Times 2 – August 25, 2006
– Ginny Dougary

Dear New Lot of Terrorists,
I thank you for showing me the light and changing my life. Truly, you have liberated me in ways you could never have foreseen. No longer will my heart feel heavy and my spirit be freighted with dread as I wait for the plane to touch down at JFK or Heathrow. By your actions you have taught me the egregious error of my ways, and from henceforth I will travel unburdened by . . .

This was the letter I was drafting in my head as I experienced one of my most pleasurable flights in 15-odd years of schlepping to and from the United States of the Terrible to interview the rich and famous for The Times. In the bad old days — ie, before 10/8/06 — transatlantic travel had become a gruelling feat of endurance and survival of the pushiest. Negotiating that narrow passageway between the rows of seats, with my child-born hips further widened by a bulging rucksack (an object now robbed of its innocent backpacking past — “does my bomb look big in this?”), a crammed briefcase on one shoulder, and on the other a handbag large enough to hold . . . well, far too much stuff.

All of the above to be stored in the overhead locker, jostling for space with the equally bulky belongings of one’s fellow carthorse travellers. And then the anxiety before the stampede to reload everything on to your weary, jet-lagged body as you face the journey at the other end, when you know you will have to trudge in a nightmarish daze down endless corridors and interminable walkways towards passport control.

Now — Hallelujah! — I have known the joys of flying with only my credit cards, passport and a couple of books in a plastic bag, and I’m never looking back. It is possible, of course, that in years to come it may, once again, be considered almost dubious to travel so light. I may even be prevented from boarding flights to the States with nothing but a see-through bit of polythene carrying all my worldly possessions, the very sight of me clutching such a disposable thing setting off alarm bells in the departure lounge — “Oh! Has there been another threat that we don’t know about?” But having tasted the bliss of the unencumbered, I never want to be a carthorse again.

There was, for me, an additionally odd, circular sense of disbelief about this particular journey. Last summer, a few days after the terrorists’ July bombings in London, I was interviewing the fatwa-reprieved Salman Rushdie in New York. A year later, on the very day of the Heathrow drama, I was interviewing his great mate Martin Amis, also in New York, albeit in a secluded enclave in the Hamptons. On both occasions, current events inevitably featured in our discussions. If you believe, as I do, that literature can help to make sense of the life we are living, then the response of these guys should certainly command some attention.

I was born and brought up for the first ten years of my life in a Muslim country. I will be returning to that community in a small town in Kuwait — if I’m assured that it’s safe to do so — with my younger son this autumn. I hope to revisit the home I grew up in, and the garden, where I remember seeing the turbaned men, whom my father employed, downing tools and kneeling at regular times of the day, as the wailing muezzin called the faithful to prayer from their minarets. As a child it always struck me as a beautiful if mournful ritual. I never, ever, was inculcated with the sense that these people and their beliefs were in any way less than me and mine — although there must have been something in the ether even then, since I remember my parents spluttering when my eight-year-old self asked the visiting sheikh why he thought his religion was better than ours.

And so — I’m with Rushdie and Amis as I read all the sympathetic coverage in the liberal press about the poor, puzzled Muslims who feel that they are being picked on in airports and flights. If the parents of the young men who are attracted to this murderous martyrdom have lost control of their sons, then they must shoulder part of the blame. If the Muslims who choose to live in our society, with all its so-called tempting freedoms, do not protest against those who wish to destroy it, then how can they expect our tolerance? Why are the moderates not, in their hundreds and thousands, standing outside those mosques that are known to preach hatred, shouting “Not in our name” down their megaphones or “One, two, three, four, no more terror anymore”?

And where are the voices of the ordinary mothers and daughters and aunts from the Muslim community saying, “Enough. No more violence. No more deaths”, as did all those courageous women who helped to bring peace to Ireland? And if they, our Muslim sisters, are mute slaves to — or, worse, themselves in thrall to — the siren call of the death-wish culture, is there any hope for the rest of us?

Oh, and just by way of a postscript: you’ll never guess who was on my return Flight of Liberation, which ended in a two-hour wait for our baggage and a near-riot when there were no trolleys available . . . yes, Salman Rushdie.

All I want is a room somewhere in NY

New York feels like one giant nightclub these days, for which I blame Ian Schrager who transformed the modern hotel, after Studio 54, into darkly groovesome dens. In my thirties, I used to love staying in his places: The Paramount, his first “budget” hotel, (soon to re-open as The Hard Rock Hotel ) was wildly hip — with its dancefloor music and neon light shows, and that was just the lifts. But in my forties, I found that I was no longer enamoured of, say, “amusing” taps so fiendishly designed that you needed a manual to turn them on, and even the receptionists at The Royalton complained that working in the perpetual night-time of the lobby was “kinda depressing”. But every other hotel that I’ve tried post-Schrager suffers from the same aesthetic. On this recent trip (W Hotel on Lex), I was extended the sort of welcome that George Bush might expect were he to meet Osama bin Laden. All I ask for now is natural light, a friendly atmosphere and a comfy bed.

Any suggestions?

The art of terror

Reading Martin Amis’s short story about the last days of 9/11’s Muhammad Atta reacquainted me with the haunting power of a photograph. The expression on Atta’s face, quite different from any of his confrères, is one of chilling, implacable hatred. It’s an image as horribly iconic, in its way, as the ones of Charles Manson or Myra Hindley. How long, I wonder, before someone turns it into a shocking new artwork. Or would that be just too scary for everyone?