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Geneva, 2012.

“With your keycard, you can access every room, in any part of the compound. Offices, meeting rooms, plenary rooms, technical areas, and everything in between. There are only two rooms you cannot get access to, and both need a special analog key to get in. These rooms are not marked on any floor plan and have no name. Don’t try to enter these rooms, your keycard will be useless anyway”.

In 2012, I was just named Head Architect for the International Labor Organization renovation project in Geneva. The warning from my boss sounded like the Bluebeard fairy tale: someone was hiding bodies in a forbidden room, and no one could ever see them. But who could possibly be the Bluebeard at the United Nations and whose bodies were these? Why couldn’t I access it? One thing was for sure: I would find out one day. In this article I will tell you about one of the two rooms, and talk about the other one in a separate article.

There are about 20 different United Nation compounds in Geneva, and while I was working specifically for one of them, I will not reveal where these 2 rooms were for safety and legal reasons. I will also not tell you how exactly I got access to them, nor when, nor why. Let’s just say someone important wanted to show me what was inside. What I saw in there will haunt me for the rest of my life. 

In addition to Head Architect, I was also the Head of Safety and Security for the renovation project. We had very specific requirements regarding fire safety, but also terrorist attacks and possible incursions. The door was reinforced and the whole room was nuclear proof. Humans could be wiped out of the surface of the Earth, but this room and what lies inside would remain intact.

I will always remember the noise of the key inside the lock. It is the kind of system you only see in movies, in a secret basement somewhere far away from civilization. When the door opened, I felt a mix of excitement, fear and privilege. Why would someone like me have access to that room, after all?

It was dark. When we found the light, I discovered a room filled with metallic shelves, with a ton of files and papers piled up everywhere. It appeared to be generally well organized, but many files were lying on tables and did not seem sorted out, as if someone just came in and left in a hurry. There was no hurry for us. When I finally understood what was all around me, my whole body filled with awe and froze, and time stopped. Time did not matter anymore.

Only my eyes could move. My eyes followed my friend’s arm extending into a shelf, and finding a file in the pile. “Look at this one… ah no wait”. He put the file back. He was clearly looking for the crème de la crème, the file that would impress me the most. He finally found what he was looking for in the mess, opened it, and slowly walked back towards me. “Don’t touch it, just look,” he said. I kept my hands crossed behind my back, and could not move a muscle anyways.  “Look at the bottom of the page” he insisted. 

Adolf Hitler. Signed by hand. 

My excitement turned to awe. I was shocked and even felt guilty for a moment. Bluebeard was Hitler and his mustache. The room was filled with international treaties, from the time of the failed League of Nations till today. As I was speechless, my friend opened more files for me, from many dictators. “Look at this one!” he said. Joseph Staline. Signed by hand. “And that one! Don’t touch ok?” he continued. Benito Mussolini. Signed by hand. 

Heads of state come and go, but the treaties they signed remain, and their signatures with them. The so-called “international law” is kept alive in this very room. These are thousands of agreements signed and ratified by hundreds of countries: international war conventions, maritime rules, labor laws, agricultural cooperation, health, travel, and all and every aspect of our lives. 

Did you ever ask yourself where all of the international agreements were? Where the actual papers and ink ended up? Of course not. Well, that place was all around me, and I suddenly felt the weight of History on my shoulders, and it was overwhelming. Atlas always seemed so weak and unbalanced carrying the world. I felt beyond weak. I felt powerless, surrounded by so many powerful signatures.

Seeing my face turn blemish, my friend walked a few steps towards the other end of the room to look for another file. “Look, you’ll like this one.” Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France. Signed by hand. My friend did not know whether I voted for him or not, but he sure knew I would appreciate seeing a friendly name. Seeing his name and signature indeed provided me some relief, and I managed to crack a smile. That smile was the very moment I stopped worrying about politics, and started to care deeply about what really mattered to me: many dictators are still ruling on our planet today, and an excruciating number of people are still suffering from them. 

Should we repeal the treaties signed by dictators? 

No, we cannot repeal these treaties, because most of them still rule the world today, even if they were signed in 1933, by a dictator who killed millions of people. It is ironic, almost cynical: I cannot help but think how influential these heads of state were, still are, and will be for the foreseeable future.

