You are bleary eyed, stiff and ready to be home. Your flight has just landed in Frankfurt and you have to catch a connection to Chicago within the next hour. It’s tight, but you’ll be okay. You’ve always been okay.
The seatbelt light turns off with the iconic “DING” that rings throughout the aeroplane cabin. Just like that, there’s a cacophony of people unbuckling and struggling to their feet with their necks awkwardly angled to the side in the low ceiling above. Frantically, people stand in the aisle and open the overhead compartments, for some reason thinking they can get off this plane faster than everyone else.
After travelling for a while, you realise that aeroplanes and airports are one of the only zones of life where people, for some reason, confidently and unashamedly stare at one another. People watch you struggle to sling your awkwardly large backpacking bag over your shoulder; you watch parents rouse children from their deep red-eye flight sleeps; you watch the overweight Arab man struggle and grunt trying to get out of his seat; you watch the middle-aged European woman look at the people that surround her with impatience and disdain. You can still hear the murmurs of people conversing in Arabic. You still notice the occasional head covering on a few of the women. You find comfort in the cultural indicators of the place you have called home for the past four months.
When it’s your turn, you climb out of your seat and follow the crowd blindly through the chaos of the Frankfurt airport. You get on a train that takes you to another terminal – hopefully the right one. You continue to follow the crowd until you reach a standstill and notice the snaking line in front of you that eventually leads to the security gate. You stand in line, anxiously checking your phone, counting down the minutes you have left before your connecting flight.
Now, having been on your feet for about half an hour, your mind is alert enough to begin to worry if you are going to make the flight. You consider asking to jump the line, but don’t. Finally, you reach the front of the queue and go through the motions of shedding your layers, taking off your shoes, pulling out your liquids and putting your laptop in a separate tray. You break a sweat from the sheer race of trying to get all your things in place so the line doesn’t get backed up because of you. Walk through the metal detector; everything’s good. You wait for your bag to come meet you on the other side, already mapping your route mentally on how to get to your gate in less than 10 minutes.
But your bag doesn’t come. It sits there. The German lady staring at the screen calls over a German man. They whisper in German, not that it would matter – you don’t understand either way. They take your bag to side and ask you to come over.
Wordlessly, this German man begins rubbing a stick with a piece of fabric on the end all over the interior and exterior of your bag. You try to remain calm; you have nothing to hide, nothing incriminating. But you HAVE to get on that connecting flight
The woman continues to inspect your bag and then walks away with the fabric covered in whatever remnants of Jordan, Israel, Morocco and Turkey it was able to pick up from your backpack. You watch her go into a back room and realise that it has not even been two weeks since the catastrophic Paris bombings. Airports everywhere, especially Europe, are on high alert. They are probably taking even more extensive measures because you are flying in from a Muslim country. You try to rationalise and figure out how to minimise the walk to your gate to three minutes instead of 10.
The woman returns with a German police officer by her side. You notice the baton on his hip and the somewhat comical hat he is wearing that you only associate with the depiction of incompetent cops in movies. He begins to talk to you in a thick German accent, and it only contributes to this movie-esque feeling.
“Your bag has tested positive for explosives,” he says.
“What?” you reply, surely you have misheard him or something has been lost in translation.
He repeats himself. Well, you heard him right the first time. Your stomach drops and your mind races. Has someone planted a bomb in your bag? Is this somehow connected to the tear gas residue that may or may not be on your bag from Palestine? You are for sure going to miss your flight. Will you add spending a night in a German jail to the list of travel experiences you’ve had these past few months?
All you can do is pray. Pray that it is all going to be okay. Pray that he lets you go. Pray that you somehow make your flight.
You look at this comically stereotypical German police officer standing in front of you. All you can do is stare blankly, and he stares blankly back. All of the sudden, it’s like something inside of you breaks free from its cage and words tumble out faster than you realise what you’re saying. Something about a semester abroad in the Middle East. Something about how you wanted to understand Muslims and you want other people to understand Muslims. Something about needing to catch your flight and how much you just want to be home.
