Reflections on Exile

Category: Americas, World Affairs Topics: California, Canada, Los Angeles, Toronto Views: 3977

"The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native land is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land". - Hugh of St. Victor, 12th century

"Ain't nothing but a stranger in this world / I'm nothing but a stranger in this world". - Van Morrison, 20th century

In some ways, I suppose, I've always had a fascination with exile. On the wall of my office is an Acadian flag, a reminder of some of the heritage of my own county. But what is my country? I've been struggling with that in the past few weeks. I was born in Pakistan. I came to Canada when I was 4 years old, and became a citizen 7 years later at age 11. All of my education, kindergarten to PhD, was in Canada. In 1997, after 27 years of living in Canada, I moved to Los Angeles and a job as a professor in the Religious Studies Department at California State University, Northridge. In 2005, I moved to Loyola Marymount University. I have now lived in Los Angeles for almost 10 years, or 2.5 times longer than I lived in Lahore. Does that make me more of an Angelino than a Pakistani? And of course, I've always considered myself a Canadian, proud of my home and, er, native land. But my last name is Hussain. And I am Brown. And a Muslim. And I have a beard. And I teach about Islam. Am I a "real" Canadian? If not, who is? And perhaps more importantly, who is an unreal one?

On January 27, 2003 returning to Los Angeles from a week's vacation in Vancouver, BC, I was stopped by US immigration at the Vancouver airport. No problem, I thought. I'm a Canadian citizen. I have a valid work visa for the job that I had held at CSUN for the past 7 years. Coming back from Toronto less than two weeks earlier I had had no problems with immigration at the Toronto Airport. In fact, the agent was pleasant and polite, in addition to being helpful. Not so in Vancouver. I was told to go to a separate area for further processing. The supervisor who handled my case was Latino, of a generation that I suspect would call himself Chicano. He may have been fourth or fifth generation American, but his accent suggested that he had come from Mexico as a teenager. The irony was delightful. In my bad, broken Spanish I wanted to ask him about his own experiences with la frontera. But of course I didn't.

He told me that I would have to be "entered into the system". When I asked him why, and why I didn't have to do this at immigration in Toronto, he had no answer. He just said that they were registering certain people because of their country of birth. I was given a sheet of questions to fill out, and sent back to the waiting room. Thirty minutes later, I was called in by another officer, and she entered my information into the computer. Strangely, she didn't look at the material that I had written, or rely on the written information (such as the work address given on my business card, or my home address given on my California driver's licence) that I presented to her. Curiously, she asked me if I was a student, when my faculty identification, business card, and visa all stated that I was a professor. Perhaps she was just too busy doing her job to read the documents before her. She then took out the multiple entry H1-B visa from my passport (which was put in by US immigration in Toronto on January 15), replacing it with one marked "special registration". I was fingerprinted, photographed, and given a 27 page instruction manual about my new status. After about 45 minutes in total, I was sent on my way back home to Los Angeles.

As far as my experiences went, they were relatively painless. There was no explicit humiliation. I was not tortured or mistreated or deported. But it hurt all the same, and I have serious concerns about both our governments. With respect to the American government, I wonder why this was necessary given my history. Let me talk a bit more about myself. Not to brag (we Canadians are a very simple people, famous for our humility), but to give some information which I think is useful to my argument.

I have a PhD (as well as two other degrees) from the University of Toronto, widely recognized to be the best research university in Canada. My academic specialization is in the study of Muslim communities in North America, an area of obvious demand. I was hired at Northridge after an international search. Cal State Northridge is a major state university, and so my employment at this time was technically with the State of California. In 2002, I was approved for a green card under the category of outstanding researcher. When this happened, in 2003, I was selected as the top researcher (in arts, humanities and sciences) in my entire university. In 2001 I was given the outstanding faculty award by our National Center on Deafness for my work with deaf and hard of hearing students. I have numerous scholarly publications. I am active in academic groups, and have done more than 100 community service presentations across North America in the past three years. I have been on television, radio, and stage, and have been profiled in magazines and newspapers. I have taught some 2,000 students since I came to Northridge. I have lived in the same apartment since I moved to Northridge, and have never had a criminal record in either the US or Canada. All this to say that my work is transparent and available to anyone. I am very much a public figure, not someone who works anonymously in an office cubicle. Any doubt about my work, or any suspicions about me being a "terrorist" or a "risk" are put to rest when one examines my life. If I'm not "safe", then frankly, I don't know who is. That's my concern with the American government.

