date night, take two.

A few nights ago, Mr. Mostafa called me and said, “Would you like to go on a date with me?”

Of course, I wanted to. We hadn’t been on a date in forever, not since the last time we tried it. Parenthood, it seems, had effectively put the kibosh on our dating life. So as excited as I was at the prospect of an evening of good food and adult conversation without having to worry about Lavender flinging cracker crumbs all over the restaurant floor as “Old McDonald Had A Farm” played on an iPhone somewhere in the middle of it all, I was hesitant to try it again, lest it spiral into the disaster that was our attempt to see Last Vegas.

But Mr. Mostafa had received a special invitation to experience Nozomi, a new Japanese restaurant, originally launched  in London, which is just opening in Riyadh. On the night of our reservation, the restaurant actually hadn’t opened yet, and the menu was still in development. But we decided we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to give it a try.

On the night of our date, I savored getting ready–drying my hair, putting on my makeup. In honor of the occasion, I borrowed my mother-in-law’s fanciest abaya and sprayed on some Chanel 22, which I adore but tend to save for special occasions (it’s one of my absolute favorite scents, an appreciation handed down to me by my momma). Mr. Mostafa styled his shmagh impeccably and put on his best Mont Blanc cufflinks.

We were ready.

We kissed Lavender, who seemed to be totally indifferent to us since she was hanging out with her grandmother and auntie, and we headed out the door to visit Nozomi, which is located in the ground floor of a new building on Dabab Street.

nozomi 750x562 date night, take two.

It has a pretty, well-designed exterior, very modern.

nozomi 2 750x562 date night, take two.

Once inside, what I first noticed were the awesome decorations that adorned the ceiling over the reservation desk.

nozomi 3 750x562 date night, take two.

These were also above the tables along the left wall of the restaurant. I don’t know why, but I love them.

Here’s our table…before the feast ensued.

nozomi 11 750x999 date night, take two.

Our waiter, who attended to us throughout the entire meal, welcomed us to Nozomi and explained that we were welcome to look at the menu and choose our dishes, or we could let him choose for us.

We decided to live dangerously and leave it up to him. He asked us a few questions–such as “What kind of meat do you like? Chicken, steak?” and “Do you like sushi?”–and then left to the kitchen.

One thing I can absolutely say for Nozomi is that the service is excellent. One of the more common (First World) problems in Riyadh is that the service in restaurants has the potential to be pretty bad. You can order a croissant for breakfast and you’ll have to remind the waiter of your order three times before it will make it to the table, even when you’re the only patrons in the restaurant. Not so at Nozomi. Our waiters were just wonderful–friendly, attentive, and helpful. My water glass was never less than half full.

The first thing our waiter brought us was a bowl of spiced edamame, which was delicious. Mr. Mostafa had never tried edamame. I had, but I had certainly never had edamame cooked so perfectly! As we snacked on the edamame, we also tried two of the Nozomi cocktails–Mr. Mostafa’s was mostly citrus and mine was primarily berries. Both were divine.

After that, our waiter started bringing out plates and plates of food. We were immediately impressed.

nozomi 7 750x562 date night, take two.

The maki was delicious! See the bowl in the background, to the left? That’s (our second bowl of) the spiced edamame that we were so crazy about. And in the background on the right is what was left of our California roll, which was brought out before this dish. It was literally the best California roll I’ve ever had in my life. (Sorry, Sushi Yoshi. I love you, and we’re still involved. But Nozomi’s California roll beats yours.)

And then…then came a very new experience for both Mr. Mostafa and me.

magsalat sayarat 6 750x562 date night, take two.

Foie gras. Now, if you’re not familiar with what foie gras is and why it’s controversial, you can Google it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

I knew what foie gras was, but I had never tried it. Mr. Mostafa had never heard of it, nor tried it. So we both gave it a go. I’m sure that if foie gras is your thing, Nozomi’s is top notch. But neither of us really appreciated it. Something about the texture. Still, at least now we can say we’ve tried beautifully prepared foie gras!

The plates just kept coming and coming, and we were amazed by the spread. Then our waiter brought out our first main dish.

What…? We had no clue that our first table full of dishes was just the appetizers. But based on the deliciousness of the appetizers, we were happy to dig into the main dishes! And of course, we weren’t disappointed.

One thing you should know about Nozomi is that all of the dishes are meant to be shared. So in theory, you could order one particular thing and eat it on your own, but the concept is that you order in collaboration with the other people at your table, and you all try everything. I have to say, it’s a pretty fantastic way to eat (not to mention, it also fits nicely into culturally Saudi eating habits, as anyone who has sat around a community tibsi piled high with kabsa can attest).

But anyway, on to the food!

nozomi 8 750x562 date night, take two.

Lamb ribs. Cooked just impeccably, and paired with a great sauce.

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Fish and chips! I guess since Nozomi is originally a London-based restaurant, the menu does have some English flavors. The fish was good, but not really spectacular. The chips, though…wow. Saleh and I were both bowled over by the perfect texture and seasoning of those potatoes. They were so good that Saleh called our waiter over just to ask if, in the future, it would be possible to make a big order of just the chips. Our waiter assured us that yes, the chips alone would be on the final menu.

magsalat sayarat 9 750x562 date night, take two.

