I recently flew Qatar Airlines round trip for a lovely interfaith conference in Doha. I ended up, back and forth to Washington, spending a total of 27 hours in-flight within four days. Not long after I got back, Qatar Airlines was in the news as having been one of the Gulf passenger carriers that unwittingly transported a mail bomb from Yemen al Qaeda destined for a gay Jewish synagogue in Chicago.
This caused some strange sensations as a rabbi recently in the complete care of the same airline. I felt one of those moments of absolute contradiction, the contradiction between the way I was treated in the plane and the reality of cargoes headed for murder.
Before Qatar Airlines, I was going to write a sincere article about my evolution as a human sardine. I have been on planes traversing continents doing interfaith work for what seems like an eternity. That experience has become hard to describe, but one of my main motivations for weight loss has become not the lengthening of my life, or a few extra looks from women, but a couple of centimeters of butt space on airplanes that get smaller every year.
I dream of a world without a child's ability to whine and with license renewals for parents who have lobotomies in that one brain space overseeing social awareness. I work on conditioning my prostate, all in terror of being assigned a window seat.
I will never forget the face of the lovely flight attendant who implored me at LAX to give up my aisle seat for a wayward mother and two children, as if this were the Titanic. I gave up the seat, saint that I am, but they put the family right behind me, next to a nice man three times my size with recent knee surgery, while the boy in back of me proceeded to play air hockey with the back of my chair for four hours as his mother quietly read. Sardines seem to have it better, for some soybean oil lubricating my chair, separating me from that brat would have been just fine.
Then there was the "Qatar moment" in business class. A luggage rack all my own, beautiful pajamas into which I immediately changed, a choice of foods unimaginably good, like the single malt 15 year old liquor -- for free. I think my flight attendant was sent from heaven. Going to an Arab part of the world that I never visited while being watched over by an Indian flight attendant who was more gracious, patient, smiling than anyone I had ever met, I tried but failed to watch all the different media options available. I wrote in bliss, slept in bliss. The plane lands and I absolutely do not want to leave. I actually ponder how I can live in first class for the rest of my life.
We have a saying in Jewish tradition that comes from the Passover meal: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" I understand that Qatar Airlines is rated the best in the world, but why is it so different? It is like much in this small emirate. The Emir made a decision that he wanted to excel and set out to do so. I have grown so used to the kind of social Darwinian stoicism that has gripped our world, namely that only the ubiquitous "bottom line" makes our choices for us, and so if we are all treated horribly by airlines it is because that is what the market will bear. But there was a time when we were not brainwashed by libertarian economists believing that all values are sacrificed to the value of a dollar. Successful people used to make decisions to be proud of their products, and we the people rewarded them with our patronage. Qatar Airlines treated me with absolute dignity at a level I have not been treated in decades, and it was their free choice.
I don't know how to square the Qatar Airlines moment in my life with Al Qaeda in the cargo bay. But it just drives home the absolute reality that we are all the same, that the desire to either treat human beings with dignity or to blow them to bits remains the essential choice in every region in the world. Oceans of separation are an illusion, in every culture and in every religion the decision between dignity or humiliation, selfishness or generosity, hate or love, is the ever-present choice.
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