The first time that I realized Saudi Arabia was totally different from Idaho was when I was in the airport, age nine, and got hauled back by the biggest man I’d ever seen in my life, to the airport security room. Yes. Age nine. I was bored, we were waiting for our bags, so I decided to play with my dad’s telephoto camera.
Zoom in. Zoom out. Zoom in.
You’d think that in zooming in and out I would have noticed the signs on every wall that had a basic drawing of a big camera with an “X” through it. oops. Fortunately for me, my dad has a (sometimes annoying) ability to speak to absolutely ANYONE. It’s like his superpower. He started his funny babbling engineer speak, which consisted of a lot of “well, she’s just a kid. the camera has no film. don’t know the culture. i’m an engineer. i like to tell stories about molecules and metals. you want to hear one? well, even if you don’t I’m gonna tell you anyway. even though you don’t speak english. if I just keep talking eventually you’ll get so sick of me you’ll let me and my infidel nine-year old leave your security office…etc…etc”
When flying into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, there were a series of predictable events that took place. First, all the women on the flight who were wearing jeans and designer t-shirts suddenly were replaced by Arab women in abayas. Next, the lights would be dimmed and prayers would begin. Maybe this was only on Saudia Airlines, I can’t quite recall. What I do recall is the first time I experienced it. I was sure we were crashing. No lights. Call to prayer. Um. And then, aha! There’s the runway. Jesus. Let me just go ahead and pull my intestines out of my left eye socket. I think my fingernails drew blood from the arm rest. Messy.
Once the plane had started to land, you immediately surveyed your surroundings to see if a Pakistan International Air plane had just landed. If they had already entered the terminal, you may as well succumb to your fate because it was going to take at least 2 hours to get through immigration. If they were coming in behind you, you knew it was time to wake those flaccid limbs that had not moved in eight hours and SPRINT.
After disembarking the plane you either began that Olympic sprint to the airport terminal, or you boarded an overcrowded little bus that would transport you through the oppressive heat to the terminal. The sprint was painful, but always the better option. It gave you a false sense of control over what would happen once inside the airport.
Once inside the airport, you entered a very long immigration line. This was never the right line. Just like at the grocery store. It may look shorter, but it never is. There’s some invisible hold up, someone who thought they were in South Africa instead of Saudi Arabia. Someone who left their passport in London. Someone who thought it would be wise to get totally trashed before landing in an alcohol free country.
As you slowly neared the immigration agent behind his little plastic window, fears of forgotten booze that may have some how fallen into your suitcase start to mess with your sanity. You wonder if maybe someone at school could have accidentally stashed a joint in there when you were packing your bags. Even if you had absolutely nothing to hide, you would start to sweat as they perused your passport, looking at you for any possibly signs of… what… I don’t really even know, but it made me sweat even more than the 100 plus degree temps. I remember being terribly thirsty, thinking,” god I want a giant glass of water… but this guy’s looking at me like I’m hiding hash between my butt cheeks.” So instead of swallowing my dried up saliva, I batted my blue eyes. My contacts stuck, but I just tried harder. Ah. He smiled. The universal symbol that you are not being regarded as an imminent danger to society. Sometimes you have to break out the big guns. Even if it’s just to get closer to a water cooler.
Finally, you would get to reclaim your baggage, provided it had actually made your flight. Then there was the luxury of walking with all your crap through the customs lines. This was fun. Fun like the dentist. The customs agents would literally take EVERYTHING from your suitcases, feel the sides (for a fake wall or maybe an inflatable woman?), open your novels, tear pages out of your People magazine (or just chuck ’em), and poke fingers into your chocolate . The finger poking was to see if there was alcohol in the chocolate. Sometimes the customs agents would make the baggage handlers eat a bite. Then what. They’d return the remaining piece to you. yeh. Thanks. I suppose it was all a bit demoralizing, but it was how you got home. There were no other options. It helped to remind us how much we valued chocolate, especially the liquor filled kind, and non-torn magazines.
It helped realign your priorities in life.
All that may sound bad to you, but trust me, it was nothing compared to the departure. On your way out of the Kingdom, you’d arrive at least two hours before your flight left. After waiting in lines and walking through multiple different x-ray machines, you would approach your final station like the mud pit at the end of the obstacle course.
Okay people. You think that this x-ray stuff in the U.S. airports is scary and bad. Try having your tampons dumped out of your carry-on, in front of the teenage boys you go to boarding school with. Try having your little teenage bras and undies spread over a table for all to see. Try being taken back to another room for the “search.” This was a lovely process in which a woman (or possibly a wookie, who knows. She was camouflaged in her abaya) took a handheld, beeping, metal detector and ran it over your body. I mean, touching your body, beeping, mocking – your ENTIRE body. I stood stock still (didn’t want to show fear. I think they pick up on that… like horses and some spiders), grimacing, while simultaneously trying not to grimace, because if you were uncooperative you would be sent into the “OTHER” room. I held my blank stare and focused on my still fresh embarrassment over the poured out tampons. Don’t glare. Think, tampons. Think, boys snorting about tampons. Think, I must buy some better bras.
My bubble was once a humid, hot, shwarma filled place. It was my home. In order to get to and from my home, I had to go through security that was just a tad more intense than LAX or DIA. I didn’t have rights. I didn’t even have a voice. I did have tampons. I was embarrassed, but safe. I survived more than 13 years of flights. I like my safe bubble.
Though, I could have done without the beeper thing on my crotch.