This is beef bulgogi. See that bowl of green stuff right there? I mean, like, really, really green? It’s potatoes. Green onion mashed potatoes. And let me tell you…it’s mashed potato perfection.

But the best part of this dish was not the potatoes. No, the best part was…well, the beef bulgogi. Cooked just right. Tender. Juicy. And the flavors were set off by the flakes of sea salt sprinkled over the beef. Oh, it was just heavenly.

I didn’t even take pictures of all the dishes we were brought; these were just a few. At the end of the meal, our waiter asked us if we would like a light dessert. Of course, why would we say no?

While Mr. Mostafa and I were waiting for our dessert, we discussed the food and the ambiance and the decor, all of which were wonderful. Nozomi feels different than other restaurants in Riyadh for one crucial reason–it has music playing, which (as I think I’ve mentioned earlier) is unusual for a restaurant in Riyadh, so as not to draw the ire of the muttawa (many conservative Muslims consider music to be haram). So a restaurant that has music playing is a rare find here. Saleh had some questions about that and other things, so we asked to speak to the manager. He came to our table within a minute.

The manager is from Spain (according to Mr. Mostafa), and he was a very nice guy. We told him how much we loved the food, and we asked if they intended to keep the music. He assured us that yes, it was their goal to keep the music on as much as possible in order to maintain the ambiance, although of course, they were willing to adjust the music as necessary to make the patrons comfortable.

“Would you like me to turn it down?” he asked us.

“No, no!” we laughed, assuring him that it was one of the things we appreciated most about Nozomi.

We also asked him if there would be partitions available once the restaurant opened officially; at that moment, there were none set up, even though there were a few other families eating. Of course, we don’t mind partitions–it is Riyadh, after all, and sometimes they come in handy, especially with a little one. But we had to admit that the family section’s lack of partitions–and small, closed-off rooms–really made it feel like we were not only on a real date, but also on a vacation outside of Saudi Arabia.

nozomi 5 750x562 date night, take two.

“Yes, we have them,” the manager said, nodding. He pointed toward the front of the room, where we could see partitions lined up, ready for use. They matched the square pattern of the lamp in the left side of the photo. He told us that they designed the partitions to fit into the decor as smoothly as possible. He was so nice. Heck, everyone was!

As we chatted with the manager, our waiter brought us a dish with three scoops of homemade ice cream–one coconut, one strawberry, and one chocolate. “I’ll let you enjoy your ice cream,” the manager said with a smile, and then we did just that.

In case you couldn’t tell, we had a fantastic time at Nozomi. We so needed a real date, and we were thrilled with how wonderful this one was! When we got home, Lavender was sleepy, calm, and happy to see us.

Perfect night. Thanks, Nozomi.

nozomi 4 750x562 date night, take two.

a history lesson.

If you went to school in America, you learned about Germany, the Nazis, World War II, and the Holocaust. We know these historical events intimately. Our textbooks are filled with haunting images of prisoners in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau. Even in flyover small-town southern Missouri, where the vast majority of us grew up having never even met a Jewish person, we knew that during World War II, Jewish people suffered in ways that words can’t fully describe.

I read Anne Frank’s diary multiple times and I bawled like a baby each time. I still have my worn, beloved copy; it’s here with me in Riyadh and I hope Lavender will read it and value it someday as much as I do. I want to visit Amsterdam someday just so I can go to the Anne Frank house and pay my respects to one of the few dear friends I came to know in a book that actually existed, actually lived, and was actually stolen from the world.

In school, we learn a bit about how Hitler came to power, but it’s significantly glossed over in comparison to the actual war, as is World War I. But when it comes to explaining how there came a point where Allied forces found themselves discovering rooms filled to the ceilings with the shoes of murdered Jewish people, our education is (or at least, was) woefully incomplete. We just know it happened…and never again. Because of course. We don’t need to know how it came to pass in order to be convicted that it should never, ever happen again.

But World War I is inextricably linked to the rise of the Nazi party. World War I absolutely decimated the German economy (as commonly happens to a country on the losing end of a war). The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, required Germany to pay heavy reparations to countries it had fought against, in addition to making Germany admit that they had been at fault for starting the war. Germany had to give up large chunks of land, and its military was almost completely dismantled. The German economy was so poor that only a fraction of the required reparations were actually made, but even those payments were a heavy burden. After the Treaty of Versailles had been signed by Germany, President Woodrow Wilson announced, “At last, the world knows America as the savior of the world!”

Naturally, the Treaty of Versailles was not a popular document with your average German. Inflation was at ridiculous levels. Jobs were scarce. It was in this environment that Adolf Hitler began his rise to power as a member of a small fringe political group, known as the German Workers’ Party. He attempted a takeover of the German government in 1923, an event known as the Beer Hall Putsch. Multiple people were killed in the attempt; Hitler was arrested, tried for treason, and sentenced to five years in prison. He only served nine months, though, and during his time in prison, he wrote Mein Kampf and he honed his platform and his propaganda strategies.

Once released, he rose to power by playing on the average Germans’ soft spots. He constantly reminded them about the great history of Germany, and he promised that under his reign, the glory of the German people would be restored. He promised prosperity. He promised respect. He drew your average, everyday German who just wanted to feed his family and live his life into the Hitler vortex of crazy, by fostering a sense of collective pride in the culture and characteristics shared by many Germans. And as a result, most people rallied behind him–or at least, didn’t actively oppose him.

