An airport is a world of its own.

There is something exciting about the giant glass windows and the whitewashed walls of a terminal, something mysterious and magical about the personnel running around in their white collared shirts and blue vests, light glinting off their gold name tags. When you step inside the building and the automatic glass doors close off the outside world behind you, you are enveloped in a whole new society, a whole new culture.

At the end of my Georgetown career, I will have spent a significant percentage of my life in airports – not because I’m always jet-setting or because I have a ton of money to spend on travel, but purely because of the fact that home is about 7,000 miles away, and every time I return to my family for summer or winter break, I have to make my way through an airport.

y favorite thing about airports is people-watching; no matter which airport in the world you pass through, there are certain types of travelers you will undoubtedly encounter.

The harried mother, whether covered in a head-to-toe blue burqa in Peshawar International Airport or dressed in a purple velour tracksuit in Hartsfield-Atlanta International Airport, is an airport fixture, with her army of mischievous little kids trailing behind her. The nonchalant businessman, shuffling along in his expensive camelskin sheb-sheb sandals in Dubai International Airport or strolling in brown Bontonis in Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport, will be conducting some business deal or another over a cell phone while holding up the frequent flyers’ boarding line. The nervous first-timers, the over-eager tourists, the impatient children – all varieties are ubiquitous in airport culture.

The airport is a strange place; it both divests one of one’s identity and hyperbolizes it. When an Iranian college student, wearing a headscarf dotted with the Yves St. Laurent logo and holding the latest edition of Vogue, stands anxiously as Amsterdam airport security searches her bag, her college-student-ness is overshadowed by her Muslim-ness. A middle-aged, married American expatriate traveling alone in Riyadh will be required to go through a separate “males only” line with teenage boys ogling girls in the “families only” line. This time, the man’s male-ness and absence of wife and kids typecast him as part of the ogling crew rather than as one of the family men who accompany their spouses during their travels.

The airport really is a world of its own, filled with particular personalities – at once the essential melting pot and the quintessential sieve. It is a place that welcomes and shuns at the same time.

College, at times, reminds me of this same peculiar phenomenon. I have definitely felt like a number, not a person, while sitting in my Principles of Microeconomics class, for example. That said, I have felt my identity exaggerated as, for instance, the only Muslim in my Problem of God class.

Both experiences elicit clashing responses: nervousness at not being recognizable to the economics professor (but relief at the same time), and both pride and embarrassment for being singled out in Problem of God. It is a very strange feeling, and I’m sure that the Iranian student or the Saudi man who has been through such experiences doesn’t necessarily see it as positive – but somewhere deep down inside, the Iranian might feel a quiet pride and defiance, the man a muffled smirk of camaraderie.

So when the automatic doors do close behind you, whether in Washington Dulles International Airport or in the Rafik B. Hariri building, embrace the ambivalence and paradox of a world removed from the rest of the world.

Hijab Shah is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. She can be reached at Behind the Veil appears every other Friday.

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