42 Days

By Mohsin Hamid

Before moving to Britain in 2001, I had lived in the United States for over a dozen years. I came and went from America with little difficulty. Not long after the events of 9/11, I had my first experience of “secondary inspection.” Although I possessed a green card, I was taken out of the regular immigration line and put in a separate room. There I waited. I was asked whether I had ever been to Afghanistan. I answered in the negative. I was asked whether I had ever had combat training. I answered in the negative. I was told to wait some more. I was not allowed to use my mobile phone. Two hours passed. Eventually I was permitted to proceed into the United States. But two hours of detention without charge was enough time for my imagination to run free.


I wondered if I had been mistaken for someone else. I wondered if that mistake might see me denied entry to the country. I wondered if I might be held incommunicado and questioned before being deported. I wondered if I might be held incommunicado and questioned indefinitely – and have to plead to be deported.


Two hours of detention without charge caused me, an innocent man, to change my behaviour thereafter. I began carrying copies of my books and articles whenever I flew. I found excuses to travel to the United States less often. I became slightly nervous days in advance of my trips there. I ceased to think of myself as an individual at airports and began to think of myself as a suspect.


I have experienced firsthand the toll that one twelfth of a day can take on a man. It is perhaps for this reason that I see in 42 days of detention without charge a horror our society must find the strength to resist.