My brief life as a terrorist
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My brief life as a terrorist

An Indian Jew from Teaneck reflects on perception and reality

Furuha School in the Huruma slum in Nairobi, Kenya. (P.V. Viswanath)
Furuha School in the Huruma slum in Nairobi, Kenya. (P.V. Viswanath)

Terrorist?

Me?

Yes!

In fact, just recently, I experienced how it feels to be suspected as a terrorist. Not once, not twice, but three times. Once by Arab authorities, once by Indians (my own countrymen) and once by African security.

The first time was at the Dubai airport. I live in Teaneck, but just then I was traveling to Nairobi via Dubai on Emirates Airlines. My New York-Dubai flight was delayed, I could not make my Dubai-Nairobi flight, and so I had to stay overnight in Dubai. And since it was the airline’s fault, they put me up in Dubai at their expense.

But in order to get to my hotel, I had to get out into the city. That meant that I had to go through Immigration. Whether warranted or not, I was always afraid to visit Dubai for fear of being persecuted as a Jew. Being a religious Jew, I would be found out as soon as somebody looked through my baggage and found my siddur and talis and tefillin; at least, that’s how I reasoned. And so, in spite of the fact that I had family living in Dubai, I never once thought to visit them. But now, unexpectedly, I was thrust into Dubai.

I boldly went through immigration and customs. Not that I had a choice; if I didn’t want to sleep in the airport, I had to do it. And this being post 9/11, you could expect to be scrutinized everywhere. And so it was with me. And just as I had imagined, I was stopped as I walked through the last control point. I was with two African men whom I had met on the plane. They also were going to Nairobi.

They walked through; but I was stopped. And my heart stopped. This was a modern international airport in the 21st century. It was unlikely that anything untoward could happen to me. And still a slight fear gripped me.

The security agent at the scanning machine stopped me and asked me to open my bag. Apparently he’d seen something that concerned him. He pulled out my tefillin bag! Just the stuff of my nightmares.

A pair of tefillin has no metal parts, so I presume it was the bag’s weird shape and size that raised his suspicions. “What is this?” he asked. “They are things I use for prayer,” I told him. “I am a Jew,” I added helpfully. And in case it still wasn’t clear, “ana yahudi,” I clarified in Arabic.

Melekh Viswanath
Melekh Viswanath

Whether the classical Arabic stumped him, or whether he was less than impressed by either my Arabic or my Jewishness, I don’t know, but he ignored my answers. He called somebody, and we waited. He had not clamped me in irons, so I was free to move around, though I couldn’t and didn’t want to move too far away from my possessions. Finally somebody came and took my tefillin bag away for further inspection. Fortunately, he came back soon and pronounced it — and me — acceptable. My bag was handed over to me and I walked on into the intense dry heat of Dubai. I decided not to tempt fate by wearing my tsitsis outside my shirt while in Dubai, though I did wear my cap.

The next day, I went back to the airport and boarded my flight for Nairobi. Thus ended my Middle Eastern interlude — and my first experience as a suspected terrorist.

A few days later, I was in Nairobi. I had just got back from a visit to an interesting self-described Jewish community about 110 miles away. If you know Nairobi, you would know that it’s a city with endemic traffic jams, mostly created by drivers who insist on taking any available road space. This often creates an interlocking grid of vehicles, an unbreakable logjam. If you’re traveling near rush hour, there’s a good chance that it will take you as many as a couple of hours to go a couple of miles. So while I wanted very much to get to my apartment, I knew it was not a good idea to take a cab, because it was around 5:30 p.m. — just about the worst time to tempt traffic fate. That’s why I was waiting for my trusty boda-boda — Swahili for a motorcycle taxi.

If you have a dependable boda-boda, you can reach home relatively quickly and in one piece, even during rush-hour. On the other hand, if your boda-boda driver cavalier in his negotation of Nairobi traffic, you may not get home safely. Fortunately, I had a couple of boda-boda drivers on call. They were careful, provided their passengers with helmets and body-gear, and insisted that they wear it.

So there I was, waiting for my boda-boda on a Nairobi street. I had just disembarked after a four-hour trip in a crowded matatu — a shared taxi-van. Knowing that my driver was about 10 minutes away, I looked around for something to to while I waited, and I noticed a Hindu temple in the vicinity on Kirinyaga Road. Now, Nairobi is relatively safe (it sort of reminds me of squeegee-prone pre-Giuliani New York), but rather than wait on a street corner where I was the only foreigner, I choose to move closer to the temple, where there was a guard. After a couple of minutes waiting outside, I swung my backpack behind me and walked into the temple, which belonged to the Shree Swaminarayan sect from Gujarat.

The prayer area was not right by the door and so I asked one of the people I saw walking into the temple where I should go. I was speaking in Hindi, which I figured would be understood, even though the members of this sect mainly speak two other Indian languages, Gujarat and Kutchi. I was directed up a staircase and I ascended. All of a sudden, the African guard who had been on watch outside came rushing up to me and asked me, in English, what I wanted. I acted as if I didn’t know what he was saying and replied to him in Hindi. He turned to one of the people nearby for instruction; he was told it was okay, so he left me alone. I continued up the staircase.

