Waris Ahluwalia, Back in New York, Turban in Place


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On a trip back from Mexico City, the actor Waris Ahluwalia was told that he would not be able to fly until he removed his turban.

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Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

Waris Ahluwalia was standing in the middle of Park Avenue Armory last Thursday night, waiting for the Marc Jacobs fashion show to begin, while a series of famous well-wishers came up to greet him.

“How are you? How are you?” the actress Juliette Lewis said to Mr. Ahluwalia as his date for this evening, Natasha Lyonne, gabbed nearby with Zosia Mamet. “You made it out! What you did was so great. It made we want to wear a turban.”

She was, of course referring the news that Mr. Ahluwalia — a 5-foot-11, nattily dressed 41-year-old Indian-born man who typically shows up at social events like these dressed in a dark custom suit and always in a black or navy blue turban — had gotten into a bit of trouble recently when he tried to board a plane.

On Feb. 8, Mr. Ahluwalia was due to return home from Mexico City, where he’d attended Zona Maco, an annual art fair. At Mexico City International Airport, a staff member for Aeroméxico told him he would have to remove his turban for secondary screening before being allowed to board the plane.

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Mr. Ahluwalia refused, arguing that the airport’s body scanners and metal detectors made this extra step unnecessary. The United States Transportation Security Administration seems to agree. In 2010, the agency updated its guidelines to allow people with head wraps to travel without taking them off.

But the airline didn’t budge. Mr. Ahluwalia was escorted away from the plane, and told that he would not be allowed to fly until his turban had been removed.

Soon, he posted a picture of himself in the airport, where he spent the next four hours, with the caption “Dear NYC fashion week. I may be a little late as @aeromexico won’t let me fly with a turban.”

He spent the next day back at his hotel in a kind of travel limbo, but not without generating some attention to his situation. Since Mr. Ahluwalia had acted in numerous films for Wes Anderson and Spike Lee, news of the ordeal went viral. Outlets including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, GQ and The Daily Mail ran articles, starting a conversation about the kind of discrimination people in head wraps say they are routinely subjected to.

Then, on Tuesday, Aeroméxico issued a formal apology on its website, vowing to strengthen its “customer service protocols of our safety personnel” to better reflect the “cultural and religious values” of its customers.

The next day, Mr. Ahluwalia flew home (on Aeroméxico), and when he hit the Moncler, DKNY and Marc Jacobs fashion shows over the next week, he was greeted with accolades, a kind of mini-Rosa Parks for post-9/11 travel.

“So how’d it even end?” Ms. Lewis asked. “It’s so bizarre.”

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Mr. Ahluwalia shared his ordeal on his Instagram account.

Mr. Ahluwalia said: “They apologized, and they’re going to train their staffs. Which is all I asked for.”

Growing up in New York City — where his family moved from Punjab when he was 5 — Mr. Ahluwalia said racism was not a major factor in his life. He attended Brooklyn Technical High School, then went on to Marist College in Poughkeepsie. After graduation, he moved back to New York, where he became a fixture on the downtown fashion scene.

Through Ms. Lyonne, an early roommate with whom he spent many a late night at Moomba (“We never dated,” she said, “despite both of our best efforts”), he met the actress Chloë Sevigny, along with Tara Subkoff and Matt Damhave, the designers behind Imitation of Christ. For much of the aughts, he was involved with Chiara Clemente, the daughter of the painter Francesco Clemente.

In 2003, Mr. Ahluwalia was cast with Owen Wilson and Bill Murray in Mr. Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” a farce about zany oceanographers looking to murder a shark. Shortly after that, Mr. Ahluwalia founded a jewelry company called the House of Waris, which sold at Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman.

But after 9/11, Mr. Ahluwalia found that wearing a turban on the streets of New York was becoming an increasingly uncomfortable experience.

First came the stares from strangers. Then there was an assault in 2002 on the way home one night from the nightclub Don Hills. Mr. Ahluwalia was standing outside Joe’s Pizza on Carmine Street when a man walked up to him and punched him in the face. “Knocked me straight to the ground,” Mr. Ahluwalia said.

Traveling became a nightmare. More than a dozen times, Mr. Ahluwalia said he was flagged for secondary screening. “That’s why I said no,” he said, bringing the topic back to Mexico City. “I’d said that before; this was the first time they didn’t let me board.”

Ms. Lyonne said: “In a way, I think Waris’s weird Zelig-y life has prepared him perfectly for this. You have this person who seems like they exist in a dream life, and there’s nothing more grounding, literally, than having this happen.”

But now it was time for the show to begin, and the publicist at Marc Jacobs was getting exasperated at all the people milling about. “Would you please take your seat,” he said, fixing his stare upon his old friend Mr. Ahluwalia. “You are clearly a security issue now!”



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