Today, join me as I reminisce about my time living in Saudi Arabia, and the time I crossed the border carrying contraband! (Cue suspenseful music.)
About 1,000 years ago, I spent 5 years living in the Magic Kingdom, Saudi Arabia. Those were fascinating times, full of new experiences and lessons about humanity. (About 500 years ago, I went for another 5-year stint, also unforgettable. I’ll write about that another time. Subscribe to my newsletter? I write often about my life in Saudi Arabia and/or my 35-year marriage to a Muslim Arab.)
I had a great job teaching at PCS (Parents Cooperative School – now AISJ, the American International School of Jeddah), the premiere American school in Jeddah, from 1986 to 1990.
The school buildings were set up so that every classroom opened to the outdoors, and literally every single day was cloudless. Yes, it was hotter than blazes outside, but the air conditioning kept us comfortable. Money was not an issue: the school was flush with cash. The teachers were enthusiastic and well qualified, the students were (for the most part) hard-working and well-behaved, the administration was supportive. It was a great gig.
The school had been started in 1952 by the families of TWA employees who’d been hired to manage the brand-new Saudi Arabian Airlines (aka Saudia). Now, in the 80’s, Saudia sponsored the school, and most of the teaching staff were international hires – American and British, primarily.
As employees of the airline, those teachers got lots of free airline tickets. Teachers used to disappear for the weekend to fly to a Yankees game; the band director was known to fly to London to pick up replacement parts for his clarinets. It was a sweet deal. Many of the students’ parents were airline employees, and the kids would come back from a weekend with stories about all kinds of exotic getaways. (Sadly, I was a local hire, with one perk: getting a modest paycheck.)
This seems like as good a place as any to add more photos of the beautiful campus.
In 1990, one of the male history teachers planned a field trip to Washington DC for spring break. All of the female Saudia-employed teachers already had plans, so I volunteered to chaperone. The ten students who signed up had access to free tickets, and the parents chipped in to cover my airfare. Cool—I got a free trip from Jeddah to our nation’s capital, and all I had to do was keep an eye on five well-behaved 9th grade girls!
The trip went almost without a hitch. We stayed at a hostel, pushed through jetlag to visit all of the usual DC sites, and had lunch in the congressional dining room (if memory serves me). There was that one moment when we were all taking the subway, and one of the kids failed to get off the train with the rest of us. I don’t know exactly how the other chaperone found him—my job was to stay with the group and just wait. That could have gone much worse. Otherwise it was a lovely field trip.
While stateside, I took the opportunity to buy myself a new Bible. I knew it might be seized at the border – but I certainly wasn’t going to find one in Jeddah. So I took my chances. I packed my new acquisition deep in my suitcase, and we headed back to Jeddah.
Ramadan had started while we were gone, and all we wanted was to get through customs before it was time to break the fast. You know how taxiing to the terminal can take as long as the whole flight? That’s how this felt. We walked in just as the prayer call was sounding. All airport employees left their posts in a cloud of dust and sat down to eat the meal that had been set out for them.
We had no choice but to wait – standing, since Customs and Immigration had no chairs. No problem, maybe they’ll just eat a little something and come back. They can see us from where they’re sitting; they know we’re here.
No such luck.
Forty-five minutes later, with full stomachs, they began making their way back to work.
I got a bad feeling when I approached the baggage inspector: he was quietly and reverently chanting the Qur’an.
Sure enough, he found the forbidden book and informed me that it must be confiscated. I pleaded, made my best damsel-in-distress face, but to no avail. My husband – who had not broken his fast yet because he was waiting to take me home – tried to reason with the inspector, but that didn’t work either. The Bible was gone. (It’s fine, I just used my old one.)
I didn’t mean any harm. And as far as I could tell, I wasn’t doing anything actually wrong. My faith has been a part of me as long as I can remember. The deepest, most intimate part of myself had been trampled on. “Oh, you’re one of Them. Yeah, we’ll let you come in, but you’re not going to bring that foul book of yours.”
The law in Saudi Arabia forbids the practice of any religion except Islam. I knew this going in. It also forbids the entrance of any literature that contradicts or undermines Islam. At the top of that list is the Bible – followed closely by Playboy.
(Mind you, Islam embraces most of what the Bible says, and Muslims profess belief in all of the prophets, including Jesus. But the Bible and its teachings disagree with Islam on some important points, and so it is forbidden.)
It was insulting to hear this man tell me what I could and couldn’t read in the privacy of my home, just because he was in a position of power and I was a minority. It was humiliating, but part of me refused to be humiliated: when he flipped through the Bible and found a bookmark with a list of people I was praying for, I grabbed it out of his hand and ripped it up in his face. (That wasn’t very Christian of me. I see that now.)
But this was Saudi Arabia, where intolerance is official protocol.
The United States, on the other hand, practices tolerance. When we encounter a person with a different belief set or ethnic background, we do not criminalize, dishonor, insult. We do not trample on the deepest part of people just because they are different. We do not use power to knock others around.
Or that’s the way things used to be. Or ought to be.
America is supposed to be the exact opposite of Saudi Arabia. Christian Americans, Muslim Americans, Asian, Native, Arab, black, brown Americans are all supposed to be equal. We who are in the majority ought to be making sure that everyone feels welcome.
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