x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

As you enter the Twilight Zone of an airport, the real world drops away with the ground

I feel that airports can be likened to the general theme of a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

I'm cruising at about 38,000 feet as I write this, my small electronic screen telling me the outside air temperature is -45°F. The lights are dimmed around me and the woman seated in front of me won't stop fiddling around as she tries to find the position for her pillow. I try to save the top of my laptop, afraid she's going to bash it. Movies are playing on little screens, a mother tries to comfort the outbursts of a hysterical child, and my knees complain a little from being seated. I have another 1,185 miles to go - Frankfurt, then Cairo.

I spend a lot of time on planes and in airports. I've been to airports as huge as Heathrow and as small as Baghdad International. I prefer the larger airports, with their Starbucks and shiny shops, but for the sake of my credit card, I also appreciate the smaller ones. I have to admit I'm not that excited about transiting through Frankfurt International this time. There's something very Eastern Bloc about it, and the food isn't that great. More important, it is not friendly to the sleep-deprived. I can never sleep well on planes, if at all, so I take advantage of a bench or the floor at my connecting gate when transiting, to sleep. But not in Frankfurt, unfortunately. The gates I've been to have been crammed, and it's too crowded to carve a small spot for yourself.

I feel that airports can be likened to the general theme of a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Each person is a character in the story and each experience will be unique, but almost all will follow a general theme - the entrance, the "space", the exit. Of course the middle will depend on whether or not someone is travelling alone, but you get the idea. The story begins and ends usually with large amounts of family members greeting or bidding farewell to those travelling. In the Arab world, they come in their best clothes, as if for Eid. Men smell of cheap, sweet perfume, women in sparkly headscarves and kohl, children in running shoes that light up when stomped. They are loud and happy and tearful, and send their family off with big hugs and prayers and advice. They will cut in front of you in line, slip a bit of cash to the attendants for some favours, and yell to their relatives across security.

In Canada, people are dropped off by a taxi or family members in the single digits. They will check in their bags in a perfect queue, apologise if their suitcase accidentally bumps your foot, and then sit to drink a quick black coffee with sugar before briskly hugging family members goodbye. I call the middle of the airport story "space" because it feels like another world. The only place on Earth where time stands still no matter whether you are coming or going is inside the cold walls of an airport. You may have just arrived, but the haggard looks on a person waiting to pay for a cold sandwich in front of you tells you they've been around for a very long time. If travelling alone, for those hours inside the airport you are anonymous, invisible and unknown, and the feeling is exhilarating: guessing the story of other people as they hurry past you looking for gates, shop for perfume and run after their children. You can look at others and try to imagine their stories and where they are from.

There is also a feeling of entrapment. You are committed. At the end you are thrust back into the real world of your destination. Your body feels like a scrunched up piece of paper after being flattened out again, and your brain is confused about the time of day and date. You can only hope that the ending is always happy, met with good news, friends, family and lots of warmth. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo