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Features

Mirror image

A simple case of mistaken identity becomes much more complicated when the person you most resemble is an accused terrorism supporter.

By BOB ANDELMAN
Published May 2, 2006


[Times photo illustration]
Can you tell who above is Sami Al-Arian or St. Petersburg author Bob Andelman? Many people cannot. (Andelman is on the left).

I could tell by his expression that something was bothering the man I had hired to clear some backyard brush. I couldn't follow a lot of what he said in his thick Jamaican accent, but one message kept coming through: "Sami? Sami?"

No, I said. Bob.

Finally, I produced my driver's license as proof of my true identity. He didn't seem convinced, but at least he stopped asking.

Months later, he was back to do more work: "Sami?"

Not again.

The first time it happened was in 2002. A friend saw a picture of former University of South Florida professor and alleged terrorism supporter Sami Al-Arian and did a double take because he thought it was me. He thought the resemblance was funny. I didn't.

Not that time, or the second, third or 100th time.

The more attention Al-Arian's case got in the media, the more often it happened. Even I could see why: The wire-rim glasses, classic bald head, the shape of the ears and, more particularly, the way we shaved our salt-and-pepper beards were all eerily similar. We're even close in age; Al-Arian is 47, I'm 46.

Al-Arian's case has affected my ability to travel freely, too. No one ever looked twice at me in an airport until Al-Arian's face started making the front page. Suddenly I was getting extra security checks, being pulled aside for extra wanding, questioning and delays. I was never strip-searched, but I always wondered if that might be coming. The hassles finally relented when I bought a pair of funky blue plastic-frame glasses that looked nothing like the wire frames and oval lenses Al-Arian and I apparently both preferred.

Curiously, it didn't matter to anyone that Al-Arian had been in jail for three years on charges that he raised money that went to terrorist organizations.

It also didn't matter that one of us was Jewish (me) and one of us was allegedly interested in killing Jews (him).

And it probably wouldn't have mattered to anyone who mistook me for him that I was somewhat sympathetic to his plight, first being suspected for years but never charged, then held in jail even though a jury acquitted him on eight of 17 charges and deadlocked on the rest. While I couldn't be more disgusted by Al-Arian's angry, misguided politics, we are supposed to be a nation of laws and due process. Get accused, get your right to trial. Get acquitted, go home. That's our system, whether he believes in its righteousness or not.

In the years before his trial, Al-Arian disappeared from public view for months at a time and my life in particular. But then, word of a plea deal leaked out in mid April and Al-Arian returned to the front page of the St. Petersburg Times, his photo above the fold. The face was so familiar, so mirror-image, that unwrapping the plastic from the paper that morning, even I thought it was me.

My wife was reading the paper over breakfast. She showed the front page to our 9-year-old daughter. "Rachel," my wife asked, "who is that a picture of?"

"Dad."

"No, really, who is it?"

"It's Dad."

I have written a number of books and magazine articles, and as a result Rachel has seen my face in print and on TV. She didn't think it was a big deal that my picture was in the paper, nor was she curious to know what I might have done to make the front page.

And she wasn't easily convinced that it wasn't me.

My wife asked her, "Rach, this man in the newspaper is supposed to be a terrorist. Do you really think he looks like Daddy?"

"Don't you?"

A few days later, Rachel and I were in the drive-through line at the bank and she wanted to talk about Al-Arian again.

"Dad, do you think he knows you?" she asked.

"Why?"

"Maybe," she said in all earnestness, "he wanted to drive you out of the country, so he made himself look like you."

Recently Al-Arian struck a deal to plead guilty to a single count and leave the country. And on Monday, a federal judge sentenced him to spend another year and a half in prison before he's deported.

But even when he leaves the United States, I don't see the problem going away. Every time I go through airport security in the future, I expect I'll still be stopped by people who think he's back. Or who never heard he left. I'm in the news business; I know people don't pay attention to details sometimes.

Hope the prescription on those blue glasses still works.

Bob Andelman lives in St. Petersburg. He is the author, most recently, of "Will Eisner: A Spirited Life."


[Last modified May 2, 2006, 08:13:35]


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