This was the flight that was supposed to be relaxing. We were on the last leg of our trip as the Jet Blue plane took off from New York’s JFK airport heading through the night to New Orleans. Through crafty use of the Internet, I had secured the first two seats on the left side. My strategy was to relax and watch the History Channel on one of the TV monitors provided to every seat while occasionally glancing out the window.
All was calm as the jet climbed to cruising altitude. Before issuing the “ping” signaling that it was OK to move about the cabin, the pilot announced that the flight would be smooth and that we should arrive on time. “Ping.”
Then something disconcerting happened. A bearded man wearing Muslim clothes approached the area in front of me, faced the door and began praying. His praying was dramatic as he continuously bowed toward the door.
All stereotypes aside, this is not what I wanted to see when sitting in an airplane. I realized that on a southbound jet the left door faces east in the general direction of Mecca to where his prayers were directed.
I will admit to a certain uneasiness as I watched him pray, a feeling that was intensified as he dropped to his knees and the paces of his chants increased. I glanced back at the flight attendants who were working the beverage carts at the back of the plane and apparently oblivious to what was going on. I looked across the aisle, where college students who showed no reaction occupied the first two rows.
They were, I reasoned, overly programmed with political correctness. But on the third row there was a man whose eyes were as wide as mine as he gazed toward the door. I had already decided that if the praying man made one unusual move I would leap to restrain him. I could tell that I had a colleague on the third row.
But then the prayers stopped and the man quietly walked back to his seat. By this time a flight attendant had worked her way up front. I anxiously gestured at her, pointing toward the door. She understood my telepathy and said, “Oh, I know, he asked me I it would be OK to do that. I said it was all right.”
At that point I might have returned to the History Channel and even gotten a glass of wine but then the praying man approached the front of the plane again. This time he went into the restroom – the one right behind the pilots’ door. I could only stare at the door, waiting for him to come out.
He was in the restroom for what seemed like a long time. If he had gone in while we were flying over Pennsylvania, surely we must have been approaching West Virginia – but then he came out and walked back to his seat just as quietly as he had before.
This was not the relaxing flight I had hoped for and I was also beginning to feel a little guilty. Was I wrong for feeling so anxious? At least the guy on the third row could feel my pain.
Finally, the flight might have settled down but then there was another development. A flight attendant rolled the beverage court in such a way that it blocked access to the front of the plane. With the aisle blocked, a pilot came out, looked around and went to the restroom while an attendant went into the flight deck. After the first pilot went back to his seat the other pilot came out and got a cup of coffee. He also gave what I perceived to be a smiling glance directed at me. Surely the attendant had told him about the nervous passenger. I was comforted at least that all the crew members seemed at ease.
As the plane began its descent I had a lot to think about. Had I been guilty of stereotyping? Yes. Was it a stereotype that would come naturally to some people? Yes. Had I acted insensitively? No. Would it have been a sensitive gesture on the part of the praying man to be aware of the anxiety that his actions might cause? Perhaps.
Instead of watching the History Channel that evening I had experienced some of history’s fallout. We were walking toward the airport garage when I last saw the praying man. He was walking toward the exit carrying no luggage but only a small handbag.
His world seemed very lonely. With the passing of time maybe ease between cultures will truly have a prayer.