My Interview with US Homeland Security

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A week ago, after being searched in CDG Paris before boarding, my sister and I were picked up upon exiting the aircraft in LAX by two border patrol cops. I thought, Excellent, we get to skip the lines! as they walked us through immigration. But it didn’t end there.

I asked them why we were getting a police escort to the baggage conveyors. “Oh, we’re just going to conduct an interview once you get your bags.” Riiiiight. I tried connecting to the airport wifi so I could notify my aunt that, after our flight already being delayed 2.5 hours in Paris, we might be with the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for a while. It didn’t connect.

After collecting our suitcases, we were taken to a back area of baggage claim where our bags were searched, we were questioned, and our devices were confiscated.

“Could you just write your passcodes here please?”

I asked if that was legal, implied that being this invasive was a violation of our rights, and mentioned that we were citizens. “Yeah, we’re not regular cops, we’re border control cops.” Whatever that means.

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He gave me a leaflet about how they were allowed to take, copy, and keep all devices if necessary. Cop says, “it’s been like this forever.” “But we didn’t have our entire lives on our phones since forever,” I retort. I remembered the story about the NASA engineer and Rebecca Solnit posting about this happening but the legality of it all is a bit sketchy. You’re a citizen but you’re on the border so the Fourth Amendment – the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures – doesn’t apply 100% when within 100 miles of the US border.

Moxy*, the Filipino border control cop who felt like my friend after a 2-hour interrogation, says, he “eats too much rice” and is dabbling in a little landscape photography. As he goes through my suitcases, I explain what the jars of labneh and zaatar are, why I have so many books, and “yes, that’s Lebanese wine” as he peaks into a Wesley’s bag. He asks me about my Wacom tablet and we compare notes about which is the best one to buy. My sister, a nutrition student, gives him tips on how to stay healthy and tells him how she used to be a vegan extremist. The normalcy of our interaction gets interrupted by moments like having a police-escort to go pee, not being able to contact my aunt who’s still waiting outside cluelessly, and being told that my airport-bought cantaloupe needs to be incinerated.

I asked, “is this a Trump thing?” while we waited for our devices to return from a back room. Moxy has been at his post for 5 years and says it’s always been this way. Indeed, upon further digging now, it seems that this has been allowed since the Bush administration. Read more about this loophole and the legislation that conveniently passed quietly in 2013 herehere, and here.

They seemed surprised that my sister and I were so cooperative. Apparently, most who are stopped give them a hard time. “How weird, that after +20 hours on a flight here, they’d be assholes to you guys for keeping them from going into their own country. It’s been a long flight over, just ask whatever you want,” I said with a smile.  In these moments after a transatlantic voyage, you either lack patience or energy. Given my experience with these situations, being polite with a little sass has a greater impact in getting your point across than if you were to be plain aggressive.

I slipped in a few jabs (or latchet as we say in Arabic) when I could so that Moxy understood that we were seasoned at this search process and we didn’t appreciate being treated like terrorists in our own home state. I told him that this has happened before, that I get “randomly selected” and “interviewed” upon arrival AND departure from NYC or LA whenever I’m in town even though all I do is sell Oreos for a living, that now it actually feels odd when I don’t get stopped or marked with a giant X. I told him that their teams need to communicate better so I don’t have to keep telling my life story at every airport. He laughed and filled me in on this service which is your way of being proactive to you being prone to searches: DHS TRIP.

“Isn’t that like flagging myself FOR the system?” to which he replied, “well, you know you’re getting stopped anyway so you might as well do something about it.”
Good point, my man.

According to the leaflet Moxy gave me, DHS TRIP (or Department of Homeland Security’s Travel Redress Inquiry Program) “provides a single portal for travelers to seek redress for adverse screening experiences and to resolve possible watch list misidentification issues.” Unfortunately, it also says that, “individuals who receive redress through DHS TRIP may still be referred for additional screening for unrelated reasons in the future.” Hmmm.

They asked about our social media presence. When I mentioned my blog, he asked what I blog about. “You know, my life. This will probably be on there in a few days if I ever get my computer back.”
“Yeah? If you have beautiful readers, mention that I’m single,” says Moxy with a chuckle. I tell him that, since he already has my info, he should email me his photo so I can do a full profile. Business opportunity! A Tinder for border control cops in which I do the first screening interview myself.

