Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Traveling with Monsters

From the short series, “A Failed Adventure”

I firmly believe that children under the age of 3 should not be allowed on airplanes. Period. Or at least not on overnight 10-hour flights to the Middle East.

No, period.

I read in my Lonely Planet Travel Guide to Syria and Lebanon that “As elsewhere in the Middle East, Syrians love children.” How perfect! I too, love children. In the New York airport, my face glowed as hoards of Arab children ran around the gate: little boys holding hands, speaking in a mix of Arabic and English, sucking down their last bites of American candy as we boarded our plane.

With a baby behind me, and another in front of me accompanied by his toddler brother, I headed first for Cairo. Between the three babies, there wasn’t a moment of silence. At first, it was nice. I speak about as much Arabic as a toddler, so the 2-year-old playing peek-a-boo from the seat in front of mine was both endearing and confidence boosting. But the night approached. Knowing that I left New York at 6:30pm and would arrive in Cairo at noon, I needed to get some sleep. I finished my delicious Halal dinner, and settled in for a movie and a little sleep.

Then, no longer entertained by the Richard Gere’s B-movie “Hatchi,” the toddler began to wail around 10 o’clock. His mother, clearly embarrassed, tried to calm him by rocking and bouncing him in her seat, causing my tray table to alternately shake and poke me in the knees. Seeing no change, the mother’s next strategy was to pick her child up and carry him throughout the plane, at least spreading the misery out a bit. Still no luck. This adorable toddler, who I had admired in the airport, screamed from 10pm until 2am – or rather, 9am, breakfast time over the Mediterranean.

I didn’t sleep a wink.

The Irony of Travel

From the short series, “A Failed Adventure”

As I sat in the airport on Friday afternoon, I realized all of the irony surrounding my upcoming trip to Damascus, Syria. My parents had driven 4 hours to New York City from our family home in New Hampshire just to drop me at the airport, 20 minutes from my New York apartment. They had been forced to lug along our 50-pound, 6-year-old bulldog, wearing a “lamp shade” to protect her injured eye from her gnarling paws. The whole scene was a bit ridiculous. I certainly had not received the same treatment when flying to California this spring!

My father had been very nervous about my traveling to Syria. “You’ll have to call me every day,” he told me. “I’m going to be on pins and needles. My daughter is going to Syria!” I know he was concerned for my safety, and I tried to explain that Syria was incredibly safe. I bought travel books to share with him, directed him to the U.S. Embassy in Syria website, kept on top of Syrian news and such to keep him feeling as good as possible about my trip.

I, on the other hand, felt numb—or at least tried to ignore any feelings about—my trip. I focused on the superficial: buying “old lady” linen pants to keep my legs covered but cool in the Damascene heat, making sure I had note cards with important phrases like “I’m sorry” and “My Arabic is not very good,” and figuring out my international cell phone. The tiny details stressed me out—facebook is banned? (There’s a way, which I don’t know, to get around it.) My cell phone can’t receive text messages? (Miraculously, it somehow did.) How would the EgyptAir Flight attendants dress? (Turns out, they were all men.)

In the days before my trip, I started to feel nervous. I threw myself tiny going away parties to distract myself and share stories and facts about Damascus, but never got those real feelings of excitement that have usually preceeded my travels. As I sat in the airport, providing last minute phone explanations of my trip to friends and family, I realized that I in fact had no idea how I felt about it.

A Failed Adventure

Over the next few days or weeks, I will publish a short series of blog posts about my trip to Syria, which was an eye-opening first solo travel experience. One that failed but taught me something important both about the Middle East and about myself.