On the road and in the pool in Saudi Arabia

At the Tomb of the Prophet 1988

It’s 5 A.M. in Jedda when I touch down. The atmosphere here beside the Red Sea feels like the inside of a sauna, fiercely hot and dripping damp. I struggle through customs and look about for my guide. No foreigner wanders the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia unaccompanied, Zayd al-Badawi, my former tutor, philosopher and guide to the mysteries of this mysterious land, has apparently vanished without a trace and no one, it turns out, knows his whereabouts or what he is up to. I am left to imagine. Instead I am greeted by one Abd al-Hamid Derhalli, who will be my Saudi cicerone and overseer this time around.

I think I have discerned a new form of human felicity: the individual hotel. Here in Jedda it is the walled villa maintained by my sponsors for corporate VIPs and maybe the occasional Saudi prince who needs a break from the palace. It is a fully equipped man-cave/palazzo with a Filipino major domo (Teddy), a waiter-laundryman (John from Goa), a (invisible) Malay cook, a bawwab, three Pakistani gardeners, a car and driver (Muhammad Salih, from Chad via the Sudan). It is perfectly appointed, with a swimming pool, tennis court, TV, cassette player (heavy on Sinatra, Carpenters, Mantovani) and VCR (every movie Tony Randall ever made and stuff scraped from the bottom of the TV barrel). The laundry is done as it falls from my back and Paco Rabane himself equipped the bathroom. And it is where I am now deposited. A quick dash from the refrigerated Lincoln to the refrigerated foyer of my new abode. I feel–how shall I put it?—at home.

I am indeed a VIP since I am and will be the only guest in this boutique palace. I lunch alone at a long table for ten, a figure somewhere between Charles Foster Kane and Goldfinger, waited on hand, foot and forelock by the attentive John. The place is silent save for the hum of the air-conditioning, which has decorated the cutlery with ice crystals, lovely to look at, too cold to touch. It is, all in all, the Garden of Earthly Delights. I read. I write, pausing only from time to time to gaze out the frost-flecked windows at the desert beyond. Debussy comes from somewhere within as I lie in the pool at night and contemplate the stars etched in perfect outline in the flawless Arabian sky. This is perfection.

One does not simply lark off to Saudi Arabia. The only Saudi visas issued to foreigners are for purposes of business or making the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca that each Muslim is enjoined to perform at least once in a lifetime. So once again I am in the Kingdom on “business.” My business on that earlier occasion was to deliver lectures at the local universities and so demonstrate to the Saudis the commitment of my corporate sponsors to Middle Eastern cultural values. The business this time is even less business-like. The Corporation is again sponsoring my visit, though now there would be no singing for my supper: the sole objective was to give me an opportunity for traveling around Western Arabia a bit in connection with writing a book on Mecca and the Hajj. I knew perfectly well I could not get into Holy Cities Mecca or Medina, which were strictly off limits to all save Muslims, but at least I would have some sense of the land and the landscape I was writing about.

Derhalli arrives the next day and we begin by driving to Corporation Headquarters, where the security is considerably less serious than in their New York office. I meet some of the Jedda brass. I tell them a little about my plans and intentions, about which I’m sure they’ve already been briefed by New York. I am told I must never ever quote Saudis. I assure them I will quote only Corporation officers, always for attribution and always inaccurately. Ha-ha, they laugh. Sort of. They know all about academics.

The introductions and admonitions over, we leave Jedda for Mecca via the “old road” through Barrah, whatever that is, though there are still, here and there, what appear to be nineteenth century Ottoman Turkish guard posts up on the hills. The police station that was once used to check pilgrims heading for Mecca is no longer in use: the scrutiny and paper work is now all done in Jedda on arrival at the new Hajjport. On either side of the road there are dark rugged hills with sand running up the lower slopes. We climb silently and effortlessly into the winding highlands. About fifteen minutes before Mecca the highway divides: turn left to Mecca—“Moslems Only” is the stern command–and right, which is where we go, to Ta’if farther up in the hills. The heat is overwhelming. At 50 miles from Ta’if we pass into the Kara mountains. We slowly wind up “The Escarpment,” an extraordinarily twisting highway, back and forth in short gasps, ever upward into the now rugged hills.

