Sunday, July 24, 2011

"Come Fly with Me," by Jihad (Jim) Zaiter

Flying nowadays must be one of the least favourable human activities in North America, followed closely by root canal extraction. Don’t get me wrong now; people still crave vacation time and getting away from the hustle and bustle of their stressful everyday lives.

Yep, most people still love nothing more than stretching on a sandy beach, strolling through an amazing new city, eating at gourmet restaurants, and other kinds of highly anticipated vacation related activities. It’s the part where they have to fly from miserable A to wonderful B and backwards, that they dread the most.

In a time when terrorism became trendy in some parts of the world and when a few fanatical thugs have garnered the will, knowhow, ability, and determination to fulfil their life dream of blowing passenger airplanes out of the skies, the rest of us have been left to deal with the ugly post 9-11 realties of airports and flying.

Travellers now face a stringent and ever changing system of long line ups, multi-layer security checks, ridiculous restrictions, dos, don’ts, cautions and rainbow-color threat levels. Just mix those ingredients with a healthy dose of horror to keep us terrified like chickens and obedient like sheep, courtesy of the completely scared and paranoid group of security agencies running the whole new iron-clad misery show. Serve with fresh uncertainties and enjoy.

I have to admit that our protectors probably have the best intentions at heart, but are not the sharpest knives in the drawer, because “patting down” toddlers, just outside the gate, have another legal term: Child molestation.

Yes, all of us are victims and there is very little we can do except pack a lot of patience, resilience and “suck it up” approach every time we head to our next flight.

But while all travellers nowadays suffer, the suffering is not equal. A small group of chosen ones get the VIP treatment “in reverse” at most US entry ports. These poor souls are blessed with additional screening and waved into obscure back rooms filled with very apprehensive security personnel thinking that the 75-year-old Anglo-Saxon lady in front of them is the next Osama Bin Laden, in disguise.

I happen to belong to that group (not the old White ladies, but the poor souls). My venture into any US-bound flight is pretty much a bitter medicine that I have to swallow. Every single time I travel to the US, Border Services personnel, give me an offer that I cannot refuse, called Random Secondary Screening, making the word "random" here, an insulting oxymoron.

Of course, their executives still go on national TV, declaring that they never profile “ethnic minorities,” the politically correct description for suspicious, dark-skinned, Middle-Eastern aliens with creepy names. So I sit through a long session of questioning about daring to venture into the US of A.

Questions start with my motives and travel plans, which is expected. Then they get on to my name.

“Jihad?” says the Border Services agent. “Your name is Jihad Zaiter?”

“My friends call me Jim,” I suggest.

No good. I always end up in a little room, trying to explain to a border agent that Jihad is a common name for Arabs – Muslim and Christians alike.

I tell them my parents sent us to Catholic schools and decorated our house with a Christmas tree every December. It doesn’t really help.

It doesn’t help, either, to mention that I’m a secular person, fond of visiting churches and cathedrals when I’m travelling or that my wife is Catholic and we had a civil union because we are way past religions in our lives. And no, having chosen Hebrew names (Daniel and Sarah) for my kids doesn’t help either.

It could be worse. In Germany in the 1930s, Adolf must have been quite a common name for baby boys. Imagine the nightmare that turned into in the late 1940s.

Next, the border agents question me about the other dodgy era of my life. Before coming to Canada, I was a vending machines salesman based in Dubai, and I wandered around those eerie Middle Eastern countries all year round. Most border agents seem amazed that the extraterrestrials in Pakistan and Sudan enjoy carbonated soft drinks. They’re surprised Ethiopia even has electrical current to run vending machines.

One agent could not believe that my 70-year-old dad, now retired in his home village in Northern Lebanon, goes fishing in the morning then enjoys a cold Heineken on his porch in the afternoon while he barbecues lamb chops.

I have been even also asked, by a serious and well fed officer, about the real origins of hummus and whether tabouleh can be made with curly leafed parsley? No, you must use Italian flat-leafed parsley.

Nevertheless, I have been lucky enough that I was not denied entry to the US, so far, and for that I let out a huge breath of relief every time I receive my long-awaited entry stamp and I’m waved in the direction of the terminal, not back to the parking lot. What follows is a hurried dash through the airport to my gate, with less than a 60% chance of making it, then a walk of shame up the aisle to my seat, facing the nasty looks of fellow passengers who probably think that I was getting drunk in the terminal pub, ignoring repeated last calls for my flight.

Traveling south is certainly not my cup of Tim’s, but I have to do it occasionally for business purposes. Nevertheless, let me shock you all by revealing that I also travel south a couple of times a year for pleasure. Why, you ask, after telling you about my travel plights?

Well, the answer is weird but simple. I love flying. No, not the vacation part; but rather the flying element itself. And no I am not losing it from all those homeland security episodes. You see, since I was a little boy growing up in war-ravaged Lebanon, traveling has been my true and only passion. I dreamt of visiting faraway places where tall, pretty people spoke other languages, ate different food, and lived in modern, clean and most importantly safe cities. Moreover, America was my ultimate dream destination. I watched the movies, read the comics, wore the jeans, imitated the accent and just existed so that one day, I could fulfil my dream of travelling to Uncle Sam’s main land.

