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Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002) 95-104

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Impaired Empire

Jonathan Friedman
University of Lund/EHESS, Paris


October 12th: I have just come from Taipei and have spent two days in Paris in thesis defenses.* I called home on the 11th to assure family in Sweden that there were no problems on the flight. A British Airways flight had to return to Hongkong after two hours flight en route to Europe after recieving threats of terrorism. I was flying on Air France. I had not really thought seriously about the risks involved in flying—repression perhaps, focus on the immediate. I am old enough to die, I have a cynical "well then, how about a martini" reaction to disaster, surely a defense mechanism. Well its all over now. I make my way out to Charles de Gaulle Airport for the final lap of my trip. In the waiting lounge, I sit reading the newspaper. Seated opposite me is a young man who seems to me to be of Middle Eastern origin. He is wearing a haute couture black t-shirt, a gold necklace, light expensive looking slacks and glossy black loafers. He is very well groomed with short hair, seems quite calm but rather than engaged in reading a newpaper, book or magazine or listening to a portable CD, he gazes non-chalantly around the room. I don't have any thoughts at first, but half-consciously I play with as-if scenarios, which I repress as absurd examples of the situation.. No, he is obviously a wealthy Egyptian or Saudi on his way to Copenhagen to have fun, do business or see relatives. Then he smiles suddenly at someone in my row of seats. Is it just innocent flirting? I glance toward the [End Page 95] end of my row and see another young man looking more like a North African. He is not well dressed and appears to be from more modest circumstances. Boarding call and we all move toward the door. The two young men come together here and they are standing behind me speaking Arabic to one another. I wonder if they are friends. They seem to be acquainted. Why did they then sit opposite one another in the hall. We mount the stairs to the plane. I take my seat. Behind me the two young men are seated, but not together. On the contrary, they occupy window seats at opposite ends of the row. They have no hand baggage. I am absorbed by the situation. Of course if they were "dangerous" security would have taken them earlier, now that there are passport checks all over the airport which, prior to September 11, were totally absent (following the Schengen law that eliminated controls within European airports). But why are the two not sitting together? The plane is half empty and the row that they occupy is completely empty except for them. I figure that I might as well say something to the chief of cabin personnel. "I suppose its just paranoia," I begin and then tell her what I have seen. To my surprise, they say, thanks very much, we already know about this. We sit in the plane without leaving the gate. It is warm. The airconditioning is off. It is announced that we will have to wait a few minutes for a routine baggage check. The minutes become hours, three hours. The plane is remarkably quiet, even silent. Thoughts are obviously circulating but there is no discussion, no joking, no complaints, not even from the two families with young children who are having a difficult time. I am seated next to a young person who seems to be of Southeast Asian origin. I ask her where she is from and she says, Helsingborg. We begin to speak Swedish and she expresses her own nervousness at the situation. Then suddenly two airport policemen enter the cabin and go directly to the two young men, ask for their id and then escort them off the plane. The captain announces that we are now to take off and that the reason for the delay was...


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pp. 94-104
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