But even though Hitler claimed to be building a world empire based on this concept of the perfect “Aryan” race, there were plenty of Aryans who were fighting against him—namely, from the United States, France, and Britain, among other places. These were people who could have easily joined Hitler in the Aryan fight, if they had chosen to do so, but instead, they opposed him, many of them sacrificing their lives in the process.

Does any of this sound familiar? Like history repeating itself? Because it totally should.

The Iraqi and Syrian infrastructures were both decimated by war—in Syria, there was a revolution and subsequent (and ongoing) civil war, with American officials throwing their support behind revolutionaries that would later go on to spawn ISIS. And in Iraq…well, any American over the age of 18 knows what happened there. Whether or not we want to admit it, we Americans created the Iraqi power vacuum that gave rise to ISIS. And when that power vacuum collided with Syria’s…well, it was what folks call a “perfect storm” (except, of course, “perfect” actually means “stunningly horrible and destructive”). The same thing happened in Afghanistan and gave rise to the Taliban. Have you ever seen the movie Charlie Wilson’s War? There’s this perfect line where Charlie Wilson (played by Tom Hanks) says, “We go in there with our ideals and we change the world, and then we leave. We always leave. But that ball…it keeps on bouncing.”

That’s exactly what we did with Iraq. We went in, essentially tore down what established infrastructure they had, and then we left. And what we left behind was a power vacuum for crazies. Of course, it’s not entirely that simple (if you want to read more about how America was involved in breeding ISIS, you can do so here and here), but that’s the short story.

I don’t know exactly what ISIS is doing in their captured territories. I do know that if the mainstream media’s treatment of Saudi Arabia is any indication of how seriously they approach fact checking their information (and offering retractions and/or clarifications when they get it wrong), it’s safe to believe about half of what is widely reported. But even that half is bad enough, and ISIS is certainly a bloody mess to whose cleanup America is obligated to contribute.

But the difference between World War II and now is that back then, no one really worried about blonde, blue-eyed Americans, even those of German descent and/or with German last names, joining up with the Nazis. Of course, Japanese-Americans were another story; they were deemed suspicious. (Just ask George Takei.) Japanese people were easily identifiable (as many Muslims also are by virtue of our clothing choices…but, contrary to stereotype, this is not always the case. In fact, many, many Muslim women don’t wear a headscarf, just as many, many Muslim men don’t wear long beards), and so they were rounded up and made to live in internment camps for the duration of the war, even though there was no reason to suspect that they were in any way disloyal to the United States.

But Germans? Nah. No one worried about them, even though there were quite a number of Nazi sympathizers in the States (in fact, there’s actually an abandoned compound in Los Angeles that they set up to welcome Hitler to America. Not even kidding. You can visit it if you are so inclined). And in the end, the American government issued an apology for having essentially imprisoned all Japanese Americans during the war, because we had to admit that it was totally, indisputably wrong, nor did it even help the war effort or make our country safer. It was just…racism.

So, naïve as it may be, I just don’t get why so many people are unwilling to believe that these “Islamic State” nutjobs don’t in any way represent the tremendously vast majority of Muslims around the world. If you’ve never feared that your blonde, blue-eyed relatives are going to be radicalized by right-wing Aryan extremists (which, if you’re an American hoping to eliminate terrorism, as we all are, that actually should be a concern), why would you suspect Muslims everywhere are just ripe for the ideological pickin’ for this extremist movement? ISIS is doing the exact same thing that the Nazis did during their rise to power. They are playing on the soft spots of your average Iraqi and Syrian, reminding them of the glorious history of Islamic empire and promising them stability and prosperity–education, medical care, jobs–in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the people, even as they are being opposed and actively fought by other Muslims, just as many, many other “Aryans” fought the Nazis and their evil, genocidal empire.

Islam is just the shared characteristic that ISIS uses in their attempt to unify the people and rally them to their cause, just as Hitler used the history and widely shared characteristics of Germans in order to build support for his own regime. If the resources and power were up for grabs in a land where Christianity was the dominant religion, then this group would consist of Christian terrorists, and they would be claiming to follow their true religion as they obeyed brutally violent, context-stripped, cherry-picked verses from a holy book. If ISIS was operating in a land of mostly unreligious people, they would still find common characteristics to crow about as a means of bolstering their brutal power grab. Just like Hitler did.

I understand that it may be convenient to attribute the violence to Islam–after all, that’s exactly what ISIS is telling you, so why should you believe otherwise? And Islamophobia is a booming business. But Americans, Brits, and other “Aryans” outside of Germany didn’t believe Hitler when he said that he fought for “truth and justice” because he called himself a Christian, nor did they jump in lockstep behind him because he claimed his atrocities were Jesus-approved. So why do we believe ISIS about the source of their ideology?

For anyone who lives in a Muslim family, or is actually willing to listen, get to know, and embrace their Muslim neighbors, it’s obvious: ISIS isn’t about religion. ISIS is about power, money, and control of lucrative resources (and they’re certainly not the first to wage war in Iraq for those reasons under lofty ideological pretenses).

