The Khan at the airport

You had to know you hadn't heard the last of Rehman Malik. You didn't think you'd get away that easily, did you? Malik recently crashedlanded onto Indian headlines for sarcastically suggesting (at an Indo-Pak lovefest no less) that India should extend better security to Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan. It was, I think, an attempt at wit. As everyone knows by now, the filmstar wrote a piece about how it felt for him to be a Muslim, both in India and abroad (if this were a game show, that topic would be a giant red button that, when you press it, drenches you in dishwater). It is a tricky subject and was almost immediately interpreted by the mean-spirited to mean that Khan was somehow dissing India, whispering that he didn't feel safe, and championing a Pakistani cause at the expense of his "Indian-ness".

Predictably, anyone who's actually read the article doesn't see this. It's an informative, self-deprecating and funny essay on what is an uncomfortable but truthful modern condition: Muslims all over the world are under constant suspicion when anywhere near an airplane, even if you danced in Devdas. Khan describes being stopped and searched at airports in America because of his last name. He wrote of some extremely right-wing local parties who say that he should run back home to the Muslims next door, which for Pakistanis is both generous and a little bitchy. He mentions how he deliberately chose "pan-Indian" names for his kids to make assimilation easier (newsflash: celeb babies have names like Apple and Shiloh nowadays. I really don't think assimilation is the goal here.) and that, at the end, he is a secular humanist Indian before he is anything else.

That's lovely, but it still won't get you through immigration without a fight. Khan describes what a Pathan is in his mind (6 ft, big nose, warrior, like a butch Barbra Streisand I imagine) and how the physicality of his ancestry acts as an unsanctioned confession of his lineage, and by extension I suppose, his being a Muslim. He doesn't look like Pathans I know, but whatever. I know what he means.

I spent 10 years going in and out of American airports. I'm over six feet tall and used to sport a beard that should have been hipster but looked terrifying, so you can imagine what the officers thought when they saw me: boy, beard, boom. I've been searched, prodded, delayed, and questioned; my laptop, suitcases and boxer-briefs have been scanned for questionable material; I've missed so many connecting flights that I stopped booking them; and I have been asked point blank at JFK whether I hate freedom or have trained in any terrorist camps in Lahore (what do they expect you'll say? "Why, yes! I did train at a terrorist camp! You wake up at the crack of dawn but I can get you a fabulous discount on Level 2's Bombing for Beginners."). All of this is to say that what Khan wrote about is true for Muslims from any country. Even India. His assertion of that can't possibly be a crime, can it?

Malik's statements were met with a resounding "You're one to talk" look from across the border, as well they should. Still, it did remind me of just a few short weeks ago when Qadri, the little Mullah that Could, bulldozed onto the national stage in a cloud of stripes, deadlines and pill-box headware. At the height of that crisis, when our Supreme Court was trying to arrest the prime minister and the major cities were quite stressed out, India's PM decided to release a statement saying that his country couldn't continue "business-as-usual" with Pakistan any more.

That was like leaning over to someone who's hanging off a cliff and saying, "Umm, you're doing that, like, wrong. You're gonna die. I'm gonna go." I just didn't get the point of it. No one knew how it would turn out so why not wait quietly like all the other nations to see which way our script turned? In any case, much of the good work that had been done in cross-border relations (on-arrival senior citizen visas/ trade/ arts exchange) has all unravelled in a sad heap. A colleague was preparing to leave for an artist's residency in Mumbai when a few days before it was to begin he received a message saying none of the Pakistanis are invited any more, since no one wants them there. Ouch.

I get it now. It's election year and the one thing that unifies an electorate on voting day is, say it with me, a common enemy. I guess that's where we come in. But there are certain facts that remain true. One, as you so often love to tell us at the UN, is that India has more Muslims than Pakistan. Even you know you can't wish those numbers away. Two, several weeks ago a mad, fat woman pushed an Indian man in NYC onto the subway trains because she thought he was "Muslim or Hindu" and so responsible for 9/11, proving that you don't have to be a Pakistani for it to become an issue. And while we're on the topic, I'd just like to say, "Okay, so your name is Khan. So what?" There are way worse names than "Khan" in International Relations. Believe me. Have you ever travelled with someone who has "bin" in their name? I have. The immigration guards go red-eyed and an accusatory bomb squad materialises out of your suitcase.

Aijazuddin is a writer and artist based in Lahore

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