Defying the “Muslim Travel Ban” A Smuggler’s Confession


This piece was published earlier today on the Good Men’s Project.  (

The small s supreme court has just upheld the “Muslim travel ban.” Refugee ships continue to be turned away at European ports.

I approach customs and immigration and declare without hesitation that “I am a trafficker and a smuggler.” Yes I am! A smuggler and trafficker in…STORIES. Stories know no borders and boundaries; no wall can keep them out.

If entire nations of people cannot pass through to our shores, their stories can and will make their way. They have been extremely vetted, passing on their wit and wisdom for centuries across borders geographic and of the human heart. If they pose a threat, it is only to a pinch-hearted view that some people are less human than we are.

A few years ago, I crossed the Alaska/Canadian border twice a day for five months, guiding cruise ship passengers on day excursions into the Yukon territory. Ah yes, that Canada, the one recently declared a security threat to the U.S. There were long waits, and at these times, a little nervousness with some of my clients, especially from Muslim countries. It occurred to me, that this was a perfect opportunity to tell a story. Ah, but which story would be appropriate for such an occasion? I settled on a story from the Middle East about… smuggling!

Let me introduce you to Nasruddin.

He’s known by many other names as well, and loved as a wise fool, a trickster and man of contradictory logic in the folklore of most of the countries singled out by the travel ban. Dig deeper into stories and you will find that almost every culture in the world has such a character.

Once a week Mullah Nasruddin crossed the border pushing a wheelbarrow heavily laden with merchandise. One week the wheelbarrow was full of melons, the next week it might have be dates, or bottles of rosewater. Come each Tuesday morning, Nasruddin would faithfully arrive at the crossing, and produce the necessary paperwork. The agent would examine his cargo then wave the Mullah through. But he always suspected that Nasruddin was pulling the wool over his eyes and was engaged in some kind of smuggling racket.

Try as hard as he could though, the official couldn’t catch him in the act. Week after week, month after month, year after year, Nasruddin faithfully presented himself and his wheelbarrow full of merchandise. He grew increasingly frustrated, sure that Nasruddin was having a great laugh at his expense.

Time passed and now both men had retired. One day they encountered each other sitting at adjacent tables at a coffee house.

“Nasruddin,you old rascal SinceI I have no longer have authority, you’re beyond the reach of the law. You can tell me now. I’ve always suspected that you’d been smuggling something. I beg you. Confess to me and ease my mind at last!”

With a great sly grin, Nasruddin replied, “Yes, your suspicions were well founded my friend and I profited greatly each week with my clandestine cargo. Wasn’t it obvious? I was smuggling… wheelbarrows!”

One evening, I even told this tale to a U.S customs official as we sat at adjacent tables at a cafe in Skagway.

“That story is truer than you think,” he told me and then related a true story about working at the Mexican border and guy who came across often, riding a bicycle equipped with packs full of good. It took awhile but he finally caught on that the rider was crossing into the U.S. with a new bike and returning with a beaten up one, and that he was smuggling, you guessed it…bicycles!

Here’s one more story featuring Nasruddin.

He’d been working in the fields all day and was sweaty, grimy and hungry. This was during Ramadan and it was now time to break the daily fast. Nasruddin heard that the wealthiest merchant in town was hosting a feast that was just about to begin. He hurried to the place, anticipating a fine meal. The merchant greeted him at the door, took one look at his dirty clothes and with a barrage of harsh words, sent him away. Nasruddin went home, quickly dressed himself in his finest robes, and hurried back to the feast. This time he was greeted warmly and even seated at a place of honor at the table. Soup appeared. Nasruddin took his bowl, and poured it into his jacket pocket. Salad was served. Nasruddin removed his turban, dumped it on his head and replaced the turban. Kebabs went down the back of his trousers. Baclava was stuffed into his stockings.

“Nasruddin! What has come over you? Explain your strange behavior at once!” demanded his dumfounded host.

“It is easily understood,” replied the Mullah. “When I arrived at your house dressed in old clothes, you rudely turned me away. When I returned, dressed as I am now, you bid me enter. Clearly it is not me who is your welcome guest, but my clothes. So I am feeding them.”

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

What is it, that like Nasruddin’s wheelbarrows, is hiding in plain sight to those who are turning a blind eye and a cold heart to refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, children and families?

They are at our borders not to take, not to diminish us, but to partake in a way of life and values that we celebrate in word, but seem all to willing to abandon when we see people who look different than us. What is hiding in plain sight is that they come bearing gifts of culture, history, and talents that will enrich our feast.

Listen to their stories, Mr. Customs and Immigration Man. Open your heart and open the door!



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