Day 536: And All That Hejaz

20.06.10:

Turki’s apartment in the north of Jeddah was as sweet as sweet can be. Not only did I get my own room (and bathroom), his fridge was stocked and there was a nice hot cup of tea with real milk whenever I fancied it. Turki himself is a remarkably interesting chap – a jack of many trades – a building planner/surveyor in his day job, in his spare time he has just put together the first of his ‘Arabic Trails’ guidebooks, a full colour 4×4 guide with the amazing stuff you can find in the desert, if you know where to look. The pdf version on his computer looked seven shades of awesome – even more awesome when you realised he did most of the research, took the photos, created the maps and set the design.

This guide just covered the Hijaz area, which is this part of Arabia, the stuff around Mecca, but Turki is planning many more, including one for Oman. It’s really excellent stuff. I take my hat off to him.

Turki totally took on the challenge of getting me to Eritrea and had taken the day off work to help. He arranged for us to meet with his friend Bob Moss for lunch and soon enough we were setting off to the excellent Pakistani restaurant downtown for the awesome lunchtime buffet.

Bob is the managing director of one of the biggest shipping companies in Jeddah. If there was a more awesome place to start our quest, I couldn’t imagine. Over some tasty tasty tucker I explained my situation, the ‘mad plan’ and the difficulties I’ve faced getting over to Eritrea (all the land borders being closed, ships from The Gulf being a no-no and Yemen being shut). Bob advised me to do two things: first, get myself an Eritrean visa. Second, go and see his colleague Abdullah who is a very important guy in the ship business and a bit of a port Yoda, he’ll be able to direct us where to go next.

All sounded fairly straightforward, but to be honest with you, the idea of getting an Eritrean visa fills me with dread. After my adventures across Central Asia, not to mention my nightmare Saudi and Indian visas, I fully expect them to demand I get my visa from the UK, a process which would take at least two weeks.

But you gotta do what you gotta do, and after lunch Turki and I said our thanks and goodbyes to Bob and headed back to the flat. Turki called the Eritrean embassy to find out what the SP was, and the answer we got back was the most unexpected thing I’ve heard in the last six months.

Yeah, tell him to bring his passport and a photo, we’ll do it for him tomorrow.

One photo? Tomorrow?

What about the letter from my employer? My bank statements? My birth certificate? My letter of invitation? Residency papers? My flight in and out? My hotel booking? Seventeen photos? My fingerprints? My iris scan? My Arabic translation? My shoe-size? My star-sign? My first memory? The colour of my underwear….?

Nah, just bring a photo.

Ahh… Eritrea you surprisingly un-paranoid hunka hunk of burnin’ love. I could just kiss you!

Just to put this marvel into perspective, we also called up the Sudanese embassy as back-up in case I couldn’t get a ship to Eritrea. Ha! No chance! You have to get your Sudanese visa from London, ginger boy. That’ll take about a month, won’t it? Woohahahahahahaha etc.

Later that day Turki took me out to the old town of Jeddah, a place he is as enthusiastic about as I am over the old bits of my Liverpool. The city fathers are in the middle of replacing the yucky asphalt with cobblestones, which is going to look great, but unfortunately on the day that I arrive they have merely dug up all the roads (and I mean ALL the roads!) without actually getting cracking with the cobbles. Then again, maybe the undulating dirt paths make it even more authentic…!

The old buildings here are really wonderful, made of local coral stone with wooden latticed windows to let the cool air in. There isn’t a single straight line to be found, an Arabic rendering of Diagon Alley from Harry Potter. The marketplace is still here after hundreds of years and unlike Qatar’s old quarter there is a real sense of authenticity.

Although I have to say my favourite souk market in the world is in Tunis. It beats Jeddah, Jerusalem, Cairo, Istanbul and even Marrakech hands down.

After taking in the old town, Turki and I head back to the flat in order to suss something out – how to copy pdfs and videos onto my little hard drive. On any other hard drive this would be a cinch, but this hard drive is made by a dreadful group of American capitalist pigdog businessmen who tuck their t-shirts into their high-hitched jeans and so their overpriced toys are more fussy than an OCD Lord Snooty when it comes to whether it will, you know, allow crazy space-aged stuff like pdf files onboard, especially if it’s wearing trainers.

It’s fair to say that my hard drive has ideas above its station.

It took Turki and I, who are both more computer literate than the average Joe, FOUR HOURS to crack the secret alchemy involved in the seemingly simple task of putting pdfs onto my iPod. FOUR HOURS which neither of us are going to get back. But at least Turki now knows how to put pdfs on his new hilariously named iPad as well. This means he can now put up to TEN of his own books on the thing, before he has to pay(!) for a application that allows him to put another one on. Ka-ching!!

The annoying thing is that to copy pdfs across you have to have your computer and your iPod wirelessly attached to the internet. Difficulties arise here because often I do not have a free wireless connection (for instance, my connection in Kuwait was wired and my Vodafone mobile internet dongle only worked on my laptop), and when I go to a café to use the ‘free’ internet, they invariably give me one code, and only one, so I can’t connect both my laptop and my iPod to the net at the same time. And if it’s a paying internet place, I have to pay double.

Clever eh?

