ABOUT THE ABDUR-RAHIM JACKSON INCIDENT AND MY ARRIVAL AT PHILADELPHIA AIRPORT
By Michikazu Matsune
On 11 September 2008 I found a small article. It didn't seem to me to have a deeper meaning that I found the article on this particular date. It was just one of the usual days where I spend my most relaxing time of the day, breakfast, at one of the cafés next to my apartment. I drank coffee and it tasted good. It was just one of these days where your coffee tastes just as good as the one the day before. After the first cup of coffee I slowly opened my laptop to get connected with the the café's wireless internet service. I always check the net edition of one of the major Japanese newspapers. I scrolled down the headlines of the day and clicked one or the other rather randomly. It was one of these days. After reading a few articles I found this one with the headline:
"Dance if you want to enter the country!"
It was based on another article that had been published in an Israeli newspaper two days earlier. I read the article at once. There were only a few lines. To be frank, I couldn't really help smiling a bit when I read the story. And I wanted to know more. I started to look for some related articles on the net. A few other newspapers had headlines such as:
"A U.S. dancer at airport: Israeli security made me dance."
"Alvin Ailey performer being forced to dance."
They reported an incident at the Ben-Gurion International Airport in Israel, the largest and busiest airport in the country located 15 km southeast of Tel Aviv with about 10.5 million passengers passing through it in 2007. I have never been there personally.
Alvin Ailey, Jr., born in Texas in 193, was an American modern dancer and choreographer who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City in 1958.
When Ailey began creating dance, he drew upon his "blood memories" of being a black American, the blues, spirituals, and gospel as inspiration, which resulted in the creation of his most popular and critically acclaimed work "Revelations". (http://jp.youtube.com/watch?v=gWJzSP7irwM)
He died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 58. The company celebrates its 50-year anniversary this year and has a six-nation tour. Israel to start up, then Turkey, Romania, Greece, three venues in Italy and two in Spain within five weeks, offering two to four performances at each venue.
Abdur-Rahim Jackson is the protagonist of the incident. He is a graduate of Juilliard and an eight-year veteran as one of the 30 members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
He received his name because his father was a convert to Islam. He was not raised a Muslim, does not consider himself religious. And he is engaged to a Jewish woman in the troupe who has relatives in Israel. All according to internet sources. "Jackson is engaged to fellow Alvin Ailey dancer Olivia Bowman", thus stated on the company's website.
On September 7th, 2008, the dance company arrived at the Ben-Gurion Airport as the first venue of this tour. Abdur-Rahim Jackson was pulled aside at passport control and brought to a holding room where he was asked about the origin of his Muslim name. When asked about the purpose of his visit to the country, he explained that he was a part of a dance group and showed one of the group's pamphlets. An officer then asked him to dance ... Jackson stood up and asked: "What type of dance?" To which the officer replied: "Just do anything."
I wish I'd been there to witness this scene. I have been imagining various possible steps or a choreography he could have danced there among the airport security officers. His question "what kind of dance?" guarantees that he is able to dance various dances. Ballet. Modern dance. Jazz dance. African dance. Maybe Breakdance and Hip Hop, too. Alvin Ailey's expressive yet well-disciplined choreography celebrates beauty, strength, joyfulness and maximum ability of the (black people's) body. I keep wondering what and how Jackson danced there. Was it a fast dance? Was it slow? With high jumps in the holding room? For how long did he dance? How joyful? How serious?
I also wonder about the ending of Jackson's presentation there. How did he stop? Was he told to stop or did he himself stop at one point? Did he put an accent at the end, holding a pose? Or did he just step out of his dancing body into his kept-in-the-holding-room body?
And what was the reaction of the officers? What did they think, or feel? I would like to know the first word spoken after Jackson's dance. Did the officer say "great", his face showing no expression at all? Did he just tell him to go? Or can it be that all the officers in the holding room applauded Jackson then, all with a smile on their faces? One article states that Jackson said "I just moved around". From his words, I imagine he didn't put in so much effort. I imagine, rather, a ghost floating in the air. Ghost in the holding room. Smiling ...
It is reported that Jackson had to perform two times.
Ironically enough, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has its base, theater, studio, and office at 92Y, a multi-functional center and building run by an association called YMYWHA, Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association. Alvin Ailey and his dancers had their first show at the theater at 92Y in 1958, then run by the same association - then called YMHA, Young Men's Hebrew Association.
"Founded in 1874, where Jewish men could find harmony and good fellowship, the 92nd Street Y today has evolved into a world-renowned community and cultural center, an organization of exhilarating vitality and remarkable diversity, a proudly Jewish institution that reaches out to people of every race, ethnicity, religion, age and economic class. 92Y provides exceptional programs across the spectrum - in the arts and culture, Jewish life and education, health and fitness, personal growth and travel, and in classes for adults, families and children. A unique, multifaceted institution, 92Y serves over 300,000 people annually, from newborns to centenarians, always remaining true to its mission."
