I’d booked my international flight through Cheap-O Air, so naturally my seat was in the middle, near the back of the plane. All well and good and reasonably affordable. The trip had been wonderful; my comrades on either side (white, female U.S. citizen to my right, white, Russian-speaking male to my left) were polite, jostling elbows without complaint as we vied for comfortable positions on our shared armrests. I’d been awake for hours already; with the help of my friend and traveling companion, I’d reorganized (i.e., shoved) my gifts, souvenirs, and carry-on items into a shambles of bag lady-like sacks and packs, and these were now miraculously if haphazardly stashed in two separate overhead compartments, distressingly out of reach, but what does one expect these days, especially when booking through Cheap-O Air? My goal now was to stay awake throughout the flight, and then, home again, into the later hours of the evening, thus beating jet-lag at its own game. So I peered at the small screen mounted on the headrest of the seat in front of me and started to scroll through the movies. Should I watch that one with the woman from Game of Thrones—Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons—or the one about the author of Look Homeward, Angel, which for reasons I’ve never fully understood, and never thought to ask, was my dad’s favorite book? Or there was the new Star Trek. But I wanted to watch that with my son. So maybe not that.
I went back to scrolling. Then I stopped. Because that’s when they started boarding.
I knew the flight was full, not a single seat empty, but the rows behind me were on the whole unoccupied, and I’d been wondering if I might have a chance at an aisle or window seat, by way of trade—a family separated, perhaps, who wanted to more easily pass the baby back and forth, or a couple who wanted to nestle together like doves or crocodiles, depending on moods or personalities, or two friends who wanted to reminisce about or plan adventures on one side of the pond or the other. Now I knew I didn’t have a chance. I would stay where I was, the meat between two hearty slices of Wonder White and Russian Rye, sandwiched.
An entire village, it seemed, was filing haltingly down the aisle, filling the space behind the space behind me. This was a study in confusion, and there was plenty of time to study the confusion, because their progress was excruciatingly slow, an ordeal, really, that made any travel challenges I have faced over the course of my entire life, let alone on this very morning, seem pale in comparison . . . as pale as my skin in comparison to theirs, nay, ghostly.
The women wore head-coverings, bright-colors and patterns on the whole, though a few were black. Two were entirely shielded from view, but for their large and watchful eyes. (Seeing them on this day in this way, I imagined/projected—such a west end girl in a dead end world, western, I mean—a certain appeal.) The women were by far the most vocal and also, as women will, were blessed with a higher percentage of body fat, so although they may have been as hungry as the men looked, they did not physically appear as desperate for a decent meal. The men, on the other hand, were emaciated, or they looked that way to me—starved, starving. I know there are different body types all across the globe. Of course, I know that. So perhaps, it’s a case of: misperception much? But I could see the sharp angles and ridges of bones beneath their skin so clearly that I was afraid for them. Though not nearly as afraid as they were I think, from the way their eyes glittered, gazes darting this way and that.
The men, I mean. The men seemed afraid. The women seemed fierce, babes in arms, toddlers balanced on hips, young children clutched by the hand. The goddess Kali, that paradigm of a nasty woman, comes to mind, reflecting back. See a mother juggle. Juggle, Mother, juggle. Balance twirling plates and nylon duffle bags and dripping bottles and crumpled, but clearly very important paperwork and babies. Bear a shield if needed. When necessary whip out your fiery sword.
The women, a few in particular, were loud and insistent and unabashed in their confusion and their determination to overcome their confusion. Not one of them spoke English (the men remained silent, but I’m assuming they didn’t speak English either). In their Mother Tongue, the women commandeered the seating arrangements. Per their orders, members of their group sat, then stood, then switched seats, then sat and did it all over again, shuffling and bumping up against the backs of people like me, the row of others who acted as the line of demarcation between the other others and them—those who got the better seats, and who possibly have never even heard of Cheap-O Air. (Or maybe they just booked their flights earlier than I did. Most likely that.) The flight attendants for our section already looked frazzled—hair messy, mascara flaking, lip gloss smeared—and we were a long way from closing the door to the plane, let alone take off. Even so, the flight attendants were amazingly patient and polite. True to everything and everyone I saw in the UK, including the Tube Strike, they kept calm and carried on. (See previous post.)
Finally everyone was seated, and we took off.
I started with the movie staring Khaleesi. The movie was pretty much like the book, a chiaroscuro of light and dark, favoring the light, until the final dark, which tried to go light again, but which fell pathetically short, at least for me, as I couldn’t help thinking that [spoiler alert] it might not be the best idea to romanticize suicide or even propose the sentiment and reinforce the stereotype that the disabled life is not worth living. I drank some airplane wine, ate some airplane food, wondered how the people sitting in the rows behind were enjoying and digesting their drink and food, if at all. The women behind me frequently raised their voices, and when they did, there was an inevitable flurry of movement, seats bumped, things dropped, people stumbling in the aisles. Like the men, the babies and children were eerily silent.
At one point, I clumsily made my way past the my female seat mate into the aisle and then on to the tiny lavatory, only to open the door and find a tall, startlingly thin man from one of the seats behind me now standing before me, peeing, as men will, into the toilet. He cast a startled glance over his shoulder, and in the dim light of an airplane lavatory left unlocked, our eyes met. Before I could retreat, equally startled, he looked back to his business. What’s one more dimly lit humiliation in the harsh light of all the others? One more collision with cultural dysphoria? I can only wonder, as I can’t presume to know.
