Usama Alshaibi was spending a lazy afternoon in the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife on a quiet street in West Town. He'd been waiting for a friend to pick him up for a screening at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, so when his doorbell rang he headed downstairs, but instead of meeting his friend at the door, he saw two men in suits. He thought they were Jehovah's Witnesses until they flashed badges.
Usama asked them to hold on a minute and sprinted upstairs to tell his wife, Kristie Alshaibi, that two FBI agents were about to come up. "I thought he was joking," she says, "but then I saw how freaked-out he was. I was completely naked, except for a robe, so I just ran into the bedroom."
Usama went back downstairs to let them in. When they came inside, he says, "they asked if I lived alone. I said, 'No, I live with my wife Kristie.' And they said, 'Oh, we actually wanted to speak to her.'"
"When I heard them say they wanted to talk to me," says Kristie, "I thought, oh shit, is there something to do with my pornography that's illegal?" By day Kristie, who's been profiled in these pages, works as a gallery assistant, but in her free time she puts her art school degree to use making explicit pornographic movies, usually collaborating with Usama, who's also a filmmaker. She also maintains an on-line journal where she posts daily musings and details of her sex life, plus a Web site containing footage of her bathing, urinating, masturbating, and having sex with a stuffed animal, among other things. "I automatically assumed that I had broken some federal law. Because I had also started this phony on-line journal that was a male character and a pedophile, so there's all these things going through my head."
"Then they came over here," Usama continues, pointing to the small kitchen table, "and there's like breakfast shit everywhere--cereal bowls and stuff--so I'm cleaning. They start looking around and one of them says, 'Oh, you have a nice place.' Then they sit down and--"
"They whip out their IDs again--show me, shake my hand--and I sit down at the table," says Kristie. "I'm not exactly sure what they said first, but what it came down to was, 'You run this Web site, what's it called? Art--?' And I said, 'artvamp.com.'" At this point the doorbell rang, and Usama let in the friend he had been waiting for--Sean Durr, creator of sex-and-gore gross-out movies like Meatfucker. Durr saw what was going on in the kitchen and took a seat on the bed that fills up most of the Alshaibis' living room. "Sean was just freaked," says Kristie. "Every time I looked over at him, his jaw was on the floor." Meanwhile, Usama pulled up a stool at the kitchen counter.
One guy pulled out some papers and Kristie saw her social security number highlighted. "I saw all my stats: my name, my address, my social security number, and a list of things. I don't know, I didn't really get a good look at it; I was just a little too freaked to be too nosy. They had a file on me, basically, that was maybe ten pages. He took out his notepad. They said they had an anonymous tip that I had said the next terrorist would be a white female. A white blond female." Which describes Kristie.
"No, you didn't say it would be," says Usama.
"Yeah, I said it would be because no one is expecting that." When the agents asked Kristie to explain herself, she told them, "'Everyone's trying to profile these young Arab men, so of course it would be logical if that's what everyone's looking for.'...And I didn't read any emotion from them. They were just deadpan, like it was just routine for them to ask these questions. It was very strange. All he wrote on his notepad was 'OK,' over and over again. Every time I'd answer a question, he'd write 'OK, OK, OK.' It was just a plain piece of paper on which he wrote 'OK' several times as he spoke to me."
"I have to stress that the whole time they [were] very casual, but we were freaked," says Usama. "I just felt like I was onstage, like everything was super exaggerated."
"But I couldn't help giggling every five seconds," says Kristie. "The guy asked where I work, and I work in the Hancock building."
"Remember," says Usama, "the guy asked you, 'Do you plan--'"
"Oh, yeah. He goes, 'I have to ask you, do you have any plans to carry out violent acts against the United States or Israel?' I said, 'No, I don't,' and I was kind of laughing. I state this in my journal that I'm not violent and I don't condone violence at all."
Usama keeps an on-line journal too, like Kristie, filling it with his aspirations and daily doings as well as his political beliefs. Recently he admonished Eunice Stone for blowing the whistle on the three Arab medical students on their way to Miami, calling her a "bigot cunt." Usama says, "We've always been very transparent in our views. If [the FBI] went and spent five minutes on the Internet just looking us up, checking up on us, they'd have lots of questions answered....We support Palestinians. We are opposed to secret arrests. We're opposed to our civil liberties being violated--"
"And bombing Afghan civilians," says Kristie.
"We dare speak out against war," says Usama.
Kristie explained all this to the agents, and she says the one who'd pretty much been silent up to this point said, "Oh, no, no, no. Your political beliefs and what you write are not under fire. You can think and say and write and publish anything you want. We just want to make sure there's no plan to carry out any violence. That's what we have to follow up on."
"He gave me his card," says Kristie. "And said, 'We also have people who work on antidiscrimination cases. So if you ever have any problems with that--'"
"And he looked at me and said, 'I'm in a biracial relationship. My wife's Korean,'" says Usama. "At one point I interjected and said something, and one asked, 'Were you born here?' And I said, 'No, I was born in Baghdad.' And remember, he said--"
"He said, 'Your English is really good. You don't have an accent.'"
"But beyond that, they didn't ask me anything," says Usama. "They weren't interested in my views or nothing. But I'll tell you something, ever since 9/11 and for days before these guys came, I'd say to Kristie, 'I feel like we're being watched.'"