Should we make the current heads of state sign the treaties again?

Even if it was technically possible to re-sign thousands of them by hundreds of countries, it would not change the past. Plus, who would be the judge of who’s respectable or not today? This would defeat the very principle of the UN: cooperation between countries at all costs, no matter who’s in power. Should we then ask all of the current governments to sign the treaties of the past again so there is no discrimination? We’ll always get a number of despicable dictators in the batch, no matter when the snapshot of signatures is taken.

Should we burn the despicable signatures? 

Burning the past won’t bring back the dead. What is done is done. Dictators are heads of state, and by trying to replace or erase their signature, wouldn’t we be committing a crime ourselves, the crime of negating History?  

European dictators hated the international organizations pre-1945, and often pulled out of them before they were given a chance to have an impact. But many of them still used the system to their advantage. The number of dictatorships at the UN is still very high today, and the number of signatures in the secret room keeps increasing. Treaties pile up at a pace never seen before. As despicable the name on the bottom of the page might be, if each signature seals a step towards peace and tranquility between nations, then the more signatures, the better. 

Lio Slama.

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“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus.” (Agent Smith, The Matrix)

Our system collapsed long before many realized. I’ve always thought I read and watched too many dystopian stories. It made me a bit paranoid, but not in denial. Here are ten of the best science-fiction stories you should both read and watch to help you make sense of what has happened, and most importantly, what’s yet to come. Between paranoia and denial, the choice is yours. Enjoy!


#1. The Matrix (The Wachowskis)

Denial

“You take the blue pill, the story ends”. So many people are confined, yet keep going out at least once a day, to “get fresh air”. It is true that the air must be less polluted since there is barely any vehicle on the street. Others keep changing households every week or two, to alternate their place of quarantine, or simply go visit some family. It is fine, because they are not infected, right? What surprises me the most in this crisis, is how much people keep believing their own ignorance. The human brain keeps selecting the best information available and makes a rational narrative out of it (the confirmation bias). We all picked the blue pill. I tried to pick it too, except, for me, I’m colorblind. Happy denial folks!

Dependence

“Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive.” There is no more tragic image than an infected human intubated to remain alive. In the Matrix, every single human is maintained alive via a bunch of cables, including one on the back of their heads. In the movie, humans are not conscious and live their lives via a simulation. Today, ironically, the more infected people, the more ventilators we need to produce. The more the virus spreads, the more we need the machines to keep us alive.

Emptiness

Here is the irony: the streets of our planet are becoming deserted, empty of humans. We need to stay confined at home, and we rely exclusively on technology to keep communicating with our friends and family. We work remotely, and receive orders from our respective governments. Like never before, we rely on our technology to get food deliveries and other necessary goods. Our cities are empty because our social interactions disappeared. In the end, it seems that our physical public space was not that bad. Who wants to spend more time on social media now?

Authenticity

Office space creates a routine. At the beginning of the movie, Neo nicely performs his office work. His boss is always after him. Neo does not understand the world he lives in. He questions it, time and time again. Until one day, the phone rings and Neo gets extracted from his office box once and for all. Office spaces are being deserted, and people are forced to reinvent their routine, to reinvent their lives. Stuck at home all day long with roommates, with kids, or with pets, nothing matters anymore. Just as Neo was extracted from his office routine, this social experiment has brought at least one positive element: authenticity. This virus might be our best opportunity to look less like the robots we created.


#2. Minority Report (Philip K. Dick / Steven Spielberg)

Prediction

Can we predict the future? What are the odds that an individual's consumption of a wild animal triggers the proliferation of a pandemic on a global scale? A very minor chance, for sure. In Minority Report, the data fuel every prediction. Different statistics determine both the seriousness and urgency of a future crime. A red ball means an imminent murder is about to happen. Today, in every minute of every day, in every country and state, we look at graphs and data. We trust the data because it gives us the impression that we can predict the future. The painful truth is that we do not really know how much time we need to get back to normal. Let’s do ourselves a favor and stop believing in precogs

Surveillance

Governments all over the world started to track our phones via geolocation. This is particularly effective in fighting against the spread of the virus, because it is a way to become proactive. Identifying the path of an infected individual helps identify and alert other people who might have been in contact with an infected person. Some do it via QR codes and apps like in France, some do it directly by tracking your phone number, like China, South Korea or Israel. In Minority Report, the intrusion into private life is everywhere, and is considered to be the only way to track and prevent future crimes. Transmitting Corona is not a crime yet. But if you know you are infected, and you break your quarantine, should you be arrested? 

