The airport departure lounge as human zoo

I love BBC wildlife documentaries. I love the narrator Sir David Attenborough as he slowly advances through the bush and foliage in search of the mountain gorilla or the rare skunk up the tree.

In the departure lounge of Istanbuls Ataturk Airport, where I spent a few good hours, I pretended to be Sir David Attenborough…you see the departure lounges of modern airports are excellent places for human wildlife spotting!

But before you venture forth on your human wildlife spotting the first thing you must do is find yourself a good spot. A nice cosy central spot with a wide-eyed view, like a ships ‘crows nest’ from where you can watch (with a mischievous grin on your face) the circus that is humanity.

There is no other place in the world but the airport departure lounge where you will be in such close proximity to such a variety and motley of people’s. And all under one roof!

Breathing the same air!

Walking on the same shiny floor.

Using the same toilets.

Pissing into the same bowls…

You have bearded Islamist types in their traditional Salwar Kameez’s shopping for cigarettes in the Duty Free Shop and gently shaking their heads in disagreement at the alcoholic beverages! (secretly they probably want to try a sip). You have upright loud Germans; very efficient and punctual with straight backs (someone is going to kill me for this) wondering why things are not as efficient here as in Germany. You have loud barking Chinese men huddled together in groups. You have Arab men in their flowing garbs with their wives a respectable distance behind. You have groups of Indian men nodding their heads side-to-side like clock pendulums. Women in colourful saris. Men in dish dashes. Crazy afros. You have suited and booted European dandy gentlemen mingling with Somalians. You have solo travellers with backpacks who’ve not had a shower for weeks. You have gangs of youths on their way somewhere for a weekend of heavy drinking and debauchery and sex. You have the pious on their way to Mecca on more important matters of the spirit…

The variety of the Human Zoo is astounding! The recipe of people so vast.

There are people with manners and people with none! A woman customer at the Burger King barks orders at the staff. “I want this. I want that”. She takes her time oblivious of the queue unfolding behind her. She doesn’t say ‘thank you’. Nor does she say ‘please’. I felt like punching her in the face and dragging her out of the airport kicking and screaming. Stupid cow. Sorry – Oops, a good wildlife documentary maker must not interfere with the wildlife…he must watch, and listen, and record what he see’s and what he hears.

There is the group of Pakistani men who have never seen a woman before ogling and staring at a single lone female in the coffee bar. She appears to be reading but these men seem to think she’s there for the taking. The human sex drive is most powerful. Reproduction a constant taskmaster that whips young hot headed men into a fury. The lone female is not interested at the advances and she ignores them, reading her book, not flinching. Eventually the men give up, and head off in search of easier prey elsewhere…

The Airport Departure lounge is also a good place to advertise your ‘worth’. Many strut about in their best outfits attracting admiring glances. Everybody loves to be admired and coveted and loved. They wear fancy jewellery, expensive watches, and designer hand bags. So they lack inner worth so much, that they need to manufacture it with material trifles? Such is the buffoonery of the human species…

Not only is there mingling of shoulders, and subtle glances hither and thither – there is also mingling of germs, bacteria and viruses. All these people, from all corners of the globe, are vessels of unique strains of flu viruses and other exotics. The airport departure lounge is a melting pot, a test tube where these various microorganisms mingle and mix across different hosts. Flu viruses from China cross over into the epithelial linings of the European businessman – and vice versa. I watch the viruses and germs spread – you touch the toilet door handle – and you catch something you weren’t expecting…

The babble of tongues under one roof is spellbinding. Amongst the constant hum of talking, I try and make out individual languages, trying to recognise something I understand, but it is impossible. The colourful dialects and idioms all fall into one pot and what rises in the high roof is an amorphous mass of nothing.

I watch the human zoo. I watch their behaviour like an evolutionary anthropologist or a behavioural scientist. I bring many tools to the fore to study them.

Who do people look at? I find that people spend more time looking at people of their own race. An Indians eyes will merely flicker over a Japanese man, but when he see’s another Indian, his eyes latch on, and stare. He’s mind is calculating, wondering where this fellow countryman is from. What he does. How much money he is worth. We tend to latch on to what we recognise. People find it harder to read the body language of other races. Much easier to read the body language of your own race or of people you have spent much time with.

The human zoo in the airport departure lounge is a seething mass of biological matter. it spreads, it concentrates, it gravitates – it swarms like fish in the ocean. It is like a single vast organism. A conglomeration of cells. Where is the central nervous system of this mass? Is it like a bee hive, or is it driven by individual selfish interests?

The human animal in the human zoo watches other humans carefully. Remember we are still wild animals with wild jungle instincts. We are kept in check by a thin layer of ‘society’ and ‘civility’. But underneath, in our brains we are still calculating: Is he dangerous? Is he safe? Where shall I sit? Shall I sit next to the Angolan or next to the other man who looks more like me? Microsecond decision making and most of it unconscious. Most of this decision making we are not aware of, is not driven by ‘us’ but by deeply buried automatic instinctual drives and rules of thumb.

Who people sit next to. Why they sit next to certain people and not others? How people make such decisions and what it tells us about the Human Animal – these are questions I ponder.

To have lived on earth, and not explored such things – is not to have lived on earth. But there is no privileged position. No correct way. Just different ways.

…Well, actually that’s not strictly true. You should always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and be polite, and be aware of the sensibilities of the people around you – if you don’t, I might just punch your face!


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