Two Scenes From Jeddah Airport

A crowded bus from the terminal to the parked airplane. Early morning. Dawn is spilling over the horizon and rushing across the desert and busting brightly through the bus windows. I don’t really notice the groggy silence settled over the be-suited businessmen and headdressed Saudis and blacked-out women as we slowly bounce over the blacktop toward the plane, but then a lonely cell phone rings somewhere toward the front of the bus, and I realize it’s the only sound in the world. The phone’s owner must be reluctant for dozens of strangers to hear his phone conversation, because he doesn’t answer, and the phone rings, and a weird tension builds with each ring. And we all stare out the windows at the runways and airplanes, trying not to listen, silently glad it’s not our sad and lonely phone ringing, embarrassing us. But then, after staring outside for a minute, listening to someone else’s phone ring, we all discretely check our own phones, wishing someone would text or email or call, because that would mean we weren’t all alone on this sterile little bus bound for a sterile little airplane.

"Wow! Duct tape! Thanks!"
An old man in a dark thobe shoos me out of the way on our way up the stairs to the airplane. I’m kind of annoyed for a second, but then I see he’s clearing the way for his completely burka’ed wife, who moves with something between a waddle and a limp, like an big, ancient duck that you threw a black blanket over. Then the old man steps aside and with a gentleness that surprises me, he reaches back, touches the small of his wife’s back, and gestures her in front of him on the stairs. I’m embarrassed that I’m surprised at the man’s thoughtfulness toward his wife, and I realize that I wrote volumes about him in my head the moment I saw his wife wearing a small black tent. The man mounts another step and his thobe lifts for a moment, and his Achilles tendon lifts out of his loose left shoe as he flexes his foot. The heels of his socks are held together with duct tape. And suddenly the old man and his tent are people. And for just a second I wish I could spin him around and say, listen, I’m sorry for the way the world is, sorry that there are bullets and shrapnel and rich and poor and derivatives and bailouts and bonuses and oil and stereotypes. But the next second I’m ashamed for assuming that he’s poor and miserable just because he has duct tape on the heels of his socks – maybe he likes the way the tape feels, or maybe he’s super rich precisely because he doesn’t spend his money on stuff like new socks, or maybe he is poor but is perfectly happy and doesn’t need my pity. So I pause on the stairs and look off toward Mecca and wonder how I’m supposed to feel about people with duct-taped socks.