Everyone assured me it was probably something small when the Canadian embassy phoned me 4 days before my flight to call me for an interview. ‘Probably procedure’, ‘Can’t be anything bad’, ‘Tell them you have a job,’ was the advice passed on to me from various family members when I raised my concern. So early one winter’s morning my father and I, armed with my degree, bank statement and several jerseys flew from Durban to brave the Gauteng cold. At the embassy, I was guided into a small room marked number ‘3’. Before I could enter I joked to my father that they ‘looked just like little interrogation rooms’.
That should have been my first warning that this was no ordinary interview. But I didn’t know any better; before I entered that room I was just a naive girl from Durban wearing too many jerseys.
The room was dark except for a bespectacled man waiting for me at the end of the room behind a glass screen. I’m going to call him Harvey – he was very Harvey-looking. In fact Mr Harvey is more appropriate. Mr Harvey terrified me. He had that Michael Douglas ala Falling Down look of an unassuming ordinary office worker who could instantly kill someone across the room with a paperclip. Mr Harvey typed on his computer, asked questions in a stern low voice (in an American/Canadian accent which increased my feeling of being caught in a horror film) and stared at me deeply each time he asked a question. Assuming it meant I was lying if I blinked, I tried to hold his gaze as long as my watering-eyes could endure.
I have to admit, my sudden uneasiness made me blunder simple questions like, ‘Why is your purpose of visiting Canada?’ Oh God, I don’t remember… why the heck am I going to Canada? Must. Not. Blink.
To add to that, I couldn’t answer questions about the names of family whose wedding I was attending because I hadn’t met most of them in my life so when he asked questions like, ‘What is the name of the bride’s father?’ I stared at him before blurting out, ‘Is it Luqmaan? No, wait! Maybe it’s Jim?’ His (justifiably) wry response was, ‘You’re asking me your own cousin’s name?’
Mr Harvey typed furiously away at his computer as I tried desperately to read for clues in his splendidly blank expression. My indignation stirred slightly when Mr Harvey asked me if I was married. My God, as if I didn’t have enough interrogation about this at home from my Indian family, now I had to endure it from a white man with an American accent? When I replied negatively, Mr Harvey narrowed his eyes and repeated the question. I waved my hands in the air, ‘No, not married. See.’ This was a big mistake. In a Snape-ish whisper, he hissed, ‘but Muslim women wear their wedding rings on their right hand’ while eyeing the ring on my right hand.
They do? They do?! Why didn’t I know this? Oh dear God, I’m a bad Muslim on top of everything else… Oh no! I blinked! Maybe I can pretend I had something in my eye.
I have to admit that at that moment when I suspected this might have to do with me being Muslim, I was surprised. Really, it was just too much of a cliché for my surname and I to be constantly under suspicion when travelling West. The closest I’d ever come to being a terrorist was spelling B-O-M-B on a plane, in a whisper, on a dare. Guts of steel, that’s me. But then Mr Harvey hit me with a different er, bombshell. ‘We have,’ he said, pausing for effect, ‘information to lead us to believe you’re married.’ Oh dear Almighty. What information could this be?! What CIA information did they have on me? Did they have a *gulp* file on me? With photos walking on the street drinking cups of coffee?
He continued to insist I was married and the more he went on about it the more convinced I became that maybe I really did get married. Perhaps it was such an awful marriage I blocked it out of memory. Maybe he was a wife beater or a book-keeper. And where the hell was my husband anyway? Why wasn’t he here for me when I needed him most! All those hot jerseys weren’t helping either. At that moment I understood why detainees went mad under interrogation.
My father was called in and questioned about my ‘marriage’, and he being the hero in this story, addressed Mr Harvey as Harvey, slammed him to the floor and told him this was Africa, not Hollywood and that he ‘oughta take that accent somewhere else. Well, I hoped, but Mr Harvey was behind the glass screen so that couldn’t happen, obviously. Unable to break my father for information, I got called in again. This time Mr Harvey slid a photo to me of my parents getting married in 1972. I looked at him in confusion and then slowly everything clicked into place; my parents’ favourite wedding photo was my Facebook profile photo.
They assumed it was me.
Seriously, who needs the CIA when you have Facebook? It’s the most Central Intelligence Agency we have.
If it wasn’t for Mr Harvey’s cold blue stare I would have laughed out loud. The fact that I also coincidently closed down my account hours after the interview appointment call furthered their suspicions that I was a fugitive waiting to wreck havoc on the peaceful hills of Canada. Well after my explanation Mr Harvey announced that he ‘half believed ’ me and that he would issue me my visa but I had ‘better not get married in Canada and I had better return’. Almost squint-eyed, I finally managed to ask him whether he didn’t believe me because I kept blinking and he actually broke into a hint of a smile.
Still, as I exited out the door of room number 3, he issued one final warning, ‘Don’t screw this up.’
It was a terrifying, hilarious episode but in retrospect, I don’t really blame Mr Harvey. It seems, from my experience in Canada, there really are a lot of Indian women pulling the wool over his eyes. I suppose I couldn’t really blame him for being suspiciously paranoid. Although I must admit, there were a few times I was tempted to post Mr Harvey a postcard of me wearing my cousin’s wedding dress with ‘Got ya sucker!’ written at the bottom but I worried for the poor man’s heart.
But to come to the point, I just wanted to say, I’m back, Mr Harvey and much to the dismay (or delight) of some, I have returned to my country, without a Canadian or wedding ring on my right hand.
I thought you should know: I didn’t screw it up.
(Originally published Sunday Times, Travel magazine, August 2012)