Near Ta’if there are two mountain “bowl plateaus” called Hada and Shafa, both higher than the town itself. In Hada is the Hyatt Ta’if, where we have lunch. Whatever Ta’if once was, it is no longer that pays villageois alpinesque of Henri Lammens’ Jesuit imagination nor the verdant landscape of the medieval travelers. Derhalli calculates the temperature of Ta’if at 91º F. and Jedda at nearly 97 º F. Whatever the case, the Ta’if Hyatt was not filled with skiers; in fact, we may have been the only guests. The presumably cooler heights round about—in this bake oven, degrees of cool are pure constructs– have all been co-opted by royal palaces. Derhalli, it is gradually revealed, is a not very happy expert on the number and location of Saudi palaces. There is even one at Mt. Arafat, the Muslims’ Sinai, he somewhat testily complains.

We cruise aimlessly through Ta’if and finally come to rest at the former house of Sharif Husayn, that Graustarkian prince of Mecca who led the Arab Revolt against the Turks and whom the Saudis then threw out on his ear in 1926. The poor wretch fled his kingdom with its only asset, Meccan postage stamps. The place is now a Saudi preserve, but it still provides a slight taste of the Sharifian grandeur of the pre-petroleum past: five stories (walkup!) and well preserved.

We return to the coast by the “Yemeni route,” so called presumably because the Yemenis came to Mecca via Ta’if. Derhalli remembers it when it was bordered by banana trees filled with monkeys that had clambered down from the nearby hills. That would have been in the 50s, I suppose; now it is simply a sandy treeless valley and clearly the easier way between Mecca and Ta’if. The road passes through a place ominously called al-Sayl al-Kabir  or “The Big Flashflood.” The mountains at this late afternoon hour are bathed in haze and blue shadow, a boldly arresting landscape, as so often in this country.

A travelers’ advisory: Do not use the facilities at the Shell Station just outside of Ta’if. Go on the ground or in your pocket.

We continue our descent back toward Mecca. At Jurana, six miles from Mecca, there is a large new soccer stadium (home of the “Meccan Black Stones”?) and shortly afterward there is another discriminatory fork in the road. Except this time we do not go right to Jedda as advised to the uncircumcised but turn left to Mecca and pass boldly under the large “Moslems Only” sign that straddles the highway.  I can see what Derhalli is up to. He is going to try to smuggle the professor into Mecca. The professor meanwhile begins to see himself not standing rejoicing in his heart before the Ka‘ba but sentenced to life imprisonment—farewell my pool, farewell Debussy, farewell my orange juice with little flecks of pulp–in an underground cell in Riyadh. But I say nothing. It’s worth a shot.

The cop at the check point looks into the car and immediately spots the infidel  in the Lacoste shirt in the back seat. I remain silent and Derhalli nods toward me and mutters something about “Muslim professor.” The copper would like to see my passport, please, and there, written clearly on the Saudi visa, is the magic word Messihi, “Christian.” Derhalli explains that what he meant was “professor of Muslims” (or “Father of Lies” perhaps). So we turn around, go back to the fork and take the route of the impure to Jedda. Almost, almost. It occurs to me that the place to lie is on the visa application in NYC. “Muslim” there puts “Muslim” on the Saudi visa and, wallahi, you’re home free. And surely there’s a little muslim in all of us?

We return to Corporation House at 7:30 PM. Derhalli treats himself to a cigar and coffee out of what I now regard as my stock. As soon as he is out of the house I order a steak dinner and hit the pool. It’s lovely floating there in the darkness knowing that someone is preparing the perfect steak for the weary traveler. When I come in there awaits a new Turkish bathrobe the size and color of a polar bear and a steak the size of a seal. Never mind dressing: I will dine en deshabille. John affects not to notice.

4:15 AM up, very slowly up. 4:30 breakfast. At 5 I am in the car to pick up Derhalli and by 5:30 we are on the road to Yanbu-on-the-Sea and points beyond. The light comes slowly up, but once the sun, all pale and yellow, is onstage, it really begins to do its stuff. En route there are highway signs that say simply al-hamdu lillah, “Praise be to God,” or “Remember God,” neither of which is on the standard international list of highway signs.

North of Rabigh the plain between the Red Sea on our left and the low and level line of mountains on our right is a flat, sandy waste without people, animals or vegetation, the Costa Deserta, an endless and desolate Arabian Riviera.  Along this road, and all the others in the Kingdom, there are regularly spaced gas stations with 10-12 pumps, all somewhat shabbily kept, which dispense a kind of anonymous gasoline, which makes sense, I guess, since it’s all coming out of the ground behind the station. At night the stations and their pump islands are completely outlined in neon, a striking effect in the otherwise total darkness. Around the stations cluster “coffee houses,” open cinderblock buildings whose only furniture is a kind of high bench on which the weary traveler (there seem to be very few) can recline and take long and loving drags from nargilahs that are 3 1/2 feet high. Derhalli explains that a circle of 10 or 12 puffers might use one of these lofty smoke tower, each of them drawing on his own personal mouthpiece attached to a single long tube.

The only real interest on this road is that every half mile or so there is a smashed-up car sitting some 50 yards back from the shoulder. The wrecks are all small models and always single machines, which leads one to infer that the monster Bulgarian trucks that demolished them continued nonchalantly on their way, carrying cabbages to Jeddah and piles of dollars back to Sofia. The salutary point of the roadside carnage seems to have escaped our driver, but it made me alarmingly aware that we were buzzing smartly along at an 80-90 mph clip, at which speed an alarm sounds continuously from the dashboard. It is a noise that only I seem to notice. Muhammad does not much favor driving in lanes and the broad highway shoulder seems to invite him to incline upon it. But otherwise the journey is not too terrifying: at least Muhammad does not appear to doze at the wheel, as has often happened to me in the past. I have traveled for hours at night between Damascus and Aleppo with the driver sitting in front of me and nodding sweetly into the oncoming headlights.

We reach Yanbu at 8 AM and go to the Pemref Refinery, a huge, heavily secured installation on the Red Sea coast. Here is produced the export stuff, where the Saudi black gold is tankered out to the rest of the world. By now a stiff wind has come up, blowing from the mountains toward the sea and raising the moldy sand of the coastal plain. The driving visibility is down to 20-25 ft. in places. A figure comes out of the swirl at our insistent honking. He opens the gate and we follow him in his Mitsubishi Montero through the wind into old Yanbu. It is 110º F. as we leave the cars to look at the old houses of Yanbu. All is in decay. The houses are built of coral, Derhalli points out, possibly because the porous rock is better for cooling. But sea mud was also used for the mortar, a substance that crumbles in short order, leaving the house slowly to collapse onto itself. Derhalli thinks that teakwood was used in the houses here and in Jedda to resist the damp; and probably brought by the “Javanese” hajjis to trade, add I. Some of the teak planks are still visible as “runners” between the storeys.

We’re out of Yanbu by 9 AM and on our way eastward toward Medina. We must first retrace our way a considerable distance on the Jedda-Yanbu road before turning inland up into the mountains. The ascent is gradual and easy through a wide wadi bed between stony mountains. There are date palm plantations along the wadi, though no date palms. What remains are only the towering disconsolate trunks, as if someone had burned off all their tops. No, Derhalli says; it is just the lack of water.

At 7 miles out of Yanbu there is a police checkpoint. Derhalli rehearses his now litany of complaint: the police are mindless, as indeed they are. The Turks are dishonest. So are the Hadhdramis. So too is the royal family, especially the royal family: and so in fact are all Saudis. All this is said with much dignity and sadness. Though a Saudi citizen, Darhalli and his family are originally from Jaffa, which they left in 1948 when the Israelis took over. He is a solid, sage man in his sixties, composed in his life and thoughts; portly, with a little Saudi chin beard, kafiyyah worn thrown back because, as he carefully explains, no one in his family can bear something rubbing on the cheeks. And besides, it helps avoid accidents.

