City of Brass

City of Brass

a hajji gives thanks

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

I returned from Haj a few days ago, and the totality of the experience is still beyond my ability to pithily summarize beyond “It was fine.” I’ve many photos to sort through and some journal entries to look over which I can excerpt and post here later. But right now the post-haj period is one of re-acclimitization to the world, while trying to maintain the sense of purpose and inspiration for self-analysis and change that is haj’s purpose. After haj, must come jihad.

I’ll certainly have more to say about Haj later. I was blissfully and determinedly ignorant of politics while away, so I didn’t hear about the midterm elections until I was enroute back via Dubai. I wasn’t overly surprised by the results, to be honest, and of the (limited) commentary I’ve had time to read since then, I think Ezra Klein’s observation is really the most important one:

Republicans are about to go from sniping on the sidelines while Democrats make the unpopular compromises necessary to get things done to getting sniped at from the sidelines while they make the unpopular compromises necessary to get things done — or, given that the GOP doesn’t control the presidency or the Senate, necessary to show they’re base that they’re trying. They’re not going to enjoy it.

Ezra also said of the outgoing Democratic Congress,

That this has been the most “do-something” Congress we’ve seen in 40 years hasn’t made much of an impression on the public. Multiple polls have found that only a minority of voters know that the 111th Congress got more done than most congresses. That’s true even among Democrats. Nor has their productivity made the 111th Congress popular. But if they failed as politicians, they succeeded as legislators. And legislating is, at least in theory, what they came to Washington to do.

and I fully agree with the rest of Ezra’s argument as well. The 111th Congress was truly one to give thanks for.

I also got wind of the TSA security scandal on my way home, to whihich I can only say that the grope patdown is certainly better than these untested Rapiscan backscatter x-ray machines which frankly are a public menace in my estimation. In fact I wrote a complaint to the TSA a couple of months ago because of an incident at O’Hare. Part of my complaint read,

…the TSA’s position on medical risk from these machines is a total denial. The TSA claims that the radiation dose is “equivalent to sunshine” – however, given that skin cancer is caused by sunshine, this is hardly a soothing statement even if true. There are ZERO public studies by TSA available to test these claims empirically. The xray machines are known to emit some Terahertz radiation, which is known to have biological effects. The Journal of Diagnostic Imaging recently published an article [1] by Leon Kaufmann, Ph.D. that demonstrated that the claims by TSA that the radiation emitted by these machines does indeed penetrate the skin, contrary to claims on the TSA website. The National Council on Radiation protection and Measurement (NCRP) has also indicated in its Commentary #16 [2] that “the summation of trivial average risks over very large populations or time periods into a single value produces a distorted image of risk, completely out of perspective with risks accepted every day, both voluntarily and involuntarily.”

Therefore the TSA does not have credibility for its claims of total safety, and will lack this credibility until such time as detailed studies are made in peer-reviewed journals. Until then, professional ethics, common sense and basic human decency demands that children at least not be subjected to this procedure.

With regards to children, TSA policy is that anyone may opt-out. But you can only opt out if you know that you will be scanned; given that parents traveling with small children must meet a much higher burden to comply with baggage screening procedures, and do so without complaint, they will often not be able to notice a small sign disclosing the use of the xray machine. Verbal disclosure MUST be made to families – otherwise, the supposed right to “opt out” is nothing more than an illusion.

At a bare minimum, anyone traveling with children MUST be advised ahead of time by the security personnel that there is an xray machine in use and given the opportunity to opt out of that scan BEFORE the children are sent into the scanner.

[1] Radiation risks: Are airport body x-ray scanners ‘a great public health experiment’? by Leon Kaufman, Ph.D. February 9, 2010 –


I submitted my complaint to the External Compliance Division of the TSA as instructed on their website (email sent to The TSA promises that a Specialist will be assigned to each complaint but thus far I’ve heard nothing back from them on this matter. I won’t hold my breath At any rate, I will happily comply with patdowns (with caveat that only female agents may perform a patdown of female travelers or children) since these x-ray machines are far worse in every respect.

UPDATE: Read this important post by Happy Hospitalist, reproducing a letter of concern sent to the Obama Administration about the unknown risks of airport backscatter x-ray machines. Bottom line: DO NOT LET YOUR KIDS go in these machines. The grope is vastly preferable, no matter what.

Clearly, the world didn’t get any saner while I was away. It’s easy to get sucked back into the malaise of politics and the world, isn’t it? I need to make sure i don’t lose sight of what I just accomplished. Thanksgiving is just another reminder of the lesson I spent three weeks learning while on haj. I have a lot to be thankful for indeed, and this weekend will be one of reflection on what I’ve achieved as well as anticipation of what I am going to do next. inshallah.

  • Bill Logan

    Welcome back!

  • Phelps
    The Strontium Unit was referred to by the government for a time as a “Sunshine Unit.”
    The one fitting thing is that the idiots in the blue shirts spend all day walking through that constant-on emitter. I’ve even seen several leaning inside the machine while idle. It’s rough justice, but I’ll have no sympathy when these systematic rights-violators are all spending their time in oncology wards in 5-10 years.

  • Anan E. Maus

    spiritual retreat is an important discipline in the spiritual life!
    our daily prayer is a mini-retreat, honoring what alone has value…our relationship with Him.

  • nnmns

    Welcome back Aziz.
    I’ve had a few of the pat downs because of a medical condition. If they haven’t gotten a good deal worse, which they may have, they aren’t bad. All my patters have been polite and even apologetic. Of course I can’t speak about all of them.
    I agree with you about keeping children, at least, out of them. I don’t fly much any more; just not a lot of fun.

  • Teed Rockwell

    Welcome back, Indeed. I remember now you saying you were going on Hajj, but I guess I forgot and thought you might have given up blogging altogether. Glad to have you back. We need your voice out there.

  • Malcom Reynolds

    I am a college student and I recently took an Arabic history and culture course. It was absolutely fascinating. I can better appreciate the serenity of a Haj now. I am sorry that that serenity could not continue for you because of the TSA and the new security measures. I can see both sides of this coin, however. I am all for more security and protection. I don’t want to feel unsafe when I travel. That being said, I feel that any new security measures they DO choose to implement should be safe. I wouldn’t want to be irradiated just because I want to fly.

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