Saudi Arabia

I’m always genuinely surprised when I successfully manage to get through an airport and onto the plane. Thanks to a litany of travel screw ups, I always fear I’m moments from disaster. An employee turning to me and asking flippantly,

“You’ve got your B7236  per-authorisation form right?” or even the worryingly frequent “this flight is actually tomorrow sir”. On this day however, and despite the body complaining loudly about the rambunctious evening the night before, I breezed through.

Just after 6pm we landed with a thud in Istanbul. The clock slowly ticked past my next boarding time. A group of irritated looking individuals  grumbling loudly set up camp around the tired Turkish Airline employee. A slight drizzle began outside – within minutes the view was clouded by a biblical deluge. Lighting tore through the sky and thunder rocked the airport. The lights briefly flickered out. The mob backed away from the counter with a new sense of fear in their eyes. This was the kind of weather you don’t even go outside in, let alone put your faith in a 350 ton metallic object in the sky.


The storm relented after an hour and we trudged onto the plane. It was approaching 2am when we landed in Saudi Arabia. A large room greeted me in immigration. It could be roughly divided into two; half where the line moved briskly, and the people looked tired but content. The other half contained hundreds of people who all had the look of dejected emptiness – I suspected they had been there for days.

I glanced at the signs:

1) Foreign Citizens – First Timers.
2) Foreign Citizens – Re-entry/Multiple Visa.

I knew exactly where I was supposed to go. I also knew the choice of line would have a time difference of many hours. I tried my luck with the re-entry line, but was waved away with disdain. I joined the back of a heartbreakingly large line – which began somewhere back in London

In the coming hours I moved slowly and methodically through the five stages of grief.

1) Denial – This had in fact happened before, when I attempted to sneak through the shorter line.
2) Anger – This began immediately and crackled menacingly for hours. I scowled with completely undisguised rage at the airport employees who were working at speeds that would have pissed off the Dalai Lama. Occasionally they would simply stand up and disappear for 30 minutes – leaving the sad human being they had been dealing with on the verge of tears.
3) Bargaining – A group of women in the next line were shifted to the front of another line. I saw my chance to gain some places. I jumped over the divider and surged forward, but my trailing leg tangled horribly in the rope, leaving me hopping drunkenly as others scooted past. As is often the case in life my new line now slowed down, and the one I had escaped from began to speed up.
4) Depression – I was sure I would be here for the rest of my life. I sat down on the floor with the other hopeless souls.
5) Acceptance – Not so much acceptance as the brain simply switching off. I became resigned to my fate. The body took on a sleepy zombie shuffle as I neared the front of the line, just as the sun began to came up.

It was 6am when I finally placed my passport on the counter. The degenerate behind it who I had been fantasizing about physically assaulting for the past four hours took it, quickly glanced  at it, and put it down. His attention once again turned to his phone and he giggled like a twelve year old girl as he slowly typed a message. I pushed the torrent of anger to a dark corner of my mind and put on a sickeningly fake smile.

Al hasa

I stumbled out into the arrival hall in a daze, glancing in turn at each of the names on the signs – mine was not there. I doubled back and checked again- nothing. I slumped to the ground next to one of the pillars and tried to call him, but my phone wouldn’t work. I walked around aimlessly for ten minutes, hoping that might fix the problem, which of course it didn’t. The coup de grace came when I finally discovered my sign – on the floor – with a large footprint smudged across it. I slumped down on the floor again, with my defecated sign beside me. I hadn’t slept properly in 24 hours, and wasn’t thinking straight. I began to run through options in my mind, none of which seemed plausible – or in fact even sensible.

Just get me out of this fucking airport I pleaded to every possible almighty being I could think of.

A man – or perhaps an angel loomed before me. Dressed in traditional Saudi of white robe and red and white head scarf, he gave me a friendly grin.

“OK?” he asked in a garbled accent, I shook my head sadly. He took pity on me, and called my driver, who arrived ten minutes later – surprisingly looking annoyed with me. I didn’t ask why.

“How long is the drive?” I asked him as we got in the car.

“One and a half hours” he replied briskly.

“Where are we going?”

“Al Hasa”

“But I’m going to live in Dammam”

“No, Al Hasa”

“No Dammam”

“No, Al Hasa”. I could see we could do this all day so I sighed and sat back.

We were quickly out into the barren desert. I tried gamely to stay awake, but within minutes I was drifting off. I think I woke briefly to find a wild camel staring into the window – but then it could have all been a dream.

I stirred as we were coming into a town. The heat slammed into me as I opened the car door. I staggered into the apartment, where a man was attempting to unpack a fridge. My driver shook my hand and disappeared.


The new man then placed a stool on a coffee table to change a light bulb. Not only did the bulb not work, but he fell off as he dismounted his creation. I was almost too tired to laugh, but just about managed to summon a chuckle as I helped him up. As he left I closed my door and walked immediately into the bedroom where I collapsed on the bed.

Six hours later I stirred into that murky half world when you have little idea where or who you are. I shuffled to the main front door, opened it and peered out. A viscous sandstorm was sweeping through the city – the apocalypse had arrived. I slammed the door shut again. A few odd thoughts travelled through my mind at this point – most notably – should I wrap t-shirt around my face. I concluded this would be a negative way to be introduced to the local people around me.

I opened it again and stepped out. Sand whipped across my face and into my eyes and mouth immediately. I could vaguely make out shops at the end of the road so I put my head down and stumbled that way. I found a supermarket and rushed in. In a daze I walked around picking things seemingly at random from the shelves. Ten minutes later I emerged and rushed home with a bag containing apples, tuna, rice, kidney beans and a mars bar.


Later that evening I ventured out again, and found myself in a small park close to my house. The sun hovered above the buildings and the grass under me felt like velvet. Families sat in small groups, eating and chatting – the men all in white, the women in black, their faces completely covered. The children played on the swings and chased each other among the palm trees. It all seemed a little familiar all of a sudden.

the evening call to prayer crackled over the loudspeakers of the nearby mosque. That familiar feeling quickly drifted away. The prayer itself means nothing to me, but nonetheless holds a hauntingly beautiful spell. Another mosque began, then another – and another. The air was filled with strange words I didn’t understand, as the sun descended, and finally disappeared into the the empty desert


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