The Green Turban

by Aman Batheja

Everyone in line turned their heads at once. A man wearing a turban was shouting obscenities while hopping on one foot. A woman dragging a large trunk on wheels was walking away from him.

To Tariq, it was obvious the woman had inadvertently run over the man's foot with her luggage. Everyone else in the line waiting to pass through security wasn't so sure. A man wearing a turban was doing something unusual in an airport. For the moment, all their lives were in danger.

Two airport security officials arrived with a wheelchair. The turbaned man, still hopping frantically, refused to be taken away.

"Sir, we're just going to take you to the first aid station," one of the officers told the man.

The two officers eventually pulled the man down into the wheelchair and kept a firm hand on each of his shoulders to keep him from escaping. He squirmed as they wheeled past Tariq. The man insisted he had a plane to catch. He tried to stand up but collapsed back in the chair in agony.

Once the men turned a corner, several people in line switched their attention to Tariq. They stared at his turban. They wondered if he was a friend of the man with the broken foot.

Tariq tried not to roll his eyes. In most situations, people would not have assumed the two men were traveling together, given that Tariq was wearing a $900 Italian suit and that the other man had been dressed in an ill-fitting polo shirt and stained gray pants. He looked down at his suit and checked the pant legs for wrinkles.

Tariq placed his bag in line to glide through the x-ray scanner and advanced through the metal detector. It let him pass without making a sound. The screener on the other side showed Tariq an open palm.

Tariq waited. He could feel the coldness of the linoleum floor through his desk socks.

Tariq thought back to a Wall Street Journal article he recently read on how little these screeners were paid. He seemed to remember the writer opining that those on the front line of the war on terrorism barely made minimum wage.

He looked back to see the uniformed fellow was no older than his son—currently frittering away his freshman year at Brown. Tariq raised his arms as if he deserved to be wanded. As a matter of principle, that line of thinking wasn't far off from how he actually felt.

The screener looked past Tariq at the people behind him in line. Tariq felt truly sorry for the man. It was clear he was in a no-win situation. Here was Tariq, a man who was obviously of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, trying to board a commercial aircraft while wearing a turban. Many of the people in line were expecting the screener to give Tariq a thorough search. The rest saw Tariq's gentle demeanor and expensive clothing and were prepared to denounce an excessive screen as a clear example of racial profiling.

Tariq hated this latter group. Did they not understand that he had a profoundly better chance of being a terrorist than any of them?

The screener finally made a decision to examine Tariq as if that was the original plan and Tariq, with his arms in the air, was just following orders. He made a show of passing the black rod over Tariq's body slowly, double-backing over the groin and the ankles.

Once cleared, Tariq grabbed his things and headed to gate B34.

On the way, he stopped at a coffee shop. He paid $2.87 for a paper and bitter coffee that he was forced to lighten with non-dairy creamer after the barista told him that the shop's refrigerator had broken down overnight. Tariq grunted and took his cup of battery acid and copy of the day's Journal to his gate.

Tariq picked a seat in the middle of an empty row of vinyl chairs with their back to the gate. He put his coffee cup on the floor by his feet, his carry-on in the seat next to him, and sat down to peruse the front section of the Journal.

He scanned the summaries of major news and clucked his tongue at the absence of universal world peace or anything moderately cheery listed among the dreary developments. A major corporation was laying off 3,400 workers. The deficit was projected to grow to some unimaginable amount within ten years. An IED killed ten National Guardsmen in southern Iraq.

Tariq closed the paper, not wanting any more bad news for at least a couple of minutes. He bent down and took a sip of his coffee, having forgotten that it was technically coffee the same way Spam was technically meat. He returned the cup to the floor and cocked his head back, about to close his eyes when his turban collided with something equally soft and tightly packed.

Tariq turned his head to see another turbaned man in a seat behind him, facing in the opposite direction.

"I'm sorry," said Tariq, his head half-turned toward the stranger. "I didn't know anyone was sitting behind me?"

"It's fine, fine," said the young man. He looked around the airport as if he wanted to make sure he wasn't being watched. Tariq turned back in his seat. He glanced at his Rolex. Fifteen minutes until boarding. He'd give reading the Journal another try in a moment.

"I am looking for the bathroom," the young man said.

"Oh," said Tariq, twisting his body toward the concourse. "Let's see. You can go to your left and there's one about twenty yards ahead or you could go that way and I'm sure there's a bathroom not too far ahead. This place is crawling with restrooms. Not a decent cup of coffee but plenty of toilets."

"I am looking for the bathroom."

"Well I can't really make it any easier for you." Tariq waved a hand in several directions. "They're everywhere."

The young man sighed impatiently. "Are you getting on this flight to Boston?"

"Yes," Tariq said, "and I'm sure there's a bathroom on the plane of whatever flight you're taking so that should work out for you too. When is your flight?"