I learned at some point during the flight from my female comrade to the right (who had been in England on business, and who did some kind of number game on her iPad that involved constant swiping and movement of tiles, rather like switching the small colored cubes on a Rubik’s Cube, only not three dimensional, and not colored, but numbers, and so not really like that at all) that the people sitting behind us were refugees from Darfur. She learned it from one of her business partners, who learned it from a flight attendant. They were switching planes in Chicago. Their final destination was Akron, Ohio.
My knowledge of Akron, Ohio is limited. It’s based on an unpremeditated one-night stay at a shabby motel during a bad snow storm. This was before kids. There was an ice machine, thank God, and Greg and I filled a bucket and dumped it into the sink, and then we buried our six pack of beer to the best of our ability in that. We ordered bad, MSG-laced Chinese food, and watched bad TV, and the fitted sheet would not stay fitted on the hard and lumpy and stained mattress. Up until my recent British Airways flight, that was about as much thought as I’d given to Akron—a memory, scruffy and bemused. Good for a night when you gotta take shelter, but, man, it’s also good to get out of there.
As of this morning, I know a little bit more about Akron. I know that the International Institute of Akron has a Refugee Resettlement Agency, “with services designed to provide intensive assistance for the first three months after a refugee’s arrival, as well as provide assistance in the form of advice and referrals beyond this period.”
I know that as of a few hours ago at this writing, the Akron Beacon Journal posted an article with the headline: Fewer Refugees to Make Home in Akron; Ohio Advocates, Officials Decry Travel Ban. I know that the executive order that Trump issued last Friday banning travel from seven predominately Muslim countries for 90 days and suspending all refugee admission for 120 days also puts a halt to federal funding for any resettlement agencies, including the International Institute of Akron and World Relief Akron. I know that Liz Walters, the outreach coordinator of the International Institute of Akron, says that in light of this, she is going to “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” I know that Republican Gov. John Kasich, Republican U.S. Senators Rob Portman of Ohio, and Ward 5 Akron City Councilwoman Tara Mosley-Samples, a Democrat, are among local Akron politicians who spoke out against the order this weekend, criticizing it on many levels, condemning it as religious persecution.
When I returned from the lavatory, I caught the eye of baby, wide awake in his sleeping mother’s arms. Actually the he might have been a she. She or he was too little to tell. And like all the others on the plane, her (let’s call her a her) attire was a mash-up of Missionary Barrel and Sudanese Spun. Her head rested on her mother’s shoulder, and her mother’s arms were wrapped tightly around her narrow, little back. She watched me approach. Her eyes were big and black and (thank God) clear. I waggled my fingers at her and smiled. She smiled back.
(That baby is entirely of her people, her family, but she is our child, too, Donald Trump. She is our child, too. She is nothing to be afraid of, yet you are so afraid, though you’d never admit it. There is more than enough to spare, though you would never admit that either, because more is always what you want, more is more. These are kinds of things I keep thinking, my skin prickling with feverish frustration.)
I’ve not only learned a bit more about Akron this morning. I’ve learned a bit more about Darfur. In summary I’ve learned that what’s been going on there has been called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” a genocide centuries in the making, and carried out by the Sudanese government, but accelerated by the fumbling British colonialist handoff to the fractured powers-that-were, and by the drought and ravages brought on by climate change. I know that the population is predominately Muslim, and I know that there is an educational online game, called Darfu Is Dying. I know that Darfur is by no means a game, but with the “Muslim-ban,” its displaced people are being treated like pawns.
Like everyone, I’m sure, I was tired when I got off the plane at O’Hare’s Terminal 5. Dazed, I followed the crowd through the sterile corridors toward Customs and Border Protection. At one point, the corridor split into two (or was it four?) and I heard a woman, talking rapidly and loudly. I turned and saw one of the asylum-seekers from Darfur. She was calling after at a number of her fellow travelers who had gone on ahead; listing this way and that, drawn by lights and sounds that were over-stimulating even to me, they looked like stragglers though in the lead. They hesitated when they heard their companion calling to them; they turned. And then they went to her in their flip-flops and sandals, their unlaced lace-ups and tennis shoes, their t-shirts and suit jackets and sarong-like wraps and maxis, and she herded them toward Immigration, and then, I pray, on to Akron, Ohio.
As for me, I scanned my passport and at the same machine took some kind of selfie, and, if I remember right, shared my fingerprints too. (Or was that a dream?) I fumbled with my bags as I talked to the nice border patrol agent, who jokingly asked me to bring him a souvenir next time. (We’re thick as thieves, the border patrol agent and me.) I dropped things as I walked away, and the man with the British accent standing behind me pointed out that I was leaving a trail of belongings in my wake, and I collected them and thanked him and stumbled out into a crowd of strangers, bought some caffeine, still determined to stay awake, though we’re talking the wee hours, now, the wee wee hours. Then I took a cab all the wee wee wee wayhome, where I hugged my son and hugged my husband and handed out the gifts and got caught up and felt blessed and lucky and sick inside.
They could be my children. They could be yours. We could be them. They could be us.
Then what would happen?