When my plane departed John F. Kennedy Airport in February 2013 a small part of me wondered if I would ever see America or my family again. During a whirlwind month balancing closing-out one gig while spinning-up another, I had successfully secured an expedited visa to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and was on the cusp of what would prove to be a three-year foray into the heart of the Middle East. I had long been enthralled with Middle Eastern culture, studying Arabic and arguing with expats over the best hummus and falafel available in New York (Editor's Note: the Hummus Place and Taïm, respectively). Yet this was my first excursion into the heart of the Muslim world and I found myself experiencing nearly every feeling imaginable on that twelve-hour flight abroad.
As the plane touched down I noticed the passengers around me were remarkably composed, going about their business collecting luggage and straightening their thobe. I took note of the blond haired woman flying with me in business who suddenly appeared from the bathroom covered in an abaya. I was struck by the thought of how these free Westerners would soon be walking the streets of Riyadh dressing and behaving as though they too were under Sharia law. How would they respond if their home countries tried to force even the most superficial religious law upon them?
The crowd of passengers from JFK joined others from around the world at the passageway to King Khalid International Airport. I was struck at once by the multiplicity of cultures surrounding me with the only commonality being the men's beards and women's eyes. As I joined the line of travelers for passport control I noticed the travelers grouping by nationality, with visitors from Southeast Asia huddling in the back while Arab men in formal attire largely ignored the line altogether. Halfway towards the immigration desk I noticed a wiry Arab man holding a shabby sign with a horrible rendition of my name sprawled across it. The man frantically motioned me over to the front of the line where I was greeted by an official wearing traditional dress, beard and gold-hilted saber. After nearly ten minutes of arguing the immigration official stamped my passport. I exited the airport with the driver and ducked into the back of an SUV conspicuously parked immediately outside the airport terminal.
As we hurried onto the main highway to Riyadh my driver motioned toward freshly-laid tire tracks along the road and uttered a single perceptible word: "Hajwalah" he said. Hajwalah, I learned a few quick searches later, referred to a street racing style particular to Arab culture where drivers demonstrate their ultimate faith in Divine Will by removing all safety harnesses and engaging in incredibly dangerous, illegal drifts on public roads. The sport (and I use that term loosely) has gained popularity in recent years, fueled by social media and general boredom with the status quo. The activity is of special concern in Saudi Arabia as it represents both a misinterpretation of the Quran and beacon for social unrest.
As we entered Riyadh I was struck by the extreme disparity house to house and car to car. Beautiful mansions and magnificent skyscrapers were scattered amongst otherwise shabby apartment complexes and run-down bodegas. Lines of rusted cars, mostly driven by foreigners, shared the roadway with Arabs driving brightly colored Ferraris and Lamborghinis. This was my first glimpse of equality since arriving in the Kingdom: no matter the class of vehicle, we were all stuck in traffic. I wondered how much longer it would be before connected cars are granted priority service lanes.
We eventually completed our journey to the Kingdom Tower above the Kingdom Centre Mall. My driver reminded me not to look any of the local girls walking the mall in the eye, lest I be spotted by one of the religious police. We pulled up alongside a black SUV ferrying a woman seated in the back seat to work. A half dozen other female passengers soon joined her, each seated in the backseat of their respective vehicles. I followed one of the women through the revolving doors, completely covered apart from the telltale blonde hair peaking out from under her head covering. As we rode the elevator together I pointed out that the elevator operator was the first occupation to be completely displaced by technology -- perhaps autonomy will do the same to male chauffeurs.
Three days later I was back aboard a flight on my way out of Riyadh. As we sat out the tarmac I journaled my experiences and watched the line of formally-dressed passengers take their seats. A few moments later the plane lifted off and the flight attendant announced we were leaving Saudi airspace. Female passengers in front and behind me immediately removed their hijabs and donned ball caps. I reclined my seat and nodded off with the Zac Brown Band blaring in my ears.
Nick B. is a guest contributor to APEX. He is a journeyman adventure junky with a passion for technology, ethics and culture. He currently resides in New York City with his wife, two kids and two dogs.