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

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3 Meals in NYC – 2016 Edition

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Back in 2014, I spent a quick 5 minutes in NYC and wrote about my 3 main food stops – one of which has since closed permanently. After spending a week in 2015 and another in 2016, here’s an updated list of 3 meals to enjoy if you ever visit the home of 8.4 million.

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Hillstone for Campfire Ribs
My friend took me here in 2015, it was the first meal I had upon revisiting in 2016, and I will be back for sure. There is a fear that a restaurant will not be as good as you remember it, leaving you heartbroken because you romanticized a memory of saucy ribs, shoestring fries, and coleslaw. Not at Hillstone. They were better the second time around and I still couldn’t finish them. Mom helped.

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Photo Credit: @blacktapnyc

Black Tap for Burgers & Shakes
Pearl from legymonline tagged me in a gram of their crazy “milkshakes.” One afternoon, mom & I were wandering around Soho and ended up near Black Tap so we mozied over to the spot for a volcano of fat. Fifteen minute wait. She had a burger while I had a spicy margarita with onion rings. We split the top of a milkshake. It’s all we could get down considering they’re a mountain range of deliciousness. Bonus points for the 90s R&B playlists.

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Gotham West Market
Located in Hell’s Kitchen, GWM has a couple of offerings all housed in a food hall. From Indie Fresh to Choza Taqueria, the variety is there along with a chill vibe that’s perfect for hanging out with friends. It’s what you wish your high school cafeteria was like. It also has a bike shop inside. No, I did not see Wilson Fisk anywhere.


Honorable Mentions:
OBVIOUSLY, a pastrami sandwich on rye from Katz on the LES. The line you see above is not tourist hype, it is worth the wait, the $19.95, and Meg Ryan’s reaction was because of this sandwich. Also, Smorgasburg in Brooklyn, Untitled at the Whitney in the Meatpacking District at the end of the High Line, and pre-packaged food at the Food Emporium for when you need takeout so you can go back to your hotel room and binge watch Luke Cage.

BambiRunsBey42K: Balloons and Central Park

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This is the 6th installment from the BambiRunsBey42K biweekly series covering the marathon training journey with NRC Beirut.

Balloon Run and the 36K Peak
The week before taking off to the Big Apple was a bad one. I only made it to one run (the balloon run) and then went off the grid for the days following. Between preparing for my trip and falling into a pit of solitude due to burnout, I just wanted to get the week over with and get on the plane.

While my team was running the 36K max distance before marathon day, I was sitting at Cafematik pissed off for paying $20 for two coffees and a bite of banana bread. They were done by the time I got to Heathrow. Check out their triumphant faces:

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Running Central Park
I ran two 6Ks in Central Park during my week away, and although that is not on par with my training schedule, I’m still glad I bothered at all. Running while being abroad, even if for business, can make your mind switch into lazy mode with excuses like, “you don’t need to run because you’re walking a lot so it’s not like you’re doing NOTHING.”  Mbala.


On my last morning in NY, I was sharing the Central Park track with the NY Road Runners who were participating in the annual Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Fred’s Team Presents Grete’s Great Gallop. Let me break down that name for you:

Fred: Fred Lebow was the former NYRR president and co-founder of the New York City Marathon, he died of brain cancer in 1994.
Fred’s Team: An organization who raises funds for cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering, where Fred Lebow received treatment. Fred’s Team runners have raised +$65 million for this cause.
Grete’s Great Gallop: a half-marathon race in honor of Grete Waitz, friend of Fred and 9-time winner of the NYC Marathon who also lost her life to cancer in 2011.

I didn’t bother to look into races in the city that were taking place during my stay. However, given that I needed to be back at the hotel before check-out, joining was not meant to be. I also didn’t run with NRC NYC for fear that their paces would be too quick for my slow self. Adding these two runs to next year’s growing runs-to-do list.

Nike x Kith
I was heading to Crate & Barrel to get my Scandal wine glasses when I came across this Nike concept store. Designed by Snarkitecture, the store has multiple nods to Nike history with casted Nike shoe boxes, AF1 outsole encrusted seats, and memorabilia encased in glass. Before you enter the rest of Kith, there’s Kith Treats, a snack bar with Nike themed cereal or ice cream served in shoe boxes, and a customization station where you can get Nike x Kith products customized. If you don’t get a chance to go to NYC’s 5-story NikeTown, head here. 


Just for Kicks
The easiest way for you to see a shoe’s true colors is to test them out in a pedestrian city. I got a pair of Nike Air Huarache Ultras (pronounced waa-rah-cheez) and I was clocking a minimum of 20K steps/day in them while wandering around the 5 boroughs. The verdict? I could live in these things. They are the new AirMax. They’re also travel-friendly because they’re like slip-ons because of the elastic body – perfect for security checks and long flights. I got mine from the men’s section at Nike DT purely for the color combo. NikeTown had BEAUTIFUL ones but I need to stop feeding this addiction.

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From nike.com


Reading this month’s edition of Wired US will give you the behind-the-scenes scoop on how the HyperAdapt power-lacing sneakers came to life. The inventor, appropriately named Tinker, gives a tour of the Nike grounds including the Innovation Kitchen.

Read more about Tinker and the Nike Labs here.