"I am not getting on a plane."

"Are you waiting for someone?"

"I was waiting for you," the young man said between sharp breaths. "Did you misread the instructions? You are late."

"The flight doesn't leave for forty-five minutes. How exactly am I late?" Tariq demanded. Then, what the young man had just said fully sunk in. Tariq craned his neck to get a second look at him.

"Stop staring at me. People will notice. Go back to reading your newspaper." The intensity in his voice sent an acute chill through Tariq's body. He glanced at the young man's turban and torso. Nothing seemed suspicious though he still followed orders.

He picked up the "Personal Journal" section and flipped to a page with a story on the best book lights on the market. Normally, this was the type of item Tariq would clip and save at home in case he decided to buy someone a book light as a gift. As he lived alone, the light on Tariq's nightstand stayed on whenever he read in bed. Tariq scanned the photos of the miniature devices, unable to process a single word.

"Do you understand the plan?" the young man asked.

"The plan?" Tariq was not sure what was happening but he sensed he was in some danger. "I'm having... um..." He then realized how difficult it was to keep a low voice while trying to communicate with someone sitting behind you. How did people in the movies do it? Tariq wanted to either turn his head or raise his voice before saying another word. He didn't move.

"I will pass it to you underneath the chairs," the young man said. "I will make it look like I am tying my shoe. Then you wait one minute, reach down, pick it up and put it in your bag. It is very simple."

"What time was I supposed to be here?" Tariq wanted to ask what was going to be passed to him beneath the seats but wasn't sure if he wanted to know the answer.

"You were supposed to meet me thirty-five minutes ago but it does not matter anymore. You are here and I recognized you by your green turban."

Tariq recalled the man from outside the security line with the broken foot. His turban had been green.

"I was told you would wear a green turban to represent paradise," the young man said. "Very fitting."

Tariq's body stiffened. Paradise? He had picked his emerald green turban that morning because it matched his tie.

"What will happen after you give me the package?" Tariq asked.

After a moment, Tariq opened his mouth to ask his question again when he sensed the man moving away from him. Tariq stole a glance behind him to see the man bending down as if he were tying his shoes.

Tariq looked around the terminal. He didn't see anyone who looked like a security guard. He watched two men at a magazine stand he thought might be undercover officers.

One of the men, a burly fellow with a crew cut, was flipping through National Geographic for Kids. The man didn't look like one of the great thinkers of the age, but Tariq doubted he needed to resort to child-themed material for something to read on the plane. It was possible he was looking for something to buy for a child, but Tariq hoped it was all a lame act to disguise the fact that he was keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior.

The other man next to him was reading the latest issue of U.S. News & World Report, a magazine that revealed nothing about him except perhaps that he had no personality. Tariq believed that lent credence to his hope that the man was working for the U.S. government.

Tariq heard the sound of a cardboard box being back-kicked beneath him. It slapped the back of his ankles. He stared straight ahead, pretending nothing was there. He hoped that if he waited long enough, the young man would get up and walk away and trust that Tariq would continue with "the plan."

"It is set to go off once the flight is in the air," the young man said.

"How did you get that in here?" Tariq asked. "I know the screeners here are incompetent but how could they miss that?"

"I did not go through screening. Didn't they explain any of the plan to you? I work in the airport. I sabotaged a refrigerator last night. I picked up the replacement and delivered it twenty minutes ago. The device was hidden inside the icebox. Then I came to meet you."

Tariq looked down at the cup of coffee on the floor. If what the young man was saying was true, he could have gotten a decent cup if he had just arrived a few minutes later to the airport. He also probably would have avoided this entire exchange.

He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. At the magazine stand, one of the men was gone. The other was paying for something and did not appear to be at all on the lookout for terrorists. Tariq felt like weeping. Had this young man sitting behind him really fooled the entire airport with the simplest of plans?

"Attention passengers of Flight 1667 from Dallas/Fort Worth to Logan International. We will now begin boarding. All first class ticket holders may come forward to board."

"You better go. That is your flight," the young man said.

Tariq's eyes widened as he was struck by the obvious. He had intercepted a terrorist plot to blow up his own flight.

When Tariq hadn't moved for over a minute, the young man spoke up. "Take the package and put it in your suit pocket. Board the plane like you are just another American." Tariq remained still, his hands clutching the armrests. "Do not fear death," he pressed. "You are following Allah's will."

The words echoed in Tariq's head. Before the small box beneath him potentially exploded in his hands, he had to know what was driving the young man behind him to such destruction.

"I am scared," Tariq said. "Tell me why we are doing this."

Tariq had heard about the Koran promising seventy-two virgins to all martyrs. Yet he recalled reading an article about a scholar who argued the text had been mistranslated all this time and that martyrs will actually receive the less thrilling but perhaps more satisfying seventy-two white raisins.

Tariq sensed the young man behind him was smiling. He spoke with a quiet awe at the chain of events that was to follow. "The Americans will retaliate. But in the long term, they will sense that we will not back down, so they will have to. Our families back home will suffer, but our descendants will thank us for having liberated them from the tyranny of the West."

Tariq knew nothing would happen quite like the man hoped, except for the part about America retaliating. The rest would unfold violently and effortlessly. It would help no one and hurt everybody. Convincing this one man of this certainty was pointless. Even if Tariq could succeed in changing his thinking, another fool would come in and take his place.

"Will all passengers in rows eight through sixteen only please board? Rows eight through sixteen," a female voice called over the loudspeaker. Tariq glanced down at his boarding pass. Seat 15B. He moved forward in his seat and bent down. He took the strap from his carry-on bag and pulled it on to his right shoulder. With his other hand, he picked up the package.

He rose and looked down at it. It was no bigger than a box of new checks. It felt as heavy as a brick in his hand.

He carefully inserted the box into his left pants pocket. The lump didn't look particularly conspicuous. It made Tariq look even more like your average, hurried businessman, having just stuffed his Blackberry and charger in his pants pocket before boarding the plane.

Tariq handed the flight attendant his boarding pass. She scanned it and gave it back to him with a smile. He walked forward quickly. Although he was terrified, Tariq refused to let himself become irrational. He had a plan. Once he reached the end of the jetway, he would not board the plane. Rather, he would explain to a flight attendant what had happened and that the whack job who gave him the package was likely still in the airport. With any luck, a bomb squad would be there within a few minutes.

When he reached the entrance to the plane, Tariq stepped to the side and watched others pass him. He was about to call over a flight attendant who was greeting passengers just a few feet ahead when he hesitated. The outcome of what he was about to do nearly knocked him over. To the uninformed, Tariq looked as if he was inches away from bringing a powerful bomb onto a plane full of innocent people. He realized no one would believe his absurd story. He recalled that Brazilian man in London who was mistaken for a terrorist a day after an attack. Police had shot the man five times in the head. Apparently, that was the standard protocol when dealing with suspected suicide bombers.

Tariq walked back toward the airport, apologizing as weary travelers maneuvered to let him pass.

Once he was back at the gate, the same flight attendant from before approached him, smiling.

"Is something wrong, sir? You should be boarding," she said.

Tariq walked past her. He looked over at the area where this ridiculous misunderstanding had begun. The seats were empty.

Tariq walked back the way he came, past the overpriced shops and chain restaurants and multitude of newsstands. He passed by the store where he bought his coffee and saw a long line had formed. Two people were off to the side, adding cold milk to their cups.

Tariq remained on the lookout for the terrorist he accidentally befriended but quickly decided it didn't matter. In all likelihood, the man had run far away.

He saw a security officer leaving the baggage claim. Tariq ran toward him. "Excuse me, officer."

The officer saw Tariq's turban and then his face. He shook his head and twisted a toothpick between his teeth. "What can I do for you, sir?"

"Listen to me. A man sat down next to me at my gate and handed me a box. He said it had been arranged for him to meet me. He has confused me with another man. I took the box because I was afraid of what he would do if I did not. I did not board my flight. Instead, I came here. I think there is a bomb inside the box. It is in my left pants pocket. Help me."

In the time it took Tariq to blink, the officer had drawn his gun. Tariq's hands went up. He took three steps back.

"Put your hands behind your head," said the officer.

Tariq obeyed. "Look, I swear to you, I am not trying to hurt anybody. I am an American. This man just thought I was a terrorist because of my turban. We need to get a bomb squad here now."

"Shut up," said the officer. His eyes squinted as he weighed his options. He seemed especially conscious of the dozens of eyewitnesses around him. Tariq could feel their stares burning into him. None of them cared if what Tariq had said was true. They all wanted the officer to shoot him between the eyes. Tariq realized he would feel the same way if this were all happening to someone else.

"Don't shoot me. Please. I have seen the man who gave me this package. I can help you find him but only if you don't kill me."

The officer pursed his lips. Tariq sensed the man thought he was being tricked. He opened his mouth. Two shots rang out through the terminal.

The bullets ripped through Tariq's left shoulder and right calf. He dropped to the floor, wounded but still breathing.

Around him, he heard screams and cries and shoes trampling across the linoleum. The image of the terminal ceiling was interrupted in bursts by arms and shoulders and bodies stepping over him.

At some point, a hand groped inside his pocket and pulled out the device. Voices shouting about charges and timers punctuated the air.

The future was filled with possibilities. The bomb would go off or it would be defused. The terrorists would be caught or they would get away. A war would be averted or mass casualties would become the permanent future.

The panic around Tariq quieted to an intense dread. He felt his pulse losing momentum and decided he was better off not knowing what happened next.