I doze on and off and by the time I awaken we seem to have passed through an unmanned police checkpoint. Now I am suddenly and completely awake and acutely aware that we are actually entering Medina the Radiant, another sacred city as off limits to the goyim as Mecca itself. And so it was that at 2 PM, on Sunday June 20th, 1988, this particular goy entered the Sacred Haram and approached the Grand Mosque that holds the tomb of the Prophet of Islam, upon whom be peace, though I did not possess much of it at that moment.

It is a profoundly moving experience, the thought that I shall be standing exactly where Muhammad once stood, as well as every famous Muslim in history from Ibn Jubayr and Ibn Battuta to Malcolm X. In the nineteenth century it had become a species of the Great Game for brave or foolhardy Westerners to somehow smuggle themselves into the Holy Cities of Islam and, if they succeeded, to describe those forbidden places for the breathless folk at home. For the brave or the foolhardy like the Swiss John Lewis Burckhardt or the Englishman Richard Burton, the intrusion involved a complex and careful Muslim disguise; the present quaking pilgrim is ill-equipped for deceit, however: I am  the only one in those crowded precincts wearing a forest-green Land’s End shirt, chinos and beige bucks. I have the strong suspicion that at any moment 600 crazed Pakistanis and Malays will fall upon me and tear me into tiny, pork-filled pieces. Never did my mother’s advice always to wear clean underwear seem more appropriate.

We enter the Prophet’s Mosque, once the mere courtyard of Muhammad’s house in Medina, now a structure as grandiose as Saudi petrodollars and pretensions to piety can make it. Derhalli says, “Professor, just do what I do.” Sure, except that I didn’t have a dream of what he was going to do. Throw himself to the ground? Weep copious tears? Indulge in an orgy of self-flagellation? We approach the Haram from the west, through the concrete piles of a new Saudi extension on that side, take off our shoes at the men’s gate (women’s door to our left) and enter the airy and brightly lit interior of the mosque. On our right as we enter is a platform on which are seated cross-legged the ominously named “Guardians of the Sanctuary,” once fierce armed eunuchs sent down from Istanbul, but now just elderly gentlemen who barely notice us. We attempt to turn left directly to the Prophet’s tomb but are kept at a little distance because it is the ladies’ visiting hours (daily 2-3:30 PM). A small waist-high fence has been put in place to maintain the segregation.

We go around to the east side of the tomb, which is in fact a small, free-standing house with bronze grillwork on all sides and inside of which nothing is visible. We seat ourselves in a small clear space just in front of the rawdah, that place of special blessings called “Paradise,” and slightly to the right of the mihrab or prayer-niche on the south wall of the mosque. After a while Derhalli whispers: “I’m going to pray. Just sit there. Don’t move.” You bet. He begins the Muslim ritual of salat and I, now sort of half-kneeling at his side, attempt to assume a posture of generic, non-sectarian piety. I was aiming for something between a Reformed Jewish and an Ethical Culture look, but I suspect I looked more like a defrocked altar boy. Whatever the effect, the performance is innocuous enough not to attract undue attention, though I am still painfully aware that I look very different from every single soul in that building.

The enormous mosque is filled with people, standing, sitting, lying, sleeping, praying, and most of them wearing something like pajamas. We rise and walk measuredly, always measuredly, around to the east side of the tomb aedicule. We are now directly behind the tomb, facing the places, each marked by a kind of porthole, behind which the mortal remains of Muhammad and the first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar, rest in sarcophagi. There are religious police standing about, long rods in their hands, to prevent people from superstitiously touching the grill around the tomb or raising their arms in prayer, a gesture and an act that is reserved for God alone. But they are also stationed there, as I Iater discover, to prevent Shi‘ite pilgrims from defacing the tombs of Abu Bakr and Uthman, whose legitimacy as caliphs they vociferously deny. I try to drink it all in, to fix in my mind this once in a lifetime scene. Finally, we move on and pass out of the mosque by a side door. I begin to breathe once again.

Just outside the mosque is the famous Bakiyya cemetery, now a walled and visible but inaccessible place in which the early heroes and saints of Islam are buried. There used to be shrine tombs here, but the purist Saudis, who frown on the cult of saints, have replaced the earlier domed qubba shrines with simple uncut and uninscribed stones, about 5-6 ft. apart and each the size of a small melon.

Then, at 3 PM, this very same humble personage, who had done nothing he could remember to deserve such moments, is deposited, amazed, before the southern or Medina terminal of the famous Hijaz Railway. I am standing slack-jawed in front of the main entry façade. The station is considerably less elaborate than the charmingly baroque northern terminal the Turks built in Damascus–in 1912 the Ottomans were running out of both time and money. Grand Central Medina It is in now sad shape. The tiled roof had collapsed at some point and the interior is now filled with debris and vagrants. On the left of the station the Ottomans had built a quite simple but elegant basalt mosque. Behind are the yards, a large open space for arrivals, now used as a kind of bus terminal but with the basalt pavement still in place, though the rails have been removed. Next to the yards, I am astonished to behold a Turkish comfort station (a seven holer!), perhaps the only example of that convenience in the entire Ottoman Empire. Other nondescript basalt buildings on the left and right, and farther up the line, yes, there it is, the locomotive shed, a double bay, each with an engine and tender within. The roof here too is caving in leaving the tin chimneys atop it askew at crazy angles.

I have far more bravado here than in the Prophet’s mosque. I excitedly dart about taking pictures of the nearly pristine locomotives, which still bear the manufacturer’s plate, “Leipzig 1908.” I wonder, could they still be fired up? My reverie is suddenly interrupted by Derhalli who has noticed two police cars beginning to circle in the distance. “Hide the camera,” he shouts. Sure, but where? No matter. They circle but do not open fire on the locomotive stalker. We stroll back toward the station, as nonchalant as two felons dripping with stolen diamonds and finally regain the car.  I sink back into the seat. Good God! I have two grand slams on the scoreboard, two holes-in-one, a career year within the space of two hours. Ya latîf!

Soon we’re back, ebullient, on the road to Ha’il, now about 200 miles distant. This is the old Perso-Iraqi pilgrim route for sure, though with some curious police checks. It is not entirely clear what they’re looking for—Iranian terrorists, perhaps– and once near Ha’il a small posse, two police in uniform and two white-jalabiyyed national guardsmen with red kafiyyas and shoulder-holstered pistols, make us get out of the car. They check the contents of the car, then us, actually go into our pockets with their own hands. Derhalli is outraged as they pick him over. They ask about my film, but forget to inquire for my passport. I don’t mind because I know I’m not an Iranian terrorist, but the whole business seems entirely mindless and capricious.

We reach Ha’il after nightfall, drive through town along the Ha’il “strip” and find the Funduq Jabalayn, the “Two Mounts Hotel,” a palace of the second class that is run, as is usual in the Kingdom, by Filipinos and other Asians. It is still surprising that Derhalli automatically speaks English when he enters all such places of business. The driver Muhammad takes all his meals with us at Derhalli’s insistence, and he is much amused by my Arabic, as when I ask him if he wants not a “sweet” but a “sweetie” after dinner. He passes on the “sweetie” and we all choose what can best be described as a Korean crème caramel, something with the color and consistency of a Mattel toy. To bed at 10. I am by now accustomed to the Corporation House air-conditioning, which tucks you in at about 20º below, so the room here seems a trifle stuffy; but it has been a very long day and sleep comes quickly and easily.

The breakfast specialty of the Two Mounts Hotel is Nescafé. We look around Ha’il and find nothing more notable than a few old mud-brick houses surrounding a citadel castle of the same stuff. In Jedda and Yanbu there are traffic circle monuments to old Coast Guard cutters, smashed automobiles and calligraphy; here in Ha’il it is ears of grain and an immense hand grasping a pencil that are so commemorated. We visit the old suq, which is very clean, and indeed parts of it are carpeted in Sears’ best sickly-green patio turf. The suq features mostly Pakistani and Chinese junk and gold jewelry. The nearby vegetable market is so spotless you could practically eat off the food!

