The e-ticket I held in my hand entitled me to board two airplanes, which I did. I flew all the way from Cairo International Airport to the glitzy city of Dubai with its innumerable skyscrapers jutting up out of the pastel-pink sands of that part of Arabia.
Getting from my apartment to the airport is a story unto itself. A pleasant Mr. Ahmed met me at my home in Maadi, a suburb to the south of Cairo’s congested downtown. He was driving a spiffy yellow cab, the sort you have to book in advance, rather than one of the deathtrap, black-and-white jalopies that overpopulate the streets and alleys of Egypt’s capital city. I climbed in next to him, and he kept peeking over the top of his specs at me, which is not to be confused with looking down his nose, something he certainly did not do, as he deftly navigated the wild traffic that closed in on us from all directions.
Mr. Ahmed wanted to talk as he drove, so we did. Our first subject of conversation was a certain VIP named Barack Hussein Obama who had been in Cairo several days earlier to deliver an important speech to “the Muslim World” and then tour some of the more notable tourist sites. Of course, immediately following the address at Cairo University, the president’s words had been parsed, weighed, and spun by a million or more TV big mouths. That didn’t keep us from making our own analysis. So we discussed the speech, America, Israel, Egypt, and Middle Eastern politics, as volatile a cocktail of topics as any two people might ever hope to deal with.
By the time we’d arrived at the place where the big planes roar into and out of the sky, we’d solved all of the problems that seem to plague this part of the planet. I paid Mr. Ahmed and gave him a twenty-pound tip. My generosity prompted him to hand me one of his business cards and then make me promise that I’d call him upon my return to Cairo when I’d need to retrace the route we’d just taken.
Just before parting ways, Mr. Ahmed asked me, “Mr. Troy, I forgot to ask you where you are working here.”
“I teach at the American University in Cairo,” I answered.
“Really?” he said shocked. “And you are not sick?”
“Yes, with that flu that came from Mexico and America.”
“Oh, yes, the swine flu. That outbreak happened in one of the university dormitories in downtown Cairo, far away from Maadi, so I’m OK.”
The wait for my departure from terminal two was uneventful. My flight on Gulf Air was a yawner as well (which is exactly the way I want air travel to be as my body is hurtled through time and space at five hundred miles per hour and at 35,000 feet above sea level). I had a three-hour layover at the Manama International Airport in Bahrain, a country that few people even know exists.
I found the airport experience unsettling for a couple of different reasons. First of all, the place seemed to be the human version of a stockyard. There were long lines of third-world–I don’t like that term, but it captures the feeling I want here–individuals, the vast majority of them young Indian men with that dark Kerala skin, who were being herded–yes, “herded” is the best word–through the airport by handlers representing a variety of private companies. Those hundreds of human bodies were about to be shipped off to any number of Persian Gulf locales where they would immediately be turned into something akin to slaves. I know all about this trafficking of laborers. I learned a lot about the practice when I lived in Abu Dhabi back during the period of 1998 to 2002. During those four years, I befriended a number of such workers and listened (with horror) to the stories of hardship and exploitation they had to tell. But I digress.
The airport disturbed me for a second reason. A lot of the people passing through it were wearing surgical masks because they wanted no part of that H1N1 flu that had been so much in the news in recent days in the Middle East and elsewhere. Of course, seeing those masks immediately made me aware of the fact that there was (perhaps) sickness all around me and that everyone was a potential carrier. It took only a little imagination on my part to see that the air was literally infested with microbes and that I had to guard myself against becoming infected by those little devils. But how does one guard against particles so small that the naked human eye can’t even see them? Thinking this immediately made me feel as if I, too, wanted my very own nose and mouth shield.
We eventually boarded the plane for our short flight to the UAE’s most magical city.
As luck would have it, I was seated right next to another American, a private contractor who did electrical work and had been living in Baghdad for the past year. He was just coming back from a three-week holiday with his wife who had remained, back home, in Atlanta, Georgia, and had flown to Europe (her first time abroad) to meet him for this R and R. The two of them had painted London, Amsterdam, and Paris red, and now he was on his way back to Iraq. He was to meet up with his contractor partner in Dubai. The two of them would be jetting back to their lucrative but dangerous jobs two days from now. When I asked him how he planned to spend the next forty-eight hours, he said, “In my hotel room, getting shitfaced.”
About halfway to our destination, I noticed that the man sitting across the aisle from us was sneezing and snorting and coughing and blowing his nose every five seconds or so. “You don’t suppose he’s got that flu, do you?” I asked my conversation partner who had this unnerving, herky-jerky way of moving that suggested he might be sick himself, with that post-traumatic stress syndrome I’ve heard so much about.
“He does sound awfully bad, doesn’t he? And he looks terrible too,” he said after leaning forward in his seat to get a better look.
“Yeah, he looks like hell,” I agreed.
A few minutes later we’d pretty much managed to put the fellow out of our minds and had gotten back to our conversation about what life was like in Baghdad. “So, tell me,” I asked him, “what do the Iraqis really think about us?”
“Well, I’d say it’s about fifty-fifty. Fifty percent are glad we’re there and the other half wants to get rid of us or kill us or whatever.”
“And are there still explosions and stuff like that there all the time?”
“Let me put it to you this way. I just got back from three weeks in Europe, and it took me the first week to unwind. The wife and I were in London those first few days, but I kept having nightmares and expecting a big bomb to go off at any moment or for somebody to aim a gun at me. Deep down inside, I knew neither one of those things was likely to happen–London ain’t Baghdad, not by a long shot–but I was still jumpy as hell.”
Then the man across the aisle started hacking and sneezing and propagating his germs everywhere, like the Johnny Appleseed of pig flu, and suddenly the danger facing us was not in Iraq but in the air around us.
A few minutes later we were on the ground, and I was retrieving my laptop from the overhead bin.
I was already in the terminal before I realized that I hadn’t said goodbye to my private contractor buddy. It’s probably because I’d been so preoccupied with thinking about finding a restroom where I could wash my hands and the insides of my nostrils and any other part of my body that had been exposed to all those germs. It seemed to me that those creepy-crawlies were probably already halfway to wherever they needed to be to make me one sick S.O.B.