Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Travels in foreign lands-XLI (Journeys to Saudi Arabia-II)

After lunch, I slept for sometime but Dr.Sofi went out to his hospital. He returned after an hour or so and asked me to have a wash so that he could take me to see the old city Diriyah. The name resembles Riyadh, the new capital. He had parked his car outside. He told me to wait till he cooled his car by switching on the air conditioner. In just half an hour, the car had become unbearably hot! We drove to the old city and went round to see how the Arabs lived in old days. Now, they have the most modern centrally air-conditioned houses and apartments! On the way we also saw many tall apartment buildings which appeared empty. When I asked him what these buildings were, he smiled. He told me that King had got these apartment blocks constructed to bring Bedouin from the desert to live a modern life. However, the tribesmen refused to come and as such the buildings were empty!

From Diriyah we drove to the city centre to meet some Kashmiri friends. We met Dr.Aziz Hagroo, Mohammad Maqbool, Iftikhar, and Javed. They were happy to see me. I again mentioned about going to the Governor’s house. They seemed to be all scared to go there. It appeared to me that the place resembled a Police State and people were afraid of police and security. They informed me that if they are checked and caught without a work permit called Ikama, they can go to jail. No one can make any comments about the government and so on. Only Javed offered to take me to the office of Prince Salman. He was not afraid as he had already seen a Saudi jail! He had been sent to jail for two days for praying in a mosque without an Ikama! He would come next morning to take me to the Governor’s Office.

My keenness to visit Prince Salman had an interesting background. In early eighties a group of 40 Saudi Princesses had come on a visit to Kashmir in winter. The group was led by Princess Sakina, the wife of Prince Salman. Sister of King Khalid also accompanied the group. There were only two male members of the group. One was the secretary of Princess Sakina and the other was a security guard for the sister of King Khalid’s sister. I was detailed as the liaison officer of the group by the government. They were initially supposed to stay in house boats but they felt cold there and were shifted to Hotel Broadway. The first thing the young princesses asked was to convert the hall on the top floor of the hotel into a discotheque. However, no male members were allowed there! They also went for day picnic to Dachigam and stayed for a night in Gulmarg in Hotel Highland Park. Princess Sakina was a well groomed western style lady. She had lot of grace and was commanding in her behaviour. They were very pleased with their visit. I came to know from them that they were always travelling all over the world and stayed for very short periods in Saudi Arabia! The global exposure has made certain princesses defy the Royal Decree. A living example is Princess Amira Al-Taweel! Incidentally, Dr. Sofi told me that there were 5000 princes and princesses in Saudi Arabia.

I learnt many interesting facts about life in Saudi Arabia from my Kashmiri friends. There were many jokes also. The police was very strict about passports, visas, and work permits because there were many forgeries. The experts in forging documents were Pakistanis. There was a story that once a chartered plane with Pakistani labour came to Riyadh. When the immigration officer asked for papers, the Pakistani presented both his passport and a fake working permit. The officer asked him how he had got the permit made before entering the Kingdom. He replied that everyone in the plane was carrying same documents! The whole planeload was sent back immediately! I was also told that the Saudis hated Pakistanis for their arrogance and forgeries and all sorts of illegal activities. They were called “Rafique” which means a friend. This word was used to treat them lowly! In contrast, Indians were quite meek and law abiding and were called “Siddiq”. I too had this experience subsequently. About the princes there was an interesting story. A poor Saudi had been visiting the government office for a loan to improve his own house. He had not been able to get any attention for months. One day when he was sitting with an officer and pleading that his file for grant of few thousand Riyals be cleared, an official came with the file of a Prince demanding a million Riyals to improve his standard of living. The file was cleared immediately. When the poor man asked for this strange treatment, the official said the Prince has a standard which he can improve but the poor man had nothing so he could wait!

Next morning Javed came in his own car to pick me up from the residence of Dr. Sofi. We drove straight to the office of the Governor which was in the centre of the city. The office was guarded all round by security personnel. We approached the main entrance after parking the car at a distance. We were asked the purpose of visit. I told them that I wanted to go to the personal office of Prince Salman. We were directed to third floor to meet the private secretary to the Prince. As soon as we came out of the lift on the third floor, we were surrounded by three to four highly armed commandos. I showed them my identity card and asked to be taken to the private secretary of the Prince. We were taken to a room at the end of the floor. There were two Arabs sitting there who spoke both English and Urdu. They introduced themselves as the secretaries to the Prince. I related my interest in meeting the Prince. I had come personally to invite him to Kashmir as his wife had already visited it. They informed me that the Prince had gone to Madina and would be returning only after a week. I left some tourist brochures and posters for the Prince. They told me that these would be given to him on his return. Incidentally, both the secretaries had been visiting India quite often with recruiting teams to bring doctors and other personnel to work in Saudi Arabia. We took their leave and returned. No one believed that we had visited the Governor’s Office unmolested! It was an experience!

