The flight to Dubai was packed. I was nervous, and traveling by myself again. I’ve never been to the Emirates, let alone to far-East Asia. The Geneva-Dubai flight was only the first leg of a longer trip to South Korea and Japan. It was in the summer of 2013. I planned to visit Dubai and Abu Dhabi for 3 days before continuing to the far East.
Whenever we board a flight, we always hope it won’t be full so we can have more space. In my case, I pray for someone interesting to sit next to me. After take-off and routine announcements by the crew and captain, meal service began. I keep kosher, so I pre-ordered a kosher meal as I usually do on any flight I take, no matter what the destination or airline.
I always book the window seat. Looking at the clouds from above is happier than when we’re on the ground. “Sir, you ordered a kosher meal?”. The flight attendant said to me, with a plastified tray in her hands, still sealed with the certification proper to Jewish dietary laws. The Boeing 777 had a 3–4–3 seating configuration, so my seat neighbor had to hand me over the food. I simply answered “Thank you” and quickly placed the tray on my table, without opening it. It is always weird to start eating before everyone else: everybody looks at your tray, curious to see what you got, as if it was a lottery game.
My seat neighbor was around my age, in his late twenties. Right after I got my kosher meal, he started breathing heavily and rapidly. He seemed to get really nervous, kicking the seat in front of him and pushing his arms on the armrests. He got his own halal meal, conformed to his Muslim tradition. But he left the tray on his table, looking at it as if he was about to kill the food. I stayed calm and still, opened my own food and started eating. He kept being agitated more and more, shaking his head, kicking all the seats around him. I kept eating, watching a movie on my screen, trying to ignore him.
With at least 5 hours left in the flight, ignoring him was not an option. Was he upset because of my kosher meal? Was he annoyed to have a Jew sitting next to him on his way back to Dubai? He was clearly angry and trying to get my attention. I was ready to get to the bottom of this, I had no other choice anyways.
After the meal, flight attendants picked up the garbage. My upset neighbor did not touch his food and you could tell the crew sensed something was wrong. “Sir, is the food ok with you? Do you want something else maybe?” the attendant asked my neighbor. He did not answer, only shook his head and crossed his arms. I looked at the attendant and she looked back at me right in the eyes, confused and embarrassed.
Finally, my neighbor -we’ll call him Mohamed- turned to me and asked: “you probably wonder why I’m so nervous and annoying?”. I respectfully answered “you’re not annoying, but why are you so nervous?”. His eyes did not carry the hate anymore. He looked calm and tranquil all of a sudden.
Mohamed was not “going back to Dubai” as I initially thought. He was from Bangladesh, and lived in Switzerland like me. He was going to Dhaka via Dubai to see his family for a few weeks. But that trip was no vacation. He was on his way to bury his sister. He was upset because his sister got killed by a gang in Bangladesh. He told me how different Switzerland and Bangladesh were, and that he was not expecting any justice for what happened to his sister, let alone understand the exact circumstances of her tragic fate.
Mohamed told me he was a religious man, praying five times a day, and living with his wife in Switzerland. We spent the rest of the flight chatting. My kosher meal made him understand I was Jewish, and it triggered something in him: he knew he could trust me and talk to me, even if we never met before. Like him, I was not afraid of showing I believed in something more than just myself: “We are both believers and have the same values. Sorry if I bothered you, I am just very angry right now. Not at you, but at these murderers, at my country also, and at God.” Mohamed said. He did not touch his tray because he was fasting during the month of Ramadan.
“I’m tired of the whole political bullshit”, he continued. “I don’t understand who would want to kill my sister. I have no enemies. In Switzerland, people don’t kill each other like this”. He would not accept the death of his sister, not like that. He kept swinging between despair and hope. Despair because young Bangladeshis, his own kind, could act in such a barbaric way towards his sister; and hope because he was seated next to me, a Jew who could actually share the same values and show empathy. What I realized years later is how much easier it is for me to relate to religious people around the world, no matter the religion. We know the respective stories of our peoples, recognize ourselves in the grand scheme of things and, ultimately, share similar values. We think high level and deep at the same time, and are able to have real and authentic conversations.
Paradoxically, as tragic as the situation was for Mohamed, I could not have hoped for a better flight neighbor to begin my journey with. Everyone has their own struggles and challenges. The world is not binary and the people living in it are always more complex than they appear. Meeting with Mohamed at such a terrible moment, he taught me the most important lesson of all: “I have no enemy”. He stayed true to himself and did not question his views and values despite the difficult time ahead. Sitting together made him “feel a little better” and gave him “hope”, but I can tell you with certainty that this 6-hour flight had the biggest and long-lasting impact on me.
To this day, Mohamed and I remain friends. He still lives in Switzerland and keeps praying five times a day. I moved to the US and never stopped eating kosher. Whether you feel uncomfortable about someone or they purposely bother you, it does not mean they have something against you. You might very well be your own and only enemy. On a plane like at the office, don’t ignore people, especially when they sit right next to you. We can never assume what’s in one’s mind. Speak out, and you might actually make a friend.