Spring Break 2015 Vol. 1: The Madina Airport

Why am I writing about the airport? Because this day’s experiences, while not ideal spring break activities, show some very important aspects of Saudi life and culture, so hang in there and take the whole trip with all its ups and downs along with me.

The first day of my vacation was spent in airports for the very simple reason of the Saudi driving ban and gender segregation. Madain Saleh is only about 2-3 hours drive from the town I live in… by car. But since I can’t drive here, and can’t take a bus between cities alone, and can’t hire a (male) driver without extraordinary expense, I instead spent over 11 hours in airports and in the air.

I tried to find a driver, but they were all going to be more expensive than the airfare. My students and local co-worker were surprised to hear I was flying, but they all have husbands, brothers, fathers, or uncles who can drive them where they want to go. The driving ban doesn’t strongly affect them, since it’s only a hardship for those women who don’t have a strong family structure (like divorcees or immigrants and who really cares about them? right?)

There are only 4 flights in and out of Al Ula (the town nearest to Madain Saleh) every week, and they are either to Riyadh or Madina. The one on Friday I took connected through Madina, a city closed to non-Muslims. As a result, I spent the entire 7 hour layover inside the airport. Now, some people will say that this was unnecessary, because I could have easily caught a taxi there and gone out. Like all laws in Saudi Arabia, they are only applicable if you get caught, but the penalty for getting caught is severe. So, while I would love to see the holy cities, I don’t think alone and with minimal Arabic skills is the way to go.

The highlight of my waiting time was my conversation with the Filapina bathroom attendant. She was bored too, as you can imagine, and after seeing me over a course of a couple of hours, approached me to chat.

A thing to understand about KSA, the underclass of immigrant laborers is treated very poorly. There is rampant slavery (withholding of wages, withholding of passports, forced to live in employer provided housing, no transportation and limited contact with others are all very common), and female employees are often subjected to unwanted sexual advances by their male sponsors (heck, even young men can be pressed into homosexual activities). There is no place for these folks to turn. They are promised wages, and often they *are* making more money than they could at home (when they get paid), but they have no way to leave. Exit visas must be granted by the sponsor, flights are expensive, and their Embassies are overwhelmed and underfunded.

As a consequence, I try hard to be nice to these people whenever our paths cross. This lady was in many ways very lucky. Her job in a public (and very holy) place meant that she was protected from some of the worst treatment that immigrant workers are subjected to. She had also become friends with some of the Saudi women who also worked in the airport, and they looked after her to an extent, bringing her small gifts of chocolate and sheltering her from the worst consequences of being Filapina in Saudi.

She had a college education. She spoke her native Tagalog as well as a family village dialect, English and Arabic (the last she taught herself). In the Philippines she had a white collar job doing manager level work, but still did not make enough money to send her two sons to college. This alone is a travesty. She tried some other countries before finally landing in Saudi, where she is content to work cleaning up bathrooms after entitled Saudi wanna-be queens because it allows her to provide the education she wants for her sons (despite the fact that the same education did her no good economically speaking).

She told me that when she first arrived in Saudi she didn’t speak Arabic and was treated very poorly. She determined to teach herself so that she could confront the people who were talking bad about her and making her life harder than it needed to be. Her first step worked. Once the people around her figured out that she could understand them and talk back, she got fewer insults and even a few overtures of friendship.

Then she told me she had converted to Islam from the staunch Catholicism that is practiced by most people in the Philippines. However as we talked more about it, she admitted that she did not partake in the required five times daily prayers, but still prayed in her own time. A few other hints and clues led me to believe that her conversion may have simply been born out of loneliness or a desire to fit in, at best to have a spiritual community to belong to. I don’t blame her. I’ve spent my life without a spiritual community, but I see how important it is to others, and sometimes I envy them. It would be interesting to see if she keeps her faith in Islam once she returns to her homeland and is surrounded by Catholics again.

She told me a story of one of those self important Saudi ladies who had come into the prayer area without removing her shoes. The whole purpose of the sajjaada (prayer rug) is to make sure that the floor you are praying on is clean. The airports often have permanent carpeted areas in the prayer rooms, and this one also had a little shelf for shoes just outside the carpeted room. So the woman walking on the rugs with shoes is very disrespectful and inappropriate. When the Filapina tried to ask her to remove her shoes the Saudi lady became hostile, and physically hurt her by grabbing and pinching her arms, then told her she would make a complaint and get the Filapina fired and deported.

Sadly, this is a real threat. If a Saudi (or other upper class foreigner like, say, an American) makes a complaint against one of the near slave underclass immigrant workers, there won’t be an investigation or a warning, the worker will simply be ejected. If the complaint is bad, they may be jailed, whipped or fined too. This is why I was hesitant to complain about the taxi drivers in Jeddah, because despite their obnoxious behavior, I didn’t think they really deserved such harsh punishment.

Her employer took her papers and she was not allowed to come to work for 15 days while things were being decided. She was sure it was the end of her stay in Saudi and her dreams of providing college to her sons. However, by this time she had, with her Arabic and conversion, made friends among many of the other airport employees, and when they found out what had happened, they appealed to the bosses that the Saudi woman who had complained had a reputation of unreasonable complaints, and begging them to restore the Filapina.

This is wasta at work. Because some of the folks who spoke on her behalf were Saudi and higher ranking employees their word counted for something and her deportation was stayed. They airline told the Saudi complainer that her wish had been granted while quietly moving the Filapina to the international terminal for a while to reduce her chances of being seen by the complainer.

All in all, she has it better than most Filipinas in Saudi, yet she is still working far below her education and qualifications, and living apart from her family and community. She told me that whenever she is alone she cries, because she misses her home and family so much, but when she is around customers at work she always puts on a smile because she wants to bring happiness to others.

Broke my heart.

I like to believe as an educated American, I will never know what it’s like to have to take a blue collar job in a strange country just to provide for my loved ones whom I have left behind. I am fortunate enough to be travelling and working for myself and by choice, but I would be a fool if I didn’t take these stories into myself and let them change me.

It’s so easy to distance ourselves from those less fortunate, or to paint them into only the starving children of Africa or India who are so destitute they become a romantic tragedy, a plight for Angelina Jolie to bring aid. And they need it, don’t get me wrong. But so many more people around us, right next to us, people we pass on the streets and in the airports, are living “lives of quiet desperation” in a way that Thoreau himself could not have imagined.

So if ending world hunger seems like too much for you to tackle, think about those around you. When was the last time you talked to your company’s janitor? Or the bus boy at your favorite restaurant? I think we tell ourselves we can’t make a real change, but a small kindness like a bit of luxury chocolate, a friend who’s willing to listen when it seems too much, a friend who’s willing to speak up and lend a hand when the crazy bureaucracy threatens to beat their dreams down can make all the difference to someone struggling to find a dream.

This woman didn’t want anything from me but someone to hear her story. Friends she made in Madina did little things like bring her chocolate that she would never buy for herself because she was sending every spare cent home. And they fought for her when her job was in danger. Never doubt that even small actions can make a big impact when applied with love.

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