So please, do me a solid and keep these comparisons in mind. When you’re tempted to ask, “Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against ISIS?”, please know that they are. The question that you should be asking yourself is not, “Why don’t more Muslims oppose ISIS?”, but rather, why don’t most mainstream media outlets find it relevant to amplify the vast multitude of voices that do?

I’ve said it before: go talk to a Muslim. Invite a Muslim to dinner at your house. Listen, learn, and teach one another. Hug a Muslim, ya’ll. Make the world a better place. Please. If not me, then for my kid. She’s really cute…and even though she hates being buckled into her car seat, she totally knows where her tummy is.

minaret 750x500 a history lesson.

just say yes to the border patrol.

In about a month, Mr. Mostafa, Lavender, and I are flying back to the States for our yearly visit. We are so excited. I miss my family and friends so much, and there will be much snuggling with my dogs (not to mention driving and assorted other perks of American life). This is the time when we start packing, tossing things here and there into an open suitcase on a bedroom floor. This is also the time when Saleh and I start expressing worry to one another about going through border patrol and customs, even though the last time we entered the United States, it went completely smoothly–everyone was nice as pie, and we made our connecting flight with plenty of time to spare. Thus far, that’s always how it goes–in fact, I’ve never had a negative experience in customs in an airport. But we’ve both had a pretty negative experience with border patrol agents, and that was enough to make us nervous every time we have to encounter them.

See, a little over five years ago, Mr. Mostafa and I decided to take a road trip. It was after Christmas and we both had a few weeks before classes started up again. So we planned out a trip to the west coast and back, hitting a bunch of major sights along the way.

We had an amazing time. We drove through Oklahoma and northern Texas, through New Mexico and Arizona, to the Grand Canyon. Then we drove up, over the Hoover Dam, and into Las Vegas, where we spent one night at the Bellagio and walked the Strip, where I had to convince Mr. Mostafa that it would actually not be funny at all to go to Caesar’s Palace and ask, “Did Caesar live here?” After that, we drove up through Nevada and spent a night in Reno, where we visited the National Automobile Museum. Next, we drove west through Lake Tahoe and Sacramento, into San Francisco, where we rode the cable cars as much as possible, took a boat ride around the Bay, and went ice skating in Union Square. Then we drove down the coast to Los Angeles, where we visited the Griffith Observatory and stayed at the Queen Mary in Long Beach.

And then we headed back toward Missouri. On the way, we drove through the extreme southwestern part of the country, through the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, and we planned to take our final two sightseeing stops in Texas, in San Antonio and Dallas. Mr. Mostafa was so excited to spend some time in Texas. He even wore his cowboy hat for the occasion of driving into Texas (although he took it off shortly afterward because it kept bumping on the roof of the car. A cowboy needs a truck for many reasons, ya’ll).

cowboy just say yes to the border patrol.

And he had to stop at the Texas state line to take a picture of the sign.

texas just say yes to the border patrol.

But it was on our way to San Antonio that we ran into trouble. I actually wrote out this whole story shortly after we got back to Missouri, so I wouldn’t forget any of the details. So…here we go.

At one point, in Arizona, we came to a border checkpoint. Now, I should mention that none of the border checkpoints we got stopped at were actually at the border. At no point did we try to cross into Mexico. But the border patrol had stops set up along the major highways, presumably to catch drug smugglers and undocumented immigrants.

I was driving. As I pulled the car to a stop at the checkpoint, a border patrol officer came up to the driver’s side window. At the same time, another officer led a drug-sniffing dog around car. As the dog sniffed, the officer at the window asked me, “Both United States citizens?”

Saleh is not a United States citizen. He was in the country legally, of course, on a student visa. But US citizen he is not. However, I wasn’t thinking. I just wanted to keep going. We were in the middle of the desert, with no civilization in sight, and the fuel light had just come on. In Arizona, no less, which has the well-earned reputation of not being the greatest place in the world to get stopped if you’re not an American citizen (or if you’re an American citizen who is brown and/or has an accent that indicates that English is not your first language). So when the officer asked if we were both United States citizens, I said, “Yes, sir.”

By then, I guess the dog had confirmed that we weren’t hiding a pound of pot in the trunk, because he and his officer had moved on to the car behind us. I’m white as a china plate, and Mr. Mostafa is pretty white, too. My English is native. We had passed inspection. The officer at my window said nothing, just stepped back and waved us on.

As we continued driving, Saleh was silent for about a minute before he said to me, “I’m not a citizen.”

“Oh!” I said, realizing what I had done. But to be honest, the unintentional little white lie didn’t weigh on my conscience. I’m a citizen, and Saleh was in the country legally, and I was just glad we had made it through. This checkpoint in Arizona was little more than a couple of border patrol SUVs, a few officers, and a couple of dogs, and I don’t want to think about where they would have taken us had we been detained at that checkpoint.

We were fine until the next day, when we headed toward Texas. We left Las Cruces, New Mexico that morning and set out for an extremely long day of driving, aiming to reach San Antonio by 8 o’clock or so that evening. The plan was to get to our hotel, check in, relax a little, and then have dinner on the Riverwalk. A nice plan, right?

Damn Texas.

