Stripped of my carry-on luggage by a trim no-nonsense stewardess, I squeeze through the aisle to find my seat, 19C. I sense alternately curious and judgemental gazes sizing me up as I scan the row numbers. My sensitivity is an old irrational tick. I shake it off. I wonder who my seatmates will be for this five-hour haul. I pray they won’t smell. Then I realize how selfish I’m being and pray that I won’t smell.
A broad, angular Arabic youth and his slightly senior companion greet me at 19C. Instead of my usual perfume-laden, WASP female seatmate, I’ve been granted a chummy, chatty middle-eastern pair of men. Good, I think. They’ll keep each other occupied and I can have the flight to myself.
But no. As I flip open my notebook and prepare to apply serious mental energy to my hovering deadlines, I overhear the Arabic conversation next to me drift in and out of accented English. “So you just flew in from Australia? How long were you there?” the older man asks the younger one.
“Just less than a year. I was studying.”
The conversation continues, and it dawns on me that the quick-flowing tonality of their Arabic belies the meeting of two strangers. I can no longer restrain my curiosity, and I interrupt. “So you two guys know each other?”
No, it turns out. They just met on the plane. And they don’t even speak the same dialect. We are all three strangers.
My immediate seatmate, Biriarr, is a leather-clad 19-year-old Canadian from Kurdish Iraq, heading to the East Coast fresh from a long-haul from Australia. He just spent three years in Iraq followed by one in Australia; he has aspirations to study genetic engineering. The man next to him, Camille, is a 34-year-old Lebanese-Canadian who works for IBM in a suburb of Vancouver.
They both hail from the Middle East. And they are totally different. I chastise myself for assuming they were together just because they both spoke Arabic. Camille is a Christian and is the president of the BC Canadian Lebanese Society. He has a young family and a strong social network. Biriarr is Muslim, passionate about the history of his Kurdish hometown Erbil, an 8,000-year-old city boasting a castle built on 8 layers of previously crumbled architecture. He loves to wax eloquent on the virtues of Saladin, an islamic warrior from the days of the third crusade. Kurdistan isn’t a nation-state, though it comprises one ethnic group that spans across the borders of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
My two new friends’ differences soon condense into intriguing similarities. As the plane taxis through the runway and ascends, they undertake the task of educating me in all things Middle-Eastern and give me their run-down of “A Dummy’s Guide to the Middle East”:
1) Things are messed-up in the Middle East. And it is indeed all about oil.
The whole area is rich beyond belief. It’s rumbling with oil underground, just waiting to be harvested. Hence wars, terrorism, conflict. “It is sad, it is what it is, and life goes on,” says Biriarr. Generally people in the region are used to the conflict and they are happy when they can be. They don’t live and die by the news. But the collision of greed and oil — that’s the crux of the conflict.
2) The war on Iraq had just cause. Saddam was evil and had to go.
This was new to me. After all the Bush-hating propaganda I’ve heard over the years, it’s weird to hear someone once again laud the invasion of Iraq. According to Biriarr and to Camille, Saddam committed atrocities and wielded malicious, excessive political power. “America didn’t go in the right way,” says Camille, “but Saddam had to go.”
3) The overturning of regimes almost never works out for the good of the people.
All the rulers and governments turn out to be corrupt anyway. All too often, switching regimes in the Middle East is a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. Camille and Biriarr are sufficiently cynical. And they’re careful to avoid commenting on Israel, Palestine, America and the whole West Bank saga. “It is what it is,” Camille sighs. They both agree that North America is their ideal destination. Here, it’s progressive and peaceful. Though we Westerners complain about a lot of stuff, my companions say the corruption and lying in politics we see is nothing compared to what people have to live with in that region of the world.
4) Proselytizing is terrible.
Though Camille is a Christian and Biriarr is a Muslim, they agree on one faith tenet: the primacy of morality. They think we should respect each other’s faith and “do good.” Birarr keeps repeating, “Actions speak louder than words.” For Camille, the mantra is “be good.” Neither seems to care if you do this as a practising or non-practising Christian, Muslim or Jew. According to Camille, morality is not fixed but rather individually determined.
5) The Middle East is the birthplace of civilization
It’s an ancient and holy land, the wildly contested hotbed of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. It’s the birthplace of these three world religions, all of which claim Abraham as their forefather. It’s a region that is integral to humanity’s existence. It’s rich, diverse and beautiful in its cross-section of peoples and cultures. And it is bound to determine the course of global history.
Three hours into the cross-country flight, Biriarr and Camille finally lose steam. By silent mutual consent, the flow of our conversation stutters to a crawl. Camille pulls out his copy of Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game. Biriarr pulls out a science fiction novel and loses himself in it, then dozes off. Poor guy. Long-haul flights (from Australia!) are brutal.
I pull out my Harper’s magazine, but I can’t focus. I’m still buzzing with the glut of newfound opinion, still digesting the cultural relevance of my free crash course on Middle-East 101.
We’re cruising at 35,000 feet. How random, I muse. How random, how human, and how fascinating are the effects of meeting strangers on an airplane.
Flickr photo (cc) by Israel Defense Forces