An Algerian Immigrant’s Kafkaesque Journey in Post-9-11 America
by Bill Weinberg
A Story About Faded Dreams & Forbidden Pictures
ZAWP, POB 411, Mossville, IL 61552-411
Of all the nightmares which have befallen immigrants from the Islamic world since the September 11 attacks, those related in this short self-published memoir, Still Moments, are far from the most egregious. But the nearly surreal ironies of this story, and the straightforward, almost innocent way it is told, make it a powerful testament to how freedom is contracting as our leaders wage wars in the name of expanding freedom. As if synchronicity had conspired to drive home this point, the critical incident on which the tale turns takes place on Route 66, fabled in song (Chuck Berry) and story (Jack Kerouac) as a symbol of the uniquely American freedom of the Open Road.
The (probably pseudonymous) protagonist, Zighen Aym, who tells his tale in the first person, is a middle-class professional working as a mechanical engineer for an unnamed company in central Illinois. He is a husband and father, a naturalized US citizen, and had been in the country seven years at the time of the 9-11 disaster. He was the archetype of the “good” immigrant who really believed that the USA represents freedom. He had left his native Algeria to escape violence and repression, which was endemic there in the 1990s, and doubly targeted at members of his own people, the Berber ethnic minority.
News from home never failed to confirm the wisdom of his decision to leave. In May 1997, his young sister-in-law was killed when a bomb exploded at her high school in Algiers. But some of the salient incidents which prompted Aym to leave his homeland would take on an ironic significance as he was “profiled” as a potential terrorist by the FBI for the most unassuming acts after 9-11.
The first came in 1986, when he was vacationing with a friend at the Mediterranean port of Bejaia. An avid photographer, he began taking pictures of the port below from a scenic vista point. This activity came to the attention of a police officer. Aym was detained at the local police station, interrogated about his purposes in photographing the harbor, and given a verbal drumming about the threat of espionage and subversion from the imperialist powers. This degree of paranoia over something as innocent as photography helped inform his decision to leave the country years later.
Another concerned the food shortages which were chronic, despite the oil boom of the 1980s. After waiting in a long line for hours to triumphantly return home with ten pounds of garbanzo beans and four pounds of butter, he began to realize how his standards for material security had eroded.
Early one morning in October 2002, Aym, now living happily in Illinois, was driving along Route 66 with his camera, his eye drawn by images that could make for interesting shots, unaware of how his comfortable world was about to change. First he stops to shoot dew-glistening spider webs interlacing between corn stalks in a farmer’s field. Then—fatefully—he notices a pair of railroad tracks, “their flat surfaces reflecting sunlight and shining like two silver lines drawn into the horizon.” His interest is purely aesthetic, not at all technical: “The scene of converging rail tracks and obsolete telephone poles was a harmonious display of increasing distance and decreasing height and span; a natural 3-D visual agreement.” He again stops the car and starts clicking.
As at the port at Bejaia 15 years earlier, this activity draws the attention of the local constabulary. A state trooper pulls up, questions him about what he is doing and where he is from, asks for ID, runs a check. Aym is finally allowed to go. Weeks later, the FBI issues an alert warning of terrorist attacks on Amtrak.
In January 2003, Aym receives a call at his home from the FBI. They request an interview to discuss his “love of trains.” (The assumption seems to be he is either a terrorist or a train-spotting geek.) “I don’t love trains,” he answers. He is aware he can refuse the interview, but also aware that this would only invite an FBI visit at his workplace, which would be a public embarrassment and could even jeopardize his job. He realizes his official rights are somewhat irrelevant. He agrees to the interview.
“Even if the FBI suspects me of being a terrorist, it is better to be in America than Algeria,” he jokes to his worried wife. “Here, at least I can buy garbanzo beans at any time of the day and night.”
In the following days, as he frets over his impending interview, contacts the ACLU and is referred to a lawyer, he contemplates how freedom is diminishing in both his native and adoptive countries—and for related reasons. In the ’90s, as the Algerian regime turned post-socialist and came to be dominated by a “mafia” of corrupt generals, the new populist mantle was assumed by the Islamic fundamentalists. Their electoral victory in 1992 only prompted the regime to annul the elections and declare military rule—which in turn prompted the Islamists to take up arms, precipitating nearly ten years of civil war in which 200,000 Algerians lost their lives. And neither side—the military mafia or the Islamist guerillas—saw the Berbers as anything other than a dangerous threat to national unity.
The resurgence of a Berber movement for human and cultural rights came, unfortunately, just as 9-11 was about to transform the political landscape for the worse. On June 14, 2001, over 1 million Berbers marched in Algiers to protest the killing of an unarmed youth by the police in Kabylia, the Berber region. Ten were killed as police attacked the protesters. The White House said nothing. On July 12, 2001, Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was at the White House for an official visit; a small group of Berber protesters stood outside with a banner reading “ALGERIAN PRESIDENT AND GENERALS TO THE HAGUE.” A few weeks later, Algeria awarded a $700 million contract to Halliburton subsidiary KBR to help modernize the country’s oil industry. After 9-11, the US would step up arms sales and military-intelligence cooperation with the Algerian regime, and human and minority rights in Algeria would become more of an inconvenience than ever for Algiers and Washington alike.
So Aym’s people face persecution in his homeland precisely because they are not Arab, Algeria’s dominant ethnicity. And the Islamists and government are seen as equal threats to Berber freedom and identity. Yet in Illinois, he is profiled as an Arab/Islamic terrorist.
Aym’s interview with the FBI takes place at a federal building in a Bloomington suburb named (more irony) Normal. Once ensconced in the office of the interrogating agent, he offers to do a Google search of his own name, which would turn up freelance work confirming that he is, in fact, a photographer. The agent declines, instead asking a barrage of banal questions: “Do you know anyone, associates or friends, who may be working for any terrorist government or terrorist organization?” “Are you a terrorist or linked to a terrorist organization?”
Writes Aym: “I had a feeling of deja vu: I saw the Algerian policeman at the police station in 1986. The agent’s blank face and small but muscular body made him an extension of the repressive system. How interesting to see that repression and love of power easily cross cultural, national, and religious boundaries!”
After answering a requisite “no” to the agent’s questions, he is free to leave—until, in one final flourish of paranoid sleuthwork, the agent notices the decal on Aym’s notepad and demands he explain it. It reads “UBL,” for Ultimate Band List, a music e-store. The agent accepts this explanation. Aym is confused until his lawyer, who was allowed to be present for the interview, says to the agent, “I see that you have the picture of UBL here.” He indicates a WANTED poster for Usama bin Laden—using the FBI’s unorthodox spelling of the first name.
“I was stunned when I realized how naive I was,” Aym writes. “Both my lawyer and the agent had made the link between my UBL decal and Usama Bin Laden. My lawyer used the initials UBL as if he purposely wanted to expose my naivete to me.”
The interview had lasted an hour, but of course felt like an eternity. Upon leaving, Aym considers “heading north to get my kicks on Route 66 one more time. Instead, I drove home.”
The story is told in a brief 65 pages, and does often come across as slightly naive. But a lot of meaning is packed into this slim volume—about lost innocence, about the paradoxes of identity, and about the diminishing prospects for human freedom in both the United States of America and on planet Earth generally in the long aftermath of September 11.
Zighen Aym’s homepage
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, July 10, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution