Not in Paris

courtesy of CNN

courtesy of CNN

Marcus’s cell phone woke me at 2:00 in the morning with a ring tone notification, a piercing strobe light, and the persistent buzzing of vibration mode. This is the way his phone gets his attention with every new communication, but this time it seemed different—more urgent—but perhaps that’s hindsight talking.

It was an email from his sister Emily: Glad you are not in Paris! Be safe.

Paris? Why Paris?

Marcus checked his news feed. “There’s been a terror attack in Paris,” he said. He read bits and pieces out loud: More than 150 killed in Paris attacks. State of emergency declared. Shooting outside restaurant. Neighborhood evacuated. Night of terror. Chaos in the streets. Explosion heard at soccer match. Gunfire heard outside the Bataclan Theatre. 

My mind, still groggy, recalled another news report just ten days earlier: Moroccan Nationals arrested in Madrid; maximum-risk suspects were extremely radicalized and had a full willingness to take action and carry out terrorist attacks in Madrid.

And there I was, listening to stories about terror in Paris while I was lying in bed in Madrid. My heart went out to the people of Paris. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I can assure you they weren’t giving out any T-shirts.

Leonardo da Vinci airport, Rome, December 17, 1973. First time I had ever traveled alone. I had turned seventeen just the week before, and was traveling from school in Switzerland to my parents’ home in Saudi Arabia. By the time I arrived in Rome, I had negotiated a pre-dawn taxi ride from school to the train station and a train from Lugano to Milan (where I was chewed out by the conductor in a language I didn’t understand for unknowingly sitting in a first-class car on an empty train), and had agonized through an excruciatingly long taxi ride from Milan’s train station to the airport during a transportation strike, barely catching my flight from Milan to Rome. All that remained was the flight from Rome to Riyadh. One more leg, and I would be home. I only needed to get to my gate and sit tight until the flight boarded.

But fate had other plans for me that day, and Riyadh was not a part of them. As I approached the security checkpoint on the way to my gate, Palestinian terrorists opened fire just fifty feet in front of me, killing two people and taking many more hostage. Thirty more would die in fires on board a PanAm jet in the hellish aftermath of grenades thrown through the open doors of the plane on the tarmac. I saw the tail of the jet explode through the floor-to-ceiling window in front of me as I stood unable to help myself, immobilized by fear. I would spend an hour cowering in a restroom, waiting for the gunfire in the terminal to stop, and then several more hours in a cold, dark parking lot while police scoured the terminal for remaining terrorists. When we were finally allowed back into the terminal, I waited in the mayhem of cancelled flights and anxious travelers for a flight that would never depart.

Before that day, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to define the exact moment when I would pass from childhood to adulthood, but for me it was clear. After quietly enduring the hours-long charade of asking the gate attendant when my flight would depart for Riyadh and being assured repeatedly that it would definitely happen in the next hour or so, I faced him across the Saudia Airlines desk. Always a shy child afraid to question my elders, I drew from some previously untapped well. “I know the flight to Riyadh is not leaving tonight,” I said calmly. “I want you to put me on tomorrow’s flight, and I want you to contact my parents in Riyadh and tell them I’m alright. I also want you to get me a room in the airport hotel—at Saudia’s expense. I will not sleep in the terminal tonight.” The attendant looked at me, nodded, and picked up the phone.

I barely slept that night; I was so afraid I would miss my flight the next day. After a few hours of tossing and turning, I got up, showered, put yesterday’s clothing back on, and returned to the terminal. Despite the congestion from the previous day’s debacle, I made it home that day. The nightmares started two days later.

So I’m lying here in this apartment in Madrid, thinking about the terror in Paris. The Madrileños in the tapas bars below our apartment haven’t yet heard the horrendous news and are laughing and carrying on like there’s no tomorrow…as thousands of Parisians were doing several hours ago.

I wish them peace in their souls.

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