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?


  1. hey Mai, great that you try to suspend the judgment. Saudi has a great culture. I hope one day you can experience that. Fingers crossed for you. Love. SAndra.

  2. A straight from the heart wonderful account narrated so beautifully.If you have crossed Immigration at Riyadh,you are expected to keep your eyes down and proceed meekly unsung,unheard.If you look into the eye with some apprehension or another,you may well be asked to step aside,and what can follow is absolutely the prerogative of the Officer.

    In 2012,can we keep alive a syndrome of ancient times so cruel to women and more cruel to men who empathise. There has got to be a solution.Hats off to people like you who dare to get close to the areas and people.This FORBIDDEN TERRITORY expression must not be flogged/praised or looked at with awe.This anology with Forbidden fruit from Bible has done damage.Has someone in Saudi tried to analyse What has this Concept done to their people.Why them.Culture comes from free thinking,freedom of expression.Do they still believe that stray incidents of decadence in the West is ample provocation for the Saudi Home to remain Untouched,unexplored.What curtain is this,not bamboo,not iron,is it the oil sleek around their identity.

    1. Riten, I agree with you on the account of forbidden fruit. I wrote a while a go a post (the previous post to this one) on my family story of a safe kept in my father's room away from everyone. It is not only a forbidden fruit, it is a hidden AND forbidden fruit, so we just have to do a lot of guess work to try to understand what sort of fruit it is and why it is so protective. I hope one day i can be inside the kingdom and experience first hand its culture and its people. Thanks Riten for your support. Please keep in touch.


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