Dressed to kill …
I came across a shocking news story today on BBC.com (UAE warns against wearing national dress abroad) describing the terrifying take-down by police of a UAE national outside his hotel in a small Ohio city called Avon. His crime? He was wearing the traditional dress of his homeland – long white robes and head scarf – and the hotel clerk’s sister feared this meant he was a member of ISIS. Naturally, the police were called and a video of their action is to me one of the most chilling things I’ve seen.
It begins with an officer driving to the hotel where the suspect is staying and continues with the typical SWAT team descent we all know so well from TV and movies. The rifle is grabbed, the officers exit their vehicles and upon seeing the culprit, begin to scream in unison, “Get down, down on the ground, now, get down, now!!!!!!” The man, named Ahmed, is seen prostrate, face down, silent, then turning slowly to say in quiet and calm contrast to the hysterical jacked up police choir, ” This is not good.”
Ahmed’s hands are cuffed behind his back as he lies in wait. His pockets are emptied. He is fully searched. The team mills around, looking at scraps of paper and cell phones emerging from Ahmed’s pockets. Fast forward and Ahmed is back on his feet, parts of himself being returned by the police. A call is being made to someone Ahmed knows perhaps or at least someone who speaks Arabic. Suddenly Ahmed collapses — no doubt having fainted from the stress. It turns out, he was in the U.S. for medical treatment related to a stroke. They get him medical help and the video ends as it started, the officer back in his vehicle, driving off to the next call, or perhaps back to the station, or maybe to have a coffee to process the event.
The BBC article states that in response to the event, the UAE has issued a warning to its citizens to avoid wearing traditional dress while traveling outside its borders. Ahmed has said he was bruised and bleeding from the take-down.
If the video weren’t real, it would be a sharp satirical little masterpiece capturing the paranoia of the times we live in. Times where speaking Arabic or working on math problems on an airplane are enough to get you questioned or even thrown off the plane. Fear mongering politicians, ignorance, insecurity about the world we live in reduce conveniently into an “us / them” “good /bad” dichotomy that we can all understand — and act on.
It got me thinking about “dress”– what it means to us; how we use it as a social “signifier” that tells others who we are, which groups, cultures and subcultures we belong to. How it is also imposed on us by others (the head scarf I was mandated to wear while traveling recently in Iran; the business-appropriate attire (not too sexy; not too flashy) required in the corporate world; the “modest” adjustments to clothing choices prescribed for the aging woman (no more short shorts for you!). The daily update on what is fashionable provided by the Internet. We are nothing if not fashion conscious.
Ahmed paid the price for what he was wearing. And in the UAE and other lands, expats who have pushed the boundaries of western dress have been arrested for immodesty.
Being different — looking different, sounding different, acting different — can be dangerous. Xenophobia rises again and again, our memories of where this can lead are frighteningly short.