I performed a rapid assessment analysis of my fellow bus passengers as Doha international terminal receded through the rear window. Just in case we miraculously survived a plane crash and got stranded on a desert island, I would naturally need to determine who would be most likely to eat or be eaten. I had plenty of time, since our Qatar Airways plane was still a dot in the distance and the driver seemed in no hurry to narrow the gap between it and us.
Standing next to me, a slim mid-30’s man in a short thobe—long-sleeved thigh-length white shirt and a kufi prayer hat—was muttering under his breath. He was of medium height with an insubstantial beard (no moustache), a probable mix of English/Middle Eastern. He was fingering a set of well-worn prayer beads. When he wasn’t nervously glancing at a dark blue backpack stacked on the luggage rack behind him, his gaze was firmly fixed on the floor of the bus, lips moving continuously. His forearms and elbows were scarred with pink contrails of eczema. He was, in short, the perfect visual profile of a terrorist. I scrambled together a story in my head. Disenchanted youth from [insert name of disenchanted British city here], torn between worlds and identities, becomes radicalized in a madrasa in [insert name of Muslim state here], while his inner tensions and contradictions manifest as ugly skin conditions. He is saying his final prayers to purify his soul before he blows us all up and floats off to heaven and the 72 virgins.
The bus crawled along the tarmac, our plane still a few hundred yards up ahead. I had to say something to him – had to see how he would respond. But what? “What’s in the bag?” sprung to mind. I could ask him where he’s come from. I imagined he would look at me with automatic disdain. Perhaps he would ignore me completely, not wanting to infect himself with infidel parlance.
“Looks like we’re going to be driving to London,” I said finally.
He stopped his prayers and looked at me blankly. And then something happened. He smiled.
“Yeah, you’re not kiddin’,” he replied in a strong North English accent. “But I’ve been waitin’ to leave for hours, so I’m not complainin’.”
He then went on to tell me, in a chatty relaxed manner, how he’d missed his connecting flight that morning due to wrong information from the airport ground staff and he’d been waiting in Doha for five hours with his increasingly grumpy wife and mother. He nodded over to a large woman wearing a paisley headscarf with a backpack printed with large pink and white daisies. She smiled at me wearily.
He asked me about myself and I told him I was moving to the UK after six years in India. I don’t exactly recall what else he said apart that he was from Manchester and that he would be happy to get home. I was too busy thinking how normal he seemed. I filed away my movie scene where I rush down the aisle of the plane shouting ‘Take him down!’ – spinning his gun through the air with one gesture and constricting his windpipe with the next. Everything was suddenly reversed. I was the one approaching the world with a fixed set of assumptions through a rigid narrow view from the window of my own madrasa.
When we reached Heathrow, I passed him in the aisle where he was waiting for his family.
“Good luck with it all,” he chirped.
“Thanks,” I said. “I appreciate it.”
And I did. More than he could know.