Control

“Everybody runs!” In Minority Report, self-driving cars bring you from A to B without the need to look at the street or meet anyone on public transportation. It limits your social interactions to a point where John Anderton, the hero of the story, feels particularly lonely in his high-tech apartment. One of the most iconic scenes of the movie is John’s escape from the system. After being geolocated, John breaks the windshield of his car in the middle of a vertical maglev highway because the police took remote control of his vehicle. He starts jumping from car to car, and lands onto a balcony. What is striking in this scene is the complete absence of public space. Everybody runs from A to B. This crisis might be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to break your windshield. It might be a real opportunity to escape your self-driving pod. You can choose to go beyond the vertical highway. Like John Anderton, you can choose to go sideways. It’s up to you.


#3. Blade Runner (Philip K. Dick, Ridley Scott)

Memory

“I can’t... rely on... my memories.” Just a few weeks ago, we were just talking about Covid-19 as if it was a benign flu, and as if this was the first time it happened. Yet, as surprising as it sounds, it’s happened before; many times in fact. Humans have a short memory. History books are great, but collective memory is even better. It happened to us in 1918. Collective memory is not history. Collective memory corresponds to what happened in between the memorable events of history. By definition, history is the collection of events that are written or recorded. Collective memory is not written; it lives inside our brains and RNA. And it tends to disappear after three generations. The human brain prefers to focus on what it can understand. Bad memories become confusing, and all of the acute details become purposely obfuscated. This pandemic has happened before, and it will happen again.


#4. I, Robot (Isaac Asimov / Alex Proyas)

Excess

What were the actual vectors that spread the virus? The Internet? The belief that aspirin can solve it all? Planes? I, Robot is not a story against progress. Rather, it sheds light on our own excess, the feeling of being invincible, thanks to our advances. We think of our world as if it was way more advanced than in 1918: the Internet, modern medicine, and the ability to get to most places in under 24h.These advances, however, come at a price. The first action taken by authorities around the world was to shut down international travel. It’s as if we’ve become the victims of our own liberties. It is almost taboo to mention: what is killing us is really the rate at which fake news spread online, the feeling that thanks to modern medicine we’re  invincible, and our compulsive obsession to travel everywhere. Just as eating too much of something one loves makes one sick, we literally have made ourselves sick.


#5. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams / Garth Jennings)

Panic

“Don’t panic!” Politicians and the media keep asking the population not to “panic”. The only other moment where the phrase “Don’t Panic” was mentioned so many times was in Douglas Adams’ 1978 publication of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In his book series, Adams focuses on the importance of always carrying a towel with you. A towel can serve you at any time, for many reasons. In 1918, people wrapped their door knob with a towel to signify the disease got to their homes. We in 2020 are hoarding toilet paper. Adams was right, since 1978! Humans seem to worry more about wiping their asses than about putting food into their mouths.


#6. The Truman Show (Peter Weir)

Livestream

How many hours of live feed do you stream every day at home? We are now spending a big part of our days in live stream. Truman will always hold the ultimate record of having spent more than three decades in involuntary live stream. Should you also just keep the livestream open to simplify your day? Whatever you choose to do, if you start feeling watched or that cameras are constantly recording your life, you might actually become delusional. Be careful, the Truman Show delusion is real! 

Stage

Our homes became our stage. Like in the Truman show, each moment of the day becomes a new scene and deserves a different stage. So we keep changing the scenery for every type of video meeting. On the sofa when talking to friends and family, or sitting in the living room for professional meetings, the background is key. Many of us even move the table and camera to make sure the background looks professional enough, such as books and plants. It inspires calm and stability in this time of crisis, doesn’t it?

