I watched Argo tonight and I was there. I was in Tehran. I was at the airport. I had the fear. It was real and the hair on my arms and the chill up my spine reminded me. In the 70's, I had my own terrifying Middle East experience from which I fashioned the excerpt below experienced by Melani, Derek and Brian in my novel, Arirang: The Bamboo Connection:
Their few hours in Tehran were a blur. They rushed to the airport for nothing. All planes were cancelled awaiting the arrival of a visit from President Carter – a reminder of their connection to the United States.
Brian slept on the luggage next to Derek who was busy on the phone accomplishing nothing.
“I think I’ll go for a walk.” Melani left the two of them with the luggage and stepped outside the airport doors. It was amazingly free of traffic. However, she was back in the land of white and black robes, hidden faces and dust. Even worse, long cars full of white-robed men slowed and called to her as she walked only a few hundred feet from the terminal. She was frightened and turned back to the airport.
“My walk was not relaxing or exercise. I was the entertainment for local men not expecting a western woman to be stupid enough to walk unaccompanied. I’m not even sure it would be safe walking with you. I hoped for fresh air; instead I encountered another frightening moment.”
“Well, I’m still tracking the flight delays. It’s looking worse as time goes by. The ticket counter has no information. By the way, you ought to pay more attention around you in some of these countries. How many women look like you in the airport? Not many. They are all covered in those black robes. Maybe you need one to be safe.”
“Thanks but no thanks. Let’s get to Indonesia. I think I’ve had enough of the Middle East though I’ll always remember the fabulous markets and the magnificent mosques.”
“What do you mean this plane will not land in Iraq in time to connect with our flight to Indonesia?” Derek attempted to get some definitive information from the flight attendant. The delayed flight from Tehran was a problem of major proportions, growing by the minute.
“Don’t worry,” the pretty airline attendant assured Derek, “you will still make a connecting flight in Iraq anyway. The pilot will call ahead.”
Melani kept looking at her watch, the departure time on the tickets out of Baghdad and telling herself to remain calm.
“Heads are going to roll if we don’t make that connection,” threatened Derek to no one in particular.
Melani smiled to herself. Whose head? Airlines let you know how helpless you are!
“What do you mean that Egyptair no longer flies out of Iraq or anywhere? We have tickets. We must get to Cairo for our connecting flights to Indonesia. Who do I talk to? This is impossible!” Derek’s voice was getting embarrassingly loud, and he was ushered into a small, austere office, leaving Melani and Brian with the luggage. She watched anxiously until Derek returned. His face was glum.
“The airline has discontinued flights; and no one told us. Who would think to inquire whether an airline was still in business? Perhaps it was in the local press; but who could read it? Someone at the Tehran airport should have told us before we boarded this plane!” Derek sounded frightened, something Melani had never experienced.
He continued, “We are in a mess. We don’t have a visa for Iraq. I called the Embassy and they can do nothing because we cannot leave the airport without a visa. My air travel card is only for me. Even if I could get to Cairo, I would never make it in time to connect with our flight there. Of course, I couldn’t leave you and Brian here!”
Melani wondered about that. She could see his mind working on the disappearing vacation time until he needed to report back to work. Now it was a matter of getting back to Korea at all.
“Don’t we have travelers checks?” Melani asked.
“Not enough to pay for tickets. We don’t have our tickets home anymore because we will make none of our connections. Indonesia is off the plan. Now, we just figure out how to get back to Korea.” Derek turned around and went back to the small office.
Melani looked outside. All she could see was dust. There were some flat, drab buildings in the distance. Everyone in the airport was in white and black robes. She and Brian stood out like a red dress in a black and white movie. Brian slept between the suitcases, exhausted. Twilight was darkening the room. It was eerie. It was frightening.
Derek returned. “The only airline available to get us home is Iraqi Air. The only seats available are first class. Those seats are on the flight tomorrow. The Embassy is no help at all. I don’t have enough money. We can’t even leave the airport without visas to get to the Embassy.”
A large man in white robes and a turban signaled to Derek.
“The airport is closing. You must go to the hotel on the airport. You must pay me now. You can return tomorrow. Your suitcases stay here. Follow me.” He turned and started toward the door.
“Derek, we can’t follow him. We need our suitcases wherever we go. Somebody has to help us. Call someone from the company. Do something. We can’t just follow that man.” Melani’s voice reflected her rising fears.
“We have no choice. I can see the hotel from here. There, it’s that flat building out there. We’re tired, now. Tomorrow is a new day. No one will hurt us. We just have an airline problem. Everyone is polite. They just have no solution until I have the money to buy tickets for all three of us. He suggested I use my air card to fly to a country where I can get the money to return and buy your tickets while you and Brian stay in the hotel.”
“Don’t you dare! Did you see how the people in here look at us? We are the infidels in this place. They have no use for us at all, not even our precious son except maybe to kidnap us and put us in a harem somewhere. Don’t you dare leave us. Okay, we’ll go to that hotel. We need something to eat too!” Melani’s tears now streamed down her cheeks as she picked up Brian and followed Derek out the door to the ancient automobile that drove them the few feet to the hotel.
“Oh, they kept our passports also.” Derek added that unfortunate piece of information.
