I know it’s coming – the double-take at my face, the auxiliary taps on the keyboard, the indiscrete scribble on my boarding pass. I find myself thinking a familiar thought: thank God I came early.

On what seemed like a packed flight from London to Los Angeles – I was the only person pulled aside for “random additional security screening”.

A cursory glance around me tries to identify what it was about me that made me different. Was it the fact I was travelling alone? Nope, definitely some other lonely faces in the queue. Was is my tracksuit bottoms and snapback? Nope, plenty of other people who opted for comfort over aesthetics on this flight. I sighed. I know what it is. I’ve known all along. It’s the same thing it always is:

My name, Aatif Nawaz.

I smile politely as I’m told to raise my hands as a security officer wipes over them with a device that resembles a service station toothbrush. I wonder how many hands those bristles have touched. Mental note: wash hands at earliest opportunity.

Without looking up, the security officer asks, “What’s the purpose of your visit to LA?”

“Holiday,” I reply.

“Why LA?”

“Working on my tan,” I smile.

“Tan?” he smirks.

I know what the smirk was about. I don’t take the bait.

“Yes. It’s 40 degrees out there.”

He goes through my laptop bag, inspecting each item carefully. My laptop, my book, sequence of chargers, some chewing gum and stationary. The only moment that made me tense was when he flicked through the pages of my notebook.

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You see, somewhere near the middle was the outline of a comedy sketch about a Muslim man who gets stopped by airport security. This outline became the basis for a comedy sketch that featured in Muzlamic, a comedy show written by and starring myself and my good friend Ali Shahalom. Approximately 12 hours before this security official was messing with my pristine bag organisation structure, our show was broadcast on BBC Three.

Eventually, I was allowed the rejoin the queue to board. I put my earphones in and let the soothing sounds of Tupac Shakur get me back into a California Love state of mind. I tried my best to avoid letting the irony of what just happened consume my thoughts. And then I feel another tap on my shoulder.

“Excuse me … I saw you on TV yesterday. You were really funny.”

I smiled and thanked my fellow traveller for their kind words. I’m still at the entry point of fame, where such encounters are exhilarating rather than irritating.

“Oh my God, did you just get stopped by airport security? Like in your show?”

“I did.”

“So it really does happen?”

“It does.”

We take a sequence of selfies and I take my economy class seat, ready for the 11-hour flight ahead. As Tupac continued posthumously to warn me of the ills of LA, I decide to open my notebook and make a list of how many times I could remember having been stopped at airport security. After nine, I close my notebook and decide it’s a fruitless endeavour. In the modern day, being stopped at airports is a cross Muslims have to bear. We must pay the price for widespread prejudice in a climate of fear and distrust.

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It doesn’t really bother me. I mean, I have nothing to hide. And I’m usually travelling alone, so it doesn’t cause me much inconvenience. But that doesn’t make it right, does it? And the relentlessness of it – and in my own country: it grates after a while.

The words keep ringing in my head: “So it really does happen?”

It must sound unbelievable to some. But it happens all too often.

If an official wanted to invoke schedule 7 and detain me at the airport, surely a quick Google of my name would clear things up – at least, I’d like to think so. But there are many, many innocent, suspicion-less, law-abiding Muslims who have no such luxury. Pushed and prodded, it can be difficult to remain patient and go the extra mile to be compliant. Especially if this is a process that repeats itself over and over and over again.

The human rights group Cage has highlighted the structural Islamophobia of the detention of Muslims in airports and ports – and lodged a complaint with the policing regulator, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, over a number of cases. Sadly, it seems there is no end to this vicious circle of discriminatory practices.

What else can one do? In Muzlamic, our Muslim travellers arrived at the airport one day prior to their flight leaving. I hope and pray this remains comic exaggeration rather than a preview of a dystopian future.

Aatif Nawaz is a standup comedian and actor, and writer of Muzlamic on BBC Three



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