We check out of the hotel, go to the airport and attempt to get onto our flight back to Jedda. But a security policeman (passport division) discovers, as no one else has, that my entry date was stamped on the right day but the wrong (we claim) month, so that my visa had expired before I arrived and other consequences too horrible to contemplate. Derhalli persuades him somehow that the error was committed at entry and that I have not been crouching unnoticed in the country for a month. We proceed next to baggage security where all my souvenir pilgrimage postcards, a lavish gift of the Ministry of Information, are carefully reviewed. One shows hajjis disembarking at an airport, obviously a grave threat to security, not the half-naked sods in the foreground of the picture but the antiquated DC 3’s that appear in the background. A now exasperated Derhalli manages to retrieve the compromising postcards with some very controlled calm, though his inclination is clearly to kick the guy in the throat.

The flight from Ha’il to Jedda takes about an hour. It begins not with safety instructions but with a sura from the Quran wishing well in this life and the next to all travelers, save those bearing postcards of DC 3s. We are first served some green coffee, which tastes really vile and which Derhalli assures me, with a kind of dreary predictability, is 1) a Bedouin treat, and 2) good for the digestion. Derhalli is intelligent and sophisticated and frustrated, I think, by the obscurantism that he sees on all sides in the Kingdom. He thinks the government is corrupt and the royal family is self-serving. But Derhalli too is caught up in the system of wasita, sponsorship. I’m sponsored on this trip; he’s also sponsored; he will convince someone in some ministry to sponsor the publication of my books in Arabia, etc. He’s constantly fearful that somebody’s nose will be out of joint for not being invited to some dinner, that somebody else may or nor attend the dinner to which he is invited. I could hole up in Corporation House for months maybe, but I wouldn’t make it for five minutes in Saudi society.

Lunch is offered by stewardesses who look like they might be from Singapore, though I have never seen a verifiable Singaporese in my life. Lunch on Dry Wadi Airlines? I think not. I am already imagining myself seated, all solitary and sated, at the High Table in Corporation House. At one point there is an announcement that we are entering, at 20,000 feet, the air space of Mecca, and so all those proposing to visit the Holy City are required by canon law to assume the pilgrim’s shift. I pass on that too. I have made my pilgrimage.

I imagined wrong. This evening back in Jeddah there is scheduled a dinner at 9. Some of the local Saudi intelligentsia, liberal division, are invited to dine with the professor and to exchange some scholarly and other chit-chat. And if the professor behaves himself, they will be edified and Mr. Derhalli will look good to them and to the Corporation and the Corporation will look good to some segment of Saudi society. Roughly. Derhalli understands part of this; but he also thinks the instruction is for the professor’s good. But it’s not, not really, and that of course is the dangerous part, the possibility that the professor might think these are just dinner guests and jerk them around the way he does dentists and graduate students. But the professor only looks stupid, so he skates them close to the edge where dentists do occasionally drop off, but on this night not a single Saudi is actually lost in the Great Ironic Abyss.

When nine o’clock tolls, Derhalli and I are the only ones present and I’m already thinking maybe I can send him packing and have the evening to myself. Right! At 9:20 precisely the other guests arrive ensemble. We sit to eat and almost immediately there arises—well, maybe I started it–a little discussion as to 1) whether the Prophet prayed before Islam, and 2) if so, why toward Jerusalem. It’s careful going underfoot and just slippery enough to excite everyone. It all went very well, I think, especially after I discovered that the Deputy Minister of Hajj Affairs was named Professor Bogus. Unhappily he had little to say so I didn’t get a chance to refer to “the Bogus theory of Islamic origins.”

Jedda is already sizzling at the next morning’s sunrise, and Muhammad’s method of stop and start driving is not good for either my head or my stomach. Our destination this day is the Wadi Fatima, 18 miles northwest of Mecca. This famous garden spot, which once grew all the vegetables for Mecca, is garden no more. A dam has been constructed at its upper end and so the former paradise of green is now a wide (10-15 mile) valley of sand and shrub. We visit a poultry “factory” run by a Brit (nice career move!), chiefly, I suspect, because Derhalli wants to buy some chicken manure for his garden. I allow him—that’s my fantasy; he’s clearly in charge here—but beg him to return to Corporation House. I’ve had enough of whatever it was he had in mind.  No. A plan is a plan.

