“I’m not a terrorist”.
We’d only been on the flight for a few minutes. I hadn’t even had time to have my customary panic attack and this man was convincing me he wasn’t a terrorist.
Which to me sounds like flimsy logic. When I was young my Mum would ask me, “did you take any biscuits from the biscuit tin?’”
I, certain of my genius, would reply with a cool “No Mum. It must have been one of my brothers.”
My face, covered in melted chocolate from all the biscuits I had been stealing and lying about gave me away of course. But in my firm denial of being a thief stood my guilt!
It’s a classic defense in playground court too. Whoever denied it supplied it.
When a smell drifted throughout the classroom and fingers began to point at the culprit, the court was in session. It never took too long to find the guilty party either. Before the room had time to descend into Lord of the Flies someone would inevitably pipe up with a loud and unexpected “Well it wasn’t me who farted”.
AHA! You’ve been caught red handed little Timmy. You farted in the back of the room and now we all know it.
No one would have assumed it was you if not for your guilty conscious eating away at you like termites in rotten wood. Now stand and hang your head while the rest of us point and chant ‘Little Timmy made a smell ‘cos he’s a little twit. Little Timmy made a smell, it smells like fucking shit’.
“I’m not a terrorist” he repeated. “Some people think I am. But I’m not”.
I brought my head up from between my open palms – a place I keep it during takeoff to counter my anxiety at flying,
“I hadn’t really thought you were” I replied.
And I was telling the truth. But I know there have been times where people have been accused of being terrorists. In a post 9/11 world it’s become increasingly easy to point the finger at an ethnic minority and conjure up an accusation.
But I hadn’t known anyone to be so forward in their defense.
As for this mystery man proclaiming his innocence, he had a thick, dark beard under his chin. He sat with his legs neatly crossed and kept a jet black briefcase between his feet. And I’d describe him as being Middle Eastern, I guess?
I’m never really sure what countries that term includes, but he was from somewhere in the world that he felt it was relevant to strike up a chat with me before we’d even gotten our peanuts and complementary sodas.
“This isn’t a bomb” he continued, pointing to his briefcase.
“I don’t think you’re meant to say that on a plane” I replied, not knowing what to say.
“If I was a terrorist, a rule like that wouldn’t worry me though would it?” he countered.
“No, I suppose it wouldn’t” I replied after a moment of thought.
We sat in silence after that.
By this stage we’d pierced the clouds in our ascent to the heavens as sunlight came streaming through the open windows, filling the cabin with a rich, warm glow.
And so this interesting stranger went on.
“If this plane went down, they might put me on the news”.
“I would hope we’d all be on the news” I replied, not realising the macabre nature of our argument.
“Yes” he went on. “But they’d never have to look into your background to prove you had nothing to do with it”.
“Hmmmm” I mused. Unsure of what to say. So I said nothing.
The engines continued to growl outside our window as we pushed through the sky and towards our destination.
I was headed to Easter Island that day, having taken off from Santiago, Chile. It was my dream destination and after 27 years on God’s green earth I was finally making it happen.
The plane itself was modern and spacious. The type where you press a button to turn your window a darker shade. If there’s a more modern example of technology I haven’t seen it.
The plane wasn’t 100% full. And the seat next to me had been empty right up until take-off too. But, just before the captain’s voice came crackling over the speakers and the wheels of the iron giant of the sky began to roll, that seat was filled.
This man – my new seat mate, hurriedly sat down, stuffing his generic briefcase between his legs as we started moving. And just like that, I was seated next to the most interesting person I’ve ever met on a plane.
I’d never met a man who felt so out of place on planes that he was proactive in telling people he wasn’t a terrorist.
To be honest, the more I spoke to him, the more my mind was opened up. This was a man who felt accusing eyes turn to him and who’d been a target of hate at various times in his life.
A bloke who carried around the scars of 9/11, despite being thousands of miles from America when it happened.
While I cruise onto flights without anyone stopping me to check for all the drugs I hide inside my butt (nothing illegal, I just like to have a couple of pain killers close by if I get a headache) he carried the burden of guilt on flights, in security screening areas, and any place where suspicion and uncertainty bubble under the surface of civility.
All because of where he was from, and the way he looked.
I learned a lot about this man on our 5+ hour flight to Easter Island. Starting with his name. Which was Bill.
Bill was from Pakistan but worked as an aircraft engineer and had proudly become a US citizen over a decade ago.
And still, in his own adopted country of America, he was regarded as a foreigner. An outsider.
He’d heard the slur enough that it stopped becoming his Achilles heel. In fact it felt like he wore it as armour.
Because if he had to carry society’s mistrust, he would do it openly and proudly.
That’s why he said it to everyone he sat next to. On every flight. To alleviate any worry they might have. And that blew my mind. But as a white bloke from Australia who was traveling the world with money I didn’t struggle or scrape together, Bill was a reminder of what some people go through.
Bill was a nice guy. A father. A family man. And an engineer.
But Bill was NOT a terrorist.
He’d be the first to tell you that.
And for that reason, he’s the most interesting person I’ve ever sat next to on a plane.