When I got my computers, camera, and phone back, it was clear that they had probably downloaded its contents because I had an additional phonebook’s worth of Ethiopian numbers in my contacts. Jeez, if you’re going to steal my info, at least do it right. Now I know that if my iPhone is ever on the fritz, I have another backup synced at LAX.

To all those flying in the US soon, log out of your social media accounts and your email on all devices before boarding. Whatsapp conversations could be tricky – you can backup the chat history, delete the app, and redownload upon arrival. This may all be futile but try to carry as little data or access to it as possible. Most importantly, know your rights as a citizen or noncitizen entering the States.

Despite the annoyance at being delayed for no reason, Moxy’s upbeat, humble attitude and relaxed friendliness made the 2 hours easier to endure.

Moxy: I’ve got bad news *dramatic pause* You guys get to leave me now, you’re good to go
My sister: OH GOD, I thought you were going to send us back to where we came from!
Me: Which is here, technically.

We all laughed as my sister said, “see you next year!”
It’s always a pleasure feeling like a criminal in your own country. And they wonder why Beirut feels more like home to me.


*Name has been changed

The 6 Basic Emotions of Leaving Lebanon 

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The impending departure date has rekindled my explorative fire that went out sometime in early 2016. Then, getting swept up in the day-to-day and marathon training as of July, the need to investigate Lebanon’s hidden corners took a backseat to kilometers and containers. My excursions had kept me deeply infatuated with the unturned stones that built Lebanon but the more I run around to explore, the less I run around to run and the more I spiral into this abyss of treat-yo-self-neglect. I’ve yet to master the right balance of self-care when it comes to trying to do it all. I won’t attribute my temporary move to CA to the lack of recent road trips or coffee encounters but I’m sure it aggravated my jaded stupor that had me stuck on autopilot.

THE LAST FEW WEEKS
They’ve been a mix of stargazing in Kfardebian, dancing at the Jazz Festival to Monday Night Blues Band or to La Bamba at Taqueria, prepping for afikra, strolling through Khiyam prison, joining a walking tour of Downtown, practicing some Arabic calligraphy, and ingesting way, way, way too much shawarma – kidding, not even possible. (This may be a preemptive measure since there will be nothing like Barbar in California but I’ll need to drop in on Zankou Chicken to see if they’re still repping us right after 17 years).

LEADING TO THE FEELS
Psychological research has classified six facial expressions of distinct universal emotions: anger, disgust, sadness, fear, happiness, and surprise. These encapsulate the emotional roller coaster ride before checking out of Hotel…Lebanon.

ANGER
The traffic. The horns. The corruption. The. never. ending. brain. cuts. It’s all so taxing on your thought process. Much like our modern-day online reading patterns are now interrupted by hyperlinks, the average attention span and focus in Beirut has a lot to compete with.

On top of fender benders and a failure of a parliament, my mom orchestrates a royal symphony every time she does dishes and I’m thinking, why is there so much NOISE? Why can’t I afford to take a kickboxing class twice a week so I don’t scream into my giant birthday teddy bear who I share my bed with? Yes, I’m almost 30. Farrah, please GO grow up. 

DISGUST
The rising levels of this emotion are what push people out of here. The repetitive web of damaging self-destructive behavior in the form of a country. It’s all the same. The same problems and the same parties with the same people having the same conversations. We’re on a MiddleEastWorld loop with no flies to swat. You romanticize your midday strolls but then the stench of garbage infects your nostrils while you’re ogled by an ass on a motorcycle who zips by construction workers building a monolith in the place of another demolished old home. Why am I subjecting my body to this filth? What’s so beautiful about this? 

Even the dating pool is detrimental leaving you questioning what kind of standards you’ve conceded on and what you’re settling for in a hostage negotiation for love. Why do I have to put up with this? Why am I, a smart & decent catch, underappreciated and overlooked by the opposite sex? What am I doing wrong?

SADNESS
Suddenly, your anger and disgust are alleviated because there’s an exit in sight and all you’re registering now are the positives you’re going to miss. Like when you reflect fondly on an ex, forgetting all the disappointments or red flags. Beirut is a jungle and you are swinging on the vines through the 3 kilometers that take 45 minutes to drive through. She is what kept you connected to reality and saved you from speaking with a Californian accent. Why do I have to leave you to feel fulfilled? Is that what’s going to happen? What if it’s just me? Why does it have to be like this? 

