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Globe-spanning super-airline Qatar Airways started life as a 'labour flight' operator in 1994 with a couple of ageing planes - I would have sworn they were Lockheed TriStars, but aviation history tells me they were either A310s or a Boeing 767, running routes like Nepal and Khartoum. When the airline was relaunched in 1997, I was duly brought in to shape the relaunch of their inflight magazine, Oryx. This meant going to Doha and speaking to various people, including interviewing a chef who was going to introduce 'live cooking stations' in first class and new CEO Akbar Al Bakar, which was interesting.
Naturally, I was flown there on Qatar Airways. The airport, back then known to most in the UAE only as a destination for a 'visa hop' was a shabby little place with a single worn out luggage carousel (there may have been two). Never a happy flier, I was double unhappy in a plane that seemed to me, to say the least, held together with sealing wax and string. On the flight back, I settled down and buried myself in my book. After a while a swarthy gentleman of Iranian demeanour dumped down next to me, the doors closed and we started taxiing. My new companion was clearly taken with the various accoutrements of flight, exploring the safety card, inflight and puke bag with the joy of a wondering child. His arm was in a sling and after a while he settled, happily picking at the scab encrusting a huge burn on his forearm.
I stayed buried in my book, in the pose English Traveller Who Does Not Wish To Talk.
'Kallum Arabi?' (You speak Arabic?)
Oh noes. 'La. Ana mu kallum Arabi.' (No.)
Delight. 'Enta kallum Arabi queiss!' (You do, you devil! You just did it, see?)
Emphatic. 'Mafi Arabi.' (I really, really, really, really don't speak Arabic. And I don't want to talk to you. At all. Ever.)
I plunged back into my book and we took off. The seat belt lights went off. My neighbour, bored with exposing areas of newly-healed pink skin, tried again. I ignored him. He took to nudging me. This was too much. I rounded on him with a snapped 'Khalas!' (Stoppit or I'll fetch yer one on the nose).
A silence. Then, 'Enta Ingleez?' (Are you by any chance a gentleman of an English persuasion?)
'Na'am.' (I am deeply exasperated by you, but yes, as you ask.)
And then, triumphantly, furiously, it came. 'Bobby Sands GOOD!'
He must have been terribly disappointed at the reaction to The Mother Of All Insults. I was utterly bewildered. How the hell would this bloke even know who Bobby Sands was, let alone to throw the name of this dead IRA hunger striker at an Englishman? What did he expect, that I would wither like the Wicked Witch of the North? Quail at the name of this hero of the global revolution?
Having delivered himself of his Parthian shot, he went away to find someone he could chatter with and left me, blinking and trying to work out the whole Sands connection. Quite apart from anything else, Sands had died a full sixteen years before this, in 1981. It's not like this was current news or anything (current affairs have a funny way of affecting you when you travel around the Middle East. I was thrown out of a shop in Riyadh once because we had helped America to bomb Libya) but Sands was clearly still held in Iran as an example of one who had stood against British Imperialism and triumphed.
That enduring link between the IRA and the Middle East is a great deal less tenuous than this one to my new novel, A Decent Bomber, which publishes next week on the 5th November, to coincide with the anniversary of another man who flipped the digit at British Authority, one Guido Fawkes. You can, indeed should, pre-order the book using this here handy link!