MEA 707 at Heathrow Airport 1974
Readers of my various stories will know by now that I have a fondness for special techniques. The planning and tactics I applied at the age of six to procure grape-flavored Jello from the highest cabinet in the kitchen was perfectly executed only to end in ruin. When I came back into the house with vermillion lips and a mouthful of purple teeth to say, “Hi Mom,” I busted myself.
On the other hand, my success in playing hooky for a month in Kindergarten was a triumph of trade-craft. However, the satisfaction that I felt in completing one of my most brilliant maneuvers evaporated when I found myself in the presence of a master.
It was two days before the Haj began in 1978. Against all my instincts for self-preservation I had chosen to do some business in Riyadh and was now trying to get home to Jeddah, knowing full well that more than a million Muslims were headed my way too. I expected at least a tenth of them would be in the departure hall. I was wrong by several orders of magnitude, there were only about a thousand. But I wasn’t wrong about the fervor and excitement in the room.
The departure hall was one big giant room about eighty feet long and half as wide with thirty foot ceilings. A giant glass wall enclosed the side facing the runway. A half-dozen glass doors marked the different loading gates. I figured that I’d arrive two hours early to get a good position on the line but when I walked into the lounge I realized that there were at least six plane-loads of people waiting to fly. Some passengers had missed their connecting flight, many of them were the victims of enthusiastic over-booking, some were flying to another destination and more than a few of them seemed to just be wandering around aimlessly.
A giant room populated by Muslims from all over the world is quite a sight. Besides hundreds of Saudis in white thobes and variegated ghuttras there are Omanis in yellow and green turbans, stately Nigerians in dashikis, Bosnians in worn-out pea-coats, Filipinos in brilliant pastel Dacron shirts, Tunisians in three-piece suits - it is a full palette of global fashion.
The overhead PA system, completely incomprehensible but loud, echoes around the room while everyone is talking at the same time; frustrated, impatient, but mostly excited to be going to Mecca on the Haj. Of course, my objective is somewhat less devout, I just want to get home to my wife and kids.
People are wall to wall about thirty feet deep from the gates. Half of them are already waving their boarding passes. Though I am a foot taller than most everybody, there is no way I can make my way through this teeming crowd. So I decide to improvise a special technique and flatten my back against the left wall and slowly make my way forward. I have two hours so I am able to proceed undetected. Or so I thought.
When I reach the glass wall and turn to inch along its face someone bumps into me. I spin to see a short, mid-twenties Iranian with three chins and a marvelous pot belly wearing a faded hounds-tooth sport coat. He flashes me a grin and says, “I see you. You go. Then I go.”
Delighted that he has recognized my stratagem I reach out my hand and say, “My name is Tim. What’s yours? We go.” Shaking my hand he says, “Me Badr. We go.” And we went.
Slinking our way along the glass wall I had to decide which of the six gates would be our destination. Most of the planes seemed to be parked on the runway to the left of the wall and primal instinct told me that the hall’s Feng Shui tended to flow left, so the closest gates would be One, Two and Three. The obvious choice was Gate Two.
If we were lucky we’d have a clear shot at Two, yet we could quickly pivot to insinuate ourselves into the flanking gates. So I lead us against the wall to make our way to just to the left of Gate Two. We talk for a bit.
Badr grew up in Shiraz and moved to work as a clerk for the oil company in Bandar Abbas where he learned some English. He didn’t like the town much and moved home to work in his family’s tile business. He had just married, his wife was pregnant and this Haj was as much for his child as for himself. As he told me, “I don’t care boy or girl. I want strong. May God breathe on him … or her.”
Waiting, we all watch the movements of the gate attendants closer than Gordon Gecko watched the Dow Jones. Earlier I had noticed a particular duo and search the crowd for them. Fierce-looking, bearded men, dressed in pantaloons and long gabardine shirts covered with vests, their heads covered with those distinctive flat, woolen hats wrapped in drab turbans they are George and Lennie from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men - straight out of the mountains of Afghanistan.
The smaller man, George, is built like a whippet – lean and rangy, with a sharp face and small, busy eyes. Lennie is a giant. At least six foot six inches and almost 300 pounds, his craggy face and bushy eyebrows dully scan the crowd, either looking for danger or prey or just totally confused by the multitudes around him.
