Sunday, August 18, 2013

Nine Airports


The cabbie responded to a phone call in Arabic—a woman, his wife maybe, perhaps digging into him for working yet another Saturday, even if the business benefits or even the necessity of driving a taxi on the one day of the week when public transit is banned by law should be fairly obvious by now—then insisted on speaking to me in Hebrew the entirety of the ride to the airport. This is odd, because I can barely, and I mean barely, sustain a conversation in Hebrew (ani tus l'Yarden achshav! Horrible). I still can’t figure this one out. A shabbos-breaking Iraqi who speaks Arabic at home? A Hebrophilic non-Jewish Arab hard up for language practice? Unlikelier people exist here.

Even setting foot in this airport feels wrong. The night before, a friend was telling me about how Menachem Begin defended El Al’s ban on Saturday travel when the issue was brought before his cabinet, even though he himself was not a shabbos observer. What message did it send to the world, he asked his mostly shabbos-violating ministers, if airplanes with the Magen David on their tailwing were seen violating one of Judaism’s fundamental precepts? What message did it send to them, and to ourselves for that matter, about our own faith in the national spirit and mission? Jews can fly on shabbos, but the official airline of the Jewish republic cannot. One was an individual choice; the other a national imperative.

The logic seemed millstone-like as I scanned a departure terminal eerily absent of its usual broods of black-hatters, Chabadnik tifilin-pushers and synagogue groups and daveners and birthright kids. I noticed that the airport’s two kosher McDonalds were now Kosher Burgerranches, one of which was open, oddly enough—a step down in quality, though the plastic fried onions on my Ranch Burger seemed a pean to Israeli autochthony and the sort of thing that Bagen and his ilk might have really appreciated on some level.  Fuck your help, we can make our own terrible hamburgers and top them as well, these onions seemed to say.


There is that moment during the approach when the earth returns to you, and buildings and cars and maybe even people regain their individual character as the ground loses the eerie fake stillness of a theatrical backdrop and bursts into reality and life. At exactly that moment, when the clustered domes of the arrival terminal seemed almost at safe leaping distance, close enough to imagine yourself inside of, the plane abruptly jerked skyward again, pitching into a straight climb and what felt for one almost bowel-unplugging moment like a stall—apparently an aborted landing dispatches the mind to the darkest place it can possibly reach. But there was nothing wrong with the aircraft. We had hit a wind shear, though I have no way of knowing whether the order to abort was out of residual fear or actual mortal danger—I could see little funnels of dust scurrying across the flat surface of the tan and unvegetated wastes, and ours was a tiny plane with as many passengers as crew, easily tussled and tossed on the harsh breath of the Western Desert, wind blasts roaring from the barren center of Arabia. The plane swung around the airport a second time, and I occupied my nerves with a repeat view of a rock quarry, the snaking King’s Highway, precarious and often vain attempts at desert agriculture. I would take any spot on the ground--anything over this. I developed an uneasy familiarity with one particular grid of empty tree trunks marooned stubbornly in an ocean-like expanse of gray dust, and in my mind I placed myself inside that vast aborted orchard where nothing seemed likely to ever grow again, and where the few trees that survived stood as the mocking residue of a general failure. I was the only person (out of like, 8 passengers) who clapped then the nose angled towards absolute safety, and the forward wheels kissed tarmac.

We were rewarded for our ordeal, because wow, Queen Alia airport. Now this is the airport a nation builds when it is going places. Right? The ruins of the old terminal cower beneath palm-frond vaulting and tasteful gray sandstone, glass curtain-walls and gaping, uncluttered atria. It is as if the king himself ordered the squat, windowless old terminal to remain there forever, as a reminder of what the nation used to be before it was capable of constructing glorious Queen Alia, with its coffee lounges and Lebanese falafel bar (highly fucking recommended) and oriental sweet shops (also very much recommended) and Popeye’s Fried Chicken. I paid for an espresso in dollars and received Saudi rials as change--Queen Alia is generic in a way that reflects some noble national aspiration. It is cosmopolitan and logical and clean. And for the transit passenger, there is no way to test Queen Alia’s ethos against the angry and crowded nation that it serves. Because your next view of Jordan will be the gray, dust-devil wastes, which the hastening distance between earth and sky will render unreal once again.


I have touched continents with the balls of my toes, grazed the skin of nations without ever entering them, known them only as lines and polygons on the earth, or as marbled hallways and stale hamburgers and glowering ticket agents and then lines and polygons once more. A five-airport itinerary sends a traveler pinballing through some parallel spatial plane where they never actually are anywhere, officially—or they are somewhere in the sense that we’re all somewhere, and even an airport isn’t some impermeable magical realm, like there is no anti-reality forcefield yet in operation, no spatial plane parallel to the only one we know to exist. The airport is a separate place, an island as well as a gateway. But only to a point.

