Nov 23, 2011

Ride and Prejudice

Written as a travel missive to family and friends while en route to my first medical exchange in Oxford

Just got off my transit flight to Abu Dhabi. Saw Water for Elephants (like The Notebook but with Hans Landa the Jew Hunter from Inglourious Basterds). Also Thor, based on the premise any sufficiently advanced technology appears to be magic (thus Norse gods=aliens), and any sufficiently awesome animation appears to be a ticket seller.

My third movie deserves the dignity of a paragraph all to itself. Midnight in Paris, despite the uninspired title, was marvellously camp and clever. Imagine a Being John Malcovich-esque surrealist plot about a mild-mannered American writer in Paris who gets transported back to the roaring 20s to hang out with Hemingway, Picasso, Dali… Now imagine it with Owen Wilson in the main role and directed by Woody Allen. Fascinating without getting too snobby or complicated.

But what I really wanted to write about today was an experience I had on the plane that shook my very beliefs to the core. A true saga for a post 9/11 age. But first I will provide some context.

I have a particular affinity with the Arabic people and language. For my after school trip I spurned Europe in favor of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. In that time I picked up a few words and I’m the sort of busybody asshole that uses a tenuous connection like that to attempt to engage in conversation any and all potential Arabs I meet, in what is probably an attempt to gratify myself about how worldly I am.

My second preface is that I am a political junkie, amateur student of international issues, and broadly speaking a man of the left. So of course I scoffed with a liberal air of cultural superiority when Juan Williams admitted fear of Muslims when flying. Didn’t he know that international Islamic terrorism was almost entirely confined to a small subset of Salafis?

And so it was that I boarded my flight en route to my university medical elective. With boundless enthusiasm I prepared, packed, and departed, and I was delighted to find myself sitting next right in between three gentlemen of what I could only assume to be of the Muslim faith on account of their impressive beards. When one stood up to allow me access to his chair, I smiled and thanked him in Arabic. Impressed, we struck up a conversation which fortuitously turned to why I was travelling, thus allowing me another opportunity to show off by boasting about the prestigious professor with which I was placed on elective. We chatted about the weather. I was introduced to young Abu on my right, Mohammed on my left, and an older gentleman over from Mohammed who mumbled and whose name was thus lost under the hum of the turbines.

We drifted back and forth into lightly stimulating chit-chat, Mohammed especially being friendly and educated. All three were naturalized Australian with accents to match, Mohammed originating from Algeria, Abu from Ethiopia. Since they didn’t appear to be family, I asked how they knew each other. Mosque they said. How nice that they were all travelling together. Yes. At this point Abu excused himself for the bathroom.

Over time I could not help but notice how long Abu had taken. Fair enough. A man mustn’t rush himself, and it is especially important while traveling to take one’s time to feel refreshed. On his return he pulled out a copy of the Koran and the three discussed briefly how frequently and where they would pray on the flight.

Now at this point a less tolerant man than I would have perhaps felt a little nervous. A paranoid interpretation might be that these gentlemen were home grown terrorists of the like so common amongst disenfranchised young men in the West. Perhaps they hatched a plan at their local mosque and Abu was mixing liquid explosives in the toilet, which besides from my imminent death, would mean the bastard was complicit in the great toothpaste plane ban. Maybe they were concerned with getting their final prayers right because they would be their last.

But I was not a less tolerant man. My friends will know a penchant I have for overthinking things, and have a tendency to run a little paranoid while tired, drunk or otherwise incapacitated. So while the thoughts above did occur to me, I successfully chastised myself for being silly.

But the gods of air travel sought fit to test me this day. Soon enough, Mohammed went to the bathroom. And stayed. When he finally returned, Abu got up and returned to the bathroom. I remembered a CNN animation made in the wake of the original foiled liquid bomb plot. The plan was to set up a chemistry set in the bathroom and send people up to it one at a time to bring ingredients. This played through my mind when I saw Abu loading up his bum bag with things from his carry on bags and take it to the bathroom AGAIN. When he returned, again after a time, he seemed to swap with Mohammed. In fact it was probably more than half the flight that either Abu or Mohammed was out of his seat. After one return, Abu asked if he could swap seats with me so he could talk to Mohammed before the latter disembarked at Singapore. Ice shot through me as I realised that Mohammed said earlier he was the trip “organiser”. Did that mean he was the organisational mastermind? Was he getting off early so he could avoid martyrdom to help “organise” again? It’s worth noting that at this point I was severely lacking sleep from a misguided attempt to stay awake to fight jetlag.

The sensible lefty in me kept telling me to remain calm. But the evidence was stacking up. Even the older gent was taking turns in the bathroom, and he looked nervous. In an attempt to relax myself (and convince Abu of the goodness of humanity if my suspicions were true) I started talking to Abu about his life. Guess what he studied. Just guess. Think of the field most likely pursued by a budding terrorist.

Dude was studying aviation mechanics. With a dry throat, I queried what the deal was with the window covers and why we had to close them on take off and landing. He replied that it was to do with passenger orientation.

“Passenger orientation?” I gulped out, “Why do passengers need to be orientated?”

“Because in the event of a crash, they will be able to see outside better and know how to escape” Then he looked into my eyes with a stare that chilled my soul, before he chuckled quietly, “Like that’ll help”

At this point I excused to the bathroom myself, sobbing quietly. Abu was in one of the stalls. I decided I should hide around the corner so I can use his stall and search it for incriminating evidence. I would save this plane myself if I had to. When he finally got out I crept in and pored over every square inch of this stall looking for god knows what chemical stain or something. Nothing. I calmed myself down, brushed my teeth and freshened up.

What is the moral of this story? Needless to say, I was not murdered by Mohammed and Abu. Also obviously, they were just normal guys. It started to make sense later when Mohammed said they were going on Haaj (pilgrimage to Mecca) together. Abu was just young hopeful student (probably going to suffer in his field because of discrimination the likes of which I had just perpetrated). That also explained the prayer. Apparently the bathroom visits were to keep clean for the purposes of ritual purity.

I was driven to an act I’m not proud of. Searching the bathroom had no negative consequences for them, but what if I had the ability to inflict more damage with my prejudices? Like, say, declaring a war on the basis of little evidence as estimated by major national intelligence agencies? We’re all open to bigotry, no matter how open minded we think ourselves. And we’re all a little bit silly when sleep deprived.

True story.*

*May be slightly embellished. Names changed for the sake of poor Abu, who had a distinctive one. Didn’t really need to change Mohammed’s name.

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