The Undesirable Professor

special-alien-noticeNotice on the welcome pack handed to me as I was taken to the room for “Special Aliens”. JFK Airport. New York. USA

Our leisurely breakfast at Coyoacan was interrupted. ?It?s Trisha,? said Pedro, handing over the phone. I had just come from Dublin where I?d been chatting to Don Mullan about how he came across the incredible information that led to the reopening of the Bloody Sunday enquiry. Conversation veered to Pedro and Trish who had been involved in the project. I was heading for Mexico City. Trisha was not in Mexico but she knew I was visiting Pedro and Nadia in their lovely house in Coyoacan and I was hoping to hear from her. I was conducting the inaugural workshop of the Pedro Meyer Foundation. But Trisha?s call was not just about saying hello. The previous night, she had seen my name in a TV programme in the US. I was on top of a list of ?undesirable professors? who apparently went round the US making extremist speeches. The list included people like Noam Chomsky, so I was in good company, but I wondered where the extremist label had come from.

As it is, I am labelled a ?Special Alien? by US immigration. I generally go to the US at least once a year to speak at the National Geographic. Last year they had also asked me to speak at the PDN (Photo District News) convention at the Jacob Javits Center in New York. Robert Pledge had turned the tables on me and taken advantage of my presence to ask me to speak at the Eugene Smith Award Ceremony at Parson?s School of Design. It was usually I who arm-twisted him into giving time to my students. Every time I arrive in the US, I go through what is now a familiar pattern. I wait in the winding queue at JFK airport. Upon scanning my passport, the immigration officer calls for someone to come over and take me to a separate room. The room, populated mostly by ?not so pale? people, is where ?Special Aliens?? are interrogated.

On my way out, I have to register at the NSEERS (National Security Entry/Exit Registration System) office. This is not always at the terminal I am departing from, so I have to do prior research to ensure I am allowed enough time for this and? don’t miss my plane. I have long stopped expecting to catch a connecting flight in the US, and have informed all my associates accordingly. The immigration officials never explain why I am a ?Special Alien?, and the last time I applied for a visa, the visa officer in Dhaka, who knew my work, had kindly pointed out that I would no longer be subjected to this procedure. I had happily trotted up to immigration on my next visit, knowing I was ?normal? again. But of course it had made no difference. I still ended up in that familiar room. I was asked the same old questions again, and re-fingerprinted and re-photographed for good measure.

Through a link Trish had sent me, I had tried tracing the programme on PBS, but pulled a blank. Rahnuma, who has enough trouble bailing me out (sometimes literally), wasn?t over-excited about this new development. She insisted that I chase it up, and get to the root of the story. She felt sure Brian would be able to dig up the facts. Brian Palmer had turned up many years ago, to do a story on Chobi Mela that Aperture Magazine had commissioned. Last year he had been commissioned by the Pulitzer Foundation to do a film on Pathshala. He had also spoken at Dhaka University of his experience as an embedded journalist in Iraq. His film Full Disclosure had sadly not been completed in time for Chobi Mela V. We had become dear friends over the years. Predictably, it was Brian who came up with the information.

Daniel Pipes on the Fox News show “The O’Reilly Factor” had named M Shahid Alam, an economics professor at Northeastern University, as “unAmerican” for statements he made after 9-11. I don?t know how much lower one?s status can get, but for the moment I was no lower than a ?Special Alien?. As for having a common sir name, well Shahrukh Khan wasn?t bad company!

Rahnuma steadfastly refuses to apply for a US visa, as the application procedure is so humiliating. She finds the UK visa procedure much the same, and has refused invitations to both countries on these grounds. Many friends have left the US and UK because of the hostile environment. My occasional visits, as a speaker at Harvard, UCLA, USC, Stanford and the National Geographic, or even in transit to Latin America does rile me, but I treat it as a useful reminder of what our relationships with these countries are. Friends have found it strange that I refuse to obtain a British passport. The same friends who thought I was foolish in giving up my membership of the colonial Dhaka Club.

I have little liking for queues, but if that is what it takes for me to be separated from these warmongering “tribes”, I?m ready to put up with a bit of waiting. As for my ?Special Alien? status. I wear it as a badge of honour.

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

3 thoughts on “The Undesirable Professor”

  1. I was wondering to see something from a person like you. now a days (may be since quite a long) travelling without an identity is climbing everest. i thought they are different with respected personals but after reading it, i felt good, whatever happened with me during my travel it was every usual, as i was really an alien to every where.
    again the visa thing… i am feeling happy (for me only) after knowing your case. now i can say, well its not that bad (as it happening) to get rejection letter even after having a full travel stipend and cost for following east to west coast of USA with cycle. i felt shitty seeing the lady was so peached to see me there. actually i could not say or show anything to her!!!

  2. On getting the taste of ‘demonocracy’ In US airport few years back the then Chief Minister of Madhya Prodesh,India commented,” USA is the most cowardly nation in the world. They are scared of an old man like me!” Are they stoneheaded also?

  3. I had similar experience in Houston airport about 5 years ago while I was coming to USA from Mexico after attending the World Congress of International Theatre Institute. When the immigration officer saw in my passport visas of Iran and Afghanistan, he sent me to that special room for interrogation. I told the interrogating officer that I went to Afganistan at the invitation of Unicef to participate in a presentation concerning my professional job in social communication. I went to Iran twice as the then Vice President of International Theatre Institute to participate in their Theatre Festival. Then he asked me the reasons of my visit to every country whose visa was in my passport, asked me to handover my wallet to him, saw each and every piece of paper or name card kept there. I tried to impress upon him that I first visited USA in 198o at the invitation of the US govt and my last visit was in the entourage of our Prime Minister who came to address the UN general assembly. But nothing changed his attitude. I was asked more or less the same questions twice by two different people during a period of two hours. I missed my connecting flight to New York and the officer asked me not to worry as I can avail the next flight. I never felt so humiliated in my life. Finally I was allowed to go after filling in another form with an istruction to report at certain counter while leaving US. Then I openly declared and wrote in the newspaper that I would never visit USA again to face such situation at this stage of my life.
    At the insistence of the US centre of International Theatre Institute of which I am the current worldwide President I reluctantly started to fill in the visa form and finally gave up. You have to list all your travels, all your residences, all your jobs throughout your life with dates addresses etc. Is it possible? God bless America!

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