Financials

“We have mortgage payments, Truman. What, we’re going to just walk away from our financial obligations?” Should we all ask the Chinese government to erase our debt? Of course not, that would trigger a chain reaction that would disrupt the whole world’s economy. Pretty ironic, I know. I am glad the Chinese authorities keep sending the masks and other medical supplies to other countries, although we would have appreciated it if they were free of charge. After covering the truth with smokescreens, the Chinese government covers our faces with masks. The WHO and everyone else will appreciate the gesture.


#7. The Penultimate Truth (Philip K. Dick)

Transparency

We all hope for strong political leadership in times of crisis. We all hope for our government to make the right decisions at the right time. Yet, let’s not forget what contributed to the crisis in the first place: a strong, totalitarian political leadership. The Chinese government tried to hide the fact that a new virus started to spread in the Wuhan province as soon as November of 2019. The Chinese government lied to the World Health Organization. I am not sure anymore if we need strong leadership. What I want though, is complete transparency. We need an international mechanism led by the WHO to know when viruses start from day 1. Only transparency might help prevent the spread of the next pandemic.


#8. 2001, A Space Odyssey (Arthur C. Clarke / Stanley Kubrick)

A.I.

If you tried to call your airline company these days, you probably spent some significant time trying to deal with an evil robot voice. The Department of Transportation is very clear: canceled flights have to be refunded. Some people spend hours on the phone, only to hear the same refusal over and over. Many airline companies seem to make their own laws and disregard the Federal Law. When you finally get to talk to someone, the representative sounds more like a cyborg than a real human. They feed you with the same robotic answer because they follow a script. Robot or human, airline companies actually expressed a complete disregard for the rule of law, and a total lack of empathy. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.” 


#9. Gattaca (Andrew Niccol)

Natural Selection

Spring breakers can sleep peacefully. One of the most reassuring news for young people was that the virus only affected very old people, or individuals with a pre-existing condition. We now know that this is not the case. While you might have a statistical advantage of surviving if you are young and healthy, anyone can become infected, no matter who or how old you are. In March of 2020, stories started to emerge in Italy and in Israel of some centenarians who survive the virus. The only plausible explanation given was that they may have had the antibodies in their blood since the time of the 1918 pandemic. Eugenics is a very difficult thing, you see. In Gattaca, your ability to go to space is not based on training; rather, only superior DNAs are allowed to experience zero gravity. It is almost funny how our judgement is almost always based on our ignorance. 

Home

“Maybe I’m not leaving. Maybe I’m going home.” These are the last known words of Vincent Freeman as he leaves Earth for outer space In Gattaca. “Stay home”, they keep saying. Don’t take a plane to another country, don’t take a train to another city, don’t even think of setting foot onto the street. What, however, is home exactly? Many people abandoned their urban apartments, and went back to their family homes. Going back home means going back in time. We do not want to “stay home”. We want to go places, it gives us a raison d’être. There is something really interesting when you read the news. The whole planet is pretty much in quarantine, yet efforts to go back to the Moon and then to Mars did not cease. We keep focusing on the grand scheme of things, as the continued space exploration demonstrates. Where there is hope, there is life.


#10. Total Recall (Philip K. Dick / Paul Verhoeven)

Boredom

In Total Recall, Douglas Quaid is so bored in his life, he decides to go visit Mars. Way too expensive for him to actually do the trip, he gets memories implanted in his brain. In 2020, each quarantined human is doing its best to fight boredom. We are stranded at home, condemned to keep traveling between our kitchens and bathrooms. People learn how to bake, watch series, and work remotely as much as possible. If boredom begins to take root, why not think of implanting yourself some nice memories? Keep watching your favorite series all day long. Nobody will judge you. Oh, and keep baking!

Dreams

“We hope you enjoyed the ride!” said the robot driver. A bumpy ride ending with a car accident. Everyone thinks of the collapse of our system as if it was the collapse of our society. Our system is not our society. Our cultures, values, and aspirations are far more enduring than our system. I know it is very difficult to dissociate the system (supply chain, travels, technology, etc.) from our culture. I understand it is inextricably linked. Yet, look at every World War, natural disaster or pandemics in the past century. It was not the end of society. The 1918 pandemic did not put an end to our culture. It did not annihilate our dreams. It did not make us forget our values. While it certainly shook down our culture, delayed our dreams, and put our values to test, this 2020 pandemic, too, shall pass. So hang tight, and enjoy the ride!


