Monday, May 21, 2012

Tales from Queen Alia International Airport

There aren't many reasons to fly between Amman and Tel Aviv. The official flight distance between Queen Alia and Ben Gurion International Airports is 68 miles. I, however, have taken this route a number of times for two reasons:

  1. in transit to Cairo
  2. during the Gaza Massacre in the winter of 2008-2009, when my mother (never mind that I was a 38 year-old adult) felt that it would be safer for me to take a short flight than a long bus/taxi ride across the land border.

I honestly cannot recall whether the two stories I am about to tell happened on the same trip or on two separate occasions. It doesn't really matter. But I can assure you that they are both true stories that occurred between 2007 and 2009 – one while waiting to board a flight from Amman to Tel Aviv, the other upon landing in Tel Aviv from Amman. Also, there is no particular rhyme or reason for these stories to be told today of all days. There may be a time in the distant future in which these will become non-stories, but until then, they are somewhat timeless.

First story: The Iraqi dude

As I was minding my own business, surfing the web at the airport Starbucks, I caught a silver-haired gentleman in the corner of my eye. He seemed to have been struggling with his own laptop, and something told me that he would soon be seeking my asssitance. It wasn't too long until he indeed turned to me and asked for advice on connecting to the wi-fi network. Somehow it only seemed natural to him that I'd speak Arabic. I thought I detected an Iraqi dialect, and I peeked at his Royal Jordanian boarding pass only to confirm that his destination was no other than Baghdad.

I believe something went wrong with the wireless connection, because he wanted to email someone to inform them that his flight was being delayed, and for some reason he was not able to do that. He then asked me for a second favor. He asked whether my cell phone worked in Jordan, because his, he said, only worked in Iraq. I gladly let him make a quick phone call, and he thanked me profusely. I remember telling him there was no need to be so apologetic, since "we're both fellow Middle Easterners." I was wondering whether he'd get the hint, given that I didn't say "we're both fellow Arabs," even though the entire conversation was in Arabic. Though I strongly doubt he ever suspected that I was from Israel.

Second story: The Yemenis and the South African Mossad agent

Upon Landing in Tel Aviv from Amman, I noticed two young-ish looking Yemeni Jews. I have seen many like them in my lifetime, but something about these two guys threw me off. They were young, younger than I probably, yet they appeared as if they had frozen in time. They looked like the images I had seen in history books and newsreels from the late 1940s and early 1950s. I immediately new that these men were Yemenis who lived in Yemen, not Israelis of Yemeni descent.

In the seat just ahead of me sat a man, who, as is customary in Israel as in many Western countries, turned on his cell phone as soon as the plane touched down. I heard him speak English with a South African accent. He then turned to the two Yemeni men and asked them, in Hebrew, whether they spoke Hebrew as well. One of them said that he did, but his friend not so much. He then asked them several personal questions that indicated that he knew quite a lot about their backgrounds. He knew what town in Israel they were about to visit; he knew that they had relatives in Israel who had visited them in Sana'a a few months prior for one of the Jewish holidays. He even boasted that he himself "helped organize" that particular journey.

Now, to someone from outside the region this may seem like a "so what" story. But for someone like me, for whom the Middle East is home, but one filled with locked rooms, learning that there is ongoing traffic between Yemen and Israel, albeit restricted to Jewish Yemenis and Israelis of Yemeni descent, is a big fuckin' deal. 

And even my first story, to me, is something that I cherish. And I wish that were able to tell more stories like it. And I wish that I were not in a situation in which I was ashamed to tell the nice Iraqi gentleman where I was really from. 

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