Shawn Hubler

The hardest word in English – or Arabic

UC Berkeley student Khairuldeen Makhzoomi wants a public apology for his treatment by Southwest Airlines.
UC Berkeley student Khairuldeen Makhzoomi wants a public apology for his treatment by Southwest Airlines. Photo courtesy of Khairuldeen Makhzoomi

Certain words speak volumes. I know psychologists who can diagnose the mental health of a person by the way he or she says hello and goodbye.

Or thank you. Or you’re welcome. Or whether he or she can apologize.

An apology is all Khairuldeen Makhzoomi wants from Southwest Airlines, and who can blame him? The company publicly humiliated the UC Berkeley student after he was overheard saying “God willing” in Arabic into his cellphone on an airplane earlier this month.

You’ve probably heard Makhzoomi’s story. It’s one of those “flying while Muslim” profiling nightmares that seem to be happening way too often in this Muslim-bashing campaign season. Makhzoomi, 26, was waiting for his flight to take off on April 6 from Los Angeles to Oakland when he decided to quickly call his uncle in Iraq and tell him about an event he’d attended the night before, a dinner with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, at which the subject of the Islamic State had come up and Makhzoomi got to ask a question.

It was a proud moment: Makhzoomi, who had come to the U.S. in 2010, had been a refugee since adolescence and had worked his way through community college to get to Berkeley. His father, an Iraqi diplomat, had been sent to prison by Saddam Hussein and died there.

“So my uncle told me to call him when I get to Oakland, and I said, ‘inshallah, inshallah, I will call you when I arrive,’ ” Makhzoomi told me.

The Arabic words, which literally mean, “if Allah wills it,” are a stock phrase in the language, a kind of cross between “con el favor de Dios” and “knock on wood,” or, as the former Al Jazeera America news host Wajahat Ali wrote in a very funny Facebook post this week, “the Muslim equivalent of ‘Fuggedaboutit.’ 

But the utterance, apparently overheard by a fellow passenger who also spoke Arabic and thought Makhzoomi had said something about being a martyr, created a bilingual furor. The student looked up from his phone and saw her staring at him from a few feet away, and then hustling toward the flight attendants.

Makhzoomi was escorted off of the plane, and when he bristled – “I told them, ‘This is what Islamophobia has gotten this country into’ ” – he was taken back to the gate, met by security officers with dogs, searched in front of a crowd, questioned by the FBI and generally treated like a criminal before the authorities eventually determined he was just a guy talking to his uncle on a cellphone.

At that point, Southwest and the FBI could have said one little word that would have spoken volumes: Sorry. A sincere delivery might have even prompted the angry student to take a breath, make eye contact with the fallible humans around him, and reciprocate.

Instead, Makhzoomi was given a refund and left to find his way back to campus on Delta Air Lines, eight hours late for his classes. By the time he got home, he was so upset that he told the UC Berkeley newspaper, the Daily Cal, about the outrage.

Only after the national media picked up the story did he hear from the airline. “I told them, ‘You should make a statement in public,’ ” Makhzoomi said, still fuming. “I told them, ‘Why are you calling me now?’ 

This is an obvious point, so please forgive me, but there’s something wrong with people – and companies, and political candidates, and institutions – who can’t say they’re sorry for mistakes.

Maybe polarization has just completely obliterated our judgment. Maybe social media has created so many witnesses that we can’t afford to admit the littlest error.

But we seem to have forgotten that we have at our disposal certain time-honored words that can take some of the edge off error and injustice, and that saying them isn’t a cop-out, or politically correct, or weak, or some breach of fiduciary duty. Across the political, social, legal and cultural spectrum, our refusal to say them has created a civilizationwide grudgefest.

Even children know that no one is perfect and it takes two to tangle. So some might say Makhzoomi could have been more sensitive about speaking Arabic on an American airplane post-9/11 and post-San Bernardino, or about sharing anecdotes in which terrorism might be mentioned.

But some might also say that a guy ought to be able to brag to his relatives in their native language, and enough is enough with the throwing people off of planes to reassure passengers who are afraid of Muslims, already.

It’s not as if Makhzoomi was flying Podunk Air to Boondocks International Airport in wartime. Los Angeles and Oakland are among the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. This was a fluent English speaker who had spent the prior evening with the secretary-general of the United Nations.

Was it really so difficult for Southwest to see, in a few words, that there had been a misunderstanding? And once that was clear, was it really so hard to back down and remember that “better safe than sorry” isn’t the same as “safe means never having to say you’re sorry”?

And by the way, did anyone stop to wonder whether the problem might have been with the other passenger?

Makhzoomi is talking to lawyers now, though he has not yet filed a lawsuit. This week, he reiterated to me that all he really wants is a public apology.

Unfortunately, so far, the closest Southwest has come is a statement saying that they followed protocol and “regret any less than positive experience a Customer has onboard our aircraft.”

Yes, and the rest of us regret any defensiveness a flight attendant, FBI agent or person in the next seat might feel because they overreacted.

But, I’m sorry. That doesn’t make it OK.