(Continued from last week)
When he reached the final security checkpoint the guard took one glance at his passport and let him pass. “Why doesn’t he stop him?” I wondered anxiously. Just ahead of me in line stood an elderly woman, probably someone’s grandmother. The guard pointed first at her and then at me and explained that we had been randomly chosen to go through a thorough search, as if the earlier security checks had not been thorough enough. After 15 minutes of thorough examination, I was allowed to put on my shoes and belt, and to repack everything that had been torn out of my carry-on luggage.
Entering the plane I contemplated the absurdness of being force to go through these humiliating searches at every gate, over and over again. Why should I, a father of five with my pale Scandinavian complexion, be suspected of being involved in any devilish terrorist plot? And the old lady who had stood in front of me at the control table, surely she wouldn’t hurt a fly! Nothing seemed to make sense anymore.
When I finally reached my seat and placed my hand baggage on the chair, our eyes met for the first time. The suspicious looking, young, Arab man, raised his eyes for a split second to look at me from his seat next to mine. “This can’t be happening” I thought. I stowed my bag, took my seat, and as calmly as I could said, “Hi, How are you?”
He mumbled something in return but did not seem to be very sociable. I tried to think of something intelligent to say to get a conversation going but came up blank. Instead I reached for the flight magazine in the pocket in front of me and opened to an article about the events of September 11th. Coincidence?
I glanced at the man next to me. He was holding several small, handwritten notes in his hand, all written in Arabic. He seemed to be trying to conceal them from me while he read them, which only made me more suspicious. I’m sure I was not the only one on the plane who had noticed the nervous, young man. But what could I say to him? He was such a neat, clean cut, well-dressed young man.
The plane began rolling and we soon took off towards Amsterdam. Soon the smell of food filled the cabin, lunch was being served. It actually smelled good, even if I wasn’t really hungry. Without really thinking I turned to the young man and said, ”Food will taste good, I’m starving!” He looked at me and nodded. Our food was served and we ate in silence, the conversation I had hope for never got off the ground.
I noticed that he didn’t drink the wine that was served, so I assumed he was a devout Muslim. As we finished our meal, and the stewardess removed the trays, I turned to him again and mentioned that the food had tasted good. He nodded his agreement.
There I was, sitting next to a terrible terrorist who was most certainly going to blow up the plane. If that was the case I at least wanted to know why. I needed to get him talking. I asked him, “Where are you going?” A simple question; not too intrusive. He looked at me and answered without hesitation, “I’m on my way home to Abu Dhabi to see my parents.” “Abu Dhabi!” I exclaimed, “I have been there many times on my way from Europe to Asia!” He smiled at me and his nervousness seemed to evaporate. We began talking about his homeland, the desert and the ocean.
He told me he was studying at the University of Washington in Seattle. But he also had a hobby. “Do you like pocket watches?” he asked as he stood up. He brought out a beautiful leather bag. “I buy these in the US for a few bucks, and sell them in Abu Dhabi for around $1000!” He brought out one pocket watch after the other, all wrapped in toilet paper, to show me. They were all from the 1800’s. “You see,” he explained “American’s only like new things. I buy old watches, pay a small price, and sell them for a good profit.” He brought out an unusually small pocket watch, carefully wrapped in paper. “This is from the mid-1800’s. I will keep this one for myself.”
He collected many items and antiques from the US. This time he was also bringing a Ford Model-T that his father had ordered for the museum he owned in Abu Dhabi. We had a lot to talk about and the trip over the Atlantic passed quickly.
When we parted in Amsterdam I was amazed at how quickly my fear and suspicions were dispelled by a little conversation. It is not at all surprising that he was nervous at the airport in Seattle, nor was my reaction surprising. We were both victims of the events of that dreadful morning of September 11, 2001. The world may never be the same again. But I learned something on that trip to Amsterdam. Communication may be our primary weapon for dispelling fear and misunderstanding between people. While evil may now have a face and a profile, not everyone who fits that profile is evil. Something to remember as we live and travel in this multicultural world, communication is more important today than it ever was.