Could anyone wearing a Thomas the Tank Engine backpack want to blow up a train station?

The pale blue pages of my passport are littered with visa stamps, a testament to my many globetrotting adventures over the years. There are shiny silver holograms from the European Union, a red-white-and-blue U.S. visa, red-and-purple stickers from Malaysia, green ones from Turkey, Cambodia, and Chile, beige from Brazil, and orange from Australia.

I’ve always told myself that having a passport chockfull of weird and wonderful visa stamps is the upside of holding Indian citizenship.

The downside, of course, is the process of applying for those stamps.

The interminable queuing outside the consulate during predawn hours, the photocopying (in triplicate always for some reason) of bank statements, plane tickets, and hotel reservations as supporting documents for my application, the posing for unflattering passport photographs, and the not-always-polite questioning from consul staff convinced that I am either a potential illegal immigrant or an asylum seeker: They are part-and-parcel of what it means to be a citizen of a developing nation.

But I’ve never had a visa application rejected, and once I arrived in whichever country I was visiting, I always felt welcome. Complete strangers would tell me that I was the spitting image of Aishwarya Rai, India’s most famous model/actress and the 1994 Miss World, even though I don’t look anything like her. I was considered exotic or worldly, either of which I saw as a compliment, though of the two I preferred “worldly.”

But when I arrived in London a couple of months ago, I was also considered a potential terrorist suspect.

Mind the gap

I lived in Scotland for three years as a young child and I’ve visited the United Kingdom more than once since. And like most Indians, I have an inner Anglophile that peeps out whenever I’m in the British Isles rubbing shoulders with my colonial ex-masters. But as I wheeled my suitcase out of Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Three this July after flying in from New York City, I felt foreign for the first time.

On either side of me, at the customs checkpoints, I passed South Asian families who had been politely pulled aside by uniformed customs officers and asked to open their suitcases. All the families having their suitcases searched were Muslim. The skullcaps on the heads of the doddering old men, and the hijabs covering the heads of the young girls and their mothers, were a dead giveaway. They screamed MUSLIM from 10 meters away. In the same way that my outfit — a long-sleeved black t-shirt from the Gap, khaki capris from French Connection, and my hair uncovered and tied up in a sensible ponytail — screamed WORLDLY, I suppose. In any case, no customs officer asked me to step aside, and I left Heathrow as quickly as possible.

I suppose I should have been relieved that there was such heavy security at the airport. It was July 17 — just 10 days after the first round of terrorist attacks on the city — and it was clear that all possible measures were being taken to ensure the safety of residents.

But rather than feel safe, all I felt was fear. Not fear of being blown up by an Islamic fundamentalist, but of being questioned, harassed, and discriminated against by Londoners who might think I was one, simply because I was dark-skinned and carrying a backpack as I traversed the city streets, map and camera in hand.

Not just at the airport, but at tube and rail stations, in shopping centers, at London’s newest business district Canary Wharf, and at all the major tourist destinations, an overt police presence stood guard. I avoided them as far as possible, trying to act natural (whatever that means) whenever I saw them in the distance giving me the once-over. I would go through my tourist routine, taking photographs and stopping passersby (and on one occasion, a policeman) to ask for directions to the next nearest sightseeing attraction. I tried never to run, instead walking at a steady pace. (I would later learn in the aftermath of the shooting of Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes at London’s Stockwell tube station that even steady walking can get you shot eight times.) In the crowded corridors of an underground shopping mall, I came across a couple of young Muslim women being questioned by some British bobbies, an alarm ringing in the background. I scurried out of the place as quickly as I could.

In this way I managed to maintain a low profile for four days, but my luck finally ran out on July 21, when I arrived at London’s Stansted airport to fly to Porto in Portugal. I checked in for my flight and proceeded to the airport’s security checkpoint where I joined a long curving line of departing passengers — Irish football fans, young honeymooning couples, solo business travelers, and holidaying families — moving forward reasonably quickly. After a few minutes wait, it was my turn to place my backpack on the x-ray machine’s conveyor belt, and walk through the metal detector. No beeps or alarms sounded but the blond female security officer standing by the machine still blocked my path and asked me to raise my arms so she could pat me down — arms, torso, and legs.

