Monthly Archives: June 2017

Traveling to America While Muslim

Sulaika Abokor, a Somali-born elementary-school teacher in London, dreams of “a road trip from Seattle to California.” The 34-year-old was planning a vacation to Seattle this summer to see a friend who was recently married. She fell in love with the green, outdoorsy city when she last visited in 2010. But, because of the Trump administration’s travel ban prohibiting most visitors from six predominantly Muslim countries, she now says, “That’s not going to happen.”

Contrary to recent reports of the United States being inundated with international travelers this year, with international arrivals and travel-related spending in the United States up in 2017 compared with the same period last year, a subset of travelers — British Muslims — is rethinking its plans. While no statistics in Britain are available, a significant number of British Muslims say they are eschewing United States travel in light of the ban, according to Muslim officials and anecdotal evidence from interviews in Britain.

“This concern is unlikely to be held just by a small minority of British Muslims,” said Miqdaad Versi, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, the country’s largest Muslim organization. “Some British Muslims don’t want to go to the United States because of the hassle of traveling there.” There are concerns, he said, “because of the fears of what might happen when they travel or arrive there.”

Ms. Abokor is among them. Like me, Ms. Abokor is a British citizen who has a dual nationality; the other is from Somalia, one of the Muslim-majority countries singled out by the ban. For her, a trip to the United States is “no longer attractive.” She said she does not feel confident enough to try boarding a flight to Seattle.

“I don’t want to risk being turned away or having a hard time getting in,” Ms. Abokor said. “A place that does not want my people, then you don’t deserve my tourist money.”

Among my circle of friends and acquaintances in London’s Muslim scene, especially those of us who have dual citizenship, traveling to the United States is now fraught with uncertainty, fear and insult because of President Trump’s travel ban, which was partly revived in June after a Supreme Court ruling. The temporary ban, which had been blocked for months by lower courts, has upended many lives, including those of vulnerable refugees from around the world. Some working professionals, like me in London, have had concrete plans to visit in the coming months. But we worry about taking the risk of being questioned for hours at a United States airport or, worse, being sent home. For some of us, America is no longer a welcoming destination.

Ms. Abokor said her United States travel plans came to an abrupt end following the Supreme Court’s ruling last month that the Trump administration could mostly enforce his original executive order issued one week into his presidency in January. She said the climate of traveling in the United States feels too disturbing. The Supreme Court on July 19 temporarily upheld broad restrictions against refugees entering the United States but allowed grandparents and other relatives of American residents to come while legal challenges to the Trump administration’s travel ban move forward. .

I feel for Ms. Abokor. As a 32-year-old British-Somali journalist living in London, I found myself caught up in the travel ban chaos. When the ban went into effect in January, I was in New York City on a fellowship at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. I needed to fly back to London on Feb. 4 to visit family, but I wasn’t sure I would be allowed back into the United States because of my dual citizenship. I was intensely questioned by customs and immigration officials at Kennedy International Airport. (My passport stamps showed travel in recent years to Somalia, where I have family. I fled Somalia as a child refugee because of war, violence and famine, arriving in London at age 9. I later became a naturalized British citizen.)

At J.F.K., I was eventually allowed entry into the country. It probably helped that I carried a letter from Columbia University attesting to the fact that I was on a weeklong Dart Center Ochberg fellowship focusing on trauma and the reporting of violence, and that I also had the correct visa. Even so, when I returned to the United States in March, I was so worried about how I might be treated that I called friends so they would know where I was in case something happened to me.

“Traveling while Muslim” is the reality that many of us face these days. I hope to return this fall to the United States to see friends in New York, but I wonder whether I will be able to keep panic at bay when my plane lands and I must face customs and immigration officials. In those anxious moments, I am reduced to my ethno-religious origin. Not an individual, I am seen as just a Muslim — viewed only as being a possible threat.

Sadly, as fears of global terrorism have heightened, my experiences this year do not count as my worst. In May 2015, when I flew to New York to celebrate a friend’s 30th birthday, I was taken aside at J.F.K. and told to sit down, then questioned by one official after another. It was a humiliating and terrifying experience. But this year’s travel ban, shutting out citizens from entire countries with Muslim majorities, has shaken me to my core.

What is especially disheartening to me and many of my Muslim friends is that our British-ness — our love of English breakfast tea with buttery biscuits, our obsession with soccer clubs (mine being the Arsenal club in North London), our British slang and mannerisms that lead our Somali parents, rolling their eyes, to call us “fish and chips,” not even our valid travel documents — protect us.

What the Magician Penn Jillette Can’t Travel Without

The magician and author Penn Jillette performs live shows with his partner, Teller, in Las Vegas 46 weeks of the year. Their television show, “Penn & Teller: Fool Us!,” started its fourth season on July 13. “Presto!,” Mr. Jillette’s book about losing more than 100 pounds, was published last summer.

He lives in Las Vegas (“Las Vegas is like living on the moon; nothing green can live here. It’s desolate, a kind of beauty you can only appreciate when you get old”) but travels for work.

Exploring is not a priority, he said. “When I’m on the road, I’m very different from Teller and the rest of the crew because I don’t usually leave my room. The farthest I’ll go is to the nearest Starbucks where I’ll drink coffee and work on my computer.”

Still, he recently spent time in the Southern Hemisphere for a movie, and he was surprised at how much he liked it. “I loved Tasmania, that it looks like you’re on another planet … the trees are upside-down. Some things just look totally different. In Australia, everything’s trying to kill you — spiders, snakes, octopuses! Everything down there is poisonous and venomous and hates you. I didn’t like that, but in New Zealand, nothing’s trying to kill you. In New Zealand, you can run naked through the woods and you’re O.K. And I did. And I was.”For travel, he uses a packing and storage service called DUFL. “Someone in my office clicks on the icon and two suitcases are packed up with my clean clothes, and when I get to the hotel they’re there in my room. Sometimes they put in a sweatshirt with a picture of Jack Kerouac’s typewriter on it, because I’m essentially a beatnik. A beatnik that stays at the Four Seasons and has someone else move his luggage around.”

