‘The officer opened my passport and panicked’

The Libyan Airlines ticketing office — you’d be lucky to be able to buy a ticket.

THERE are good airports where you breeze through security and find a comfy seat without a problem, and there are bad, overcrowded and dirty airports, and then, well, there’s this airport.

Frequent traveller Maria Maath has dished on a travel moment she won’t soon forget at Benghazi, Libya, after being asked on Quora: “What crazy experience have you had at an airport or in a flight?”

“I was, for some reason, running late for my international flight from Benghazi airport (technically, it’s called Benina International Airport, and it was 2011). A couple of major international airlines from ‘rebel-friendly’ countries had just opened operations there. By all international standards, though, that airport should have never been allowed to operate, but politics is politics and the decision for these airlines to operate there was a political one.

“So I was arriving late. Admittedly, arriving one hour prior to the scheduled time of departure at this very small airport seemed perfectly reasonable to me, but the ground handling agent seemed to think differently.

“As I got to the ‘counters’, I somehow managed to have someone understand that I was flying on ... let’s call it XX Airlines, shall we (I don’t want to damage their image)? I was told the flight was closed, but since there was so much going on around me, I just stood there watching the kaleidoscope of scenes playing before my eyes.

“I saw people running, rushing around me, some shouting, and then someone else approached me. ‘You flying on XX Airlines?’ ‘Yes’, I replied. He took me to a little crowded office, took my passport and wrote my details on the ‘passenger manifest’. There was no automation, everything is done manually here.

“In the meantime, load control called from the airline’s HDQ, asking for the total number of passengers on board. He replied ‘64’, and I beamed because this would be an empty flight where I’ll be able to stretch out. Keep this in mind as you read along.

“I was given a boarding pass, a blank boarding pass. No name, routing, flight number, seat number or anything else on it. Just a blank boarding pass with the ground handler’s logo on it. I proceeded then to ‘immigration’, manned by newly appointed — or self-appointed? — rebels, who knew little about passports.

“The ‘officer’ opened my passport, by mere chance, on my Iranian visa. He panicked. He looked at me, looked at the visa and called a colleague over. I managed to understand that he thought I was Iranian (why that would be a problem, I’m not sure). Amid claims of me being ‘Iraniyya’, I tried to point to my passport’s cover, or at least the back cover, which has a nice sketch of my country in its geographical context.

“I’m a woman, and an Iranian one, as far as he was concerned, so he wasn’t paying much attention to me. Someone who happened to know me comes to my aid and explained to this nice ‘officer’ that I’m not Iranian and would he look at my passport’s biographical page? After a sigh of relief from both of us, he let me go.

“Boarding gate. There was a kid, probably three-years-old, playing with a toy replica of an AK47. The Libyans all thought he was so cute, playing rebel and all. His parents were proud. All I could think about was that it should have been either confiscated at the screening point or checked in as hold baggage. Nobody thought much of it. I know, I was being unrealistic and unaware of my context.

A kid and a toy AK47. Picture: Maria Maath

A kid and a toy AK47. Picture: Maria Maath

“I looked out the window. Libyan Airlines to Tripoli was boarding. Rebels walked to the aircraft with their fully loaded AK47s, a bag tag attached to each of them, threw them into the holds and then boarded the flight. An image that was so out of place with everything I know about aviation safety and security!

“Not to mention surreal ... rebels flying commercial? I also observed riffraff teams of rebels hanging around the apron, mismatched clothes on, automatic weapons hanging from their shoulders, some were sitting and sipping tea, some walking around, the new red-green-black flag here and there.

“There was a new big sign that read: ‘OUR DESTINATION FREEDOM’ (which reminded me of the sign that greets you at Srinagar airport in Kashmir, ‘Welcome to Paradise’, next to one that gives instructions on how to respond to a hand grenade attack, but that’s another story).

Freedom! Picture: Maria Maath

Freedom! Picture: Maria Maath

“It was now time to board my flight. For some reason, I was ushered in first. I was lucky enough to be able to choose my seat. I settled in, looking forward to some comfort. The flight quickly filled up and it turned out it is full.

“Remember the number the dispatcher had relayed to load control? I wondered then, and still do, how that aircraft was able to complete that flight without any issues, given the disparity in the numbers.

“As for the young rebel with his mock AK47? I thought the crew would be horrified to see it and would immediately order it to be loaded as checked baggage. I was unpleasantly surprised once again by this airline’s lax standards. They wrapped a blanket around the toy, in full view of everyone, and stowed it in the overhead compartment.”

This is actually inside the airport. Picture: Maria Maath

This is actually inside the airport. Picture: Maria Maath

Other related questions asked on the site include:

— What are some unique airports in the world?

— What are the best airport tips?

— What are some things that airline pilots won’t tell you?

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