They believe they've been on the FBI's radar for at least the last year and a half. Usama's brother, Samer, an American citizen by birth, was convicted of armed robbery in 1999 and sent to a minimum-security prison in East Moline. In October 2001, he was transferred to a medium-security prison in Galesburg. After September 11 of last year he had begun expressing sympathy with the terrorists who hijacked the planes. He told Usama that some inmates claimed he'd made dangerous comments. "We talked about it later," says Usama, "and he told me that he was trying to explain why other countries might harbor resentment toward the USA." But "he was calling me and I was getting uncomfortable with some of the things he was saying," says Usama. "He was talking about the 'beautiful martyrs' and all this stuff....He was specifically talking about this one Palestinian girl who blew herself up." Shortly after Israel's invasion of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip last spring, Samer was "put in segregation, and they said he was being investigated. From there he was transferred to maximum security in Pontiac. He spent six months in isolation, confined to his cell for 23 hours a day. He couldn't make phone calls and the lights were on 24 hours a day. My father went to visit him for an hour," Usama says, and Samer was shackled at his wrists and ankles the whole time. "This is someone who's supposed to be released in March of 2003 on probation.
"I was calling Springfield talking to various correctional officers and people who were supposed to be in charge of this. They were telling me, 'Well, you know, we looked at his letters and we have to investigate this. He said some things.' I said, I'm sorry, so you're telling me that because he's writing to various Islamic organizations, you're going to start investigating him? Why don't you call the FBI if you think he's a terrorist? Either he is or isn't, there's no middle ground."
"Well, he's a danger to the institution," one officer told Usama, "and he's a threat to himself." Usama thinks they got that idea from Samer's journal. "Really, we know what this is all about," says Usama. "I asked them if they had someone in the prison who was pro-Israeli and pro-Zionist and was writing to various Jewish organizations and supporting the Israeli soldiers, would that be OK? They said yes. But because he's Arab and vocal and into Islam and all that, they said, 'Well, this is the time we live in.' I can kind of understand that, but six months in solitary confinement?" Usama says Samer is no longer under suspicion for terrorist ties, "but what they put him through is really, really awful. And it's all over the country."
Usama found out that prison officials had asked Samer for the names of all his family members. "Were they targeting me and going through Kristie? I don't know. Who knows how they operate? I'm sure they wanted to speak to Kristie anyway, but we had another theory that maybe they just wanted to come check us out. My father joked that maybe they were looking for an Ayatollah Khomeini poster....But part of me was kind of proud of them for doing their job.
"There was a white van parked down the street with a long antenna about a month before the FBI came," says Usama. "You know when you're on the train and someone's looking at you and you just feel it? That's how I felt. I felt like we were being watched and listened to."
"Twice," says Kristie, "somebody was acting like a tourist and pointing a camera at me. It could be my paranoia--"
Usama: "But our phone was acting weird about a week before they came and a week after they left."
Kristie: "We have a cordless phone and we were getting a lot of noise--"
Usama: "Right when we'd pick up, there'd be this static, like something's being tuned. And then it'd go away....Obviously we were bugged."
They're pretty sure the FBI knew they were home that Friday afternoon, because normally both would be working but they'd taken the day off for the film festival. Usama says when he opened the door, "I was like, 'Finally.' There was a sense of relief."
"They weren't assholes at all," says Kristie.
"Yeah, they were very polite. But I'm curious if it'd be a different story if we didn't let them in or cooperate."
Kristie says there are several people who could've tried to turn her in, including her ex-in-laws, who she's currently fighting for unsupervised visitation with her son. She says they told her they didn't want their grandson, who lives with them in Missouri, to come to Chicago because Usama "might take off with us and go to the Middle East and not come back."
"Like that fucking Sally Field movie," says Usama.
"What it really comes down to," says Kristie, "is whoever called the FBI with this anonymous tip about my Web site, well, fuck them. I can still say whatever I want."
"There are ways to protect this country, and then there's a waste of time," says Usama. "How many calls do they have to follow up on?"
"The FBI agents even told us that a lot of the calls they get, they end up going to a Mexican family's home because a guy with brown skin who drives a truck was seen outside the Sears Tower," says Kristie.
"After 9/11, I was freaked out about what I said," says Usama. "I had received various death threats over the Internet--'Die, sand nigger' and shit like that. It was from people who'd read my journal and leave comments. I got used to it....There are people who look at me and hate me because I'm Arab. It's as easy and simple as that."
He was naturalized just last May, but before he was interviewed for citizenship, he decided to lay low. "I was afraid they'd say, 'You're not patriotic enough.' The ironic thing about all this is that I was raised here. I went to school here. I know what my rights are. It's the American institutions that have brought me to learn to think for myself, to be independent, to question my government." He says those are the very things he was afraid to express: "my own sort of independent spirit, me thinking for myself, questioning all this flag-waving, and rah-rah let's go to war. So I put a lid on it until I [was naturalized], and then I was very vocal....I just find it sort of depressing that there isn't more of an engagement, not more people speaking about this. I mean, there is a little bit, and I think with this tragedy, there'll be more of an awareness. But I think if we're not careful, things could get ugly."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Polling.