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To Ahmed al-Menhali, his white robe and headscarf symbolized a long, proud tradition that stretches back to the time of Jesus, Abraham and the Prophet Muhammad.
But after al-Menhali was handcuffed at gunpoint at an Ohio hotel last week and accused of belonging to ISIS, that traditional dress has fueled an international controversy: on Saturday, the United Arab Emirates, where al-Menhali is from, advised citizens traveling abroad to “preserve their safety” and avoid wearing the white robe, called a kandura, headscarf and black headband.
On Sunday, U.S. Ambassador Barbara Leaf said that what happened to al-Menhali was “deeply regrettable” and that she was “heartened” to see that the mayor and police chief in the city of Avon — less than 20 miles west of Cleveland — offered him their apologies.
On Monday, during an interview with NBC News, al-Menhali said that the meeting was a “good step to go forward.”
But he wanted to make clear that there was no “shame” in his clothing.
"What I want to show the American people, this society — this is our dress,” he told NBC News, adding that he felt "injured" deep in "my soul."
Al-Menhali traveled to the U.S. for follow-up medical treatment at the Cleveland Clinic, Julia Shearson, executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations-Ohio, told NBC News. As his appointments were wrapping up, she said, al-Menhali was becoming a typical tourist, visiting the Amish and a Jewish heritage museum in Cleveland.
“He was just trying to get to know more about the American people,” she said. “He really loves it here.”
Al-Menhali went to the hotel looking for a room that he could book for an extended stay, adding that he didn’t choose a five-star hotel with more security “because I believe America is safe.”
Noting the Republican National Convention, the hotel worker told al-Menhali that no such room was available, Shearson said, adding that a manager then gave him additional recommendations.
While al-Menhali was in the lobby calling Booking.com and searching for other options, relatives of a hotel worker dialed 911 and reported him as a possible terrorist, claiming that he was "using multiple disposable phones pledging his allegiance to ISIS."
It was, al-Menhali said, like a “terrible dream” that makes him “angry.”
Then, he added: “more than angry, I am sad, too sad.”