Photograph by Gerald Pereira
by Abraham T. Zere
“I am afraid you will have to wait,” the immigration officer smiled at Thomas as she took his boarding pass and checked his name against his passport.
“How long?” He forced himself to smile back. He stretched his hand to claim his documents as the officer put them in her drawer.
“Not sure. Maybe hours… days… weeks… months… or it could be more. I can’t be certain. No one can be so certain. We will try our best, but the matter is beyond our control. Let’s all hope for the best.” Her tone changed.
Thomas removed his eyeglasses and stepped closer to the counter. He shifted his coat from one hand to the other. “Excuse me, I’m going for a conference. I need to be there tomorrow. I have to present a paper and….” He ran short of words. Thoughts came to him in brief and explosive images.
For seconds, he could only think of colors.
A serene voice brought him back. “Don’t worry. I know no one wants to stay long in transit. But we can’t help it and you must comply. I hope your stay will be short.” With this, the officer resumed her typing on the keyboard.
“Can I talk to the manager? My case is urgent. I can’t wait…” It took Thomas all the energy to compose himself and articulate his statement. His face turned red.
“Unfortunately, our manager is out of the country for a conference. We are hoping to see him next week. Let’s all hope he returns safely.” She typed on the keyboard while replying him.
“Who else can I talk to?” Thomas persisted angrily.
“You have already reported it. That’s all. Please go straight to the far hallway, then turn to the right and join the passengers waiting. Meet the coordinator; I will notify him, and he will provide you with all the necessities. He will take care of you.” Her tone sounded an automated reply.
Past the officer, Thomas could see travelers strolling to catch their flights. Mixed feelings of nausea, angst, frustration, and anger overwhelmed him. He struggled to compose himself and make sense of the incident.
The officer slowly stopped typing and leaving her seat, took a few mechanical steps to show him the way out.
“But listen… you can’t be serious. I can’t understand what you are talking about….” As he looked toward her to resume the conversation, she entered her cubicle, slammed the door, and locked it from inside. He could see her through the glass doors, but it was obvious she would not entertain further questions.
For Thomas, everything turned white followed by complete darkness. He felt suffocated and had to resist the urge to vomit. He exerted all his energy to look unperturbed. He put on his eyeglasses, checked his handbag. Unconsciously, he started fidgeting his right leg.
Standing still, he watched the departure and landing of the planes through the glass ceiling. Passengers who were rushing to catch their flights jolted him, but Thomas paid very little attention. The loud, monotonous voice on the intercom calling passengers to board irritated him.
He thought his layover was scheduled for two hours. He took out his ticket to check and threw it down as he found out that he was right. Shortly after, he picked up his ticket kept, thinking perhaps it could still be used.
In the plane, until he reached his connecting destination, he had been consumed with the idea of the conference and the presenters he was hoping to meet. As his dreams evaporated in the terminal, he stomped hard on the floor. He threw away his air-ticket, and quickly recollected it.
Despite putting all his efforts toward staying attentive and making sense of the whole situation, Thomas lost the capacity to stay focused. With a disturbing irregularity and speed, disfigured images started to cascade in his mind: Home. His bed. Two mismatched socks. The immigration officer with her smile. The passenger who was strangely pulling his handbag. Connecting flight. Airport. The inevitable concluding image of the officer who collected his passport. Then came the unhappy end – stranded. He thought of sneaking onto the plane but immediately dismissed that option as childish.
“I think you are a newcomer. May I know your name, please?” A soft masculine voice asked from behind. Thomas suddenly felt relieved to have someone to talk to. He slowly turned his gaze, but in a flash, he lost all desire to speak with anyone and just wanted to run away… somewhere, anywhere.
His words were already reverberating without him realizing how he uttered them: “Hi. I am Thomas. I arrived in the airport an hour ago. But they told me the transit will take…”
“It’s okay! Don’t worry; I feel you. You are not the only person trapped in this condition. Let’s hope that we will leave soon. I am Mohammed.”
Thomas was impressed with this stranger’s manners.
“The officer told me that I might wait for weeks. Does she really mean it?”
“It would be a blessing if we can go home in weeks. It could take us months or maybe a year.”
“I hope you are joking?” Thomas started to rethink his first impression of Mohammed.
“Maybe, maybe not, but how I wish it to be a joke.”
