In-flight racism no joke for Kiwi migrant

Last updated 12:31 06/08/2014
NOT LAUGHING: Mena Bassily

Flight nightmares that never leave you

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It was a fine day in Auckland. I was flying to Wellington.

I had been allocated a window seat. I put my laptop bag under the seat in front of me and started looking out the window.

A nice smooth ride home was about to start, as least this is what I was hoping for.

As a recently Kiwinised Egyptian, I have been enjoying living in New Zealand for more than five years. I have not been in a situation such as this before, not in New Zealand anyway, but here is what happened.

An elegant-looking lady in her 50s took the aisle seat next to me, she looked at me and at the laptop bag. She looked back at me and said: "You shouldn't put this here. What's in the bag? Is it a bomb or something?".

I started laughing at what I thought to be a funny ice-breaking attempt, and before I responded she said: "Great! So not only I don't get a window seat, but I have to sit next to the Arab!"

It took me a few seconds to realise that, yes, this was happening. I was being racially profiled and stereotyped. It was not a joke.

I am used to these kind of statements, mostly humorous. I even do it myself to break the ice sometimes. It's not racist when you're making fun of yourself, don't you think?

I get the usual bomb jokes, sometimes the camel wife jokes, which I usually respond to by saying that I have divorced all my camel wives and started doing the Kiwi thing ... having sheep girlfriends.

A few laughs here and there and everybody is amused.

After realising she was not actually joking, as there was no humour in her tone or body language, I started thinking about all the things I had heard of but never thought to be true before.

What would happen if I stood up for myself? A conflict is surely not a good thing on a plane. She's white, and I am not. Did I think they would take her side? 

I finally chose to avoid confrontation and instead did the peaceful, 21st century, teen conflict resolution: I took out my phone, put my headphones on and I could no longer hear her loud terrible poisonous words.

The plane took off, heading south, and I was thinking it would all end soon.

I pulled the window shades down to rest my eyes as the sun was staring at me, when I heard a squealing noise overwhelming the music coming from the headphones. I looked around and found a few sets of eyes staring at me, and the woman screaming in anger.

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I took off my headphones and she started complaining about me putting the window shade down. How could I be so insensitive when she was reading? I asked her to use the reading lights above her head and explained that I - like everybody else on our side of the plane - could not stand the direct sunlight in my eyes. I put on my headphones, looked the other way and turned up the volume.

A tiny part of me was smiling, a hidden dark few cells of my brain were pleased with the power I had over her. She was afraid of me, she was threatened by my existence.

It was not my fault, nor a reaction to something I had done, but I couldn't help it, I did enjoy it.

Maybe it was the helpless, uncomfortable me trying to comfort myself with the illusion of winning. Analysis aside, I enjoyed that tiny moment of taking the power back.

That was one of the longest, worst experiences I have had on a plane.

Sometimes, I wish those Arabic flying carpets were real.

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