It was September 10th, a month ago, and my husband and I were at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris. The day before 9/11- a date that will never come again without bringing back memories of towers turning to dust as the hatred of our enemies exploded around us.
We had just arrived in Paris on a flight from Iceland, where we spent a few days surrounded by the island’s pristine beauty. Despite the always challenging experience of navigating a new airport, shedding and recovering possessions in the security line, and trying to make ourselves comfortable in a crowded airplane, we were still feeling the remnants of the serenity we experienced while bathing in the healing waters of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon.
It was almost lunchtime, and we decided to find a restaurant. After forcing our bodies back into rush mode to keep up with the crowds, we passed the familiar McDonald’s looking for a Parisian restaurant where we could set our suitcases down and create a little oasis for ourselves. I was excited to try out my very rusty (70″s) French. We found just the place and sat down to peruse a menu. After we ordered our food and I realized that although I could still read and understand French speaking it was a whole other story, we sat back and did what tourists do: people watch. We were treated to a parade of ethnic diversity! A group of tourists from Nigeria (I had to ask!) dressed in gorgeous colorful indigenous garb, Latin Americans speaking in various accents of Spanish, Brazilians, Scandinavians, Russians, Indian women in their beautiful Saris, and what I assumed were Moslems from the way they were dressed. . Our own Portland, Oregon, is a wonderfully diverse city where one can walk downtown and hear different languages spoken. But the airport in Paris offered a representation of our world populations like none I had ever seen before.
Suddenly our reverie was interrupted by several armed policemen and a couple of very focused German Shepherds. The policemen began to rope off an area in front of the restaurant. They came towards us and another group in the adjoining table and asked us to leave and go to the second floor. Now. Do not eat, do not pass go. I recognized the cold sweat of terror, so familiar to me from my childhood. We grabbed our bags and joined the rest of the colorful people on their journey to what we assumed was the safety of the second floor. We still had hours before we could get on another airplane and head for Spain. I asked a policeman in my tentative French what was happening (typical control freak behavior) and was told “a tourist has misplaced his luggage”. Right. And a whole floor of Charles de Gaulle airport was being vacated. Guns. Dogs. Lost luggage….really? But we obeyed, acutely aware of the date- the day before 9/11. We had failed to realize the date was not only significant to us, but to the world. The airport had been in a high state of alert and now they appeared to have had a reason.
We never knew what happened. As far as I know the incident never even made the news there or here. But we stayed on the second floor until it was time to go to the gate for our next flight. We sat down by the gate to wait, still hungry, tired, memories of the Blue Lagoon fading fast. And then it happened. What I assumed to be a whole group of Moslems sat next to us. The familiar veiled women, the men suddenly appearing menacing in that context. On the day before 9/11 we were going to get on a plane along with a group of Moslems. I glanced at my husband and raised an eyebrow. He responded with a nonchalant look. I elbowed him and tried to point my finger in the direction of my neighbors without their noticing it. He still wasn’t reacting. Why?
I got up, impatient, and walked to a nearby Starbucks, suddenly wanting a familiar space. I was charged over five euros for an ice coffee. So now I was hungry, tired, afraid of my new neighbors and feeling cheated, having spent double the money for my favorite drink. As I returned to my seat I looked at the “muslims” who had taken the seats next to us. A man, two older women, a child and a teenager. A beautiful teenager sat in the seat next to me. A family. I wish I could say that my fears were allayed, but they weren’t. My PTSD had kicked in. You could call it paranoia. Moslems thought nothing of blowing themselves up- why not their children? Suddenly I wished the security people had been even more paranoid than I. It was then that the little boy got up and said something that made his sister the teenager laugh. And what a beautiful laugh she had! The laughter brought me back to myself. To the self that swore that she wasn’t prejudiced. To the self who said many times that we could not blame a whole population for what a few people did. And I breathed deep and turned to the beautiful teenager with the large black almond intelligent eyes, her head partially covered, and I said: “Hello, do you speak English, Spanish or French’? And she answered me in perfect English that yes, she spoke English. Her name was Nahil.
Nahil and her family were Syrian. Nahil was fourteen, the same age I was when I was sent to the U.S. from Cuba leaving everything familiar behind. She spoke of her grandma and her cousins she could no longer visit. At least not as long as her country was under siege. She spoke to me of Syria with the longing and love I myself had felt at her age at another airport far away. Nahil couldn’t go home at fourteen. Nahil and I were sisters. I sat down next to my sister and I did not recognize her. I didn’t even SEE her- only her dress! And yet…..
Fifty years later, Nahil is another child whose life has been turned inside out by violence and war. Fifty years and we have learned nothing. Fifty years and the children continue to be the victims of the inability of adults to dialog and come to consensus over difficult issues. Fifty years and children cannot rest easy in their homes, can’t count on growing old in the country of their birth. I had been Nahil, and my fear had almost kept me from knowing her.
Is it our fear that drives all wars? The fear that almost kept me from knowing Nahil’s beautiful spirit?
Nahil is strong. She lives with her family in another land now and they live comfortably. She will survive as I did. But like me, she will long for her friends, her cousins, and wonder what might have been, because some adults forgot how to be stewards of their country and their children, while caught in the ego led power struggles that bring forth nothing but destruction.
So Nahil, forgive me for my prejudices, I wish with all my heart that someday you will again walk in your land in freedom. Someday soon. Before your beautiful strength and your hope fade. Before your country is destroyed by its own people.
When it came time to board our plane, Nahil and her family boarded the plane next to us also boarding at the same time. NOT headed for Spain. I felt a pang of regret. I would have loved to have known her better.
How many people do we miss meeting, knowing, loving, because of our deep seated prejudices and fears?
I suspect we are missing out on a big part of our human experience………..