In the United States we hear all the time about Arabs, other skin-tones and minorities facing scrutiny at airports. I’ve heard open-minded and well-traveled people comment when an Arab or someone dressed in an abaya or headscarf boards their plane.
In the Middle East there is no room for these irrational fears. At the airport Rachel and Edwin (our TA for the trip) both marveled at the diversity of the people around us. A woman in a flowing orange dress stood by the escalator and a family, Asha guessed, of southern Indians wearing beautifully embroidered caps were head of us at the passport check line.
When I got aboard our flight to Syria an old woman was sitting in my seat. She didn’t speak English but she showed me her ticket. Her ticket was a seat that didn’t exist on the plane. An attendant came and ripped up her ticket and she walked toward the front of the plane–to where I don’t know.
After some more communicative gesturing I took my seat next to an Iraqi man and his friend’s son.
In the midst of writing that last sentence, a commotion erupted a few rows back. I man dressed in white with a gold embroidered hat was yelling Arabic words I couldn’t understand. Flight attendants and others were yelling back. Slightly panicked, I shut my laptop, ready to hop off the plane in a second. The man sitting next to me smiled–and gestured his hands–nothing don’t worry. No problem? I asked in Arabic. No problem he agreed, clearly amused by the commotion.
The Iraqi’s name was Abdu and the boy was Amr. They and more family and friends were returning to Baghdad from Saudi Arabia. He took out his camera phone and eagerly showed me pictures from their hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca to see the Kaaba. The Hajj Is the fifth pillar of Islam and required of all faithful Muslims capable of making it. Abdu clicked through pictures of worshippers prostrated before the black stone, his family and friends, all dressed in the traditional white. He showed me his Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stamp in his passport. I was quite jealous.
Communicating anything substantive was hard, but I couldn’t not ask him about Iraq. How is it? What do you think of Americans? His face grew somber, he lost his kind smile. I had trouble understanding him but pretty sure, between gestures and words he said he had a lot and now he has little. We destroyed things. ‘What do you expect me to say’? He clearly conveyed.
I felt awful–guilty. I didn’t have words or eloquence to discuss anything in Arabic. I was so lucky, an America traveling, typing on my laptop on the plane with no real idea what these people had and are going through.
A older woman sitting diagonally in front of me caught my eye. She looked at me staring. It wasn’t a mean stare, more so of wrongdoing. I stared back for a moment, unsure what to do, not wanting to ignore her. Finally I extended my hand. “Ahlan, ismee Lily.” (Hi, my name’s Lily) She took my hand. She didn’t say anything but smiled slightly.
Later, when reopened my laptop she gave me a worried look again. Abdu did too. “Up,” I gestured with my hand and, “down.” It’s fine now–we only have to turn electronics off during takeoff and landing.
I showed Abdu and Amr pictures of my brothers, Sam and Grayson, sister Cady, parents and Cultural Kitchen class at Hosteling International. He wanted me to listen to his music and gave me a headphone to put in my ear. It was the Koran.I offered him one of mine, but he wasn’t willing to part with the Koran for a earful of Noah and the Whale. “Allah,” he said, pointing upwards.
Safely on the ground in Damascus, I gave him my name. the web address for our group blog. Internet? he asked, moving his figures in typing motions. Aiya. (yes) He smiled and said he would go to the web address.