Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Saudi encounter

"Where do we fly from here? I don't want to fly anymore today! I'm tired!" This is Ileana, a typical commentary. We left our hotel 30 hours ago, 1 hour in traffic, 3 hours in one airport, 8 hours from Kuala Lumpur to Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, then 11 hours in the airport and then another seven flying to Johannesburg. The airport just came into view and Ileana is a little bit tired. We start to laugh, no more flying - for almost a week.

Technically, someone could argue that we did not go to Saudi Arabia,
there is no proof in our passport. It could not be, they do not give visas to non-Muslims or women, not even a transit visa. We never left the airport, never got through immigration. They hardly looked at our passports when we left, the first control guy was clueless, he thought Romanians don't need visa for South Africa, the second guy looked just at my passport and waved through the rest of the family:"they are all with you, right?"
Even so, we got a glimpse at Saudi Arabia, we walked on the tarmac and spent time in the airport, which, I think they would agree, it is part of their country. Plus we could add to this the 18 hours spent in their planes (16 in the air), an interesting flying experience. It started with a moving prayer, we didn't understand a word of it. The food was good as far as airplane food goes. No alcohol. The first flight had a full menu of entertainment, including the latest Hollywood movies. Most of them were censored, almost funny. In an action movie with the heroine wearing a dirty sleeveless T-shirt, they blurred the upper part of the body completely, and when you could see the skirt, they blurred the knees. The entertainment menu also had readings of the Koran and educational materials about Islam. Yes, we experienced a tiny bit of Arabia. I decided that I will count it as our 16th country, after Japan, China, Tibet, Nepal, India, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, New Zealand, US (Hawaii), Australia, Indonesia and Singapore.

Beautiful and tasty

What did we know about Saudi Arabia? An absolute monarchy run by a gerontocratic bunch of brothers of a really old king, a country with no democracy, tons of religious fanatics, an inquisition that has more power than secular institutions, a place where women have no rights and are not allowed to drive. Men can get a divorce by saying two words. Women have to be completely covered and men have to wear long sleeves and turbans at all times. One of the richest countries in the world, the biggest oil producer, a place where men are too lazy and too proud to work, any menial job is done by imported workers from countries like Nepal or Philippines who have no rights and live in ghettoes. A country that would probably not exist if it wouldn't be for the American hypocrisy, supporting an undemocratic regime just because they need to get their oil, cheap and reliable.
That's what I knew. What I learned? Nothing completely different, but the girls were allowed in the airport without having to cover their arms and their heads. They had an odd interaction with a security guy, but besides that nothing worth mentioning. (read Maria's description) I read a couple of books written by westerners who spent a meaningful time in the country and I learned many interesting things. The port for women is called abbayah, the robe for men is called thobe. They don't wear turbans, but a red and white checked headdress called shemagh. To divorce they have to say only one word, but repeat it three times. Islam is a wonderful religion as far as religions go. It doesn't forbid drinking alcohol or eating pork. It recognizes and values Jesus as one of several prophets but it postulates that Mohamed is the last one. He was an interesting character, worthy of all respect. What he did or said it shouldn't matter much, except that God spoke through him on several occasions and those words are recorded verbatim in the Koran. Unfortunately after him came a lot of others who twisted those words in many ways. One of them, Wahab, was an especially regressive self appointed scholar, his teachings, published in 1730 are at the root of the official Saudi Islamism. The wahabists hold immense power within the kingdom and they cohabitate in a fragile balance with the monarchy. Apparently Saudis never call themselves wahabists, they regard it as an offensive term, but as far as I am concerned they fully deserve it. Another term that would apply would be "fascists", but that it used mostly by people who really know the things here very well.

Jeddah is a very important and busy airport, the gateway to Mecca, where every Muslim is expected to go at least once in their lifetime to perform Hajj. It happens once a year when millions of people converge here, but there are also milder versions, called Umrah that can happen at other times of the year. There was something like that around the time we arrived.

We spent a lot of time watching the people. There were singles, groups of friends, couples, families with young children. There were plenty of women, covered from head to toe, you could see their eyes or hands only. But they were playing on their iPhones and iPads. Their hands, well manicured, were adorned by diamond watches, thick gold bracelets and elaborate rings. And underneath their black clothes they were wearing jeans and sport shoes, or nice dresses and fancy shoes. They occasionally held hands with their men who carried their luggage. They walked in the same line. Watching countless couples interact, my impression was that they counted. Their men knew they existed and payed some attention to them. It might not be true, but that's what I saw.

My daughters are appalled by what they know about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia and hate that they are forced to wear such clothes. They disagreed with me regarding the beautiful black robes. I tried to make them see a different line of thought. Women in the West could not travel alone 120 years ago, they had no voting rights 90 years ago. They still don't count the same. In the country where my daughters grew up they failed to amend the constitution to clarify that women have the same rights as men. So, just a little patience, women in Saudi Arabia, will soon have their rights. The country has too many major problems, a change will occur sooner or later. Unfortunately is not up to the Americans to change the situation here. As the pressure for change mounts, the precarious balance between the monarchy and the Wahabi religious fanatics, will tip one way or another. Hopefully a younger, stronger king will win over and the people would be on his side, otherwise we will be left with the fundamentalists to lock the country even further. Still, I am more appalled that a democratic country like France with a sizable muslim minority thought they have the right to ban the burkas. I think that is even worse than what Saudis are doing.

My daughters didn't agree with me and they still hated the garments. I liked them. I liked the infinite variations and models of the black robes. Good materials, nicely cut, embroidered with beautiful, glitzy stones, or just a fine needlework. I was impressed by the hundreds of different ways they wear their headscarf and the way they make their eyes stand out. I avoided any eye contact, I didn't know if it would be appropriate. But the eyes were alive and I found them beautiful. To my shame, a comparison with the former prostitutes of Bali came to my mind. Reportedly they were the only ones using clothes to cover their bodies to entice their clients with a little mystery. There is plenty of mystery hidden in the dress of the Saudi women.

Peaking into the prayer rooms, I remembered the aggressive attitude that we encountered on a couple of occasions from the muslims in India and I was relieved that there was none of that here.

I also watched the pilgrims, trying to understand why all the western people are afraid of these "religious fanatics." Watching an old man playing with his beads I remembered the beads of Tibetan pilgrims. He didn't seem fanatic to me. Why do we admire the Christians who walk for a month to Santiago de Compostela, the hindus who travel all over India in the steps of Buddha or the Tibetans who prostrate for 700 km on the way to Lhasa? I don't know. This guy looked just like them and I admired him.

Just days after our brief visit The Economist ran a commentary on Saudi Arabia. They didn't mention us.

1 comment:

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