We are pleased to present the winner of our essay contest: Kate Korman of Santa Monica, California. “‘Praying to Allah on Bastille Day’ was a delight to read,” contest judge Glenn C. Loury said. “In this quirky short story—a gripping interior monologue narrated in the second person—the author explores themes of religion and sexuality with humor and grace.”
“Will you taste my sandwich?” he asks in French.
“Excuse me?” you say, in English, thinking you’ve misunderstood.
“I’m Muslim,” he says in an accent that’s not French, not Czech either.
“Jewish,” you say.
He laughs, throws his dark, oily head back. “No, I mean, I don’t eat pork.”
“We’re not crazy about pigs either,” you say.
“Do you eat it?” he asks.
You’re on the runway at the Prague airport about to take off for Paris after a five-hour weather delay. It’s Bastille Day. You’d first noticed the guy staring at you from the corner of your eye in the terminal. He’d looked suspicious, and you’d imagined him in a white turban. Shoe bombs and box cutters popped up like little black and white movies in your head. You crossed your legs and uncrossed them, a nervous habit and form of contraception, and cursed yourself silently for being racist, a bigot, a hater of everything, but none of it mattered if this guy was planning to blow up your plane.
There was a huge storm in Paris and no flights were allowed in or out of Charles De Gaulle airport. The French passengers were pissed. After four months of living in Paris you were able to tell the difference between the French being French and actual angst. You’d constantly tried to define what it meant to be French, like your American expat predecessors had. You thought you’d figured it out sitting in a café, giving every woman walking past you a once-over. You sipped strong overpriced espresso out of too-small cups, smoked cigarettes with what seemed like a purpose, and exhaled with a sense of style you never really possessed. But you hadn’t figured Frenchness out then. Nor had it happened on the Metro, when you imitated the women clutching their bags in front of their narrow hips, looking around or above other passengers, looking through them, never smiling.
It wasn’t until the nagging impatience of a delayed flight that you figured it out. Americans are happy when their flight takes off at all. You’d spent many evenings at JKF with flights having been “delayed indefinitely”—bullshit airport lingo for “sorry fuckers, it’s cancelled”—and found solace in just arriving safely at your destination.
But for the French, trying to get home on a national holiday, a delay is much more than an annoyance. It’s a cultural insult, an affront to their Frenchness, an international uppercut from culturally under-developed places, like all square footage of the United States.
Four hours later the storm moved over Luxembourg and the airport gave clearance for takeoff. There might be a few bumps on the route back to Paris, they said, European airport lingo for “50 percent chance of dying.”
You’re a fearful flier. Not fear like flight simulations, life coaches, forced train travel, but fear like three bloody Maries, two Xanax, and half a Klonopin. Now, as you wait to take off, this bizarre conversation with the man next to you is a mere distraction from your anxiety and certainly not the weirdest you’ve experienced since coming to Europe. One guy offered you free Pilates lessons after complimenting you on your pants. On the narrow, packed Parisian sidewalk, you had no choice but to brush past him, which he apparently interpreted as flirtatious interest.
By that point you had thought every man within a ten-mile radius picked up on your vibe, instinctively understood that at 27 you’d thrown in the towel, attracted too many commitment-phobes, neurotics, workaholics, pathological liars, criminals, narcoleptics, and sociopaths. When you moved to Paris you’d decided to stop dating; gained ten pounds intentionally to make sure you’d never allow your croissant cheeks and marzipan saddlebags to get dragged into bed ever again. You thought your new Jean Seberg haircut would seal the deal; men liked long hair, wavy, sea swept, feminine. You’d be safe. Better yet, maybe even mistaken for a lesbian. But even short hair couldn’t keep French men away. Or this guy sitting next to you on the aisle, whatever his nationality. He’s young, but not too young, with wisps of dark brown facial hair and bushy Neanderthal legs.
Sometimes you wished you could stop your mind and Indy-500-racing thoughts, but even the whirring engine and the lurching, upward motion of several tons of aluminum alloy couldn’t stop the negativity, the judging, fidgety flapping of your synapses. “I’m a devout Muslim,” he says. “I’m serious. This weird Czech meat might be pork.”
