Award-winning author Laila Lalami subject to three 'random' TSA pat downs in one week

TSA agents also opened Lalami's bag because of a suspicious-looking item, it was her National Book Award medal

Laila Lalami. Photo by April Rocha

Moroccan-American author Laila Lalami took three flights in the United States this week, and she was subject to a 'random' pat-down on every single flight, which she revealed on Sunday in tweets that have since gone viral.

Agents of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) also opened Lalami's bag because of a suspicious-looking item. "It was my National Book Award medal," Lalami tweeted. Her latest book The Other Americans was a finalist for the National Book Award, which recognises outstanding literary work by American citizens.

She then added that the agent asked her what the book was about after discovering the medal. We don't know how much Lalami delved into the plot of her new novel, which highlights the hardships immigrants and minorities face in a post-9/11 America, but we hope she said enough for the TSA agents to see the irony of her pat-down.

"I still have the magic!" Lalami tweeted in good humour alongside a flamenco-dancer emoji of receiving a pat down on every flight she's taken.

White American Phantoms novelist Christian Kiefer replied to Lalami's tweet about the random pat downs to highlight that he's never been subject to one, "I have diabetes stuff on my body creating weird lumps on my belly with clear tubes and wires visible and STILL have never received an actual pat-down."

As one of many security measures routinely used in airports, pat-down procedures are done to determine if prohibited items are being concealed on a person. The TSA has long been held under scrutiny for their screening procedures and racial profiling. Many of the screening procedures were put in place after 9/11.

The attacks on the World Trade Centre are referred to in Lalami's book The Other Americans more than once. In an interview with The National earlier this year, Lalami said it was a turning point, a moment where the wars fought in distant lands returned to the US.

The Other Americans is a scathing portrait of 21st-century America: in a small Californian town, restaurant owner and Moroccan immigrant Driss is killed in a hit-and-run that appears to have no witnesses, save for a Mexican afraid to come forward due to his fears of deportation. Driss's composer daughter Nora returns home to pick up the pieces, crossing paths with an Iraq veteran, an African-American female detective, a bowling alley proprietor and, of course, her grieving mother.

Well, I have to have hope because I have to get up every day and live in this country. I do know that change is possible, but if you look at the history of the US, it's very slow and it never happens without struggle

“Each of these characters would be easy to caricature,” Lalami said. “They are stock characters in the media – the immigrant, the veteran, the Muslim, the disgruntled white man. We see these people but we don’t question the human beings behind them. One of the things fiction allows for is the ability to see things in the specific and not the generic, and that was my job with this book. As an immigrant, too, I can look at things as an insider and an outsider.”

Despite its concerns about the direction of the country and the beliefs of its people, The Other Americans is a quietly hopeful book, a plea for understanding and love despite the divisions.

“Well, I have to have hope because I have to get up every day and live in this country,” she said. “I do know that change is possible, but if you look at the history of the US, it’s very slow and it never happens without struggle. Slavery didn’t disappear because we all sat down and had a nice chit-chat over tea about who has the right to be considered a human being and who should be considered property. It was drawn out. It was violent. The same with civil rights, the right to vote.

“Rights are never guaranteed, they are questioned and they have to be constantly protected. I am working in many different ways for change and progress, not in my art necessarily, which is separate, but as a citizen. It’s not easy.”

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