The sun is setting as we fly in. The captain announces our descent and the plane tips down, poking through the blanket of white cloud. All white outside for a minute. Then, slowly, it turns to brown and I see outlines of sand dunes. My nose steams to the cold window. This is what soldiers who fly into Iraq or Afghanistan must see – the brown, the dust, the emptiness.
More shapes appear. First, a row of tall metal structures – oil wells. Then a few buildings, all sand-colored, flat. Soon we pass rows and rows of California tract houses grafted onto a true desert and lacking the lawns, SUVs or pools I've seen flying into LAX. Even as we reach the city, everything is the same color – brown, faded, obscured by dust and the dusk’s creeping cover.
Inside the airport is a sea of robes and veils and headdresses and facial hair. What is the difference between the black robes and the white robes? And between ones whose pants match their robes versus ones whose don’t? Does the variety signify different degrees of religious faith? Or different regions? How little I know.
The variety of women’s veils also impresses me – some are colorful, with sparkles or lace or other flashy features. These are usually draped loosely around the woman’s head, sometimes revealing (intentionally?) pieces of hair sticking out. Others are austere – black, simple, covering all but the eyes.
I feel like I’ve landed on another planet, whose creatures I’ve only seen on TV - riding camels in Hollywood movies or posing austerely on CNN's terrorist watch. I’m almost surprised that they, too, have arms and legs, drink coffee (I’m in a coffee shop now), and use the same sign to find the toilets.
Then I see a man pick his nose at a table across from me. I smile. Underneath our veils, robes, jeans or down jackets, how human we all are.