Mohammed carried Thomas’ luggage and took him to a coordinator. Thomas followed him absent-mindedly. On the way, they passed passengers rushing with their luggage. Some were shopping, others relaxed or waited impatiently. For the first time, Thomas started looking around. Familiar franchise names, officers in their uniforms, impatient travelers – it was the usual airport routine he had experienced before.
Following Mohammed, he reached the waiting area. He was surprised to find an established office bustling with many passengers who were casually carrying out their daily routines. Some were feeding their children, others were playing cards, children were running and playing hide and seek between the luggage, and some were calmly sleeping.
Thomas sat at the coordinator’s desk with his handbag on his lap.
“Welcome Thomas. God willing, we might leave soon,” the coordinator said loud. “At least that is what we are hoping for. It is impossible to tell how long we will be here, but luckily, we provide all the necessities needed to accommodate you for the time in transit. Please fill out this form. I will give you a blanket, a cup, a plate, a fork, a hand mirror, a sheet, and a rug. There is some space in the next hall. You can sleep along with Mohammed’s group. We also provide a Bible or a Quran, if you want. All expenses are covered by the generous support of the airport management in collaboration with some donors.”
The man’s composed tone and manners would have impressed Thomas had it been in a different setting.
“What? What?! What are you taking about?! What am I supposed to do with forks and plates? What the hell are you talking about?” Thomas suddenly became so furious his body started to shake, and he wanted to slap the coordinator. He kicked hard the chair in front of him, but the composure of the man on the other side of the desk made him feel stupid.
“This is not a big deal, brother. It is only a matter of hours. Otherwise you will soon normalize it. We wish you all the best… But this is not the way to talk to authorities. I only spared you because you are a newcomer. Otherwise, I would have reported you to security.”
Thomas started to get up from his seat, only to sink, sobbing, back into the chair.
The loud voice over the intercom brought him back. “Passengers traveling to….” He threw his bag to the ground.
“Anyways, I wish you all the best,” the coordinator said. “Who knows, you may go shortly. Keep praying.” Thomas could hear the footsteps of the departing coordinator. He did not know where to go. Disheveled and disillusioned, he covered his face with his palms. He realized that he had no choice but to obey the rules of the game.
“Poor Thomas.” Mohammed. “You are making all this fuss because you are a newcomer. I felt exactly like this on my first day. You will get used to this soon. Get up now; I will take you to your house, I mean our hall. We call the halls our house in here.”
Mohammed helped him stand and carrying his luggage, led him to the hall.
The hall had about 80 occupants. It was makeshift compartmentalized in some sections using bags and luggage. There was some graffiti on the walls and ceiling. Seating himself in the corner of the hall and supporting his head with his palms, Thomas watched the surreal banality of routines in the hall. The occupants hardly paid him any attention, and he lacked energy to speak. He hated Mohammed and wanted to be alone. The hall was noisy, and children were running freely. Many of the passengers in the hall were sleeping. He could see a notice in bold letters: “NO COOKING IN THE HALL.” He could not help smelling onions being cooked – where, he was not able to tell.
The wild and irritating noises, the disturbing games of the children, the smell of overcooked onions and spices – it all made him want to throw up, but where was a bathroom? He didn’t want to ask, preferring to wait in agony.
To no avail, he tried to bury his anxiety and forget everything. He fetched his handbag, luckily found some Advil, took two pills and fell asleep. He had an uncomfortable sleep punctuated by unsettling dreams, and woke up three times at night.
Early next morning when Thomas woke up, he was greeted by Okonkwo, the chief coordinator of passengers in transit.
“We should only think how to avert the damage that befalls us,” he told Thomas. “The harm has already been made, but you still look at the future and dream big. There is no other way out.”
Thomas nodded his head in affirmation, to please Okonkwo. In a muffled voice, he assured him that he was okay.
“I hope you will not wait like us,” continued Okonkwo. “It is unfortunate that we have been trapped here for around two years. Here, and in the other three halls, there are around 250 passengers. At the beginning we were around 290, but now we are 250.”
Thomas found it hard to distinguish between the solemn tone of the speaker and the message his words conveyed.
“Two years? Here, for two years… you mean?” His voice started to rise, but he lacked the strength to shout.
“Calm down. Everything is in hands of God, and everything happens for a reason. You have to thank the Almighty.”
Thomas lost track of what Okonkwo was saying. Over the man’s head, Thomas’ gaze rested on the pile of luggage.
“Passengers traveling to… the boarding time,” the intercom voice droned, although it seemed too slow.
