8.1.13

Flying While Muslim: The Heathrow Experience


The woman at the ticket line with a nametag declaring her as Prisha gives me a smile and takes my boarding pass and passport. She scans the boarding pass then flips through my passport to the main page. A flickering pause of blank confusion and her head twitches up to look at my picture, look at me, then look back down at the name and the picture. Forced smile and she hands me back my passport and boarding pass. "Enjoy your flight."

Walking down the stairs to board the plane there is a landing before the tunnel leading to the plane door, and at that tunnel like the Sphynx at a pass stands a woman who looks Indian as well at a table wearing the dark starched blue of airport staff, legs spread apart and hands behind her back. One look at me and she extends one beckoning finger my way and says "You ma'am, would you mind coming here for a second?" -as if I have a choice- "I need to search your bags." The list carries three last names: one that looks either Persian or Urdu, one "Perry", and mine. I wonder if Perry was wearing a hijab or had an extra long beard. "Could you open the bag for me? Do you have any sharp objects in there?"
What, does she really think I'm stupid?
"No, just books," I answer truthfully. She looks as if she doesn't take me seriously until I unzip the carry-on and show her: all books. "They're my treasure," I tell her wryly as she unbelievingly shuffles through the piles of books, uncertainly moving around the Qur'an on the top of all of them, asking me incredulously if it really is all books in there. "And some papers on the bottom. These are more precious to me than gold." I open my other bag and show her my prayer rug, laptop, and more books.
"This is really all you have?" She seems shocked to the point of amazement. "All you do is read?"
"And write."
"Ahhh, you're a writer?"
"I'm trying." I give her a tight smile, thinking it's over.
"Okay, now I need to do a body search. Spread your arms, please."
I was wrong.
As she wipes her hands rhythmically over my body she hesitantly says, "I like books....I would read if I could, but....I never have the time."
I twisted my mouth a little as she was bent down feeling the length of my legs through my skirt. "Yes, well, sometimes I wonder where I get the time to," I say without emotion, trying to just say anything to not think about the indignity and injustice of it all. When she's done I smile at her and tell her to have a nice day but can't put much of the genuineness of true well-wishing into it for it to sound heartfelt, and the woman ends up looking surprised and nervous at my farewell.