My mother-in-law once told me about a plane trip from 1990.
She is emigrating from Iran to Canada with her two young children. At some point-perhaps it was when the plane crossed from Iranian air space into Turkish air space-my mother-in-law reached up and removed the hijab from her own head. Next she reached over and removed her 15-year-old daughter’s hijab. On planes you are always told to put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. Perhaps a similar principle applied to the removal of the hijab.
The politics, religion, and history of the hijab is not one I pretend to understand well-enough to debate, however for my mother-in-law the hijab was oppressive and its forced adoption was something she was eager to leave behind.
Look around you the next time you are on a plane. The people you see on the plane can tell you a lot about the plane’s destination.
Right now I am on a plane to Phoenix, Arizona.
The man sitting in front of me has pink skin. His skin is the same colour as his shirt, which is pale like strawberry ice cream. His cheeks are covered in burst blood vessels, a life of white-collar stress personified dermatologically. His hair is white like Steve Martin and silky like a Yorkie’s fur. He keeps reaching back and smoothing the long pieces clinging to the back of his head, as if he is petting himself. When he stands up you can see that his pink shirt is untucked, he is wearing a pair of khaki board shorts, and has sneakers and socks pulled up mid-calf; he is a beefier version of Larry David from the waist down. His calves are strong and thick and you can picture him during his younger days, climbing ladders to clean drain pipes in the summer and to put in Christmas lights in the winter. He is reading a biography of Tiger Woods and is on a chapter near the end called “The Aftermath”. He orders a tomato juice with ice and drinks it, holding the book close to his face and licking his fingers to turn its pages.
A woman next to him sleeps with her mouth hanging open, corpse-like.
A tall South Asian man glides down the aisle. He is wearing a t-shirt with the words “Flight of the Mother Flippin Concords”.
The man with the pink skin reaches back intermittently, between head pets, to adjust his hearing aid. In his skin, his hair, and his untucked pink polo shirt, you can verily see his entire boring life of driving to work in a company car and then finally retiring in Phoenix to play golf.
In front of the man with the pink skin, is a woman dress from head-to-toe in apricot. She is wearing an off-the-shoulder peasant shirt. At the elbow the already non-committal colour fades like a sunset into white lace cuffs. Even her bra strap is a depressing shade of nude ;pressed underneath it is the faded blur of a dolphin tattoo. She has on tan heels with gold inlay on the toe. The shoes split open near the ankle, exposing a pie shaped triangle of skin on the outside of the foot, within which the blue blur of another tattoo is visible.
Her wrists are covered in glittering hammered gold bracelets, big rings, and dusty pink mala beads. The mala bracelet on her right hand has a heart-shaped charm that tinkles as she jabs at her iPad to pause “The Bucket List”. She has on a baby pink Apple Watch, her earphones and iPad case are a painful shade of fuchsia. For this woman, pink is a religious truth.
The woman’s compulsively runs her hands through her hair, which is interwoven with scintillating tinsel the colour of a sunset, like something you would see on the floor at the end of a New Year’s Eve party, or woven in between a little girl’s bicycle spokes. When I ask her she tells me these are pieces of silk that are tied into the hair. They last 6 months-1 year, she tells me. Although my husband and I had previously concurred that there was absolutely no doubt this woman was on a plane to Phoenix, going home and not away, she tells me she is in fact Canadian.
A woman in her early twenties wearing pleather jeggings with Birkenstocks and Roots cabin socks pulled up to to calves, stands in the aisle pumping her knees up and down, presumably to work out any potential blood clots.
The woman with the tinsel in her hair stands up to get something from the overhead compartment. A bulge of yam-coloured skin protrudes from above the tight waistband of her pants.
On this plane there is a coterie of 20-something-women (and one man with well-groomed facial hair) wearing black t-shirts printed in gold with the words Bridal Squad. They are each wearing Lululemon pants which give the impression of tight and perfect asses. These girls are what some people nowadays call basic. Each with the same too-long straightened hair, worn loose. Each with the same tan and perky décolletage, exposed like freshly baked rolls, They list the things they are going to do once they arrive in Phoenix: get up, lie by the pool, make breakfast. Repeat.
I know these basic girls well. I was one of these girls. In some ways I still see myself in these girls. It is for this reason that I regard them now with a particular mixture of nostalgia, compassion, tenderness, and derision. I do not wish for anything to go back to this time of my life, nor do I wish to take any more of these trips, perfect tight asses and bouncy bronzed decolletages notwithstanding.
On the cab ride to the airport, the radio was playing Call me Al . This song has been stuck in my head for the entire plane ride. Now I hear two men behind me singing Cher’s Strong Enough over the sound of shuffling cards. Calm your tits, one says. Now I have a different song stuck in my head.
Little plastic cups stuffed with wrappers and sugar sticks and dented creamers sit on trays around me, waiting to be picked up.
On the plane there is a large group of South Asian men in their early to late forties. They have handsomely greying salt and pepper temples and are all wearing polo shirts. One particularly rotund man from this group, has spent the entire flight standing in the aisle pouring beer from can to plastic up. He looks slightly like Vince Vaughn and is similarly convivial. His face is flushed and he does not sit down, even after the seat belt sign becomes illuminated and the attendants make several requests over the loudspeaker.
When the plane lands, a loud burst of whooping and cheering breaks out. People on this plane are destined for a par-tay. I search for them each at the baggage carousel, the way a person looks for old friends or people with whom they have been through something.