Follow the Smile

The very first thing I ever wanted to be was a prisoner. But that’s a story for another day.

The second thing I ever wanted to be was a flight attendant. And not just any flight attendant. But an Ethiopian Airlines flight attendant. Well, when I was little, there was no other kind, just like there was no other airline other than Ethiopian Airlines. I was too young to know that every country had one of those – airlines, that is, and the pretty ladies that went along with them, not to mention the dashing pilots. I was too young to even know that there were such things as other countries. There was Ethiopia, that was that. That was the world.

Vaguely, though, I was aware of another place. Outside this country. Which in Amharic was literally called ውጭ አገር, outside-country. That was where some very special people went, my dad and a pilot uncle among them, accomplished unknowable things, and came back with exotic stuff like apples, toiletries and cosmetics that smelled so good you wanted to eat them (and I sometimes did, much to my parents’ annoyance), school supplies you had to handle like precious objects, and dolls.

Oh the dolls.

This is where my life’s desire came in. Sure, I got the regular sized ones from outside-country, ones that fit perfectly in the crook of my arm and whose entire wardrobe I could wash and hang to dry in one afternoon without exhausting myself. But, as humans will, I wanted more. Specifically, I wanted one of those large-as-life dolls I saw in clothing shop windows. And there was no way I was going to get my parents to buy me one of those. I wouldn’t get my hands on one of those unless I went to outside-country myself. And the way to go to outside-country as a girl was obviously by becoming a hostess (i.e. flight attendant). Unfortunately, my master plan did not include exactly how I would go about accomplishing this, since everyone knew that to be a hostess you had to be tall enough to touch the ceiling of a plane. So for the rest of my childhood I had to make do with regular sized Heidis.

But the fascination with hostesses never went away. Until air travel became as routine and as complained-about as taking a bus, they remained exotic, enviable creatures of glamour; the personification of the jewel in the Ethiopian diadem that is Ethiopian Airlines. Now, for many, becoming an EA hostess is a stepping stone to the good life. Back then, it was the good life. As for being a pilot, well you might as well be God’s deputy!

If you were a beautiful and tall woman, you had to audition to become a hostess at least once. One of my aunts went for it, and I remember the days leading up to her audition as being one of held-breath excitement and hope of what this could mean for her life, for all our lives. Alas, she didn’t get the gig. I never became that girl who had a hostess in her family, who could go on and on at school about her mom’s/sister’s/aunt’s beauty, her grace, all the things she brought from outside-country and, eventually, her upcoming marriage to a pilot.

I’m not surprised that a flight attendant has been a part of ‘Daughters of Silence‘ from the beginning. Initially, she was a peripheral character, a European woman, whom the main character encounters on her flight in and out of Addis. Eventually, the main character herself became a flight attendant whose professional life and her attitude to it reflected some of my thoughts about flight attendants, which thankfully had gotten a bit more sophisticated since I was a kid.

My childhood fascination with the figure of the female flight attendant morphed into an ongoing curiosity about how she is supposed to be the face of her nation. Its best face. Women dolled up in the national garb are the lure which practically every country uses in its campaigns to attract tourism or other kinds of business. Flight attendants are an aspect of that, perhaps its most lucrative one. Once upon a time, airlines used to only hire the country’s best looking female nationals. Maybe for that reason – the job is a sort of informal ambassadorship. But also once upon a time, ‘nationals’ automatically meant people who looked a certain way. But ‘nationals’, whether naturalized or native-born, no longer automatically look a certain way. Aha, the plot thickens. So how do airlines hire who best should be the window-dressing for their country now? Well, one solution is to base their hiring decision on the routes they want to book the gals on. You got a German of Ethiopian descent who applies for a Lufthansa job? Well, stick her on the Africa flights!

I met exactly such a woman, I can’t say with 100% certainty but I think around the time I decided to make the main character a flight attendant. I was on a Lufthansa flight to Addis. One of the flight attendants was obviously a habesha woman who was either an immigrant to Germany or first generation German. Until then, whenever I flew (this is after starting work on the novel), I used to just spy on every move of the flight attendants and make notes on the sly. I had never worked up the nerve to interview them. But this time, I waited for (what seemed to me) an ideal time during the flight and told this German-habesha flight attendant that I was a writer and could I email her some questions about being a flight attendant so I could get details for my story? She was very friendly and gave me all her deets. Shortly after, I emailed her about a dozen or so questions. Alas, I never got any response. I did get one email saying she was working on the answers. Then, crickets. I chalked it up to hereditary traits and moved on.

Luckily, through a friend whose bff is a flight attendant, I later did get all my questions answered. But I came across this exotic creature of an African immigrant/first generation working a Lufthansa flight to Ethiopia again recently. This was after I further developed the idea of Dessie’s complicated professional identity of being a flight attendant for a nation she’s obviously not a native of. By that time though, I was nearly done with the edits for the novel, so I left her in peace.

So I remain with my ‘conspiracy theory’ about which routes airlines hire visually-non-conforming nationals, or even non-nationals, for. They hire them (it seems to me) specifically for the routes with the most passengers from their native or native-adjacent country. Just one of those things that make you go hmmm. I’m pretty sure neither of those two East African-origin Lufthansa flight attendants I came across (one habesha, the other I’m not sure) don’t get booked on, I don’t know, Latin America or Asia routes. Hmmmm.

Neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so, etc. Just hmmm.

Anywho, all this to share the interesting origin story and real-life overlaps of the how and why Dessie, the main character in ‘Daughters of Silence‘ is a flight attendant and the intersection between her wobbly cultural identity and what her job represents, or at least used to.

Dang, this turned out to be a rather long-haul of a post. Never mind, smile!

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