For the purpose of this tale, I’ll describe the reception area at Islamabad airport as an horizontal U in a space the size of two large kitchens.
Stood at the beginning of the left hand column of the U is a security guard for the first security check. Walk through this and along to the curve at the bottom of the U. That’s where (on its outer perimeter) there’s a long table. Behind it are five customs officers in front of it are four queues waiting to have their bags searched. Walk past this and you’ll swerve up the right hand part of the U parallel to the left – you’re near the home run with one more hurdle, the third point of security including a walk through a metal detector machine. Walk through it and pass another table behind which are three security officials checking bags for the final time.
Furthermore, the space is full with people queuing at the aforementioned check points and milling security guards. There is no free space. From the entrance you cannot see the layout. This is all retrospective. I forgot to mention that there’s a secret door which leads to a secret room. So that’s the physical map of the story- now the journey. I guess you should also know that everything about this is true and it happened 48 hours back in time.
It’s 12:30am and I give my passport to a small dark skinned official at the entrance. His lips quiver beneath a theatrical moustache. Clearly he’d said something. “I’m sorry?” I say. It’s an English man's way of saying pardon me? He grunts and waves me through. Less than a minute later a tall thin light brown skinned quick footed man in a cream shalwar kameez and beige coat appears from nowhere and requests to see my passport. I glimpse the laminated badge clipped to his coat. Unusual I thought but No problem and hand it over. He flicks through it head to the side as my passport makes that familiar flicking sound.
“Bags checked” he said. “I’m sorry” I say for the last time “Get your bags checked” he reiterates and points in the direction further down. I look to see the custom officials and the queues. I turn back to the man but he’s disappearing into the crowd. I didn’t at that point think my passport had been stolen. Okay that’s how things are done here. I’ll get it after my bags are checked. I trusted my instinct that he was an official. So I join the queue at the bottom curve of the U (remember that) and I’m there long enough to consider I’m in a foreign airport with no passport waiting in a queue to get my bags searched. The butterflies in my stomach awaken but don’t fly. All’s good. I’m a seasoned traveller. Better equipped countries have more defined areas at international airports but just as many in the world are like this. And I’ve been to many.
The queue slowly concertinas down until I am facing a sneering security guard who needn’t hide his disgust at me. No matter. His job not mine. These things are a test to how far I’ve come in managing myself in the face of insolence in power. I put my bags on the table then the sneer becomes a half snort half laugh as he points to the right to the space in front of his younger colleague. Not a word. So I politely shift my bags to the right pretending not to have registered any nastiness. But it feels strangely submissive as my bags slide.
“Have you anything to tell me about anything in your bags” he says unzipping the first bag slowly “there’s only my clothes and toiletries and papers” I reply. “Why are you here” he asked uninterestedly “I’m here for the British Council”. He registers no interest unscrewing my Mizani conditioner. I could have said “I’m here to marry your colleagues daughter” but thought better of it. He fingers his way through my goods like a tiger prowling through a hospital children’s department at night. It’s 1:30am. I’ve moved about twenty yards since the first man looked at my passport an hour ago. I’m tired and my polite confidence is wavering like a faulty computer screen. The worst thing to do here is to give in, to shut down. Keep up with the game install the firewall to absorb the virus.
The customs man pawed his way through my bags and with his questions mauled his way through me. This disquietens and engenders trepidation in me. But why? I have nothing to fear. I’m not guilty here. Am I being slowly drawn into insecurity like a fish as the sea begins sectioning into barely visible squares drawing closer and closer. More questions delivered with impertinence. More probing. But I’m wrong. There is no encrouching net. He’s just doing his job so I collect myself and became calmer with each question.
It’s like I’m stood in the eye of a tornado. As it shifts left and right so do I. I was waiting for the whirlwind to tire itself out. Anyway being angry at a storm would only throw me into it, right? But as I turned left the hurricane twisted right. “We know you are a Heroin trafficker” he said. It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. He didn’t say “Do you traffic heroin?” He didn’t say “do you have heroin in your luggage?” He said “We know you are a heroin trafficker”. My plane is due to leave at 3am. I have no passport and the official representative of the custom of a nation is telling me that I am trafficking Heroin.
"We know you are a heroin trafficker.” It wasn’t a question I could answer because it wasn’t a question at all. It was a statement. I observed the customs official with wonder “Okay..” so this is where you’re at. “But that’s just not who I am”. He looked back at me as if it was. Whereas previous to the statement I was managing necessary protocol now a virus had broken through the firewall and entered the mainframe. Click. I pressed the mouse in my head. Exit. There was a flicker on the screen of me. Maybe now I look like someone with something to hide. His words scrolled down my face. He continued groping the bag while watching me. Exit. Exit. Exit. Exit.
My movements, a scratch of the nose, a glance, even watching his actions could look suspect. I became hyper aware of every twitch of my skin. The air solidified. Guilty. Carefully he raised a hand sized box from the bag and flicked open the miniature golden clasp. Click. What! This is no discovery! This is nothing. You hear me. Nothing! Slowly slowly slowly he opens my award from University, which I was given hours ago by the Vice Chancellor. If the young women of that university could see me now. It’s a green velveteen box and as it yawns open and the polished award shines on his face I’m tempted to shout “BANG!!!”.
Click. Some part of me, deep inside, somewhere , something opens. Somewhere and definitely something . Click. I was locked away as a child for a year. The memory stayed with me ‘til I was 35. It invaded my dreams. I’d wake sweating from the nightmare of a grown man locked in an institution that he would never be free of. I badly need the toilet. And water. Should I ring the bell so the night watchman can take me. Why am I here. I shouldn’t be here. HEY YOU! WHY AM I IN HERE. He finished fingering my bags then raised his eyebrows and looked through me to the next person. I think it’s over now so gingerly I collect the bags and turn away.
Suddenly, and yes it was suddenly, I realize I was cased in an entrance hall of an airport with no passport. Who took it? I lug my bags to the first man, still polite and still outwardly calm. “Excuse me” It’s the calmness that’s getting me through each challenge, or so I believe. ”Excuse me sir I gave my passport to a gentleman after I had spoken to you and he’s gone”. He ignores me. I ask again politely but he waves me off.
Two young security guards are walking towards me “Excuse me..” stay calm “Can you help me? I gave my passport to a man who asked me to get my bags checked and now I am looking for him. He has my passport.” And the security guard with the face of a mouse said “So…have you had your bags checked?”. Politely I reply “Yes” and I tell them again. “So this man told you to get your bags checked” the mouse man says. I reply enthusiastically again “yes” then the other guard who had a face and body like a Meerkat said “So did you….?” It’s 1:45am and I’ve fallen down the plughole into Alice in Wonderland. Simultaneously they point in the direction of a nonchalant pot bellied man sat with legs outstretched and hands in his pockets.
He looks every bit the corrupt cop – I live in England I should know what one looks like – with a paunch and a moustache he’s a badly groomed 1980’s cop. “I’m looking for my passport” I say. He stood up and circled me while eyeing me up and down with a look of belligerence – How dare I speak to him. What? I didn’t realise (until writing this) that this entire theatre of disorientation was his making. He was the director and the star and I the enemy. He directed every player in this story. I was the bad guy in his film. And this was the denouement, the Moriarti finally meets his archenemy Sherlock Abdullah Holmes the star of the Bollywood movie. Oh purlease.
Am I going to miss my plane? From nowhere the man with my passport appears. Relief. But Sherlock takes it. “Why are you here?” He asks. “To take your wife for dinner and talk out her relationship problems”. Now I am close to getting through the airport. I’m on the home run. Now my passport is within reaching distance, now my bags have been checked. “I was invited by the British council….” He swaggers a little “Come this way” and he nods to the security guards then opens a door in the wall that I hadn’t seen before.
The door slams closed behind me. All noise of the hustle and bustle in the airport disappears. Silence. If there’s such a thing as dirty light then this tiny room – ten yards by ten - is filled with it. And men. The Meerkat and the mouse have shuffled in. Sherlock is keeping up the rear. And in front of me is one tall light skinned man in uniform and two others who seem to have been searched by him. They’re zipping up and tucking shirts into their trousers and looking down submissively to floor. They look distressed. No table. No chairs. At the right hand corner of the room are concrete steps but in that corner is what looks like dried shit and vomit. The smell! Everything in here is wrong. I’ve entered Homelands. But this is real. This is all very very real. The tall man in the uniform takes one careful step towards me. He’s the body language of an army sergeant. He looks directly at me. I have to recalculate everything in my head all the possibilities of what might happen here.
“Good Morning” says the security guard as I am ordered to stand against the wall. It’s 2:15am. He glowers at me. He speaks with a menacing undertone. He does what the others did. He acts like I haven’t answered properly. Disorientation. “Here in Pakistan this is how we do things” he says I can barely hear him. I’m bending forward watching his eyes. I’m calculating what could happen to me in here. I stay calm.
“You must take shit in corner” he said. I’d already worked that out. I looked down to where he’d pointed and thought; hey guys if you want me to take a shit then happy days are here again. I’m taking a shit. There’s two things can relieve stress a good dump or a bottle of water and I already wanted both. I start to undo my belt. “No no no no” the security guards say. Were they messing with my head? He explains “No. I am going to probe your stomach.”
I latch my belt and the guard instructs “raise jumper” I rolled it up exposing my stomach and chest. I comply. “Higher” he says. Then “Show tongue”. All to check if I’d swallowed drugs. He stands in front of me, raises his fists and both hands draw towards my midriff. He probes my stomach, slowly and deeply. This is intense. It’s 2am. His fingers are fishing through the bile, squeezing my intestines. He takes ten minutes. He stops and starts again at different parts of my stomach area. My back touches the wall. And all I could think was now is not the time flatulation.
After this surreal fingering I’m instructed to pull down my jumper. “Why am I in Islamabad?” I realize I’m in the newspaper so I pull out the article from my shoulder bag. It’s the Tribune. And I show him the picture on the masthead. It’s a smug writerly vain anti-vain shot. He passes me the passport then shakes my hand.
Sherlock has already left and I’m instructed to do the same. The Lima and the Meerkat slink away. The two civilians disintegrate into thin air and the tall stomach prober becomes a willow tree. I’m outside the door collecting my bags. And everything seems normal. It’s as if none of this had happened.
I’m in the final queue at the top of the right hand column of the U the final hurdle of this horrific fifty yards sojourn into the airport. I’m tired and worried that the adrenaline leaving my body would leave me looking like I had swallowed drugs. A young man scurries past in airport uniform. I ask him if there’s a route for business class – I know there isn’t. Immediately he takes control and my bags and he skims me past the queue through the metal detector – again I am stopped for a final but cursory baggage check – onwards to check-in where I was given my boarding pass and he left. I gave him Rs2000. I didn’t care. I should have given him more.
I ascended the steps into the Emirates airport lounge but I couldn’t sit down. I was a suspect. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that. I knew it for myself now. And now I could see it everywhere. Sidelong glances. And there something strange happened. I lost my ticket. And then found it. And then lost it again and then found it again. And lost it again. So I unpack my shoulder bag. I go through every pocket and every pocket in my clothes not there, not there no there. Then I asked the receptionist if he’d seen it. I search the airport lounge. And then I find it in my pocket. I can’t seem to concentrate on where I put it last? I can’t concentrate at all.
Within thirty minutes I was on the plane. But I lost my ticket stub. I sat down in the wrong seat because I think the woman sat next to me has taken mine and I can’t ask her to move because I can’t properly communicate without thinking my panic has returned. So I don’t. I can’t speak. The air steward keeps thinking I have the name of the woman sat next to me. My belt isn’t properly tied. I’m sweating. I look like a terrorist. I feel like a terrorist.
The vegetarian meal is hers. It’s not mine. It’s hers. I keep thinking I’ve lost my ticket stub. But what if I lost my ticket for the next part of the journey from Dubai to London? Too tired to think. If I lost my ticket they wouldn’t let me on that plane. Where’s my ticket. It’s in my bag. I feel wrong. I need to sleep. I put my headphones on. I take them off. I put them on again. I take them off again. As I put them on the pilot cut through a shock of white noise “ladies and gentlemen please stay calm. This plane is going to be searched. We will not be leaving for some time”. Now my imagination really was playing tricks and I fell into an uneasy slumber as the plane tilted into the night sky.
This post originally appeared here
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