FEAR
The comfort zone of the bartenders who know you by name (because you’re a regular, not an alcoholic), running into high school friends outside their barbershop as you walk through Gemmayzeh on a Saturday, or even the simple pleasure of the perfect plate of muhammara. What if I miss out on something? What about lunch breaks with dadboss? What about Wednesdays at Dany’s and Sundays at Jerry’s? What if I’m making a huge mistake? No, I need to get out of the frying pan and into the fire, out of the Mediterranean and into the Pacific. But the Mediterranean is your fire. Wait, what?

But then I reread my posts about my numerous returns where it felt like home was just as I’d left it and I remember that dreaded feeling for anyone with ambition: stagnation. I’ve had enough summers in Beirut. What’s (or who’s) to be missed won’t be affected by a brief disappearance. The FOMO is overshadowed by the desire to sink into the other side: my American half which has been repressed since my early years in Laguna Beach.

HAPPINESS
When I feel ineffective professionally, it hits hard because it is such a fundamental part of how I identify myself. I’m a powerhouse workaholic so when I’m demotivated and unproductive, it shakes my core. The discoveries and adventures ahead do create anticipation but, in all honesty, the part that I look forward to the most is the clarity that comes with the California sunshine. The short-circuited brainwaves will reboot.

I’m excited to have coffee in the backyard, to learn how to cook Lebanese classics because I’ll have my own kitchen, and to do my own laundry so I don’t have to spend 20 minutes looking for a pair of socks. Legalized marijuana, chance sightings of celebrities on Sunset Blvd, PCH that stretches all the way down the sandy coast. Call me a simple dork but, even with all that, adulting activities while getting creative shit done are what I crave most.

SURPRISE
In a strange twist of events, being put on a deadline gives this sense of urgency to take advantage of the limited time. Procrastination and postponement weren’t options anymore. It has unexpectedly reminded me why I love living here and has provided me with the state of mind I want for my send-off so I can make a fair comparison once stateside. I didn’t want to board a flight leaving Beirut thinking, good riddance you hellhole because she’s better than what my recent apathy has made her into mentally.


I ran into a friend at Souk el Akel who asked me, “shu you’re done with Beirut?” Something tells me this is a whole other kind of beginning with her given how California makes me turn up the Arab. Split time between the two coasts may force appreciation and acknowledgment of the good & bad in both places. Give me enough sunshine with Panda Express orange chicken and California might just make me see where home should be rather than where it is.

Ten days to go but, either way, y’all know I’m coming back for the shawarma in four months. So as I did before Barcelona, let me say: Beirut, I haven’t left yet but all I ask of you while I’m gone is that you be smart, be strong, and be good.

Bambi Recommends: May in Beirut

Who’s tired of cocktails and parties? Okay, no one. But if you want to throw something new into the mix, check out the below suggestions for things to do in May.

IMG_5302Midad Exhibition
Dar el Nimer, Hamra
Midad refers to the carbon inks that are made of the soot of burnt natural ingredients. The exhibition itself addresses the history of Arabic calligraphy, walking you through the history and uses of the artform. It runs till October 2017 with talks and workshops until July. The development of the script and how it progressed through time is truly fascinating.

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Stargazing with BeirutVersus
Various locations
Khalil Azar of BeirutVersus has been organizing trips up to mountaintops for quite some time now. It all started when he joined some Brazilians on a night photography session in Dora. Next thing you know, he’s diving deep into astrophotography and teaching peeps about Polaris, bolides, and the many constellations around us. Not sure if there’s any upcoming gazing for the rest of May but keep an eye on their page either way.

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Layers of a Ghost City – Downtown Beirut Walking Tour
Starts & ends at St. Georges Hotel
Marc wants to stay under the radar so I’m limiting this to a paragraph. The new walking tour on the block, Marc leads groups on Saturday afternoons through Downtown Beirut. He does a superb job putting the old & recent history in context and giving you both sides to the controversial Solidere project. You don’t need to be a foreigner to learn a little bit about the city. It’s 3.5 hours long and Marc’s spending a semester in Berlin over the summer so join the next one while you can.