They traveled in the old car to a dusty excuse for a motel, austere and in the middle of nowhere. Melani put on a brave face for Brian; she was terrified and her stomach was starting to protest the lack of food for too many hours to remember, food or water. No one was friendly. In fact, the opposite was true.
“I think I saw some vendors with food of some sort. I’ll be right back.” Derek left Melani and Brian at the motel and went in search of food. His best effort was some welcome fruit.
Fear for their lives crept up Melani’s spine like a cold chill. All three slept in the same bed, in their clothes. They slept in spite of the terror, hugging Brian between them.
After a sleepless night, the car returned them to the airport the next morning.
“I feel like a political prisoner,” Melani whispered to Derek. He didn’t look any more confident himself.
“At least our bags are where we left them though I can tell they’ve been opened. Who knows what they took and what they left.”
Melani had visions of living out their lives in the Baghdad airport, not very pleasant thoughts. We never should have brought Brian to these countries.
“Iraqi Air will not accept travel checks even if we had enough for the only tickets, first class, that are available for all three of us. They will not take my air card because it specifically indicates bearer tickets only. We are caught in a Catch 22 of frightening proportions with no solution.”
Derek intently watched the morning passengers buying tickets and boarding their Iraqi Airways flight to S. Korea via Tokyo. Derek approached Melani and Brian, looking pale for him.
"Get the bags; follow me. Don’t say anything you don't have to."
Melani followed the instructions, pulling Brian along. Derek hustled them into a ticket line, handed the girl a plastic card and was issued tickets on Iraqi Airways to Seoul, Korea. The plane was already boarding. Customs personnel looked glad to be rid of them as their passports were returned, stamped and they boarded the 747 aircraft. They were not in first class, which surprised Melani since they were told that was their only choice. Derek still wasn’t talking. He just looked miserable and worried. Melani was scared but kept her brave smile for Brian and said nothing.
After the plane was airborne, Derek explained,
"They wouldn't sell me tickets on my American Express Card. We didn’t have enough cash for tickets. They wouldn’t take my travel checks. My Air Travel Card only entitled me to buy tickets for myself. I tried in other lines to use it to purchase tickets for all of us but was refused. Then, I stood back and watched carefully for the least efficient and most harried ticket agent. That's the one I hurried us through. She didn't check the Air Travel Card. We were not forced to buy first class tickets, either. I don't know what will happen if they discover their error. I don't think I want to spend any time in a Baghdad jail. The airport was bad enough." He and Melani continued to hold their breath as they settled into their seats, in fear the plane would be called back to Iraq.
“This is really and empty flight. I don’t understand the “first class only” seats deal,” said Derek.
“I get it fine. They had trapped Americans and were going to soak us for all we are worth. We’re just lucky they didn’t hold us for ransom. Oh, Derek, I have never been so frightened. I so wish we had not brought Brian!”
The majority of passengers were waiting in New Delhi and Bombay, fueling stops also. It was nice to have so many free seats temporarily to stretch out and relax.
“Oh, what a pretty child,” exclaimed the airline attendant, and she took Brian to show him cockpit. Brian looked a little fearful, but the idea sounded good.
“It’s okay, Brian, we are right here and can’t go anywhere. You’ll be right back.”
Every where they traveled, adoration followed Brian because of his blond curls. He was getting tired of being dragged away to be looked at and touched.
“The evening meal was quite good now that I am more confident we will make it to India – maybe we can explore a little in the airport,” Melani was a little rested, a little fed, and a little more optimistic.
No such luck.
“We’re not stopping in Bombay. Something is the matter.” Derek looked like Dooms Day.”
“It looks like we are landing in New Delhi.” Derek was carefully monitoring his knowledge of where the plane was traveling.
“For some reason, we are still very far out on the runway instead of pulling into the gate. Maybe no gate is ready. Perhaps they’ll use busses. If so, we’re likely stuck here.”
A couple passengers deplaned, but no one entered the airplane. People began asking, “What is the problem?” but no one provided any answers.
“The plane is refueling only; we won’t be going to the gate for passengers,” came an uncertain voice over the intercom. Then, a new voice, the pilot, saic, “All passengers move together forward in the aircraft for a short takeoff.”
“Oh my God, Derek, are we hijacked?” Melani whispered in terror, glad Brian was in the seat between him but still feeling helpless.
Melani looked at Derek who shook his head in dismay. The aircraft leveled out, it was time to sleep, and the airline attendants passed out blankets and pillows. They had an entire row of seats. The comfort was unimaginable.
“This is pretty strange. Breakfast is the same meal as dinner last night.”
“ One of the passengers heard that a bomb threat in Bombay was the reason no passengers boarded. The airline was concerned about arriving safely in Seoul,” explained Derek.
So are we, thought Melani.
“I guess we should be grateful that only fuel was loaded in New Delhi, no food, no luggage, no people. I guess there was plenty of food for an aircraft full of people who were supposed to board in Bombay. It’s just the same meal we already experienced twice,” said the practical Melani.
Derek was thinking about the useless tickets to Indonesia but said, instead, “I’m just grateful Iraq is far behind us.” Yet, the uneasy fear that they could yet be forced back still ate at their psyche. www.dkchristi.com
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