After traveling extensively, Jared Abraham has settled in North Texas with his wife and three rambunctious boys. He teaches English at a local community college, finding inspiration for his own writing through introducing the works of classic authors to his students. You can read more of his writing on his website and find him on Facebook and Twitter (@jaredabe).
Ahmed glanced up as yet another person opened the overhead compartment. He told himself to not worry, that they weren’t going through his bag. Even several hours into the flight, his eyes still couldn’t help but dart glances at the middle-aged woman rummaging in the compartment. Only by tapping on his knee was he able to keep himself from jumping up and pushing her away. He hated being separated from his bag. The eternity spent waiting for it to come out of the security machine had been bad enough, but leaving it where anyone could go through it was more than he could bear! His finger tapped faster and faster with each passing moment.
At first he’d tried to force it under the seat in front of him. When that was not going to work, he’d tried to just hold it in his lap. “All luggage must be stowed,” a flight attendant had said, but Ahmed didn’t understand. After hand motions also failed, the flight attendant had wrestled the bag from him and forced it into the overhead compartment. All these people paid to be here . . . none care what’s in my bag, he reminded himself again. The lessons he’d learned in the camp over the last year and seven months had taught him otherwise, though. He clenched his jaw until it throbbed at the thought of losing any more.
Somehow, the tap, tap, tap, tap, tap of his finger helped him to retain control until the lady closed the compartment and returned to her seat with a light jacket. About time she covered, Ahmed thought before he could stop himself. You’re going to America; control your thoughts! What was true in old Syria isn’t true here any longer, he berated himself. Then, in a different tone, a traitorous voice asked, is any of it true? With a violent shake of his head, Ahmed pushed that thought aside. He didn’t listen to that voice.
Rising from his seat, Ahmed muttered, “Please,” to the foreign lady sitting between him and the aisle. She sighed and moved her legs a few inches, making him climb over her glare. In the aisle, he opened the overhead compartment and looked inside. He didn’t need anything, but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to rest until he checked the contents of his bag.
He found it pushed toward the back, a faded green backpack with frayed straps. Glancing around the cabin first, he pulled the zipper just enough so that no one else could see inside. After taking one more look to each side, he made sure that everything was as it should be. Nothing seemed out of place, so he closed the zipper and then pushed the bag behind a large suitcase. Satisfied, Ahmed closed the compartment, then stood with his hand on the door for a long moment, before again making an effort to return to his seat. Ignoring the disgruntled sniffs of his neighbor, Ahmed breathed out a prayer of mingled thanks and relief as he leaned his chair back (getting a sharp kick from the person in the row behind).
As soon as he closed his eyes, he saw what he always saw. A small baby crawled across the floor, stopping at times to pick up and chew on whatever was in her path. She moved from one toy to the next, babbling the whole time. After discarding a doll, two balls, and a rattle, her brown eyes turned and settled on Ahmed; her mouth opened in a wide, toothless smile, as she whispered, “babababa.” While she labored to crawl across the room to him, he called encouragement and clapped his hands. She was slow, but she kept at it until she grabbed his ankles; then, she reached a chubby hand up and took a handful of Ahmed’s pant leg, using it to pull herself up. Once she was on her feet, resting against his leg, she smiled again, as she leaned her head against his knee, again babbling, “Bababababa.” Ahmed, sitting in the airplane flying across the Atlantic, not in his old bombed-out Syrian home, smiled too and found his hand moving down to pat his daughter’s head. It closed on empty air, like it always did now. Snapping open his eyes, Ahmed jerked his hand back and grasped it with the other until the pain of digging fingernails into flesh drove the memories away. He didn’t dare to close his eyes again.
Just as Ahmed had nearly pushed his memories back to where he now stored them, he felt vibrations from his pocket. Pulling out his phone, he saw written across the screen the single word, “صلاة.” Oh no! Ahmed thought. Not now! Looking around the cabin, he didn’t see anyone who looked like him, and while it should be time for all Muslims to pray, no one made a move to show that they knew what time it was. Don’t draw attention to yourself! Isn’t that what you learned in the camp, the traitorous voice hissed. But he hadn’t allowed himself to miss the call to prayer for the last two years, and he couldn’t start now. Things will be different enough in America. I can’t start by giving this up, he chided himself.
