Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Learning to Fly

When I was twenty-one, my parents sent me to school in England for an entire summer. My father, who has not been on an airplane since he was approximately that age, told me to get blind drunk the minute we were airborne because he didn't want to write me for Valium. With that piece of advice, I boarded a nonstop trans-Atlantic flight from the Greater Cincinnati Airport to Gatwick, outside of London. I stayed both wide-awake and cold sober the entire time, unable to read or focus enough to play cards with the other students in my group. I remember that the in-flight movie was a Tom Hanks- Meg Ryan flop called Joe Versus the Volcano.

All through the summer, we followed the news on Armed Forces Radio, the BBC, and in the Times about the escalation of hostilities in the Persian Gulf. On the day that American troops crossed the Kuwaiti border, we flew home amid tight airport security...eleven years prior to 9/11. We were held in a debriefing area after we cleared security in Cincinnati, because of one student in my group: Ayser, the daughter of an SFU professor, a quiet, shy Muslim girl who worked in the university library part-time.

Her only crime was that she was born in Tehran. Her parents, like many other educated and intellectual people, fled Iran in the face of the religious revolution there. Some of her family settled in London, where her male relatives had kept close watch on her to ensure that she followed proper Islamic social mores, and also because they'd found a suitable Persian boy for her to marry. Because of these things, she spent more time with her relatives while we were in England than with the rest of the students. We found it a bit odd, but we accepted it as part of her culture. She was a nice, well-brought-up, intelligent person, Westernized in her dress and interactions with us, but still rooted in her family's traditionalist views of social interaction (especially between the sexes).

As we stood in the security screening lines for our return flight, two policewomen approached and took Ayser out of the queue. The SFU students immediately realized what was happening and began protesting loudly- I'd been standing in front of Ayser and demanded to know where they were taking her. One of the policewomen told me, pointedly, "Get back in line, or you'll be pulled out, too," adding, "All of you." Later, in the boarding area, Ayser was returned to us, crying and hysterical. She'd been strip-searched, she said, bitterly, "for looking 'foreign'." It was an extreme violation for someone of her background. Logically, we knew there'd been no way around it- she was a naturalized American citizen from Iran who'd been followed by the authorities throughout her stay in the U.K., and who was known to have met repeatedly with many people of Iranian descent in London. That was twenty years ago. It still upsets me to think about it- she was as American as I am, but she was singled out for having a Middle Eastern name and appearance.

I flew again last summer to present at a conference in Washington, D.C. . Although I'd heard that an underwire bra might set off the security gates, I wore one anyway. Now they're reporting that the new full-body scanners will pick up the underwire and touch off a strip search, along with things like wearing a skirt. Seriously? I wore a skirt to and from D.C.- when I flew routinely for job interviews in 2000, I was often met by the deans or other officials from the colleges where I was interviewing- and I did not then, nor do I now, own a pantsuit. I look like a Weeble in slacks, so I don't wear them. Period. I flew in a skirt suit. I have to hand it to the guys who are flying commando in their kilts as a form of protest; I'd rather be locked in a trunk with rabid weasels than deal with an insulted kilt-wearing man.

So, just in time for the busiest flying season of the year, a new slowdown and something else to upset the traveling public. Even if I've got to deal with Family Togetherness for three solid days, at least I'm staying home.

1 comment:

Farmchick said...

I think what happened to your friend was so uncalled for. And, more disturbing is that it happened so long ago. Things are much worse now.