Unfortunately, my first flight came at the tender age of 22, as a fresh graduate from university, packing his suitcases and moving, not to New York as I hoped, but to the very hot, dry and sandy deserts of Kuwait in pursuit of wealth and success. And while I was broken-hearted to leave my family and friends behind, I was super excited about the plane ride, because the kid inside me never grew up.

Since that summer day in 1991, I’ve flown to 62 countries, visited amazing places and met wonderful people of all colors, shapes and backgrounds. And through my travels, flying became my gateway to these marvellous adventures.

I learned to enjoy the features about flying that other people just hate: Planning, researching, booking, deals, packing, transportation, terminal, lounges, expensive airport food, boarding, dry peanuts sachets, claustrophobic restrooms, coach seats, frustrating passengers, mean crew, cabin pressure, noises, jetlag, etc.

Have I missed much? I guess not. Every annoying flying component of these is just one piece in a puzzle, each quite awful on its own, but for me, they come together to create the magic of travel. Even the flight home is a pleasure. I am always glad to fly back home, even if it was from sunny Florida to freezing Toronto. I just love flying.

I believe that we should all face today’s unpleasant flying conditions like an adventure. Adventures are risky endeavours filled with danger, incidents, mishaps, and uncertainty. But the unexpected events are what make excitement. Delays, cancellations, alternative routes, lost luggage, bomb threats could be quite annoying, but in most cases, aren’t you super glad that you – eventually – reached your destination or that your suitcase arrived, though three days late?

I know that travelling is sometimes as fun as smashing your thumb with a hammer, but a car accident or a leaking roof can be just as miserable. Rediscover the adventure of flying and learn to enjoy it – you’re lucky to live in this time and age. Most of the world was discovered by sailing ship, on horseback, or on foot by plain regular folks wading through jungles, swamps and death traps.

Sorry if flying to California will take five hours of your precious times. Would you like it more if you were a 17th century pioneer struggling through a six-month road trip that had a fifty–fifty survival chance? So stop the whining, complaining and negative feelings, and praise your fortunes, the skies or God for your good luck and your blessings. Just remember to pack your suitcase yourself, making sure all your liquids are under 100ml and stashed in a clear Ziploc bag, and come fly with me.

Jihad (Jim) Zaiter is a fashion-marketing entrepreneur based in Toronto and one of the founders of the Los Angeles based MNM Couture label. Jim's other passion is writing poetry, short stories, sarcastic essays, and stand-up comedy. Jim's background as an international citizen and world traveler, as well as his fluency in three languages, enables him to observe, catch and report on the stranger parts of our world.

See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Georgetown, Oakville, Burlington, Hamilton, Kitchener, Orangeville, Barrie, Woodstock, London, Gravenhurst, Sudbury, Muskoka, Peel, Halton, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.


  1. Moustapha El-AmineJuly 24, 2011 at 4:52 PM

    Great assay Jim or Jihad as I always knew you :)
    It's amazing how we're indifferent to this name until we come to the West and realize that it has a negative connotation to it. At least four people in my family are called Jihad, one of them is my uncle! After reading your article I realized why he refuses to come to the US...he must have heard awful stories from other Jihads :) I'll let him read yours...he'll enjoy it and maybe that will intice him to travel to the US.

    Moustapha E-A

  2. Way to go Jim....excellent article. Nikki

  3. Love it, could not skip a word, enjoyed every bit of it, lived each part of it as if I was traveling.

  4. Love it!

    Very well written and I'm glad you haven't given up flying. This world's too beautiful to let the crazies deny us our right to experience it.

  5. Well done Jihad. I truly enjoyed reading this piece. Good luck and the best of wishes for future installments. As you are aware, I myself worked for years in the flying business and immensely enjoyed being on airplanes and going places. And however little I travel these days, I will forever remain in love with flying. It is sad though, that pricks such as those you routinely come across on your journeys to the south, remain ignorant and oblivious to the rest of the planet. Ultimately, time will show them the error of their ways. Perhaps!

    What you need to do now is start your own blog.
    Perhaps, you have one in the making. Either way I am certain you will outdo many on the blogosphere.

    On a different note, the lady in the blue uniform is hot. I will certainly go flying with her.

    Stay good. :-)

  6. Its a very good article !The pulse of all travel !

    My friend , guide , philosopher , Jihad (Jim)Zaiter.
    This is straight from the horses mouth.I relate to the anxieties and the situations but have been fortunate most times when I went down South of the border , hope and pray none of my three names ,MOHAMMAD HASAN KHAN get randomly picked for questioning.
    I have a Canadian born , white , christian a 65 year old retired friend, who said he keeps his 'BIBLE' on his dash board while crossing the border - Just to get away from the Paranoia ..........

  7. Jihad...JIHad...JIHAD...then I get arrested after yelling your name at the airport...I'd rather fly with Jim & not Jihad...;-P. Great article. I enjoyed reading it.

    A similar situation Way back before 911, in 1986 (if I recall correctly) I was thouroughly questioned at Miami by a one Jack Ellman. (yes I still remember the officer's name) during his 'interrogation' & repetitive questioning I was really fed up & expressed my desire to be sent back to my original point of departure (London) where he finally granted me permission of entry but made me miss my flight to crime was that I held a lebanese passport.