From a corporate cubicle, absentmindedly scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed, wading through one ‘I quit my job to travel the world’ – or some variation thereof – blog post after another, travel can seem particularly alluring. Unattainable and, therefore, romantic, travel can seem like a siren mermaid promising you a world of eternal youth and carefree living, beyond the reach of debt collectors and landlords – if only you had the good sense to quit your job and follow her! But as the old adage goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. “Once you get used to living up in the air, you can’t come back down,” says Alyaa*, a flight attendant based in Saudi Arabia. “You don’t know how else to live; it’s a major weakness. Most people who quit this job find it impossible to cope with a ‘normal’ life down there. Our lives are so fast-paced, it makes everything else feel boring and dull.”
“My friends always tease me, thinking that I’m living la vida loca, but, in reality, I’m always broke and trying to save money. I’ve been surviving on ramen noodles and tuna lately.”
Beneath the shiny, lacquered visual tropes in Catch Me If You Can’s iconic flight attendant scene, a real life flight attendant’s job is far from glamorous. “My friends always tease me, thinking that I’m living la vida loca, but, in reality, I’m always broke and trying to save money. I’ve been surviving on ramen noodles and tuna lately,” jokes Omar*, a UAE-based flight attendant whose had his head in the clouds – literally – for four years now. Alyaa adds, “I serve people; I’m not a Hollywood star and I’m certainly not a supermodel. People don’t understand that. The job can be humiliating at times. When someone makes a mess, it’s my job to put everything back together; when someone spills or drops something, you clean it up; you clean bathrooms. That’s all done behind the scenes, nobody sees that part of your job.”
Despite the job’s less than glamorous occupational hazards – which include, but are not limited to, death by fire and getting stranded at sea – flight attendants are thought to lead extravagant, hedonistic lives – a lover at every (air)port and all that. This stereotype can be exceptionally cumbersome for a Middle Eastern female flight attendant living in an Arab society. “People do look at us negatively, and it makes you defensive and tough – we’re not very trusting as a rule, but this is especially necessary when dealing with people who view you as a loose, vulnerable woman living alone. I don’t care. If they believe a woman shouldn’t travel alone, that’s their business, not mine,” Alyaa says matter-of-factly.
The term ‘life-threatening’ can take on a whole new meaning when you dwell the skies – where the air is thin and entire cities look like tiny clusters of light before completely fading out of view, and along with them the realities of life and everything that tethers a human being to Earth. It’s the perfect place to doubt the existence of gravity, time, and space. For Alyaa, whose employers don’t promote women as a matter of policy, time is of the essence. “If I can’t get promoted, there’s no future for me. I can do it in my twenties and my thirties, but not into my forties. You need to keep an eye on the future, you have to have a plan because nothing is permanent – not my health, not my looks,” she says.
“I have a girlfriend, but I’m not ready to get married and settle down. I don’t know how you make a marriage work without spending time with your spouse and children. I don’t know how I’d feel if my wife gave birth while I’m away, if I don’t get to spend time with my child. And frankly, if I do start a family while I’m still a flight attendant, I don’t know if I’ll still be faithful and loyal to my wife,”
Unlike virtually all other constructs in life, time has no gender biases – it only ever moves forward. “You can’t be in this business for long, it’s not permanent. If you’re going to do it, you need to do it early on in life. You can do for three or four years, while you’re still young. But the older you get, the more you’ll crave stability,” Omar concurs. “The job is exhausting, mentally and physically, my body doesn’t rest. My biological clock is shot. Mentally, your brain shuts down and you get to a point where you carry yourself like a robot.”
In a sociocultural paradigm that measures social status by how hard and dull – therefore serious, the duller the better – your chosen profession is, flight attendants are automatically assigned the derisive nickname ‘glorified waiter/waitress’. The social stigma surrounding this line of work often stems from society’s aversion to nonconformity. “I was back home, on vacation, when I ran into my former boss – I used to work in a prestigious educational institution. She told me, ‘you left this job to serve tea and coffee and lunch on plane?’ I told her to beat it. This job allows me to travel the world; I’ve bought a house from the money I made being a flight attendant. She’s one to talk, she’s stuck at a desk all day every day for a living,” Omar recounts. “I have a B.Sc. in engineering; I wanted to pursue a career as an engineer, but I wanted to travel – I wanted to see the world, and you don’t have the freedom to do that if you’re an Arab. At some point, I want to resume my career as an engineer, but I’ve been doing this for four years, which hardly qualifies for an engineering job. And I don’t know if I could give up all of this and get a 9-5 desk job, working five days a week.”
Given the opportunity, wouldn’t we all want to live in a gravity-defying aluminum container, flying so close to divinity? Keeping a safe distance from the ordinary and the mundane?
This nonconformity extends to a flight attendant’s personal life as well. Every time a plane takes off, miles and altitudes come between a flight attendant and his or her loved ones. Physical distance turns into an emotional one – it’s a space-time continuum governed only by your body’s wants and needs, as opposed to your heart and rationality. “I have a girlfriend, but I’m not ready to get married and settle down. I don’t know how you make a marriage work without spending time with your spouse and children. I don’t know how I’d feel if my wife gave birth while I’m away, if I don’t get to spend time with my child. And frankly, if I do start a family while I’m still a flight attendant, I don’t know if I’ll still be faithful and loyal to my wife,” he says, averting his gaze and slightly biting his lips. “I don’t know what I’d do if one of my parents died, God forbid, while I was in the air. I’ve had colleagues whose moms or dads passed away while they were flying and they couldn’t even get back home in time for the funeral.”
Flight attendants do not live on the same plane of existence we earthbound ‘normals’ nestle in. They’re characters in our collective escape fantasies. They’re a little more daring, a little more audacious than we will ever be – they have a lot more lust for life than we could ever permit ourselves to indulge. Given the opportunity, wouldn’t we all want to live in a gravity-defying aluminum container, flying so close to divinity? Keeping a safe distance from the ordinary and the mundane? I asked Alyaa. “It can be a trap. If you’re not careful and aware, you won’t start a family, you won’t save money, you won’t move to bigger and better things,” she says. “A lot of people lose track of time. Your life could pass you by and, before you know it, you’re fifty. Time flies when you're flying.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals.