"Excuse Me, Did You Order the Muslim Meal?"

did you oreder the meal

I was born in Los Angeles to parents also born and raised in Los Angeles. Like most people around here, I am a mixture of nationalities. A lot of people who meet me say they cannot tell what I am, but they are sure it is something interestingly ethnic. Due to this, people have mistaken me for coming from various countries. I get a lot of, “Are you Italian?” or Indian, or Spanish, or Chilean, just to name a few. What I get the most, however, is “Are you Arabic or Persian?”

My favorite part about those questions is that I am none of the above (well, maybe a little Spanish, way back there). However, to compound the issue, through a strange combination of circumstances, I began learning Persian about 8 years ago.

Being in the Persian language class taught me so much about myself and what I didn’t know. I had always thought of myself as a “citizen of the world” and free of prejudice of other nationalities. I found out how wrong I was on my first day of class.

I had chosen Persian (or rather, it chose me) because the classes for French and Russian were all filled up. I went to my first day of class not knowing a single thing about the language. I didn’t know it was a different alphabet. I didn’t know what countries speak Persian. In fact, I didn’t even know that Farsi and Persian were the same language. So, there I was, sitting in my chair and the instructor began, “Farsi, or Persian as you say in English, is the language of the country Iran...” and in my head I began to look up the little file on Iran. The instructor had pronounced it as “Eeeron” (roll the r) so I did not recognize it right away and then it hit me: “I-ran!” I thought to myself, “You mean the country where everybody is Muslim and the women wear burqas and the men beat their wives!” I actually had just learned that the country of Iran was a separate country from Iraq 6 months earlier, when I had seen a news clip of the United States embassy in Tehran with “Death to America” written all over it.

It was a rough morning for me and I had wondered what I had gotten myself into, but my two instructors, who were Iranian, were very nice. They also did not fit the idea of anything I had learned about people in the Middle East. I decided to do some research and went to the library. I found a few books on “The Revolution” as Iranians call it, and one extremely helpful book called Neither East Nor West by an American who had lived in Iran before “The Revolution” named Christiane Bird. I highly recommend this book.

In time I learned that I had been really very prejudiced in my idea of what Iranians were like as a people and a culture, and also about the Middle East in general. I still think it is a shame that such beautiful peoples and cultures could be so marred by warfare and strife, but I think it is equally a shame that I had been so blind and prejudiced before. I was missing out on so much.

As the years have gone by, I have noticed that in the way I thought before, I was not alone. I, in particular, noticed how this prejudice often showed itself most prominently when it comes to international flight. Referred to as the offense of “traveling whilst Asian”.

But I had only read about it, and not really seen it for myself, so I decided to make a little experiment. I decided to order a special Halal meal (Halal is food that Muslims consider permissible to eat) on my flight out to Europe this last December.

As a “control” to my experiment, I started out by ordering Kosher on a previous flight to Europe (but I am not Jewish, nor am I Muslim, for that matter). It was mostly uneventful. I was flying on Lufthansa. Those of us who ordered special meals were served first. The flight attendants were kind and seemed rather disinterested. Our Kosher meals came wrapped in plastic and contained a certificate stating that it truly was Kosher and blessed by a Rabbi. The Kosher dinner was better than the other meals (a lovely salmon) and the breakfast was much worse (a dry bagel). The only significant thing that came up was that when I saw the dessert for the other passengers, I went to the back to ask the flight attendants if I might have some. The kind woman with a very slight German accent (Lufthansa is a German airline) said she wouldn’t mind giving it to me, but it isn’t Kosher. I smiled and said I would like some anyway, to which she said in that softly reproving, joking way that only Northern Europeans can really do, “Oh, so it’s worth it to break the laws of the church for a little chocolate cake?” as she began to serve it to me. I don’t blame her, I probably would have thought the same thing if I was in her shoes.

