Transatlantic Arabic reading

My friend Bassam disagrees with me. He tells me he avoids reading any Arabic publications on planes heading to the US.

“It’s out of respect for their fear,” he tells me. “What’s that supposed to mean? ” I ask.

“Well, you know. I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable while flying. You know how things are now.” “Come on, you’re not doing anything wrong,” I reply. “You should read the book that you like. It’s your right.”

Of course, we didn’t agree, because very few people agree with me on anything but that’s okay.

Unlike Bassam, I didn’t have any respect for anyone last month and decided to take the Egyptian bestselling novel Azazil (عزازيل) with me on a flight from Amman to DC. The first leg of the flight was from Amman to London. Reading a book that clearly displays “the scary language” was not a worry for me leaving from Amman. ِAfter all, the plane was filled with Arabic speakers who are used to seeing and reading “the language that should not be named.”

It was a great flight. I had three seats to myself. I kicked back and read for five hours while drinking wine and being served food and snacks. Nothing was expected from me and I felt elated.

The second leg of the flight was when I became nervous and started thinking about my friend Bassam and his no-Arabic-publication on-US flights policy. Do I really need to do this? I mean, I could just watch the in-flight entertainment and save myself all the trouble.

Cover of 'Azil'
The cover of 'Azazil'

Of course, as soon as the plane from London to DC took off, I pulled Azazil from my carry-on bag and put it on my lap. I had to get myself in trouble because that’s who I am. The middle-aged, all-American looking woman sitting next to me was reading a book that had the word Afghanistan in its title. A good sign, I told myself.

Somehow, I felt I needed to explain myself before I started reading my scary book. I felt I needed to talk to her to make her feel comfortable as she will be spending the next eight hours of her life in very close proximity to me (you know, United economy can get very cozy) .

To my surprise, she was the one who broke the ice and started the conversation. She started telling me about the book she was reading and how much she was enjoying it. Of course, that was my chance to show her my true colors. I showed her my novel and told her point blank that I was a bit nervous about reading it on the plane.

“Why”? she asked.

“Well you know. It’s in Arabic, and I have been reading lots of stories lately about people being stopped at airports and taken off planes just for carrying Arabic books. You know, some passengers get nervous if they see Arabic script on the plane.”

“Quite honestly, I’m very impressed that you actually can read it,” she said.

This is a very good sign.

A few minutes after our brief conversation, the flight attendant passed by us offering drinks.

“I can’t believe that on US flights they make you pay for alcohol,” I told the woman next to me (whose names I can’t remember now because I’m old). I felt I had to say something to keep the conversation going.

“I know,” she said. “You know what? let get me you a drink.”

” What? No you shouldn’t. Come on. You hardly know me”

“What do you like?”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course!”

“Okay. I will have some red wine.”

Just like that, a total stranger bought me a drink for absolutely no reason. It was such a random act of kindness and a nice welcome home to my newly adopted country, where people are genuine, friendly, and generous. Somehow, I proved my friend Bassam wrong. Not only can you read  Arabic on the plane, but some flyers find this impressive and might even buy you a drink or two.

I was hoping that by reading on the plane, I might shatter some people’s stereotypes of Arabic readers, but what happened was the other way around. My own stereotypes of Americans being scared of my native language on a transatlantic flight was deconstructed. There is no reason to fear or hide from who I am.  The fact of the matter is I am who I am and it is a great thing. After all, people buy me drinks!


  1. Dave March 16, 2010 at 9:03 am

    Come on, we all know that the squiggly writing on the cover of that book translates to “Shoe Bombs for Dummies”…or something like that. 😛

  2. jameed March 16, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    would you have felt the same if you were a male who had flying back after a 4 or 5 day vacation during which you did not feel like shaving?

  3. Karaky March 16, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    Nice article, I travel a lot for work 2-4 trips a year and I always wonder what will happened if I pulled an Arabic book with me. I did it once and nothing happen, Maybe my features give it away already anyway. But I got more attention from reading the lost symbol than any other book, You should try reading English books with the title like Jihad, Islam, Hamas etc.. and see what happen.
    I am actually surprised the nice lady offer you a drink, I would have thought she would not if she had known you are Middle Eastern (and most likely to her you are Moslem).
    Any thank you for sharing. Looks like you had a blast in Egypt.

  4. Bassam Sebti March 16, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    Interesting, Natasha! However, I still have to disagree with you. You said you proved me wrong but you actually didn’t. Just because you didn’t have to go through a terrible experience on the plane with narrow-minded anti-Arab passengers, it does not mean it doesn’t happen or it won’t happen. It actually happened number of times.

    I believe that you did not have a bad experience is mostly because 1-you’re a woman which has less impact than having a young, brown-skinned and bearded Middle Eastern man reading a book in Arabic. 2- You were heading to a relatively liberal area in the US where people are much more open-minded and accept minorities and don’t discriminate against them. 3- The woman who sat next to you might have been interested in other languages which made her think it’s cool you were reading a book in a language she can’t speak.

    Now in addition to all of that, I still strongly believe that because of us, the Arabs, the US was attacked, which caused this fear and paranoia in their minds against us. Despite the fact that we have the right to use our own language and speak freely according the first amendment, we still have to respect other people’s feelings and AVOID problems, especially on a plane for our own sake and the passengers’. It’s not a positive thinking, I know, but I think it helps all parties be comfortable and not cause harm, insult or paranoia. If I were you I would make myself busy with whatever thing I have that won’t cause controversy to have a safe and non-troubled trip.

    In brief, one good experience does not really reflect the fact that what you did might have caused a huge problem, not only for you but also for your family.

    So الباب اللي تجيك منه الريح سدة واستريح

    1. Thomas March 18, 2010 at 7:59 pm

      Well Bassam,

      First off I should acknowledge that as a non-Arab I cannot identify with the discrimination you and others may have faced in this regard.

      You said that although you have the right to use your own language you have to respect others’ feelings. I respect that, but I will note that you cannot control what others think or feel, so take advantage of your rights!

      I grew up with the idea that among the foundations of our wonderful country is that our justice system will not persecute and punish for arbitrary reasons…To add to that, I grew up with the idea that our society is open enough to apply those standards to how we treat each other on a day to day basis…
      You say, “because of us, the Arabs,”….really? It’s the fault of terrorists, who, in the case of 9/11 happened to be Arabs. This is different from saying its the fault of Arabs as a collective..If Arabic script makes people uncomfortable, bring it on. It’s your right to read what you want.

      1. Thomas March 18, 2010 at 8:02 pm

        I’m not saying it’s your responsibility to stand up to those irrational fears, but it is your right.

        As an American, I encourage others to use their rights…

  5. kinzi March 17, 2010 at 6:20 am

    Natasha, I saw this on your FB and laughed. fun to have the whole story, and how it impacted you.

    I do love America, and Americans, and Jordan, and Jordanians 🙂

  6. Jillian C. York March 18, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    Boy am I glad I started following your Google Reader (well, and that you pimp your own articles on it 😉

    I’ve definitely witnessed surprising ignorance on planes heading to the Arab world (especially toward Morocco, which seems to attract the most obnoxious American tourists). I’ve also seen lots of kindness, like what you experienced. I find that airports tend to be far worse than airplanes.

    BTW, I have to share this one…here’s my boyfriend’s recent experience of being an Arab on Amtrak:

  7. Anas Qtiesh March 18, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    I actually had quite the opposite experience and on a train no less. But then again I was watching an Al Jazeera documentary on the history of different Palestinian factions.

    You can read about it on my blog here(pardon my shameless self-promotion, you can delete the link if you like):

    Basically a middle aged man called the cops on me and hurled a couple cuss words. I called the cops on him back. Nothing much came out of it though; they must get too much of these calls that they ignore them by now.

  8. Anas Qtiesh March 18, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    Sorry for the repeat link, totally missed Jillian’s comment with the link in it. I apologize.

  9. Elliot March 26, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    God, think how I feel every time I bring a porno mag on the plane, everyone sitting near me freaks out and thinks I’m a total perv.


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