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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

“The world is crazy. But at least it’s getting regular analysis.”

Updated: Sep 19, 2022

Today I found this quote on the back cover of George Orwell’s novel, Coming Up for Air. I had the book with me at Heathrow after a flight from Dubai, and I copied down these words from an advert in the London airport. Crazy is how I felt after a 12-hour layover in Dubai’s Terminal Three, following my flight from Colombo. After Dubai what awaited me? London, Toronto, Boston, Washington, D.C.

That summer of 2008, I’d gone to Sri Lanka to do some gratis teaching at the request of my daughter, who worked for a Sri Lankan NGO. Given that Bonnie back then had difficulty tolerating me for one day, three weeks together made as much sense as a lunatic’s dream. But at 65 (which I dream of being now), I’d begun to feel old, with a consciousness of aging as being only a little ahead of the grave or incinerator. Besides wanting to see Bonnie, who had been living in the U.K. before Sri Lanka, I also hoped to get my spirit back before further decay set in. And I knew I needed the right feeling inside to make this journey; and I had that feeling until Washington National the day of my departure.

American Airlines had installed computers for check-in, and the screen told me to see an agent. I soon learned that the computers were not programmed to issue baggage tags for anyone with a route of five airports: Boston, Toronto, London, Dubai, and Colombo. "Flying on miles in the 'One World Alliance' is such a joy! I ended up with a hand-written white tag, the old kind with a string to be tied on a suitcase. I am not prone to hysteria. But that morning I watched the agent copy my itinerary on the tag in poor handwriting. “I don’t know when I last did this,” he said. And I said, “You cannot secure the tag with that flimsy piece of string.” My husband kept telling me to calm down, which has the effect of enraging me. The agent agreed to tape the string and tag to my large bag. I could only be glad that a passenger was allowed a good-sized carry-on. And that suitcase for the overhead compartment contained my teaching materials for three weeks (hundreds of pages of photocopied material). I’d also packed ten or more George Orwell books in it because I was scheduled to teach a course on him at the local college shortly after I returned home. In the airport when I said good-bye to Mike, I had a moment when all I wanted to do was return to Mill Creek and stare at water, trees, and birds.

Yet Ceylon was calling. I’d fallen in love with the Emerald Isle in 7th grade geography and had dreamed of going there one day. Which Mike, the girls, and I did in August 1989, while living in Malaysia. But on the day of our arrival in Colombo that summer, a national strike began, which meant soldiers driving buses, shuttered doors at many sites, and ominous signs everywhere. I vowed then to return to Sri Lanka, especially to revisit Kandy. (By the way, my suitcase did not reach Colombo with me. It was not lost, just hadn’t made the flight at Heathrow. Two days later when the bag arrived, the taped tag was still there.)

George Bowling, Orwell’s comic hero in Coming Up for Air, says:

"…there’s some devil that drives us on ever lasting idiocies. There’s time for everything except the things worth doing. Think of something you really care about. Then add hour to hour and calculate the fraction of your life that you’ve spent in doing it.” Unlike this fictional character, I have spent my life teaching and still love it. I have no regrets about the three weeks of teaching in Sri Lanka or my time with Bonnie. But while there I felt a foreboding about the 12-hour wait in Dubai. I’d only been in transit there briefly before changing to a flight for Colombo. And not once in life had I waited 12 hours in an airport anywhere. I saved Coming Up for Air because it was first person narration and comic. Besides the novel I had a two-volume set on Orwell’s life to reread. I hoped to find a comfortable spot in the terminal where I could read, relax, and sleep.

This I knew was how Orwell had written the novel. After the Spanish Civil War & being shot & put on a ‘wanted list’, he and his wife, Eileen, went to Morocco for R & R. In a villa near Marrakesh, Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air about the past, of a luxuriant landscape in the Thames Valley, and the once stable Edwardian world of George Bowling’s boyhood.

What did I find in Dubai’s recently completed Terminal Three, which claims to have the largest floor space in the airport world? I witnessed an appalling spectacle of injustice, the kind of inhumane scene that Orwell would have sunk his pen in to write a memorable essay.

Next week: What I experienced in Dubai.

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