There is a border checkpoint at Sierra Blanca, Texas, on I-10. It’s a lot more permanent than the checkpoint we encountered in Arizona; at Sierra Blanca, there are huge carport-like structures that cover the highways, and in between the highways there is a big building; a permanent border patrol station. This time, Saleh was driving, and I was pleasantly immersed in a book on my Kindle. At first, the routine was exactly the same as Arizona; one border patrol officer at the window, another leading a drug-sniffing dog around the car, the same question, “Both United States citizens?”

After the Arizona checkpoint, Saleh had told me that he felt guilty. “I’m proud of my country,” he had said. “I love the US, but it feels like I was rejecting being Saudi by letting him think I’m American.” But I guess by the time we got to Sierra Blanca, Saleh’s nagging conscience had been silenced by the thought of the barbecued beef brisket waiting for him on the Riverwalk in San Antonio, because when this officer asked him that question, he said, “Yup.”

But, although his English is excellent, Mr. Mostafa does have a nonnative accent. Even that tiny “yup” was discernible to the officer as nonnative speech. I could almost literally see the officer’s ears prick up, like a cat’s when it hears a can of food being opened. The officer asked again, this time more sternly, “Sir, are you both American citizens?”

Saleh fessed up. “No, I’m not. She is”—he pointed to me—“but I’m not.”

“Sir, I need you to pull your car over to the right and park it. I’ll need to see your license and registration.”

He did as the officer told him. We parked the car, dug out the license and registration, and waited.

The officer sauntered over to the car a few minutes later, as if just trying to take as long as he possibly could. When he arrived at the window, he said, “Okay, sir, let me see that paperwork.”

Saleh handed it to him.

The officer said, “So, you’re not a US citizen. Why are you here?”

“I’m a student.”

“So what paperwork do you have that shows you’re here legally?”

Saleh was flustered. “Uh, I don’t have my paperwork with me.”

“Well, where is it?”

“In my nightstand drawer.”

“Why is it there?”

“Because I didn’t think I would need it just traveling state-to-state.”

“You need to have that paperwork with you at all times.”

“I…uh, I didn’t know that.”

“I need both of you to get out of the car and come with me.”

We did. I walked to the right of Mr. Mostafa, and the officer walked to the left, hand slightly extended, as if prepared to grab Saleh should he decide to break away and run. The thought of him doing this made me laugh a little in my head; it was as likely as Saleh dancing on a table in a clown suit. The damage to his dignity would have been exactly the same in either situation.

We were escorted into the station. To my left, a long green bench sat against the wall, running almost the entire length of the wall. Handcuffs were bolted to the green bench every few feet or so, and officers’ desks sat facing the bench. At the third desk, three young men sat on the bench, each handcuffed to it. All of them looked scared. One of them had obviously been crying.

“Good Lord,” I thought. “What have we gotten ourselves into?”

I was worried that the officer would handcuff us to the bench, but luckily, he didn’t. “Sit there,” he said to us, motioning to the space on the bench in front of the first desk. We did. He sat at the desk.

“Now,” said the officer curtly, picking up a pen from the cup on the desk, “What country are you from?”

Saleh answered. As the officer scrawled down this information, the crying kid on the bench a few feet down from us lit up a little bit. I noticed the passports on the desk in front of the three handcuffed men; all green, identical to Saleh’s, which was sitting safely at home in his nightstand drawer. These three guys were Saudis, too. Apparently they had known enough to not go road tripping without their passports, but it didn’t seem to be doing them a lot of good.

Salaam alaykum,” the kid said to Saleh. I’m sure he felt a little soothed knowing that there was someone here who understood his language, someone else who understood the boat he was in.

Mr. Mostafa nodded at him and replied politely, “Walaykum asalaam,” then turned back to face our officer.

The officer’s face had darkened; he pointed his pen at us and snapped, “Don’t talk to him, got it?”

“Yeah,” Saleh replied.

The questions continued. “What’s your full name? What’s your birthday? Where do you live? What university do you attend? What degree are you working on? What’s your address in your country?”

Mr. Mostafa answered all of these questions easily. Then they started asking questions about his parents. “What’s your dad’s full name?”

Saleh answered.

“What’s your dad’s birthday?”

“Uh, I don’t know.”

The officer’s eyes narrowed. To him, this was suspicious. “You don’t know your father’s birthday?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t.”

I wanted to explain that Saudi culture doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on birthdays, and therefore it is totally normal that he does not know his parents’ birthdays. Heck, he didn’t even know his own birthday until he had to ask his mom for that information to register for college. But I kept my mouth shut.

The officer decided to move on. “What’s your mom’s full name?”

Again, he answered easily.

“Any brothers or sisters?”

“One brother, one sister.”

“Full names?”

Saleh provided the names.

The officer paused. He scratched his head with his pen. “Wait,” he said. “Your sister’s middle name is Mohammed?”

Saleh was getting frustrated, understandably. “Yes,” he said in a slightly annoyed voice.

