Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Girl On A Plane by Miriam Moss

Fifteen year old Anna Milton's father is in the British Army so she's grown up in places all over the world. Her father's been stationed in Bahrain for the past few years. When she was eleven, Anna's
parents decided to send her to boarding school in England and whenever they can afford to, she travels home to be with them on the holidays.

Now in early September, 1970, her entire family is returning to England because her father has been reassigned there. This means they will not be returning to Bahrain. First to leave will be Anna who is returning to her boarding school, followed by her brothers, nine-year-old Sam and eleven-year-old Mark who will fly out a few days later. Her parents will Bahrain at the end of the week. Anna tells her mother, whom she calls Marni, that people at last night's party were talking about the recent plane hijackings and joked that it would be her turn next. But Marni's mother assures her that things
will be fine.

The next day Anna is driven to the airport and boards a white BOAC VC10 aircraft for the flight to England. On the plane, Anna is seated between two boys, an older boy named David and a younger boy named Tim who has a terrapin in a little container. However, minutes after take-off, the plane is hijacked by the PFLP - the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. There is a hijacker in the cockpit of the plane with the pilot, Captain Gregory as well as one in the passenger cabin. The captain asks everyone to remain calm and tells them that the hijackers have ordered him to fly to Beirut to refuel and then onto to Jordan where the plane will land on the Revolutionary Airstrip in the Jordanian desert.

Anna is completely terrified especially when the captain also indicates that there is a third hijacker located in the seats carrying a briefcase filled with explosives. The passengers are asked to turn in their passports to the hijackers. Anna notes that the one hijacker is a giant and the other one is heavily perspiring so the three children nickname the two hijackers "Giant" and "Sweaty". Anna wonders why the hijackers want their passports and David tells her they probably are looking for Israelis. He
informs Anna and Tim that the PFLP hijacked four planes on Sunday; two were taken to the Jordanian desert, one was blown up in Cairo after the passengers and crew were removed but on the fourth plane, an Israeli El Al plane, the hijackers were overpowered by the crew. One hijacker was killed, the other is now in prison in London. It was the Israeli plane the PFLP really wanted.

Anna wonders if her parents know what is happening, that she's been hijacked. And in fact they do learn about it fairly quickly. Meanwhile the stewardesses, Rosemary and Celia hand out drinks to the passengers. While David is able to eat his lunch, Anna is too upset to eat anything, a decision she will come to regret later on. The plane lands in Beirut where it is refueled and two more hijackers arrive, a woman and a man. They then take off and fly to the Revolutionary Airstrip in Jordan. The crew is ordered to shut down the engines, but the captain and the navigator object telling them that there will be no air conditioning and no functioning toilets. And with the plane being in the desert, conditions will soon become unbearable. The hijackers do not relent however and the engines are turned off.

Soon the plane becomes sweltering. Rosemary enlists Anna to help her salvage whatever unopened food remains from the lunches to distribute to the passengers, giving Anna a package of crackers and tiny can of pineapple juice to share with David and Tim. Soon it is announced that anyone with an Arab, Asian or Indian passport is allowed to leave the plane. The remaining passengers are allowed a short time at the door of the plane for fresh air. As night falls, and oppressive heat of the desert turns to bone-chilling cold, the plane is visited by the second-in-command, a striking woman accompanied by two heavily armed guards. She is hostile and threatens the passengers with death. Anna is both shocked and terrified, as the other hijackers have not acted this way towards them. "Are they going to kill us now? Mow us down? Is that what she is saying? Why would she speak like this otherwise? My mind whirls. I feel disbelief and panic. I feel sick."

When the captain tells her they have children on board, the woman flies into a rage, threatening to shoot him. She tells the hostages that "If your prime minister doesn't release our comrade Leila Khaled in London by midday on Saturday, you will ALL DIE. We will blow up the whole plane with you in it....Or maybe... we will kill you all, one...by...one."

For the next three days, Anna must try to control her overwhelming fear and panic, her sense of hopelessness and try to survive under gruelling conditions in the Jordanian desert, where there is not only the threat of the terrorists but also the threat of being caught in the middle of a civil war in Jordan.


Girl On A Plane is a fictionalized account of the author's own experience in this exact event. Miriam Moss was a young passenger on the BOAC plane that was hijacked that day in 1970. She sat in the plane rigged with explosives for four days as negotiations went on to free the hostages. After she was released, Miriam went on to live her life but like many survivors of traumatic events, never wrote about it. This novel attempts to convey to younger readers what it was like living through a hijacking.

The history of the Middle East, specifically Israel and Palestine is complicated at best. In order to better understand the situation Anna, David and Tim found themselves placed in the novel, some background history will help.

Historical background for the novel:

1947 Partition Map
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has its basis in a historical dispute over land which both the Jewish and Palestinian people lay claim to.  Modern Palestine is defined as the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.  Palestine has been controlled by many different conquerors through the centuries - for example,  in Jesus's time it was the Romans. After World War I though, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire meant that large areas of the Middle East were without state.

