Hijacked commercial airliners, Dawson Field in Jordan

It seems almost un-American to enjoy delays, and perhaps enjoy is not the best

word, but certainly a delayed flight, if it does nothing else, allows one the opportunity
to make prolonged observations about one’s fellow travelers. ~ Abraham Verghese

September 6, 1970: I had just turned 24 the week before. I was feeling a lot of excitement and anticipation as I boarded an Olympic Airlines 727 (capacity about 150) at the Athens airport for the last leg of my journey from the US to Beirut, Lebanon – with only eleven other passengers. I was on my way to begin a new adventure as a teacher at The American Community School (ACS).

About 30 minutes after takeoff, the plane circled back and landed in Athens again. Something had happened. We knew that. But what? I later learned that five commercial airliners had been hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). One of the planes had landed in Beirut before going on to Dawson Field in Jordan. Thus, the airport was closed. So no flight to Beirut for us and no sense of when we would fly. We were taken to a hotel near the Athens airport.

In that moment, through this circumstance of the unknown, a bond was formed. Twelve total strangers became, at a minimum, distant friends. The only other woman on the flight was merely passing through Beirut on her way to South Africa to join her fiancé. She and I shared a room. Two of the ten others, brothers, were former students at ACS. It turned out that they had attended the school where I would be teaching and they effused about how much they loved it.

There was no internet in those days and I had scrounged our local libraries looking for information on Beirut before leaving home but didn’t find much. I guess there was not much call for it in the US Upper Midwest in those days. So I was starving for whatever these two could tell me about Beirut and, even more, about what daily life was like in this place. They told me about their favorite shawarma places, Johnny the Armenian money changer who always prescribed Turkish coffee before business transactions, what sidewalk cafes on Hamra (the main street of West Beirut) had the best French coffee, and where to get the best fresh flowers. They also told me about how it was possible to ski in the mountains in the morning and swim in the Mediterranean Sea in the afternoon. Very exciting!

We were told to stay in the hotel because we would likely receive very short notice of when our flight would leave for Beirut. Consider: no cell phones, no TV, no Internet, no email, no CNN. Nonetheless, we managed to entertain ourselves. We shared meals together, played cards and charades, completed and then passed our novels around, told stories…. Reflecting, I notice that we had fun. More than we would have had if we’d been glued to ’unfolding events’ over which we had no control anyway. 

A couple of days went by. Then, at 2:00 am of the third night, we got a call telling us to be in the hotel lobby by 3:00 am. We were bussed to the airport where we boarded the plane. We landed in Beirut at sunrise. Even as we were walking across the tarmac toward the terminal and customs, the plane that brought us from Athens took off again. 

“Seen any hijackers lately?” I asked the customs agent with a nervous smile. (It was a different time….) With a laugh and a twinkle in his eye, he said, “Are you kidding? They aren’t even up yet!” With that, I knew I’d be okay.

I smelled the jasmine and felt the early morning heat. The trip had been an emotionally challenging odyssey even before getting to Athens. So it was comforting to finally be arriving in my new home! Every time I traveled over the next two years, I returned to the beautiful smell of jasmine. It became a sign, an affirmation, that I was home.

In terms of my companions on our fearless adventure, even with all that we had experienced and shared together – the immediacy and intimacy, the anxiety and anticipation – we went our own ways. I never again saw anyone with whom I shared this unforgettable and unique experience.


Story pubished in “Welcome to Earth”
September 6, 2022