Had the confusion of the previous weeks seeped through the walls of terminal 3? People clogged its endless  corridors and escalators and moving sidwalks, and there was no relief from them, even at 1 or 2 in the morning. My flight went through an hour-long security check, was moved to a gate on the opposite side of the airport—miles away, and that’s only barely an exaggeration—at which point we were subject to a second hour-long security check, followed by a roughly hour-long delay, followed by some lame and obviously fake excuse about having to wait on a few straggling transit passengers, as opposed to the delay resulting from the general and quite obvious disorder in whose grip the airport/country lay prone—all of it made worse by the Cairo airport’s near total lack of seating. People have to just sort of lean or sit against empty patches of wall, which creates the illusion of clutter and chaos even when things are perfectly under control, which means that when, for instance, 300 Nairobi-bound passengers must hike from gate A3 to C5 (and it's a hike, let me tell you--terminal 3 is designed like a series of quarter-mile long (or longer) piers, but there are no underground tunnels connecting them; you have to walk the length of each pier if you want to get from one side of this monster to the other) they must overcome a British Bulldog-like gamut of stony Japanese tourists and portly Ugandan priests and mindless little kids and beer-swilling backpackers, and men in military dress who have no obvious occupation or purpose, or knowledge of exactly why anything is happening. I might have killed an Italian child; I honestly don’t know. My only instinct was to leave this messy and horrible place; for hours, that instinct was frustrated and offended, until all instinct wore away for good, and I was tired and empty and passive and drifting.


But then: another one of those airports, like Newark, where you can’t let your guard down or trust anything that anyone tells you. A place where you have to snap out of it. Nothing will be easy here. East African Safari? Right over there in the waiting tent, sir; a representative will come and collect you and the other passengers. A representative? No, you have to go through immigration. Transit? Twenty dollars please. East African Safari is in the Cargo Terminal, reachable via shuttle bus—that shuttle bus. No, it’s in the domestic terminal, which is now the international terminal because the airport burned down on Wednesday. Or possibly it’s the cargo terminal that’s now the domestic terminal, which means the international terminal would be—

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that it took several hours to disentangle all of this, although this is to be expected, since the airport—the third busiest in Africa by passenger volume. Like, imagine JFK burning down and you'll get an idea of how major this is—had in fact been reduced to a charred hunk of ‘60s brutalist concrete the previous Wednesday.  And what a field day the conspiracy theorists are having! "I DIDN'T BURN AIRPORT, SAYS PARETTI," trumpeted possibly the greatest newspaper headline I've ever seen; "BLAZE CATASTROPHE," read another, elegantly. The airport was obviously burned down in order to hasten or facilitate the building of a long-rumored new terminal, or to clear the way for international loans that would allow said terminal to be built, or to secure construction contracts for the terminal. Valid or not, a conspiracy is probably less embarrassing to the national image than something more mundane—there are perfidious and self-interested and arson-inclined personalities everywhere, but what kind of country loses its premiere piece of infrastructure by accident?

I won't judge, because the airport soldiered on bravely, in cramped spare terminals and tents so numerous that it was hard to believe they had only had four days to construct them all. The tents had been contracted to a party supply and/or rapid tent deployment company called Wandergood, based in Nairobi. Wandergood: The entire world seemed stuffed into their closed quarters; every accent and passport and language and style of national dress, people flying to London and N'Djamena and Moroni and Dubai; no specific sense of where you are, except at the heaving and anxious center of everything, the naval of the whole of the earth.


Arriving in Mogadishu is not like arriving in Cleveland. The plane (a Fokker Fellowship, the last of which rolled off the assembly line in 1989 as it turns out) lands, the hatches open, you approach a single-level building with an arched portico ornamented with powder-blue Somali stars, and you suddenly aren’t in an airport that’s generic and calm and partitioned from its surroundings—it is its surroundings, only more so. There is no liminal or intermediate space here; you're immediately in what's probably the most dangerous place in the entire city. Every step of the process is laden with mortal urgency, or at least seems to be. Your visas are issued without discussion, and with the strictest alacrity. Your vehicle is already waiting for you, although it probably hasn’t been waiting for long. The key to the Mogadishu airport is just to keep fucking moving. You want to scan your fellow passengers—which are the  kingpin returnees, the newly-minted bankers and hoteliers? Which are the Turkish development experts, and which are the South African mercenaries? Do they even have those anymore? Both here and in general, I mean? But the passengers scatter before you can give them even quick study. Experienced Mogadishu travelers have more sense than the wait around for trouble, however improbable “trouble” might be on a second-to-second basis.

