Essays    Reportage    Marginalia    Interviews    Poetry    Fiction    Videos    Everything   
Blue Skies

‘That first day in America, she didn’t know the difference between police officers and immigration officers, or between waiting rooms and holding cells.’

By Sobia Khan

That day at the Dallas airport was an inconsequential day of historical importance in Mariam’s life. The flight from London was scheduled to arrive in Dallas, Fort Worth, on Wednesday, August 26, 1992 at 2:30 pm, exactly five months and one day after Pakistan won the World Cricket Cup against England, thirty days after her eighteenth birthday, and fourteen days after her wedding. It also happened to be the day she got detained. Mariam sat in the holding cell, handcuffed to her chair, enveloped by an artificial whiteness. Every few minutes, police officers, who she later learned were immigration officers, stomped through the waiting room, their long stride and loud footsteps affirmation of their importance. That first day in America, she didn’t know the difference between police officers and immigration officers, or between waiting rooms and holding cells.

Mariam always did as she was told. She took science classes because her parents told her to, but took painting with Mrs. Jamila because she actually preferred the arts over science. She washed dishes in the order her mother had drilled into her. Stemware and glasses first, silverware next, followed by dishes and pans. Most of the time she followed instructions except when she just couldn’t. Like the time she took mother’s fine porcelain tea cup to the backyard and smashed it against the wall. She was livid at her mother for not allowing her to go out with friends and so she broke her china. A surprising calmness came over Mariam once she felt the cup smash into the wall. Back in the kitchen, she dried the rest of the dishes and put them away exactly as taught. No one ever found out about the cup. And just like all those times, that day at the airport, when the immigration officer asked her for documents, she dutifully handed him her passport and customs form. She obeyed.

The immigration officer had fierce blue gray eyes and a short reddish blonde beard. Mariam noticed his eyes as they looked her over. The name tag pinned to his chest announced his identity in gold: Chris Young. He looked like Jesus from Renaissance paintings, but with a military crew cut. He knew Mariam’s type. Young, inexperienced, first time away from home, a new bride. It was the fading henna on her hands, bright yellow gold jewelry peeking out from under the collar of her jacket. Mariam had all the signs, even the bag she carried had flecks of gold.

“Where are you coming from?” The officer asked. Mariam had never heard words pronounced like children rolling down the hill, slipping and sliding into each other. Distracted by Officer Young’s strange new accent, she found it hard to focus on his questions.

“I am coming from London.”

“Why were you in London?”

“I was visiting friends and family.”

“Who?” “Why?” “Where did you live?” The questions came one after the other and Mariam faltered. It became a little hot in the room. No one told her it would be scary. She was given clear instructions by her parents and husband of two weeks to not mention her marriage or husband at the airport. Don’t walk with him, pretend not to know him, act like he’s a stranger, and once you’re done with immigration, all will be fine. You can stay up to three months in the U.S. as a visitor on your British citizenship. Later, you will get a student visa and be able to live with your husband in Dallas and go to school. The plan had been clear.

“Why are you here?” the immigration officer asked again. Officer Young was a tall lean man. He was trained to recognize nervousness. He pressed on with the questions and didn’t believe much of what Mariam answered. He heard the crack in her voice, the high intonation at the end of each sentence. It irritated him. Mariam was the umpteenth new bride he had seen land in Dallas that week. He didn’t understand how men could go back to their home countries, marry a stranger, and bring her back as a wife. It was beyond his comprehension. A few minutes later, he asked her to step to the side and wait to be called forward. She swayed a little under the bright lights and white walls.

Another immigration officer came to the holding cell and asked Mariam to follow him to Baggage Claim. He was older, paler than Officer Chris Young, and much heavier too. Mariam picked up her luggage, two officers carefully opened the bags and started going through her things with gloved hands. They turned over the clothes she had worn in the last two weeks before leaving Karachi. All of them were wedding clothes with gold or silver embroidery and rhinestones. To the officers they screamed of a bride’s trousseau. They pulled out her favorite gold shanghai long shirt and wide leg palazzo pants with red rhinestone work around the neckline.

Mariam wore this outfit the day before leaving for the U.S. at another wedding dinner party thrown in her and her husband’s honor. Paired with ruby, emerald, and cubic zirconium earrings, she had been the belle of the evening. She posed for photos with all the relatives and sat with her husband at the center of all the festivities. The dinner was Pakistani-Chinese, a favorite. Memories of that evening came flooding back as the officers rummaged through the clothes. Tears burned down Mariam’s face. She quickly wiped them away before the officers could see them. But they had and were not surprised. What did surprise them was Mariam’s age and how resilient she was to their persistent questioning, never veering from the practiced answers.

Officer Young came into the interrogation room as the other officers pushed down Mariam’s clothes and closed the suitcases again. They kept the documents folder out. It contained copies of Mariam’s British passport, Pakistan Identification card, birth certificate, and some sales receipts from her stay in London. Mariam didn’t think much of any of it until she realized the folder had her husband’s passport photo copies too. She turned a pale yellow and her arms went limp by her side. This is it, she thought. They are going to arrest me and put me away for lying, oh god! She stared at the officers to see any change in their demeanor, nothing was different.

