Sunday, 26 February 2012

The beginning of the Middle East Journey: My two hours in Saudi


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Arabian Peninsula in the year of 570, a boy called Muhammad was born. He was an orphan and was raised by his uncle. When Muhammad was 25 years old, he fell in love with his employer – Khadija, a 40 year old rich trader, also a widow with 3 daughters from her previous marriage. She proposed to him and they lived happily with each other until she passed away at 65.

Khadija was the first Muslim woman in the world. Unfortunately she did not live long enough to see the wonder that her husband would create: unifying the conflicting Arab tribes under a new religion called Islam (the submission). This religion quickly spread across the Middle East, eventually converting even the powerful Persian's and pushed the Roman Empire to the west. Within 6 centuries, Islam covered three continents, boasted wonderful scientific and cultural achievements while Europe was still buried in the long dark night of the Middle Age. Islam is now the second biggest religion in the world (21%), after only Christianity (33%).
Since Saudi is where Islam began, it is of course where I need to start my Islam journey.

But Saudi nowadays is different from Saudi in the 6th century. 1500 years ago, Saudi brought down the border line and connected rival tribes. 1500 years later, Saudi closed its gate, refusing even tourists. 1500 years ago, Saudi was built on desert sand. 1500 years later, Saudi is floating on oil fields, so rich it could build a meter-high wall made of gold around the country as border line. 1500 years ago, a woman could be a rich trader and Khadija being a widow could still marry a virgin young man almost half her age. 1500 years later, women can not even drive. I was told a horror story about a group of girls who were forced to stay inside a building on fire because they did not dress according to strict Islamic code. 15 girls died as the result of a practice meant to protect them.

It has been almost a year since my first attempt to apply for Saudi visa and I have come to the last resource: flying to Dubai via Saudi. Well, if I can not get in to Saudi, a touch on the holy land is also a good symbolic start. Islam began from there, I could not change the history, could I?  

My flight to Jeddah took off with a short verse from Q’ran praising God (Allah) for his protection. 80% of the programs on Emirates are from Western entertainment channels with heaps of Hollywood movies. I searched for some Islamic programs. Ask Huda received telephone calls from believers all over the world asking all kinds of questions. In another program, young men listened to an imam explaining about love. The last show I watched before falling sleep was a very monotone discussion on the link between Q’ran and science.

Leaving the airplane, I immediately reported to reception. It took the massive man behind the desk almost 10 minutes to understand that I had two separate tickets and I was supposed to go to a different terminal for the next flight. But that is not the problem The problem lies with the nature of being me – a single female traveler without male relatives. He asked me to give my passport and called on to two security guards. They scrutinized my tickets, my papers and made lots of telephone calls. One security guard then got away and came back, pointing his finger at me while trying to explain to his colleagues, I guess, that I was totally a case out of order. It seems they really did not know how to deal with me. Meanwhile, I was sitting there, crossing my legs, very relaxingly enjoying the scene, but also struggling to hide my mischievous face. There is a naughty voice echoing in my little cheeky head: “Hey dudes! I am here already! You can’t push me back to Mumbai! Do something! Anything!”

The first decision was made. I was escorted to a huge bus, totally empty. A sticker on its windscreen said: “Emergency”. 5 minutes later, I was transferred to another “emergency” bus with another security guard who dutifully received all my passport and papers from the previous one. In this bus, again with me as the only passenger, the guard decided to sit right next to me. He started a little chit chat, and then slowly dropped his hand along the holding rail until it touched my hand. I rolled down, he quickly caught up. I pulled my hand back, weighing the two options in case he kept hitting on me, either screaming for help or giving him a hell of a kick between his legs, I guessed the former. I don’t want to go to court, I heard bad people get few hundreds lashes here. And really, I am not that bad.

The bus finally stopped in front of the terminal. The pervert still tried to have a quicky of hand touching before handing me to the fourth security guard. This man asked me to wait, and then came back with a woman covering all over her body, from tip to toe. I was showed to a closed cabinet in which the woman opened her veil, giving me a beautiful smile. She scanned my body, wished me a good flight, buried her head under the black veil and slid away like a floating shadow. 