Watching them it was pretty obvious who was the brains of this operation. Choosing the direct approach, the Afghani duo has waded directly through the middle of the crowd. George drafting in Lennie’s wake. Who is going to object to a 300 pound Afghani? They were now stopped about ten feet from Gate One by the sheer crush of humanity.
Now everybody is waving their boarding pass above their heads. Ozone, like you might feel just before a thunderstorm breaks, fills the room as two airport officials squeeze through the crowd to the front of the hall to converse with the now clearly nervous gate attendants. Their technique for dealing with these thousand travelers is absolutely brilliant. After the huddle breaks an attendant walks to each gate and goes through the motions of getting ready to open. The attention of the crowd is now immediately split in sixths. When the attendant at Gate Six acknowledges that he is ready. Badr pokes me in the back and says, “Run.”
Before I can even acknowledge Badr, the agent at Gate One opens the door and a thousand people lunge forward as dozens of lucky passengers burst onto the runway. The hapless ticket agent throws up his hands and doesn’t even try to collect boarding passes.
With some mild jostling Badr and I make it out the door to join the 100-meter dash to the gleaming Middle East Airlines 747 in the distance. At first, everyone tries to be cool about it and walk quickly, but less than ten yards from the gate we break into a run and the race is on. I see a jowly Bahraini pearl merchant in tasseled Italian shoes run faster than he has in his entire life - a personal best. A trim, big-jawed Kuwaiti businessman at the other side of the pack is holding his own until the handle of his briefcase fails and the case explodes open on the tarmac to send his papers into the wind. At one point a diminutive grey-haired older man with a meticulously starched thobe, laced guffiyeh and gold Cross pens in his top pocket hitches up his thobe and smokes two lean Eritrean young men in flip-flops to advance to the head of the pack. A burly Iraqi who had been the first one through Gate Three starts to fade twenty meters out. I’m doing fine. Trotting, not yet running. In a moving crowd, it’s always better to be on the flanks. If the crowd stacks up you won’t be trampled and if necessary you can speed up at the end and work yourself into the front.
I look for Badr but don’t see him because he is right behind me. His cheerful face is red and sweaty but he is game enough to motor that belly across the runway. “Run!” he says.
A sturdy Sudanese in a mechanic’s jumpsuit and work boots comes pounding out of nowhere and takes a lead. We reach the landing steps and form into line. I figure Badr and I are about the fortieth or so passengers in line. We ascend to the rear door of the 747 to be met by a beatific vision, the senior steward of the plane. A handsome, mid-thirties Lebanese of medium height, slim with broad shoulders, smooth-shaven with a haircut so perfect it looks as if he has just come from the barber. I’ll call him Emile. In his immaculate, perfectly-tailored uniform he meets each passenger as if he is meeting a long-lost cousin. His wide smile is a genetic gift from his Phoenician ancestors, but his utter coolness is self-taught. Confusion and chaos have surrounded every aspect of this flight, but Emile is as relaxed as if he were sipping Campari at the Corniche in Nice. This is obviously not his first rodeo.
The last third of the plane is already occupied so I hurry up to the front of the plane, rush into a window seat and immediately pretend that I am sleeping. This is the well-known and always reliable hedgehog defense. The theory being that the stewards are less likely to evict someone sleeping in a window seat when the person in the aisle seat is so much easier prey. This tactic becomes unnecessary when Badr slips in next to me and the Sudanese mechanic takes the aisle. We are all on edge and won’t be safe until the plane leaves the ground.
As the seats fill up Emile works his way to the front of the plane directing traffic. The last seat is taken when he spots the two Afghanis: a very suspicious George and the glowering, hunched-over giant lumbering down the aisle. Lennie is muttering loudly to himself. Everyone in the plane senses the impending conflict. Immediately Emile breaks into a thousand-volt smile and gestures to them, “My friends I have been waiting for you. Please come forward.” They look warily at him but Emile laughs and waves them forward. “I have been waiting for you. This plane is so crowded. Here. Come up here, I have another airplane waiting for you. It is so much stronger. I only wish that I could fly on it. Come right through here.” He is so convincing that I’m almost ready to give up my own seat.
George and Lennie relax and smile at their good fortune. Emile shakes each man’s hand as he ushers them out the front door, then quickly closes the hatch and pulls down the locking lever. He pauses to straighten his tie and turns to the cabin to take a half bow as we all break into wild applause. The master has just given us a lesson in the proper practice of special techniques.
CHRISTMAS in KHOBAR
More Stories – Tim Barger
246 pages, $14.95