Both men paused. Slowly, Okonkwo continued. “On the first day, we spent the night at this airport because our plane had an engine failure. It was not fixed immediately, and the rest of the aircrafts which stop here for transit are always fully booked. The hijacking of planes and the terrorist attacks did not help us. Most airlines lost confidence and they could not take any of our passengers. Thank God, things have improved dramatically now, and at least we succeeded to send one passenger every month. Some airlines were kind enough to take two. Priority is given to the deceased, the old, children, and women. The story is long. You will hear it from others in the terminal anyway.”
Thomas started to imagine how long he could possibly wait in transit.
“Do you mean that there is no any possibility of going out?”
“I am not sure,” Okonkwo replied. “No one can be certain. Keep praying. We are hoping to leave soon. Thank you, Lord!”
It was the second day that Thomas had gone without food. Okonkwo readily noticed, and as a gesture of welcome invited him for coffee. Thomas did not feel any difference between staying in the hall and going out for coffee. Only to please Okonkwo, he agreed to accompany him.
They went together to a café in the airport. Thomas was envious when he saw workers carrying out their daily, natural routines. Through the glass ceiling, he watched the landing and taking off the planes. He followed Okonkwo absentmindedly, and was seated.
Passengers, employees of the airport, and immigration authorities walked through the café.
“The owner is such a considerate man. He charges us half the regular prices. Friends and families outside also wire us money through him.” He pointed at the café owner who was sitting behind the cashier. Thomas listened half-heartedly.
The waitress brought their orders.
Sitting comfortably, Okonkwo began telling his story: “I want to remind you of one thing… There are lots of mischievous people in transit. They always depend on newcomers. I have already seen some of them with you. Please watch out. More importantly, you better start searching for a job as soon as possible. Never give up!”
“What are you talking about Mr. Okonkwo? What job?”
“My wife is working as a cleaner in one store, and I am a janitor here in the airport. In fact, we were lucky to get such offers. Some have jobs as dishwashers in the cafeteria. The airport management is cooperating. Job priority in the airport is given to us. It is kind of affirmative action.” He smiled at his own joke.
Thomas wanted to put himself in their shoes but could not complete the picture as his mind struggled to focus on a single thought. He sipped from his cup avoiding Okonkwo’s eyes, and staring at the blank wall beside him.
“But I am going for a conference. I am only in transit, and I did not come to live here. What job are you talking about?” Thomas asked. He had to raise his voice as the coffee machines and music became louder. It physically exhausted him to speak louder.
“That is not a big deal, Mr. Thomas. You will soon adjust to it. I advise you to sell your laptop immediately, and I can help if you want. You are physically fit and young, and I assume you will secure a decent job either in the coffee shops or one of the restaurants.”
“But the conference…”
“You told me. I am also… I mean, I was also a college professor at home. Thank Lord, if I go home, I mean my country, I will pursue my job at the college. If not, I will always thank God for His guidance and stay for the rest of my life here. We have to be grateful to God for saving us from starvation.”
Outside the café, Thomas could see the flight schedule boards and passengers pulling on their handbags. His gaze moved through the small businesses and duty-free shops in the terminal, over the ads and the movement of the passengers.
“Is there a way to sneak out?”
Okonkwo smiled at his naivety and dismissed the suggestion with a gesture. “A long time ago we did a hunger strike, but the worst followed. Some of us were detained for three months. The only option is to accept your destiny and make the best of it.”
Okonkwo continued: “People in transit die so easily. You wake up early in the morning and you see people who were so healthy hours ago, sprawled out in one corner. In two years, around 30 members of our community have passed away. After some negotiation, the airport management is doing a very good job. They take the bodies to the graveyard and settle the payment. If family members want to send the body home, of course dead bodies are also given priorities according to our procedures.”
Thomas was perplexed, but he realized what Okonkwo was implying. He glanced at the posters and ads on the coffee shop.
“May God bless their soul,” murmured Okonkwo.
“Two years in transit?”
“Everything is in the hands of God. You can even stay for 10 years. I will consider it a miracle if we will be stuck here for only two or three years. I have recently heard – I do not know where – that there are also passengers who were stranded in transit for seven years. Two years is a piece of cake in comparison to their situation. We have to thank the Almighty for not waiting that long.”
“How can that be…?”
“Let me finish… We drew upon lifelong lessons in here. It may surprise you that there were some who were traveling to attend the wedding ceremonies of their sons and daughters. The ceremonies took place a long time ago, and they are now waiting to return to their homes. My wife was pregnant, and she gave birth here. I do not have a talent for language, but there are some people who made use of this opportunity. For example, my wife speaks very good French now.”