Ah. The sandwich. You thought he might have forgotten about it after takeoff. The last thing you expect to hear on Air France flight 1301 from Prague to Paris is a boy telling you he’s a devout Muslim in broken English and could you make sure the meat in his sandwich from the airport isn’t pork. But it’s the “devout” part that scares you mid-air.
The French passengers had stormed the ticket counter as if it was the Bastille, asking for free airport food vouchers as compensation for the delay. You couldn’t understand what the airline attendant was saying but you imagined it was “let them eat stale, salted peanuts” because the passengers looked infuriated. To be American is to speak to a collective consciousness, to rebel together as a herd of sheep. To be French is to assert personal independence, to break down barriers at all costs for a hard-earned baguette and some unpasteurized cheese.
Now you sit in the middle seat without armrests in between a well-behaved elderly French gentlemen who smells like raspberry schnapps and decaying teeth and a devout Muslim sandwich-eater. You look over at him and he looks you straight in the eye, carries his gaze down to the sandwich. You grab it and take a bite of the warm, soggy bread and mushy meat he’d purchased with his meal voucher, thinking your taste test will appease him, shut him up. You’re confident that he will not want to converse any further once he fully digests your sharp American drawl, your long As and mighty Rs, realizes how American you are.
The taste of mangled, breaded flesh is worsened as you turn your head and look straight at the shiny, puss-filled pimple next to his large, dark nose.
“I think it’s chicken,” you say and lean down to grab your book from your tote bag.
He’s quiet for a minute. If the worst of it is a nasty mouthful of chicken you think you can make it through a few bumps back to Paris, as long as he doesn’t try to strike up a conversation again.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
“California,” you say, hoping he’ll nod and pull out a magazine, an iPod, anything.
“Where in California?” he asks.
“LA,” you say quickly. “Where are you from?”
Now you’ve done it; you’ve engaged and you silently curse yourself.
“Turkey,” he says.
You look down at your book, and he stops talking in order to stuff down the smelly chicken sandwich as quickly as possible, like he has OCD and thinks the plane will crash if he doesn’t finish the sandwich before ascending all 37,000 feet.
“What are you reading?” he asks.
“Freud’s ‘Female Sexuality,’” you say. It’s not a lie.
Yes. A conversation stopper. He’s finally quiet. Devoutly hushed.
When the flight attendants begin beverage service you notice mild shaking. Then, before you have time to mix your vodka into the V8 juice, you hear muffled, quiet French over the PA system. You can’t understand, but it sounds frenzied. The flight attendants methodically pull the beverage cart to the front of the plane. They get that look that comes once, maybe twice in their careers. One flight attendant takes her seat, clandestinely crosses herself and fiddles with her necklace, fingers shaking. But the turbulence isn’t so bad, and the Turkish guy still babbles.
And then it happens.
It’s as if the plane hits an invisible iceberg, the force of the storm sending it down thousands of feet. The overhead compartments rattle and the engines hiss. Thirty seconds feels like three hours as the plane continues to drop.
Your new Turkish friend starts praying in what you assume is Arabic.
“You afraid to die?” he asks in his best English and grabs your hand.
It should be a yes or no question but what comes out is, “I’ll pray with you.”
“I’m not afraid to die,” he says.
“We’re different then,” you say. “You have faith.”
“No,” he says. “We’re all the same in the sky.”
You pray together to Allah, gripping his hand as the plane levels out slowly, the turbulence subsiding. Somehow you catch on to the Arabic and the rhythm and vibration becomes the only soothing sound.
As the pilot quickly brings the plane back up, the force sends plastic cups of red wine and coffee flying. They stain the cabin ceiling as the violent shaking continues. What’s worse is the immediate aftermath: the crying babies and shrieking, fainting women clutching their husbands. You feel high, like you did back in college after snorting too many extended-release Adderall and drinking too many beers.
Once you’ve leveled out, the flight attendants stand, wobbly kneed, and pinch their colorless cheeks. They hand out cold, lemon-scented cloths and force themselves to smile. How French, you think, and stop. You’re not separate, but a part of this, the stained cabin ceilings; the smell; the prayers; the full, crushed vomit bags. Fear is a universal language. Screams are indistinguishable; a baby’s cry knows no race or religion or dialect.
The next day you walk to the Paris Mosque in the Latin Quarter, thankful for solid ground. You drink their honeyed mint tea. You make the five-Euro donation. You take your shoes off, cover your head, and pray.