Oscar 'Bin Laden' How Wal-Mart Banned a Terrorist Look-Alike

Wal-Mart is making life difficult for Oscar Brufani, a 52-year-old man who makes his living delivering potato chips in Buenos Aires. One of the corporation's store managers thinks he looks like Osama bin Laden -- and won't let him come near her store.
Von Karen Naundorf

Oscar Brufani has only shaved three times in his life -- the first time when he was 18 and needed to have his picture taken for his passport. He felt naked.

The second time came when he was given a medical examination. He felt humiliated. And to this day he still regrets the third time: He was 24 years old and wanted to do his wife a favor. She was pleased, but their three little daughters ran away -- frightened by the man with the bare chin. It was then that Brufani swore to himself he would never shave off his beard again.

And so he let it grow. And now his face has become a legal issue. It's keeping lawyers busy, as well as Argentina's National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism. Oscar Brufani, a normal man with a beard, finds himself fighting a multinational corporation. His fellow Argentinians are backing him -- thinking the North Americans must have a few screws loose -- and he's on the evening news. Brufani would never have thought his beard could cause quite so much trouble.

True, at the end of the 1970s, during Argentina's military dictatorship, soldiers yanked him out of a truck by his beard once -- men with beards were considered left-wing subversives then. But Brufani was never one of those people who used their face to make a political statement; he just wanted to look the way he did. So he started avoiding military checkpoints. He didn't want trouble.

His beard may be long, but it's hygienic, the now 52-year-old Brufani says. He washes it with shampoo every morning to make sure it smells good. It's 34.5 centimetres (14 inches) long and graying -- parts of it are already white. When he's at work, he tucks it inside his shirt the way other people tuck their tie inside their sweater.

Brufani is a self-employed small businessman who supplies all the major markets in southern Buenos Aires with potato chips. Being on time is the most important part of his job. Things always worked out well for Oscar Brufani -- until October 2004.

He was standing next to his truck in the delivery area of a Wal-Mart in La Plata. He had just unloaded his crates and wanted to go home. All he needed was the delivery receipt. But the store manager kept him waiting. She had been talking to two Wal-Mart controllers from the United States.

Those crazy Yanks

Brufani already noticed the two men in suits when he was unloading his crates: They were staring at him. They eyeballed him, whispered to each other, looked at him again. Then they went to the store manager's office.

"You can't work here anymore. Orders from upstairs," the store manager said when she finally arrived at the car park, Brufani remembers. He asked whether he had done anything wrong, and she told him no -- the problem was his beard. "The controllers think you look like Osama bin Laden. If you appear on any of the images recorded by the security cameras, I'll lose my job."

Those North Americans are nuts, Brufani thought to himself. Do they really think bin Laden would spend his time delivering chips to a Wal-Mart store in La Plata?

The next day, security personnel refused to let him enter the delivery area. To this day, Brufani still doesn't understand why. He's an Argentinian, the son of Italian immigrants; a cross hangs on the wall of his living room. All he knows about bin Laden is that he's a terrorist and lives in hiding -- in caves whose walls aren't decorated with crosses.

Brufani continues delivering chips to his usual customers -- except for the Wal-Mart store in La Plata, which refuses to open its gates to him. For Brufani, that's a disaster.

"I have to deliver to Wal-Mart. Otherwise I'll go out of business," he says. So he hires a driver and hides under the dashboard to explain to him where and how to deliver.

Taking on Wal-Mart

He keeps hoping the people at Wal-Mart will come to their senses, and tries repeatedly to enter the delivery area himself -- to no avail. In August, he decided he had had enough and he hired a lawyer. The lawyer is from a small firm, but he's experienced in this type of case. He once represented a victim of defamation -- a Jewish man who wasn't allowed to enter a supermarket. The issue was settled out of court.

Brufani hopes his own problem will be solved in the same way -- out of court, quietly and quickly. Maybe, he thinks, he'll even get some compensation.

But so far, it's not even clear that Wal-Mart is violating any regulations. Is it really a crime to claim that Brufani looks like a top terrorist and that you don't want to get your chips delivered from someone who looks that way? It's an unusual situation -- one that may not be covered by Argentina's anti-discrimination legislation, since Brufani is suffering neither religiously motivated nor racist discrimination. His lawyer would like to talk to Wal-Mart, but the Americans aren't answering his calls.

A press release issued by the corporation states that Brufani's charge is unfounded. The brief statement also refers to Wal-Mart's dress code, but it doesn't explain how, exactly, Brufani is supposed to have violated that code.

Brufani has never tried to shop at Wal-Mart. He says he prefers rival chain stores, where he's welcomed and treated like any other customer. Last year, one of the store managers even greeted him personally as he stood at the checkout.

"We've seen you on our surveillance cameras," the young woman said. And then she offered him a job: "Would you like to work for us as Santa Claus?"

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