As he mentions in the comments:
Like Annie Jacobsen, I recently took a long Northwest Airlines flight, #53 from Amsterdam to Detroit, on which I observed several Middle Eastern passengers. Including one who sat down immediately next to me! Blocking my access to the aisle! Who then began reading a book full of Arabic! And looking nervously around the plane! Oh my god, oh my god, help me, we're all going to DIE! EEAHEEAHEEAHEEAHEEAH!
As I girded my metaphorical loins in anticipation of poisoning my seatmate to death with the remains of my so-called "chicken" "dinner", she turns to me and asks where I'm from. Turns out she was flying to Nashville, my hometown, where she is a nursing student and her husband a mechanical engineer, after a two-month visit to her family in Tehran. We had a lovely chat about living in the South, and the current troubles in Iraq. She showed me several pictures of her family at various gatherings (a birthday party, her cousin's engagement), including several fascinating pictures of the ruins at Persepolis. We landed in Detroit without indicent [sic] and wished each other well.
...she wasn't actually reading Arabic, but Farsi. (It was a book about Persepolis.) But the differences between the Farsi, Urdu, and Arabic alphabets are pretty subtle to uneducated westerners like myself, not to mention all those other languages that use Arabic scripts. For all I knew, she could have been reading Turkish or Kashmiri.Indeed. Consider the case of the friendly folk of Midwest Airlines, who sadly didn't show the same level of restraint:
Midwest Airlines canceled a flight ready to take off for San Francisco after a passenger found Arabic-style handwriting in the company's in-flight magazine and alerted the crew.
The plane, carrying 118 passengers and five crew members, had already pulled away from the gate at Mitchell International Airport Sunday evening. It returned to the gate, the passengers got off, security authorities were notified, all luggage was checked and the aircraft was inspected. Nothing was found. The passengers were put up in nearby hotels and booked on a Monday morning flight.
The writing was in Farsi, the language used in Iran, said airline spokeswoman Carol Skornicka. She said she didn't know exactly what the writing said but was similar to a prayer, ``something of a contemplative nature.''