We were opposite people from opposite sides of the world.
I walked down the long aisle on Qatar Airways Flight 0701 until I reached row 27, seat B. My heart was already pounding outside of my chest; I had a 12-hour plane ride ahead of me to New York City, and a terrible fear of flying.
When I sat down, I looked at the man in the window seat, seat C. He was wearing a pin-striped suit, light blue tie, and black dress shoes. His hands were neatly folded in his lap, and he was looking out onto the tarmac.
I smiled and said hello, and he smiled back.
Whenever I travel I try to make conversation with my seat mates. It mainly calms me down when the ride is turbulent, but in this case I was flying out of Doha, Qatar — the epicenter of cultural diversity — with people traveling from all corners of the world with interesting stories to tell.
Muhammad was from Somalia. He had lived in Dubai for the last three years.
“You look nice for the flight,” I said, hoping my sarcasm would somehow translate across cultures.
He smiled again. “I’m going to America for the first time! Rochester.”
Muhammad’s brother lived in Rochester, and he was staying with him for four months. His English wasn’t that great (and my Arabic nonexistent) so I didn’t get many other details. He was a taxi driver in Dubai, presumably saving money for his family back home. His brother has two kids who he was going to be meeting for the first time.
Muhammad and I were opposites in every way. He was from a small, impoverished village in Somalia, and I was from a middle class neighborhood on Long Island. He was dressed in a suit, and I was in sweatpants. He was shaking with anticipation, counting down the minutes until he arrived in New York. I was shaking with a dull panic, somewhat dreading the thought of returning back home.
Every time the plane hit turbulence, my co-worker (who was sitting in seat A) held out her hand so I could hold it. She let me put my head in her chest while I took deep breaths and held back tears. After the shaking would end, I’d sit back up and look at Muhammad, a bit embarrassed.
“You are OK!” he’d grin. “You are safe.”
Throughout the flight our opposites continued to expose themselves. He would order vegetarian meals, slowly savoring each bite of rice and potato. I ordered lamb, barely chewing before I’d swallow. He would politely cut his roll in half, using the butter knife to evenly spread on cream cheese. I ripped my bread to pieces, dunking it into the tiny cream cheese container while ignoring my knife.
He ordered tea, I ordered a bloody mary. I got up to use the bathroom eight-thousand times, and he didn’t move once.
I spied on his entertainment selection. He was usually watching a historical Arabic documentary. I watched Harry Potter II and I (in that order) and then You’ve Got Mail.
I ordered more bloody mary’s, he ordered more tea.
At one point I offered him an extra pair of noise-canceling headphones I had with me, after seeing him struggle to untangle the cheap pair the airline provides its passengers. He looked at the $300 headphones in my outstretched hands with complete disinterest.
“These are nice,” he said, referring to the plastic headphones he was still untangling.
When we started to descend, I helped him fill out his customs form. Once again, I scribbled through mine, my handwriting barely legible. He wrote every word with a sense of purpose.
I showed him the auburn and yellow trees as we were landing, joking how there were no palm trees in New York. He peered out to the tiny houses in Queens that were huddled against an unfamiliar coast line.
“Wow,” he kept repeating. "Wow."
“In Rochester, you will see snow!” I said as the wheels touched down. He smiled wide. “You did a good job,” he told me, pointing to the runway.
It’s always awkward to say goodbye to your seat mate on a plane. I never do it when going out to the aisle, because they are still right behind you. Yet once we exited the aircraft, crowds of people infiltrated the gate and I lost him.
A JFK employee was asking if anyone was on the connecting flight to Rochester, which was leaving very soon. He was pushing those people through customs first.
“The man in the suit!” I blurted. “He needs to make that flight.”
I barely caught his light blue tie as I both looked behind me and paced forward towards customs. I wanted to say goodbye, but for some reason I didn’t. While he was assumingly pushed through the visitors line in customs, I went to the citizen side.
There, I felt a pang in my chest — the sharpness of that opposition trumping all our others: visitor versus citizen, absence versus opportunity.
Muhammad, I know you’ll never read this,
but I wanted to say that you entered and exited my life in such a short brief of time, but impacted it in a way not many people do.
And even though our lives really do exist in a world of opposites, our brief time together was really one of unity.