Flying as Waris Ahluwalia

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This morning, Sikh actor-cum-designer Waris Ahluwalia was denied the right to board an AeroMexico flight heading for New York.

Airline personnel detained him prior to boarding his flight from Mexico City because he refused to remove his turban (what Sikhs call a dastar) for a security check.

Ahluwalia explained to New York Daily News that he would never remove it in public. “That’s akin to asking someone to remove their clothes.” It would be an act of public humiliation and dehumanization. Ahluwalia told the newspaper he’d asked to be taken to a private screening room, to no avail.

Ahluwalia quickly took to Instagram with a political message of his own. Holding his boarding pass across his mouth, turban intact atop his head, and the mysterious letters “SSSS” circled on the ticket, Ahluwalia conjures the image of a prisoner or a detainee.

Turban and ticket are in sharp relief with one another. The privilege of mobility — who can travel easily — comes into focus against the responsibility of upholding one’s own faith. For many, the experience of exile or the inability to cross boundaries is a real and dangerous daily concern.

Ahluwalia, who was born in Amritsar, and emigrated to New York at age five, has enjoyed the privilege of traveling around the globe in order to design jewelry, interact with cultural figures the world over, and shoot groundbreaking films.

His signature style is colorful, sophisticated — but he’s bearded and turbaned, no less. He’s able to integrate disparate aesthetic choices in a way that feels coherent and authentic. But his distinct look comes up against the politics of a man navigating contested, liminal spaces like airports terminals.

I don’t fly much, so every time I pass through an airport, I have to relearn the rules for navigating security lines. Lately, I’ve been passing through the cylindrical detectors with the instruction to pull to the side and wait for a wand-scan. I don’t wear a dastar or a kirpan, the short, curved dagger made of iron or steel, held at the hip by a cross-body strap.

A kirpan, one of the five articles of faith that in 1699 Guru Gobind Singh institutionalized as markers of Sikhism (along with kesh, a Sikh’s hair/beard), reminds devotees to protect the innocent and weak.

But an object worn underneath a Sikh’s clothes for self-defense and for the care of humanity frustrates Sikhs, on whose shoulders the duty falls to come to the aid of those who cannot defend themselves.

An object that sits atop a Sikh’s head to remind him to practice mindfulness is humbled in the face of a security officer who derides, doubts, or denies its rightfulness.

I don’t care that Waris is a celebrity or something of a man-about-town. I’m not asking for special treatment for him.

What frustrates me is that the administrators of the sky, whom we trust to keep us safe, need to detain a gentleman of Waris’ celebrity in order to get the hint: Sikhs cannot endure this any longer.

I had the pleasure of meeting Waris years ago on a brand’s campaign to feature the personal style of a few key cultural influencers. I’d just finished steaming shirts in Waris’ studio in New York’s Garment District for the shoot. But as I helped him get dressed, I fell silent and chided myself for not knowing how to speak to him. It wasn’t just that Waris was a celebrity. I didn’t know how to talk to someone who was blazing a path through New York’s downtown scene, all while retaining a true sense of his aesthetic.

Waris’ persona struck me as simultaneously revolutionary and understated. He wasn’t making a huge deal about his identity as Punjabi or as Sikh, yet he was a big deal, shaking up the worlds of art, design, and fashion, all the same.

Just a few years after I met Waris, he found himself the target of racial profiling and prejudice when his face, featured in Gap’s “Make Love” ad campaign was graffitied with the hateful tag, “Make Bombs.” The force behind the campaign, “inclusion and diversity,” transformed Ahluwalia’s face into a palimpsest onto which audiences projected their own aspirations, admiration, fears, and hatred.

But on Instagram today, Ahluwalia posted a political message that was all text written on his face, no hypertext: #FearIsAnOpportunityToEducate.

“Sikhs accept nature gracefully.” My uncles, who are Sikh, have told me these words my whole life whenever I inquired why Sikhs aren’t supposed to cut their hair. This, I learned, was a way of honoring the body in its given form.

Ahluwalia isn’t accepting what’s given to him, though. He’s taking action consciously and calmly. This is precisely the source of his statement’s power. His turban is a symbol of that mindfulness, that cool strength.

As Ahluwalia waited for another flight — this time, on Delta — to make it to New York in time for Fashion Week, he posted to his Instagram followers, “I may be a little late as @aeromexico won’t let me fly with a turban. Don’t start the show without me.”

But Waris isn’t late. We are. It’s many of us who still haven’t gotten the message.

So I ask again, how much longer will we have to endure?

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