But Officer Young was more upset. He pitied Mariam and was angry with her. Could a girl like her not think for herself? Why would she become such a young bride? The other officers handed Officer Young the folder. He opened the folder and started going through the documents. She waited for the worst to happen, but Officer Young didn’t say a thing, and no further questions were asked. As he was about to put away the folder, two narrow receipts fell out and sashayed to the linoleum floor. He picked them up and was about to place them back into the folder when he noticed the name at the top of the receipts, “Bosnia Muslim Fund.” The receipts were made out to Mariam showing her contribution of $500 to the fund. Mariam wasn’t paying attention to Officer Young. In her mind, her world was already falling apart. She didn’t see him tuck the receipts in his pocket as he walked out of the holding cell.

As much as Officer Young was upset with Mariam for becoming a young bride, he liked her stubbornness. It reminded him of his younger sister. She had the same curly, unruly hair. Same olive skin and big kohl-lined eyes. His step sister was half-Mexican and half-German and still lived with his dad and step-mom in Crane, Texas. A junior in high school, she was caught with boys in the middle of the night many times. Last Christmas, Officer Young saw her jump out of her bedroom window. He followed her quietly. She sprinted to the end of the road where she got into a parked car in front of the last house on their street. Officer Young waited a few minutes and then slowly crept up to the car. He could see two shadows in the back seat. With one swift movement, he threw open the back door on the driver’s side and caught the neighbor’s son off guard. He started punching the boy, one swing after another. He didn’t know who the boy was or how old he was, all he knew was that his sixteen-year-old sister was in the back seat with him. Everyone in Crane, Texas heard her screams and saw the light in the car cabin flicker, but he did not stop pummeling the boy. He couldn’t.

Next thing Officer Young knew, he was being pulled out of the car door by strong arms. It was the boy’s father. Soon, his own parents were over. The boy’s face was bloody and swollen. His ash blond hair was streaked with red. Officer Young was taken back to the house and sent to work the next day, his vacation cut short by his parents and the local police. The boy’s father was going to file assault charges against him, but the sheriff convinced him not to. Officer Young left without seeing his sister. He knew no one would ever dare touch his sister again and that was enough for him.

But Mariam, he couldn’t make sense of her. He wanted to punch her husband just like that boy. All the officers knew who the husband was; their names on the passenger list showed their seats were next to each other, and Mariam’s folder confirmed it. The officers watched him on camera as he waited for his luggage to arrive. He kept looking to the doorway he had passed through earlier, waiting for Mariam to come through as well. He was still going with the plan to pretend like he didn’t know his wife so he couldn’t ask any officials for help. He watched Mariam’s husband pace nervously in the baggage claim area. Good, be worried, thought Officer Young. He found any man unable to protect and stand for the women in his life unforgivable.

Back in the holding cell, Officer Young asked Mariam why she was really here. This is your last chance to come clean and you will be forgiven for the lies, he told her. Like a dutiful child Mariam repeated what she had been told to say, “to visit friends.” It was then the officers put handcuffs on her.

“You’re not telling the truth,” Officer Young said very matter-of-factly.

“I am, sir.”

“No, you’re hidin’ something. You know you can be prosecuted for aiding and funding criminals.”

“What? I don’t understand.”

“We found the receipts.”

“What receipts?”

Officer Young asked her about the Bosnia Muslim Fund. She didn’t have an answer. Mariam told him that she gave some charity to the organization, that is all. He didn’t believe her. He and the others listening to the conversation were waiting for her to admit that she was helping funnel money to Bosnian militants. Mariam denied the accusations. I was just trying to help, Mariam insisted. Didn’t they see the cover photos of the internment camps? Didn’t they see photos of starving men at the camps or the hundreds of dead bodies scattered on the streets of Bosnia?

Mariam’s life until she left Pakistan was just hers. She was oblivious to world events until she came face to face with genocide. In London she met Bosnian refugees. They weren’t a non-existent reality anymore, but beings with imaginations that dared to dream of a future to come. She wanted to help. The faces of the sixteen-year-old twins, Hadzira and Hadzeba, sodomized and gang raped first by the higher rank officers and then passed down to the soldiers, haunted Mariam. Just talking about the girls made her tremble with anger and frustration. She explained that the Bosnia Muslim Fund was a London-based charity which helped displaced Bosnians. This was the least she could do besides pray for the genocide to end.

They didn’t believe, they couldn’t. But without additional concrete evidence they could not detain her, but they could deport her. Mariam had helped, that was her crime. She would be deported back to London. They let her keep up the act. She wouldn’t have an opportunity to meet her husband before she left.

“But my friends will be waiting for me in Dallas,” she pleaded.

“Don’t worry, we’ll let them know where you are.”

“I need to call my parents.”

“You can, once you’re back in London.”