- Lio Slama


References:

The Matrix (The Wachowskis)

Minority Report (Philip K. Dick / Steven Spielberg)

Blade Runner (Philip K. Dick, Ridley Scott)

2001, A Space Odyssey (Arthur C. Clarke / Stanley Kubrick)

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams / Garth Jennings)

The Truman Show (Peter Weir)

Total Recall (Philip K. Dick / Paul Verhoeven)

Gattaca (Andrew Niccol)

The Penultimate Truth (Philip K. Dick)

I, Robot (Isaac Asimov / Alex Proyas)

Image credits: The Truman Show, Peter Weir, 1998

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I’ve been working with all sorts of companies for the past decade, gathering data, dissecting processes, and unlocking opportunities they would never have imagined. The one pattern I discovered is not even how unprepared companies are in general, but how many of them lack a proper long-term vision and purpose. The first step to becoming resilient is your purpose as an individual and your vision as an organization.

In an unprecedented situation in modern history, businesses all around the world are forced to rethink their way of working because of tiny, microscopic life form -a virus- called Covid-19. There will be a before and an after Coronavirus. This Kafkaesque episode will teach us a few things, as individuals and companies, such as becoming more resilient and agile. It might also very much shape or accelerate the future of work.

How can a company ensure business continuity without having to change all of its current processes? What kind of tool does human resources, operations, or office management need to enable a seamless digital and physical workplace experience? What solution should a company use to develop its vision and become super resilient?

1. Ensuring Transmission

Companies see higher turnover than ever before: employees stay shorter amounts of time in one company, so how do you ensure transmission of information, processes and culture? What would you do if one or several key people in your organization decide to leave at once? Can you run the business without them for several months? Finding new talent for key hires is no easy task. It requires time and energy, and above all a tremendous amount of peace of mind. Digitizing your operations can bring you some of this peace of mind. Technology can help you record every interaction and get access to the full history of your workplace’s operations, so anyone else in the company can take over for the interim.

2. Making a Contingency Plan

Natural disaster, political unrest, health hazard… Whatever the reason, your office can become unavailable at any time. If your organization is big enough, and is present in different locations, it produces redundancies and can help fill the gaps. In the case of a single office, like the majority of us, running your operations online is a good first step, but you need to think of a contingency plan. Think of the immediate steps you can take: what is the closest coworking space in your area? Do you keep all of your teams and assets on the cloud or just some of it? If you have inventory, how can you limit the damage and quickly reorganize?

3. Embracing Flexible Work Schedules

The future of work is becoming more and more versatile. Employees’ hours and work conditions are more flexible. Remote work is a growing trend and you need to put processes in place to allow for a seamless workday and continuous operations. Allowing your team to work remotely on a regular basis is one of the best ways to prepare and avoid downtime in the case of an unpredictable event.

4. Testing, Testing, Testing

Test different scenarios with your team. Ask the office manager or human resources to work remotely for an entire week. Bring them back, then ask the C-level positions to do the same. Then, ask the entire office to work remotely for an entire week. You will learn more about your team and company in those few weeks than in several years of operations. 

5. Creating Redundancies

A key factor for business continuity is redundancy. We usually think of redundancy in terms of servers, software, hardware, etc. But you can and should enable redundancy within people. Don’t get me wrong: you are not going to hire 2 or 3 times the amount of employees you need. Instead, create some overlap amongst different key roles. A Chief Operations Officer should be able to take over the office management and vice-versa. A Chief Technology Officer should be able to jump into any of the engineers stack and vice-versa. A Marketing Manager should be able to help coordinate the Sales department if needed. You get the idea. 

6. Using Technology 

You should use a system that empowers employees and staff, and includes both operations and communications in one single interface. A system that is flexible and customizable enough to allow for employee engagement via both SMS and Web, in case some network crashes. A system that allows for remote operations management and notifications, so all of the operations, human resources and office staff are always on the same page, including in time of an emergency. A system that does not impede regular operations, but contributes to your company culture and vision on a day-to-day basis.