The Council of the League of Nations entrusted Great Britain with the administration of the territory of Palestine in July 24th, 1922 Mandate. Great Britain was authorized by the Allied Powers to establish a national home for the Jewish people while taking into account the rights of the nonJewish population of the region. In 1937 the Peel Commission recommended that Palestine be divided into two separate states, one Jewish and one Arab. Neither group found this solution to be acceptable; for the Jews it meant they would have a territory of only 5000 square kilometers out of 26,000 square kilometers. The Arabs rejected the plan because it meant accepting the existence of a Jewish state. The Jews decided to negotiate with the British.

In 1939 the British White Paper proposed that an Arab state be established within ten years in Palestine and that Jewish immigration be restricted. The Arabs turned this down too. When World War II ended and the extend of the Nazi persecution of Europe's Jews became known, it was evident that a safe homeland was required. Unable to broker a deal, the British turned the problem over to the newly created United Nations in 1947. The UN proposed that there be two states, one Arab, one Jewish with the city of Jerusalem administered by the UN as an international state city. While the Jewish population was unhappy with this, especially since Jerusalem was separated from their state, nevertheless they accepted the U.N. Partition Plan. The Arabs once again did not. Even a last ditch attempt to secure a deal was unsuccessful and Arab League Secretary Azzam Pasha set the tone: "Mr. Horowitz, that your plan is rational and logical, but the fate of nations is not decided by rational logic. Nations concede; they fight. You won't get anything by peaceful means or compromise. You can, perhaps, get something, but only by the force of your arms. We shall try to defeat you. I am not sure we'll succeed but we'll try."

Map of Israel 2016
Courtesy CIA World Factbook

The UN went ahead with its plan, the British troops were to withdraw and their Mandate terminated by August 1948, and the Partition Plan implemented in October, 1948. The day before the British Mandate expired, the Jewish state was declared but the Arabs immediately declared war on the State of Israel. This was the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, which the Israelis won and which saw them gain some areas originally to be under Arab control. In 1967, the Six Day War was also won by Israel and saw them gain control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. U.N. Resolution 242 called for the Israeli withdrawal from all seized land in the Six Day War. However the Israelis decided to place Jewish settlements into the Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank, displacing thousands of Palestinians. The Palestinian refugees along with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) fled to Jordan. In September of 1970, King Hussein of Jordan declares war on the PLO, the four airplanes are hijacked and the events in the novel, Girl On A Plane transpire.

Moss's focus in her novel is not so much on the politics of the hijacking but more the personal struggle of Anna to cope during the hijacking. Nevertheless she does weave some of the politics into the story for her young readers without losing the focus on her characters.

For example, the stewardess, Rosemary gives Anna some of the back story to the hijackers. She tells Anna they have been talking to the hijacker they refer to as the Giant who has told them they are all Palestinians who have been living in refugee camps in Jordan for years. Because they feel their cause has been ignored by the world they are doing this to gain attention. They are desperate to return to their homes. Rosemary states that they are all to help by sending the British Prime Minister, Ted Heath, telegrams asking him to release jailed hijacker Leila Khaled.

Anna eventually is able to talk with one of the young hijackers named Jamal. She asks Jamal how he can be a part of the hijacking of innocent people, keeping them like animals on the plane. He tells her that his family had a farm with orange groves. The Israelis wanted the land and that his parents were shot dead as they fled their home. He and his brother hid until dark and then left. He asks Anna, "...where would you be if that had happened to you?"

Later on Jamal speaks with David and Anna.  David confronts Jamal, asking him what happened after his parents were murdered. Jamal attempts to justify his actions by what has happened to him: telling David they first went to live with relatives but that they too had to flee to Jordan. When David shows little sympathy, Jamal reminds him that when this is over he will return to his homeland. Jamal has "no home, family, passport, possessions. No security, no education..." David presses Jamal to explain why he specifically and his family and Anna should pay for this? Jamal tells him they want to bring their plight to the attention of the world. He tells Tim, David and Anna that he and the other Palestinians want to go back to Palestine. "All we want is to go back home to our land. That is all that drives us." Jamal also tells them that the angry woman hijacker hates the English because "They were the ones who gave our land away to the Jews..." David points out to Jamal that while he considers the land to be his, the Jews also have a historical claim to the same land and they had also been forced from the same land.

The conversation between Jamal and Anna, David and Tim serves to present to young readers the complex situation in the Middle East and specifically presents the Palestinian side of things. However,what Jamal tells David is not entirely accurate: while the British did give SOME of the land to the Jews, not all the land claimed by the Arab League was given to them. In fact the Jewish people received only 5000 square kilometers of the total land of Palestine. It was the Arabs who refused to accept any claim by the Jewish people to the land and any right to exist as a nation. Instead, they chose to start a war which eventually has cost thousands of lives, and ultimately the loss of some of their land.