I wanted to explain that in Saudi culture, all children, regardless of their sex, are given two middle names; the first name of their father, and the first name of their father’s father. But again, I kept my mouth shut. I couldn’t help but wonder at the lack of cultural literacy that these border patrol officers were displaying. I mean, they had three other guys from Saudi Arabia handcuffed to a bench. Surely they encounter Saudis (not to mention other Arabs) frequently; Saudi Arabia sends thousands of students to study in the States every year. I hear a lot of arguments that the reason why border control is such an important issue is because it keeps terrorists out. Well, I know that many Americans automatically think “Terrorist!” when they hear “Saudi Arabia,” so you’d think that these border patrol officers would have at least a little bit of cultural training, so that they wouldn’t be shocked or suspicious every time an Arab comes through the border patrol station not knowing his mother’s birthday.

Two desks down, in front of the three handcuffed men, the officer at that desk asked, “What? I’m confused. Your mom’s middle name is Mohammed, too?”

I giggled a little bit. The officer in front of us scowled at me, looked over at the other officer who had asked that question, then got up and left. We sat on the bench for a few minutes. Since we had nothing else to do, we listened in on the conversation going on a few desks down.

“Where are you guys going?” the officer asked the men.

“Back to school,” the crying kid said. “To the University of Alabama. We are students there.”

“And why are you driving through Texas?”

“It’s winter break. We wanted to see some cities. We went to Las Vegas and Los Angeles.”

For the first time, I really looked around the room I was sitting in. There were officers outside, of course, and there were a few officers at desks in front of the green handcuff-festooned bench. But mostly, the room was filled with officers who didn’t look like they were doing much. As time went on, they switched off on outside duty, but when they weren’t holding a drug-sniffing dog’s leash or asking drivers if they were United States citizens, they were sitting around at a huge table in the middle of the room, joking around with each other and laughing uproariously, as if they were trying to show us just how much fun they were having being border patrol officers, and that it was just such a shame that we were on the wrong side of the law, because that meant we couldn’t have fun like them.

Except that Saleh and I were not on the wrong side of the law. We were just being treated like we were.

On the opposite wall was a long narrow table. I noticed on that table were several scales. One of the scales held a small plastic bag containing what appeared to be a small amount of pot. Suddenly, I understood why the three young men were handcuffed.

I nudged Mr. Mostafa and nodded toward the scales. “I don’t think they’ll make it back to Alabama. Looks like our friends had a little too much fun in Vegas.”

He saw what I was talking about, then shook his head and said, “Kids.”

Another officer came and sat down in front of us and started asking Saleh the exact same questions as before. He answered them all, although he got the same weird look whenever he told the officer his sister’s full name. Finally, the officer leaned back in his chair. I suspect he had the urge to put his feet up on the desk and cross his arms behind his head in that classic police “I got you right where I want you” pose, and he probably would have if he hadn’t known it would have made him look like a total douche. He said, “So if you’re here legally, why don’t you have your paperwork with you?”

Saleh answered, “I’m just traveling from state to state. I didn’t think I would need it.”

The officer said, “What made you think that?”

I could tell that Saleh was becoming irritated; the way the officer was speaking to him as though he were an idiot was grating on my nerves, as well. “Well, when I got here, the International Student Services office at my university told us that we needed to have the paperwork with us if we left the country for any reason, so that we could re-enter. But they didn’t say anything about state-to-state travel. They told us that if we weren’t traveling outside the country, we needed to keep the paperwork in a safe place, not on us.”

“Well, your university’s wrong. You have to have that paperwork at all times.”

I couldn’t help but think, “What a crock. That’s not true.” But I kept quiet. I kept pretty quiet throughout the whole ordeal, actually, because the border patrol officers didn’t talk to me at all. I didn’t seem to cause them any concern whatsoever. This was before I converted to Islam and wore hijab, so to them I was just an average American white girl. I could have been in the States illegally, even though I’m pale and my English is native. Heck, I could have been an American citizen serial killer wanted in twelve states, but these officers didn’t seem to care about that. I think they were all just hoping that they’d caught themselves a big fat terrorist fish. Keep in mind, this all happened a couple of weeks after that Nigerian guy lit his crotch on fire on a plane landing in Detroit, so these officers were likely–and understandably–in a state of hyper-awareness when it came to terrorism. But it seemed to me that if they were going to engage in profiling, that was all the more reason for them to at least have some cultural training.

Meanwhile, Saleh replied, “I don’t think that’s true. Besides, I thought my driver’s license would serve as identification when I’m traveling in the States. I had to present all that paperwork, plus a letter from my embassy and a letter from my university, in order to get that license.”

“Yeah, but how are those people at the license office supposed to know whether or not those documents are fake? They don’t have the training to recognize fake documents. No, you have to have all your paperwork with you at all times.”

I wanted to say, “Well, then it seems like you’re all in the same woefully undertrained boat.” But I didn’t.

The officer asked Mr. Mostafa, “Is there any way you can get that paperwork faxed to us? Is it at your house? Does anyone else have a key to your house?”

Saleh replied, “Well, I can call my friend. He lives in the same apartment complex; maybe he can get the front office to let him into the apartment and then fax me the paperwork from the office.”

“Okay, try that. Do you have any other identification on you?”

Saleh took out his wallet and handed the officer his university ID and his ID card from his embassy. The officer got on the phone and started making calls, getting reports from the state and from the embassy. Saleh took his phone out of his pocket and dialed his friend’s number, as the officer had instructed.

Another officer approached us. “Sir, you need to hang up that phone right now,” he ordered Saleh, who looked confused.