Back in BEY
I’m back (that’s why this post is a day late) and there’s six weeks left until we all run the marathon, or half in my case. Fellow NRCer Anthony shared this link for those of us who feel the half gets looked down up0n because it’s HALF a marathon. Sure, it’s not 42K but it’s still over 68,000 feet in distance. In Manhattan, that’s like running past 51.6 Starbucks branches. Sip on that, haters. Six Sundays until we break the wall, Jon Snow!

 

Mistakes Made in NYC

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    • Buy a SIM card from a vending machine in JFK. T-Mobile, why no stand at the airport? How are there no telecom providers there? What’s a payphone?
    • Pay for individual metro rides. Get the unlimited 7-day card for $32 and take all the wrong trains you want, no penalties for being a semi-tourist except lost time.
    • Fail to invent an app that tells you where there are clean public bathrooms and charging stations. Every traveler’s two worst enemies are iPhone batteries and bladders. With that said, thank you Starbucks for your $7 blattery break. Get the powerbank from all those techie shops in Duty Free.
    • Assume that Airbnb hosts will have towels available because it’s basically like a hotel with a stove, right? Go buy $5 bath towels from a dollar shop around the corner. Proceed to have pink fuzz everywhere after every shower. It’s been 3 days since I returned and I still feel like a molting Furby.
    • Allow eternally lost friend to navigate. Instead of ending up at Century 21, the discount hotspot by the Empire Hotel, you end up near a Century 21 real estate office in Soho.
    • Attend Sleep No More while suffering from respiratory allergies. Although one of the most intriguing experiences and my first at interactive theatre, running up and down staircases through creepy sets with a mask on when you can’t breathe is a whole new level of nightmare. Note to self: bring tissue and a snorkel next time.
    • Eat breakfast before going to Smorgasburg. That’s just wasted space. Especially when you’re going to be stocking up on 18-hr cooked bbq beef burgers, ramen burgers, nutella banana wontons, and truffle fries. And maple lemonade. And cheese curds. And Pepto-Bismol.
    • Eat everything and justify it by saying “well, you ARE walking a lot here.” You are not Forrest Gumping through the Meatpacking District, you’re packing meat through all the districts. No, I don’t mean like that, perv.
    • Wait too long for a table at Spotted Pig in Greenwich without taking photos of the movie-set neighborhood streets because, if you walk away, you might miss Kanye walking in. Forget to ask for your burger without Roquefort cheese because you’re so hungry you didn’t even read the menu, you just said “burger, medium well” and started counting pig statues. Miss the train back to Brooklyn for the Mast Brothers Chocolate Factory Tour. Go home to slip into food coma.
    • Wear the right shoes with the wrong socks and bleed on your Nikes. Use this as a completely illogical excuse to buy a new pair and go to Lady Foot Locker when you know sneakers are your Louboutins. If you find yourself agreeing with the saleslady when she says, “you can never have too many Nikes,” you need to get out. ABORT MISSION.
    • After realizing you are part of the first two cult followings of America (Starbucks and Apple), contemplate joining the 3rd: Abercrombie & Fitch. Realize you don’t like smelling like a junior prom queen or lining up to use a flashlight to shop for hoodies. I can do both by rummaging through my own garage.
    • Pass up on a bottle of chili oil honey from Roberta’s because you got take-out since there was a wait of an hour and fifteen minutes and you didn’t want to buy it before trying the Beesting Pizza. You thought something called “chili honey oil” could actually taste bad. Fool.
    • Leave ribs on your plate at Hillstone because you’re full. You could’ve taken 4 more, weakling.
    • Going to Fuerza Bruta after ingesting half of NYC. I am a slug in human form.
    • Only spending 10 minutes at Grand Central Station and 30 in Dumbo. What are you even doing underground on the subway where you see nothing but people using the earphone protective forcefield? Swim to Brooklyn.
    • Wait for someone to ask where you’re from. Walk around with “I’m from Beirut” written on your face because people will either think you’re:
      a) a good businessperson
      b) friendly unlike the “dry Americans” and give you hugs goodbye
      c) from a place they’ve never heard of and, thus, you are exotic or a terrorist
      d) just sooo gorgeous.Upon revealing my nationality, an Ivory Coast cabbie immediately felt a connection because our countries were both occupied by the French, a Yugoslavian mother told me her life story within 12 minutes of meeting, a Turkish shop owner gave me free postcards & stickers, and a Puerto Rican gay man named Carlos said I was the Regina George of New York. WIN.
    • Send a picture of your vegan doughnut to your vegan sister. Have her jealous vibes send your cappuccino flying into your lap. Plus side is smelling like doughnut glaze all day.
    • Introduce yourself using Arabic pronunciation. Adopt “Vera” as your new name since that’s what they hear anyway.
    • Constantly move. Johnathan from HONY can’t take your picture if you don’t stand still and look pensive. I had my speech ready and everything. I even bought a hipster hat from a Brooklyn flea market.
    • Be flattered by people thinking you’re a New Yorker but then have an existential crisis about whether you are meant to be one or not. Chuckle and think, “Please. Carlos is right. I got this,” and get on the 6 humming JLo.
    • Use the excuse “I’m cold” to eat warm breakfasts like bagels, waffles, and muffins. Blueberry flavor and topped with fresh fruit because, ya know, it’s healthy. Having an everything bagel will teach you that frozen Sara Lee bagels tossed in a toaster aren’t bagels, they’re carbohydrate lies. Thank God that the cold also means your clothing layers will hide your gluttony until you go on a kale-only diet for 6 months upon return to the labneh motherland.
  • Miss labneh.