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I wanted to just love Come From Away

I was ready to love Come From Away. I was ready to dance in the isles, and download the soundtrack. I wanted to listen to it on repeat, and love it forever. 

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 After seeing the show, I ended up listening to the movie soundtrack of Hairspray! instead. Well… one song from Hairspray! The one that plays over the credits of the 2007 movie musical, and isn’t in the Broadway show. It’s called ‘Come So Far.’

 But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

 If you have been living under a rock, Come From Away is a musical written by a Canadian couple about the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, that nearly doubled in population over night. 

 On Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, when US airspace was closed for the first time in history, planes from all around the world were diverted. Thirty-eight of those plans landed in Gander, where 7000 passengers from around the world spent four days being cared for by the people of Newfoundland. 

 The show was very emotional. Even listening to the soundtrack as I write this, there are moments where I get goosebumps. But this hopeful and uplifting story, left me sad and unsettled. And it all came down to one character. A man named Ali. 

 We first meet Ali when the Plane People, as they are called throughout the show, are de-boarding. Their passports are being checked. Ali is from Egypt and gets pulled out of line. 

 “Our bus sits there forever while all the others leave,” a Plane Person says. 

“Finally, this other passenger gets on,” says another.  “This guy from the Middle East.”  “Someone says he got questioned.”  “Someone says he got searched.”  “And now he’s on our bus.”

 These lines being delivered by multiple people creates tension. This tension follows the character of Ali throughout the show.  

 “During El-Fajer,” he says later. “When most people are asleep, it is easier to pray. But at Duhur, I can feel them watching me. Sometimes I catch them when they think I’m not looking. And I can see the fear in their eyes.”

 After this line, one of the Newfoundlanders offer him a quiet place to pray. 

 In something of a climax of tension, this exchange happens in a song called “On The Edge.”  

 Ali: (Speaking Arabic on the phone.)

Passenger 11: Hey, hey! What the Hell you sayin'?

Ali: I beg your pardon?

Passenger 11: You celebrating this? You praying for your friends? Why doesn’t he speak English?

Ali: Excuse me?

Passenger 8: You telling your Muslim friends where to bomb next?

Ali: This was not all Muslims! And I was not –

Passenger 11: Go back where you came from!

Passenger 2: I’m Muslim and I was born in Connecticut. I’m an American citizen!

Passenger 11: You don’t look American!

Passenger 2: What does that even mean?

This is the only picture I could find of Ali in character.

This is the only picture I could find of Ali in character.

 When the planes are ready to leave, Ali is questioned again. 

 “I am responsible for the safety of my passengers and my crew,” the female pilot says. “Security tells me, any perceived threats must be taken extremely seriously.”

Ali is strip searched in front of the pilot. He tells the audience, in his faith, it is forbidden for a woman, other than his wife, to see him naked. 

“I’m so very sorry that happened,” the Pilot tells him after.

“Am I free to go now?” he asks. 

Talking about race relations is tough at the best of times, let alone as a subplot in a musical. Even in Hairspray!, a musical about race relations, it isn’t perfect, because there is no perfect. Both Come From Away and Hairspray! show an ugly side of humanity that often comes out when we are afraid. I can appreciate that. 

There is a line in the Hairspray! song ‘Come So Far’ that says, “What’s gone is gone, what’s past is past.” 

I think that’s right. We can’t change the way people dealt with a very frightening situation. We can’t re-write history so minorities appear to be treated better or majorities understand and apologize for their actions. That wouldn’t be the right way either. “Let’s move past the bad times, but before those memories fade, Let’s forgive but not forget, and learn from all the mistakes we’ve made.” Hairspray! got that line really right.

For me, Come From Away forgot. 

“I am so very sorry this happened.” 

What is the pilot apologizing for here? The strip search she condoned? The disrespect of his faith by her staying in the room? The mistreatment he endured from other passengers? The attack on the World Trade Centers? What? 

That, and a joke about fish and cheese is all the musical gave us in terms of dealing with what happened to Ali. It’s not enough. 

Not two years ago, Twitter blew up with screen shots of text conversation of American Muslims begging their daughters not to wear their hijab. 

Last week in Montreal, two aspiring teachers were denied employment because they wore religious symbols. Another teacher was told she would be not get a contract, unless she consented to remove her hijab at work. 

And the worst part is, the school board is respecting Bill 21, a law put in place this summer that prohibits public servants from wearing religious symbols at work. 

You can put a cross or a Star of David under your shirt. If you think Bill 21 is not religious persecution, you’re wrong.      

“I am so very sorry this happened.” 

I really wanted to love just Come From Away. I wanted to just watch a musical about good people and leave it at that. I couldn’t. It made me feel too much. It made me think too much.

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The racism and islamophobia displayed in the days, weeks, and months, surrounding 9/11 is understandable. Not right, not acceptable, but I can understandable why people felt that way. They were scared. But make no mistake, then and now, it is a phobia. An irrational fear. 

I wanted something from the show saying we can be better. That maybe we should have been better... but that we have learned from the experience and are better now.

Ali’s story is not relegated to the pages of history. Islamophobia is still a huge problem today. 

What’s gone is gone, the past is the past. We can forgive, and we can learn. We can remember, it is never acceptable to discriminate against someone because of their race or religion. We can remember history never ends up on the side of such discrimination. 

I enjoyed Come From Away. If I had the chance to see it again, I would. The show really made me smile and laugh. The show made me feel. But it could have done better, because just like they say in Hairspray!, “I know we’ve come so far, but baby, we’ve got so far to go.”

 

HannaH Sunley-Paisley