“But he just told me to call my friend so he could—“

“Sir, you need to hang up that phone RIGHT NOW!” the officer repeated, almost shouting the last two words, his hand moving toward the nightstick on his belt.

“What the hell is going on here?” I thought. “This is insane!”

Saleh hung up, tossed his phone on the desk, and threw his hands up in frustration. The officer at the desk, who had told Saleh to make that phone call, was too busy to notice what had just happened, or maybe he didn’t want to contradict his fellow officer. Either way, he didn’t look up from the desk.

The officer at the desk finished his business and said, “We’re waiting to get some faxes from the university, from the state, and from the Department of Homeland Security. We can’t let you go until you’ve been cleared.” He got up and left.

We sat there on the green bench. I absentmindedly played with one of the handcuffs bolted to the bench. Officers came and uncuffed the three men sitting on the bench with us, and led them to a back room.

Awhile later, yet another officer came back to our desk. I was beginning to think that a requirement of being a border patrol officer was that you had to have some kind of attention deficit disorder, since none of them seemed to be able to focus on us for more than a few minutes. Each one that we interacted with would sit with us for a few minutes and then move on to other things, leaving other officers to deal with us as we sat waiting to be released.

This officer was carrying a stack of papers. He sat down at the desk. He asked Mr. Mostafa for his name and his country of origin. Again. Saleh complied.

The officer said, “Well, we got a lot of faxes on you. You clear at your university, and your background check is fine. Homeland Security says you’re here legally. So…I guess…” The officer didn’t seem to know what else to say, but he seemed reluctant to admit that maybe, just maybe, we weren’t criminals after all.

Yet another officer approached. He leaned on the desk and asked the other officer, “Did you talk to the big?”

Saleh and I looked at each other, confused. The sitting officer looked just as confused as we did. He said, “Uh…the big?”

The standing officer heaved a frustrated sigh and shook his head at his colleague. “The FBI, you idiot.” (I swear I am not making this up. Now that this experience is well behind me, there’s plenty I can find to laugh about it. But at the time, I was terrified.)

“Oh! Oh, no, I didn’t. Should I?”

“Well, yeah. You might want to give them a call and see if they’ve got anything on this guy.”

I wanted to point out that the officer at the desk hadn’t actually made any calls at all regarding our “case”; some other guy, who was now nowhere to be seen, had. But I didn’t. The officer at the desk looked up a number from a book in a drawer, painstakingly dialed it, identified himself to the person who answered, and requested a check on Mr. Mostafa, reading back his name and all of the numbers that the border patrol had collected to identify him. Throughout this whole experience, not one of them ever pronounced Saleh’s name correctly—or even the English approximation that comes closest to pronouncing his name correctly. That drove me crazy.

After the officer hung up with “the big,” he said, “Okay, so we’re just waiting for the FBI to get back to us.” Then he, too, got up and left.

I learned a lot of things that day, but one of the main things I learned is that the FBI is slow. Really, really slow. We sat there for what seemed like forever as officers came in and out of the building, some arriving with huge sandwiches that filled the big room with their yummy smell and made my stomach growl. Saleh and I were realizing how hungry we were. It had been a good seven hours since we had eaten breakfast, and we had come to this border patrol checkpoint right before we planned to stop for lunch. At one point, a female border patrol officer came in (the only one I encountered during this ordeal), sat down at the big table with her sandwich, jerked her head at Saleh and me, and asked her colleagues, “What are they in for?”

I wanted to speak up and say, “I could very well be here illegally, or I may have human body parts stuffed in a freezer somewhere, but I do speak English, so, you know, you could talk to me,” but I did not.

As we watched the officers eat, much the same way my dogs sit and stare at us sadly when we eat dinner, a man approached us from the other direction. He was wearing a dress shirt, khakis, and a tie, completely unlike the rest of the officers, who were all wearing uniforms similar to that of police. He was wearing some kind of badge around his neck.

He walked up to Saleh, and, with no introduction, said, “What’s your name?”

Saleh looked at him suspiciously, but he answered.

“And where are you from?”

I could tell Saleh was getting sick of answering the same questions over and over again, and I didn’t blame him one bit. I was suspicious, myself. I was wondering who the heck this guy was, where he had come from, and why he was dressed like this when the rest of the officers were in uniforms.

Saleh must have been thinking the same thing, because he said, “Who are you and why should I tell you anything?”

It was at this point that I realized that the officers at the table really had, to an extent, been putting on a show for us, and that they had all been paying attention to us, regardless of how indifferent they seemed, because the room went silent at Saleh’s rebuttal.

The plainclothes officer, or whatever he was, said, “I’m a border patrol officer. But c’mon, dude, you know who I am.”

“Uh, no, I don’t,” Saleh responded. “I’ve never seen you before. And I don’t know why I should have to tell you anything. Who are you?”

A few officers sauntered over, as if they sensed a situation that might need to be taken care of. The guy with the badge repeated, “I’m a border patrol officer. But c’mon, dude, you know that. There’s no need to act that way. I mean, it’s your right to ask, but c’mon, why would you?”

