A few years ago I accompanied a client to Morocco, where he was being honored at the Marrakesh Film Festival. As it happened, my client happened to have a friendship with the Royal Family, so we were quite literally treated like kings.
Among other things, we were assigned a palace car and driver, and were accompanied at all times by an armed guard who I’ll call Fayiz (not his real name). Fayiz didn’t even try to hide the huge gun he carried. He was friendly and respectful, and he was also very badass in the best sense of the word. Fayiz spoke decent English and he and I became fast friends.
The traffic in Marrakesh is very congested (picture Los Angeles traffic at…well, at any time) and I started to notice that our driver didn’t even pretend to obey the rules of the road. He would run red lights, go the wrong way down one-way streets, and blatantly ignore the local police. Finally I asked Fayiz about it, and he told me that the car’s palace insignia basically gave them carte blanche on the road. It was a little scary, but it was heady stuff too.
After a few days in Marrakesh we embarked on a driving tour of Morocco. With Fayiz and the royal car as part of our entourage, we continued to be treated like royalty even as we got further and further away from the city. Finally we arrived at a beautiful desert area called Ouarzazate.
I had to fly out to attend a meeting in New York but my client wasn’t ready to head back. So our guides arranged a local flight for me out of Ouarzazate. I would take the 6AM commuter flight to Casablanca, where I could catch a connecting flight to NYC. We left the hotel late, but Fayiz told me he would accompany me to the airport and that I shouldn’t worry.
Our driver was going about 100 miles per hour. Fayiz mistook my ashen look for concern about the time, so he told me that he had called ahead to let the airport know we were on our way. Whatever that meant.
We arrived at the airport ten minutes after my flight was scheduled to depart. Fayiz calmly walked me to the ticket counter, and following a few words with the sales person she handed me a boarding pass without asking me for an ID.
At security, Fayiz flashed his gun and his credential and proceeded to set off the metal detector. As the local police stood and watched, Fayiz waved me through, and though I wasn’t carrying a gun I set it off too. The local authorities looked at me strangely but did nothing. This was fun.
At the gate stood a lone airline employee next to the closed boarding door. Fayiz spoke to the guy, who unlocked the boarding door and waved me through. Fayiz smiled like a proud papa and I gave him a big hug. He stepped back, but then laughed and hugged me back. I told him I hoped to see him again one day and boarded the plane.
I was the only Caucasian among the thirty or so passengers in various traditional Arab garments, plus a few people in conventional business attire. Everyone looked at me curiously. Who was this foreigner who’d had the juice to hold a plane in Morocco?
Once we were airborne I sat back to reflect on the morning’s events. At one point an announcement in Arabic seemed to make several of the passengers anxious. I didn’t understand a word of it.
A flustered flight attendant rushed through the cabin shortly after, and people started shouting at him in Arabic. He didn’t break stride, but he shouted back as he went. I knew that many people in Morocco speak French, so in halting French I asked the person across from me what was going on. Mind you my sweet daughter, I speak very little French. But I was sure that what he answered was “we are going down”. As if on cue, the oxygen masks popped down in the cabin.
In the collective panic that was overtaking the flight, I could tell the plane was descending quickly and roughly. As I put the mask over my face, I was gripped by the notion that I would never see you or the rest of our family again. I could not believe that my life was going to end somewhere in the middle of North Africa. I prayed that God would look after you and your sisters, and look after your mom too. I remember asking myself what I could have done better in my life.
Another announcement came over the intercom that I didn’t understand, but everyone went into the emergency landing position so I did the same. Then I closed my eyes and waited.
After what seemed like an eternity but was probably no more than twenty or thirty seconds, the plane landed, bounced around for a bit, and then started to taxi normally. People started looking around as the realization dawned that we had survived. The guy across from me smiled and in very bad English said what I understood to be either “See, we’re on the ground”, or “May Allah abound”. Either way was good with me.
A few minutes later we deplaned, and they guided us all to a people mover to transport us to the terminal. While we were in the vehicle a cell phone started to ring. An Arabic man reached into his thawb, pulled out a cell phone and had a hushed conversation.
I swear by everything that’s holy this is what happened next.
The man looked up, walked over to me and said “Norman”? I nodded, and he handed me his cell phone. When I spoke into the phone I heard the unmistakable voice of Fayiz. “You okay?” he asked. “We heard what happened and were worried about you”.
To this day I have no idea what was wrong with that plane, but I know two things. I know that I’m happy to be alive to tell you this story. And I know that Fayiz is one badass dude.
All my everlasting love,