“Just a random search, madam,” she told me, and then indicated that I show her the soles of my sneakers.

Random my foot, as they say in Britain. When I — the sole South Asian in the line — am stopped and searched, while all the white passengers in front of and behind me are allowed to step through without any obstacles, “random” has nothing to do with it.

If you see something, say something

The BBC reports that hate crimes against Muslims, South Asians, and Arabs in the United Kingdom increased by more than 600 percent in the immediate aftermath of July 7.

Your average jingoistic British street thug is not going to stop to ask if you’re Pakistani, or if that turban you wear means you’re Muslim, or if you have a bomb in your backpack before he calls you a “Paki” and tries to bash your head in.

That’s what happened to two South Asian men who were sitting in a parked car and minding their own business in Leith in Scotland in the middle of the day this August. Out of nowhere, a gang of youths surrounded the car and started kicking it, then threw a hammer right at the front windshield, injuring one of the men. Another South Asian man had his turban ripped off during an attack by two white teenagers in the middle of Edinburgh in late August.

I don’t expect any better from street thugs. But I did expect more from British civil servants.

I’m not trying to pretend that the men who orchestrated the July 7 and 21 attacks were not mainly of Pakistani origin, or that all of them weren’t Muslim. But allowing the actions of a dozen or so men to justify racial and religious discrimination — and that’s what profiling is — against the approximately 1.5 million Muslims living in the United Kingdom is just plain wrong, not to mention stupid.

Upon arriving in Porto, after waiting in another long line of arriving passengers, the immigration officer-in-charge asked me to show him my letter of invitation from my European hosts, documents certifying my student status in the United States, and the reservations for my return flight out of Portugal. My many visas did not impress him; he just wanted to know why I happened to be flying out of the United Kingdom the day there were four attempted bombings in Central London.

While being frisked in London by the blonde officer, I had been swallowed up by a silent, burning fury directed toward that particular representative of British airport security (and by extension, the British government itself) who saw me as a potential threat to their country’s safety for no other apparent reason than the color of my skin. But standing in the airport at Porto, when everyone else who had been on the plane with me had already been cleared and gone on to claim their bags and I was the only one still stuck at immigration, all I wanted to do was cry.

For the next 10 days, in Portugal and in Spain, I was treated with exceeding kindness and warmth by everyone I met. I was called ‘exotic’ all over again. One woman likened me to a young Sophia Loren. But the compliments didn’t make me feel as good as they used to.

“Quit focusing on the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes,” I wanted to tell them, thinking of Edward Said and his writings on how the West created the notion of Orientalism. In their own way, these good people were profiling, too. In their minds, BROWN SKIN = EXOTIC, and somehow that label now seemed to me almost as bad as BROWN SKIN = POTENTIAL TERRORIST.

The New York Metropolitan Transport Authority has launched a safety campaign with the tagline If You See Something, Say Something, encouraging commuters in subways and buses to report suspicious-looking behavior or unattended bags they notice. In the wake of the London bombings, an employee of one of the open-top double-decker tourist buses that ply New York City called the police about a group of South Asian men with British accents and backpacks on his bus. The bus was stopped in the middle of Times Square and the men were handcuffed, then made to kneel in the gutter while their bags were searched. Nothing suspicious was found in the backpacks and the men were released shortly afterwards. Once again, you can see those racial formulae at work: BROWN SKIN + BACKPACK = DEFINITE TERRORIST.

Until things start to improve, I’m using an over-the-shoulder messenger bag whenever I take the subway in New York. I am also relinquishing my quasi-Brit status; I have lost the desire to continue visiting the country of my colonial ex-masters. And the next time anyone calls me “exotic,” I’m going to tell her that if she has to label me, I prefer to be considered “worldly.”

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