By Diana McLeod

It was like walking into a flock of flapping white seagulls. Our plane was full of men; men dressed in nothing but ragged white bedsheets. The sheets were belted at the waist and draped over one bare shoulder. Most wore sandals, but I saw at least one pilgrim walking barefoot through the modern airport security scanner. It looked like a frat toga party in the 1980’s, but without the beer. These men were Hadjis; Muslims making the once-in- a-lifetime journey to Saudi Arabia, to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet at Mecca or Medina.

Some had their women with them. Most of the female pilgrims were elderly, long past the age where the layers of fabric they wore concealed any charms worth hiding. I suppose all the veils and the headscarves were a kindness at this point of their lives; an acknowledgement that they had once been young women. There was some variety in the required draping. I assume that each husband was at liberty to choose his wife'’s attire. Some husbands permitted the simple hair and neck covering headscarf. Others required a semi- transparent face veil. The more conservative ones expected their spouses to wear the complete black fabric facial veil with only the eyes revealed. At least I didn'’t see the super extreme latticework over the eyes, as they do in Afghanistan. One lady had a large piece of clear plastic over her eyes, with black plastic beneath her nose, looking like she was wearing a large fake mustache. Other ladies wore rigid white headbands and white wimples under their black garments, exactly as Catholic nuns do. There were also Islamic pilgrims from Malaysia. The Malaysian ladies wore white sheets, pulled tightly over the head and tied at the neck, draping around their slender forms like cheesy Halloween ghost costumes.

We left Mumbai, India in the midst of this strange crowd of white robed Hadjis and their black crow wives, on our way to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with a layover in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. We were the only Western tourists. This plane had TVs, and I wound up watching the movie “Argo.” This film was based on the true story of the rescue of six Americans who had escaped the U.S. embassy during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. The six Americans were hidden in the Canadian embassy for weeks, until the C.I.A. came up with an unlikely method of getting them out, claiming that they were members of a foreign film crew. The movie was tense and, at times, terrifying. Realizing that I was on a planeload full of deeply religious Muslims, flying into the Saudi Arabian desert, made the movie feel uncomfortably real for me.

We thought that the airport at Jeddah would be a modern facility, and that we would be treated like transit passengers anywhere. We knew that Saudi Arabia refuses entry to all Americans except oil workers, diplomats, and military personnel, but we expected to have no difficulty in the transit lounge. We were wrong about that. They detained us, outside of the transit lounge, and asked us to wait for a specially designated security officer. It was one o'’clock in the morning, Saudi time; not exactly a good time of day for a hassle.

The officer was courteous but firm. He wanted everything: our passports, our boarding passes and our luggage tags. All of our travel documents disappeared with him. We were told to go to the transit lounge, and we were assured that everything would be taken care of.

I had been hoping to get some sleep in the Jeddah airport. No chance! First of all, I would never take the risk of falling asleep and missing our flight! If we missed it, we would be stuck in limbo, forbidden to enter the country, but also unable to leave. A nightmare scenario in a place where we were beginning to feel quite unwelcome! How often did Ethiopian Airlines fly through Jeddah? Maybe only once a week? No, I was not about to miss our flight! Secondly, I was not about to fall asleep and not track down our passports and travel documents at the appropriate time. I kept a close eye on the movements of the security officers who knew about our situation. I intended to hound them as soon as the boarding time of our flight neared.

The security guy who checked our hand luggage was really funny. He was very nice and friendly, and he made us feel welcome. When Dave overlooked his silver money clip in the security basket, he found it and gave it back to us, which was very gracious of him. But some of the other security guards and the hordes of Hadji pilgrims, who were visiting Saudi Arabia from Muslim countries all over the Middle East and Asia, stared at us as if we were aliens from another planet. My uncovered hair was not making me any friends, either.

The hours went by, and still we did not get our passports. Our flight number did not appear on the departure board, which also freaked me out. What if the flight was delayed, or cancelled? Then, at last, just when I was beginning to panic, one of the security officers appeared with our passports. They had made out new boarding passes, and they told us our gate number. Sure enough, the flight was nearly ready for boarding. We gratefully got in line. It was now four thirty A.M., and we’'d been waiting anxiously for five hours.

It took another hour or more before we finally took off. We were headed for Africa, landing in Ethiopia for the first time. After Saudi Arabia, the touchdown in Africa felt strangely like a homecoming, even though it was a brand new and utterly unfamiliar place to us.

I later learned, from a diplomat, that there had been some incident between Saudi Arabia and the U.S., and that the Saudis were putting all Americans through extra security and detention as a result. We were caught up in international tensions between the two countries.

Thanks for reading! Diana

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