I’ve just had an Alexander kind of day.
Until the muttawa appeared, lunch in the family section of the Faisailah food court was just fine. Muttawa are religious police. They enforce the Islamic dress code, separation of men and women, and prayer attendance. They patrol Riyadh and can appear pretty much anywhere, any time.
There were two of them plus the usual police escort. When they told us to cover up we did. Lickety-split. Anyone who belongs to an organization named The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is not worth arguing with. My head scarf was out of my bag and around my face faster than the speed of light.
After they’d dealt with us, they pulled aside a young man who was seated with a woman. To comply with Islamic law she had to be either his wife or a family member. Otherwise, it’s Trouble.
Then this afternoon I had to visit the hospital for a blood test.
I followed the arrows upstairs to the medical laboratory. I was told that I needed to pay 990 SAR. (Here, payment always precedes treatment.) Doing a quick calculation I realized this was $330 NZ. I felt ill. (At least I was already in the right place…)
I explained we had medical insurance and showed the card made out in my husband’s name.
Not so fast. Because this was my first claim, I was sent downstairs to Liani in reception for ratification and a signature on my form.
Liani signed but then said my doctor had to add something as well. I trailed down yet another corridor, my abaya billowing behind me.
My doctor was not available, they told me. He was doing a procedure. (I am sure in any other country they would have said performing an operation.)
Back I headed to Liani, where I was told, actually, any doctor would do. Upstairs again. I explained what I needed and was given a number. I sat down in the females-only waiting room and looked at the numbers currently being called. They were all A-something. My number was W507!
I thought of my taxi outside and the waiting minutes turning to dollars. I could be here until the next age of the dinosaurs.
The woman sitting beside me took the only reading material in the room, a Koran. She started reading its Arabic text from the back of the book – Arabic is read right to left, just like Japanese.
I remembered my medical centre in New Zealand with its pleasantly welcoming waiting room. I would have done anything for a nice Woman’s Weekly.
Suddenly someone appeared in front of me, waving my medical insurance card in the air. With gesticulations and broken English, they told me the card was in my husband’s name so I couldn’t use it.
In a city where women are chattels, owned by their husbands, telling me I couldn’t use a card with my husband’s name on it seemed pretty ironic.
Back downstairs. Same person. No, she said, you can’t use this card. You need one with your name on it. This was becoming very circular.
Clearly, I was now going to have to pay cash. I had (literally) exhausted the insurance option. Suddenly I heard the word discount and the 990 SAR on my form was rewritten as 545 SAR. I couldn’t make head or tail of this, but at least the revised total was a small step in the right direction.
Upstairs again. I paid and ended up in a cubicle. The nurse appeared,this one dressed in standard hospital white. All white except for her face, that is, which was covered by her black veil. All I could see were her eyes. She could have been Attila the Hun.
The blood test over, I fled the premises. My taxi returned me to the relative calm and sanity of the compound.
Some days are like that, especially in Riyadh.