A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

visibly foreign

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 16, 2007

In some parts of the world, I blend in beautifully. Despite being deeply American, I have a rather generically European face and body (excluding Scandinavia, where I might be counted a midget). When I travel on European airlines, flight attendants generally speak to me in the carrier’s native tongue.

Consequently, when I am at home or in Europe, I sink into the happy oblivion of anonymous folk. Here in the region, though, I find myself the antithesis of anonymous – because I am a foreigner.

Foreigners are always visible, always watched, noticed, and (often) discussed – not necessarily maliciously, but with great interest. Although Beirut and Damascus are both big cities, they often feel like small towns – and as in any small town, the appearance of someone new is cause for curiosity, if not excitement.

The interest in me is almost always harmless and well-intentioned – but it can be startling. I remember how my stomach knotted when the cashier at l’Almande in Damascus told me (on my first and thanks to him probably last stop there, to buy sweets as a thank you gift for M’s parents in Jounieh):

We have watched you walk past our shop for the past six weeks.

Oh, I remember thinking, oh, oh, oh. That summer was not a good one (are any?) to be an American in the region, and my aunt had already warned me about paying more attention to personal security. Yet this man had successfully tracked me for over a month – and with that, knew (at least approximately) where I lived, my nationality, and my work.

Of course, all he meant by his statement was: … and we wondered why it took you so long to come into our wonderful shop.

Still, sometimes I find similar reminders of my increased visibility equally frightening – and other times, merely a good reminder that the number of curious eyes on me should preclude my wandering about in gym clothes, glasses, with un-done hair, etc.

This afternoon provided the latest reminder. My itinerary had me flying to Beirut on Lufthansa, but a slow plane out of the west coast meant that I was re-booked on MEA. I love MEA – always good people watching – but I forget that I am equally on display.

I was one of two foreigners on the plane – the other was a tall Eastern European businessman speaking animatedly into his mobile in a language that none of us (judging by my fellow passengers’ faces) understood. As commonly happens in these situations, we were seated in the same row, across the aisle from one another. I’m not quite sure of the rationale, but I imagine it to be something like “safety in numbers”, and intended to comfort us lone ajanib.

I realized all this only after the real “visible foreigner” moment, however. One of my innumerable personality quirks is a dislike of handing my boarding pass to the flight attendant greeting passengers as they board the plane. I fly all the time – I know how to find my seat without being guided – and find myself irked, contrarily, by their polite efforts to do so.

So I boarded the MEA plane with boarding pass well hidden. “22C”, the smiling flight attendant said when she saw me; “Welcome”.

Again, that sinking stomach knot feeling. She didn’t read my boarding card; she had no need to. She knew who I was and where I was seated already, because I was the foreigner.

Thank goodness I had brushed my hair and my teeth before boarding – at least I was well groomed!

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6 Responses to “visibly foreign”

  1. intlxpatr said

    Oh thank God you brushed your teeth and combed your hair! (laughing and laughing)

    Sweetie, they have their eyes on you because you are BEAUTIFUL. Foreign is secondary.

  2. S. Worthen said

    Ever since I got onto a plane and found my seat occupied by someone else… and that someone else didn’t have a boarding pass for the flight I was on, but for some other flight entirely, I’ve been entirely happy to let flightstaff see my boarding pass, in the hopes they’re also going to notice people irrelevantly boarding the flight. It also made me feel how slight security can be sometimes – and for a moment, then, it unnerved me how easy it might be to just walk on to the wrong commercial flight.

    P.S. I somehow had no idea you’ve been keeping a weblog! And for ages! I knew your handle from your aunt’s, of course, but not until my mother just emailed me a link to your visit chez Owlfish that I noticed.

  3. Well not that I want to disagree with my doting aunt, but … the same thing happens even when I am on my way home for the gym. If there is an anti-beautiful, me post-gym is it:-).

    owlfish! ahlan ahlan! I had so much fun writing the post about dining with your parents – and I love, love your blog and the community of readers/commenters/friends/family/colleagues it has fostered. as for your travel story – what a mess AND a definite security breach!

    On the other hand, at least your seat-taker wasn’t malicious. On the same MEA flight I watched two pushy (and very UN-attractive) Lebanese women take the then-empty bulkhead A & C seats. At the end of boarding, two men with “Ambulance” written on their uniforms carried in a very old man, traveling with his (I assume) daughter and grandson. The bulkhead seats were theirs … but … you guessed it: diva 1 and 2 argued very forcefully that THEY should get to keep those seats. The flight attendants, wimpy little things, could do nothing. Finally, one of the ambulance men said – in English – THIS MAN IS TRAVELING IN THIS ROW, WITH HIS RELATIVES, and booted them out.

    Ah, the Lebanese. Arrogance and insecurity all blended into one beautiful package :-).

  4. S. Worthen said

    Not malicious, but a little stubborn. He was very reluctant to leave. Establishing that he had my seat alone was not enough. It took the flight attendants talking to him for another five minutes to get him off. This was a number of years ago – I couldn’t say if it was before or after 9/11 at this distance, but it was within the U.S.

    Not willingly giving up seats for a man travelling in emergency circumstances really is arrogant!

    I love the community of people I have too – so lucky to have accumulated them all! (I do know a great many of them from in person, it’s true. But still.) I’ve been admiring how intelligent your posts are, how thoughtful.

  5. oh my goodness owlfish – how awful. He was so insistent on keeping “his” seat that he was willing to take the wrong flight? hello, misplaced priorities!

    thank you for the very nice words about my posts. I love yours for the window they offer me into your life – particularly about the teaching!

  6. […] don’t miss being defined as A Foreigner, or living with the hyper-visibility that accompanied it – but I do clearly need to work harder to get the label out of my […]

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