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Vancouver, Washington, United States
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Friday, August 19, 2005

Never judge a book by its cover, an interesting and strange travel tale

It was way past midnight, and I just landed at BWI in Baltimore, and after a 20 minute wait, I got into the Super Shuttle that was to take me to New Carrolton, where I would meet a colleague in the morning for an important presentation.  I’ve been to that customer’s site before, and I used to stay at a Ramada in Beltsville, which wasn’t too far from the client’s site, but my colleague booked the reservation this time.  He asked me about where we should stay, since I’ve been there before, and I told him that he should book us in at the Ramada near the client’s location.  When he went to the web site to make the reservation, he selected the only Ramada he could find in New Carrolton and booked us there.  When I made my shuttle reservation, I indicated that my destination was the Beltsville Ramada, since that was where I’d stayed before.


Just before take off, I thought I’d call my colleague and make sure he’s at the same place where I was going, and sure enough, he told me he was not.  He wasn’t in Beltsville, he was in New Carrolton proper!


It was well past midnight when my plane landed, and we didn’t hit the road until a little bit after one in the morning.  I inquired with the lady at the counter if there was any way they could change my destination from Beltsville to New Carrolton (they couldn’t possibly be that far from one another), she said that she could not help.  If I wanted to do that, I had to call the reservation office and sort it out with them.


After thinking about it for a split second, I decided that it may be too confusing for these folks if I had to make another reservation, and was worried that I’d have to do a lot of follow up afterwards if they charge my credit card twice.  I figured I’d go to Beltsville, and once there, I can decide whether I wanted to spend the night there or take a taxi to the New Carrolton Ramada.


I was a bit surprised when I got into the shuttle van at how loud the radio was.  The driver had the BBC on (apparently through one of the public stations), and he kept it on even after we hit the road.  There was myself and another couple in the van, and I could tell that the other couple were extremely tired!  They tried to ask the driver a couple of questions, but he was too focused on the news to here what they were saying, let alone respond to them.  While that was going on, I phoned the New Carrolton Ramada to inquire about how far they were from Beltsville, but they were unable or unwilling to provide any assistance.  I was a bit mad, but after having stayed there for three nights, I came to find out that this was standard business practice for them.  I concluded that this was yet another hotel to add to my “I’m never ever staying here even if they pay me” list.


The driver’s attachment to the news was unusual to me, and his disregard to the never spoken rule of “never disturb the passengers with radio or music that’s too loud” made me even more curious.  Having the BBC on, loud as it may be, never bothered me, especially that they were reporting live from Gaza!  In fact, I was so wrapped up in the news myself, and remember how I got so mad at them for talking so much about the suffering of those poor settlers who were having to abandon places they grew up in.  I was so mad that, from my seat, I sent the BBC an SMS (text message) on the number they advertise for that purpose – soliciting listeners’ comments.  I wondered in my message if those settlers ever bothered to think about the plight of the Palestinians they kicked out 57 years ago, some of whom don’t even have a home still.  I expressed that sentiment in my message, signing it with “Zuhair Mahd, a Palestinian American from Denver”.  I figured if the comment is broadcast on the air, the driver may recognize the sender, as he had my name and the place I was coming from on his passenger manifest, since I paid with an advanced prepaid reservation, but I didn’t care.


As I leaned back quietly in my seat, I just kept wondering why this man was so intently listening to the coverage, at the risk of drawing complaints and possibly protests from his tired late night passengers.  The passengers didn’t complain, and the ride seemed to go smoothly.  I wanted to engage the driver in a conversation, but I did not want to add to the noise, and besides, I wasn’t sure how he’d take my personal questions, especially in the presence of others.


The couple was dropped off first, and the driver and I continued on to Beltsville, when he turned to me all of a sudden, asking me if everything was OK with my hotel reservation, since he heard me talking to the hotel.  I explained to him my situation, and he instantly offered to take me directly to New Carrolton.  Taking him up on his offer, I thanked him very much, and used the opportunity to ask him the question that was nagging me, and that’s where he was from and why he was listening to the news so intently.


“I am from Israel” he said, “and I was listening because of the Gaza coverage”.  My heart sank.  Here’s a man who was doing me a great favor, and it is very likely that at any moment he may listen to my comment which I sent to the BBC.  I wasn’t sure what to do, and chose to continue the conversation with him and pretend that this meant nothing to me.  We said the generic “it’s really sad there and I wish that people would come to their senses” stuff, when he turned to me and said “you have a bit of an accent yourself, where are you from”?  “Palestinian” I said, “I hope that won’t make a difference” I continued with a faint smile.  “Oh no, absolutely not” he exclaimed!  “I have three passports” he continued, “an American, an Israeli and an Ethiopian”.  “Where in Israel do you live” I asked?  “When I’m there, I live with my wife in Telaviv.  I’m here to finish my graduate studies, and I used to work as a pilot for Ethiopian airlines.  I have a house in Telaviv, Addis Ababa, and I’m here for my studies”.


We continued to talk about Israel and how it wasn’t as Democratic as we’re lead to believe.  He began to tell me how there was blatant discrimination between the Eastern and the Western Jews, and referred to the story which I remember hit the news over 12 years ago, when the authorities threw out the blood of thousands of Ethiopian Jews who came to donate for a blood drive they were having at the time.


We continued to talk, and he started to tell me how Ethiopians are usually sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.  He surprised me though when he told me that he wasn’t Jewish, and that he was a Coptic Christian.  “Don’t you know?  30% of the Jews who migrated to Israel from Ethiopia aren’t actually Jews, they are Christians”.  I’ve always heard about the phenomena of persons from many countries, especially Ethiopia and Russia, claiming to be Jews in order to get out of their country and go to Israel, so that they may eventually make it to America, but never thought that I’d actually run into one of them.  We continued to talk, and when we arrived to the hotel, we exchanged warm regards and had a firm hand shake, usually a universal sign of friendship.  Upon offering him a tip, he refused to take it, and wished me a good night and drove away.


I wondered in the back of my mind how quick human beings are to judge each other.  We have gotten so used to profiling one another such that a person’s label or nationality give so many answers and lead us to a great deal of sometimes incorrect assumptions, causing us to hate and sometimes kill each other without a valid reason.  If I ever needed a reminder of how unique and special every individual on this earth is, that was it.




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