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Butterflies in Riyadh Airport

October 25, 2006

Leaving Riyadh

A young soldier too skinny to be credible lounges on the side of an aircraft container loader. His olive green helmet rounds out his head, a dark browned one and incongruous in this place. Or perhaps not where the gritty jobs go to those not in the family. The sound of a fountain adds to the air of cool in this place but I know it is at least 34 degrees out there and his motionless posture – stooped back, flopped arms and careful slow movements reminds me of my own times on a hot tarmacs and thinking of other paces I would rather be. I fancied he had a rifle propped behind him but that appears to not be the case as the Lufthansa Airbus is pushed back and the wingtip giving him shade heads for parts unknown. To us at least. The thing he is no doubt briefed to secure no longer requires his attention and he slowly stands up. The rifle turns into a metal rod. He shifts the bulky bullet proof vest in a way that suggests it is uncomfortable and an irritant and hot. With carefully deliberate strides he lopes across the flight line area in front of me, hitching that darned vest around a few times and shrugging his shoulders into place. No weapons I wonder to myself. Stashed somewhere else maybe. But his trouser pockets are shaped by something large and square, one slapping against each thigh as he lopes off in gangling strides. And there is something propping up his vest at the front and I suspect it is not his lunch. Radio and batteries if my former security colleagues are any guide.

This airport is a third world effort and despite the press noise about terrorists being hounded here with vigour, and the French President making lots of noise and slapping the Crown Prince on the back for his efforts in curbing the scourge of the international community this place gives me no assurance that the net is tight and precautions effective. Nothing is checked with any thoroughness. X Ray operators chat among themselves and are distracted by the sergeants that drift around with nothing to do. My passport was stamped and flicked back to me by an officer who at the time was greeting another like long lost brothers and in the Middle Eastern way with lots of backslapping and cheek kissing. My backpack, containing cameras and lots of CAT5 cable and other odds and sods, was not looked at but my shoes needed a thorough examination. Perhaps the experience is coloured by my being here along with three hundred Indians and a similar number of Filipinos. The former are their old familiar selves, plunging to get in front, pushing and shoving to get through the inspections only to wait for an hour for their flight. I think the Filipinos are nicking off with the Saudi silver. One chap had five enormous cartons he was trying to check in. The first two totalled 80kg. He tried to pile the third on top, but Filipinos are not known for their tall build and he was unable to reach that high. The by now agitated check-in clerk directed him to place them on one at a time but he tried to pile on a different two – also coming to about 80 kgs. His excess baggage bill must have been enormous. I was delivered from what happened next (the check-in clerk was ermeging from behind his counter with a scowl on his face) as the First Class clerk waved me over and I was checked in and done in minutes. Even though I was not travelling up the pointy end of the plane.

In any other place you would be viewed askance for noting who entered and departed the women’s toilets. But in this airport lounge – well, let’s call it that for the moment since it really has the air or a 1960s run down hospital, despite the bright lights and vaulted ceilings and being only ten years old – black cacoons shuffle in and long haired, bejewelled, heeled butterflies float out. The transformation is, at an academic level not surprising. At another aesthetic level it is a pleasant surprise. After three weeks of not seeing a woman – apart from her eyes – and that, only in the occasional shopping centre (not even at Starbucks) the transformation is pleasing, delighting not only the eye but the slightest sense that these girls are breaking the rules.

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