I’ve always enjoyed airports. The idea of travelling has always appealed to me; I grew up in a small island and the thought of breaking clear of the boundaries of the English Channel and finding new land, new cultures, new languages, has not yet stopped being exciting. I remember looking up at the departures board as a child and being thrilled by the thought of the exotic places named on it: Muscat, Mumbai, Brunei; the entire world only a few hours away.
In airports all of the world’s cultures, religions and languages are compressed and mingled together: Indian Sikhs flying to Delhi rub shoulders with bleary-eyed businessmen coming from Chicago; Pakistanis with prayer caps and long beards politely hold the lift doors open for African families dashing to make their flight to Freetown or Abidjan. Nobody says much – the British reserve really does rub off on anyone who comes through here – so instead everyone goes about their business quietly, privately, peacefully.
Airports are great levellers. Everyone has to go through check-in; everyone has to go through security; everyone stands around and looks up at the monitors to see where their aeroplane is waiting. People from wildly varying backgrounds, with wildly varying levels of wealth and wildly varied lives, are rendered temporarily equal by the mundane modern realities of catching a flight: belt off please sir, can I see your boarding pass madam, do you have any liquids in your bag? Even the rich and mighty must bow before contemporary society’s demand for unimpeachable security.
I find myself talking to a British marine biologist who has just arrived from Sydney and looks utterly befuddled, peering around him with weary eyes, unsure of the time zone he finds himself in. Then he says goodbye and makes his way off to a flight somewhere else. A Congolese charity worker sits down and we chat in French. He, too, looks exhausted, being halfway through a trip from the Congo to Paris for a conference on street children. He talks wearily about his work. When I ask if he has children a smile breaks across his weary face. Yes, he has three. He is proud of them. Then he, too, says goodbye and makes his way to his hotel.
Today’s world seems to be supremely characterised by division: between religions, between races, between rich and poor, between old and young, between wealthy Europeans and the dozens of desperate migrants who risk, and often lose, their lives in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean barriers of opportunity. Yet here, in the anonymity of a modern airport, the divisions are temporarily levelled. The marine biologist, the charity worker, the businessman – all are rendered briefly equal. As Pakistanis say, “hum sub insan hain” – we are all people. And all the people go about their life’s journey, as we always do, and as we must.