I’m writing this sitting in the departure lounge at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. Incomprehensible announcements in Turkish and English boom incessantly. Some passengers rush around with large bags, while others inspect the many luxury goods on offer at the duty-free shops. This is no way to spend the early morning: normally, I would be fast asleep at this hour. As it is, I’m feeling slightly woozy after flying for six hours in the middle of the night.
There was a time when I looked forward to catching a flight. There was an element of magic in changing the scene completely in a few short hours. But now I have come to dread the lines at check-in, the repeated security checks, and the endless waiting around in departure lounges. Before the trip, of course, is the visa ki talash, the hunt for the visa that begins long before the departure date.
I hope I don’t sound jaded when I say that more and more, flying has become a drudgery imposed by my peripatetic life. Dividing my year between the UK, Sri Lanka and Pakistan – with side trips here and yon from time to time – I spend more time at airports than I would care to admit. And I’m sure breathing in stale air inside aeroplane cabins, accumulating jetlag, and eating airline food on a regular basis must be shortening my life considerably.
But what has really reduced my enthusiasm for flying are the security concerns a green Pakistani passport arouses in all airport personnel. Take this morning’s experience as an example: normally, transit passengers are just pointed in the direction of the departure lounge, and allowed to twiddle their thumbs until their flight is announced. Not so at Ataturk Airport this morning. Transit passengers, most of them (like me) on their way to the UK, were herded through a security barrier and, turn by turn, were interviewed by a uniformed official.
Apart from wanting to see my UK residence permit, he wanted to know what I did, and why I had so many Turkish visas in my passport. And of course, the inevitable question whether I had packed my suitcase myself. I wanted to say that I would never think of packing myself, and that I employ a valet for the purpose, but Turkish officialdom is not renowned for its sense of humour and irony.
After this brief grilling, transit passengers were directed towards a queue where they had to present their boarding cards once again. Finally, I emerged into the huge hall that is the international departure lounge, and looked for a table. Now, fortified by a breakfast of stale buns and cottage cheese, I have fired up my laptop, found a WiFi connection and settled down to write, trying to ignore the highly excitable announcer who is giving a running commentary on arriving and departing flights.
A quick Google search has just informed me that on average, 625,000 passengers are air-borne every daylight hour around the world. Apparently, this works out to around a billion punters a year. Who are these people? Why are they driven to take to the air? Does nobody think of the pollution their air travel causes, and its effect on global warming?
OK, I’m nobody to talk, given my own somewhat busy travel pattern. But still, I like to think that while my trips are essential, this is not true of the vast multitudes who stand in line before me at Heathrow and other airports where fate and my ticket takes me. Surely they could holiday at home, and conduct their business on the telephone and the Internet.
And as I unbuckle my belt, take off my shoes, remove my laptop from its case, and place my jacket in a little basket, I send a series of silent curses towards Osama bin Laden’s cave in the mountains of the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. When I am given a plastic knife on my meal tray and try to slice a piece of meat with it, I wish the Al Qaeda leader’s dialysis machine would be struck by a bolt of lightning. And failing divine intervention, I would happily settle for a drone strike.
Whenever I have complained about the endless security at airports, I am assured by friends that I ain’t seen nothing yet: wait till you get to America, they say darkly. It’s true that I haven’t visited the United States since 9/11, and the Homeland Security laws that have come into place since that traumatic event. Those who tell horror stories of being profiled and made to wait for hours while vast numbers of computerised databanks pondered over the wisdom of allowing these potential security threats to enter the country.
Unwilling to go to face such a welcome, I waited for regime change, but Bush’s exit and Obama’s election have done nothing to relax these draconian regulations. Normally, I would not have considered a trip under these circumstances, but am now faced with the prospect of undergoing the whole security routine, as well as the new visa requirements. The reason? The American publisher of the book I am struggling to finish wants me to come on a book publicity tour later this year.
In a sense, this is a double whammy: I hate the thought of selling anything, including my writing. And the prospect of filling in endless forms for a visa, and then being put through the wringer at the airport fills me with horror.
Meanwhile, my flight has been announced. Now for the trek across the vast departure area, and then on to the plane. I have no doubt that many security officials will be interested in knowing who packed my suitcase. And after the plane lands, there are the endless corridors at Heathrow waiting to test my fitness. It’s a hard life, but I wouldn’t exchange it for any other.