Tuesday, April 14, 2015

My 1st Trip to a Muslim Country

In January, I visited Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for 2 weeks. What follows is an accounting of the trip and some take-away observations.

This was a trip planned for several months but was delayed due to logistics. The months leading up to the trip were, I must admit, tense due to, in no small part, the regular travel warnings that the U.S. State Dept. sends out to holders of Saudi Arabian visas. Such warnings include "suspected religious fundamentalist killed a Norwegian citizen near an IKEA" (this was an actual warning). They follow the notice with a statement that reads: "If you can't change your travel plans, it is suggested to avoid crowds,.....". The implied statement is "DON'T GO!". There is indeed a significant element of Islamic fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia, the home of Wahhabi-ism, and, though the government (i.e. royal family) has strong ties to America, there is a powerful group of people in that country that dislike both the American government and the royal family. But, that said, the aforementioned warning could have been as much a hostile reaction by a Saudi towards Scandinavians because they hate IKEA stores. In any case, I had to quell fears that these warnings created, reminding myself that of the many places I've traveled to, the element of uncertainty always gave way to personal revelation and affirmation of the common goodness of people (not to say there aren't bad ones but a core belief I hold is that the overwhelming amount of people on the planet aren't malicious, that "better angels" win the day).

State Dept-induced fear aside, I was interested to experience visiting a Muslim country. Islamic culture is a fascinating mystery to me. I know we in the West get a skewed and simplistic perspective of the culture if we limit our understanding to what the popular media gives us. But I have, over the years, grown to love music that originates from Muslim cultures (e.g. Hamza El Din, Kayhan Kahlor, The Faran Ensemble) as well was poetry (Rumi) and art. I know I've only scratched the surface of the cultural offers of the Muslim world. Logic dictates that there is much more cultural diversity and variation than can be understood from afar which made me keen to get a glimpse 1st hand.

Prior to my arrival in Jeddah, I had a 12 hour layover in Dubai. The contrast between Dubai and Jeddah, in hindsight, was significant. Whereas Jeddah had much an austere feel to it, being the primary gateway to Mecca, Dubai was much more cosmopolitan and liberal in feel. It certainly felt to live up to the unofficial title of "The Gateway to the East". The city had the appearance of growing rapidly with lots of construction and very modern architecture. I understand that, while a Muslim society, it was much more liberal in its acceptance of "vice".

While waiting for my flight to Jeddah, I was struck by the variation in ethnicity and clothing at the airport. While the majority was dressed in some manner of traditional Muslim clothing (particularly the women), there was quite a contrast from the very simple to the very elaborate. Again, my take was that Muslim culture is as non-homogeneous as any other broad-based culture.

Because Jeddah is the primary entry way to Mecca (holiest city in Islam), the vast majority (i.e. everyone but me apparently) of travelers going from Dubai to Jeddah were pilgrims in the midst of their Umrah pilgrimage, a religious rite similar to the annual Hajj rite but can be done any time of year. From what I gathered, there were Pakistani, Kuwait, and Indonesian pilgrims on my particular flight. I was literally the only passenger on the plane not a pilgrim (as confirmed by the flight attendant).

Upon arrival, I had to traverse through customs, as is the case everywhere. The one benefit of not being a Muslim pilgrim was the fact I didn't have to go through the designated "Pilgrims" line in custom which was VERY long. Apparently, the Saudi government has a logistical nightmare on their hands with being the keepers of the holiest sites in Islam. For religious reasons, they have to grant access to those sites to all Muslims, regardless of country of origin. But for political reasons, they have to exercise caution because not all Muslim countries are friendly to Saudi Arabia (e.g. Iran). So the visa process is extensive. For Western business travelers, it appears a bit easier to enter the country. But, that said, there is a very strict ban on alcohol so my luggage was subject to search. I had to explain that the Kelloggs protein bars I brought with me did not contain alcohol.

Once through customs, I was taken by a taxi to the Intercontinental Hotel which is owned by the parent company of Holiday Inn. The hotel was opulent by my standards (e.g. ornamental furniture in the lobby dating back to the 17th century) with security measures at the gate entrance that appeared excessive but wasn't going to be question by me.

About a 1/4 mile from the hotel, I noted a huge water fountain that jetted water hundreds of feet into the air. This was King Fahd's Fountain and was impressive.

I wish I could say I did lots of touristy stuff and ventured about....but I was there for work and was dissuaded from going anywhere without a local escort. That said, I found the obvious differences in daily life fascinating. Some examples:

  • There are 6 designated prayer times for Muslims. The times are dictated by the lunar phase so that differ slightly be day and region. The 1st call to prayer happens before dawn with various calls from the mosques in the areas filling the air. Adherence to these prayers times are strongly encouraged for Muslims and life is pretty much halted. During the prayer times of daylight hours, businesses will shut down for the 15-20 minutes and the majority of the people I saw or encountered would dutifully go to the appropriate place and pray. Prayers are to be directed towards Mecca. In my hotel, there was a convenient sign with the arrow that pointed in the direction of Mecca. Non-Muslims aren't expected to pray so I was given a pass.
  • Most Saudi women adhered to wearing veils and head covering (hijab?). It is considered to be inappropriate for a male to be in close quarters with a women not related to them. I found this out by mistake when I got into the hotel elevator with a Saudi women who clearly felt uncomfortable with my presence, based on her body language (she literally turn her back to me....most awkward elevator ride of my life). 
  • Pork is a dietary no-no. While the hotel I stayed at had Western breakfasts, the only bacon or sausage to be had was made of turkey or lamb. 
  • Most of the people who do manual labor in Saudi Arabia are foreign nationals. Many Pakistanis and Filipinos there. The folks I was working with were Pakistani. Exceptionally kind gentlemen that treated my with tremendous hospitality. 
  • My Saudi host treated me to a traditional Saudi meal of slow-roasted goat, served on rice with saffron. We literally got the whole goat. Dining was done on the floor in a very communal fashion. It was one of the best meals I have ever eaten.
  • I had several conversations with my hosts about religion. We had very nice, substantive conversations about Islam, Christianity, the differences and the similarities. These conversations confirmed my belief that there is always so much more commonality between people than differences. We in the West tend to get a very simplistic and negative impression about Islam. To be sure, much of the negative impressions we get are well-found by acts of terrorism and fundamental fanaticism. But those impressions are based on the actions of a minority of Muslims. The manner and hospitality of my hosts clarified that there are Muslims (I suspect the majority) of good-will and good cheer. 
Overall, the trip was very nice. I only got a small glimpse into the Saudi and Islamic world but it was an enriching glimpse and one I'm most grateful to have had.

My sincere thanks to Youseff,  Hassan, Mr. Delawi, and crew for your friendship and hospitality. I hope to return the favor.

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