The disembodied lady makes an announcement. ‘Passengers on the BA 292 flight to Baltimore, please make your way to the boarding gate.’
I’ve come with my most non-threatening scarf, pale pink with paisley print. It’s not good enough. ‘Irfan’ is announced on the loudspeaker. I feel special. The disembodied voice knows who I am.
It’s not difficult to understand my luck when it comes to random searches; I have quite the intimidating physique. The TSA agent sizes up all 5 foot 3 inches of me and his lip starts to tremble. My burly, brawny, never-won-an-arm-wrestle-in-my-life frame is a curse — I can’t help it. I’m 120 pounds of pure beef, coupled with a whistle-register voice so high-pitched that only dogs can hear me. I’d like to think the only reason I live my life in long sleeves is so that people won’t feel threatened by these guns, though the United States does give me the right to bare arms (and the right to cover them, too). To be frank, I strike fear into the hearts of men. Take my word for it.
My phone appears to be testing positive for explosives. This is not ideal.
Unscathed after the searching, the swabbing and the false positive that almost gave me a heart attack, I can finally breathe. Apparently hand sanitisers, soaps and lotions can trigger false positives, presumably because terrorists love being scented like vanilla and cinnamon. It’s not until I arrive in the hotel room that I notice that my TSA lock has been whisked away by terrorist-catching sprites. Unbeknownst to me, my suitcase was searched at some point, though the most subversive thing in there was poor old Dostoevsky. In fact, the worst atrocity I committed at the airport was probably when the man checking my boarding pass told me to ‘have a great flight’ and I responded ‘you too’, an exchange that will definitely not haunt my every waking moment for as long as we both shall live.
Clearly my scarf didn’t look innocuous enough. I amp it up a little for the visit to the Pentagon the day after. Needs more glitter. I opt for a sparkly maroon ensemble (unless maroon represents the blood of innocents, in which case I’m done for).
As we spend the next few days exploring beautiful Washington DC, I notice that this is a place filled with contradictions. Here lies a ‘temple of freedom’ built by enslaved hands. Homeless people sleep over the grates that pump up warm air to keep themselves warm in winter, resting at the foot of splendid buildings among the marble pillars and the rampant inequality. A new friend, a British Nigerian girl, notices that black people disproportionately work as employees in most of the stores we visit. To her, it represents a continuation of black people serving others, manifesting itself in the 21st century.
You also get the sense that this relatively new nation is desperately trying to forge an identity for itself, delicately constructing a heritage by appropriating classical elements in its artwork. The Apotheosis of Washington, a fresco depicting Washington as a Roman god in the Capitol building, was fascinating to look at. Somehow though, I just couldn’t see Maggie Thatcher being treated in the same way.
This place, birthed in the instability of revolution, still feels too fragile to mock. Its entire culture seems to be built on marketing slogans; buzzwords like ‘freedom’ and ‘veteran’ shut down conversation with startling efficiency. Americans really do take themselves seriously. I can’t help but giggle at the patriotic videos they show in the Capitol building — the Stars and Stripes undulating in slow motion against sunrise-stained skies, while Whoopie Goldberg’s smooth tones laud Congress as a place to ‘celebrate commonalities’ and accept ‘legitimate differences’ with grace and respect (the irony being that this is all during the government shutdown).
This is what democracy in full bloom looks like.