Saturday, November 08, 2008

Wherein hannah Imitates Moses and Offends Everyone (Not Concurrently)

Final Jeddah weekend story.  Joe and I went snorkling on Friday morning, before I caught my evening flight back to Riyadh.  Jeddah's coral reefs are legendary, and were this a normal country, the city's beaches would be filled with Western tourists.  However, we're in Saudi Arabia, so we had to drive north of the city for half an hour to a seaside compound owned by the Sheraton to get our snorkle on.  This compound is heavily if inobtrusively guarded, with a huge placard that says PRIVATE RESIDENCE in Arabic only out front and no sign of the Sheraton logo.  No Saudis are allowed inside; we had to prove that we were from the US embassy (and not just random Americans) to get inside.

Once inside, it was another enclave of Westerners trying to forget where they were.  Bruce Springsteen and Kylie Minogue were playing on the pirated radio station in the cafe; people were inconspicuously pouring clear or brown liquids from unmarked bottles into their nonalcoholic cafe beverages that just happened to have names suspiciously like famous drinks in the US.  Kids ran around playing; women wore bikinis and German men wore Speedos.  My first time snorkling wasn't too much of a disaster; I even enjoyed myself and would like to try it again in Saudi and elsewhere.  I hear that Jeddah's most amazing reefs were destroyed in the 1960s, when some genius decided to build a fake island with the world's largest fountain on top of them, right by downtown.  Nonetheless, it was still a good showing.  It's so easy to forget for a few moments that you're in Saudi Arabia...  and then you have to go back into the real world.  Of course, I saw this article immediately upon returning home.  Whoops.

I flew Saudia Airlines to Jeddah and back.  Saudia is the national airline, heavily subsidized by the government and favored by almost everyone for internal flights.  There are some "low-cost" carriers here, but they have to buy fuel at the market rate, which has reduced the usage of that adjective somewhat.  As I sat in the terminal in Riyadh on Wednesday, it occurred to me that I had never considered how Saudi Arabia, one of the most restrictive countries in terms of gender segregation, would handle cramming 200 strangers into a packed 747.  (Everyone wants out of Riyadh so badly on weekends that there are hourly flights to Jeddah on weekends.  This is the equivalent of running a wide-body plane from Chicago to Washington every hour in a country with 1/12th of our population.)  I found out, when I got to my seat and was promptly asked to move three times so that some offended Saudi or another didn't have to sit next to someone of the opposite gender.  Eventually we managed to balance out my row of old women with the row of old men in front of us so no one was too horrified, although I think I was only marginally more acceptable to the ladies than some random Saudi dude.  (I was even veiled!  Must have been the uncovered face.)  You'd think that they would have worked out the reservation system so that you could select based on the gender of your neighbors, but evidently not.  

Upon takeoff, after an hour of shuffling passengers around, we listened to a solemn recording intone the words of the Prophet Muhammad when he would set off on a journey.  We were then offered our choice of newspapers from around the Gulf and a respectable hot meal later on.  This is on a flight of perhaps 80 minutes in length.  It was surreal... but at least I now know how to eat a meal while still keeping the facial veil on, because both of my neighbors on both flights did it.  


  1. So how do you eat with a facial veil on?

  2. If it's a simple facial veil tied around your head (like an apron over your face), you simply pull the bottom edge of the veil away from your chest by a few inches, shove food to your mouth with your other hand, and stare suspiciously at anyone nearby (such as a clearly American white girl seated next to you) who appears to take too much of an interest in the mechanics of eating. If you have the type of facial veil that hangs in a solid sheet from the crown of your head down to your waist (all of this over an abaya and a veil covering your hair once, of course), you glare at the American girl and the other veiled women on your row, because they can eat and you can't.

  3. Glaring person #3 with the full veil just needs to wear a beer hat under the veil! It's the perfect situation for hands-free imbibing. Or (I sense money here) maybe you could invent the more-subtle beer belt!

    (filled with canisters of protein shakes, of course. I'm certainly not suggesting that either you or I condone the illegal transportation or drinking of alcohol)

  4. How large of a city is Jeddah? Approximate population, if you can.

    I did the conversion for their plant, and it only does 15 million gallons of water a day... For perspective, Springdale's waste water treatment plant handles 40 million gallons of water a day. I'm sure there's a large difference in the consumption of the two cultures, but my point is more along the lines of it's not that hard or expensive to have a bigger plant...

  5. 3.4 million people, according to Wikipedia. That's ridiculous - it's not like Saudi's lacking for cash to invest. There's a tendency for infrastructure spending to stay mostly in the Riyadh area, but still, that kind of capacity gap is pathetic, short-sighted, and - dare I say? - shitty.