North of Riyadh
In the 1970s the airports in Saudi Arabia were actually near their cities. Dhahran International was at the airbase a few miles from camp. The Riyadh and Jeddah airports were right in town with their entrances just off the street. After the price of oil quadrupled in 1973 Riyadh was awash in Petrodollars and deluged with thousands of businessmen, contractors, experts, carpet baggers and schemers from all over the world who had absolutely no idea of what to expect when they landed. This made for a particularly target-rich environment for the hoteliers and cab drivers of the city.
Consider a neophyte. Call him Leland Martin Dunlop III, a bond salesman from Scarsdale, New York, who arrives on Middle East Airlines, MEA, at Riyadh International in the summer of 1974. Planning to make a multimillion-dollar deal, Leland is dressed for success in a blue wool suit wearing a crisp, white shirt with French cuffs, dark-blue cuff links, and a red power-tie as he steps out of the plane into a torrid 120 degrees furnace made hotter by acres of tarmac radiating visible heat waves. He walks down the landing steps and across the asphalt to the terminal entrance where ten feet from the building the passengers are delayed by a portly Syrian caught up in some heated disagreement with the lanky guard at the door.
After an interminable wait in the direct sun, Leland’s face starts to flush and he’s beginning to think that maybe the blue wool suit wasn’t the best fashion choice. Finally and inexplicably the portly man starts laughing, shakes hands with the smiling guard, moves on and Leland enters the terminal where four lines await a special kind of hell called Immigration and Passport Control. Line three looks the shortest so he takes his place, silently estimating that he’ll be through in fifteen minutes.
Leland uses the portly Syrian who’s standing in line four to compare his relative progress. He’s already two places ahead of the man by being in the shorter line three. He wonders why the Syrian has passed on this obvious advantage. Ten minutes go by and Leland advances one place as does the Syrian. This won’t be too bad he thinks and then the distinguished-looking Egyptian at the head of line three calls off to his right and a wife, four children and two ancient nannies join him. Forty-five minutes later the Syrian is gone and Leland is still motionless. There seems to be some problem with the Egyptian’s papers.
Leland’s highly-polished black Oxford shoes bought last week at Brooks Brothers for the trip were a little tight to begin with, now the leather has each foot in a vise-like grip that is steadily tightening. Standing on the hard terrazzo floor his arches are falling faster than his patience when the Egyptian family finally clears. The three Filipinos ahead in line are easily processed and then the passport man closes his cage. What? Leland was only three places away and now hope has evaporated. He mills about in front of the closed station muttering to himself until a guard comes over to move him on to the back of line four.
Unfortunately, a plane-load of Korean workers has just arrived so line four is so long that it stretches back out of the terminal into the sun. Leland takes off his blue wool jacket and looks for a pebble that he can suck on to keep hydrated. Before it’s over, Leland has made a bandanna out of his handkerchief, his tie is loosened and his shirt, soaked with sweat, is unbuttoned to his sternum. He has lost both cuff links.
Nearly two and a half hours later he is awkwardly holding his Oxfords and briefcase in one hand, the passport in the other when he walks up in his socks to the customs officer. While talking to a friend standing behind him, the official takes Leland’s passport, glances at him for five seconds, stamps the entry visa and turns back to his friend. Elapsed time of the transaction is fourteen seconds. That was smooth enough, maybe Leland’s luck is turning which of course is impossible. Now he must enter into the inner-most level of Leland’s Dante-an nightmare. It’s called the Customs Hall.
Leland walks into a room about as big as a gymnasium furnished with half a dozen steel inspection tables about twenty feet long and hundreds of people from practically every country on earth, from all stations of life, shouting dozens of languages at the same time. The acoustics are so bad that all the voices blend into a low roar punctuated by the occasional screech. Every second person is smoking a cigarette and Leland feels his asthma coming on. All around are gigantic piles of luggage ranging from elegant hat boxes and handsome Italian leather suitcases to cardboard boxes bound with twine, gaily-painted tin trunks from Pakistan and rolled bundles of bedding. Someone has a birdcage with two bright-blue parrots.
Even though Leland has spent nearly three hours in passport control his plane hasn’t yet unloaded. He knows this because his wife Polly smartly suggested that he tag his bags with yellow ribbons and he doesn’t see them. Killing time, Leland takes in the crowd, marveling at the myriad nationalities surrounding him: Algerians, Brazilians, Nigerians, Jordanians, Germans, Indonesians, Koreans, Qataris, Lebanese, Australians, Sudanese, Malaysians and many more than he can possibly identify. In his whole life, he has only known Americans except for some Swedish exchange students he met one college summer. Mostly white Americans. He could count on his fingers the amount of any given group of non-white Americans: African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, he knows by name. If he’d stayed in Arabia long enough he might have eventually realized that to the rest of the world regardless of race they’re all Americans. The differences between them being trivial compared to their similarity.