At the top of the stairs, I saw a lot of people in a foyer. Beyond it there was a larger hall; people were waiting on line to worship before the deity.

I went into the hall and looked around for a couple of minutes. Not seeing anything particularly interesting, I turned around to go downstairs. Imagine my surprise when I saw every single eye in the foyer area trained in my direction. I thought perhaps they were looking at something beyond me and I turned around to see that the people behind me were also looking in my direction. I realized they were all looking at me.

It was not unreasonable that a dusty, bearded and (relatively) young man carrying a backpack might seem suspicious to them, but still I was taken aback. I continued on down, the cynosure of all eyes, and exited the building to wait, once more, for my boda-boda.

There were several Indians who had come out of the temple, waiting outside. I tried to engage them in conversation in Hindi, but no one would respond to me. After a couple of minutes, one of them took the initiative and did start to talk to me. He asked me if I was from India. I said yes, and asked him he had not answered me before. Sheepishly, he replied that they weren’t sure about who I was and felt uncomfortable.

We continued making small talk and soon my boda-boda came. I was on my way, indistinguishable from the hundreds of other explosive-toting terrorists who dotted the Nairobi landscape.

A couple of days later, I visited the offices of the Furaha Foundation, an NGO in Huruma, a slum on the outskirts of the city, about 9 miles from where I was staying. I called my trusted boda-boda and was there within 40 minutes. The visit was part of my research on microfinance and livelihood programs; I was going to interview some people who had taken microloans through the Kiva Foundation.

The Furaha Foundation, a local organization that works to provide primary and secondary education in the Huruma slums, partners with Kiva to find worthwhile borrowers. After I had conducted my interviews, I went to meet David Oginga, the head of the Furaha Foundation. I had a very interesting conversation with him, as he told me how they were hoping to use education to improve the lot of the local slum-dwellers. David is from Huruma. It was impressive to see what the foundation had done on its own, though not without some foreign financial support.

After chatting with David for an hour or so, I took my leave. “Wait,” David said. “Let me ask one of our people to go with you.” “You don’t have to,” I said. “Just tell me where I can get a matatu, so I can get home.” (Huruma was too far away from the city to ask my boda-boda driver to come get me.) “No,” he said, “it’s not safe.”

That worried me; I hadn’t thought that the neighborhood was unsafe. I had visited several Nairobi slums, both on this trip and earlier; even though they are slums are poor and very shabby, I had never felt in danger. Had I been deluding myself and taking unreasonable risks?

Then came the clarification. The danger was not from the people who lived there. David was worried because as a bearded Indian, I looked too Muslim. I was in danger of being stopped by the Nairobi police. Since the Westgate Mall massacre in 2013, when 70 people were killed and more than 175 injured, Kenyan security has become very wary of potential terrorist activity.

Since that attack, there had been other terrorist incidents — mostly recently this April, when Al-Shabab gunmen killed 147 people in a college town called Garissa. There are many Indians in Nairobi — Indians have lived in Kenya for more than a century — so being an Indian in Kenya is not likely to raise a red flag. But Huruma is near another Nairobi slum, Eastleigh, that has many Somalis, who are usually Muslims. (There are so many Somalis in Eastleigh, in fact, that it has been nicknamed Little Mogadishu.) The combination of my bearded Muslim looks and the fact that Huruma is on the way to Eastleigh worried David. In fact, just a few days before, another Kiva worker of Indian origin visiting Furaha had been picked up by the police on his way back to Nairobi, detained, and interrogated.

The upshot was that I allowed the Furaha worker to accompany me. In an hour and a half, I was back in my apartment. I was safe, and I had not been intercepted by the police.

None of these episodes had negative outcomes. Still, these three incidents in the space of a week caused me to engage in a bit of introspection.

I have not been immune to being mistrusted and eyed with suspicion in the West. Still, it was quite another thing to be suspected of being a terrorist my own backyard. Recently, I have noticed that people in pitiable circumstances often look very similar to their more fortunate brethren. That’s true of high-caste Hindus and low-caste dalits, Boston Brahmins and Appalachian white trash, and upper-class Montgomery County blacks and Harlem gangbangers. It’s often just the outer trappings that differentiate the one from the other.

I am pretty sure also that the well-to-do are not very different from the down-and-out in their aspirations and their hopes for a good life for themselves and their children. Notwithstanding all the terrorist activity of which Israelis have been on the receiving end (and more recently also Arabs in Israel), I firmly believe that ordinary Palestinians and other Arabs want peace. Of course, they also have other hopes and desires, some of which are clearly contrary to the hopes of many Israelis. Still, it’s worthwhile reflecting upon the possibility that if circumstances were different, we might very well be in their shoes. This is what my recent terrorist identifications brought home to me. And though I would not want to relive these experiences, they delivered a message to me which I do appreciate.

Meylekh (P.V.) Viswanath teaches finance at Pace University, where he’s now involved in action research involving livelihood strategies for bottom-of-the-pyramid communities in India and East Africa. He also strongly believes that God’s face can be seen in all His creation.

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