My concern with the Canadian government is much deeper, almost a spiritual or existential crisis. I have always grown up believing that I was Canadian. In no way am I am ashamed of being born in Pakistan, or of my Pakistani heritage. But I was 4 when we came to Canada. The first language I learned to read and write was English. The next one was French. I grew up in Ontario, but I have had the privilege of living (from periods ranging from a week to a few months) in every province from Nova Scotia west to British Columbia. I was a bit of a hockey exile, being a Montreal Canadiens fan in the midst of the evil empire of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but we all have our quirks. On a shelf in my office is a picture of me with the Grail (the Stanley Cup to those who aren't initiated) at the Hockey Hall of Fame. I have driven from Toronto to Edmonton. I have spent winters and summers in Winnipeg. I have picked up the telephone to hear these magical words: "Hi, this is Wayne. Wayne Gretzky". I have answered a knock at the door and opened it to find Bobby Orr on the other side, who said, simply and humbly in case I didn't know who he was, "Hi, I'm Bobby Orr". I have been to the Calgary Stampede. I tear up whenever I hear the Wyrd Sisters sing "This Memory" about the Montreal Massacre. I have had tea at the Empress and coffee at the Chateau Lake Louise. I have come to know something of Turtle Island through spending time as a guest on the lands of the Haida, Cree, Mohawk and Iroquois. I have been to the Christmas Eve service at the cathedral in Gravelbourg and Sunday morning worship in more churches than I can remember. And I have been to services in the three great cathedrals in Montreal: Notre Dame, the Oratory of St. Joseph, and the old Forum.

If you ask me who I am, the answer is clear. I am Canadian. And yet to my government, I am clearly second-tier. That's what hurts the most. When I came back home after the trip, I wept and wept. A loss of innocence, I suspect. As a kid, I had to deal with racism and prejudice. Growing up in Toronto and Oakville in the early 1970s, I was called "Paki" more times than I care to remember. I thought things were different now. But our government does not make any protests to the Americans. And I understand that the Americans have every right to do what they want at their border. But we don't have to play along. This doesn't mean that we say "an eye for an eye" and fingerprint and photograph Americans coming into our country as Brazil has done. But we could simply say, if you want to fingerprint and photograph some Canadians, then please do this to all Canadians. Our government does not insist that a Canadian is a Canadian. Clearly, all Canadians are equal, but some are more equal than others. 

And I don't mean to be naive about the history of my country. I understand full well the racism that is also a part of our heritage. It is instructive to remember that the model for South African apartheid was based on the Canadian system of reservations. First Nations peoples have, of course, a series of horrible experiences with the Canadian government. As do the Chinese who helped to build the railroad, or the Japanese who were put in internment camps during the Second World War. And French Canadians have their own experiences of "English" domination. The list is a long one. Compared to that, to the horrors of the residential schools, for example, my experiences are minor. But they are my own experiences of exile and loss. And they hurt just the same.

And I'd like to think that there are some lessons that can be learned from my experience. If the American government can do this to me, they can do it to anyone. If a border guard has more power than the retention, tenure and promotion process (with five different levels of review) of a major state university, then perhaps there is something very wrong with the screening of visitors. And if the Canadian government can decide to fight for some citizens but not others, what does that say about our citizenship? And I know that, as in America, the actions of a government may not be reflective of its citizens. So all I can do is present my experiences, to bear faithful witness and say: "This is what happened to me". I don't do that with any great eloquence. In describing the Stalinist Terror, the poet Anna Akhmatova was much more expressive than I could ever be. She begins her masterpiece, Requiem, with the following words about waiting in the lines to visit her son in a Leningrad prison: "Beside me, in the queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of me; but she suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everybody spoke in whispers there): 'Can you describe this?' And I said: 'Yes, I can.' And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face".

My mentor at the University of Toronto was Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the greatest Canadian scholar of religion of the past century. Before his death, Wilfred and his wife Muriel donated their collection of books and papers about Islam to our library at Northridge. That was an extraordinary gesture of kindness and support. One Canadian helping another out. But perhaps there was a deeper lesson there that I am only now able to learn. Wilfred taught at McGill University, and established the Institute for Islamic Studies there. He was hired away by Harvard, where he directed the Center for the Study of World Religions. A proud Canadian, he returned to Dalhousie University to set up the Religious Studies Department there. But Harvard was able to woo him back, and so he returned to the US. In retirement, he and Muriel moved back to their native Toronto. On learning of the donation, a senior scholar at the University of Chicago remarked: "He let his books leave Canada?". That really was extraordinary. But perhaps Wilfred was telling me that true scholarship did not know narrow nationalist boundaries. On his deathbed, knowing that he would not live to see the opening of the collection at our library, Wilfred asked his son Brian to represent the family. "Tell them", he said to Brian to tell us at Northridge, "that I have always tried not to have just members of a group -Christians, or Muslims, or Canadians - but the whole world". Perhaps, one day, as Wilfred was, we can truly all be citizens of the world.

