Around the many seating areas in the terminal, which included the lounges by each of the gates, men in dark green jackets were running shuttle services for disabled and elderly passengers. Each shuttle had a manager who carried a manifest. The six-seater golf carts would transport passengers unable to make the arduous walk around the airport, driven by young men carrying walkie-talkies. I was struck by the fact that most of them spoke Urdu (or Hindi, as the case may be). In fact, the bulk of Hammad International’s staff were Asian, either from the Far East or from the Indian Subcontinent. I had been brushing up on my Arabic (stale from lack of use and a gap of more than thirty years since I spoke Arabic) in the hopes of impressing the Qatari staff, but I never got to use it. Everyone spoke English, which considering the transit volume at the airport, wasn’t surprising.
Despite the splendour of my surroundings, twenty hours in an airport is not a memory I hope to keep, with the exception of one incident. About twelve hours in, I needed to sleep and decided to try out one of the ‘quiet rooms’ I had seen in and around the airport. The recliners were comfortable, and with very few exceptions, the rooms were indeed quiet. People walked in with the sole purpose of sleeping, and they did so with admirable respect for fellow travellers already asleep. I had a shawl with me, in anticipation of a cold welcome in Boston, and I was glad that I did, because the airport was freezing.
It was so cold, in fact, that my shawl offered me no comfort. A couple of young German girls had walked in just behind me, wearing sleeveless shirts and shorts. They were shivering in the cold until I noticed that there were several people covered in grey and maroon blankets, clearly stamped with the Hammad International logo. I suggested to them, in clumsy sign language, that they ask for blankets, but they were clueless, and clearly too intimidated to ask for anything. So I went up to a gorgeous Arab woman who was covering another elderly woman with a blanket and asked her (in my broken Arabic) where she got the blankets. She laughed.
“It is cold, yes?”
“In Qatar!” I felt my eyes go wide as I said this.
“This is inside. Outside,” she gestured towards the fading twilight sky beyond the large double-glazed windows of the quiet room, “it is…whoo.” She didn’t know the word for sweltering; instead, she breathed out in feigned pain and wiped imaginary sweat off her brow. She led me with charming sweetness to a desk where they were handing out blankets.
I brought back an armful of blankets, musing at the irony of it all. Who comes to a Middle Eastern country prepared to spend the night in a freezing airport? It does get cold at night in the desert—I have memories of freezing nights in Medina, a long, long time ago—but Hammad International is more than an oasis. It’s a giant freezer designed to keep the sun in check. They’ve conquered the heat, but gone to another extreme with the temperature control in the airport. And the ones least equipped to handle the cold were, strangely enough, all from cold countries.
The flight from Doha to Paris took almost seven hours. It was largely uneventful, until a four-year-old girl two rows behind me decided she hated her younger sister. For an hour, she told the passengers around her, her parents and anyone who would listen that her sister was both dirty and crazy. She kept yelling at her mother to move the younger girl, and even lashed out at her sister with her tiny little hands. She told her mother, loudly, insistently and with frightening stamina, “She’s dirty, she’s crazy, I don’t want her here!” She screamed it for an hour. When the stewardess came by to tell them that the child needed to be in her seat and buckled up, the little girl sat down on the floor, and kept screaming.
I don’t know what I would have done in that situation, but her parents kept calm. They apologised to everyone around them, but they didn’t give in. The girl screamed herself hoarse. She finally dropped with exhaustion into her father’s lap just as the plane began to descend. She was cradled and kissed and soothed in her father’s arms as we began to deplane, rocked to sleep while her mother tried to keep her younger child quiet (she was badly shaken by her sister’s screams).
As I walked off the plane, I was more thankful than annoyed by the little girl’s dramatics. It kept my mind off the impending feeling of disaster as I followed a line of passengers around a terminal and into a new security check for transit passengers. The security check was efficient and except for the fact that they made me throw away the half-full bottle of water I had been drinking (water, for God’s sake! I was drinking it in front of them. It wasn’t a chemical weapon of any kind), pretty straightforward. I was directed to a shuttle that would take me to another terminal, and nothing after that was straightforward at all.
I didn’t have a boarding pass for the Paris flight. I had no idea what gate the flight would be at. There was an information desk at the terminal I was shuttled to, but the lady behind it was impressively bored with our stupid questions. “Just look at ze screen.” She pointed out three screens that listed the flights scheduled for the next twenty-four hours. The cities and airline names zipped by; I had to wait patiently for the listing to Boston to roll through twice before I picked up on the gate. I tried asking the ‘help desk’ lady (in quotes because she was literally no help at all) whether I would get my boarding pass from the gate or if there was another check-in desk that I needed to get to. She clicked her tongue at me, and said, as if to a child, “The gates are zat way. Go, go, zat way!”
I followed another group of transit passengers, all equally frustrated by the help desk, through a confusing array of duty free shops and signs (all in French) to the departure lounges on the second floor of Terminal 2A. The gates were all in a row, hugging the edge of a semi-circle that I barely got to explore. Unlike Doha, I had less than four hours at Charles de Gaulle airport, an hour of which had already zipped by in security checks, shuttles and annoying help desk staff. My gate was almost at the end of the semi-circle, and frustratingly, the checkpoint was empty of all personnel. I had a gnawing feeling that, without a boarding pass and on top of that damn name issue, I was going to find out that I was at the wrong gate and that I missed my flight already.
At this stage, I had been either in an airplane or an airport for more than thirty hours. I was looking out the window at Charles de Gaulle (you can’t see much of Paris from the airport. I still haven’t seen the Eiffel Tower) and wondering what fresh air smelled like. I had another three hours in the airport and eight hours on a plane to look forward to. It was a low point for me. I couldn’t even start up my laptop, because the power outlets all had different shaped sockets than my charger, and I was down to fourteen percent battery power. So I did what Nillu Stelter suggested in one of her blog posts: I wrote long-hand. I pulled out a notebook, put my head down and dreamed of the book that I was going to finish when I got to my secluded little corner of Vermont. I wrote ideas, scenes, dialogue. I drew small diagrams and listed out the experts I needed to speak to for background research.
It calmed me down and let me drift away from the tension of the empty desk at the gate. Before I knew it, an American Airlines official was taking my passport and waving me on towards the plane. I scarcely realised that the stern-looking man who had checked my passport barely gave my name a second glance. The staff called me ‘Syeda’ all the way to the airplane, but no one suggested that I was defrauding aviation authorities around the world by not revealing my middle name to them.
If I remembered the ticketing agent’s name back in Karachi, I would have hexed him; a plague on his house. Was he simply trying to get me to buy the more expensive ticket, or did he really believe that security services around the world wanted to make Muslim air travellers uncomfortable?
Because it isn’t true. Despite the news stories, the dramatic rumours, the fears that so many people have tried to drum up, Muslims travelling to the US aren’t subjected to cruel and inhuman TSA torture (nor are all Muslims trying to blow up the flights they’re on). In Boston, except for the very, very long line at the immigration desks, no one even asked me to open my luggage. I was waved through without a second glance.
The first thing I did when I pulled my luggage out of the terminal was to step outside and breathe. The weather was hot, Karachi-hot (82°F), and I sorely regretted the layers of clothing I was wearing. But the slight breeze that blew across my face was the sweetest thing I had felt in almost two days.
The air isn’t salty here, or humid, like Karachi, but it feels as heavenly as the air I feel at home, filling my lungs with the certainty of life. For all I know, this is the same breeze that travels across the world, touching people in countries familiar and unfamiliar to me. Maybe it finds its way back at some point, reminding us all that we’re on the same planet, breathing the same air.