The German police office seems thrown off guard by your sudden self-disclosure. He looks around, all of the security officers busy moving the hoards of people through the lines. He looks at you, probably able to see you physically trembling with anxiety and fear of the unknown.
“What gate?” he asks.
You read him the letter and number off of your boarding pass. He picks up your bag, hands it to you and begins walking in the direction of the gate. You struggle to keep up to his brisk pace and wonder what happens next. In between the flood of European languages blaring from the speakers, you hear the English words, “Last call for flight number…” Unsure if it is your flight or another, you just focus on following Mr. German police officer. He stops at a gate, turns around, looks at you and says, “Safe travels.” Then he walks away.
You almost fall over with relief. You have no idea what just happened, or why. You collapse in your seat and hope that the nine-hour flight ahead of you is enough time for your heart rate to return to its normal resting pace. Almost as soon as you are seated, the plane backs away from the airport, taxis on the runway and takes off.
You feel overwhelmed by this first experience outside of the Middle East and assure yourself that everything will be okay when you finally get home.
Nine hours later, your flight circles around a rather grey and brown city and eventually lands on the American soil of Chicago. It’s December and it looks cold. Not quite the desert you are returning form. You are almost home and it feels so good.
You go through the familiar motions of getting your bag, getting off the plane and following the herd through the airport. You realise that for the first time in months, you are not a minority. The people around you are predominantly white and you can even understand what they are saying to one another. It’s almost overwhelming to suddenly disappear into the crowd instead of stand out and be stared at because you are so different. You notice how loud everyone is and wish you could drown out the English conversations like you had been able to ignore the Arabic voices that surrounded you for months.
Not only are the people around you white and loud and speaking English, but a lot of them are larger than you remember. You watch the Americans stare down the few Arabs who have been on the same journey as you from Amman to Chicago. You hear American couples argue and call after each other, fighting about which carousel their bags will be circulating. You are surprised to find that rather than feeling comforted by a familiar feeling of home, the West, you feel like an outsider. The voices, actions and appearances of those around you seem so foreign and distant.
As you stand in the customs line, you consider your impressions and surmise that this “culture shock” must be because you’re in the US. It will be different in Canada.
Nobody looks at you. Nobody asks where you’re from. Women criticise their husbands. Parents tune out the pleas and complaints of their children. People everywhere stare down into their smartphones.
A commanding voice interrupts your critical observations. You look up and walk towards a man with a buzz cut sitting behind the tall desk wrapped in a glass case. You slide your passport and customs form through the slot and ask him how his day is going.
The man does not acknowledge your question. He flips through your passport and then looks up at you accusingly.
“What were you doing, over there, in the Middle East?”
He says ‘there’ and ‘Middle East’ like they physically make him feel ill when they roll off his tongue.
You begin to explain the Middle East Studies Program the way you have to every skeptic at the airports and border crossings you’ve been to along the way. The man interrupts you mid-sentence and says, “A girl like you has no business going over there with the Arabs.” He says ‘Arabs’ like he said ‘there’ and ‘Middle East.’
You begin to explain how maybe Muslims are misunderstood in the West, and you wanted to… “Whose side are you on anyway?” he interrupts, looking at you like you’ve committed treason against the empire of the West. You just stare back at him, not knowing what to say. Wanting to stand up for what you’ve learned over the past few months. Wanting to advocate for the wonderful, loving, hospitable and peaceful people you have encountered along the way. But you stand there silently staring back, realising you just need to get on the other side of customs for now; you can’t be an advocate for everything you believe in.
The man looks down, flips through your passport a few more times, no doubt looking for any reason not to let you through, but eventually stamps a page. He looks up at you and says, “Welcome back. I’m sure you’ll stay.” You take your passport back and he calls, “Next!” in the same commanding voice that beckoned you over before you have even turned to walk away.
As you walk to your next gate, you feel rattled by the words spoken to you. “Whose side are you on anyway?” The question rings in your ears. You practically collapse into the chair at your gate and look up at the television screen directly ahead. Images of the Paris bombings flit across and the news anchor cuts to a clip of Donald Trump. You had almost forgotten that he was no longer merely a reality star whom you only associated the words “You’re fired!” with. Now he’s a politician in the race to win the 2016 presidential election.
