Too Close for Comfort

When the presidential debate rolls into Tempe next week, Yaser Alamoodi, a 27-year-old political science major from Saudi Arabia, almost certainly won't be in attendance. And not just because Arizona State University, which is hosting the event, is limiting the number of seats available to ASU students. Apparently, because he's an Arab, Alamoodi's name is, he says, on a special list kept by the Joint Task Force on Terrorism, and, according to the folks at the Council on American Islamic Relations, he is one of dozens of Tempe residents in the ASU area recently visited by an FBI agent. (The Joint Task Force on Terrorism hadn't returned our calls by press time, and apparently the FBI doesn't share information about whether it's visited for a "voluntary chat.") Alamoodi says the friendly agent questioned him about his school, his work, and whether he planned anything special for the night of the presidential debate. Alamoodi has kept his sense of humor (he's taken to calling the FBI "the Friendly Brothers of Islam" and has published an open letter to John Ashcroft, thanking him for the FBI visit, in his column in ASU's State Press) and isn't above a little FBI role-playing.

New Times: Where were you on the night of October 13, 2004?

Yaser Alamoodi: What?

NT: Sorry. Just thought you should get some practice in. In case the FBI turns up at your door again next week.

Alamoodi: Oh! I was thinking about that, and my attitude about the presidential debate is I'm either going to go to L.A. or I'm going to go all the way and volunteer [to work at] the debate. Last night I registered in the debate lottery.

NT: The what?

Alamoodi: Only 50 college students will be allowed into the debate, and they'll be selected by lottery. Out of like 50,000 students. And keep in mind that the debates will be taking place practically right there on campus.

NT: That's pretty stupid.

Alamoodi: I know. And even if I win the lottery, I'll still be subjected to a background check. And judging from a lot of stories I've heard, I might not make it.

NT: Because you're an Arab. So, what's this about an FBI agent visiting you at home recently?

Alamoodi: It was on the Fourth of July, and the ludicrous aspect was that it happened because of who I am. I was out getting something to eat, and I came back and some of my friends were there and they said, "The FBI was just here to see you." They actually left me a message, and I called the ASU police department. And I [talked to] this ASU cop who was on loan to the Joint Task Force on Terrorism.

NT: On loan!

Alamoodi: Yeah. And then [the FBI agent and I] had an hour-and-a-half conversation about how there was this list of selected people, and he had to ask these questions of me because I was on that list and the president was [coming to town].

NT: I'm sure I'll be sorry I asked, but what were some of the questions?

Alamoodi: The first one was, "Do you know anyone who has just returned from Pakistan?" Then there was, "Do you have any ties to terrorist or violent organizations?" And after a while, I thought, These questions are so ridiculous, I'm going to have some fun with him. So I took longer to answer each one, like I was really thinking about whether I should answer it at all.

NT: Good for you. I mean, come on -- if you were a terrorist, and you belonged to a group that was about to blow up something, and the FBI dropped in to ask you about it, you'd lie.

Alamoodi: Well, I know. I said, "If I knew anything and you showed up here, trust me, I'd spill my guts to save my ass." The other thing I said was, "If I were planning something, I wouldn't tell you about it." It's not gonna happen; it's wishful thinking.

NT: Tell me some more stupid questions!

Alamoodi: There was a question, "Do you know anyone who's interested in government buildings?" And I said, "A lot of my friends are political science majors, they might be interested in applying for work in a government building after they graduate." It was ridiculous.

NT: Were all the questions that lame?

Alamoodi: A lot of them were very vague, very general. I finally said to him, "Do you really think you're going to get anywhere with this kind of question? Because this is kind of scary." People expect more from FBI agents than this. He said, "Trust me, I understand. This is just my job, and I have to do this." He seemed concerned that I understand this.

NT: But not concerned with being politically correct or particularly respectful.

Alamoodi: No, and that's what I expected. But there's nothing I respect more than honesty. I hate PC. Tell me that you think I should be exterminated, just do it to my face. As long as you don't act on it.

NT: Why you?

Alamoodi: Well, my name is on a list. But for an FBI agent, he didn't know much about me. He knew my name and where I lived, but he didn't know whether I was at ASU or whether I had graduated; what my major was.

NT: But your name is on some kind of official list now: People to Watch Because They're Arab or Muslim. Sounds like racial profiling to me.

Alamoodi: You think I ought to be more cautious? I hate it. I mean, I think it's stupid, but at the same time I have no problem with waiting hours in the airport, and being searched, as long as you admit that the American dream is not for everybody. It's tailored for certain groups at certain times and places, and I'm a victim of that kind of tailoring.

NT: It's kind of like the Carpenters Union dropping in unannounced on a Mexican to ask if he knows the names of any illegal aliens on their way to Phoenix without a green card.

Alamoodi: Or like, at ASU, people say, "Oh, you're Arab! Do you know my friend Muhammad?" But I do the same thing. I still have trouble remembering white people's names.

NT: Try Mike. Usually white guys are named Mike.

Alamoodi: Or if it's a girl, it's Brittany. Or Ashley.

NT: So you're being hassled because you're an Arab.

Alamoodi: After 9/11, nobody paid me any attention, nobody knocked on my door.

NT: What took them so long? It's been three years.

Alamoodi: It's probably the presidential debate and the proximity of my house to it. They're taking no chances.

NT: If they do come back, just ask them to take you out to dinner that night. You'll have the perfect alibi: "I couldn't have bombed the presidential debates; I was out to dinner with the FBI."

Alamoodi: I'm all dangerous now. Man, I haven't gotten laid so much in my life as I did after 9/11.

NT: So all at once you were hot with white chicks after September 11?

Alamoodi: Girls always confuse sympathy with sex. And guys are always up for it. And I'm not gonna say no.

NT: I have an idea. I'll pretend to be an FBI agent, and you pretend to be Yaser Alamoodi.

Alamoodi: Okay.

NT: Okay, pal. Where's yer turban?

Alamoodi: I left it back at my harem.

NT: Uh-huh. And when's the last time you went to the mosque?

Alamoodi: The last time they served free food.

NT: Do you know of any dark-skinned people who might be planning to blow up any buildings?

Alamoodi: Unfortunately, I do not.

NT: Where is Osama bin Laden hiding?

Alamoodi: In the last place you'd expect to find him.

NT: Do you have a really good recipe for baba ghanouj?

Alamoodi: I don't cook. But I work in an Arab restaurant, and they have the best baba ghanouj in town. It's just down the street from here.

NT: Let's go.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela