IT IS A TRUTH universally acknowledged, Jane Austen would have said, that the flight from Cairo to Beirut is always overbooked. For this reason, people arrive hours early, spending the better part of a day in lines bristling with elbows, jockeying for position with merchants of the Levant, salesmen from Tokyo and Egyptian manual laborers for seats that do not exits.
The ticket means nothing. The boarding pass also means little. Getting on the bus that goes from the terminal to the plane is still no guarantee and getting on the second bus from the terminal is sheer doom, since those on it are generally thought to have less chance to make the plane than the others.
Even arrival at the plane itself is no guarantee of getting on. At least, that is what is thought. For this reason the pushing goes on until the last minute. It is here that the chemist from Beirut was pushed to the ground, his glasses spilling off his face. It was here that the old lady swathed in miles of robes took one step, went pale and tottered, as close to fainting as a person could be.
And it was here that for reasons lost on account of a severe language barrier, the man directly in front of me simply sat down on the steps leading to the plane, spread-eagled himself, and shouted in the universal language of the indignant that no one would pass. I did. Others followed and eventually he rose, brushed himself off and got on the plane.
Our story begins in the lounge for departing passengers. Lured by the sound of English, I joined a group that included two Southern Baptist ministers returning to their school in Lebanon, a sociology professor at a university here an an elderly chemist who now lives mostly in New York. All of them instructed me on how to make the plane.
Make the first bus, they said. Get to the head of the line, they said. Push your way on the plane, they said, and don't relent for a moment. The flights are notoriously overbooked, they said. Everyone knows it.
Almost at once, a flight was called. The entire lounge rose to its feet and ran for the door. Egyptian workers pushed and elbowed and so did Saudis in their robes, the women with their veils still up. There was every race and color and kind of dress you could think of.
An airline agent yelled that this was the flight for Saudi Arabia. He yelled it over and over until all the Egyptian workers bound for Lebanon understood and sat down. We waited.
From time to time, some passengers would be taken past the gate and out to our plane. We noticed. Everyone noticed, but what we did not know was that these were the first-class passengers. They were being taken out because even though they had bought first-class seats, there weren't any.
The aireline was making sure the first-class passengers at least got on the plane.
But who knew why the people were being put on board? Not me. Not the Egyptian workers. The place began to stir. It was like one of those scenes in a cowboy film where someone says that the cattle are restless. We cattle were plenty restless. Suddenly, they called the flight.
Everyone bolted for the door. It was important to make the first bus. The chemist was way ahead, the old devil, and the sociologist was doing fine. I stuck with the Baptists. They were having trouble. I pushed. I elbowed. All the moves of a boyhood on the New York subways came back. Person by person I made some progress. The Baptists were behind me.
I got to the bus and stepped in. I stayed near the door. The bus filled. The Baptists made for the bus but the door closed. Their faces fell, and one of them, fluent in Arabic, yelled at the agent. He opened the door, and they got on. The door closed and an Egyptian worker asked to be let on. The agent said no and the bus pulled away.
At the stairs to the plane, two agents barred the way.There were still first-class passengers to be boarded. The agent called for them. They tried to snake their way out of the crowd. The crowd pushed back. A lady with a child made it and then the old woman who reached out an arm. The ticket agents grabbed her and yanked her free.
The old lady climed the first step. She stopped. She turned pale. She tottered. A young man dressed in a business suit yelled something at the agent. The agent forgot about the old lady.She weaved back and forth on the stairs. Finally, a stewardess came down the stairs to fetch her.
Slowly, we pushed forward. The agents held us back. They let up one person at a time. The chemist was still in front. He got to the step. The crowd surged, hitting the chemist in the back. He went over, his glasses came off. He bent looking for them and the crowd nearly toppled him again. Red in the face, he found his glasses and by the top of the steps he had recovered his dignity.
Meanwhile, one of the agents was still arguing with that same man in the crowd. The man was young, with a mustache. When he got to the steps, he simply sat down. He spread his legs out to block anyone from going up. The agent looked at him. I was the next person to go up. I also looked down at him and then stepped over him and went up to the plane.
I sat down. A moment later, the Baptists came on board and then the man who had been sitting on the stairs. He chatted with the agent he had been fighting with as if nothing had happened. The plane slowly filled and after a delay of no more than 30 minutes, we took off. Cairo was quickly below us, then the green belt of the Nile and then the desert and then, very quickly, the blue Mediiterranean -- everything looking the way it was supposed to.
I cannot say if anyone was left back in Cairo or if the airline actually overbooks. All I can cay is that the man sitting next to me said it was a typical flight. "They overbook, you know."
It is a truth universally acknowledged.