How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo and Other Strange & Wonderful Stories by Shubnum Khan takes the reader on unpredictable journeys. An excerpt:
In 2015 I applied for a month-long writing residency in upstate New York and when I was accepted, I quietly applied for a US visa and then worked up the courage to tell my father. He refused at first but this time I kept bringing it up and after a long discussion he somehow agreed to let me travel alone, as long as it only happened one time.
At the airport I waved goodbye to my family; I felt sophisticated and worldly-wise being a solo traveller on my way to the Big Apple. I was feeling good about everything but just before I could board, I found myself rushing to the airport bathroom to inexplicably cry in a toilet stall.
What was I doing? What if I died? What if my family died? What if I got sick?
On the leg from Dubai to New York there was wifi on the plane and having never experienced this before I obviously started to message every single person on my contact list. I told my family and friends I was sitting next to a cardiologist and everyone wanted to know if he was cute and single and I had to disappoint them and tell them he was old and married.
Also, why does everyone think you’re going to meet the love of your life while travelling? When I went to Kashmir people kept saying maybe I’d find my husband there and now that I was going to the US they were hoping I would fall in love on the plane. I mean it is romantic to think you’ll find a stranger who you instantly connect with as you hurtle through the air at 500 miles per hour but the reality is that a plane is one of the worst places to meet someone. Not only are you exhausted, red-eyed, covered in crumbs, wearing tracksuit pants, clutching your handbag, smelling of sweat with hair as flat as a pancake but you’re also deaf and nauseous so you veer between repeating, ‘WHAT?’ all the time and wondering if you’re going to throw up in the other person’s lap.
I kept my parents updated on my journey and at some point I messaged my father and told him I was flying over some islands past Angmagssalik in Greenland. I told him it was amazing that I could chat to him from 30 000 feet up and now it didn’t seem hard to believe that ‘Allah could hear us from so high up’.
Then I sent him a message: ‘4 hours to detonation’.
I put my phone away and continued to watch my film.
Later, I glanced at my phone and for some reason I reread the message to my father.
4 hours to detonation.
I spotted the error immediately.
Autocorrect had changed ‘destination’ to ‘detonation’. I broke out into a sweat and my heart began beating so fast I feared I would require assistance from the cardiologist next to me.
I quickly typed another message to say it was a typo.
‘I meant destination. Destination!’
It was 2015 and I was a single Muslim flying into New York for the first time and I had just sent a message from a plane effectively saying that Allah was great and that there were four hours left for a bomb to go off.
I was already nervous about travelling and when I saw what I’d done I became a train (plane?) wreck. I had been told so many horror stories about Muslims going to the US; the rejected and cancelled visas, the terrible interrogations, the unfair trials and the horrifying torture at Guantánamo Bay. I just knew an air marshall was suddenly going to appear and drag me away in handcuffs, lock me in the first-class toilet and my parents were never going to know what happened to me or all the first-class toothbrushes that I couldn’t help but take. At the very least, someone was going to be waiting for me when I landed. For the rest of the flight, I switched off my phone and kept praying under my breath.
However, when we arrived, there was no one waiting to take me away in the back of a car to Guantánamo Bay. Apparently the CIA do not have surveillance on every Muslim passenger’s phone flying into the US, although I fear after reading this, they may. The immigration officer was friendly enough and he didn’t even bat an eyelash when I suddenly burst out that I had a half-eaten samosa in my backpack.
He just waved me off and I wiped my brow, adjusted my backpack and headed into New York City.
Excerpted from ‘I Almost Went to Guantánamo Bay’ How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo and Other Strange & Wonderful Stories by Shubnum Khan Pan Macmillan India, September 2021
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