Deck of cards

It’s a perfectly ordinary deck of cards. Honest! Honest! I like to practice. People usually think practicing with a deck of cards is a lot of finger-flicking, which I used to do, but people who are, like, 20 are so much better that it’s a little bit disheartening. I do a lot of mental and memorization stuff with cards, so I have them with me to play with. The problem is that some people know you from television as being a magician, and if you pull out a deck of cards you seem in some way impolite. It’s like being on an airplane with someone who pulls out a guitar; it’s kind of embarrassing, like they want you to ask them to do a song or something.”

Computer bag

“I carry probably more electronics than you’d think a human being would carry. I carry the biggest MacBook, fully loaded, with terabytes of space. Which is stupid because I use it essentially for word processing. I also have the iPad Pro. That’s what The New York Times looks best on. I don’t ever agree with The New York Times but I read it all the way through every day.” My Bose wireless noise-canceling headphones that I use on airplanes. And money, so if someone steals the bag they won’t be disappointed that they’re just getting a computer that’s equipped to N.S.A. standards. At least they’re getting something for their trouble.”

A Monkees hat

“Never mind the Beatles, I’m a Monkees fan and they are three-quarters American. So it’s a patriotic hat. I am proud to call Mike Nesmith a friend and I’ve met them all. When I have a show I don’t wear a hat because I want my hair to be perfect, but on travel days I’m wearing my Monkees hat all day long.”


“They are always in my travel bag. I always feel like — even though I don’t eat anymore — I’m going to have this panic and want to eat something, so I have almonds with me that are never opened.”

Things to read

“I read on my iPad. I won’t touch paper, I hate it. People hated me before electronics because I’d buy a book and stick it in my back pocket, and as I’d finish reading chapters I’d rip them out so there was less to carry. My library is exclusively stuff that I believe less than 10 other people have copies of. Right now I’m on a [Yuval] Harari jag; I just read ‘Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus.’ I always have the Bible that I’m reading, because I’m an atheist. And I always have ‘Moby Dick’ because I’m an American.”

Places to Go in 2017


A northern neighbor is a world to explore.

Canada is huge — the second-largest country by area. It’s also a world unto itself, with cosmopolitan cities, barely explored natural wonders and everything in between. And this is the year to visit: In honor of the 150th anniversary of its confederation, when the original colonies came together as one country, Canada is rolling out the welcome mat. All of the country’s more than 200 national parks and historic sites are offering free admission through the year, from the turquoise lakes and mountain peaks of Banff in Alberta to the rolling dunes and red sandstone cliffs of Prince Edward Island along the Atlantic Coast to the newest reserve, the glacial-rounded Mealy Mountains in Labrador. Meanwhile, in the capital, Ottawa, a full year of celebration is planned; more events will be on offer in Montreal, which turns 375. And did we mention the exchange rate? A weak Canadian dollar means American travelers get more for their money. So 2017 offers an ideal time to go north. 

Atacama DesertChile

New ways to explore the world’s highest desert.

The Atacama draws adventure seekers and stargazers to its vast, otherworldly landscape of wind-carved dunes and kaleidoscopic salt lakes. Sunrise balloon rides, which started in August, reveal its staggering beauty from above. The luxurious, recently renovated Explora Atacama hotel reopened in December; overnight rates include guided desert excursions and nighttime access to the hotel’s on-site observatory, equipped with one of Chile’s largest privately-owned telescopes. 


Beyond the Taj Mahal, new attractions beckon.

Navigating the stunning, sprawling Taj Mahal will get easier when an orientation center opens this year, but 2017 also promises new reasons to venture beyond: Nearby streets have been repaved; the Agra Pavilion, a glass-walled dining complex, will host more than a dozen vendors and restaurants; and the Mughal Museum, a collaboration with the architect David Chipperfield and Studio Archohm, has broken ground. In addition, India’s fastest train and longest expressway now cut travel time from Delhi and Lucknow. 

A Maltese Hotel with Baroque Design and Mediterranean Flair


Housed in a traditional Maltese townhouse dating back 400 years, this 13-room boutique hotel represents the Mediterranean island nation’s varied cultural influences — Roman, Arab, French and British, to name a few. From marble floors and exposed limestone walls to brown rattan furniture and Oriental rugs, the décor exudes both Baroque and Mediterranean flair. Opened in June 2016, the restored property has a lobby that leads to a courtyard revealing inner balconies on each of the four floors. Rooms can be reached via a tiny glass elevator or a dizzying steel staircase with a magnificent light fixture that seems to descend from the sky. In February, the hotel opened a spa below ground where guests can soak in a whirlpool beneath a vaulted ceiling.


In the center of Valletta, the country’s capital and a city on Unesco’s World Heritage list, the hotel is about a 40-minute drive from Malta International Airport and a short walk from the Grand Harbor, Lower Barrakka Gardens and St. John’s Co-Cathedral, among other sites.

The Room

From “Romantica” to “Ecologica,” each room has a different name and décor. We were pleasantly surprised by our spacious second-floor “Religioso” suite. It featured two plump twin beds (you can request a queen) with ornate wooden headboards, and a sofa bed under a fresco-style wall print that dominated the space. With scant natural light from the one courtyard-facing window and a color scheme of red, gold and beige, the room evoked a holy sanctuary. But it also radiated opulence, with furnishings including a vintage Gothic armoire with tall mirrors and a giant silver candelabrum (sans candles).