Racism onboard

Racism onboard - experiencing racism in the air, courtesy the modern day slavery state of Saudi Arabia.

Racism onboard – experiencing racism in the air, courtesy the modern day slavery state of Saudi Arabia.

In this modern world of ours, airlines turn the world by transporting people across the globe. For a service as significantly important as this, there should be no bias on the basis on race, colour, gender, ethnicity, language or nationality allowing everyone to make use of the resource. But, perhaps my expectations of fairness were a bit too much for an air line run by Saudi Arabia – the capital of modern day slavery. Although fully aware of the plight of South Asian labourers in the Kingdom and the blatant racism of the Arabs towards browns, I still expected a fair and professional service from Saudi Airline, considering I was paying for the service, and then its global in nature. But, this mandate of fairness and professionalism was severely violated by the staff on several occasions. The act of bias by airline and aviation/airport staff caused distress, anxiety and anger.

We, as Muslims feel very strongly about the anti-Muslim sentiment which has grown in society post 9/11. Remember how strongly the Muslim community responded to the Tennessee incident when two Imams were removed from a flight, even after they had been security cleared, just because the pilot had objections on their Muslim attire. Internet was filled with angry speeches of Arab, especially Saudi Imams criticising the racial profiling, mistreatment on the basis of religion and even calling for Jihad against kuffar. How would one expect the so-called leader of global Muslim community to act when dealing with people of different background on a paid-service? Hypocrisy is the name of the game!

I had the horrific displeasure of travelling with Saudi Airlines on a connecting flight from London Heathrow to Lahore with stopover in Riyadh. The flight from London to Riyadh was alright except the lack of professionalism and the free license for religious zealots to use any space of the plane to hold loud congregational prayer anytime followed by tableegh sessions. One fellow with a long gray beard, traditional Arabic dress with flowing robes and a laptop bag stuffed with all those latest gadgets you can name (laptop, eQuran, iPad and an iPhone) roamed around the plane looking for targets to indoctrinate them with his literal version of religion. I won’t be surprised to find out he was doing that on instruction of the state. His regular roaming through the plane reminded me of those salesmen in Lahore buses selling one drug to cure all diseases you know or will never know. And then, reminded me of Marx as well.

After a long flight, we could finally see arrays of street lights spread miles and miles and an illuminated doomed construction in the middle. That was Riyadh airport. None bothered to say a word of thanks when we exit the plane, none bothered to welcome us or guide us where to go on the airport. I spotted a staff member and had taken only the first couple of steps towards him when he, with a scolding look, dismissively gestured for me to go somewhere else. “bhai, nechay ja kar seedhay haath jayen transit ke liye”, I heard from someone who passed by me. That was a Pakistani member of airport labour. The entrance to the lounge presented the scene of data darabaar. A long queue at the entrance where a couple of airport staff members were handing out meal boxes, completely indifferent to the passengers and keenly gossiping.  The long stay at the airport provided an opportunity to observe and talk to the Pakistani labourers. They had heartbreaking tales to tell. Majority had not travelled back-home for years – the reason: the airline doesn’t offer any discount on airfare or pay them good enough to afford a ticket back home, even annually! They live in miserable conditions, work over time without being paid for it, silently accept racism but find it a luxury to buy a cup of tea at the very airport they spend half of their day.

But, the worst was yet to come. There was no member of staff present at the gate assigned to the flight for Lahore until only 20 minutes were left for take-off time. I repeatedly went to the information desk to inquire regarding this but they had no answer other than a hollow, Inshallah, Inshallah, on time”. When finally they opened the gate, some 10 minutes before the presumed take-off time, they continuously scolded the passengers to hurry up and line up in better queues – indifferent to the fact that it was they who were late. While one member of staff was checking passports to let passengers in, two other with security-sticks in their hands pointed at passengers kept shouting and scolding passengers randomly. By the time all of the passengers were in, we were already half an hour late. I so wanted to go back to the information desk and ask him, “Why did Allah delay the flight?”

Welcoming the passengers a far cry, they didn’t bother to look at the passengers let alone smile. They simply extended their hands to grab (literally, grab) tickets from passengers hand, take a look at it and extend the other hand to point the direction. One of them extended his hand to grab my ticket which I had held firmly. I looked at him and asked, “What?” to which he responded saying, “Ticket, Ticket!!”. I handed over the ticket saying, “Don’t you have the courtesy to welcome us on board and politely ask for the ticket?.” He didn’t bother to respond, took a look at the ticket and raised his other hand to point upwards. The rule of the thumb was: if you are wearing Shalwar Kameez, can’t speak English or Arabic, you are a third rate citizen who is nothing more than a slave and deserve no respect. The staff members continued to rudely push and pull people on the plane for some good 15 minutes before they were ready to take-off.

I have travelled on various airlines, and even the cheapest no-fringes-attached airlines would care about the language issue and either have some staff members to assist with local language or at least play the announcements in local language. In a flight destined to Lahore, with not a single non-Pakistani passenger on board, none of the staff members could speak Urdu. To my surprise, every single announcement, instructions, manuals, handouts etc were in Arabic; sometimes followed by English translation. Far from being considerate of the fact that they lack the ability to communicate with the customers in a language they understand, they continued to behave offensively with passengers as if it was a crime not being able to understand Arabic. The airline staff members indifferently shouted at passengers from distance in Arabic, knowing they cannot understand the language. There was a sense of blatant rejection of pluralism and respect for other cultures, languages and people.

The brusque staff of the airline was not responsive when asked to help find a vacant luggage cabin, most of which were already filled in with airline’s stuff. They had no concern for health and safety – I could see a couple of luggage cabins not closed, with bags half-hanging in the air. “Sshhh. No shouting. Talk slowly. YAP YAP !! NO shout now!!”, shouted one of the staff members pointing to a mother and a daughter gossiping innocently well seated on their seats. The staff, always seen in pairs (for gossiping?), kept on policing the plane yelling at the passengers “seatbelts, seatbelts”, but they themselves continued to roam around gossiping aloud even when the plane was running on the runway to takeoff. The plane took off and landed in a mess, with things falling off luggage cabins.

Just when the plane had stopped wobbling after the rough take-off, there came the noisy screeching trolley with juices while the staff carrying it loudly calling out “Apple, Orange, Tomato” and stopping where someone asked her to. This reminded me of falsay-wala from gold old days when I was a kid. I failed to understand what rush were they in that caused them to serve refreshment juices, lunch, sweets and tea, all in a span of 45 minutes, although the flight was over four hours long. The staff unashamed blatantly showed disgust and mocked passengers behind their back, while knowing other passengers can see and notice them. They did not bother to show any courtesy, let alone respect.

There was projector screen hanging right at the door for the lavatory, which meant anyone trying to enter lavatory had to bend and pass through under the screen. A random TV serial was on display which was hardly visible considering the placement of the screen. Further, with no audio system in place or earphones provided, I could not understand the point of it, other than being an obstacle in the way to lavatory. One incident, which I felt most strongly about and is perhaps going to stay with me is when a couple of air-hostesses saw this old woman with mehndi-dyed hair in a lawn suit walking their way taking support seat-to-seat. Without even caring to know where she was headed or trying to help the old woman who could hardly walk, they kept seated, yelled at her in Arabic from a distance and signalled to go back. When nothing helped, they loudly shouted “Sit,Sit”, but clearly she could not understand that either. As she reached them to pass over, one of them held her arm and staring at her with disgust pointed her to return back to her seat. I can recall her expression: exhausted, helpless, dejected and insulted she pointed towards the lavatory, trying to tell them that’s where she is headed. They didn’t bother helping her or even apologise. Another passenger came over and helped her reach the lavatory.

I could have ignored the experience if it were a sheer lack of professionalism and bad service but earlier the same day; I had experience better service on the other flight. It was clearly bias towards poor brown Pakistanis resulting in an appalling service for which the passengers had paid. Considering the Kingdom is home to Pakistan’s largest overseas community, I was expecting better, much better. This selfless pool of labour has to work in inhumane working conditions, sometimes under $150 a month to build those skyscrapers which Saudis take pride in. They are the ones who run services across the Kingdom without complaints contributing to the development of the very country, the citizens of which consider them nothing more than cattle. The nearly 9 million foreign workforce (2 for every Saudi), predominantly South Asian has no citizenship rights or access to healthcare, protection or legal services. In stark contrast, Westerners are given a favoured status than other non-Arabs who are subject to work kind of racism.

The discovery of oil wealth has resulted in bloated Arab egos and has kept them back from giving up the ethnocentrism which has its root in Ummayad times. There is clear message for Pakistanis (and Muslims?) to understand: just because Makkah and Madina happens to be in the Kingdom, the citizens of the Kingdom don’t get a guilt-free pass to insult and mistreat people and still get away with it.

It was only a matter of few hours for me but that disturbing experience will stay with me. My thoughts, however, are for those labourers in the Kingdom who have the horrific displeasure of working for them and exploited on a daily basis. Someday, this modern day slavery will come to end.

*Although this was not intended to be a customer review for Saudi Arabian Airlines, but intelligent customers will get the point.*


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