June 3, 2011, on-board a Royal Brunei Airlines flight from Brunei to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I was so terrified, I would have fainted right on spot had anyone laid a finger on me. It was the longest and most psychologically draining ten-hour flight of my life, all because of my wrong beliefs.
Truth be told, my acceptance of my current work here in Jeddah was born out of desperation. When I was looking for overseas employment then, I told myself I’d accept a job anywhere in the world but never would I step a foot in Saudi Arabia. Who would brave to work in a country where men are being beheaded for the simplest reasons like staring at a woman’s face? But look where I am now, still masticating the strict instructions I gave myself several years earlier. I would want to narrate the details in full but, in all Star Wars fashion, “it’s a good question for another time.”
So I was set on a one-way flight to Jeddah with a few hours stopover in Bandar Seri Begawan. The first leg of the flight was a breeze. I was seated between two ladies: a college student on her way to visit her mother in Brunei; and an older lady who kept feeding me with all her in-flight food (she’s “allergic to almost everything, even broccoli and carrots”). I was chatting left and right with whoever was awake. The final leg of the flight, on the other hand, was the source of my imaginary terror.
The stopover was actually bearable, too. I was able to easily avoid any trouble by keeping myself from conversations and avoiding too much roaming around. But the tension began to rise when the call for boarding was announced and we were directed to the waiting area. No, I did not possess anything to spell trouble at the immigration, but as soon as I saw the people I would be boarding with, cold flashes began rushing towards my spine, draining me of all my energy. You know that familiar feeling when you just realized an unavoidable trouble is coming your way? Think of that little child who, upon hearing his mother’s voice calling, cowers in a corner to avoid punishment for having broken an expensive vase. That exact feeling.
My estimate was that there were only less than five percent of us “regular” passengers in the waiting area. The rest were wearing distinct garbs suggestive of their being Muslims. Both men and women. I had to be in an aircraft thousands of miles above the ground with Muslims. FOR TEN FREAKING HOURS. In my mind, I was questioning the gods for having allowed me to be in that kind of situation. Had I made the wrong decision of accepting the job offer? What if I accidentally stared at one of them, or stepped on someone’s foot? Was I getting myself beheaded for that very reason?
I was staring at my feet the whole time to avoid unnecessary eye contact.
To make things worse, there were no English announcements in the paging system. Was I in the wrong flight? Was it time for boarding yet? I had no idea, and never in my life had I been that afraid to ask questions.
Fortunately I got myself into the plane with the whole of me still intact. I was on a window seat, and since there weren’t too many passengers, the lady who was supposed to be seating on my side moved to a different area. It made me a bit calm. Until the pilot announced preparations for take-off and a prayer in Arabic was broadcasted.
‘Aa’iboona, taa’iboona, ‘aabidoona, Lirabbinaa haamidoon.Dua for travelling
If you’ve seen “United 93” or any other terrorist movie, you would have an idea that someone screaming “Allaahu ‘Akbar” out of a sudden could spell danger. Imagine my terror having had to hear that before a flight towards the most Muslim of Muslim countries. My body turned into jelly, I could not move. I didn’t want to move. Things had definitely gotten out of control. I wished to evaporate.
To avoid too much thinking, I slept most of the time during the flight. I didn’t even accept the in-flight meals I was offered. Also, I would usually collect in-flight magazines (yes, it is allowed) but this is one of the rare occasions that I did not care to grab one. In my book, that is totally not normal.
After ten grueling hours, I was able to land safely in Jeddah. And except for the time I thought I was the one being apprehended by the ground officers and had to stand unnecessarily under the scorching afternoon sun, there weren’t any untoward incident between my time at the immigration and the arrival area. Never had I felt so relieved when I met the Filipino driver set to fetch me at the airport.
These all happened at a time when all I know about Saudi Arabia was the Gulf Wars, and that men were being stoned, flogged and beheaded all for looking at a woman’s face. That people were being framed up and punished for being falsely accused of illegal acts like stepping on a loose page of the Holy Quran. All of which weren’t necessarily true, except for the previous wars.
It’s been six years now yet my head is still above my shoulders, I’m still alive. And during the span of those years, I have met, worked and hanged out with a lot of Muslims. Friends, colleagues, and strangers who made me realize that Muslims are not so different from everyone else. They’d crack jokes and laugh at the most mundane of things. They’d watch their favorite sports, cheer for the team they root for, and heckle the opposing teams as everyone else would. They’ll have opinions on politics and current events, and be as angry and sympathizing with news of wars, bombings and terrorism. And most importantly, they’d be as respecting of your religion despite your being the least understanding. They are as human as everyone else. Sure, there are cases of bad eggs here and there but they will never represent the better majority.
Looking back at that experience made me realize how I had been so dumb, irrational, and completely uninformed. It was an experience I would never forget, and one that would always give me a silly smile. This is what ignorance does to people. Such a shame that we have too much misconceptions about Saudi Arabia and the Muslims in general. It was indeed a lesson I learned the strangest way.
To end this, I hope I was able to convey the message to everyone. Muslim does not automatically translate to terrorism. Muslims are not terrorists. Sure, some terrorist are Muslims, but they could have just be as confused. Muslims are god-fearing people. I may be Catholic but, if I am to be honest, I now have higher regard to most Muslims than most of the people in my own religion. I have openly expressed this in the past.
Seriously, Islamophobia is such a lonely word. Everyone is so irrational.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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