Moreover, Alvin Ailey founded his dance school in Brooklyn in 1969 and it is now one of the largest dance schools of the world, annually training over 3,000 students. Alvin Ailey and his school hugely influence today's modern dance.
Jackson came through. He convinced the officers. But what did he convince them of? That he is a professional dancer. That he can dance well. Well enough for ...
This is what I think turns all the security checks at the airport into nonsense. It doesn't ensure anything after your entry into the country. How do the officers know that you would not perform an act of terror once you're in? You can buy anything you want now. You can buy guns in many countries. Knives would be even easier. You can also puzzle up bombs with your friends and allies.
"Israel is famous for the effectiveness of its airport security. But a key element in its security checks is ethnic profiling. The practice has been criticized by Israeli human rights campaigners as racist because it singles out Arabs for tougher treatment. Such profiling is illegal in the United States, but Jackson said that the only place he has had a similarly humiliating experience in the past was at a U.S. airport when he returned from a vacation in the Dominican Republic", it reads in one newspaper.
When I recently traveled to Philadelphia, I got into a bit of trouble at airport customs.
I had a short-period working visa for doing an art project there. I first told the organizer that I would just get into the U.S. as tourist. As a Japanese pass-holder, you may stay in the U.S. for max. 3 months if the passport is valid for the whole period of your stay, as a tourist or for business meetings. It isn't even a problem to have a public presentation/performance as long as you don't get paid. Then my organizer said "they might google your name and find it in our festival website". I had a fee offered from the Live Arts Festival. My organizer insisted on applying for a short-period working visa to make my visit legal. So we started gathering all the documents needed, which is no small task to complete. Among these documents, the one which annoyed me most was letters of recommendation, even three recommendation letters from three individuals working in the field you belong to - in my case, the field of art, dance and performance. The letters must contain their appreciation of my (art) work and their recommendation of my (art) work to the audience of the U.S.A. In one sense they should guarantee that the people in the States would like my work. I managed to ask some experts and authorities to help me provide such letters. Two weeks before my travel, I applied for a short-period working visa at the U.S. consulate in Osaka. Without much difficulties – they only asked why I had been in Iran before (to which I replied "for an art project", which was ok). I was granted a visa, one called a P-1 visa, for entertainers and artists. It cost 131 U.S Dollars. I received my passport back with the visa stamped on.
But when I arrived at the Philadelphia airport, the passport control officer told me that my visa was not valid. I was brought to another room. My visa looked perfect, with expiration date even a month after my planned departure date from the country. But immigration officers told me that I there was some kind of registration problem with my visa. They checked the visa data in their computer, and they found out that the U.S. consulate in Osaka had made a mistake. Yet they insisted that it was my mistake not to have checked my visa at reception. The number that presented the problem didn't make much sense to me. I wouldn't have noticed even if I had seen it.
I was then asked either to return to where I came from, London, or to pay the cost (penalty?) of 554 U.S. dollars. I didn't have enough cash with me (only about 300 Dollars) and I don't own a credit card – just a bank-card with which I can withdraw only 150 Dollars at once. That wasn't enough. I told one officer that I didn't want any of the two choices and that they should make out a temporary visa for free, since they could see that it was the U.S. consulate's mistake. They didn't want to accept my suggestion. They no longer even wanted to admit that it was the U.S. consulate's mistake. Both of us, the immigration officer and me, insisted on different solutions, and we couldn't find an agreement. I tried to convince the officer and his colleagues. The officers kept telling me the two choices of leaving the country or paying. Several minutes went by, and we were all getting louder until one officer exploded with anger and came out from behind his desk, showing me his handcuffs and shouting: "I can put you in jail if you don't shut up!"
How dramatic. How exaggerated. And how effective ... I didn't argue anymore and asked them to contact my organizer to help me. It took two more hours until I could go through immigration when my organizer came to pick me up with the required 554 Dollars in cash. It was past 11 p.m. When I finally came out through the gate, she was waiting there, seemingly a little worried – well, why not, after all she was responsible for my visit to the U.S. Standing beside her was her husband with the biggest possible smile that human facial muscles could offer.
I think that this story (well in fact these two stories, the one of Jackson and my own one) is really annoying; annoying that it happened at all, and annoying that I have to write this here. Yet I decided not to delete it. Thanks for reading.
Born 1973 in Kobe. Lives in Vienna. He is an artist, choreographer and performer whose projects mainly focus on live performance.
http://jp.youtube.com/watch?v=gWJzSP7irwM (Revelations by Alvin Ailey)
(September 30, 2008)