Moss effectively portrays Anna's struggles to cope with the psychological and emotional distress of being held hostage. There is no doubt this event has an significant impact on Anna. Anna gradually begins to identify with the hijackers on some level in what appears to be a mild and developing case of Stockholm Syndrome. Despite the horrible situation Anna has been put into, she notes the humanity of the hijackers.  When Anna along with the other passengers is allowed to access her luggage outside the plane she and the other women are told to pose with the hijackers for a picture. Despite the group's terror when the women are separated from the men for a photo with the hijackers, Anna remarks "They're just men, somebody's brother, somebody's father, someone's uncle. I begin to relax. They're refugees. They're homeless. They're men with a cause. " Anna finds herself feeling some sympathy for the men and empathy for the fact that they are homeless.

Her discussions with Jamal, at first political, become more personal. And later when Anna is safe in Amman, she wishes she could have said good bye to Jamal and the Giant. "I think of Jamal and the Giant back out there with the planes and wonder what they're doing, how they are, whether they're safe. And I feel so sorry not to have said goodbye, not to have ever said how brave I though they were."

Nevertheless, the stress of coping is overwhelming throughout her ordeal. For example, on the last night Ann states that she tries "pretending nothing significant is happening. I push dangerous thoughts to one side, and when I fail, I have to stand up, leave the others, walk away,recover, return,sit back down again." Considering the possibility that she might die the next day Anna's thoughts turn to her family, remembering each member with a particular fondness. The next morning when the captain begins giving instructions to the crew, Anna is ready to be sick. When they learn they are to be freed, Anna is stunned and relieved but these emotions are quickly replaced by "a quiet dread, the dread that someone or something might jeopardize this fragile chance of freedom." Anna also feels fear over leaving the plane as "going outside, away from it, feels incredibly dangerous too."

The struggle to cope continues even after the hostages are released. When she arrives in Amman, the aggressiveness of the reporters and her separation from David and Tim add to Anna's distress. "I lean over and look in the mirror. My face is clean. Really clean. I lean in closer, look into the eyes. Who are you? Who are you now? I don't recognize the girl staring back. She looks different. Her eyes are wild and a bit frightening. I back away. What have I become.?" Anna struggles to trust the belief that she is going home, as she thinks "Somewhere inside my head, the switch that makes sense of everything has been turned OFF, and it feels awful."

Anna, David and Tim manage to board their plane to Cyprus, but others find getting on another plane so soon after the hijacking to be psychologically difficult. Even Anna finds herself wondering if she should save part of her breakfast on the plane, just in case... Adding to Anna's distress is the possibility that she might have to go straight to her boarding school when her name is not on the list of people who have family waiting for them in London.

Even when she arrives in London and is with her parents, Anna still doesn't feel safe. "Yes, I'm safe. I hear the words, but I don't feel safe. Not yet. It's like I have a lot of unsafe to get out of my system first." And when a photographer comes to their hotel room Anna doesn't want to answer questions and feels annoyed at how her parents and the photographer view her experience in such a trivial way. Later when viewing the planes which are exploded by the hijackers, Anna becomes extremely upset, feeling a part of her has been destroyed. Her mother promises her, "You will find yourself again...You will be safe Anna, and calm Anna, again. I promise..."

The beginning and the end of the novel are engaging and interesting, but pacing in the middle of the novel is somewhat slow. We feel the drag of time as Anna and the passengers wait for three days for their fate to be decided. The middle of the novel focuses on Anna's struggles to cope with the deteriorating conditions on the plane. She also learns about the motives behind the hijacking and has personal contact with the hijackers. Girl On A Plane is a good addition though, to the canon of historical fiction because it covers events not written about. With hijackings a relatively rare event today, the PLO terrorism and hijackings of the 1960's and '70's have been largely forgotten.

Interestingly according to a spreadsheet on the Virtual Jewish Library website which lists terrorist attacks on Israel from 1968 to 1973, Palestinian terrorists who hijacked airplanes were almost unanimously freed, making this form of terrorism a successful means to bring attention to their cause. Even in cases where large numbers of innocent people were injured or killed, the perpetrators of these attacks were almost always set free, had sentences commuted or were returned to Palestinian terror groups. It's hard to feel sympathy for the Palestinian cause in light of these facts.

A more detailed summary from both the Arab and Israeli point of view can be found in this detailed document titled "History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict" from the PBS website.

Information regarding the Dawons Field hijacking can be found on the VC10 website. And a recent NY Times article, Why Airline Hijackings Became Relatively Rare is also worth reading.

An article about Leila Khaled, the PLF member who was released because of the hijackings.

Book Details:

Girl On A Plane by Miriam Moss
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt       2016
274 pp.

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