The airport’s single runway streaks along the seashore, and represents one of the outer limits of a thin, rectangular green zone stretching south of the city, a ridiculously fortified enclave that includes the seaport, the airport, the headquarters of the national UN assistance mission, the headquarters of the African Union peacekeeping mission, several foreign embassies, and the site of proposed resort and conference center currently being developed by an American private security contractor. The road from the terminal to the city is a 200-meter canyon of cube-shaped sandbags with occasional turrets rising out of the walls; it’s a very narrow two-way road, and Ugandan peacekeepers ensure that traffic moves at a nervous crawl, as fast as it can possibly go, which, under such cramped circumstances, isn’t very fast at all, or at least not as fast as you and probably the Ugandans wish it could be. And then the airport roundabout, actually the most dangerous intersection in town, entrance to both the road to downtown Mogadishu as well as a parallel span of roadway connecting the airport’s gate to the so-called “Medina Gate,” which controls traffic in and out of the Green Zone—this road is guarded with just as much care and paranoia as the one leading to the main airport terminal, with Burundian soldiers standing in sandbag bunkers in the middle of the street, in constant battle position. Armored troop carriers trace an anxious circuit around the airport and the airport/Medina Gate/Mogadishu road roundabout, and although this isn’t 2008, when jihadists controlled most of the Somali capital and the airport was Civilization and Order's final remaining foothold in the city, the Shabaab are still everywhere. I’m sure I saw some, even if I have no idea who they were. The airport is your introduction to this warped environment, this dissonance between potential and reality and the attendant questioning of your own creeping complacency. Nothing will happen to you at the airport--in all likelihood, since one can never be too sure, and after having destroyed the UN compound, the Supreme Court, the Turkish Embassy and many of the town's nicer restaurants the airport would be an obvious next target for Shabaab, right? So everyone acts is if something might happen, or will. You start to act as if something might happen, or will. From then on, every stop in traffic, ever barreling minibus and jaywalker, seems imbued with deadly potential, even if that potential is only what you project upon the city out of ignorance or fear.

Considering there is no fiber optic cable network in Mogadishu, the departure terminal has amazingly fast wifi.


Before my flight out, a young Somalilander studying finance in Kuala Lumpur complained to me with a certain ironic detachment and scorn that this airport was was "fully manual." And while it is true that there's no electronic ticketing or digital scales at the check-in counter, there are in fact metal detectors and x-ray machines and flat-screen TVs and even a few functioning air conditioning units--although none of them are stamped with "COURTESY OF IOM" or "A GIFT OF THE JAPANESE PEOPLE," like the ones in Mogadishu. The Berbera airport is a bare-bones operation that receives little or no help from the outside--the Somaliland recognition thing, you know--but it works. The police drive around in beat up 30 year old compacts spray-painted a vaguely martial shade of blue; the civil air authorities and even the immigration officers dress in flimsy white uniforms bearing cheap clip art-insignia, and I'm not sure there's even an air traffic control tower (speaking of the immigration officers, a message to the two-dozen nations that the holder of an Israeli visa may not enter: no nation on earth recognizes Somaliland, yet its passport stamp bans me from none of them). No matter--it still works, and the environment bears out the small miracle of it all: abutting the runway are a series of military-style berms, berths where fighter planes could be hidden from an outside ground attack. The airport is also far, far away from the center of town, and curiously far from the port--in short, this airport probably wasn't built for civilians, and is likely a holdover from the old and incredibly brutal military regime, the same one that bombed the Somaliland capital of Hargiesa to its foundations in 1988. Today, the berms are all that remain, and they shelter rotting propeller planes, fuselages barely supported by rusting landing gear, and it is difficult to tell whether they are still airworthy, or whether they're waiting for the salt air to reduce them to brittle amber.

There is a mosque near the airport's single terminal, and it is designed in the unique and I think quite remarkable style of a Somaliland village mosque, domeless and with a unadorned and purely ceremonial minaret, with the eastern (the minbar/mihrab) side projecting outward such that the building is rhombus-shaped, and resembles depictions of the Kaaba sometimes found on antique prayer rugs.


From the air, I wonder if this is what Berbera would look like if Somaliland had the resources and the political recognition needed to develop it. Perhaps it too would have dozens of jetties and cranes, and a four-lane paved highway running along the coast; maybe it would gobble up every available acre of shorefront, and have its share of expensive hotels and foreign restaurants. But maybe not, because the most prominent feature of the Djibouti Airport is actually the American airport, that reminder that the former French Somaliland possesses a natural resource that no other country can boast of: coastline at the exact spot where the Red Sea begins, which is itself a 45 minute commercial flight (less by drone, maybe?) from the exact spot where Yemen begins. Location, location, etc. Camp Lemmonier has its own runway, and a visible fleet of Ospreys with their wings at rest, as well as hulking transport jets and humvees guarding any entryways from the main airport. A single American flags flies overhead. And at the main airport, there's the largest plane I've ever seen, an Antonov, a five-storey beast so massive that it has its own name, battleship-style: it's called the Volga-Dniepr, and it has 20 aft wheels (from what I could count) and enough clearance to stack two battle tanks on top of each other. There's also an EU base at the airport, on the opposite side of the runways from Camp Lemmonier--something having to do with piracy, I'm guessing--and I saw German soldiers milling about the arrival hall, and a gang of American grunts debarking from a charter flight.