“When I’m President there will be a complete and total ban on all Muslims from coming into our country. Lets make America great again,” he drones. The crowd goes wild and you feel physically sick.
You have been on North American soil for less than an hour and all you have experienced is fear, hatred and intolerance: three things you did not feel once when living and travelling in the Middle East. You are too exhausted to reflect on the flood of emotions the experience has procured.
You assure yourself there is NO WAY Donald Trump could win the Republican nomination, much less the presidency. You just want to get home and wait for it to all blow over.
Finally. You look out the aeroplane window and see the familiar city lights of Calgary glitter below you. Anxious excitement grows as you think about the friends and family you are about to be reunited with after months of separation. You feel like a new person, someone with a completely new worldview; you hope your loved ones will be receptive and encouraging rather than polarising and indifferent.
The plane touches down and it is all you can do not to jump up and run off the plane, leaving your heavy, explosive-positive bag behind. You wait and go through the familiar motions. You people watch. You follow the crowd. You hope for no more unconventional airport experiences.
Things go smoothly. You reach Canadian customs and the man quickly writes a note on your form and hands it back, hardly saying a word. That was strangely easy, you think. You don’t second guess it, but choose to trust that you are home, and here, things are better.
You walk to the baggage claim. Soon enough, you see the blue bag you parted ways with 32 hours earlier in Amman, Jordan, come around the carousel like a rainbow at the end of a thunder storm. You text your ride saying you just got your things and will be right out. They are on the other side of the sliding doors that separate the secure side of the airport from the real world.
Butterflies flutter up from your stomach to your throat, your palms sweat, your heart races. You’ve finally made it! You’re home. You walk towards the sliding doors and a man in a security uniform stops you and asks you for your customs form. You laugh, having almost forgotten in the height of the moment, hand it to him and begin walking forward, expecting to be in the clear.
“Um, you’re going to need to come over here,” he says to you, crashing your future-focused mind back down to reality. Your heart sinks for the third time on this arduous journey home, and you follow the man over to a secluded corner of the baggage claim area. Another man wearing latex gloves comes over.
“Are these your only two bags?” one asks, pulling your big blue bag and awkwardly large backpack onto a stainless steel table. You feel like you’re in an operation room as the two men with latex gloves carefully unzip your things. It seems they have a feeling that a couple of countries ago, these bags potentially tested positive for explosives, so they need proceed with the utmost caution.
At this point, interactions with airport personnel are no longer anxiety-inducing: more frustrating than anything. You feel confident that you have done nothing wrong by studying in the Middle East and you have nothing to hide. The men ask you about your program and you respond matter-of-factly. You begin to go into the details of how hospitable and kind you found Arab people to be in your travels. How you like the food best in Morocco and had a hard time seeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict first hand. As the men flip through your journals, scroll through your pictures on your iPad and open the compartment of your bag that contains your underwear, you talk about how your worldview has broadened and your assumptions about cultures and people have been shattered.
The men begin to warm up to you and ask about Turkey. They mention how they have always wanted to go. You begin to feel more comfortable and ask them questions.
“Are you searching through my stuff because I’m coming back from months spent in Arab countries?”
The men just look up at you and continue searching.
“What are you looking for in my journals and pictures?” you ask.
“Looking for any association with ISIS. Violent images, bestiality, things like that,” they reply, not skipping a beat.
You are surprised by the honesty of their answer and how ridiculous it all seems.
About 45 minutes pass and it’s just you and the two men in all of the baggage claim area. You remember that your ride is waiting on the other side of those sliding doors and is probably concerned that you had texted, “Be right out!” about an hour ago. Finally, the men seem satisfied with their investigation and pack your bags back up.
“Welcome back,” one of them says, while the other security man places your bags back on your cart.
You turn and walk out the doors, exhausted from the trials, skepticism and accusations you have received. You feel a lot of things, but welcomed home is not one of them.