Terrorist Train Troubles

Raph al Guul

Another rainy Thursday afternoon had been survived; after clocking out, Stan was finally sitting on his train home. It was a short, daily ride on a regional train – 8 stations in about 20 minutes. On days like these, it felt particularly good to board this train. When the weather outside wasn’t pleasant, there was no reason to look out the window at the office. And although looking out the window was usually considered detrimental to the quality and especially the quantity of employees’ work, when they ceased to look out the window, everybody became so depressed that there remained hardly any completed work to speak of.

Stan had chosen a seat next to the gangway – he didn’t get what all the hype about window seats was. He liked directing his attention to the inside of the train, rather than the outside. They were passing the same stuff every day, but the train itself was never the same. It was the people who made for an interesting, ever-changing mosaic of colors, faces, sounds, smells, and other sensory stimulants.

Stan had to admit that this wasn’t always a good thing. Sometimes there were unpleasant aspects to this mosaic. Especially when it came to smells, it was more often than not entirely undesired. Women – and sometimes even men – splattering way too much perfume on their bodies, probably seriously believing that it made them smell better. People bringing their dogs, which often were still wet from rain, snow, or public fountains, onto the train. And every now and then, the unfortunate homeless, unemployed creep who couldn’t find a bathroom in time and who probably didn’t even hold a valid ticket.

Sounds were a big issue on trains, as well, and possibly the one people complained about the most. Such complaints were most frequently directly or indirectly aimed towards beer-consuming teenagers who would alternatively or simultaneously play loud music and raise their voices above the generally agreed upon average of accepted volume. Another frequently perceived nuisance was that of the obnoxious ringtone. The mobile phones these days were not only capable of playing any ever so ridiculous ringtone one could possibly think of, but they could also do so at a volume that seemed like a serious threat to the human hearing apparatus. Every now and then, another dog or homeless, unemployed creep would make an appearance in the long list of sound-related complaints. People preferred train rides of somber tranquility, it seemed to Stan. As much as he liked focusing on the inside of trains, he still kind of agreed, it seemed to him.

Today, it was neither a smell nor a sound that bothered Stan, though. He was sitting in his seat, waiting for the train to begin its journey. While he was looking around the inside of the train, noticing people and faces, luggage and raincoats, a man sat down right in front of him. He would probably not have been standing out all that much if he hadn’t been wearing a big black turban on his head. The man struck Stan as having a particularly eastern-looking face. He couldn’t quite explain this sentiment in words. He remembered seeing documentaries and even feature films about men like this one. The men in those films would look very similar: big turban, heavy bag or briefcase, a nervous, foreign face. They would be entering a bus or a train or a football stadium, and most of the time things would not end well for those men and the people in the busses, trains, and stadiums.

Wow. Stan suddenly realized how racist he was. He really didn’t mean to, but with all the stories about afghan suicide bombers and undercover terrorists, this image had been burned into his mind by now. He tried to picture the man in front of him in a different role. Father of two lovely little kids, husband to a gorgeous woman. They were sitting at the dinner table in some house in suburbia, they were even speaking a good old Christian prayer before they ate. And then the man stood up and shouted something in a language that Stan did not understand. The two kids and the wife looked at him, surprised, scared. The man ripped open his jacket – Stan hadn’t noticed that he was wearing that at the dinner table – pulled some kind of string, and the entire image faded with an explosion in Stan’s mind. Fuck. Stan felt ashamed of himself, ashamed of his one-sided imagination.

“Excuse me, sir?” The foreign-looking man had just addressed him. Stan was petrified.
“I- what- sorry, yes?”
“May I ask why you are staring at me like that?” It struck Stan that the stranger was quite polite. And he wasn’t speaking in a broken accent, either – you racist bastard! He tried to respond.
“Oh, I’m sorry – that was just… your hat – turban! Your turban. It – It’s a little unusual.” This might have been a little too straight-forward. Then again, it wasn’t exactly honest, considering that the truth was much worse. But it wasn’t a lie, either, was it?
“Ah, you’re right. Not many turbans around here.” He grinned at Stan. “It’s a family-thing. My parents came from Israel, you know. I guess, originally, it was a religious thing. But now it’s just a tradition. Remembering your heritage, you know.”
“I see. That’s good to hear, then.” Stan immediately realized that this was a stupid thing to say. The man looked at him suspiciously.
“What do you mean? Why ‘good’?”
“Uhm, er… I mean it’s good to remember your heritage – where you came from and all that. You know, as long as you’re keeping it to simple things like, uhm, headwear.” The man was still staring at Stan. “Right?”
He tilted his turban slightly to the side, narrowed his eyes to a squint, and inquired further: “What would be ways to inappropriately remember your heritage, then? In your opinion?”

