Tuesday, January 15, 2019

From Egypt to Sri Lanka: the Jeddah Airport Experience

Jeddah Airport
My flight from Egypt to Colombo is via Jeddah Airport. I have four hours there and my goal is to meet a newly-licensed women driver and ask her how many times she’s crashed her car. Saudi Arabia only allowed women to drive cars last June – the last country in the world to let women get behind the wheel. Ever since I have been obsessed with the image of millions of new women drivers taking to the road and being absolutely terrible. I’m especially obsessed when I’m in Dahab as I can see the lights of Taqba in Saudi Arabia across the water and sit in my comfy lounging area imagining the chaos.

I am so sure that I am going to get into trouble at Jeddah Airport that I send Andrea and Francesca details of my next of kin and passport number in case I’m arrested. On arrival from Sharm El Sheikh, there are only three passengers in transit and we are escorted everywhere in case we try to escape. Initially we are put in a holding pen – a 10ft square with security rails round it in the building of a vast empty hall. We are told to stay there for two hours. 

There are three chairs so we sit on them. My fellow transit passengers are a couple from Kuala Lumpur who don’t speak English. They look like farmers so I'm not sure how they've managed to afford the flight, but I look like I've been sleeping outside Poundland for a week so they're probably thinking the same about me.

I am dying for a cigarette so one of our police escorts leads me to a smoking cubicle which is located inside the airport women's’ praying area. We sinfully smoke as a bunch of women pray earnestly right next to us on rugs provided by the airport. My guard and I work our way slowly through a couple of Camels and then it’s back to the holding pen. The guards change shift and on my next smoking break, I’m escorted to a full-on part of the airport. I am under the impression I’ve been fully released so have a fag, a feta cheese salad and get out my laptop. I’ve been there for at least half an hour before I realise my police escort is waiting for me the whole time. There is one other white person in the smoking cubicle – a Scottish guy who lives in Jeddah. I immediately ask about women drivers and he says he has seen three so far – and one of them was driving on the pavement.

Back to the holding pen, and me and the Lumpans are loaded on to a bus and driven several miles to the International Terminal. I hang out with the security staff for a while before we are finally given boarding passes and let loose in the airport.

Jeddah Airport is an eye-opener. Almost everyone there is a pilgrim on their way back from Mecca and/or Medina. I don’t see any other Europeans or white people for the full four hours I’m there and a security guy says mine is the first British passport he’s seen in years. It’s a bizarre experience. I realise how marginal Whites/Westerners are in this world – a rarity, of absolutely zero interest. No one stares at me, no one asks me any questions. Everyone is a Muslim but it’s clear that there are thousands of different ways to be and dress like a Muslim. There are loads of men draped in fluffy white hotel towels which I surmise have been stolen from the Monte Carlo Bay Resort: they are worn very loosely as if they’re simply heading down to the spa. There are pilgrims from India, Singapore, Arabs of all kinds, people who look Tibetan or Mongolian. It’s a kaleidoscope of different cultures, different national dress, different ways to wear a hijab or burqa. One thing unites them: they are all really into Mohammed. I am fascinated by a bunch of pilgrims from Nepal wearing fantastic, ornately embroidered saris, their hair loosely covered, men in cute caps. It’s a great look which is completely ruined by the plastic tour company holdalls they’re carrying. I can tell they love their holdalls; they have the same look of pride and awe that online qualifiers display when they first put on their PokerStars hoodies.

There are many men in free-flowing long white Saudi robes, women head to toe in black, women in drop-dead gorgeous burquas of every kind. The smoking cubicles are segregated here and the female-only ones are packed with women chatting like they’re at the hairdresser's. 

I ask every single Saudi woman I meet if she has her their driving licence yet. I only find one – Lina – and she got her licence overseas. Lina is in full hijab but holidays in Knightsbridge every summer where she wears fuck all. She shows me pictures of her out clubbing with friends in London on the night they found out that they’re going to be allowed to drive. She’s wearing a boob tube, mini skirt and high heels and looks exactly like girls in West Street on a Saturday night.

Lina - didn't ask how many times she's crashed, did see her London clubbing pics

Everyone agrees it would be best if Saudi women stuck to automatics. One woman tells me she doesn’t want to learn until it’s safe – at the moment Saudi women drivers are still getting used to three-point turns and there are a lot of prangs. A Saudi guy I met told me that new drivers start out on super-high-tech,
state-of-the-art car simulators before being allowed out on real roads and the waiting lists are very long. His sister has applied, his mum isn't bothering.

Jeddah Airport is dazzling and I realise that really the world is Muslim: Europe, the West, the States seem as remote in Jeddah as Togo does to me when I’m sitting at Lawns Café in Hove. Somewhere I’ve vaguely heard of, not really relevant.