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U.S. News
Salam Ibrahim El Zaatari: Deported Muslim

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As he sees it, Salam Ibrahim El Zaatari spent two months in solitary confinement for the crime of absent-mindedness.

An aspiring filmmaker from Lebanon who had violated his student visa by dropping out of art school here, Zaatari was trying to return home last October to Beirut, in part because his parents were nervous that Americans might start targeting Arabs in the wake of 9/11.

Security agents at Pittsburgh International Airport picked Zaatari out for a random search, found a small, disposable utility knife in his computer case, and, within days, he was under federal indictment and listed among the 93 arrested nationwide in the Bush administration's crackdown on terrorism.

It took two months for prosecutors and a defense lawyer to work out a deal that allowed Zaatari, 22, to plead guilty and go home.

"What happened was -- I don't know -- I guess it was fate. It had to happen," Zaatari said recently from Beirut.

Zaatari was one of a group of art and film students who lived together in a home in Beechview. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the ordinarily apolitical young man became fascinated with the event. He clipped newspaper articles on it and interviewed his housemates about world politics. When his bags were searched at the airport on Oct. 27, the clippings about the attacks raised more suspicions.

Despite pleas by friends and an offer by Lebanese-born engineer Malek Francis to provide a home for him, Zaatari was refused bail. When he admitted under questioning that he had smoked marijuana at a going away party, it further complicated things.

"No terrorist would smoke pot and go do something," Zaatari said. "It was just a matter of politics. A matter of holding another suspect -- something for the media to know [federal officials were] doing a great job."

A year later, Zaatari is making films.

One, done on digital video, was premiered at a Beirut cinema and later broadcast twice on New TV, an independent channel in the Middle East and Europe.

"It's called 'Sixty Minutes in a Straitjacket,'" Zaatari said. "Basically it talks about what happened Sept. 11 and terrorism from a different point of view. Now I'm shooting a movie about society in Beirut -- about alcohol, drugs and sexuality."

Would he come back to America?

"I'd love to come back," he said. The scale, the size and the openness of American society still captivate him. He has begun watching Steelers and Penguins games by satellite.

"I never liked football and now I'm watching football here in Beirut."

The major recent change in his life was a breakup with his fiancee.

"It was a really rough year."

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