So, the exciting news of my recently embarked-upon writing career has been a fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center in order to gain some valuable writing time. The residency will start on August 30, during which I will probably be incommunicado for the month of September. I know this is a big deal because I’ve been told, by several people, that VSC has a very strong reputation in the art world. That they liked my work enough to give me a grant is fabulous boost to my self-confidence and I’m well aware that opportunities like this rarely come one’s way.
The thing is, it’s been a long ride for me so far, and I’m not even in Vermont yet!
I applied for the fellowship in June and did not expect to hear back from them until the end of August—they had emailed to let me know that they were overwhelmed with applications and expected to take a while to complete the vetting process. So, as is my normal reaction to the stress of waiting for a response, I convinced myself that I would never get a fellowship to the Centre and that I should just get on with my life. When I heard back from them in July, I was stunned. That I got a grant was amazing, but all of a sudden, I was faced with a number of obstacles. The first was that the only space they had available was for September. I had hoped for October.
A September residency meant that I had less than a month to get enough money together for the trip (ticket and stay), enough money to buy some cold-weather gear (the coldest it gets in Karachi is around 70°F/20°C in the winter. There’s no such thing as ‘cold-weather’ gear in Karachi), get a US visa (which can take up to two months) and make sure that I had no pending work on my plate when I left. At the time, I was laying out a 240-page book, finishing off a corporate identity design package and updating a complex content-heavy website. And I had less than $2000 in my bank.
I waited to buy my ticket until I got my visa. Shockingly enough, I got the visa in one day. Shocking because I know of people whose passports have been held for six months while their paperwork was being processed. But I had a letter from VSC and a friendly interviewer who asked me a few random questions and then told me I could pick up my passport at the end of the day. That—and most Pakistanis will attest to the incredible nature of this statement—has been the easiest part of my journey so far.
What’s in a Name?
The ticket, because I was booking it so close to my travel dates (the last week of August) was horrendously expensive. $2,000 in Pakistan is a big sum, almost four to five months of living expenses. My ticket cost me $1,500 ($1,000 to travel in August, $500 to travel back in October). I booked the ticket online, but I had to pay in person at their city office. The office wasn’t far, but I was still a little worried about carrying Rs. 150,000 in cash over the half-hour drive to the Qatar Airways office. It turns out that carrying the cash was both uneventful and just a minor stress point. The bigger issue, apparently, was how my name would appear on the ticket—first name, last name. Sounds logical, doesn’t it?
Before I explain, I should remind my readers that Natasha Ahmed is a pen name and I wasn’t travelling under that name. I was travelling under my real name—Syeda. Now Syeda is my first name, officially, on all my paperwork. What most non-Muslims don’t know, however, is that Syeda/Syed is more of a title than a name and is very, very common among Muslims. Most people named Syed/Syeda [insert middle name here] [insert last name here] don’t use Syed/Syeda in their daily lives. I don’t. I use my middle name. In Pakistan, that’s not a problem, as in the Middle East. But the ticketing agent thought I should have put both my first and middle name in the ‘first name’ field, because Syeda was not my actual name.
“They’ll turn you back in Paris,” he said, with complete seriousness. “They’ll object that the ticket doesn’t have your real name on it. It’s a real security concern.”
I looked at him a little blankly. Not my real name? It was on my passport as my first name. “Um, can’t you just change it here?”
“No, it has to be done at the time of booking. In the form here, see? We can’t change it at our end, because you’re flying two separate airlines.”
“I don’t get it—you have three separate fields in the form for first, middle and last names. That’s how I filled it out. My full name is on the reservation and booking confirmation.”
“Yes, but it won’t appear on the ticket, see? You should just re-book online, and this time, put both first and middle names in the ‘first name’ field.”
Re-booking online, which apparently I couldn’t do from their office, meant carrying my cash around to the closest internet cafe I could find, or going back home, and then returning to pay for the ticket. The ticket agent smiled benignly. “It’s okay, we’re open till five. You can come back then.”
More than anything else that I’ve ever wanted in my life, at that precise moment, I wanted a credit card that would let me put in a charge of Rs. 150,000 without a hassle. I weighed my options, thought about yelling at him for a bit. Why have a middle name field if you weren’t going to print it on the ticket? Why not just make it ‘last name’, ‘given names’? Instead, I asked if he could book me a new ticket and cancel the existing booking.
“With pleasure,” he beamed. “I’ll just look up our best rates.” He fiddled around with his computer for a bit. “Our best price will be Rs. 167,000. Same route.” The price, in the time that I had booked my ticket a day ago and now, had jumped considerably.
The extra Rs. 17,000 weren’t in my budget. They weren’t even in my pocket at that moment. I scowled at him and thought, this is ridiculous. My passport says my first name is Syeda. Isn’t that all I need? I took my chances, bought the ticket with the original booking and my abbreviated name (if they turned me back in Paris, well, c’est la vie) and got out of there.
As I left, it was with the horrifying news that I had a 20-hour layover in Doha, which was going to be spent at the airport.
“If the lay-over had been unavoidable, we would have given you a hotel stay, but you selected this route yourself, so…” So, if I had spent an extra seventeen thousand on the ticket, they would presumably have put me up in a hotel while I was in transit. Gotcha.
Tying Up Loose Ends
The nightmare scenario of being turned back halfway through my trip kept me awake nights. I was rushing to finish off the work on my plate in between bouts of certainty that my haste was unnecessary. If I reached Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport and was sent straight back to Pakistan, I’d have plenty of time to finish all three of the projects I was working on. I ploughed on, however. I told my clients I was flying out for two months, and asked them all to expedite their payments. I got together an impressive $3,000 in less than a week, and I went shopping.
I bought enough casual clothes to tide me over for the week preceding my residency. I had the money, the ticket, the visa. I didn’t quite finish the last of the three projects, but I will be doing that over the next few days.
On August 24, I boarded the plane and flew.
In the Desert
The flight out to Doha, Qatar, was cramped, crowded, claustrophobic. They’ve cut back on the seat sizes since I last travelled abroad. You have to be 5’4” and weigh less than 120 lbs to fit into those seats. I match neither of those dimensions. My legs couldn’t quite straighten all the way out and I felt those extra pounds on my hips. Stepping off the plane was heavenly. I hadn’t yet seen what was to come.
There were people everywhere. People from all over the world transit through Doha. Hammad International Airport is a tiny little city in the desert. Mine was just one of seventeen flights that had landed at that particular time of the day. For those lucky enough to be at their final destination, a large ‘baggage claim’ sign led them towards a set of doors that were tantalisingly close to the outside world. Transit passengers milled around three large screens that listed a staggering number of flights scheduled for the next 24 hours. We were on the first floor, a long corridor that was easily over five hundred meters long. Accordion queues were set up to take the mass of humanity through security checkpoints and into the main departures terminal. The three different escalator banks that led to the lower floor gave us no inkling of the sheer size of the airport. Even when you ride down the escalators to the main atrium, you have no idea that the many, many corridors leading off the the central hub run for miles…
The airport is set up for long transit times. Aside from the airport hotel ($300 a night), the spa, the cigar lounges and posh restaurants, there’s a food court, a large and upmarket duty-free area and brands that, even with the age of the Internet, I have never heard of. Fanning out in every direction from the atrium, the airport has spotless toilets, seating areas, internet areas, TV lounges, ‘quiet rooms’ (which were filled with recliners for anyone looking to take a nap) and children’s play areas. Rubbing shoulders with women in black burqas were young backpackers in shorts and tank tops. The airport is as cosmopolitan as it gets—like I said earlier, it’s a city in itself.