Why the info can’t just, you know, GO DOWN THE FRICKIN’ LITTLE WHITE USB CABLE ATTACHED TO MY LAPTOP I do not (and fear will never) know.

Meanwhile, I can finally put my own Odyssey vids on my iPod to show people. You see, rendering them in Quicktime is not enough, there is a secret video setting that you have to use, but this setting is so secret, nobody actually knows what it is. I mean, we all know that iPods can play ordinary mp4 files (as demonstrated when you go onto YouTube). We also know that they can understand pdf files – after all, you can email them to yourself from a real computer if necessary. But try an copy these things across and your iPod looks at you like you’re the biggest idiot since George W Bush.

No no no, what you need is an iPod video converter, because the £750 you spent on Adobe Premiere ain’t enough! So if you buy this converter, it will (in seconds!) add the little bit of code that says you just gave Steve Jobs another fistful of dollars and allow you to put your video that you made onto your hard drive.

The sad thing is that Apple, though rotten to the core, have a cult. A cult that actually gets offended if you say that their products are monopolistic, awkwardly programmed, overly-judgemental toys. And their ranks are growing. It’s heart-breaking that even in this day and age people still think that these mega-corporations still have their best interests at heart. Just like the banking industry, eh?

Day 537: OK, Where’s The Catch?

21.06.10:

Turki gets up at some horrendously early hour of the morning, but I was allowed to sleep in until 8am, and then we both headed over to the Eritrean Consulate. Again, Turki took a day off work to help me out (miles above and light years beyond the call of duty). A little man dressed in red with horns, a pointy tail and a pitchfork hovered over my left shoulder whispering it can’t be this easy, it can’t be this easy…

But it was.

I didn’t even need to fill out a form, they did it for me. And when they told me I could pick the visa up later that day, I almost broke into cartwheels. So can I pay for it in Saudi money? Of course! Do I have to pay it into a bank that’s on the other side of town? Don’t be silly, just pay it over there at the window marked ‘cashier’. Then I did break into cartwheels.

Our meeting with Abdullah was in the afternoon, so there was a good chance we’d actually have the visa to show him. Things were going well. I have decided that Turki is my lucky charm (even though I don’t believe in luck) and that I should definitely stuff him in my backpack and take him with me for the final forty.

Over lunch, Turki and I had a good natter about Saudi Arabia and it’s perception in the wider world. Growing up in the US, Turki has a good outsider’s perspective and now after living here for so many years he also has inside knowledge that a tourist like me will often lack.

Now first up, do they still stone women to death for adultery (or being raped)? Turki says no, the only capital offenses here are murder, rape and drug-dealing and the only state sanctioned method of execution is beheading. Er… okay, what about chopping off thieves hands? Again, the answer is no (and to be fair I didn’t see any handless vagrants wandering about). So the old British right wing why-don’t-we-just-chop-their-hands-off-like-the-Saudis is balderdash then? Yup.

Okay then. We will continue this discussion later.

At 3pm we were back at the Eritrean consulate and there it was – my Eritrean visa. Unbelievable! So, so easy! We rushed over to meet Bob and Abdullah, passport in hand. Abdullah was a really nice guy, Turki and I explained my mission, showed him some videos on Turki’s iPad and he gave us his support.

He told us that we have to visit a place called Baaboud Shipping down by the docks. They run the one and only cargo operation between Jeddah and Eritrea. He gave us the name and number of the guy we needed to speak to, Ahmed Ibn-Ishaq, and told us to tell them that Abdullah sent us. Things were going well. Yes I am playing a real-life game of Monkey Island.

That night, Turki and I chatted about that great big elephant in the corner. Women’s rights in Saudi. As far as I am concerned, they don’t have any. They’re not allowed to drive, (and it’s too hot to walk) they are forced to wear a big black cotton bag over their entire body (in the desert – nice!) and their view of the world is obscured by the fact they have their faces completely covered whenever they are outside. They can’t go anywhere, do anything, speak to anybody without the permission of a man, be it their father or their husband.

The blacked-out ‘Family’ rooms of every restaurant along the road to Jeddah are testament to how divided the world of men is from the world of women here in Saudi. This is all based on little more than an incredibly childish sense of jealousy. Put simply, the men here do not want other men even looking at their wives. This may be because many marriages here are arranged and therefore loveless. Lacking this bond that (by and large) stops normal, free women from having affairs, the Bedu men’s paranoia is understandable (kinda) but the system here stops just short of locking the fairer half of the population up in the basement.

The maddening thing is that there is NOTHING in the Koran about women having live as little more than slaves to their menfolk. It is a Bedu thing, and despite the mealy-mouthed apologists saying it is about ‘respect’ (do me a quaver), it’s about nothing more than male power, domination, jealousy and paranoia – things that a good Muslim should be fighting a personal jihad against.

I have to say that here in the Hijaz part of the country things are a lot more easy going. However, the capital Riyadh is slap bang in the middle of Bedu country and so things are unlikely to change at a national level anytime soon. But Turki is optimistic. He reckons that the Hijazis are a lot more cosmopolitan and there is an unstoppable rise in the numbers of young people using Facebook and mixed coffee shops to meet members of the opposite sex. Maybe a healthy dose of real love will be what’s needed to finally break the back of the green-eyed monster.