[-empyre-] On Americanized Names

Christina McPhee christina at christinamcphee.net
Wed Jan 23 04:16:31 EST 2008

For anyone in New York City,  Ramak's opening is tonight at Storefront  
for Art And Architecture.


"Terror’s Fine, Wish You Were Here"  by Kathryn Shattuck

New York Times

first published January 20, 2008
Almost two years ago the artist Ramak Fazel set out from his mother’s  
home in Indiana to photograph all of the nation’s 50 state capitol  
buildings. He took his childhood stamp collection, planning to design  
a state-themed postcard in each city and mail it to himself at his  
next destination. Somewhere along the 17,345 miles he drove in 78  
days, Mr. Fazel, a United States citizen, found himself the object of  
continuing police scrutiny. He is still routinely interrogated when he  
travels. The resulting exhibition, “49 State Capitols” (he ran out of  
money before he could reach Alaska), asks more questions about what it  
means to be an American than even the artist intended,wrote Kathryn  
Shattuck. Get his answers on Tuesday night, during the show’s opening  
reception at the Storefront for Art and Architecture.


Published: January 20, 2008

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  
Indiana. 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 — perhaps to  
the pilot or the Transportation Security Administration — 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 — and the pursuit of life, liberty and  
art — 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 — 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 postage.” 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  

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 — “to enrich  
myself, invest in myself,” he said — 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 —  
one toppling over, the other being pierced by a commercial aviation  
stamp — 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  
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 questioned.The journey ultimately  
left him wondering what it means to be American — 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.

On Jan 20, 2008, at 10:49 AM, Naeem Mohaiemen wrote:

> On Jan 17, 2008 5:08 AM, Cara Walz <bumblepuppy at kc.rr.com> wrote:
>> so and then moved back to this humble burg sporting the polish  
>> version
>> of his first name instead of the americanized one he used to go by.  
>> He
>> has been well received.
> This is an interesting topic that somehow digressed yet connected to
> Passport topic.
> I wonder if Cara meant "well received" as in his work or non- 
> americanized name?
> A year ago there was an invitation for a show for artists of "Muslim
> origin". The call for work was rather crudely worded, so the
> requirements were out in the open. Perhaps a more sophisticated
> treatment would have cloaked it in theorese.  I wrote a rather
> irritated/snarky response and then sat on it for a few weeks and in
> the end never sent.  This was because of few things that ocurred to
> me:
> - yes, it was a fetishizing category, but if it was a "way in" for
> others who might not otherwise be represented and therefore why should
> I be the grinch
> - the fact that i could reject such a call displayed my own privilege
> vis-a-vis opportunities
> - when the MOMA pulled together a similar show (although there the
> "origin" question was not so crudely placed), none of us protested
> Etc, etc various contradictory thoughts pulled at me and in the end
> the time to send that email response passed. When I went to the show
> opening, I saw several dear friends in the show. So that gave me more
> food for thought.
> The issue gets more complex also in Europe where funding can differ
> based on such criteria as well (or understandings of such
> criteria)....
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> http://www.subtle.net/empyre

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