My finger froze over the mouse as I squinted at a blurry photo of a young Pakistani man holding an AK-47 on my Facebook page. “Confirm friend request,” the cheerful blue font suggested. I closed the window and sighed, saving the decision for another morning.
The obvious answer here—the one I got from everyone I showed the photo to—was: “Don’t friend him, he looks like a freaking terrorist.” But I know Toffee and I do consider him a friend (well, at least in the Facebook sense of the word).
We met in Pakistan a few years ago when I was reporting on education issues for the Common Language Project. It was the spring of 2009 and the Taliban had taken over sections of the country—sections not so far from Islamabad where Toffee was going to university.
He did some translation for one of my stories, but really we just liked hanging out and talking about politics and culture. He had grown up a wealthy Pashtun in the tribal areas and I was curious about life in a part of Pakistan that I couldn’t safely visit.
We were roughly the same age and Toffee wanted to know how things were different in America. Despite his traditional upbringing and the very serious circumstances of his country, Toffee’s stylish clothes and cute adopted nickname made him seem more like a happy-go-lucky hipster than anything. We joked about creating a cultural exchange program for twenty-somethings.
Toffee asked me if Americans think all Pashtuns are terrorists.
I told him that many Americans probably wouldn’t know what a Pashtun was but that the traditional dress of his culture had become synonymous with terrorism in my country.
We discussed when I might come back to Pakistan and Toffee invited me to visit his family’s home when things settled down.
After we parted ways my cell phone was peppered with erratically capitalized text messages from him.
“Hi..! wats uP..?” or “H0w was ur trip to Karachi? H0w l0ng u are g0na stay in lah0re? Do let
me kn0w as s0on as u get bak to Islamabad.”
It’s been almost three years since we met, but I still think of Toffee fondly–our conversations were a bright spot in months of sad and sometimes scary reporting.
Maybe he should have know better than to put a photo like that on his Facebook, even though he was just wearing traditional Pashtu clothes and even though guns are commonplace where he comes from. Misunderstandings can have deep and terrifying consequences in a post-911 world.
I should know, I’m working on a feature-length documentary called Barzan about an Iraqi-American from Kirkland who says his life was destroyed by one unlucky brush with an Al Qaeda contact at Northgate Mall.
There may be a general impression that the War on Terror is on the wane. But the passage of National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (NDAA)–which includes provisions that allow for the indefinite detention of foreign nationals–confirms yet again that suspicion is all we need to label someone a terrorist.
I have been thinking a lot about what qualifies as reasonable suspicion in a suspicious world. Just a few weeks before Toffee’s friend request, my office received an odd phone call from The Denver Post. Jamshid Mukhtarov, an Uzbek refugee that I had interviewed (along with my colleague) in Kyrgyzstan in 2006, had just been arrested on charges of terrorism in Denver. Our website had the only interview ever done with him in English.
My friends and family started making fun of me:
“So, is this is the second or third terror suspect that you’ve interviewed now? I can’t remember,” said one, “I’m thinking ‘no fly list’ for you Miss,” said another.
They were joking—I have a US passport, which means I can still joke about being suspected of terrorism—but it got me thinking.
My interactions with the Kirkland man (who I interviewed in northern Iraq), and Mukhtarov, are both easily explained by work I have produced. But there’s other stuff too. It’s all related to journalism, but it looks sketchy out of context: visits to controversial madrassas accused of training terrorists, money wire transfers to translators near the Ethiopia-Somali border, the Pakistani, Lebanese and Syrian stamps that fill my passport.
It’s easy to make jokes from the place of privilege that my citizenship provides. But what if there was another major terror attack? What if laws like the NDAA were extended to include citizens (as some fear it might already). What if someone didn’t like the reporting I was doing and called my character into question to shut me up? How safe would I be? How bad would I look, just by association and circumstance?
This was the kind of stuff going through my head when I passed up Toffee’s friend request. But I kept thinking about it, with disappointment in myself mounting as the weeks passed. I’ve spent years building friendships and writing stories across political and cultural borders–all because I want to believe we don’t have to live in a world dictated by fear and paranoia. How could I chicken out on publicly acknowledging a guy who’d played host to me, and gone out of his way to ensure my safety while I was in Pakistan–especially if I was only doing it out of fear of other people’s prejudice?
Feeling remorseful, I checked Toffee’s friend request again this morning. He’s changed the photo—to one of him looking “accidentally cool” with a goatee and hipster scarf.
I went ahead and clicked “confirm.”