Our next stop is the Hajjport to the north of the city. Once, most pilgrims came to Mecca on Hajj by overland routes, in large caravans that marshaled in Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad or the Yemen. Then, in the nineteenth century, steamships began to carry an increasing numbers of Hajjis by sea to Jedda, thence overland, now by bus, to Mecca. Today they still arrive in Jeddah, but now overwhelming by air. But they no longer disembark at the commercial airport where I arrived. The Saudis have constructed an enormous “Hajjport” on the outskirts of the city. There the pilgrims arrive on charter flights, many of them subsidized. There, under open-air maxi-tents, they are vetted—no more disguised Englishmen, thank you–processed and divided into national and/or ethnic groups, provided with an appropriate factotum-dragoman-guide, and  bussed directly the 45 miles to Mecca and back without ever really setting foot in Jedda. In and out, fast and clean, seems to be the idea, with security the chief motive perhaps, but at considerable loss to the merchants of Jedda and other places.

The chief object of Saudi concern is the Shi‘ite Iranians, still filled with revolutionary zest and with no love for either the politics or the religious notions of the Saudis. The Iranians, then, were likely to suffer certain “political” delays at the Hajjport. The huge tented structure is empty as we now drive through—the Hajj season was months away–but the Iranians’ busses—all the transport to Mecca is in the familiar American school busses–are pointed out: they have their yellow tops sawed off in literal observance of the prohibition of head covering during the Hajj. So the Iranians ride to Mecca roofless and hatless while Pakistani International Airlines is handing out, to all who want them, large green umbrellas with “PIA” boldly stenciled upon them.

The next day, my last, begins at 7:30 with the now usual plunge into the pool, followed by that universal panacea, Saudi orange juice. My airline ticket, authenticated, has been put into my hand by Teddy, who prudently points out that 12:25 AM, my departure time, is actually tonight and not, as one might conceivably think, tomorrow. This is very good news indeed since I am in fact finished here. This morning’s scheduled visit is to the Jeddah Hajj Center, the nerve center of planning and operations for that logistic nightmare wherein for ten days more than a million souls attempt to perform the same rituals in the selfsame places in and around Mecca. And all at precisely the same time! The Center is a fairly modest place, as Saudi facilities go. More, the air conditioning isn’t working so the tour of the premises is a little grim. The Hajj planning is, however, extraordinarily interesting. They still haven’t persuaded their own people to use public transportation to make the Hajj—riding solitary in the back of one’s Mercedes is inscribed in the Saudi Bill of Rights—and their other fears, a mass panic, a cholera epidemic or an encampment fire, are all something that possibly prayer alone will forefend.

Later that afternoon Derhalli and I begin our tour of the old wooden buildings of Jedda. Some are still eccentrically colorful, but the finest, like Philby’s old Baghdadi House, have been destroyed. Then into the suq for a little shopping. At 7 or so we end up at the headquarters of the International Islamic League to meet its director, Dr. Abd al-Nasif. I’m not quite sure who thought this visit was important or why, but I am prepared to vouch that it wasn’t me. Anyway, there is a picture of the two dignitaries together, and about five minutes of extremely pointless converse before God intervenes, on this occasion in the form of a call to prayer, a summons that could hardly be ignored by the head of the International Islamic League. Nor did I encourage him to be remiss in his canonical obligations. Too bad, I say, there were so many important things to discuss. Out of there on the run, he toward the mosque across the street, me for the car. Gun it, Muhammad, gun it!

The professor in flight. It is an image that suits. At half-past midnight that same night I am on Saudia Flight #25, bound it is said, for New York City. Or Bombay. It matters not. I have had enough of the Kingdom.

One Comment

  • How many times i have read this…a few. Taking for granted my freedom to visit the traditional places,(granted) with a group to be herded here and there, so to take this little trip with you was very enjoyable, as well as mind opening, Thank You again for the shared experience.

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