That was quite a contrast to my Halal experience on Lufthansa this last December. It started when we were about to board the plane bound for Europe from California. While all of us were waiting at the gate we heard the airline began to call up a list of names of passengers that they wanted to have come up to the desk. As they began to call the names, I noticed that they were all Middle Eastern and Muslim, and then they called up my name and my husband’s name. When we approached the desk, the woman behind it herself was Persian and had a Muslim name. She said that they needed to do an extra security check and could they please see our passports? We handed them over and watched her run them through the computer and enter some data. Finally she gave them back to us, but never asked us any questions. After that, everything was uneventful until we got our meals.

As with all special meals, we were served before the other passengers because it is easier for the flight attendants to distribute the meals this way. We were told that there were over 60 special meals in our section that day. However, as the flight attendant came by to deliver our meals, she still managed to save a little spite for me as she thrust the tray in my face and said with a slight German accent, “Here is your Muslim meal!” and then quickly moved on to the other passengers. I thought it was kind of strange that she didn’t say “Halal meal” since no one on the other flight where I ordered Kosher called it the “Jewish meal”, but then I looked down and saw the food. It looked mostly the same as everyone else’s, except for the large blue sticker saying “Moslem Meal”.

In fact, not only was the food served in the same containers and in the same way as the other non-special meals, but it was also basically the same thing with only small differences. It ended up being that way for dinner and breakfast.

On our return flight we were travelling on Scandinavian Airlines. This was actually the flight I was expecting would give us trouble. Not only were we travelling back into the United States, but also we were leaving from Denmark. Denmark is the only place on earth where I actually experienced prejudice against me from people who thought I was Turkish (which I also am not).

This time, at the gate, they scanned our tickets before we could even go to the section where we waited to get on the airplane. Next to the area where they scanned our tickets was a walled off section for “advanced screening”. I gave my ticket over first and I was allowed through without a problem. Then my husband’s ticket was scanned and all in one moment, the scanner buzzed, a red light came up, and a large Viking-looking man said to my husband, “Follow me,” and my husband was quickly escorted to the “advanced screening” room. I didn’t even have time to take my camera from my husband, which he was carrying.

It seemed like an eternity that he was back there (after all, he had my camera). Fortunately, my husband is not a typical European, and his voice is quite loud when he speaks, so I knew what was going on and that he was okay. I guessed that from what was going on that I was not pegged because I actually am a US citizen, but my husband is only a green card holder. After thoroughly going through all our belongings that my husband had on him, and asking him a lot of questions, they finally let him join me to get on the plane.  

Once on the plane, I decided to ask for beer and then wine to have with my food. I wanted to see what the flight attendant’s reaction would be when she saw that I was one of the Halal meal people. This time, when the meals came around I had an empty can of beer to my name and a bottle of red wine on my tray table. However, Mette, a lovely woman originally from Jylland (Jutland, Denmark), was as sweet as could be as she handed me my “Muslim Meal”. Also, this time instead of a large “Moslem Meal” sticker, I simply had “MU” (or maybe it was “MO”) written in blue marker on the lid of my main course.

I was actually surprised. This was not what I had been expecting. After finishing my meal and having our flight attendant be as consistently kind as at first, I decided to tell her what I was up to and how the flight attendant had acted on the previous flight. Mette shook her head and said, “When you are working with people and in a service industry, you have to keep your personal feelings to yourself. I believe you are allowed to be afraid and feel whatever you feel, but you should not take it out on others, and you should not show it. Otherwise, why are you working with people?”

I definitely agree with her, but even beyond that, I also believe that it’s important to face our fears, because maybe it’s not all as bad as we think it is. I used to be afraid of Middle Eastern people and definitely all things Muslim in general. The problem with this fear, though, is that it can easily lead to disdain, prejudice, or even hate. I’m not saying that there aren’t bad, scary extremist types out there in the Middle East or among the people claiming to be Muslim, but it certainly does help one on a personal level with the fear factor if you learn something about the people and the culture.

It was definitely an educational experience. And although I know that I am not Muslim and not a terrorist, the Halal food on the airplane wasn’t that much better that I would go through the inconveniences that go along with ordering it another time.

© 2002 - 2019 Alexis Evanoff Productions. All Rights Reserved. -  Privacy Policy  - Website Developed By Simon Tech