The customs inspectors seem to be somewhat haphazard. Meticulously examining a beat-up Samsonite and passing unopened a huge bundle of something or other. They aren’t wearing any uniforms, just the white thobe and red checkered guttrah. Porters are running in every direction. At another line, an angry inspector makes a skinny Yemeni empty his duffel bag full of oranges that spill off the table to roll around the floor in all directions. Beyond the glass wall of the customs hall, a boiling mass of people are assembled to meet the new arrivals.
Oh, there’s an agent from MEA. Leland is in luck. He doesn’t have to wait anymore. His luggage is lost. Filling out the lost baggage report with the young Lebanese agent, Leland says the bags can be identified by the yellow ribbons that Polly put on them. The agent stops writing, looks up at Leland and says, “Yellow tags are used to flag baggage for secondary disease control. If your bags arrive tomorrow, they will be inspected and fumigated. That should only take two days. Check back with me in four days.” Leland is stunned. Like the time he got hit squarely between the eyes by a handball while playing down at the club.
In a daze, he leaves Customs to push into a whirling circus of people crowding the exit. Waiting for their friends and family, Turks shout across the room to each other, Somalis cluster into chattering groups that block the way, women in black purdah wave madly to some relative in the customs hall, Yemenis skitter around trying to snag bags, and babies scream while dozens of men in white thobes wander around aimlessly. Leland regroups. He forces his shoes back on, tying them real loosely this time, runs his fingers through his sweat-matted hair, puts on his jacket, straightens his tie, throws his shoulders back and steps out of the terminal. He is ready to do business.
The driveway is lined with taxis, mostly yellow Datsuns that have been wounded in one fender or the other. The drivers are clustered together. They see Leland and there is some kind of huddle before a lean, middle-aged Bedouin who looks like a well-groomed pirate approaches. He fixes Leland with his dark brown eyes and says, “Sabeak English.” Before he can realize how stupid he sounds Leland says, “Why, yes, I do speak English.” Then he laughs at himself because it isn’t a question. The cab driver doesn’t laugh and says, “Where you go?” Leland looks at his itinerary and replies, “The Sahari Palace.” “Three hundred fifty riyals.” Leland thinks a hundred dollars is a lot for a cab ride. But then this is a boomtown. And he’s had it and just wants to get to his room. That’s probably about right. Maybe it’s even a deal. “Here’s your money, let’s go.”
The cab driver folds up the money, breaks into a faint grin and says “Okay. Okay. Me Ali.” Ali is a little bewildered that there is no luggage but he pries open the bashed-in back door and Leland slides into the back seat. He can’t wait to take a hot bath and get a good nap. Ali fires up the Datsun, drives fifty yards to the boulevard, and amid honking horns and screeching brakes recklessly dashes directly across the onrushing traffic in both directions to deliver Leland Martin Dunlop III to the Sahari Palace. Elapsed time: two minutes at fifty dollars a minute.
Beaten, weary and totally confused Leland walks into the hotel thanking God that his ordeal is over. It’s not a very impressive place. The sparse landscaping seems to be indifferently maintained and the paint over the entrance is peeling but he doesn’t care. He has survived the gauntlet. He has a reservation. Behind the reception desk, a thin, sharply-dressed Pakistani clerk with thick, well-gelled black hair welcomes him in the Queen’s English and cheerfully scans the reservations list only to announce that Leland’s name is not on it. Of course, this couldn’t be true and Leland rifles through his briefcase to proudly produce the letter confirming his reservation and two hundred dollar deposit. The clerk scrutinizes the letter, hands it back to Leland and then shifts his comprehension of the English language into low gear to say, “Not signed.” Leland starts babbling about what his travel agent in Manhattan told him, about the telexes he sent and so on as the clerk nods his head in faint agreement though apparently he has no idea what the American is saying. When Leland finishes his soliloquy the Pakistani says, “No rooms.”
Desperate by now, Leland pleads with the clerk, throwing himself at his pity. He absolutely has to clean himself up for a vital meeting that night with his contact, the cousin of the personal secretary to the second assistant deputy of the minister. It’s bad enough that his luggage is lost, he hasn’t slept for two days, he is seriously dehydrated and his business will collapse if he misses this appointment. He has two children in private school and a wife who shops at Saks Fifth Avenue. They will starve. The clerk looks back with great sympathy and says, “No rooms.”
Crestfallen and devoid of hope, Leland is a broken man on the verge of a total nervous breakdown when the Pakistani with impeccable timing clears his throat and says, “However.” And that is how Leland Martin Dunlop III, the esteemed bond salesman from New York, became the proud resident of the lumpy, red velour, imitation Louis the 14th sofa in the lobby of the Sahari Palace Hotel for the bargain price of nine hundred riyals a night.
CHRISTMAS in KHOBAR
More Stories – Tim Barger
246 pages, $14.95