I could think of about a thousand reasons why, and I was relieved that someone had actually used the word “right” in this place, even if it was only to imply that someone should waive theirs. Because to be honest, in this place, “rights” seemed to be a concept as foreign as Mr. Mostafa, especially the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Saleh responded, “Fine, but I didn’t know that, and I’ve been asked these questions over and over again. Do you think the answers are going to change?” Finally, he rattled off his name, country, and parents’ names.

The plainclothes officer chuckled and said, “Okay, dude,” and walked away. Evidently only the cool border patrol officers who employed youthful slang were allowed to not wear a uniform and to have a badge around their necks.

After that officer walked away, a few of the others hung around the desk. “I have to pee,” Saleh said to them. “How much longer is this going to take?”

One of the officers came and escorted Saleh down a hallway at the back right of the room. When he got back, the officers at the desk had dispersed, apparently having decided that I wasn’t a security threat on my own. Saleh sat down and said, “There are jail cells back there. The three other guys are locked in cells. I had to pee in an open cell. That officer stood there and watched me.” He shook his head and put his head in his hands.

All I could think was, “Is this Texas or Guantanamo?”

We sat there a little while longer, when finally an officer sitting at the fax machine grabbed a paper off the machine, spun around in his chair, and announced, “We’ve got something from the big!”

About six officers, a couple of whom had spoken to us at the desk, converged at the fax machine and studied the printout. They took turns looking at us, and then looking back at the paper, as if just waiting for one of us to do something really bad so they would have something to put on this FBI report. Because it was clean. And they all looked sad about it. The Sierra Blanca border patrol checkpoint would not be on the national news that day for capturing a terrorist sought by the FBI.

One of the officers came back to us and said simply, “You’re free to go.” He motioned to one of the other officers and said, “Escort them out.”

I wanted to scream at them as I left. I had learned so much. This piece has gone on for far too long already, so I won’t enumerate all my lessons here, but I will say this. One, it doesn’t matter whether racial or linguistic profiling is legal, it is going to happen, no matter what…and when it does, rights are never sacrosanct. Technically, if someone says that he is a United States citizen (or if he exercises his right to refuse to answer the question at all), federal law requires that law enforcement officers take him at his word, and he must be afforded all of the rights of a U.S. citizen. So, when Saleh said, “Yup,” when the first officer asked if he was a United States citizen, he should have been allowed to pass once the dog had finished sniffing our car, even if it wasn’t technically true. But that wasn’t going to happen, because of his accent. Granted, he shouldn’t have lied about being a citizen in the first place. But he came clean immediately, and even if he hadn’t lied to begin with, we would have ended up in the same boat–stuck on the perp bench at the border checkpoint because he didn’t have his “papers.” The whole situation screams “profiling,” and it did nothing but make both of us forever after nervous about border crossings even though we should have nothing at all to be nervous about.

Two, apparently, a valid driver’s license is not sufficient proof to a law enforcement officer that someone is in the United States legally. Much fuss has been made in recent years about laws in border states that attempt to require all non-citizens to carry their immigration paperwork at all times; some conservative pundits have argued that these laws simply require people to carry their driver’s licenses with them, and is that really so much to ask? But again, in practice, a valid driver’s license may be considered insufficient to prove one’s legal status. If you don’t believe me, I hope that someday you travel to a foreign country legally and they stop you with just your driver’s license on you and you end up having to pee with a border patrol officer watching you.

Three, if you are on the run from the law for cooking meth in your basement or for beating the crap out of your wife or for kidnapping and killing a child, don’t worry; as long as you’re white and sound like a native English speaker and aren’t smuggling anything that a dog can sniff out, you’ll make it through the border patrol checkpoints just fine.

I could tell that the guy that had been assigned to escort us out was a good ol’ boy right away, the kind of guy that I went to high school with. He was tall, a little chubby, light-skinned, and bald, and he had a plug of chew stuck in his lip. Maybe it was because his demeanor reminded me so much of my brother, or maybe it was just because I was so hungry, but now that we were finally free, I let loose on him as he walked us across the highway back to our car. “Well, that took forever,” I said. “We’re starving and cranky and we just wanted to get to San Antonio for dinner. Four hours? You guys kept us there for four hours, violating our rights, just to act disappointed that you had no reason to keep us and throw us in jail?”

The officer looked truly apologetic, which threw me off guard a little bit. “I know, I’m sorry,” he said. He spit a stream of tobacco juice into the dirt. “They did keep ya’ll there forever. Hey, let me tell you something—the next time ya’ll come through here, when they ask you if you’re citizens, just say yes.”

I stared at him for a few seconds. Although I knew I had no reason to, I wanted to kick him. But of course, I didn’t. With as little sarcasm as I could muster, I said, “Thanks. That’s great advice.”

Mr. Mostafa and I got in the car. The driver’s side window was still rolled down from the initial stop. The officer leaned on the car and repeated to Saleh, “Seriously, man…just say yes next time. Just say yes when they ask.”

Saleh forced a smile and said, “Okay. Thank you.”

The officer said one more time, just for good measure: “Just say yes.” I started to wonder if this guy had been jamming out to Taylor Swift on his way to work this morning, or if he just had a lot of practice trying to get girls to do things they didn’t want to do. He tapped on the roof of the car as a final farewell, and waved us on.

We drove in silence for about a minute. Then Saleh let out a deep breath and said, “Just say yes, my ass.”