Kiran Ansari is a writer, editor and entrepreneur. She has bylines in dozens of publications including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Parent, Daily Herald, Islamic Horizons and Halal Consumer. She lives in Illinois with her husband and three children and helps people take their celebrations Up A Notch with her small business.
Through a matching grant from Gates Foundation on MALA’s GlobalGiving platform, these stories are produced by Writers Studio to promote the diverse narratives of Muslim Americans, spotlight individuality, show our shared humanity and further the impact of our voices and concerns.
2017 literally has just begun but it has already taught me a lesson. Do not take anything for granted. Not even flying back home to the U.S. and your children. Late January, I visited Pakistan to help with my brother’s wedding preparations. International travel, as we knew it, changed in the one week I was away.
Little had I anticipated that when I would return, the scene at the Chicago O’Hare International Terminal would be unlike that I’ve ever encountered. At arrivals, instead of just the usual friends and family standing with balloons and flowers, there would be reporters with heavy camera equipment. There would be volunteer attorneys with poster boards in Farsi, Urdu and Arabic, offering their services to travelers who had been subject to additional questioning or any kind of unnecessary harassment. Who could have predicted that? Or that I would return on the same flight as a Chicago physician of Syrian descent whose visa had been reinstated after much lobbying, so he could fly back after getting married abroad?
In between shopping for intricate hand-embroidered gowns and menu tasting prawn tempura, I kept abreast of the headlines. I had never thought that, as a U.S. citizen, I would have to worry about returning “home”. I never thought I would be anxious even with the coveted dark blue passport. It was only when friends started texting me “my rights”, suggesting I return earlier, that my mind started to wander. I wasn’t scared, but I admit I was a tad nervous.
My older children and husband were in Chicago and I had promised them I’d be back soon. But I didn’t consider shortening my already brief visit, despite the circumstances. I believe we should “Be Aware but not Be Afraid.” If we change our travel plans for no reason except “What If…” then we have let Islamophobes win. They have pushed us into a corner when we have done nothing to deserve that.
I firmly believe in what the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, “Tie your camel first and then entrust it to God.” I tied my camel by reading up on the news and messages from civil rights activists in the Muslim community about which questions I should respond to, and which I could decline. I fortified my prayers and then entrusted the matter to the Almighty.
Then I was calm.
So calm that when a friend texted me asking if I was done with immigration, I told her I was having Burger King in Abu Dhabi, my layover. And honestly when you are traveling alone with a 2-year old, in between juice box spills and Sesame Street reruns, you really don’t have the energy to worry. You just want the 15-hour flight to end.
I was prepared to be asked additional questions like how many times a day do you pray? Which scholars do you listen to? Which school of thought do you follow? I would be polite but firmly refuse to answer these questions as these are my rights protected by the First Amendment.
However, it never came to that. At immigration, the kiosk registered our photos and fingerprints. We were ushered to the front of the line. The officer asked how long I was away? If I was carrying currency over $10,000? I had no problem with these questions as they can be asked of any traveler.
That was it. All praise to God, immigration was a breeze. 30 seconds and we were out.
Was it the prayers I offered, the Global Entry cards we have that let you complete the immigration process at separate kiosks with hardly any line, the fact that I was traveling at 2am with a sleepy toddler or the prayers of my loved ones in both continents? The combination worked.
The scene at Chicago O’Hare arrivals was definitely different from prior trips. Reporters, cameras and attorneys stood along side my husband. I was delighted to see him, waiting for us, carrying our winter coats. In other circumstances, I would’ve rolled my eyes and grumbled about leaving the gorgeous 70-degree Karachi weather. But this time I was okay with it. It is cold here, but this is home. We got our luggage and headed down the interstate with relief, gratitude and reflections.
Such situations are the litmus test of our beliefs. I believe my hyphenated identity as a Muslim-American helped keep me calm. I know God is the Best of Protectors and I have hope in the justice system. I am not saying horrible things have not happened to innocent travelers. They have and they are un-American and unacceptable. We cannot ignore them, but like our religion stresses balance, we need to look at both sides of the story. While we need to raise our voices for those who have been wrongfully detained or interrogated, we also need to raise our hands in prayer thanking the Almighty for uneventful travel experiences.
These situations are opportunities for extra prayers that I might not have made while traveling. For the extra charity I might not have put in the orphan donation box at Abu Dhabi airport. For the extra niceties I might not have exchanged with fellow travelers who were visibly nervous.
As Muslims, we believe charity can ward away harm coming your way. We believe in keeping our “tongues moist” with the remembrance of God. We believe to always ask God directly for what we want. We believe a dua (supplication) is never wasted. It might be answered right away; it might prevent you from some harm or it might be kept as a treasure for you to be answered when the time is right.
As impatient humans we often remember all the times our prayers are not answered. However, in my eternal quest for balance, it would be unfair to not remember all the times our prayers have been answered. Instantly. Graciously. Unconditionally. Like the time in early 2017, when despite a controversial travel ban, I flew back home like it was 2016.