Fear of Flying by Syed Haider


Syed Ali Haider

My full legal name, Syed Ali Razi Shamse Haider, raises eyebrows at airport-security checkpoints.  It consistently warrants a scribbled code on my boarding pass. I got an explanation once. They said it wasn’t my name, but the frequency with which I flew back and forth between Pakistan and the States in my adolescent years. However, this does not account for the countless times I have been asked aside to participate in a random bag check and pat-down. It does account for why I missed my connection at Dulles when they took apart my bags at Customs and detained me for four and a half hours.

For Syed Ali Razi Shamse Haider, a no-incident trip to the airport is a rarity. If I clear security and manage to board my flight with the rest of my fellow passengers, I feel jubilant. There rises in me a need to jump up and sing the praises of the guard that waved me through the metal detector, the uniformed lady deciphering the X-rayed contents of my luggage, the air-hostess who showed me graciously to my seat, and the faceless others involved in the process.

When I was little, growing up in Florida, my dad used to take business trips all around the world.  My brothers and I would fight for window seats on the way to the airport.  Dad drove and my mother sat up front. One day, after dropping him off at the gate and driving back home, I saw an airplane in the sky. My mother tells me that I pointed up and said, “There goes Abba.” What I remember most is my fascination of my father living half of his life in the sky, flying over my world like an omnipresent guardian.

The first time I boarded a plane myself was to spend the summer in Pakistan with the family on my father’s side. My father and I took a direct flight on from New York City to Islamabad – the first nonstop on a Pakistan International Airlines plane in its history. The Pakistanis greeted us on the tarmac with flowered necklaces and bright smiles. Little buses drove us to baggage claim. I remember the sticky heat that weighed heavily in the airport. There was no air conditioner, and the thousand faces formed a crowd that threatened to separate me from my father. That first summer I spent in Pakistan would not be my last. The following year, I transferred to a school near my aunt Ghazal’s house.

I was watching the evening news with my uncle when I heard about September 11th. It did not register immediately. I could not see its awful scope or the rippling effect that it would have throughout the world. The retaliatory strikes in Afghanistan made me no new friends in my all-Muslim school. The campaign on terror that followed was equally, if not more, damaging to my relationships. I experienced a deep split that went exactly down my middle. I had grown up considering myself an American – no different than my friends Corey and Miles, other than my exotic name. I even resembled my mother, who is white and had grown up Catholic before meeting my father and converting to Islam. However, after a few years in Pakistan, I had grabbed hold of my father’s side of my heritage. Despite not knowing how to pray in Arabic and never having learned Urdu, I started to envision myself as a Pakistani. A Pakistani-American. An American-Pakistani? The two sides see-sawed in an internal power struggle.

However, I still thought of the States as home. When I talked about my upcoming summer flight, I always referred to it as “my trip home.” I was fifteen when I flew back for the first time after 9/11. Everything felt normal, looked normal. I left Pakistan with no incident. After arriving in London, I made my way to the connection gate for my flight to New York. I was put into a separate line that moved much more slowly than the others. There was little incident other than this slight delay. Once in New York, I had to pass through customs. Now, I had done this trip several times on my own before. This was the first time I started to feel as if I were guilty of something, afraid of being found out, though I had nothing logical to fear. I was coming home for a summer vacation to see my brothers and parents. Simple.  My passport was blue, American, and I was American as well. I thought about cheeseburgers and lounging for days on end, watching MTV—except that now I was being forced to feel wholly Pakistani.

Back in Pakistan, I had been entirely American. I’d been given no choice. Both sides of myself had not been allowed to coexist. Then when I flew, I was a Pakistani who had spent a suspiciously long time being educated in Pakistan. There were interrogations. Endless questions about who I lived with in Pakistan – their history and what they did for a living. Who was I acquainted with over there? Who did they know? What did they do? I tried to hold the thread of my narrative together. Tried to keep it taut, steady and straight.  Taking hold of me was a need to tell stories – my stories – that would continue after these cross-examinations.

I realize that my story was never simple—no one’s story ever is. I had to go back and further back and back back back until I didn’t know where I fit in anymore. I craved a peaceful and simple dialogue about the merits of Islam and Pakistani culture with the nameless, and now faceless, TSA security officer. I wanted to explain that Pakistan was not Afghanistan was not Saudi Arabia. I was not schooled in a madrassah. I knew nobody in the Taliban. I didn’t know any Osamas.  Personally, at least.  I wanted to be angry. I wanted to scream that I was an American citizen – should not and would not be treated this way. There should have been fist pounding and glaring. Instead, I was meek and silent. I answered questions dutifully, with fear. They held me there for hours, taking apart my bag with gloved hands and tossing out football jerseys and my Tupac records.

Same in Pakistan.  Save for a few close friends in a Western-influenced high school, I was mostly ostracized. They called me ghora, pushed me back when I made the mistake to move near them. There were few places where I felt safe even there, where I tended to forget the treatment I’d been given in airports.  So I grew weary of Pakistan. I put all of my efforts into my college applications, submitting applications to a variety of colleges across the States. Now, years later, I regret the stance that I adopted while living in Islamabad, of shunning the entire country, Islam, and everything associated.

I finished my undergraduate degree at a small school in Texas. Now, living in the States on a more permanent basis, I fly very little, with little desire to travel very far. I go out of my way to avoid airports and airplanes and any experience of flying—strange kind of aviophobia.

I still haven’t been able to define myself, either. Living in Texas for the last five years makes me feel re-naturalized, in a way. Inside of me, the see-saw power struggle is tipping decidedly in one direction. “There goes Abba.” I fear the loss of my father’s culture, an entire half of my being.

Syed Ali Razi Shamse Haider, my full legal name, may be its last vestige.