Monday, May 11, 2009

Bound for...

...Abu Dhabi. Virtually nothing in these past 16 days has been what we would have guessed it would be. Traveling with this young a group, with several out of the States for the first time, has opened eyes but also revealed the world to be filled with the challenges of inexperience. What is commonplace here is unheard of at home. Flying across the entire length of Saudi Arabia, passing in the setting sun 35,000 feet below us, one thinks of the utter differences in that society and in ours. On the flight we are bound together by identity but more by the simple fact that we are on this one small aircraft and completely dependent upon it for our individual futures. If it were to land in the desert, under Saudi law, what would each of us experience?

The women next to me have come, it appears, from a haaj, from Mecca. They have in their bags a poster of the Great Mosque, picturing the elegant and honored moment when a swirl of black clad pilgrims circle it in an intense and profound ritual of worship. It is not something I would be permitted to see even if I wished to be there. My experience of it will be this one, of two middle aged women, completely inexperienced to flying and to the world at large, with exquisite headwear and down coats (in May) completely baffled by our fast talking, stunning stewardess asking them in lightning fast English whether they want salmon or chicken. The poster, stuffed into their carry on bag, alongside a plastic shopping bag with an inscription in Arabic over a painting of a woman, shoulders bare, black tresses flowing, with an impossibly large red hat looking knowingly towards me, is as close to Mecca as I will ever get. These two women, who complete their meal by opening an enormous canned corn, scooping it out in the only actual flatware I have seen served on an airplane in memory, with the scent of pilgrimage upon them, are my intersection with one of the core duties of being a Muslim – to go at least once to Mecca.

Inside that seductive image is something that is, indeed universal. It contains a tan Teddy Bear, bound, no doubt, for a little one waiting in a home somewhere over the horizon of what I know and possibly what I can imagine. They speak no Arabic and no English, they possess perhaps the worst cabin etiquette I’ve ever experienced, but the are so happy, so chatty, that none of it really matters. The contradictions of the bag, the New Orleans or old Charleston ingĂ©nue, and their manner is matched and then completely exceeded by the two women in full Hijab a row behind me.

Sitting in this first row of coach I have the legroom of first class, the seat of coach and a view, through barely closed dividing curtains, of the passengers in first. The newspapers are all in Arabic; the watches worth a years salary. The curtain parts and a man peers through in a classic white dish dash, with sandals and headwear. He is unshaven, with deep eyes, scanning the cabin. In the States he would be both an anomaly and a source of fear. His stepping through that curtain would inflame every stereotypical insecurity of a post 9-11 community on an aircraft.
Here he’s just looking to see if the rear cabin rest room is vacant.

The pilot comes on to say that we’ve just crossed out of Saudi airspace, entering the United Arab Emirates. The time on the clock jumps ahead another hour and we’re 8 hours in front of the States. Here its 8:09pm. An irony of the time zone is that it is used on only a small strip of the world, and the major cities are Muscat, the capital of Oman, Victoria in the Seychelles, and Port Louis in Mauritius (is it any wonder that two of those are utterly Western names?). The world clock skips a beat above Abu Dhabi, jumping not one but two hours ahead for the rest of the world. We are East of the African continent, East of Madagascar. North of us is Iran and Iraq. West of us is the Saudi desert and south of us….nothing below Yemen. To jump off the horn here you would not yet again encounter land until you came, at last, to the ice of Antarctica. We are at this moment closer to Australia than to the United States.

A woman walks by in the traditional black of a Muslim woman entering a conservative country. A moment ago, heading in the opposite direction, she was in an elegant pants suit. Yet in this moment on this plane we all co-exist simply, bound by that same purpose as of an hour ago --- confined to the cabin.

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