Poor old Khairuldeen Makhzoomi. The brainy Iraqi student from the University of California, Berkley was unceremoniously booted off a Southwest Airlines plane in Los Angeles after a fellow passenger heard him speaking Arabic; in particular when Mr Makhzoomi ended a phone call to his uncle by saying “Inshallah”, or God willing. A bit harsh don’t you think?
Still, American Arabs are finding an effective way to wage war on this new paranoia. A satirical online magazine, The National Profiler – “Muslim news you can use” – recently created a hilarious spoof ad in which Southwest advertised “Arabic Select”, an upgrade for passengers who want to “fly with confidence knowing that your language choices won’t arouse suspicion that you’re a terrorist”. Great stuff.
But who do we fly with these days if we want to avoid a clash of cultures? The Arab airlines are the obvious choice (and let’s face it, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways are among the most highly rated carriers in the world) but if they aren’t an option, I can assure you that European carriers are shot through with enough sangfroid to ensure they will never lose their nerve at the first sign of a cultural misunderstanding. And I’ll tell you why.
On a bright and crisp late November morning in 2008, I was at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport sitting in an Air France airbus destined for Heathrow. I had my preferred aisle seat; the person sitting next to me, an Englishman, didn’t seem like a “talker”; I was cracking my way through The New York Times crossword and looking forward to a few days in London.
Then from the back of the plane I heard what I thought was a man shout “Allah Akbar”. Surely not? Two minutes later – and this time there was no mistaking it – he said it again. I looked around but nobody appeared to be concerned. He said it a third time and I felt a bead of sweat push itself out of my armpit.
My companion, who until this point had been reading his paper, turned to me. “Any idea what he’s saying?” Why he thought I spoke Arabic I had no idea. “God is the greatest,” I replied. “Oh,” he said, and went back to his paper with an admirable display of sangfroid.
By now the man with the mystery voice at the back of the plane clearly felt he had to up the ante “You are all going to die,” he declared in Arabic. A stewardess walked past. I gripped her arm. Could she not hear what the man was saying? “Oh don’t worry about him,” she said and continued to show passengers to their seats. Heavens, I thought. Evidently they don’t know what he was saying. We were all going to die. What were the odds? One commercial plane, somewhere on Earth on one particular day falls into the hands of a loon and I was on it.
I stood up, pretending to get my bag from the overhead locker so I could get a glimpse of the man who was about to blow us all to smithereens. But all I saw in the very last row was a North African-looking man handcuffed to two burly plainclothes cops.
Terror threat was immediately downgraded to hooligan alert. OK, so this guy the was being extradited and trying to postpone the inevitable by sowing the seeds of panic. The two “seen it all before” cops didn’t seem to inclined to do much – one was even reading a magazine – and so it was only a matter of time before our man once again raised the stakes. Clearing his throat, he sent a large projectile of phlegm into the next row of seats and on to the back of someone’s head.
That seemed to get the desired effect. Passengers began to get up and move to the front of the plane, creating a bottleneck with those still boarding. Chaos threatened until a diminutive French steward marched purposefully down the aisle. I didn’t rate his chances, but then again what did I know? “Listen,” he barked at the man. “You will shut up and behave. You are going to London. Enough.”
Amazingly enough he did “shut up”. The steward strode back to the front amid spontaneous applause.
What’s my point, you ask? Nothing really; only I’ve just been waiting eight years to tell that story.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter