Dark Man at the Airport
It was my great misfortune to be traveling from New York City to Paris just two months after 9/11.
For while my passport is American and clearly states that I was born in New York, there is no getting around the fact that the name printed beside the photo of a dark-haired, dark-eyed, and slightly unshaven young man, is “Sayrafiezadeh, Saeed.” Saeed being the variant spelling that my Iranian father and American mother chose for my birth certificate, and which subsequently became the spelling on every one of my legal documents. It was also, regrettably, the same spelling as Saeed al-Ghamdi, the twenty-one-year-old from Bahah Province, Saudi Arabia, who helped hijack United Airlines Flight 93 before it crashed into the field in southwest Pennsylvania killing all forty-four people on board.
“You’re going to have problems at the airport,” a friend cautioned.
“I know,” I said.
It made no difference, of course, that I didn’t speak one word of Persian, or that I’d never been anywhere in the Middle East, or that I was generally presumed to be Italian, or that my mother was an American Jew from Westchester. My name doomed me to a life of being Middle Eastern. It was a name that, in the end, did not matter if it was spelled Saïd or Saeed or Syeed.
And another friend, hoping to bring some levity to my impending day of departure, suggested that after I collect my belongings at the X-ray machine I yell out, “My god is greatest god!” We laughed at this.
But it reminded me of a story I once heard about two Brazilian men who had been detained at the airport under suspicion of drug smuggling. The men were completely innocent and had come to the United States for a week’s vacation. Nevertheless, the authorities kept them handcuffed in an airport room, interrogating them on and off for six hours, before eventually strip-searching them. Discovering nothing, they were freed. The damage had been done, though, and the men returned to Brazil the very next day. The message, according to them, had been heard loud and clear: we don’t want you in our country.
As for myself, I had been fully expecting to experience some form of xenophobia ever since that Tuesday morning I stood on the West Side Highway and watched the second airplane crash into the World Trade Center, hoping that it might be due to some sort of mechanical failure. Later that same day, bleary and dazed, I sat across from my girlfriend Karen at the only restaurant we could find open, and declared that being Middle Eastern in America in 2001 would soon be tantamount to being Jewish in Germany in 1939.
“You heard it from me first,” I said.
My prediction didn’t turn out to be true. At least not by the time Karen and I were to leave for our Thanksgiving in Paris. We had booked the vacation nearly six months in advance, and then proceeded to count the days with delicious anticipation. Now the concept of traveling was fraught. I had briefly argued for canceling our trip, but less than a week after 9/11 a friend of ours had flown to Toledo on business without incident, and then someone flew to the Bahamas, and it was quickly apparent that air travel had resumed to normal. Not to go would be an act of cowardice. Moreover, I was convinced that such behavior would only contribute to a general sense of hysteria that was slowly enveloping the country, a hysteria that would soon target every Middle Eastern person regardless of their actual nationality, parentage, or place of birth. My predicament, thus, was twofold: I was afraid of the airplane nearly as much as I was afraid of the airport.
And then, four days before we were to leave for Paris, American Airlines Flight 587 lost a rudder right after takeoff and crashed into Queens killing all two hundred and sixty people on board and five on the ground.
Karen and I arrived at JFK on Friday evening, November 16th, three hours before our 10:55 PM departure, since three hours had replaced the customary two hours for international flights in order to accommodate increased security delays.
The airport was as crowded as ever. But a soldier dressed in camouflage and holding a submachine gun ambled through the concourse. I could detect an edginess at check-in, as if people expected at any moment something was about to happen. Karen and I stood together in the long line, slowly inching our suitcases closer to the counter. I had the sensation that I was being observed by someone, somewhere. A dark man and dark woman, possibly Middle Eastern, stood in a line adjacent to ours, and as we neared them I tried to make eye contact, wishing to convey a feeling of fraternity. In the foreground, I could see the soldier passing back and forth. His presence unnerved me. It also irritated me.
“Who do you think he’s looking for?” I asked Karen. “Blonde guys with blue eyes?” And for a moment I worried I might have said it loud enough for him to hear me.
Karen looked at the soldier and shrugged. “He’s just here to make people feel safe.”
I stewed silently. Then finally I said, “He’s adding to the hysteria.”
When it was our turn at the Air France counter, I did my best to put on a happy, confident, untroubled face that would assure the female attendant that all was well with Sayrafiezadeh, Saeed and that he had no concern whatsoever with presenting his passport.
But I could tell right away this was not going to be easy. The attendant looked at me curiously and then at my photo. She typed something into the computer and then hit the return button hard. I followed her eyes following the screen. What was she reading? I could feel the back of my neck grow warm.
“Traveling to Paris?” she asked. It sounded like an accusation.