Ah, fuck it. He was just gonna say what he was thinking all along, anyway: “Well, you know… here in the more western parts of the world… people often hear these stories. Uhm, of, you know, nationalistic eastern immigrants who, uhm, blow shit up – kill people. I mean they also wear turbans, but, yeah, they also kill people. Seems to me, er, seems to me that goes too far with upholding traditions and such, you know what I mean?”
An awkward pause.
“Is that why you were staring at me?” He looked at Stan with bewilderment. “Did you think I was a terrorist?”
“Uh. No, not that- I thought you might- I mean I thought you reminded me of, what is it called, a- one of those, where you- a stereotype! That’s it! Your turban, you know. Stereotypical.”
“Hehe, you know, not all of us are terrorists.” The man did not seem as offended as Stan had anticipated. “In fact, statistically, most of the people wearing turbans are not.”
“Yeah, I guess. You just- one just only notices those that are terrorists, right?”
“Hm, there might be something to that. But take me, for example. I am probably much closer to your average native than I am to the average immigrant. I married a local girl, I work a desk nine-to-five, I eat fries and a burger for lunch. I take the train like you guys, and like everybody else, I’d appreciate it if that train didn’t blow up while I was on it. I’m still gonna wear my turban, though, and magically, people suspect me of terrorism.”

Stan felt quite guilty.
“Okay, yeah. I am very sorry. I guess since most of us usually don’t talk to unknown people on a train, we just go by visual tokens. You know, things you can see. And then these ridiculous things happen. But, you know, now that we have had a chance to exchange more than just a few superficial looks, I obviously see how stupid I was being.”
“That’s good. I mean, I’m not really all that offended. Maybe I got used to it, maybe I think it’s my own fault for insisting on the turban.”
“I don’t know. I think people shouldn’t be so judgmental – that’s not your fault at all.”
“Fair enough.” He gets up. “Now, I’ll have to quickly go to the toilet, would you mind keeping an eye on my bag?”
“No problem. I’ll only be on the train for another two stops, though, so you better hurry.”
“Don’t worry, it’s not going to take that long.”

Stan watched him walk towards the end of the wagon until he lost him from his sight. Stan found a certain irony in this situation. Now he was making sure a piece of luggage was safe. The very same piece of luggage that he had felt to be a threat to his own safety only a few minutes ago. It made him smile. Things weren’t always what they seemed. The train arrived at a station and stopped. It only stood there for about 25 seconds and Stan began to worry a little bit. What if the man didn’t come back in time? He wouldn’t want to just leave his bag behind – not after he had been this rude to the stranger.

Stan knew that they’d be arriving at his station by 5:57. For once, he looked out the window while the train began moving out of the station. He tried to catch a glimpse of the grand clock to see how much time he had left. But he saw something else, instead. A man wearing a turban was leaning against a pole across the station. It was the same guy, and he was staring directly at Stan, grinning, displaying his raised middle finger. Stan froze for a second and when they had left the train station entirely, he was hit by sheer panic.

Feverishly, he grabbed the bag. It seemed way too heavy for its size. In cold sweat and with trembling hands, Stan grabbed the zipper and pulled it down a few centimeters. He saw a bunch of wires and the blinking of a luminous diode through the small gap that he had opened. He no longer had control over his lower jaw, and his eyes widened just before he, along with the entire wagon and all the other people in it, was torn to pieces by the subsequent explosion originating from the inside of the bag. He didn’t have time to feel satisfied with the fact that he had been right all along.

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