Ethiopian Culture / Ethiopian Identity / Immigrant Life / Language / Travel: Ethiopia

Found Persons and Lost Pens

Is there anything more aloof than an Ethiopian Airlines flight attendant in charge of a planeload of West Africans? Certain knowledges, no matter how widely shared, should probably not be voiced or printed: she knows that, for reasons that go back hundreds of years and miles of chromosomes, the men desire to pounce on her and the women hate her, both secretly and not so secretly.
Shuffling along the cabin aisle as we board, I feel a mixture of guilt and embarrassment at being the target of the only smile that floats across the faces of flight attendants stationed between the seats (temporary forts?) grimly watching the procession of passengers and their bulky loads tumble down the aisle. I wonder if maybe I am misreading the situation, if maybe they are on the last leg of a very long trip and they are just bone tired, but not too tired to at least fake it for me. But no, this is a first flight of the day, 5am from Dubai. Nothing has happened, yet. They’re just bracing themselves.
Aren’t we all though? All of us on any given flight, bracing ourselves? For instant death if for nothing else? For my own part, barring the latter horrific manner of checking out, I was bracing myself for the part that comes after landing, for how I would carry myself from then on, especially with The Authorities. Of all the many parts that make up the very imposing entity known as Ethiopian Society, nothing sends a chill down my spine as The Authorities. Possessed of their own brand of logic, liable to spring unique surprises on you, at Arrivals, Departures and everywhere in between.
Given that, it must have been the aftereffects of inflight special treatment that had me strolling into the passport check hall of Bole airport ready to confer goodwill on others. I was also feeling kinda smug (cocky? confident?) about being able to bypass the Visa On Arrival line and go straight to queue at passport check with the locals, carrying my Handy Dandy Yellow Card (paired up with that other Blue Booklet of Shame).
Soon enough, someone asked the universal question of line ups all over the world: do you have a pen? I wasn’t the askee but that didn’t stop me from going out of my way to offer my one pen. Never go anywhere without one. First interaction: success! Oh but what’s this? We have to fill out an arrival card? More interactions all around, in which I participate seamlessly. Success! Success! No I didn’t pick up a card on the way in either, did you? Silently I curse the flight attendants who barely offered those cards in flight like they were some kind of optional dessert and not a mandatory part of landing. While revelations and reactions are being shared all around I duck under the ribbon to go get myself a form from the tables way out by the entrance to the hall. But hey, on my way there I find an unused one on the floor. Neat! I pick it up and head back. So not neat, say the judgemental eyes of one of the women I shared a flight with less than an hour ago and mutual befuddlement with just moments ago. Oops. Ok, need to get back in the club. No one else in line has made any move to get themselves some forms, so I offer to go back and get some for that woman and the three around her (clean ones, from the table, I add to myself). They’re not sure what to make of my overture. While they are deciding whether to even bother with the form, helpful me have already returned with a stack and even a stray pen I scored from the table. We’re good again. Nice.
The pen turned out to be dry (of course I knew nobody here leaves a working pen lying around…of course) and, for some reason, one of the women (the one who gave me the Ew eyes, a citified one) slinks off with her form and I find myself facing the other hijab-clad three. One of them asks me if I could fill her form for her. I am caught so off guard that for a moment I blank out on my own details which I’m filling in on my own form. I can only assume that she can’t read or write. This is unfathomable to me. In this age? At her age? Looking at the young, wary, overworked and undereducated faces of the women, it is quite clear that they are another kind of economic migrant to the Arab world. Only the accident of birth puts me where I am and puts them where they are. Yet I can’t help feeling guilty. The one who asked me to fill her form, I had heard her profusely thanking the now long-gone city lady for some great favor connected to making this very trip back home. Echoes of many a story I’ve heard about the lives of these women ricochet in my head, already woozy from a criminally long layover. And now, too early in the morning, as I prop up the woman’s form against my passport and angle my pen, it’s about to get really personal.
Cheapskate, I call myself, could’ve booked a direct flight from Bangkok and avoided Dubai and this mess altogether. The woman, who has neither the lack of reserve nor the excess of privilege to ask me any questions about the specifics of my identity, nevertheless intensely studies every square millimeter of me. Suddenly my glasses feel like a very pretentious prop instead of honest vision aids. I pray that the other two are just waiting for the pen and not my powers of transcription. But if they can write then why don’t they help her? Aah, I don’t know! She decided to zone in on me and so off we must go. It’s really weird. I feel it. She feels it. But I ask the questions and she gives the answers and we try to stay as neutral as possible under the circumstances.
The first part: name. Should be simple enough, but she says a name I’ve never heard. Something “ethnic” (yes, we have those too, it’s all in the ear of the hearer). Shit, where’s a Kiddist when you need her? I ask to hear the name several times. She repeats it again and again in the same volume of voice. And people tell me I am hard to hear? Eventually, I manage to write it all down – first, family and grandfather’s names.
Gender (or, as the form says, sex): no problem. Birthdate: she shoots off the month, a sure thing. I wait for the day, nothing comes. She laughs uncomfortably, says she has no idea. I laugh uncomfortably, say we have to put something down. It does not occur to either of us geniuses to check in her passport. We decide randomly on “five”. One of the others says something about this form being a waste of time, they never look at it anyway. I agree, but we continue. Birthplace: easy. Nationality: I don’t want to assume anything, so I ask, then feel stupid for having asked. Next, the African Elephant in the room: work. I know what it is. She knows I know what it is, I assume. She laughs delicately again, I mimic same. She looks to her friends, who are still waiting patiently, for suggestions about what to put down for this strange bizzare embarassing category that she has apparently never heard of. Just leave it blank, she tells me in the end, and unlike with the birthdate, I know better than to insist on something. We move on, address. It rolls off her tongue. Ironic, that’s the part I had to leave blank on my form. Zone: in a fit of courage I hazard a guess. Amhara? Correctamento. We’re back in business. No more land-mines in sight.
Meanwhile, we’ve disrupted the smooth flow of the queue. The lady in charge of farming out the queuers to the different passport control booths calls me a “troublemaker” for having stopped to help the woman who couldn’t fill her form. I call her several things in my mind. Once the form is filled and I’ve passed my pen on to the others (they only needed the pen, thank god), the same power-trippin’ fill-in-the-blank threatens to send us to the back of the line unless we behave ourselves, our misbehaviour consisting of the passing of pens and forms and repositioning of bodies in the direction of the booths. As we wait to be told which booths to go to, fingers crossed that I don’t get the cantankerous officer with the week-old cornrows, I realize that some kind of multilayered complicated sociological thing has taken place with the city woman slinking off to take care of her own form and passage and the other one asking me to fill her form rather than the two others who obviously can do the same thing. Some very complicated thing which I can’t even begin to name. Maybe those flight attendants are on to something with their deadpan eye-contact avoiding ways…
In the ensuing minor commotion of me showing my charge which door to take to access the baggage claim area after she’s done with Officer Cornrows (whom fate deals to me also), my pen goes AWOL. I don’t think to ask for it back and they don’t think to return it. To hell with it, I say, was a leftover from China anyway, “liberated” from the teacher’s room in a stolen moment. I’m sure I can pick one up somewhere.

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