Palestinian American Detained Near Border for Sketching and Writing

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

Drawing near the border is not a crime

On December 2, Palestinian-American artist and author of the graphic novel Baddawi, Leila Abdelrazaq, and two friends were detained and interrogated near the Mexico border because Ms. Abdelrazaq's notebook sketches and Arabic writing apparently raised red flags.

The incident took place in Nogales, Arizona, where Ms. Abdelrazaq was researching her next art project. Ms. Abdelrazaq and her friends were near the border for only a few minutes, soaking in the surroundings and sketching the scenery in a notebook, when several Customs and Border Patrol Officers (CBPOs) approached. The officers asked them to leave, and they complied.

As they were leaving, the CBPOs apparently became suspicious of Ms. Abdelrazaq's drawings and detained and questioned Ms. Abdelrazaq and her friends for nearly four hours. When they ordered her to hand over her sketchbook, Ms. Abdelrazaq initially objected for personal and privacy reasons, though she ultimately complied. The CBPOs looked through the book, noting Arabic writing among the sketches. CBPO returned the sketchbook and ultimately let Ms. Abdelrazaq and her friends go.

“I had never seen the US-Mexico border before, and since my next project is about immigration and borders, I just wanted to see it for myself,” Ms. Abdelrazaq said. “Alongside my sketches, I included notes in both Arabic and English that poke fun at my choppy Arabic. I didn’t realize self-deprecation would get me in trouble.”

For most people, drawing and writing near the border would not be cause for suspicion. But the fact that Ms. Abdelrazaq's sketches and writing raised red flags for the CBPOs is a reflection of the growing scrutiny Muslim and Arab Americans face from law enforcement. Ms. Abdelrazaq’s story has also been picked up and sensationalized by right-wing media and blogs, which have dangerously smeared her with false accusations of support for terrorism.

"Islamophobia - fueled in large part by hateful, bigoted rhetoric by presidential candidates and right-wing media, is on the rise in this country," said Rahul Saksena, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal. "Last time I checked, sketching near the border and writing in Arabic were not crimes.”