Off-the-Ground: Design Hackathon for Social Impact
Antwork, Hamra
Part of Beirut’s 6th Design Week running from the 19th-26th under the theme Is Design a Need?, this 2-day hackathon is bringing 30 designers together with organizations to address 5 social issues weighing down on the city. Read more about it here. If you’re more about activism, besides Design Week, there’s also Heritage Watch Day with a focus on Dalieh and Honeine Palace.


And if none of those do it for you, go grab a new book at Oliver’s Kitchen & Coffee Shop in Gemmayzeh. I recommend their Middle East section, melanzane, and lemonade.

What’s Left of Khiyam Prison

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Once a French military barracks complex of South Lebanon built in the 1930s, the Israelis converted the Khiyam Lebanese military base into a detention center in 1984. Infamous for the torture of captured members of the resistance, their relatives, and those who refused to cooperate with Israel and the South Lebanon Army (SLA), the 5000 detainees held there never went to trial and at least 15 never made it out alive. Formerly known as the Free Lebanon Army who fought against the PLO, Amal, and Hezbollah, the SLA was a Lebanese militia that operated as the Israeli proxy during the 1985-2000 period. The SLA is known locally in the South as jeish Lahad (Lahad’s army) after Antoine Lahad, the general that took over when the previous leader, Saad Haddad, died in ’84.

The SLA disintegrated in 2000 with the withdrawal of Israeli troops and the prison has been a symbol of the Israeli occupation of the South ever since. After the withdrawal, many SLA members fled to Israel and Europe out of fear of how their fellow Lebanese would feel about their actions when the dust settled.

Israel denies any involvement in what went down in Khiyam and says the SLA did all the dirty work. They just supervised and provided the equipment, training, and funds. According to a Human Rights Watch report, Israeli intelligence agents had direct involvement with the Lebanese interrogators. It also states, “Israel is obligated under international law to hold accountable and prosecute its own citizens and Lebanese nationals who participated in or condoned acts of torture at Khiyam.” Instead, those that fled to Israel are rumored to be living under their protection at the expense of the Israeli taxpayers.

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THE TORTURE 
The 70x70cm bathrooms (seen above) of the military base were converted into solitary cells that left prisoners in complete darkness. Torture ranged from electrocution of the genitals to whipping while tied naked to a flagpole in the blazing sun or freezing cold to being doused in hot and cold water while cuffed blindfolded to window grilles. Prisoners were allowed out in the sun for 15-20 minutes every week or two. The “chicken cage” was a 90 cubic centimeter enclosure for extra-severe forms of punishment.

“In Khiyam prison, we died a hundred times every day.” – Al-Akhbar

The guide of the premises, Ahmad el-Amine, was a prisoner of Khiyam for 4 years. As we passed the pile of stones that was once the cells of 500 female prisoners, he said that the SLA (or the Israelis by contiguity) would sometimes detain the wives, sisters, and mothers of the male prisoners. His wife was an example. Besides those who were working with the resistance, female relatives were also taken in and used as leverage to get prisoners to give up information. They’d tell a male detainee that their mother or wife was in the next room, make rape threats, and force him to listen to her screams until he’d cough up the answers kept secret while under interrogation.

Perhaps the most disturbing part about all the physical and psychological torture was that it was conducted by their compatriots, sometimes their own village neighbors who had joined the SLA.


KHIYAM PRISON TODAY
During the 34-day 2006 war with Israel, in an attempt to erase what happened there, the grounds of the Khiyam Prison were bombed via airstrike. Along with the lives of 4 UN observers, around 65% of the structure was reduced to rubble leaving behind just a few solitary and group cells with their intact bedframes plus vehicles used by the multiple armed groups.

Sitting at the top of a hill overlooking the border towns of Lebanon and just up the street from the municipality building of Khiyam, the remains of the prison receive visitors from all over. Ahmad lives there, giving tours in a yellow branded cap and selling $4 DVDs on the torture and disturbing history of the site. Old trucks and tanks rust near the watchtowers on each corner that now have Hezbollah flags waving from their posts.

If you find yourself in the South, go see it while you still can. If there’s ever another offensive with our favorite foe, they may attempt to strikeout “Khiyam Prison” on their to-do list once and for all.