Mariam touched her hair, wondering, despite herself, if it was flat after the cross-Atlantic flight. She wondered if her face was too oily and if the gum she was chewing helped with bad breath. She thought of her husband, a man she had met just two weeks ago, the man she had travelled across the world with to settle and begin a new life with—the man she had left her parents, friends, city, her people for, to come to this land, to this. Her chest tightened and pushed against every rib. Breathless. The immigration officers saw her redden and struggle. Something shifted in Officer Young’s demeanor as he watched. Despite the sadness Officer Young saw in her eyes, he had to send Mariam back. He knew she was telling the truth about the funds, he was trained to detect liars, but the receipts to a Muslim organization suspected of ties to the Bosnian militia forced higher ranking officers to make the decision against her.

“You want to use the restroom? Eat something?” Officer Young asked.

“Yes, I want to use the bathroom,” Mariam replied in a monotone.

“Okay.” Officer Young led her out of the holding cell. “Turn left,” he instructed. He uncuffed Mariam outside the bathroom and let her in. She was inside for a long time, but that didn’t worry Officer Young, he could hear her pee, which made him uncomfortable. Mariam was inside, wondering why she was in this bathroom with a Jesus-look-alike just outside the door, in a country she didn’t know, no longer the wife of a man she didn’t know well, washing her hands with water that didn’t come from the Indian Ocean or the Indus river tributaries.

She walked out with dripping hands. Officer Young handcuffed her again, her wet hands made his own wet, her brownness touched his white skin, his hands were warm, hers cold.

He left her alone and joined the other officers in the camera monitoring room. Mariam had a certain air about her. He watched her on the screen as she sat there, her eyes somewhere far away. Officer Young wondered what she was thinking about. He couldn’t have guessed that as she stared off into space, she saw birds flying high above. She imagined two small blue birds, Indigo Bunting, native to Texas, but she didn’t know this then. The two frolic in the air and Mariam observes them, entranced by their dance. Officer Young watched Mariam watch the birds. For a moment, he thought her eyes turned blue.

In fact, the hours Mariam sat in the holding cell were the first she’d ever spent on her own. The odor of disinfectant pine floor cleaner was so stringent it seemed to permeate her clothes, her skin. The new velvet patchwork handbag that she and her mom picked out lay limp by her side. She could hear the rustle of dark uniformed pants and the click of heavy black shoes as officers walked purposefully outside the waiting room. It was a familiar sound. Mariam remembered her father’s white uniform and white polished shoes, his medals pinned above the left breast pocket, and his ornate white Captain’s cap. She had known men like the immigration officers all her life. For them, every day was planned, every step predetermined, and every decision well-thought out.

She thought of her father who rose every morning before dawn and walked to the mosque to offer the morning prayers in congregation. That was the only time he stood shoulder to shoulder with the gardeners, drivers, and construction workers. His world was built on hierarchies and he was the perfect officer once he left the mosque. In his world, as his daughter, Mariam was to respect and obey him. And he in turn, as the caretaker, provided for her. But as her father, he loved Mariam more than he should have. He gave her chocolates before dinner, paid for her painting classes, and allowed her to daydream. But like everyone else, there was an invisible line which she could not cross.

Mariam’s life was never hers to begin with. Much like before, she waited for the immigration officers to dictate the future. The knots in her stomach were a reminder of how little autonomy she had over her life. An officer came in and sat across from her. He kept staring at his wrist watch until whatever time he was waiting for finally arrived. Mariam knew this time in her life wouldn’t last, nothing does, so she waited for it to end. That day she learned to find spaces of herself within the chaos. Like Kashmiri shawl designs of birds flying and never ending vines across fabric, she too, learned to dream of freedom.

Officer Young and the older officer returned to the holding cell. Officer Young asked Mariam to stand up. She did. He asked her to follow him. Her time to leave had come. It wasn’t like this was a walk to the gallows, but it felt like it. She had no choice in any of it—she was charged, tried, and found guilty. Something overcame Mariam, she panicked, and lunged towards Officer Young and held onto his arm. Caught by surprise, Officer Young responded by grabbing her hand and twisting it behind her back. Mariam screamed out in pain and surprise. His grip was firm and held her motionless. His aggressive embrace pinned Mariam to him. He had her, again. Tears escaped her frightened eyes, she looked into his deep blue-gray eyes and silently pleaded her case.

“Don’t do this to me,” Mariam said to Officer Young. Within seconds, all the officers in the vicinity circled around with their weapons aimed at her. The older officer trusted his Bretta to take her out between the eyes. The young officers were true patriots, they still believed. They aimed American-made guns at her throat. She didn’t register the near violence against her personhood. Mariam’s concerns were beyond physical existence.

“My parents will be so embarrassed by this.”

“What?” Officer Young didn’t expect to hear that.

“Please let me stay. I haven’t done anything wrong.” Officer Young eased his grip and let her arms go. He signaled others to put their weapons down.

“Give her a minute,” he told the others. They did. They didn’t understand what was going on, but they were trained to follow orders and not question. Mariam’s arms were around Officer Young, holding on to him. He remained upright and tight-lipped. He did not return her embrace. But as he looked down at her, his eyes softened.

“You must get on the plane. We have to send you back. Those are our orders,” Officer Young said to her head against his chest. He didn’t push her away. He could feel her breath on his chest and knew his own saving was tied to hers.

Minutes later Mariam was airborne.