Hola! Hope you're smiling :)
Leaving the duty free shop and with plenty of hours to spend in Jeddah, I walked around the transfer lounge and found it small with just a few food stalls. One side of the lounge was only glass and beyond it was the flight parking and runway area – one could sit and watch flights land and take off. I didn’t do that. Instead, I found an empty lounge area with charging sockets. It was around 4:30 pm, the transfer lounge was pretty empty and I felt good about it.
I saw no scope for any conversations with strangers. It is against the law for women to speak with strangers (read men) and I was least interested in inviting any attention let alone trouble. I am not the kind of material that makes women talk friendly to me, plus, women here seemed disinterested in everything – most of them were with families.
I was in an abaya of course but I didn’t let that stop me from how I walk and how brisk I can be. I noticed that wearing an abaya could make you want to be very gentle about your movements – I doubt if women would bend and rush walk as nonchalantly as I did. The airport website said I was required to be in an abaya, it didn’t say I can’t be myself otherwise, so I took the liberty. I set up my laptop for charging when a young airport official in his grey trousers and blazer noticed me. ‘Where are you from’ and ‘where are you going’ were his two questions – Aha! Here’s a chance to open my mouth!! I jumped at the opportunity! Because when I speak – I am definitely not the abaya sporting shy woman that I am made to be. I felt very proud of the attention I attracted – even with everything about me hidden in a robe, I could be interesting enough for a bold chat from a man who was taking a big risk in his country. Brava!
He seemed impressed that I was on my way to a month of solo-traveling around Europe. Of course I showed off. “I have a friend in London,” he said. We were just warming up when one of his colleagues came into the special lounge area and took him away. He kept talking even as he was being whisked away and I enjoyed it. Quite a good start to my time in Jeddah.
Free wi-fi at Jeddah airport delighted me to bits. I connected instantly and called home to speak with family and inform them that I haven’t messed with anyone yet and that I am not in any trouble. What pleasure it is! Free wifi in a foreign country! Of course I made an instant Facebook update and showed off the burqa as if it was some exciting adventure. Between surfing, browsing, chatting and walking around the terminal, I was beginning to get bored. The flow of people intensified as the evening advanced and I noticed a few, bored travelers who didn’t seem any bit interested in conversations and were just as cautious as I.
While seated there and looking around vacantly, I turned my head left and caught an incredible sight – men offering maghrib, the dusk namaz, one of my favourite times. I hold special memories of maghrib time in Cuttack when men walked silently on Bari lane to reach the nearest mosque. On my left and in that bright airport light, I saw men, men I was so critical about, going down in sajda and rising all at once. From a distance, it was an amazing, mind-blowing ritual of peace and beauty. I was humbled. Perhaps some or all of them are praying for the safety of all travelers around, those strangers were perhaps praying for me.
Jeddah was offering me more and more reasons to be enamoured by it. It was beauty, a different sort of beauty that I didn’t understand. As long as I didn’t try too hard to understand it, I was fine and this tiny bit of the country welcomed me as a guest. I had a smile, that holiday smile I have when enjoying a holiday. Of course I wanted to take pictures but the country bans photography!
I walked to one of the food stalls to buy something to eat, I was horribly hungry! But soon realized that I could buy no food. I couldn’t believe how careless I was, that I didn’t change any currency to use in Jeddah! I imagined that an international lounge would accept British pounds as Hyderabad’s does. It wasn’t like that. The stalls wouldn’t accept pounds or credit/debit cards, just cash – this I thought was lame, really. After eyeing the chicken and rice on the photo menu over the food stall, I made my way back to the seat hungry.
With that sight humbling me, I decided to shut my computer and spent the rest of the hours just looking around and occasionally walking amidst the travelers. One seasoned westerner sat in a corner and read a book, I couldn’t see the title. Soon after a young couple, westerners, sat in the same corner and seemed to have a brief conversation with the book-guy. A little later, around 8.30 pm, a young Indian woman came around and asked if I’d let her charge her phone, my phone charging on that socket. I don’t know who asked first but I told her I was on my way to a month long European holiday. She was from Mumbai, dressed in tight jeans and a jumper, she seemed like one of those young, over-confident, snobbish corporate-workers though she behaved with me. She was on her way to Paris for a week with friends say said, adding that she hated the airport and ended up there only because SA is the cheapest airline. I booked SA for the same reason but I no longer was saying anything against the country, not by compulsion or fear but because Jeddah had managed to impress me. I felt sorry for her that she wasn’t able to enjoy her time and Jeddah’s strange beauty as I could.
As it grew late into the night, a few Indian men and women walked into the lounge, stretched on the steel seats and almost immediately fell asleep, I could see them dead-beaten, tired. I thought about their tough jobs and how tired they must be and also how excited about going home. A lot of unskilled labour moves to Saudi for better pay but I am never sure if the opportunities are better. It seems like a tough life. Some of my mum’s maids worked in Saudi’s biggest cities and only had sad stories to share, stories of overworking and unthinkable restrictions. My heart went out to these tired people sleeping soundly on cold metal.