It was a chilly day in September and my alarm clock was ringing at quarter to nine. My spacious room in the basement was nearly empty. The one suitcase packed, my almost ancient backpack looking like it would explode from all the things in it and my long, black skirt, that my grandmother sewed for me just for this occasion in one day before I left Belarus, were all lined up along the wall.
I felt just as I did three years back when I was moving away for the second time in my life but only this time did I anticipate it like a little child anticipates its birthday gifts the next morning.
When you move to a place like Riyadh, there is one thing you really need to be good at if you want to survive it there. You have to be patient and believe it or not, this whole patience thing already starts at the airport of your home country or from wherever you are starting your journey. So there was me in my black, floor long skirt, black T-Shirt and a knit jacket that my hosts convinced me to put on before I left just so I didn’t freeze to death on the plane. That alone may cause some suspicion or at least curious looks from the people around, especially with that monster of a suitcase right next to me.
Then come all the formal travel related questions.
“Excuse me, are you traveling to Riyadh for touristic reasons?”, asked the man behind the check in desk, visibly irritated. Looking at my non- German passport, he also tried to make sure that I spoke German, which was strange, given the fact that I just greeted him without any accent.
“No, not for touristic reasons”, I said in fluent German. “I am visiting my parents and going to school there”, I added.
“Do you have a visa then?”, he asked suspiciously.
I asked him to take a look at page so and so in my passport and with that he had to leave me alone but apparently there are so little people traveling from Berlin to Riyadh, that he didn’t even know how to enter me into the system. I already started to think there must be something wrong with my entrance permit and felt my blood turn cold inside my veins. My self -control skills were required even before I set foot on Saudi ground.
About two hours later however, I was already on my long march through Frankfurt airport, trying to find the right gate. One of the myths about Saudi Arabia that I have been reading about online was busted right after I was through the security check point. In front of me, there was a British lady, already in her abaya and with blond hair. I had restrained myself from dying my hair blond again during the summer, thinking that blond hair was forbidden in the kingdom. Well, here was to ahead of time research on the internet.
Once you have mastered the “hiking” on Frankfurt airport, and whoever has been there will know what I mean by hiking, finding the right gate to Riyadh is not difficult at all. You just have to keep looking for women in abayas or men in thobes.
Abayas, or even burqas as such, were nothing new to me. I spent part of my childhood in the Muslim district of Berlin and saw many such women on the street on a daily basis. When I was a little girl, I was afraid of the women in their black cloaks where all I could see were their eyes, and now I was going to live in a place where the majority of women look like that. In that moment I had to think about what ironic turns life can take sometimes. Ironic, that’s what it all was really.
What did grab my attention however, was the male clothing. There may be women in burqas in Germany but don’t expect to find a man in a white robe somewhere on the subway. That robe wasn’t just white. It was shiny white or super white. Whatever you want to call it. How much detergent has to be used to keep it THAT white? I mean seriously?
The flight to Riyadh was something that seemed awfully long. Sometimes five hours can seem like an eternity, even in the comfortable seats of a Lufthansa plane, while watching Night train to Lisbon on the screen in front of you, while you are being served something to eat every now and then.
When half of that eternity seemed to be over, I was confronted with an uncomfortable surprise. Filling in entry cards. Generally that is no big deal but it sure becomes one when you find yourself several feet above the ground and your pencil is somewhere in your gigantic suitcase. Dear people who ever want to fly to Riyadh, don’t forget to bring a pen on board. You’ll need it.
“Excuse me, do you have a pen I can borrow?” I asked the stewardess that was just passing by me.
“I am sorry Madam, I have only one and I can’t give it to you.”
Ready to panic, I started looking around to see whom I could ask for a pen or just anything to write with. Here is where (at least part) of myth number two was busted.
“Do you need any help?” asked me the man in the seat next to me, looking concerned. As it turned out, that man was Saudi. According to my research, he wasn’t even supposed to look at me but there he was, asking if I needed help and doing that in an absolutely normal, respectful tone. Lesson two for the day: Saudis don’t always treat women like they are absolutely worthless.
Two hours before we landed, the stewardesses were going around, offering drinks and snacks. Some people were going for a brandy before the cabin crew announced that we would reach Riyadh shortly, reminding us that the possession of alcohol and drugs was strictly prohibited in the kingdom and results in capital punishment. Oh the irony again, I thought to myself, looking at some Saudi men finishing off their brandy. Right in that moment, when we were about to land, I felt fear rise up in me for the first time in months. All of a sudden I realized that this was it. I was about to land in one of the strictest countries in the world, whose culture was nothing like mine. I was afraid because in that moment I realized that I had no idea what I was going for and that not knowing sent cold sweat down my back.
With the filled in entry card and my passport, I walked down the halls of King Khalid International Airport. It is not too big but the interior made me feel like I was inside a concert or theater hall in Belarus, with all its neat walls and bright lights and all.
When arriving in Riyadh, there are several passport check points at the airport one can go through. The main three that one should be aware of are the one for people that come in for the very first time and the one for people who are returning. If you happen to be a man coming back with your wife, there is also a family checkpoint.
The newcomer line is the longest and probably the slowest one as well. When you finally get there, the person behind the desk will take a picture of you and take your fingerprints with some fancy, electronic device. Many Saudi men, and especially the ones that are in some sort of authoritarian position seem to just love to boss around and let you know how important they are as opposed to you. As difficult as it seems, just let it pass, especially if you are a woman. Also, make sure that you get a stamp and a number on your entry visa. This verifies that you entered the country. Sometimes the people who work at the airport just forget to do that and that will make it impossible for you to leave the country later.
Trying to get used to all the thobes and burqas around me, I was looking for my suitcase and seemed not to be able to find it. Under some mystical circumstances my baggage ended up on the conveyor of British Airways, even though I was flying Lufthnsa all this time. Thanks to the Pakistani worker who showed me and carried the bag to the exit. If I had any Saudi money on me, I sure would have given a tip.
The air outside was warm, even though it was September, so that my choice of clothing was just right, and I thought to taste the dust in the air. With my parents right next to me, the taxi drove to what was now my new home, through the dark streets, passing by various expensive looking cars and road signs labeled in Arabic. I did not know yet where exactly I was going but I sure was on my way to a big, cultural adventure.