By Khaled Diab
The surreal “lovejacking” of an EgyptAir flight adds a new dimension to the western image of the Arab man: the hopeless romantic and dedicated lover.
Wednesday 30 March 2016
The first sign that something was different was when the hijacker released most of those aboard. This prompted some commentators to express initial relief that we had returned to a bygone era of airborne terrorism when flights were hijacked, not just summarily blown up, and demands made.
The fact that only the crew and a handful of foreign passengers remained on the plane led me to conclude that the hijacker(s) could not be takfiri jihadists, who tend to kill Muslims and non-Muslims with equal vigour.
Soon after, it emerged that the Egyptian hijacker, wwho has now been arrested by Cypriot authorities, was not motivated by politics or ideology. “It’s all to do with a woman,” Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiades told miffed reporters.
This “lovejacking”, as some have dubbed it, had Egyptian social media doing what it does best: firing off barrages of biting satire. Some took it as a commentary on the poor quality of Egypt’s internet and postal services, others expressed gratitude on behalf of the passengers for diverting the flight to Larnaca instead of Cairo.
There were the inevitable references to classics of Egyptian comedy, such as the 1990’s satire “al-Irhab weh wl’Kabab” (Terrorism and Kebab). Personally, I reworked a popular love song to produce the lovejacker’s version.
“He’s not a terrorist, he’s an idiot,” an irate Egyptian foreign ministry official was quoted as saying.
Given all the fear and heartache the hijacker has caused passengers, the potential economic fallout for his fellow Egyptians (though maybe Egypt might be able to carve out a new niche in tourism) and the undoubted legal consequences that will follow, the official’s sentiments are understandable.
Next time, send flowers, was my first thought. But those more romantically inclined than I were touched by the gesture, either for real or in jest. This just goes to prove that one man’s terrorist is another woman’s lover-boy.
One female acquaintance admitted that she would be “impressed” if someone had performed a similar gesture for her – though I suspected that if she had been the target, she would have thought “weirdo stalker”, not “hopeless romantic”.
And the reports that the hijacker, demanded the release of all female political prisoners in Egypt is bound to fuel speculation that he is a hopeless romantic.
Although I doubt very much that my wife would be flattered if I took a planeload of people as hostages to romance, this surreal overlap of love and terrorism does shed light on something about Arab men that gets little exposure in the West.
A popular contemporary Western stereotype of Arab men is that they are mirthless religious fanatics who hate women, although once upon a time Europeans were strongly influenced by Arab romance. Rarely are Arab men seen as lovers of women, though Hollywood does often portray them as lustful and sex-crazed.
But if we were to judge Arab men by the culture they produce, then we would be left with the impression that they are helpless, hopeless, tormented romantics. Love, especially of the tragic, painful variety of grand gestures, is a centuries-old staple of Arabic poetry and literature.
Love burns like a fire, inebriates like wine, tortures, makes you lose your senses, and much more, and the lover would do anything for his beloved. And every part of a beloved’s body is like a weapon of mass desire, from eyelashes that cut like knives to swaying hips that hypnotise.
Classical Arabic literature has a pantheon of Romeo and Juliet-like characters, the most famous of which is probably Qays and Laila. Qays’s obsession with Layla, whose father marries her off to a nobleman, earns him the nickname “Majnun” (Madman), and he lives up to it by wandering the wilderness for years longing for his beloved. After her death, his lifeless body is found near her grave, upon which he has carved verses of passionate poetry.
Perhaps the hijacker of the EgyptAir plane does not see himself as an “idiot” but as a 21st-century Majnun on a flight of fantasy to Cyprus in search of his own “Laila”.