Funnily enough, eh, I still love my country. My country may not love me, but I'm still proud to be a Canadian. Perhaps I'm a fool. But perhaps that's what love is. To truly love something, must it not be unconditional?


On March 8, 2003, I returned to Toronto for a research trip. Complying with my special registration status, I registered my departure at LAX airport. This took about 45 minutes, where I was fingerprinted and photographed, and had my passport stamped. Presumably, this would allow me a safe return to Los Angeles.

On March 15, I made my return trip to Los Angeles. At US Customs and Immigration at Pearson airport in Toronto, the agent was very nice and helpful. She scanned my passport, and noted the special registration status. We talked for a bit, and she said that she needed to take my documents (passport, boarding pass, customs form) to the supervisor in the back area. My heart sank. What was going to happen now? More hurry up and wait? New regulations? A more thorough search? After about 15 minutes in the waiting area, a supervisor called me in to an office. He asked me some questions, and then said, "I don't know why they registered you in Vancouver". "I don't know why either", was my response. He said that he would take care of it. He came back five minutes later, and apologised for the error in Vancouver. He changed my status back to what it should have been, a multiple entry visa, and removed the special registration status.

Needless to say, I was in a mild state of shock. I don't know why this happened. Perhaps the agent simply recognized the mistake in Vancouver. Perhaps there was some political activity behind the scenes, as many people had known about my story and forwarded it to politicians. Either way, I am thankful that the error was corrected, and that I can go back to being treated as any other Canadian citizen living and working in the USA.


On May 4, 2003 I had an appointment at the US Embassy in Montreal for my green card. All went well, and I came back to the US the following day. At immigration at the airport, the young man that handled my case was named Officer Mahoney. He was polite and kind and genuinely interested in my work. When I thanked him for his professionalism and his courtesy, he simply said that these cases (green cards for professors) were a pleasure for him to do. In 2005, I moved to Loyola Marymount University.

Dr. Amir Hussain is Associate Professor in the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. His new book is Oil and Water: Two Faiths, One God, an introduction to Islam for a North American Christian audience.

A version of this article was originally published in Amerasia Journal, Vol. 30, No. 3, 2005, pp. 17 - 23.

  Category: Americas, World Affairs
  Topics: California, Canada, Los Angeles, Toronto
Views: 3977

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Older Comments:
This is a wonderful article. I would like to send my comments directly to himself. Is it possible to get his email please?

This "crossing-of-borders" experience highlights the "psycho-drama," and anti-Islam phobia -- the current 24/7 preoccupation of non-Muslim minds in many western countries.
The label "clash of civilizations" once used to create this Islamophobia was (and is), in fact, "a clash of identities." The myth-makers(guess who?) are now facing a serious identity crisis but they have not recognized it as such--yet!

They dont hate you in true sense they are afraid of Muslims'
growing strength and power. They know very well that this is the
nation who ruled the world and will rule again with the beauty of
Islamic principles laid down in the Quran propagated by Holy
prophet Mohammad (PBUH). One tends forget that communism
has been destroyed and brought down to it's knees because it
was a wrong it was a system of oppression and suppression. But
no body can even dare to stop Islam from spreading thick and
fast because of it's beauty. Islam preaches world peace, love.
global brother-wood and definitely above all the word of Allah
for true guidance for this world and unending next world. In due
course learned critics will come under the fold of Islam when
they will realize & experience the true beauty of Islam.
MY hats off too the writer for being a good Muslim and loyal
Canadian citizen. Brother you will get your due respect and
honor from Allah and definitely from the learned people of USA,
Canada and people of the World. May Allah guide us all in
straight path.


Pray tell me how is this different if an non-muslim such as an went to pakistan or a hindu went to saudi arabia? They would be treated much worse. At least the people at the airport here treated you with respect. I don't see the muslims standing up for injustices in those countries. SO many srilankans, indians and even pakistanis who go to the middle east are tortured, passports taken, enslated and everyone turns a blind eye. Stop complaining about policies in the US. I for once have no problems if they stop me and ask me extra questions or check my background out. The INS has always treated me with respect and I have no reason to fear anyone since I don't have anything to hide. I prefer the safe free society of the united states than ones of the middle-east.

Exile!! Come on Professor. Nobody exiled you to USA; you chose to come here; and you can always go back to Canada without telling the US Government.

The article was quite amusing. It really showed the disarray in enforcement of US policies -- same policy enforced entirely differently at different ports of entry under identical conditions. Now, at least you know, people of Pakistani origin on being watched by US; they probably already a computerized database for these people living (and visiting) US.

Its goood to be reminded once in a while :)
That im not special, when you look into native americans on both side of the border. Why on earth they should treat you any differently.
that's the question my friend. may be you should do as QUEBEC DOES. drive a number plate saying