Longform

What's in a Name?

Page 2 of 6

"I was sitting there quite stunned," he recalls. "I was thinking that this friend who knows me, knows my life, is a terrorist. And she was calling him a murderer, a thief and all these awful things, and I didn't know what to do. The meeting was running well over its scheduled time and I needed to leave, so when she started in with another story, I excused myself and left. I walked up the 16th Street Mall back to work instead of taking the shuttle, and I stewed for a bit. I had a lot on my mind."

When Pullano got back to the hotel, Heidel showed her Qusair Mohamedbhai's name in his cell phone. He remembers her recoiling in shock.

"I went home that day and still did not know what to do," Heidel says. "I talked to another friend, someone else who knew Qusair and had a good impression of him, and he didn't believe it at all. He was looking at it as the new form of McCarthyism and was outraged. I was thinking, 'Do I say anything? Do I call the feds? Is this someone who could hurt my family?' I was scared by it. I thought about calling Qusair and telling him, but then I thought, what if he denies it and it's true? If he is this person Genevieve Babcock-Elder put in front of me...was I that deceived?"

Heidel kept stewing.

About three weeks after the NACM presentation, Mohamedbhai called Heidel. The two exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes before Heidel finally broke and told Mohamedbhai everything he'd heard.

If Heidel had been shocked to hear his friend labeled a "terrorist," Mohamedbhai was dumbfounded by the story.

"When he told me what happened, I said, 'Dan, that was a couple weeks ago. Why didn't you tell me sooner?'" Mohamedbhai remembers. "And then there was this silence, and finally Dan said, 'Because I thought it was true.' I felt like I had been hit by a truck."


Qusair Mohamedbhai's family has its ancestral roots in India. When his parents emigrated from Zanzibar to Canada, they were dirt poor, with just $200 and one suitcase between them. Mohamedbhai was born in Edmonton in 1978, his sister almost four years later. Despite the fact that "Canada is pretty white" and his parents are practicing Muslims, Mohamedbhai says they never saw any evidence of discrimination.

"Edmonton, where I grew up, was about 80 percent white, but everyone there was very accepting and multicultural," he explains. "I went to elementary school with everyone, junior high school, high school. I was just one of the guys, playing hockey and everything. I mean, I could skate before I could walk. My family even makes fun of me because I'm so white. My sister recently had a wedding ceremony in India. We took a family vacation out there, and I had never been. And when we got there, she said to me, 'I'm really excited, at least there's going to be one of my white friends at the wedding.' And I was like, 'Wow, you convinced one of your friends to come all the way from Edmonton to this small ceremony in India? Who is it?' And she was like, 'It's you.' When you're born in a country, you're just socialized there."

In 2000, Mohamedbhai decided to move out of the comfort zone where he'd spent the past 21 years and go to law school in Jacksonville, Florida. Studying by the beach sounded pretty good, but the tuition at Florida Coastal was high, and he transferred to Laramie after a year. "Most of the people there were super-good people," he says. "In law school, you find you're judged more on character. I never had any problems in that town. No small-town Wyoming incidents, like you would think."

After September 11, 2001, buddies made a few jabs about his last name, but Mohamedbhai never thought anyone was looking at him any differently, never noticed any problems. Not in Canada, not in Florida, not in Wyoming. Which is why he was stunned to hear from Heidel that he'd been identified as a terrorist in Denver.

"You're wondering, what the hell is going on?" he remembers. "My friend thinks I'm a terrorist? Who is this woman going around saying my name? How many other conferences is she giving?"

Heidel and Mohamedbhai spoke long into the night, and Mohamedbhai finally realized that whatever the hell was going on could be tracked to a failed attempt to open a checking account.

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Adam Cayton-Holland