Aurally, the airport is a novelty, an interpolation of melodic French into what has been a very guttural previous week (really a very guttural previous month, counting Israel), music made all the more remarkable by its passing quality, moments of glorious difference before the it was time to return to the air.


Sit on the right side of the plane, take a window seat, and stay awake for the approach: a few moments before landing, you'll see just an epic vehicle dump, with fighter jets and helicopters and humvees wasting away. And not just a couple of them--like, dozens, beaten by the rain and wind into the same rich, wooden shade as the earth.

There is nothing to do at this airport, a single terminal surrounded by a high wall. Restaurants, departure/arrival displays, functioning WiFi and toilet paper are but four of the things it lacks. Do not be stuck there for five hours, if you can help it.

And another thing: It's not like some percentage of the Yemeni women are in full hijab--they all are, including the one with a child swaddled in a Spongebob Squarepants blanket, and the one with a red Angry Birds rolling duffel bag. The hijabs are identical bolts of black--some of the women wear black socks and shoes as well; any hemwork is black as well, and the edges of the hijabs shine like glittering black prisms if the light hits them just so. One woman comforted a crying infant who was unable to see his mother's face. There was an African woman in the waiting room in normal western dress, and I almost felt sorry for her, given the judgement that she likely read into every male in the room. She was the only woman whose hair I saw for the entirety of my layover, during which I read a book and humored the local merchants: You might not be able to go on the internet at this airport, but you can buy a Jambiya, the ceremonial daggers that most Yemeni men wear. An amazing thing, the jambiya: a trained eye can apparently tell clan and social class and occupation and even religious or political affiliation just from the ornamentation of the hilt, or the bend of the blade, or by observing whether the leather jambiya belt is worn tightly or loosely. Jews were renowned Jambiya makers; even today, a fine Jambiya blade is complimented as "Jewish work," even though Yemen's Jewish silversmiths fled the country decades ago. More things I learned about Yemen during this layover: holy shit, does it look like an amazing country. I picked up a coffee table book for tourists, and found myself rushing through it even with hours left in my layover--had I lingered on every page, on every mosque and castle and village, on every azure-blue port reflecting rows of ancient skyscrapers, the sense of disappointment at likely never being able to see these things in person would have become too burdensome to fully process. The airport is probably all I would ever see of this place; over the span of my brief and perhaps futile moment on the earth this terminal would be the only Yemen that would ever exist for me, and whatever lay beyond it would only mock my shortage of money or energy or courage or time.

Yemenis believe that a week in a remote mountaintop village--one of hundreds of lonely desert settlements where ancient ten-storey towers jut straight out of the rock--can cure any psychological ill. Go to one, and balance is restored; life is practically made new.


The Yemenia flight landed at terminal 1. Back in 2007, my father and I spent a week in Egypt together, and our El Al flight landed at this terminal--the Phaoronic-style arrival hall, with a collosal Egyptian freeze adorning the back wall, was the first place I ever went in Egypt, the first stop on a wonderful and intense trip where my dad and I slept in an unimaginably skuzzy hostel on Sharif Street, climbed every minaret at the Al Azhar mosque and ate potato chips as we waited for worshippers to leave the Ibn Qaitbay mosque, in the heart of the City of the Dead. We shared our sense of unreality at the Pyramids and at Saqqara and Karnak--how could we convey the scale of it all? My dad had lived out a lifelong dream, and any sense of wonder or enchantment I had towards Egypt had been fully spent. When I returned in 2011, I regret that my strongest emotional response to the place was resentment at the traffic--although tonight, it was difficult to spot even a single vehicle on the airport road, or along the tree-lined boulevards of Heliopolis. The curfew was being scrupulously obeyed.

There had been a massacre in Cairo just a few days before. But the massacre didn't like, happen at the airport, and Terminal 3 was creepily indistinguishable from the past half-dozen times I had been there. I went to the Burger King. I had a full Whopper, as they had run out of the smaller, Juinor variety. My flight left on time.


This was the terminal point--a row of jagged mountains poking through the hot red earth. It was 35 degrees Celsius at 5:20 in the morning. The cab driver wanted me to pay him 25 pounds more than the official, legal price--"for waiting," he said, operating off of the paradoxical and rather mindblowing (and also mistaken) assumption I had entered into a transaction with him before we had even met. I don't care that you want to rip me off, I told him. Take me to my hotel. Take me a place where I won't have to look at another airplane, or eat another cheeseburger, or panic in front of another customs official. Set me down on earth again.