Saturday, 26 February 2011

A New Beginning

My husband has worked in Saudi for the last five years. About six months ago, I finally decided to join him. For many years I’ve been convinced I could never live in a society where women were so repressed. But oddly enough, I reached a point where I did feel ready to join him. I even felt mildly excited.

Odysseus faced one-eyed beasts and whirlpools. As a western woman, I too will have to navigate my way through a vastly different culture.

Encouraged by my family, I’ve decided to keep a blog. This is it.

Ironically, arriving in Saudi was more straightforward than leaving New Zealand.

The day had arrived. The house was let. I had successfully navigated the R--- visa application minefield (more medical tests than a jam donut has calories). Now here I was, bags packed and at the airport. Ready to go.

Or so I thought. I handed over my passport. As the woman behind the Singapore Airlines counter looked at my visa, I sensed her alarm. “I’ve never done one of these before,” she said. “It’s not a place many people go to.”

(R--- is unlikely to be on anyone’s list of ‘Top Ten Places to Visit Before You Die’. It’s certainly not on mine…)

She tried to decipher the information she needed for airline records from my visa’s largely Arabic script. In answer to her question about visa category and expiry date, I explained that mine was a residency visa. There was no expiry date. “It’s permanent,” I said, adding, ‘for ever’. I said this with an assurance I didn't really feel. Family farewells were just around the corner and 'for ever' was not something I wanted to think about.

Confused and making no headway despite my helpful interjections, she asked for help. Four others from adjacent counters joined her. There was lengthy discussion. I glanced nervously over my shoulder. No queue, fortunately.

At long last something was entered into the computer database that seemed to satisfy all those there. Thinking thoughts about patience and being long-suffering, I walked away, boarding pass firmly in my grasp.

Oh my goodness.

I’m not the sort of person who watches movies on flights. Maybe that's odd, but I much prefer a good book. So a few days ago I had bought Traveling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Monk Kidd, especially to read as I flew, so to speak.

When it eyeballed me in the bookshop, it demanded purchasing. Firstly because, I had already read and loved The Secret Life of Bees, also by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s one of those few books that I keep in a special place on my bookshelf. I know I will never part with it.

Secondly, the opening sentence describes the author watching her daughter in the National Archeological Museum in Athens, as she deftly photographs a marble bas-relief of Demeter and Persephone. It reminded me so much of watching my own daughter in the London National Museum not so many years ago. On this occasion her gaze was wholly captivated by an ancient Greek vase by Ezekias. As it had been for Sue Monk Kidd watching her daughter, the moment was something of an epiphany. There was a recognition that my daughter, although so much a part of me, was also something quite separate. I could observe her excitement but not fully enter into the moment.

And then there was the title. It seemed to speak to me, flying as I was to Saudi Arabia. Although not traveling with pomegranates, I was certainly traveling to where I would find them. Like Saudi, the pomegranate dates back to antiquity.

As the plane came in to the airport, it hit me - just how much my life was about to change.

Whenever out in public in Saudi, I'll have to wear an abaya. An abaya is a long cover-all-and-exceedingly-shapeless black cloak. It is also unquestionably the ugliest clothing on earth. During times of extra sensitivity, like the religious festival of Ramadan, I will have to add a black headscarf.

Seeing me in my abaya, the air hostess came over, curious as to why I was going to R---. I was, after all, traveling on my own and the only western woman on the plane. The business class section, full at the start of the flight, was now down to only three.

I disembarked, prepared for long queues at immigration and rigorous searching at customs. The butterflies in my stomach started performing airborne gymnastic feats.

When I spotted the Women's Only queue, I suddenly realised that this time, the standard Saudi segregation was going to work in my favor. The men's queue stretched for ever. In my queue - just me.

At customs, my bags passed through the standard X-ray machines. I reached for the keys to my locks ready to open my bags for inspection. To my great surprise, with a cursory glance I was waved on. There was no search. I thought of my two crosses somewhere in my luggage, which I had decided I could not do without, and the Bible study notes.

This was certainly not what I had been led to expect. I was relieved beyond belief.

My year of black has begun.

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