What I experienced travelling from Dubai to the US on an United Arab Emirates flight

At the beginning of January, I booked my flight to South Africa. Since I had several requirements (wanting to arrive on a specific day), not wanting to fly through Turkey, and not flying in a route that was extra expensive or overly long, I booked a flight from Edmonton to Seattle to Dubai to Johannesburg on the way there. This flight proved to be non-eventful and very relaxed. I went through US customs in Canada, and all was well. People were cordial and polite, but really, they were focussed on their Tim Horton’s coffee and talking about the weather. Before I flew through US customs, I worried about what they would do to me. I wanted to discuss my anxiety with my mother and my friend. Because I was worried about having my phone searched, I talked about the issue on the phone, in person with my boyfriend, with my awesome therapist, and in emails to a friend which I later deleted from my phone. I made sure that I did not have any openly subversive books on my person or in my luggage. Fortunately, this leg of the trip went well.

The excellent service and relaxed atmosphere continued all the way through to Johannesburg.

Even though my flight there was uneventful, I was still anxious. The ban on laptops on certain flights originating from the Middle East, from Middle Eastern airlines, meant that I would have to put my laptop in my cargo. Before I left, Nathan and I discussed a plan so I would be able to transport my laptop safely. We decided that I should not transport any alcohol or liquids in my luggage. I took my computer case with me, and decided to put my computer in its case in my suitcase when I returned back to Canada. I left my Ipad at home. I didn’t bring an e-reader, which meant I was transporting more books than I normally would be.

During my time at the International Federation of Journalist conference, and in my normal tourism in South Africa, I spent a lot of time talking about international politics. The Europeans at the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists were curious about Trump, and how he had gotten in and how Canadians had felt, just as others were curious about Bre-xit and what it would mean. Since many conference attendees know each other or had met before, there was a feeling of mutual respect, and much discussion about political issues. I could see that there was great concern over what is happening in the world.

After the conference, when I was trying to wrap my head around what had happened in South Africa with apartheid and with racial politics, it became even more disturbing. I have a background in race and ethnic relations, and studied apartheid in school, so as a journalist and writer, I wanted to learn more. It has always been an area of specialization for me. As I talked to more and more people in South Africa, I could see the trauma that lingers from the apartheid system. I could see how apartheid has screwed people up, and caused cracks in infrastructure. At some times, watching and observing these things was deeply painful. Because of current world events, certain events became even more tinged with meaning. A black American woman and I were talking at Robben Island where Nelson Mandela, a great statesman and human rights hero, was imprisoned for 27 years and she was asking what Canadians know about Trump and Trump politics. “Do you know about Trayvon Martin?” she asks me. “Do people know that Trump got in because of race?”

And I answer her questions, and I tell her that I do, and that some Canadians, the ones who are paying attention, we do know that it is deeply about race.

And I have many interactions like this in the country of South Africa, and sometimes these interactions bring me to tears and I need to lie on my bed and recover.

I go on a beach walk with friend, writer and editor Helen Moffett, and she explains to me that watching Trump get elected was triggering for South Africans, because they know what the government can do. It was especially painful for people of colour living in exile in the United States, she tells me. There is a lot of fear.

While I am away, I try not to pay attention to the bombs that Trump is dropping in the Middle East. I can’t pay attention to people getting ousted from Airlines. I can only concentrate on what I am doing, seeing and experiencing.

On the day when I am supposed to fly home, I try to follow all the airline requirements. I don’t carry liquids or gels in accordance with North American laws. The United Arab Emirates does not want people to put batteries in their luggage, and so I am carrying numerous packages of batteries in my backpack. I have all my things. My laptop is stored under the plane.

My first flight from Cape Town to Dubai is uneventful and peaceful. I talk to the South Africans next to me about their trip to Kuala Lumpur. At one point, a nice man from Devon, England and I start to discuss Trump politics and Brexit and then I realize that I am a bit uncomfortable, because I don’t even know if we are safe talking about these things on the plane. Are we being monitored?

We arrive in Dubai in the middle of the night, and we go through security. Everything is routine, polite and nothing is strange. Then I walk over to my flight from Dubai to Seattle. It’s boarding really early, earlier than I anticipated, so I get in line. That’s when I see I’ve made a mistake. There is a wall of customs attendants standing there, with a big sign above them that indicates that we should not be carrying laptops, e-readers, tablets, video cameras or cameras.

In all the excitement of packing, I’ve forgotten that I am carrying my camera. I’m not sure if I’m going to lose it or not. When I get up to the line, I feel desperately scared. “I have a camera,” I say to the man at the desk, as calmly as I can. He is calm, open, and professional. “That’s okay,” he says. “You will give it downstairs.”

I walk downstairs, where there is a group of people going through security. These are United Arab Emirates staff who conducting security on people going to the US. They are calm, polite and professional. I think they can tell that we are afraid. I take my camera out of my bag and show it to him. While the staff member watches, I flip the bottom of it open and take out my memory card and slip it in my pocket. He goes through all my stuff, opening pockets etc. I go through another security line. They wrap my camera up in bubble tape, put it in a box, and tell me it will go under the plane. All around me, people are losing electronics. An older man has his belt off, and his luggage is being searched. The people searching are absolutely professional and calm. Everyone is stone cold quiet. They are just doing their jobs, but they are respectful. No one is laughing. Once we have been let go, we move into another waiting area, where we sit quietly. This is a plane full of non-white people. Many of them have been travelling from the Indian subcontinent. There are Sikhs and Muslims. There are old ladies wearing full hijabs. There are women that remind me of Malaysian people I met in Indonesia. There are many people who don’t speak English or who have English as a second, third or fourth language. Most of the faces are brown. As I look around me, I can tell that we are all scared and frustrated. This is a plane full of all different kinds of people, mostly brown, going to the United States, and they think we’re all terrorists. It is deeply upsetting.

A South Asian woman sits down beside me and we start to chat. She’s coming from Mumbai.
“I have been through security already three times today,” she says. “I’m exhausted.” She asks me about living in Canada, and she tells me about her home in Phoenix, Arizona, and asks if I have to go through immigration to get home. She said the last time she flew British Airways to get to Mumbai and it was not the same thing. I help her connect to wireless, and we wait to board.

On board the plane, I am okay. Things are relaxed, and the staff is good. Because we’re in US airspace, we’re told not to congregate in the plane or stand in groups near washroom doorways. I take a sleeping pill and knock myself out for a few hours. And then I distract myself by reading, listening to podcasts, and watching a show called Safari Brothers. They tell us that we will be going through security and customs again when we land in the United States. We are sent to an area where we have to pick up our suitcases. We are not allowed to take photos there, and not allowed to open our suitcases unless asked to by a customs agent. I do not touch my phone or turn it on, because I am too afraid. As soon as I land in Seattle, the yelling starts. They yell at us to grab our suitcases. People are exhausted because they have been on at least a 14 hour flight. Then, we need to go grab the items that are under the plane. There’s a row of boxes that we need to pick up. These have our names and items in them. We take the box and our luggage and go through a line, where a customs officer opens my passport, stamps it and yells, “WELCOME TO THE US.”

I am then made to hand over my luggage again. I can’t even open it to get my lap top out. I am also asked to get my camera out of my box, and take it with me, but I can’t open the box. They’ve tied these ties on the top and sealed it shut.
“I can’t open this,” I say. There is nothing to help us open it. There are no scissors or box cutters and no staff that can open it. And one of my fellow passengers says, “You just need to rip it.” And he opens it for me, and I am reunited with my camera. I am holding a camera wrapped in bubble wrap, along with my backpack and bag. I have been travelling for over 25 hours and I stink and my greasy hair is stuck to my head.

A young Canadian backpacker who is confused about where to hand his luggage says, “This is the most ridiculous and unorganized thing I have ever seen.” Another Canadian (I think) who has been travelling from Cape Town on the same flights as me says, “These people are crazy. I have been through security 15 times.”
I am too scared to say anything. I don’t check my phone or turn it on. I am not sure what could trigger these people. I’m scared that if I do the wrong thing they will shoot me. I don’t know what I could do to set them off. If I do or say something wrong, I could be removed from the plane. So I am absolutely silent, just nodding when fellow passengers say something.
At the next stage, we have to stand in lines while custom officers yell at us about where to put our shoes, our backpacks, our electronics. They yell repeatedly at old people, right in their faces.
“What a hassle” says an old Indian woman behind me. She makes a sound like she wants to hork, and I understand everything she is saying.

We have to put everything through a scanner, and then get searched again. And then they make us go through the TSA scan machine. One customs officer (there were men and women, and I can’t remember all their ethnic backgrounds) starts screaming at an old Indian man to TAKE ALL THE CHANGE out of his pockets. And then an old Indian man is in the TSA scanning machine and the customs officer yells at him to RAISE HIS HANDS ABOVE HIS HEAD. And I see, someone’s Indian grandfather, someone’s beloved with his ams raised above his head in a “don’t shoot me” gesture, and part of me breaks. Because I honestly feel that someone could get shot at any minute. We could do something that would set them off. Who knows what it would be? I’m really scared.

We get on a series of people mover trains to take us to our gates. I am stone cold quiet, just hoping that I will run into my cousin, Paul, who lives in Seattle and travels through the airports frequently. Finally, things start to relax as we go into the terminal. I find my area, and gate. I go to the Sub-pop store and buy a hoodie. The woman helping me is patient as I sort through four different types of currency to find the right amount of American dollars.

When I check into my flight to Edmonton, they tell me the flight is overbooked and that I could be offered a $400 travel voucher with Alaskan Airlines if I stay in the Seattle airport for four more hours.
“No thanks,” I say. “I just flew from Cape Town and I just want to get home.”
(In my head, I’m thinking that they couldn’t pay me to stay here).

On my plane back to Edmonton, I sit near a Canadian who is patient with me because I have a ton of stuff. He waits and makes sure I have a lot of space.
“I just flew from Dubai to Seattle,” I said.
“Lucky you,” he says, in an understated Canadian way. “I flew to the UK last week, and many people are now choosing just to fly through Canada, because it’s about the same distance.”

My boyfriend picks me up from the airport and takes me home. I call my parents and when I tell the story about how we were treated flying from Dubai to the US, I start to cry and my nose starts to bleed.

It’s a day later, and I still feel deeply angry, and deeply upset. My nose started to bleed again as I started to type this.

EDITED TO ADD- A friend who has travelled and lived in the Middle East pointed out that it could be read that I am being critical of the Emirates airline. I have nothing but good things to say about them and their staff. They are a professional business that helped and attended to everyone with care. The problem here is the with US customs, and their conduct, the electronics travel ban, racism and xenophobia.

One thought on “What I experienced travelling from Dubai to the US on an United Arab Emirates flight

  1. Oh Alexis,
    This broke my heart. I really felt the fear and the confusion through your writing. I pictured all of the things you described. What a horrific experience. I am just so deeply sorry.
    You’re an incredible writer. I am in tears.

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