Monday, September 11, 2006

Flying while being an Arab

I didn’t realize when I made my reservation that my trip would be on September 11, a fateful day, and a day that has literally changed the face of the world, forever.

The thought of flying on Monday morning September 11th worried me at varying degrees the whole weekend.

Throughout the weekend the image that kept creeping to my mind was that of actor Anthony Hopkins, as Hannibal Lector in the movie "Hannibal" where he was wheeled off on two wheeler hand truck, his hands chained to his chest, his mouth and face restrained by a horrific mask to prevent him from talking or perhaps biting, his legs were chained to the two wheeler to prevent him from any possible movement.

I confided my thoughts to my good friend Ray on the weekend where we got together to tape our cable talk show. He laughed at this stab of dark humor.

Humor from my other friends did not alleviate those thoughts much, especially when my other friend Ray (that’s another Ray! :) ) Suggested after I told him about it that: "they might even wheel you all the way off the Guantanamo bay".

I half smiled at the thought, I am an Arab, but I am not a terrorist, I murmured.

On this fateful day, my friend took me to the airport, it was a rainy day in Chicago, and that means heavy traffic and flight delays.

I checked in thought one of those airport machines that allow you to get your ticket by swiping your credit card. I wanted to do just that because for one I didn’t want to stay in line for long, but deep down I was trying to avoid drawing attention to my Arab ethnicity, today was not a good day to flash my Arab identity around, I will try to remain as invisible as possible though it does not mean I am ashamed of who i am or ashamed of my identity and culture.

And also I did not want to take a chance and deal with perhaps an overly suspicious or zealous counter person who once looking at my name, Ali, will be thinking, ha ha , here is one of them one of those Arabs trying to fly on September 11, how dare he! Here is the face of the enemy standing before me trying to be on a plane! he sure looks like an enemy, after all, all Arabs look alike.

To my surprise, the machine was very nice and very sweet to me; it checked me in right away, wow, so far so good, then after some easy questions that flashed on the screen about my name and my destination, I heard the sweet sound of ticket being printed out to me, it was all mine for the taking. I exhaled in restrained relief. It was painless first step.

But still I have to go through the lines of security and the preying eyes of those who man the machines and whose eyes scan for suspicious behavior or terrorists or perhaps for those who even look like terrorists.

These people are doing their job, the thought flashed in my head, I mean they are suppose to do that, its for my own safety and the safety of everyone else too, therefore I should not be afraid of them, I mean I don’t want to be on a plane and end up being hijacked, if that is to happen, God forbid, for sure the FBI, after looking at the passenger’s manifest and seeing the name Ali! Definitely will think that I am either the hijacker or one of them! Not good!

Then I walked through the security line with my ticket and driver license in hand ready and eager to pass through when suddenly I heard a voice behind me, SIR! …For a second my mind froze, thinking oh my God! That is it! I am busted for flying while being an Arab!

You dropped your ID back there sir, a soft female voice said, I looked and there was a sweet blond lady handing me my own driver license, it was my driver license for sure, there is my face was on it. Ohh thank you, thank you very much Ma’am I said it with an obvious sign of relief and appreciation. Can you imagine I walk up to the front of the line without an ID and just a ticket, for sure this will arouse suspicion of me, and the last thing I want is to be stopped, taken aside and being searched and frisked thoroughly and even investigated by the cops. This lady had just saved me a lot of trouble, even though she read my name on it, Ali! And for sure I look like an Ali, but still she handed it to me, and did not call the guards or somebody on me! Deep down I was grateful that she didn’t because I have heard horror stories about Arab Americans who got into a lot of trouble and humiliated simply because they were Arabs.

It was my turn up the line, I handed my license and my ticket, the young lady looked at both attentively and handed them back to me, I put my bag, my jacket, my other belongings through the X-Ray machine, and proceeded to walk through the metal detector, when the security on the other side said, take your shoes off sir. I promptly and dutifully obliged then proceeded to walk through the metal detector, which luckily for me remained quiet.

I collected my bag and put my jacket on and walked to my gate thinking the worst is over now. I called my friend Ray who dropped me off to tell him that I made it thus far and I am still walking on my own feet, I am not chained up or masked up or being wheeled off by stern looking guards.

I got to the gate and it was packed with passengers going to other cities, my plane was delayed due to the weather, so I sat drinking coffee and reading the papers while the TV over head showing memorial services and stories about 9-11.

After finishing reading the papers, I found myself in a standing area watching TV, and others also gathered around me watching the moving images of 9-11 tragedy. I looked at the faces of passengers seated across from me, there were many people young and old, men and women. Then I realized that it might not be a good idea standing just like that in full view of everyone, someone might spot me and alert everyone that there is an Arab in here!

At that moment I remembered a line I heard in the movie Menace II Society which was about the rough life of young African Americans in the ghetto, where an older actor was giving a troubled young black man an advise to straighten up by warning him with an ominous line “ It is very hard to be a black man in America, the hunt is on, and you are a prey” His words for sure sums up the feelings of Arab Americans post 9-11 world, many of us often times feeling like a prey and being hunted at the first sign of being identified as Arabs particularly at airports. For me, I was trying to be invisible and avoid being hunted.

Those fears might real or might be imagined, but nonetheless so many Arab Americans feel them.

My fears did not arise to an alarming level, however I mean, I never had any problems before; I was never stopped for simply looking like an Arab! And I did not see any staring eyes looking at me suspiciously, even though I scanned the multitude of faces around me, looking for some worried face eyeballing me, or trying to measure me up, or looking for any sign of me being a terrorist. But I found non, in fact no one had paid me any attention. Perhaps no one thought of me as stereotypically Arab, I mean I wore no turban like Bin Laden or any other” turbanite” I had no thick bushy long beard, I didn’t even have a light one, nor did I wear a bushy mustache like that of Saddam Hussein, in fact I clean shave my face every morning, but perhaps more importantly I was not wearing one of those long white fluffy robes nor did I sport big curvy hand-crafted dagger around my waist a symbol of manhood In some middle eastern societies.

Finally they called us to start boarding the plane, a process that was easy and fast, I took my seat next an older man who immediately took a nap, while I immediatly resumed reading a book about the history of Iran devouring its pages consumed by the historical events that shaped that nation that seems to be sitting on tenterhooks now.

An hour an half later we were on the ground, and I felt good that I made it thus far and hoped there will be no last minute surprises. And sure there weren’t any. I waited till I am physically outside the airport to call my friends, just to be sure, and to tell them that I made it safe without a mask, cuffs or being chained to a two-wheeler hand trucked like Hannibal lector.

On September 11 five years ago, there were many passengers on planes that did not make it to the ground safely. Those passengers did not have a chance to call their wives, husbands, and friends and loved ones to tell them that they made it safe to their destinations. My fears and worries were nothing comparing to the horror the victims of September 11 have went through knowing they will no longer see their loved ones again, nor will they even live to tell their own stories of fear and the terror they went through before they departed this world forever.

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