Resilience in business is less about productivity than continuity. Any challenge such as the one we are currently living on a global scale is a way to test how strong our vision is and how motivated our teams are. If you are currently confused, don’t really know how to become agile, or simply realized how unprepared you were, hit me up. I can help.

I met Robert Beal about five years ago in New York through a friend in common. I was finishing my second Master’s degree at Columbia University, and he was just retiring from his family enterprise, one of the most successful real estate companies in Boston: the Beal Companies, more recently renamed Related Beal after the 2013 partnership with Related. Robert passed away a week ago. He and I were 45 years apart, yet he is one of the most inspiring friends I’ve ever had. Our favorite topics included modern art, architecture, politics, Europe, and the world. There is no generation gap when you talk about timeless topics. His legacy lives forever.

A décor worthy of the Titanic, French and eclectic at the same time, fresh flowers, dimmed light, and mirrors all around to see and be seen, La Grenouille is the last traditional French restaurant in the middle of Manhattan. “Monsieur, des chouquettes?” (pronounce shuket) “Il y a de la viande dedans?” I asked, genuinely thinking the waiter spoke French. The waiter looked at me confused: “Hum, sorry sir?” I then translated: “Oh, I asked what was inside?”. Robert and I had our first conversation around French cuisine and a 12-piece silverware set. Coming from Lyon, this traditional set up somehow made me feel at home.

Even when the dining room was crowded, it was still pretty quiet. It became a fun place to go if you were with Robert and his friends. Robert was very social and spoke to others in the restaurant, waving to kids and greeting those around him. He sometimes would show his tie and make small talk and jokes to strangers. I’ve always admired the distance with which he lived his life, never taking himself too seriously.

Robert loved feeding the birds on the street. He often stopped on the sidewalk to feed pigeons right before entering Beal Co, in the former Grain Exchange Building of Boston. He was a philanthropist, funding many charitable and cultural organizations, and also a major contributor to many civic and Jewish organizations. He did not judge people on the cover and always tried to help on the individual level.

For his 75th birthday, Robert invited 400 people to a hotel ballroom in Boston, including many public figures such as the Governor of Massachusetts (R-Charlie Baker). Robert’s family and himself created tight relationships with the real estate and political world, Democrats and Republicans alike. Not one project, not one election, not one big decision could stay away from Robert’s advice. Some even gave him the nickname Mr. Boston. He was always calm and inspired respect. But he was also very popular. Whether you were a bird or the president of the United States, he would always behave the same way towards you. He would always treat everyone equally.

When going to Boston, I sometimes visited Robert at his place in the center. Entering Robert’s house was quite an experience. It was transcendental yet very homey, slowly climbing the tufted ovoidal staircase, surrounded by master paintings of modern and contemporary art. Robert’s mansion was like a mini MoMa at home. He had an anecdote for every painting he bought, having met with many of the artists, except maybe for Picasso, De Kooning or Léger. Robert remembered every detail of every moment, often referring to the Kennedys, Lyndon Johnson and other political figures. He was more than just a Renaissance man, he was resolutely a Modern.

As a painter myself, I cannot describe the feeling of being in front of Willem De Kooning or Picasso. It is unusual to experience a master painting at such an intimate level. I often asked Robert about the paintings. Their story meant a lot to me. Robert had the subtle ability to make you travel in time and his paintings were like a time machine. Robert passed away last week in his sleep. I imagine his soul traveling through the walls, his paintings guiding him one last time, enjoying Picasso, De Kooning and Léger, and meeting them.

We so-called Millennials always want to change the world, but what exactly do we want to change? We want to have a positive impact, but how exactly are we planning to do that? We dream of becoming millionaires, but do we even understand the responsibilities associated with such wealth? Robert was a figure of authority and one of the most respected men in his city. He drove his own car and was very humble. He was authentic and an example of absolute integrity and generosity. In the unstable and polarized world we live in today, Robert Beal was not a conformist. He was a futurist.

Wonderful,” as he always used to say.

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.

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 NYC 2019 Cohort

NYC 2019 Cohort