The statistical probability of a plane crashing is one in a few million. But it’s funny how a little bit of aeroplane turbulence can quickly turn the feeling of elation you get when you’re flying, into one of panic. You might be sailing imagined gold-guilded ships into cloudy seas. You’re assured of your safety because you’re you, and bad things, unexpected things, don’t happen to you.
But these thoughts vanish like a puff of smoke when turbulence strikes. As the plane goes through several air pockets, like a toy plane in the hands of an infant that drank too much coke, it shudders from side to side. Before you know it, you’re prematurely reading the Shahadah, the declaration of faith Muslims recite before they die, and the initial sense of adventure you had is dampened by your fear of mortality. Irrational fears be damned. If it happened to Junaid Jamshed, the father of Pakistani pop music, it could happen to anyone.
So here I am, sat on a flight to Islamabad. Large ripples appear in my glass of mineral water not because of an approaching T-Rex, but because of the wind. Fumbling with my seat belt like a magician undoing the straps of a straight-jacket, I quickly reach for both ends as the seatbelt signs glow in response to the turbulence. The safety advert flickers onto the screens. It turns out Qatar airways has partnered with Barcelona FC, to direct passengers how to keep safe in the event of an emergency. I’m already struggling to click both ends of my belt. The last thing I need is to be distracted by hunky footballers when I should be focussing on the safety procedures.
Just as quickly as it comes, the rumble in the cloud jungle is over. The tannoid sounds, and the syrupy voice of the air hostess instructs passengers: “You may now remove your seat belts.” I almost praise God aloud by saying “Allahu Akbar”, God is great. But then I think about #flyingwhilstmuslim, swallow my religious zeal and say it inwardly instead.
The fear begins to simmer down, and the storm clears. Even the aeroplane exhales a sigh of relief as it breaks through a field of clouds and into rays of golden sunlight. If Hollywood is anything to go by, this must be what heaven looks like: a cloudy castle in the sky guarded by angels who wear white Armani suits and smile like Robert Redford, although I’ve yet to spot them. Snowflakes like dandelion heads begin to bloom on the oval-shaped plane windows. Down on earth, mankind is the king of the castle. But up here, the clouds, the sun, and God if you believe in him, reign supreme.
The man sat in front of me is lodged into his seat, man spreading his gangly legs. He kicks off his Nike trainers, and the stench of his odorous feet fills the cabin. To the horror of my nose, the aeroplane has now become a gas chamber. All of a sudden, Liam Neeson’s line from Taken comes to mind, and I have the urge to threaten this pungent stranger:
“I don’t know who you are, but I will find you, and I will smother you with my Qatar airways pillow if you don’t cover your feet.”
It seems like a good idea for a moment, but the air condition kicks in and the cabin becomes breathable once again. I want to say Takbir again, but, well, you know the drill.
The lady sat next to me removes a book from her backpack and places it in the wired pouch in front of her. Trevor Noah’s Cheshire Cat grin peeks out from behind. I make a remark about how he came to London recently, and how brilliant he was. She says she wasn’t able to go because of work, but heard his jokes on Donald Trump were particularly funny. After some small talk, I ask her what she does for a living. It turns out my neighbour is a young Sudanese doctor from Leicester. She talks candidly about the state of the NHS. She reduced her hours despite a big cut to her pay check because the work load became all too much. You can hear the resignation in her voice.
One seat down, a British expat living in Malaysia joins in the conversation. He tells us how he’s turned into an insomniac because of the fajr athaan coming from the mosque he lives next door to in Penang, waking him up at the crack of dawn everyday. He says the religious sermons he hears on Fridays from the speakerphone, sounds really “angry”. I tell him persuasive oratory often means you have to change your intonation to pull the congregation in, and that it’s not exclusive to just the Muslim community. “You should invest in some good earplugs” I add, half joking, half serious. He narrows his eyes at me slightly, turns away and buries his head back into the book he was reading: “Why Talent Isn’t Enough” it says in large red font.
The sun is beginning to set and the horizon is ablaze with orange, red, and yellow ombré nestled under blue skies. A single ball of fire which looks like Sauron’s eye, burns in the distance over the Turkish pass of Dilezi Gecidi. Grey mountains stretch out from east to west, as if a giant trailed its finger tips through grains of sand, creating a maze. If the Turkish Frodo is out there, I hope the clouds obscure any view of his curly locks as he makes his way across the plains, a red fez perched on his head and loyal Sam running at his side, rationing their dwindling supply of lembas bread and baklawa.
We’re passing over a city in Uzbekistan now. Lights lining the streets and pouring out of houses, creates an ordered chaos of orange and red. It’s as if a master tailor from the subcontinent sat down to map out these cities with intricate embellishments, meticulously hand stitching them one by one. Every brick is a bead, every road a gold thread, and every light a sequin.
As I sit in my ivory tower gazing from high above, it’s hard not to wonder how people down below live their day to day lives. What languages do they speak? What kind of food do they eat? I wonder what that ball of flame really was, whether it was a lighthouse guiding people lost in the dark, like a minaret close to home which can be seen from miles, draped in a veil of fairy lights like a new bride waiting in anticipation for her groom.
Thinking of lights and home reminds me of something Rumi wrote: “If light is in your heart, you will find your way home.”
If home is a place of belonging, where you feel at peace, then you can find it in so many things. The four walls of our physical homes, our family, friends, lovers, even entire cities.
But for a few hours at least, I can sever the kite strings anchoring me to the earth, and float thirty-six thousand feet in this cloudy no man’s land that is my new home, with only the lights of strange cities and the smaller, but stronger one radiating within myself to guide me to a new home, wherever it might be.