“Yes,” I said. A tight, crisp yes. A yes without an accent.
She typed, she waited. Her gaze was alert and mistrustful.
“Are you checking any luggage?”
“No.” A causal no. A no that accentuated the yes. See, I’m a casual American guy.
Meanwhile, a steady stream of suitcases moved along the conveyer belt behind her. Endless and without interruption. A thousand black suitcases of varying sizes. A million. Differentiated only by an occasional colorful tag or ribbon. For so long we had all lived under the assumption that we would be safe as long as our suitcases were safe.
And then the attendant printed something out, tore it sharply along its perforation, folded it in thirds, placed it an envelope, and said, “Enjoy your trip.”
I walked briskly through the concourse, passing the soldier with his submachine gun who struck me now as a harmless, comical figure. “Doesn’t he kind of look like Mick Jagger?” I snickered. My passport was in my back pocket and I touched it to make sure it was still there, and then I touched it again-happy that it was an American passport. And then ashamed that I was happy. I thought of my Iranian father having to live his life beneath the heavy yoke of an Iranian passport. After that I thought of my Jewish mother and 1939.
At security we were greeted by an overweight black man who looked exhausted. I smiled at him but he didn’t seem to care about smiles. I knew from recent articles in the New York Times that he earned somewhere between six and seven dollars an hour and most likely had a second job, which all worked in my favor because he appeared to have no investment in any of the documents I presented to him. He opened my passport with a slow hand and made a show of studying the picture, but just as quickly closed it, handed it back, and waved us through to the line that wound towards the metal detectors. The machines beeped and beeped. Here I could feel the edginess again, the expectation. The line surged forward then stopped. Then crawled. The beeping grew more frequent. How was it humanly possible, I wondered, to catch everything? White men in white uniforms stood along a wall watching the column of people filing through. These men were not the same as the underpaid security screeners. They were professionals and they meant business. Years ago the metal detector had gone off on me and as a joke I had said,
“Don’t worry, that’s just my bomb.” “I can arrest you right now,” the guard had told me. I was eighteen and had wanted to display my wit. Instead, I had been frightened and humiliated. The guard had let me go but the lesson was learned.
My god is greatest god, popped into my head. The sad humor of how easily I could jeopardize myself. I looked at Karen who was beginning to empty her pockets into the plastic bins. I looked at the white men in their white uniforms. I looked at the belt that I had just taken off making my pants sag, leaving me feeling helpless and exposed like a little boy in a schoolyard. People had mocked the government’s new prohibitions on things like tweezers and straight-edged razors and cutlery as bumbling attempts by an incompetent government, but they had all missed the point that what was really being X-rayed in the end were people.
And I suddenly knew, without the slightest doubt, that I was heading for trouble.
Into the plastic bin went my belt, my jacket, my wallet, my passport, disappearing into the dark tunnel of the X-ray machine. I watched it all float away. Karen walked through the metal detector with no sound, crossing one step closer to Paris. And then I lifted our two suitcases onto the conveyer belt and crossed through myself. There was no beep. But I knew there would be no beep. I knew that my peril was in the guards in white, who now surrounded me, three of them, asking, “Sir, is this your luggage?” “Sir, can we see your boarding pass?” “Are you traveling with anyone, sir?” “Yes,” I said. I tried for a crisp yes, but there was no longer any crispness.
“This way, sir.” And I followed dutifully to a metal table where the men unzipped my suitcase, because they could unzip my suitcase if they wanted, they could search me if they wanted, they could detain me if they wanted, for years if they wanted. Because this is the reality of America post-9/11.
“Oh, that’s mine,” Karen said, referring to the object in question that one of the guards held in his hand. A long, brown cylinder that indeed looked like a weapon, but in actuality was an EpiPen Auto-Injector that Karen carried everywhere because she was allergic to peaches and plums and eggplant and if she were ever to eat any by accident she would need to quickly give herself a shot of adrenalin in her thigh. She explained this to the guards and showed them the prescription from her doctor.
“Enjoy your trip,” they said.
At the gate Karen and I found two seats against the wall and talked excitedly about everything we were going to do in Paris, and all the museums we were going to visit, and all the things we were going to eat. Croissants, crepes, croque-monsieurs.
“What about frogs’ legs?”
We both laughed. No way! Ha ha ha. Maybe snails, though.
There were still thirty minutes before it was time to board and so we started a game of
Scrabble on the little travel set that I had bought Karen for her birthday. The game was soothing and I spelled the simplest of words. I realized there had been a pounding in my head since I first arrived at the airport and I could feel it begin to recede. An older couple sat down next to us speaking French, and Karen looked at me romantically.
Midway through the game I asked Karen if she was nervous about flying.
