Friday, 6 April 2012

Easter Outside Saudi

The world is very different outside Saudi. Well of course, you say. But this difference hit me afresh when we flew to Vienna yesterday

The first difference was when our plane taxied in our stop-off at Frankfurt airport. Passengers stayed in their seats. The typical surge of Saudis standing, getting bags, and rushing to the aircraft exit as their flight descended into Riyadh just didn't happen. These stewards actually walked up and down the aisles before landing, checking that all seatbelts were done up and making sure seats were upright.  They didn’t have to repeatedly tell people to switch off their cell phones and stay seated. And they didn’t have to shrug their shoulders and give up when no one took a blind bit of notice of their safety instructions.

Once off the plane, we discovered another difference. The Frankfurt airport toilets were clean. Pristine, actually. In Riyadh, they are not. If you need to go, you first take a deep breath and hope you can hold it for as long as you’re inside. Once through the door, you notice that the floor is awash with what you hope is just water.  There is a uniformed worker vainly trying to mop up, but the water just swirls around the floor in small eddies rather than going anywhere. There is a reason for all this. Before Muslims pray, the Koran dictates that they have to wash themselves all over. They even wash the inside of their mouths and then spit into the sinks. Or – sometimes – the floor. So at the end, while they may be clean, the washroom is most decidedly not. Best to keep holding that breath, as you step gingerly across the wet tiles, and get out as soon as possible.

And another difference. It’s Easter here.

There is no Easter in Riyadh. Just like there’s no Christmas and in fact no freedom for Chr***ians to worhip. I can’t even wear a cross. But here the words Frohe Ostern were visible everywhere.

While still in the airport, we passed two young women handing out Easter eggs to people. They were dressed in white skirts and tops. Pretty normal really – except for the pink bunny ears on their heads and fluffy pink tails low on their backs. I suddenly realized what it is I am looking forward to most in Vienna. An Easter service in a country where people can go to church openly without fear of reprisal. And the familiar Easter music and ritual that is such an important part of who I am, and what I believe.

As we walked toward the taxi stand with our luggage, I thought how good it was to have left Saudi behind for a while. But then I turned on my cell phone. There were13 texts. One was from my daughter. The other 12 were from Mobily, a Saudi mobile operator.  Half of these were in Arabic. I deleted the last Mobily text and instead read the Easter message from my daughter. Tomorrow would be Easter Sunday. The small airport stall selling home-made chocolate Easter eggs had one that caught my attention. Er lebt it said in white chocolate icing.

He lives, indeed.

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