Fayes T Kantawala had a religious experience on an airplane

The night I left Lahore to go back to New York I caught the opening titles of Casablanca on television. My flight was at the ungodly hour of 4 am, a time that, no matter the occasion, is too late to be fun and too early to be good. So I stayed up and watched Ingrid Bergman ask Sam to play it again. The movie’s scenes and dialogues are so iconic that I forgot that most of the actual plot has to do with getting a visa. It’s the height of World War 2 and Casablanca is the last stop in a circuitous route to evacuate people who are trapped in Europe and put them on their way to the free shores of America. Humphrey Bogart is in possession of just such a visa, and Ingrid Bergman needs it, and so it goes forward.

The similarity to our own search for visas in Pakistan was not lost on me and many of the bustling scenes reminded me of people at airports in Pakistan about to leave for abroad. Indeed, it struck me so many times in the queue to get into the airport that I have seven bruises on my right leg. It took me about 2 hours to slowly crawl from the entrance of the airport parking to the door to the actual terminal – more than enough time to vaporise any lingering emotional attachment I was feeling for my home city. Inside, the scene was a carnage of fling-open suitcases, screaming babies, hostile grandmothers, hastily repacked carry ons and impatient ground staff. Armies of passengers avoided any eye-contact even as they pushed their heavy trolleys against each other like life was a game of Bumper Cars. I made it to my gate mere minutes before takeoff, and when I got to my aisle seat (for which I battled a Gorgon, let me tell you), I thought the worst of it was over. But a man approached my seat, asked for me by name and told me to come with him to the front. In unfamiliar situations like these I assume the worst – in this case that I was being held in jail without charge and now the entire flight will see me handcuffed and humiliated. The man eventually told me that one of my suitcases had split open, but that he had patched it together with plastic and it should be fine. He gave me documents to sign confirming I was aware of the damage (a shady move, like when they make you click ‘Agree’ on those Terms and Conditions. What do you think, Google? That I’ll click No because people just “don’t need emails that badly anymore?”).
I wept several times during the more-than-14-hour flight, partly because everything was so beautiful

I was flying Etihad, and the flight to Abu Dhabi had been fairy uneventful. One of the reasons I chose Etihad is because they make you do US immigration before you board the plane rather than after – which is a wonderful idea. I went to security and to the border agent, who interviewed me for about 15 minutes before sending me to another, altogether darker part of the airport. It was a secret room, but not one I was unfamiliar with because in the days before my Green Card that room and I were on a first-name basis. But it had been a while since we met so I was worried. Another uniformed officer came in, and interviewed me again, and after he left a third came and did the exact same thing. Eventually the last one thanked me and told me to be on my way. The weird thing is that although they took my photo, they didn’t take my fingerprints or stamp my passport.

I was about to bring this up to the woman at the airplane gate when she scanned my ticket, smiled and told me I had been upgraded to First Class.

“But why?” I asked, genuinely shocked. I mean, First Class? I didn’t even know what those seats look like. Did they exist? Are they made of diamonds? Am I worth it?

“Because we like you,” she smiled, and gave me my new golden boarding pass.

Dearests, let me just tell you here that flying First Class is a religious experience. I don’t know how to describe it, because I still haven’t processed it. For starters, they don’t have seats in First Class but rather little cabins called apartments. Each is completely sealed off from its neighbor, comes with its own minifridge, bed, full size TV and lounge chair. A lounge chair, can you believe it? IT’S INHUMAN!

It can get fairly luxurious in first class - as the author can now testify

I couldn’t believe my luck, and initially played it cool by not licking everything I could see. Instead of a bag of toiletries, they have a built-in three-mirror vanity with giant tubes of moisturiser. You can book a shower mid-flight. Your seat has a massage option. They have people there who come to your cabin and take your order, and when the food comes, they lay it out in plates, with a white tablecloth and actual metal cutlery. The bread is warm and fluffy, the meat is tender and juicy. I wept several times during the more-than-14-hour flight, partly because everything was so beautiful but mainly because I knew it was like I had been flung into Olympus for a fleeting glimpse of what is truly possible in this wonderful world, but that I knew my time was borrowed and a fat man with a broken headset probably awaited me once I fell back down.

It was such a wonderful, life-affirming experience that I forgot the anxiety that the immigration officers had forgotten to stamp my passport on purpose in an entrapment-style move. I didn’t care because I had a tablecloth 15,000 feet in the air and nothing else mattered. There was an even posher area next to my seat called The Residence that came with its own butler, bathroom, shower, lounge area and two bedrooms, but that seems excessive. It also proves that there is always a section where you’re not allowed, no matter what stage of life you’re in.

But all spells must end, and so mine did as I stood well fed and well rested at baggage claim. Since I wasn’t an actual First Class passenger, my luggage came later than the rest and when it did, it was wrapped in plastic, held together by two shopping bags and a layer of airport cling-film. It collapsed on the taxi ride over, and I brought my clothes up in armfuls, but I will always have the memories of my tablecloth in the clouds.

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