[silk] The US of A is officially paranoid.

Gautam John gkjohn at gmail.com
Sun Jan 20 20:04:38 PST 2008

Do stories such as this affect your thinking or actual
living/working/studying in the US?

IN a recent morning interview in a Midtown Manhattan office Ramak
Fazel came across as the quintessential world citizen: tall, slim and
elegant, his English tinged with an untraceable accent and peppered
here and there with an Italian phrase.

He also exuded the weariness of a frequent flier, having arrived the
afternoon before at Newark Liberty Airport, where he was delayed for
nearly three hours while United States Customs and Border Protection
agents questioned him about the purpose of his trip, searched his
baggage and photocopied the pages of his personal agenda.

That routine is something that Mr. Fazel, a 42-year-old freelance
photographer who lives in Milan, Italy, has come to know well, and he
takes pains to come across as favorably as possible. For starters, he
makes sure his face is always immaculately cleanshaven.

"I have become the poster boy for Gillette," he said, somewhat ruefully.

Shaving was one of the last things on Mr. Fazel's mind when, on Aug.
7, 2006, he set out on a photographic and philatelic odyssey from his
mother's home in Fort Wayne, Ind. His mission was to photograph each
of the nation's 50 state capitol buildings and dispatch a postcard
from each city, using postage stamps from a childhood collection. Each
postcard would be mailed to the next state on his journey, where he
would pick it up, continuing until he had gone full circle back to

But there was a problem. On a flight from Sacramento, Calif., to
Honolulu, Mr. Fazel described his project to a fellow passenger. He
later discovered that she had reported him as suspicious b perhaps to
the pilot or the Transportation Security Administration b and taken a
picture of him as he slept.

Maybe it was because he was vaguely foreign looking, he reasoned, and
his photographic endeavor seemed menacing in a post-9/11 landscape. He
also had a three-day growth of beard, he recalled. And, although Mr.
Fazel grew up mostly in the United States and is an American citizen,
there was his Iranian name.

In his view that woman's report began a chain reaction, turning him
into a person of interest for officials from local law enforcement
agencies on up to the F.B.I. On a stop in Annapolis, Md., for example,
he was interrogated about his activities and read his Miranda rights.
Today, he said, his name lingers on what he thinks of simply as the
"the list." (He doesn't know where it originated or who controls it.)
He believes it has prevented him from receiving a visa to India and
caused him be questioned at the border of Poland, both of which he had
visited in the past. He said he has been interrogated the last four
times he has entered the United States.

That sense of stigmatization b and the pursuit of life, liberty and
art b is a steady undercurrent in "49 State Capitols," an exhibition
of postcards, photographs and ephemera from Mr. Fazel's 2006 trip that
is to open on Wednesday at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in
SoHo. (He ran out of money before he made it to Alaska.)

"I wanted to learn about America," Mr. Fazel said. "Visiting the
capitols b I don't want to say it's a dream, but we're led as children
to believe that it's kind of an obligation, that you need to see up
close the country you call home.

"I may live abroad, but my sense of being an American, of loving my
country, has never changed."

Mr. Fazel, who moved to Italy in 1994, conceived of the trip in 2006
while visiting his mother in Fort Wayne, where she called his
attention to his stamp collection in the attic. "Do something with
these,' " he remembered her saying.

He went to a collector who offered him less than he believed his
stamps were worth. "I thought, what a shame to just sell these for
$1,000," Mr. Fazel said. "I felt they needed to be released from that
static state, needed to be released for their original purpose to be

What specifically inspired his trip was a page of stamps of the flags
of the 50 states, in the order of their admission to the union, issued
for the nation's bicentennial in 1976. That was the year he began
collecting, shortly after moving to Fort Wayne, where the Fazels were
the only Iranian family.

Mr. Fazel was born in Iran but moved to the United States when he was
2 months old. His father, who was then working on his doctorate in
psychology, and his mother, who eventually became a potter, settled in
Logan, Utah, and then in Fort Wayne. In 1970 the family briefly moved
back to Iran, where his father taught in a satellite campus of Harvard
Business School in Tehran; in 1976 they returned to Fort Wayne.

Mr. Fazel, feeling something of an outsider in a community divided
into white and black, athletically gifted and not, turned to stamp
collecting at his father's urging. "Through stamps I had the chance to
learn about America and American culture," he said. He collected
enthusiastically, using money he earned from mowing lawns and
shoveling snow.

But with a driver's license came adult freedom, and Mr. Fazel tucked
his collection away. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering at
Purdue University, then went to New York to study graphic design and
photography. In 1994 he moved to Milan b "to enrich myself, invest in
myself," he said b and to overcome a sense of his cultural
limitations. He feels that he succeeded, he said, yet he never stopped
pondering what it meant for him to be American.

So in the spring of 2006, stamps in hand, he began to plot his road
trip, researching the shortest distances from state capital to state
capital and the locations of post offices and Y.M.C.A.'s (where he
could shower and swim). He spent $1,500 on a used Chevy van in which
he would live and another $2,000 to refurbish it. At night he would
often seek out Wal-Mart parking lots, where security was tight, to
park his van and sleep.

In each capital Mr. Fazel would research the state's history in a
library and then design a 10-by-14-inch postcard on white stock,
adorned with mosaics he concocted from stamps related to the state.

The postcard he sent from Florida to Georgia honors space flight; the
one from Hawaii to Arizona pays tribute to Pearl Harbor. The postcard
sent from New York to Pennsylvania bears 11-cent stamps from 1965 that
Mr. Fazel arranged in the shape of the twin towers b one toppling
over, the other being pierced by a commercial aviation stamp b and
with fire truck and ambulance stamps and a commemorative stamp of St.
Vincent's Hospital Manhattan.

Mr. Fazel drove 17,345 miles in 78 days, mailing a postcard from each
city and picking it up in the next one, with the speed of the mail
dictating the pace of his trip. "It was such a nice surprise to
discover how reliable the postal system was," he said, adding that
some of the cards arrived within 12 hours.

But in Jackson, Miss., his journey took its bizarre twist. One night,
as he sat in his van, a beam of light pierced his reverie. He heard
his name over a loudspeaker and a command to step out of the vehicle
with his hands held high.

Suddenly, Mr. Fazel said, he was forced to the ground, face to the
concrete, and handcuffed by a city police officer. His vehicle was
searched, and when the officers determined that nothing was amiss, Mr.
Fazel was ordered to leave the parking lot and continue down the road.

He said the officers told him that they had received a report that he
was aiming an automatic weapon at passing traffic.

Lee D. Vance, assistant chief of the Jackson city police, said he
could not confirm the incident because it had not resulted in an
arrest and because Mr. Fazel has not filed a complaint.

As Mr. Fazel continued his travels, he slowly began to perceive that
he was on some kind of watch list. In Atlanta he was prohibited from
entering the Capitol, he said, even as others did. In Columbia, S.C.,
he was questioned on the grounds of the Capitol by a police officer
who mentioned that he knew Mr. Fazel lived in Italy.

On the morning of Oct. 3, he entered the Maryland Capitol in
Annapolis, where he presented identification and signed his name on a
visitors' sheet. A guard asked him to wait.

Suddenly, Mr. Fazel said, he was handcuffed and rushed through
corridors into a police station, where a man he later learned was a
member of the Maryland Joint Terrorism Task Force with the F.B.I.
started speaking to him in Farsi.

As Mr. Fazel related it, the experience went as follows:

"I'm American," Mr. Fazel said. "I speak English."

Another officer asked, "Where are you really from?" Mr. Fazel produced
his Indiana driver's license.

"I can tell by looking at you that you're not from Fort Wayne," the
officer replied.

After a four-hour encounter in which he was asked about a recent trip
to Iran for an Italian design magazine and about who was financing his
trip to state capitols, he was released without being charged. But he
was also warned by an F.B.I. official that he was now in the system
and would have troubles if he continued his trip.

Richard Wolf, a media coordinator with the F.B.I. in Baltimore, said
he had no knowledge of the incident. He added, "We don't normally
respond or comment on any sort of leads we've conducted with the Joint
Terrorism Task Force."

Asked whether Mr. Fazel was on the government's terrorist watch list,
Bill Carter, an F.B.I. spokesman in Washington, said that as a matter
of policy, "we can't verify whether an individual is on a watch list
or not."

After the incident in Maryland Mr. Fazel called Brett R. Fleitz, a
lawyer in Indianapolis and a childhood friend. Mr. Fleitz said he
immediately sought to reassure him. "I implored him to continue
because he was very, very doubtful about the prospects for going on
and the dangers that might lie ahead," Mr. Fleitz said. "I said,
'Dude, you're an American.' And Ramak said, 'No, I'm a naturalized
American.' And I said: 'It doesn't matter. There aren't two tiers of
citizenship here. You have nothing to hide.' "

He advised Mr. Fazel to greet law enforcement officers cheerfully and
"lay it all out," as well as to ask for and photocopy the business
cards of the authorities he encountered.

Mr. Fazel forged toward the last half of his destinations with his
camera, a 1964 Rolleiflex. Despite being questioned at or denied
entrance to the remaining capitols, he got every one of his pictures:
sometimes an image of gilded rotundas or historic murals, other times
pictures of the everyday, the mundane. He photographed visitors in
House chambers; a funeral procession for Ann Richards, a onetime Texas
governor; a portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria
Shriver, in the waiting room of the California governor's office.

And as the mood of his trip changed from joy to disquiet, he
photographed police officers at one capitol, and, at another, a
"caution" tape blocking an entrance.

In Albany, Mr. Fazel was asked to wait at the entrance of the Capitol
until investigators talked with him. One gave him a big slap on the
back, Mr. Fazel recalled, and said, "I know everything about you, and
I know you've been getting a lot of attention."

Thomas M. Peters, a senior investigator with the New York State
Police, confirmed that Mr. Fazel's journey from capitol to capitol had
raised suspicion.

"We were notified in advance that he was making his way up the East
Coast from his stops at other capitols, where he was challenged by law
enforcement agents," he said. "They indicated that at some times he
seemed agitated and seemed to be giving evasive answers to their
questions, but we don't know for sure because we were basically
getting this information thirdhand."

Mr. Peters added: "He was fine with us. And if he was agitated, it was
probably because he got tired of being questioned."

Looking back on his travels, Mr. Fazel said: "Notwithstanding the
intense scrutiny, the trip was a positive experience. I'm neither
rancorous, nor do I feel offended."

Still, he said, he would like to see his name removed from "the list,"
or whatever it is that caused him to be repeatedly stopped and

The journey ultimately left him wondering what it means to be American
b and, more fundamentally, who he really was.

"What I thought would be an exercise in self-betterment turned out to
be something a little bigger," he said dryly.


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