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Worried Glances on the Flight Home
An Essay by Sharon Moshavi

audio Listen to Moshavi's essay.

Oct. 29, 2001 -- Sometimes I wonder how I came to be a member of my family. I like to think of myself as open-minded and compassionate. Some of my relatives, on the other hand, though I love them dearly, can be Neanderthals.

That became all too clear a few weeks ago at a family gathering on the East Coast. I related with horror a news story I had heard that morning, how some passengers and crew were refusing to fly on planes which carried Arabs or anyone who looked like one. One relative shook her head and said, “That's terrible.” Another pursed his lips together, then parted them. “Good,” he said.

Later, driving around New York, I found myself being extra friendly to the city's cab drivers, many of them Pakistani Muslims, chatting with them and tipping heavily. The drivers were worried on three levels: about terrorism, about racism and about their families back home in Pakistan. I felt bad for them.

Finally, it was time to fly back to Tokyo, where I live. I didn't feel concerned about my safety, but I was prepared for long delays, security checks, even bomb scares. Sure enough, the terminal I was in at JFK was evacuated for an hour, but I made my flight, happily ensconcing myself in my business class seat, thanks to a free upgrade.

"I remembered reading about the instructions for carrying out the terror attacks supposedly found in Mohamed Atta's luggage. Hadn't it said something about making sure that hijackers dress well when boarding? Hadn't it said something specifically about making sure their shoes were really well shined?"

Sharon Moshavi

The upper deck wasn't full. There were just a handful of passengers. The man across the aisle from me was dark-skinned, Arab-looking. He had an accent, I could hear, from his conversation with the flight attendant. I didn't think much of it. I bent down to stow my bag.

In my line of sight were the shoes of the man across the aisle. It was no wonder they caught my eye. They were shiny black, polished to a high gloss. New or old, cracked or smooth, I couldn't tell under all that polish. The only thing I could tell was this: they were cheap shoes, really cheap.

It was like a red alert went off in my head. I remembered reading about the instructions for carrying out the terror attacks supposedly found in Mohamed Atta's luggage. Hadn't it said something about making sure that hijackers dress well when boarding? Hadn't it said something specifically about making sure their shoes were really well shined?

I looked down at my own footwear. Scuffed. I felt a lump in my stomach. What was a guy with cheap, shiny shoes doing in business class? I was being absurd, of course. I myself was a trespasser in business class; there only because I'd scrimped and saved my miles. Just because he was here too didn't mean he was wealthy. “Stop being so ridiculous,” I told myself. But I continued to take surreptitious glances at his shoes and at him.

We took off. We reached our cruising altitude. The man noticed my glances. I felt horrible and ashamed. I wanted to jump up and apologize. But the lump in my stomach kept me in my seat. For the next 13 hours to Tokyo, I tried to forget it all, watching "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "The Wedding Planner," reading my People magazine. But every once in a while, when I saw the man move, rustle, get up to go to the bathroom, I got nervous.

Of course, we landed perfectly safely in Tokyo. The man was not a hijacker. He was a businessman or a doctor or a golf pro.

If I told some of my relatives this story, I'm sure they would look at me with a triumphant gleam that would say, “See, you're just like us.” Unfortunately, I can't totally disagree with them anymore. But at least when I think of how I reacted, the word “good” does not come to mind.

Sharon Moshavi is an American writer living in Tokyo, Japan.