I didn’t know where I was, or why was I at the place I was in. I didn’t know what was going on around me. The placed seemed like the inside of an industry – only, it was open to local people; I was wearing a white linen dress which came up to my knees and had a black scarf wrapped around my neck in the most professional way possible. Someone called out to me – wait, I didn’t have a name! Or did I just not hear it? I was trying to understand who I was, where I was and for what reason…
Suddenly, a suitcase was thrust in my hand, and I was expected to escort the gentleman who stood before me to a departure gate. He didn’t face me, but walked on towards the security check. I followed him through the lanes of what I now knew was an airport. The man was well built, had a good height, burnt copper hair with shades of black and he wore a business suit. As I followed him around the crowd, I became increasingly aware of the heat we were in – all kinds of people surrounded us; shoulders rubbed shoulders and the air smelt salty – the air circulation seemed to have been completely cut off.
Numerous immigration centres around me had people crowding around them – there was no system in place, and although I was expected to escort the man around, I found myself looking for him in the sea of heads. The crowd pushed us around for a while and soon I found myself flung out into an open area where a security guard took over my duty and pulled the suitcase out from my hands.
The man went on walking without taking a look at me – it angered me for an unknown reason. He walked up the ramp, entered the gates and disappeared from my view. I wanted him to know me and not take me granted; there was an unknown and unreasonable attachment I had developed in the past quarter hour of following him around, that I wanted to get to know him as well. Who was he? What was his name?
After I frantically looked over the heads of a million people, hoping to see him, I turned around to see a group of girls I knew from my school. All four of them had pink tickets in their hands and were crowding around the departure gate as well. One of them called out my name – so I did have a name after all! I walked over to her and asked her what the group was doing at the airport. Apparently one of the girls’ parents were off on a trip and they were all here to see them off. I asked her what the ticket was for and she told me that it would allow them to go out into the area where the passengers went to take their shuttles. I asked her where I could get one and she offered me her own. A little hesitant, I accepted it, blurted out a hurried ‘thank you’ and walked the path that gentleman had just taken.
I looked at the ticket; it was a rectangular slip, much like a boarding pass, but made out of pale pink paper. It had the words ‘TKT’ printed at the top centre in a pale lavender colour and below it, in smaller, black font, ’84-13’. Towards the left of the ticket, where generally lies the name, were alphabets arranged in no sensible order in both lavender and black ink; towards the right, where lies the destination details, were a pair of numbers followed by two hyphens and a three digit number in black ink. The paper seemed to have a watermark. All I could make sense of was the silhouette of an encircled bird.
Not having the time or patience to make sense of what I held in my hand, I simply walked up to the security guard who had, a few moments ago, pulled the suitcase out of my hand, and handed him the ticket. I don’t know if he was just so careless or that uninterested in his job that he let me walk out of the gate. It was obvious by now that I was an employee in the airport – something like the ground staff – and couldn’t just walk out of the place like that. My heart was beating fast and my throat parched – I just had to find out who that man was!
As I pushed myself through the crowd, I found myself standing on a platform with stairs leading down into an open ground where passengers scurried about to get into the right shuttles. As I stood on the platform, looking for the gentleman, I felt the unbearable heat I stood in. It was more than the one inside; I felt like I stood in the middle of a desert!
I held on to the black railing and looked around carefully, hoping to see the burnt copper hair or the well-built body of the man in a business suit.
To my left, I saw a hangar with a private jet in it. The man was walking towards it. It was like all the energy I had was transferred to my legs, and I pushed through the crowd and ran after him. It wasn’t long before I found myself lost in the crowd and struggling to make my way. The crowd tossed me around like a fish and I found myself going farther away from the hangar.
The people around me changed from different foreign nationals to more similar ones. Where was I going? There seemed to be men in pants which ended just above their ankles and women with different, colourful scarves covering their heads. The concrete flooring gave way to muddy roads and I found myself standing alone in a Yemeni slum! How did I land up here?
Slowly, hesitantly, I walked through the narrow, dusty lanes which had mud and baked-brick houses on either side. Many looked like shacks with makeshift doors and broken down roofs. The windows had bars made out of wood and they were mostly broken. Dirty mirror-like glasses made the windows of the richer households. As I walked through the lanes, I was greeted with dirty looks and stares from many women, some of whom were in burqas. I take a look down at my dress and see that neither my ballerinas, nor my knee-length dress did much to cover my body. I undid the scarf I had and draped it over my head like most ladies did and continued my walk. I wanted to go back to the airport and find that man, but I had no idea how I landed up here in the first place; how was I to go back?
I took a left turn at the corner and was shocked to see the old wooden door with red paint chipping off just fall in front of me. Three little girls sat in the room behind the door and looked equally shocked. The eldest girl had the younger one in her lap and sat on the chair, while the youngest sat on the floor next to the leg of the chair. She saw me and hid behind the chair –afraid of something that I didn’t know about. The girl in the lap had her hair cropped up to her ears and she stared at me with fear in her eyes. I picked up the heavy door and put it aside.
The eldest girl suddenly said something in a language I did not understand; or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention to her words. However, my conscience told me that her words had poison in them. She stared at me in anger and I made sense of what I had just heard as, ‘Forget it girls, she can’t do anything. She’s harmless, nothing to be afraid of.’
All the three girls must be of ages one, four and nine respectively, but they seemed much older by way of their actions. Leaving them alone I walked ahead, now intimidated. I passed the house of a person who I think was the richest in the slum. I looked at my own reflection in the mirror-like windows. I wasn’t me! I looked like someone totally different – my eyes were dark brown and hair curly; my skin was darker, my face – round and dirty.
I was still in the horror of seeing what had become of me when a young girl of about twelve in a red frock and unkempt hair tugged at the hem of my dress. I stared down at her wide eyed as she gave me a salaam. I hurriedly returned the greeting and asked her if she knew the way to the airport. Funny enough, we conversed in Urdu, which, I doubt is spoken in Yemen. She nodded and asked me to follow her. I did as I was told to and found myself in a market area.
The white tents made the stalls and people in local dresses sat and sold vegetables and delicacies of different kinds. Smoke came out of a particular shop and raised high up where hung pretty red bags and colourful printed scarves. I found myself facing an old lady, who, I later found out was the young girl’s grandmother. She pointed at the direction where I could find the airport and through rows of shops I saw the familiar building.
I walked towards it in a hurry and soon broke into a sprint. When I reached the airport, I found myself in an air-conditioned lobby next to the hangar. The private jet was gone. I looked around the lobby and saw a few people I recognized – my father, a friend and his sister. A few pilots surrounded us and I was in a daze; they all wore a suit identical to the man I had followed. Was he a pilot? Could he be one of them?
There was no use wondering; the Stranger of Yemen was long gone.