“How is that possible?”
“Her friend is from France. In fact, she is also teaching my younger daughter.”
Thomas stared at the walls. “Passengers traveling…,” the intercom’s announcements continued over the familiar scene of passengers rushing, colliding, and pushing each other.
Okonkwo continued: “The manager of the airport is very cooperative. He always reminds us to pray. He says that if we are patient enough, we can have some of the best opportunities. Some passengers who were stuck in this airport a long time ago got a lifetime career. Some were flight technicians and later became pilots. I did not confirm it, but I heard the former airport manager was promoted to his position as he was originally stranded in transit here.”
Okonkwo paused for a response.
Thomas was watching the planes taking off. Turning his gaze, he asked, “When exactly do you think we will leave?” Thomas realized that for the first time he used “we” instead of “you.”
“There is a rumor that we may leave shortly. I met the manager the day before yesterday. He has sworn to me that we will all leave this airport within a year. He sounded confident about it.”
“But how can you lead a normal life confined here? What do you do the entire day?” Thomas had unconsciously stood up and, coming to his senses, lowered back into his seat. He spat in his coffee cup. Immediately, he realized his lack of manners, apologized to Okonkwo, and attempted to look composed.
“Don’t worry. You will adjust soon. Just in a week, you will see it as normal. In fact, some good rumors have been circulating.”
“What is that?”
“The airport will be expanded to twice its size, and therefore job offers are also expected to be doubled. Who knows, you could also be the manager of one big restaurant that is opening soon,” giggled Okonkwo. Before he could stop himself, Thomas smiled.
Some occupants from the hallway were waving at Okonkwo, and he waved and smiled back from his seat, only paying half attention.
It was lunchtime. Okonkwo led Thomas to the dining hall. Thomas did not want to eat at first, but became hungrier as they walked. They went to their hall, where they collected forks, cups, and plates.
The dining hall protocols and 30 minutes prayer in different language before eating stole Thomas’ appetite.
After lunch, they went to their hall. Noon was when all the passengers exchanged news and discussed their day. As customary of the transit, many passengers flocked to welcome Thomas. Okonkwo introduced them by name and respective country. The first visitors were Okonkwo’s wife and his daughter. Thomas felt bad not having anything to offer to the child. Instead, he kissed her hand affectionately.
“What a lovely girl – what is her name?”
Okonkwo’s wife explained: “I think we are little late in naming her. She is so popular in this transit, everyone hugs and kisses her. Some call her ‘Transit’; others call her simply ‘Okonkwo’s Daughter’. Her dad and I call her ‘Our Daughter’. Hopefully we will name her soon.”
Lost in his own thoughts, he took a deep breath in the middle of the back and forth, inhaling loud enough to be heard by others sitting next to him, while trying to focus and think clearly about his fate. He started thinking about the worst-case scenario – a plane crash. He realized he was in a much better position than others who had been hijacked. In comparison to many, he told himself, he was lucky indeed.
He inhaled and exhaled again, louder this time. He started thinking about how to make the best of what he was starting to think of as a “mishap.”
On and off, Thomas joined the conversation as the notion of the airport providing jobs became a topic of discussion. He hadn’t thought of getting a new job but now he realized that he could cover his daily expenses as long as he was in the airport.
“I speak five languages… if there is any vacancy for translation…” Thomas whispered to Okonkwo.
“Sure, if there are any new openings…,” answered Okonkwo looking at the ceiling.
Everyone gradually withdrew to take their noon naps. Thomas comforted himself beside Okonkwo, facing the ceiling. As he stayed focused, Okonkwo’s words struck him. He looked at the opposite wall. A new glimmer of light was emanating from the dark blue walls. Thomas raised his head, his face brightening with hope, and turned toward Okonkwo.
“Are you sure the manager promised that we will all leave within a year? Does he seem certain that we will go home in a year’s time?” asked Thomas.
“Maybe,” answered Okonkwo, barely audible.
Story translated from Tigrinya by the author.
About the Author:
Abraham T. Zere is Executive Director of PEN Eritrea in exile whose work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Al Jazeera English, Mail & Guardian, Index on Censorship Magazine, among others. His short story The Flagellates was included in the Global Anthology (2017), an initiative that highlights a work of prose from every country on Earth, edited by Michael Barron.