When I was going through Security at Barcelona International, a very old Muslim man in a wheelchair and his wife were in front of me. He was wearing the kufi,a small white brimless cap, and a cream-colored dishdasha, a full-length long-sleeved tunic. His wife wore the hijab and a long black dress.
She made it through but he set off the metal detectors. They told me to wait while Security patted him down. They walked him through the metal detectors a second time and he set it off again. They used the metal-detecting wand that beeped near his hip. They patted him down yet again, then he had to step onto a contraption I’ve never seen before. They gave him the chemical test by swabbing his hands. What impressed me was his incredible patience. He followed their instructions until they seemed satisfied.
An hour and a half later I boarded the plane and made my way to my assigned seat. Coincidentally, they were there — the wife was sitting in my seat and the old man sat in the middle seat. I certainly wasn’t going to ask her to move, so I took the aisle seat next to the man.
He couldn’t figure out how to secure his seat belt, so I motioned for him to stop trying and he put his hands in the air like a child. I buckled him up. (Later I would unbuckle him so we could move to let his wife go to the bathroom. After she returned, I buckled him back in.)
We were flying on Air Arabia. Once the doors were closed and they had given the safety spiel, the pilot said in Arabic (then later in English) that smoking and alcohol were banned on the flight. Video screens lowered from above the seats and a prayer to Allah was given over the loudspeakers in Arabic. On the screen the words were printed in Arabic, French and English.
The prayer was for Allah to keep us safe during the flight. It reminded me of what we called “travel mercies” in the Pentecostal church, a specific prayer for protection when going on a journey. I could hear the man whispering the prayer.
An official prayer on a plane? This was a first for me. It was a crowded flight; there was one other Caucasian passenger.
As we lifted into the air, the old man nudged me and pointed at my hand. He opened a small red package and poured two white squares of gum into my palm. I thanked him and started chewing; they had a minty flavor, but also tasted vaguely vegetal. I turned to him and said, “This is good.”
He pointed at his jaw and shook his head to say, “I can’t chew gum.” Then he opened his mouth and his dentures popped out like the money drawer of a cash register. It surprised me so much I burst out laughing. He pulled them back in then laughed along with me. I suspected he did this quite often to amuse others.
He asked me if I spoke Arabic then asked in Spanish if I spoke Spanish. I said no then asked, Parlez-vous francais? He shook his head. We had no shared language.
He said, where you live? I told him California and he smiled widely and said, California!
Then he said, Not America, no? I laughed at that and said, yeah, there does seem to be a difference between California and “America.” I asked him where he lived. He frowned and said, “No English.” Apparently, he had used all he knew. (I wonder: when he said Not America did he actually say Not American meaning he wondered why I’d said California rather than America?)
He started speaking in Arabic — slowly — and pointing to me, and then to himself. It seemed important to him but I couldn’t figure it out. He repeated what he had said, so I said it back to him.
He clearly wanted us to interact. I wanted to ask him where he lived so I pointed at myself and said, California then I pointed at him. He said, Tangier, our destination. I told him I was going to Tetouan, but he didn’t understand. Later, when the video screen showed the map with an airplane and the progress of our flight, I pointed to Tangier then moved my finger over to where Tetouan is located while saying it.
Ah! Tetouan! He understood.
He repeated what he had said earlier — he intended it to mean that I was Something to him, and he was Something to me. It sounded like “Bennie” — and he would point to me — and then he would point at himself and say “Bennie-azh’ee.” My impression was that it was about the difference in our ages. But I was wrong.
I am writing this the day after the flight while at the residency. Jeff, the Executive Director, is from Philadelphia and speaks Arabic. He explained that Ben means “son” and to add the I — Ben i — is to say, “you are like my son.” And Ben-aji means, “My son is coming.” He meant I reminded him of his son, who was coming to visit.
When we touched down, the old man prayed his gratefulness. The moment he finished he pointed outside to indicate landing safely, then pointed to his praying hand. What is English…?
I said, Thankfulness. He repeated the word back to me, as if he was memorizing it.
I opened his seat belt for him. People were rushing to get off of the flight and pushing past, even from seats behind us. Finally I forced my way into the aisle and blocked it while the old man and his wife got out of their seats and made their way to the front of the plane.
We had to use wide metal stairs to go down to the tarmac. I didn’t let anyone pass— he was feeble and had difficulty using his cane on the steep steps. When we were finally at the bottom, the people from behind practically jumped over us to get to the terminal.
The airline brought wheelchairs for them; I saw they were taken care of.
He said, Salaam — peace be with you. I touched my chest then gave him a salute. He smiled, touched his chest then waved goodbye.
10 thoughts on “My Muslim Companion: Encounter on an Airplane”
Made me cry. You captured this treasured intimacy beautifully, Bart. Thank you.
I love this post. You are still the wonderfully sensitive man I have always known you to be. Thank you so much for sharing your travel experiences!
I’m glad you enjoyed it!
Bart, this was so well told. With all the rancid language in our public debates, this connection that can exist among all people if we all just show compassion can make a difference in the long run (assuming we survive the short term). A high school friend of mine does outreach and cultural awareness on behalf of American Muslims in DC. I can’t wait for her to read this piece.
Peace be with you. I’m looking forward to seeing you soon.
Thanks so much, Jeff — I’m glad to hear you plan to pass it along.
And I look forward to seeing you, too — Vancouver, here we come!
The best thing about traveling is often the people one meets. We have been touched by people’s desire to communicate, to be of assistance, to just “be” with us. It can equally be fraught by cultural differences, but overall what I often remember about trips are the encounters with strangers. Your blogs are so delightful. Thanks for taking us with you.
These connections with strangers are what we tend to remember when we think back on our travels. Maybe it’s the unexpected nature of them that stays in our minds. And how important people are to us, whether we know them or not.
Thanks for responding Dierdre —
Glad you had some nice companionship during your flight. It’s interesting, the differences in cultures, when traveling. The expectation that those seated first should exit first is what I would expect as well. My last occasion to fly, a young man – obviously (?) from another country – pushed to the front of the plane before the seatbelt sign had barely gone off. My first thought was it was rude, but then I realized he might have been rushed for a connection flight. After reading your post, maybe it was just a cultural difference. I guess I’ll never know!
So good to hear from you. I think it is a cultural difference — I’ve seen it in other situations since I’ve been here. However, there’s a reverence for older people, and so no one said anything while I held them back — not a peep, not an exaggerated sigh or anything.