Ahmed first slipped his shoes off. Then, he rose (with another apology to the lady sitting beside him) and walked down the narrow aisle to the lavatory. In the cramped space, he washed his hands and face but gave up on washing his feet, hoping that Allah would be merciful. This is dumb! There is no Allah to need mercy from, the traitorous voice insisted, as he looked in the mirror. Ahmed was tempted to give in, but banging his head against the lavatory wall, he shouted back, this is what it means to be Syrian! At his vehemence, the voice fled to its home in the back of his mind, but Ahmed could still hear it whimpering from its spot in the darkness as he opened the door.
When he reached his seat, Ahmed again opened the overhead compartment. This time, out of his bag, he took a rolled cloth and spread it in the middle of the aisle, angling it to fit his best guess of Mecca’s direction. Then, raising his arms to either side of his head, with palms open, he ignored his dry throat and began, “Allahu akbar!”
Though he did his best to not look at anyone else, Ahmed felt his skin prickling as those seated nearby noticed him. Comments soon followed, and he had a hard time concentrating on reciting his prayers when around him was a cacophony of, “What’s he doing?” “Isn’t someone going to stop this?” The murmur rose to a low roar and by the time that Ahmed had begun praying from his knees, leaning forward to prostrate himself, a flight attendant was on the scene, the same flight attendant that had taken his bag at the start of the flight.
“We have to keep the aisles clear, sir,” the flight attendant said in a firm voice. “Please return to your seat.”
I can’t stop halfway through. I’ll apologize when I finish, Ahmed thought, while he continued to recite. Behind him the clamor spread through the cabin.
“Sir, return to your seat, now!” Another voice called, this time from in front of him, as another flight attendant joined the gathering crowd. Ahmed pushed it out of his mind as he continued his prayer, nearing the end.
“Do you think he has a bomb?” a voice called from beside him. “Why would he pray like that if he isn’t planning something?”
“Did someone say bomb!” several voices yelled at once.
“He’s got a bomb!” more yelled, and the entire cabin erupted in shouts of fear. Before Ahmed was able to finish his prayer, he felt himself slam into the seat beside him. His ribs exploded in pain as the metal undercarriage of the seat bruised him. A moment later, rough hands flipped him onto his back in the middle of the aisle, and a passenger ripped his shirt open, sending several buttons flying.
“Not . . . terrorist,” Ahmed reassured those staring down at him.
“You heard him, he said ‘terrorist’!” several voices shouted.
“Do you see anything,” the second flight attendant asked the man who had jerked open his shirt.
“No, nothing here,” the man grunted, still pinning Ahmed down.
“His bag!” The first flight attendant screamed, as realization dawned. “That’s got to be where it is!”
From above, Ahmed saw the luggage compartment door swing open, and a variety of bags rained down, until the flight attendant pulled his out. Ripping open the zipper, she pulled out a shirt and a few other items of clothing, several pens and official documents, and a stack of photos, throwing them all on the ground, one after the other. In pain, Ahmed saw one foot after another step on the photos, bending them, crumpling them, ripping them. He struggled against his captors, trying to squirm his way towards the photos, but as he reached for the nearest one, a foot stomped on his hand. His fingers exploded in pain as several broke. When the pressure was removed, he continued his efforts and was able to grab the picture between his thumb and pinky.
“There’s nothing here,” the flight attendant called, dropping the now empty bag to the cabin floor, on top of the other items. “Please sit down, everyone,” she added, beginning to realize the extent of the scene that had developed.
“What’s that?” one of the passengers pinning Ahmed down asked, pointing to the picture that Ahmed was holding to his chest, clutched between broken fingers.
“It’s just a picture of a baby girl,” the other passenger holding him down answered in a baffled voice.
As Ahmed held the crumpled photo, the mental barriers he’d worked so hard to build in the camp crashed down, and the traitorous voice crept forward.