Houmous and Humanity

Catherine with the contraband houmous

Catherine with the contraband houmous

We just came through security at Heathrow, where my brand new unopened pot of Waitrose organic houmous was unceremoniously confiscated from my hand luggage and thrown away. I had it with me because I am on a strict, organic, high alkaline, cancer-targeted (sugar-free, wheat-free, dairy-free, meat free, gluten-free, caffeine-free, alcohol-free, virtually – except for Waitrose organic houmous – pleasure-free) diet.

I had packed enough food for a ten hour flight to Atlanta, where we will be staying with a close friend for the weekend before going on to Mexico. All liquids were under 100ml as required and said items neatly placed in clear plastic bags. I was good to go. These things are very important when you are gravely ill. Every little thing you can do to make a difference to your situation matters, whether it makes a difference or not. It provides empowerment in the face of powerlessness and a vital antidote to victimisation.

I admit I was overly attached to said houmous, but objected to its confiscation on the grounds of serious illness and needing to eat special food. When asked to produce a letter of evidence from my doctor I duly did so. As I watched the security guard read a clear statement that this passenger was terminally ill I felt my blood begin to boil. The first paragraph wasn’t enough to sway him. He read on, line by line, to the end and finally said, without a flicker of compassion, “Sorry madam. There is no mention of houmous as a dietary requirement in this letter so you can’t take it with you. Those are the rules. No liquids or paste.

Paste? Seriously? I have terminal cancer and you can’t allow me some paste? How do you define ‘paste’ anyway? Anything blended and creamy or is it just food products originating in the Middle East? I was shaking now. I understand the need for these rules. Really. My own family was targeted by terrorists in the 1980s (a bomb was planted in our house when I was 12 years old) so I get it.  My hand is the first to go up if asked who seeks protection from terrorists. But rules will NEVER do that if the people applying them are unable to discriminate between an enemy of the state and a cancer patient, between a pot of houmous and a bomb. If there is no room for intelligence or flexibility, for assessing clearly the situation right in front of you, then I suggest we go to Critical Alert right now. This is seriously scary stuff.

His supervisor was worse. Not a flicker of compassion for my situation and no personal authority to match his title. Just rigid, rule-keeping refusal to bloody well budge. Could he call my doctor to ask directly about my diet? No. Could I eat it in front of him to prove it wouldn’t blow up? No. Could he act like an actual human being for ten seconds, if only to say ‘I’m sorry about your situation, but I can’t help you madam’? No. At which point he was called over to look at my friend Catherine’s bag, where – horror of horrors – more houmous had been detected! Instead, flawed by my blatant vulnerability, he picked up a different passenger’s bag and abdicated the whole situation to another unwitting security officer who simply continued the systemic behaviour as if they were robots on a factory line. She proceeded to unpack Catherine’s hand luggage, removed said prohibited ‘paste’, and left Catherine – who was sitting in a wheelchair with metal in her spine and chronic pain from living with a debilitating disease called EDS – to pack it all up again. Charming.

Really? This is acceptable behaviour? Eat my houmous!!! By this time I am in tears of distress, but not about the bloody houmous. About my humanity. And, frankly, on behalf of every other acutely, chronically or terminally ill human being who passes through this system and is treated with care-less disdain and the complete absence of common sense in the name of homeland security. I could have let it go if someone had just said something respectful or tender or kind. It was how they were being, not what they were doing, I minded. It was objectionable and unnecessary.


As I walked away I looked at the Supervisor and said, “I hope you sleep well tonight”. It was pissy, I know. I wish I had been more dignified like Catherine was, who sat in her wheelchair asking bold, but polite questions to see if she could dent their steely hearts. But nay. Humanity at Terminal 5 Security landed firmly in the rubbish bin with three pots of organic houmous, including a beetroot flavoured version which will be very sadly missed. R.I.P.

When we finally sat down to wait for boarding and have a snack, I opened my handbag and pulled out another pot of houmous. It had been there all the time I was bewailing my lack of it on the journey ahead. That might have been the pot with explosives in. Its seal had already been broken. But they missed it applying their precious rules. And I relished it applying mine.

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