“No,” she said. “Well, maybe a little.” And after a pause she asked, “What about you?”
“Not anymore,” I said.
We played on and then Karen took a pee-break. I sat there thinking about nothing, and then I thought about boarding the airplane, and putting my luggage away, and whether my seat would be any good… And suddenly, no longer having anything to worry about concerning my ethnicity or my nationality or Sayrafiezadeh, Saeed, I was gripped by the thought of that plane that had lost a rudder and crashed in Queens just four days earlier.
And I thought also of standing on the West Side Highway on that Tuesday morning and watching United Airlines Flight 175 come over from New Jersey, growing closer and closer, wondering if that was the airplane that was coming to put out the fire. I thought of bin Laden’s declaration that Americans will never be safe until Palestinians have a homeland. And I remembered those hallucinations in the days immediately after 9/11 where I was so sure I saw planes flying too low over the city. Once I had panicked at the sight of a Goodyear Blimp heading directly towards the Empire State Building, heading, heading, heading, until I realized that my depth perception was distorted and the blimp was actually miles away. And I thought of TWA Flight 800 that had plunged into the Atlantic Ocean in 1996, just twelve minutes after it had taken off from JFK. It had also been flying to Paris. I had known a woman on that plane. A friend of a friend. We had had dinner together once, just the two of us on the Upper East Side. She was rich and I was broke and I had spent the entire meal hoping she would pick up the tab, which she had. The next I heard, she had died on that plane. Everyone had suspected terrorism right away. But it had never been proven. I had thought of her often after that, how her body was lying somewhere on the ocean floor. How horrible it was to picture that. And how horrible it was to picture Karen and me now flying over that same ocean, at night, heading in that very same direction.
And it was then that I saw him: a young man about my age, but whose skin was a shade darker than mine. He was standing. Why was he standing, I wondered, when there were plenty of seats available. And he seemed anxious. Anxious, why? He had no luggage with him. No bag. No briefcase. No book. Who boards an eight-hour flight with nothing?
He was wearing a white shirt that flowed loosely past his waist, and which, to my untutored eye, had a vague Arab influence. A shirt that, under any other circumstance I would have seen as stylish but that now seemed like a subtle warning of sorts. No, there was nothing overtly Middle Eastern about this young man, but hadn’t that been the great misconception about the hijackers? That they had stood out conspicuously at the airport in their robes and turbans. In truth they had looked just like regular people. Regular people who happened to have dark skin and dark features and box-cutters.
For a moment I was seized by the idea that maybe this man was the twentieth hijacker I had heard spoken of. Then I pushed that idea out of my head. Or maybe he was the twenty-first hijacker. Was there a twenty-first? And I recalled the chilling story that the actor James Woods had told about how, one month before 9/11, he had flown first class with four men who looked like they could have been Middle Eastern. They had had no luggage either, no carry-on, no newspaper. They did not speak or eat or drink the entire flight. Instead, they sat and observed everything. Woods had told the flight attendant about his concern, and she, along with the pilot, had filed a report with the FAA, but the report had been lost beneath a mountain of reports and nothing ever came of it. And yes, Woods had confirmed later that at least two of the men on that flight in August were the ones who would hijack the planes on 9/11.
I had disbelieved that story when I had first heard it. To me it had smacked of xenophobia, told by a blatantly xenophobic man who had once referred to Arabs as “towel heads.” But now I saw myself as James Woods. If only he could have done something more when he had seen those men. If only he could have made people listen to him. Perhaps things would have turned out differently for all of us.
I must say something, I thought. I must say something right now. I will go to the attendant at the counter and tell her. That is what I will do. And if she does not believe me, I will stand on a chair and I will shout at the top of my lungs: Attention everyone! There is someone among us…
But what if I was wrong and falsely accused this man? I imagined the endless shame and embarrassment. Would he forgive me? Of course he would. He would have to. We would have a good laugh about it afterwards. I would put my arm around his shoulder and say, “These are strange times we are living in, brother.”
But what if he did not forgive me? Could not forgive me? Would I have inflicted irreparable harm on him, on his soul? I thought again of the story of those unfortunate Brazilian men and their vacation of trauma.
No, I decided, I must not say anything.
But what if I was not wrong? What then?
My quandary was suddenly inflamed by the image of a thousand suitcases passing by on the conveyer belt, of a thousand people walking through the metal detectors, of a weapon that was really an EpiPen, of the Atlantic Ocean waiting in the darkness. It is not humanly possible to catch everything.
And then, from out of the low rumble of the airport, I heard the most frightening thing of all: “Air France Flight 9 is now ready for boarding.”
This essay is excerpted from Flight Patterns: A Century of Stories About Flying, edited by Dorothy Spears.
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