In those days it was as if each of us had been given a daunting assignment: observing and reporting all suspicious people and their activities. This was especially true of those flying on commercial airplanes.
And that is exactly what my husband and I were feeling called to do, just six weeks after September 11, 2001. In a show of support for one of our favorite cities, New York, we booked a trip up to see The Producers and The
Full Monty on Broadway, reconnect with the spiritual offerings of Strawberry Field in Central Park, and enjoy pizza at Trattoria del Arte and pasta at Pellegrino’s.
But, at the Houston airport, we realized our intended serenity could not exist in a country under siege. Now on heightened alert to identify and conquer potential killers, we began to survey the crowd at the boarding gate. The easiest way for me to assume my role as a married Miss Marple was to watch only Arabic looking men since those brutes, after all, destroyed our peace of mind along with almost three thousand people and the symbols of our financial sovereignty. Only two passengers looked Arabic. We eliminated the one wearing the outlandish turban because we decided a terrorist would not be that obvious.
The one that alarmed, particularly me, was a very clean-cut young Middle Eastern man wearing a white, long-sleeved shirt tucked into belted khaki pants. Ah-ha. With the perfect disguise, he was attempting to blend in by dressing normally. And he kept checking his watch and a cell phone. By the time we boarded the plane, convinced we were all doomed, I considered calling my sister to say goodbye. Our saving grace was that we had been assigned an aisle and middle seat and felt we could be available to help overcome the highjacker, if needed—à la United 93. Not having quite enough information to turn in a credible report, we headed to our assigned places, prepared to die within a few minutes after takeoff.
Much to our stunned amazement, the clean-cut young man soon occupied the window seat on our row. Since I was seated beside him and now sweating profusely, I decided to interrogate him in advance of whatever he
had planned for us. I wasn’t sure if we could understand each other’s accents or if he even spoke English.
While checking the possible assassin’s reading material to see if it included a copy of the Koran, I nervously inquired, “ Where are you going?” With perfect English, he responded, “I am returning to Brooklyn to visit my family.”
Doubting his story, I asked, “Have you been visiting in Houston?” “No,” he replied, “I am a first year graduate student at Rice.”
The young man told me that after what had happened last month, he really needed to see his family again. I learned that he had done his undergraduate work at NYU, where he studied Business Communication and was now working on his MBA at Rice. I told him my son, who was turning twenty-three in February, had just graduated with a degree in Business Communication at University of Houston. I was not at all surprised when my seatmate told me that he would be celebrating his twenty-third birthday in December.
For most of the rest of the flight, Adnan and I chatted about football, music, running, dogs, family, and more seriously, about the horrors that had befallen our beloved New York City the month before.
By the time we landed at LaGuardia, I realized that I had forgotten the rest of my assignment—that of being alert to passengers who left their seats to go to the bathroom or any other reason.
In baggage claim, we ran into Adnan again. This time he was hugging who I supposed were his parents, a sister, and a young child, the nephew whose picture he had shown me. I knew by then his parents had moved twenty years ago from their home in Iran to their current residence in Brooklyn where they owned an import-export company.
With teary eyes, elated smiles and open arms, they welcomed their boy home to a changed city in the center of a new world, where we were all desperately seeking to reclaim a feeling of security.
Ten years have now passed and we continue, with trepidation, to fly. And although we complain to each other and anyone else who will listen about the additional security hassles, we feel relieved to know we are not solely
responsible for apprehending suspicious looking passengers. And we have learned that a Muslim and a terrorist are not synonymous and that someone who looks like Adnan should not, merely for that reason, automatically be suspect.
And I now have more time to worry about other threats, such as germs from the lady coughing violently across the aisle from me and from the small, unsupervised child seated directly behind me, systematically kicking the seat.
Beth McKim lives and writes in Bellaire, Texas. She enjoys her Yoga practice, swimming, traveling, acting, and spending time with family, including her Labradoodle, Lucy. Her works have been published in numerous venues including Cell2Soul, Write Place at the Write Time, Birmingham Arts Journal, Della Donna, and Mayo Review.