Thursday, January 2, 2014

Incompetence by US Customs. Imagine Curmie's Surprise.

Boujemaa Razgui playing one of his flutes.
Shortly before Christmas, internationally renowned flautist Boujemaa Razgui was returning to the US from Marrakesh via Madrid, when, he says, Customs officials seized and destroyed thirteen hand-crafted flutes: eleven neys and two kawalas. [Note: several stories about the incident do not mention the kawalas at all.] The flutes were in Razgui’s checked luggage, which was searched in New York when the musician changed planes there. He was not present for the search. Moroccan-born and a Canadian citizen, Razgui maintains a residence in Brockton, Massachusetts, and was connecting to Boston from JFK Airport. When he arrived in Boston, the flutes were gone, replaced simply by a phone number to call. (Note: there are different variations on the story line. What I describe here comes from the most authoritative source and makes the most sense, but may not be accurate in all details.)

“I told them I had these instruments for many years and flew with them in and out,” he said. “There were 11 instruments in all. They told me they were agricultural products and they had to be destroyed. There was nothing I could do. The ney flute can be made with bamboo. Is that agricultural?” Razgui is understandably distraught, understandably unwilling to confront authorities in a country of which he is not even a citizen (he has a green card), and understandably unsure what to do next.

The flutes in question were made by Razgui himself; he uses different instruments for different musical genres… you know, like musicians do. And, and as international musician, he travels with his instruments all the time, crossing national boundaries as a matter of course. He’d never had any problems before. Of course, that’s because most customs agents around the world, however incompetent they might be, still have more brains than a used teabag. But, alas, there’s at least one in New York who can’t clear that rather modest hurdle.

Needless to say, Customs officials are righteously indignant that anyone should call them out on their idiocy. They issued a statement saying that no instruments were destroyed:
CBP Agriculture Specialists at John F. Kennedy International Airport discovered fresh green bamboo canes approximately three to four feet long inside of unclaimed baggage arriving on a flight from Madrid, Spain on Sunday, December 22, 2013. Fresh bamboo is prohibited from entering the United States to prevent the introduction of exotic plant pathogens. The fresh bamboo canes were seized and destroyed in accordance with established protocols to prevent the introduction of plant pathogens into the United States.
In other words, they’re true government officials, pathologically incapable of admitting a mistake (think “Obamacare website”), and willing to utter absurd prevarications to attempt to wriggle out of the justly deserved opprobrium now engulfing them. How do I know they’re lying? “Because they’re US Customs” is largely accurate but a little cynical even for me.

No, it’s because Razgui has no reason to make up the story but they do to deny it; because although bamboo can be used to make ney flutes, Razgui doesn’t, using rare reeds instead; because the CBP statement is a little too shrill, a little too implausible and—most importantly—a little too late; because it’s simply stupid to suggest that Razgui would have gone shopping for bamboo in Marrakesh, from where he started his journey; because the inconsistencies in Razgui’s story can be readily explained by his lack of facility with the English language.

Some of the comments on the articles linked above accuse the CBP of racism. I doubt it. It is conceivable that Razgui’s bag was searched solely because of his name, but the seizure of the flutes: that’s just because an agent didn’t know what he/she was looking at and, rather than admit ignorance, just decided to exercise power for its own sake. Because that’s what these people—cops, the TSA, the CBP—do.

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