minds about how they're seeing you.

I do feel it sometimes if I'm in a space where I'm overly self-conscious about wanting to make other people around me feel safe, because I'm afraid that they automatically feel unsafe when I'm there. That's not a healthy way to live and not a healthy way to operate. And unfortunately for a lot of Muslims that's the reality.

There was something that my sister said. She wears the Hijab and she's worn it for a few years and she was saying how annoying it is having to constantly be happy and smiley everywhere she goes, or else people are going to think she's oppressed. She was saying it as a joke but there is some truth to that and especially for Muslim women there's this enormous burden they feel about having to fight all these stereotypes and all this prejudice everywhere they go and with everyone they meet. And that's a lot, that's a lot to have to burden yourself with.

This content was made with funding support from NZ On Air.

Video produced, filmed and edited by Luke McPake