Insightful, funny, moving, politically astute — these are the phrases that sum up Airplane Mode. The book consists of a series of interlinked chapters, in which author Shahnaz Habib turns the travel narrative on its head.
Informed by extensive reading of travel narratives from Ibn Battuta to Paul Theroux, as well as by postcolonial scholarship by Edward Said and Mary Louise Pratt, Habib explores who travels, why they travel, and how the history of Empire, race, and gender shape travel experiences.
The book opens with the author in Turkey, undertaking travel differently from a typical tourist who has a list of monuments and sights to check off. After wandering in Istanbul in-between sleeping frequently, she goes to find the tomb of Jalaluddin Rumi and experiences a Sufi moving meditation, or whirling dervish, where as a Muslim woman, she does not experience segregation by gender during prayer.
Different chapters explore different travel moments in her life — from migration to the U.S. to travels in Ethiopia or wanderings in Brooklyn as a mother with an infant. She explores the history of travel in the 19th century when British gentlemen undertook the Grand Tour as part of their coming of age and self-discovery, or colonial trips of exploration that led to “discoveries,” which she prefers to call pseudiscoveries since the indigenous people of these places already knew them.
European male travelers helped establish the tourism industry as we now know it and for them, places were objects to be viewed and controlled. Habib explores her own subjectivity in these spaces.
For example, she writes of her trip to Ethiopia with a friend to see the Lalibela churches and writes of how the Ethiopian bureaucrats control water from a dam to ensure that white tourists get to see the Blue Nile in its full force. They turn off the water once the tourists leave. In between conversations with Ethiopians while chewing chat, she briefly describes the beauty of the churches. What leaves a lasting impression, however, is her early morning walk to the waterfall where she observes numerous birds flying in and out of the cascading waters and recognizes that they are playing. To her, the sheer joy of the birds dipping in and out of the water epitomizes the joy of travel.
Habib’s narrative underscores the differences between Third World (a term she prefers to use ) and First World travelers — passports and bureaucracy. Holders of U.S. passports often travel to numerous countries without any concerns about visas or fear of being stopped and questioned by immigration authorities. She writes of her white American husband and her experience with this passport discrimination.
When the couple plans a babymoon in Paris, her green card is being processed by Homeland Security and she needs “Advance Parole” (yes, this is the actual phrase used by the government) to facilitate getting a French visa. Her husband with an American passport has no such need. She writes of the many documents she must gather, the struggles to navigate two bureaucracies, French and American, and ultimately the disappointment of a trip that did not materialize.
That chapter ends with a sweet encounter between the couple and a pair of itinerant Quebecois musicians who are wandering through the U.S. playing on streets and doing odd gigs to pay for their travel. In return for Habib’s hospitality, they cook her and her husband a French meal and replicate a Parisian café experience for them in their small apartment.
Habib also writes eloquently about family life. As the mother of an infant, she rides buses across Brooklyn with her child to satisfy her wanderlust and explains the joy of being unfettered by gender as she wanders through the city on different bus routes and meets people who welcome her and her infant on their commute through the city.
She writes of her father — a man who loathes travel but nevertheless visits her in Brooklyn when she has her baby. She speaks of his voracious reading as a form of travel and notes that his cosmopolitanism is different from that of a world traveler. He is a man rooted in his Kerala home and its cuisine made from local coconuts and homegrown mangoes and whose biggest passion while traveling in New York is visiting the local markets for fresh produce. Yet, with his daily deep reading of newspapers, he is most knowledgeable about the political happenings in countries across the globe.
Habib’s book is rich and her narrative voice analytic, historically informed, and passionate. It is a particularly relevant book in a world where post-COVID, people have begun to travel extensively, where travel to certain places is on bucket lists, and when travel is not just for the pleasure of experiencing another culture or place, but also for Instagram. Habib compels us to engage in the politics of travel.
Shahnaz Habib will be in conversation with Sonora Jha at Third Place Books Ravenna at 7 p.m. on Jan. 4, 2024.