Passing the security, I was asked to wait in a café near my gate. This piece of Saudi life in this airport amazed me. Everything seemed like a black and white movie in slow motion: the men lazily pacing in their white robes and the women mysteriously floating in their black abaya. There was no emotion, there was no feeling. I was the only color in this world of dreamy minimalism with the pink silky scarf covering my naked arms, shielding me from the stolen looks of curiosity.

15 minutes before the gate opened, I was given back my passport. Just before I joined the end of the queue, a very young man in staff uniform came to me and struck a conversation. He proudly told me about his girlfriend and how beautiful she is. He did not like women to cover their face and he loved to see their fingers painted in dark red brown. He wished me a pleasant flight, hoped to see me again, and stood on the platform to wave at me until I disappeared behind the gate.

This is my 2 hours in Saudi. What do you think? Shall I just give my opinion about this kingdom based on these two hours, or shall I wait until I have another chance to know it better?


Sunday, 5 February 2012

Saudi and its treasure

(Xin đọc các tin Tiếng Việt trên www.facebook.com/dr.nguyenphuongmai)


Saudi Arabia absolutely deserves its renowned title “the last forbidden kingdom in the world”.  

There are virtually no tourists in the country. There is also no such a thing as a tourist visa. In order to get into the kingdom, I needed to have an invitation from a friend or a company. After a few months furiously networking, I still found no one who was bold enough to want to get involved. A colleague of mine kindly explained: “You don’t make friends with a Saudi through email. You need to have incredible luck to meet one first, then wait until you have eaten all their dates and your body has been swollen with their tea, then you may say you have a friend”. 

However, I must say I do have some self-claimed friends from a Saudi forum. One of them, not sure of his nationality, has helped me generously up to a point where he asked me to send a photo so he could pick me up at the airport and (word by word) “…make sex together”. After many other dramas, I decided to contact the embassy and frankly told them my whole idea: “Sir, I would like to travel along the Islamic history route, from where Islam began, which is your country. And then I will follow its expansion path through three continents. Think Ibn Batutta! I want to show people that there is also a different Middle East than what is described in media. I’m a good person with good purpose. Please help!”

I started to email and call Saudi embassy in The Hague 9 months before my journey begins, without much luck. Then I decided to just knock on their door. The first man I talked with made me jump to my feet when he said this is an amazing project, and the embassy “has to” support me. I came back home, preparing a cover letter and all other documents as suggested. A month later, I got an appointment with the first secretary and was overwhelmed by the friendliness I received. I came home again to prepare a thick package of paper as suggested, even got to details such as who I plan to meet and where I plan to visit. Mr Secretary promised to inform me if anything else is needed. He kindly asked for my patience as the papers would have to wait after the annual Hajj to be submitted to the Ministry of Culture. Three months later, he informed me that my application had been sent away. Then I patiently waited for another 2 months...

And I am still waiting…

Now, let me tell you another story. When I was small, my father – a colonel in the North Vietnamese army– had in his room a small safe that nobody was allowed to touch, let alone to open it. My siblings and I used to stare at it for hours, arguing what it was inside. Our imagination ran wild, starting with all sorts of guns and weapons, or maybe poison. One day, I– by then five years old –, stood up and seriously concluded that there must be a monster being kept in the safe. None of us ever thought of something beautiful, like a precious stone or similar treasure. Daddy would share it with us no doubt if it was a beautiful thing. Years after, when my father got his cancer, in one of the last days of his life, he called me to his bed and gave me the secret that he had been keeping away from us for so long.

It is a bible. It is a small bible with a beautiful red leather case.

In another story, I will explain to you why the bible must be hidden in my family. For now, whenever I recall my childhood staring at father’s safe, letting the wild rumor and   imagination consume my mind, I could not help a chuckle. It still surprises me how far from the truth our guess work had been. 

My friends, don’t you think we have done enough guess work about Saudi?




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