(To be continued….)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Travels in foreign lands-XL (Journeys to Saudi Arabia-I)

I am closing my series on travels in foreign lands by describing my twin journeys to Saudi Arabia which were private visits to look up my brother and sister working there. I thought about paying the visit to my relations in Saudi Arabia in Paris after attending a four week study tour of French Ski Resorts organised by the French Agency for Economic Development. The French Agency had sent me a return air ticket from Delhi to Paris. After the completion of the study tour I met the Travel Officer of the Agency and asked him if I could plan my return journey through London, Bahrain and Riyadh. He stated that it was possible to do so by paying an additional amount of couple of thousand rupees. I paid the money and got my ticket re-routed on Paris-London-Paris-Bahrain-Riyadh-Delhi sector.
The first visit was to London where my friend Michel Galas (French Consul General) and his wife Colette were keen that I should stay few days with them. In fact, Michel had come in person to the Heathrow airport to receive me. As I was coming out of the aircraft, I heard a voice in Urdu calling my name. I was surprised to see him as he had come right up to the aircraft with the help of his diplomatic status. He told me that I used to receive him at the Srinagar Airport on all his visits to Kashmir so he had done the same thing in London. He informed me that the French President was landing at the other end of the Airport but he had come to receive me, his friend here and the Ambassador had gone to receive the VIP! It was such a touching gesture! I stayed with Michel in his London flat for four days. In the meantime, I had called my brother in Saudi Arabia. He told me that the Saudi visit visa will take some time. I told Michel about it and asked him if he could help. He told me that he had a friend in Saudi Embassy in London and he would speak to him. Michel and Collette took me to a very good Indian restaurant for dinner. In fact, they were themselves keen to have an Indian meal. They both loved Indian food!
Next morning Michel took me to his office and phoned his friend in the Saudi Embassy who asked him to send me over. I went there immediately and met the first secretary. He was a young Saudi dressed in a smart suit. Very handsome with a warm smile. He asked me what he could do for me. I told him that I wanted a visa for Saudi Arabia to visit my brother in Hail and sister in Makkah. He told me that visit visa needs sponsorship from the person to be visited. When I told him that there was no time for sponsorship, he asked me to get a formal request letter from Michel. He would give the visa on this! I went back to Michel and related the details of my meeting. He was surprised and told me that either the Saudi is crazy or he himself is mad! He said how could a French diplomat give a letter of recommendation to an Indian national for a Saudi visit visa? I told him that let me make a try! He called his secretary and dictated a letter. I went again to the Saudi Embassy and gave my passport and letter to the first secretary. He asked me to come back next morning and surprisingly, next morning I had a Saudi visit visa stamped on my passport. The visa indicated that I was visiting my brother in Hail and the visa had been issued on the request of the French Embassy in London!
I flew to Riyadh from Bahrain after a weeklong stay with my cousin there. The flight was full of Europeans and I was probably the only Indian on the plane. These Europeans were working in Saudi Arabia in different multi-national companies and some of them were diplomats. We had a smooth entry through immigration as Saudis are not very fussy with European origin flights. They are very thorough in checking and screening Indian origin flights for fake entry permits and so on. After immigration we were asked to wait in the hall. I asked a German national standing next to me why we had been asked to wait after completion of immigration formalities? He asked me if I was visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time. On my telling him yes, he smiled and said that in Saudi Arabia if the Policeman asks wait, one has to wait. There is no argument or no questions can be asked! Then we passed through customs where the baggage is screened. The customs officer asked me if I had a video cassette in my suit case. On my confirming this, he asked me to take it out and go to a cabin nearby. Inside the cabin an elderly Saudi was sitting on a chair with a rosary in hand. He asked me to put the cassette in the video player in front. Soon his screens were showing some good shots of snow and skiing in Gulmarg. He probably felt cold and asked me to take it out and go. I came to know that the screening was to prevent entry of objectionable videos especially pornographic ones into the Kingdom!
As soon as I came out of the terminal, I saw Dr.Mohammad Abdullah Sofi, a relation of mine working in Riyadh, who had come to receive me. He was happy to see me and we drove straight to his official residence. He was working as the Dean of Medicine in the Defence Hospital in Riyadh. He had a single storey three bed-room flat fully air-conditioned. It was quite comfortable inside in the scorching May heat of Saudi Arabia. He told me that after lunch we will have a nap and then go visiting some other Kashmiri friends working in Riyadh. I told him that I was keen to visit the Governor’s Office. I told him that some years back I had conducted the Princess Sakina and her group in Kashmir. Princess Sakina was the wife of Prince Salman, the Governor of Riyadh. He told me that no one dares to go near the Governor’s House due to extreme security. Still he will request some friend to take me there!
(To be continued….)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Travels in foreign lands-XXXIX (Journeys to Oman-III)

After breakfast we started for the border of Yemen along the coast. This is the spot very famous for gushing fountains of sea water. A geological phenomenon caused by sea water eating into the rocky coast line. The drive of about an hour is smooth mostly following the coast. As we near the border of Yemen, the landscape becomes quite rocky. The last stretch is sandy beaches for some distance and then just rocky coast jutting into the sea. All along this rocky outcrop one can see numerous sprouts of gushing water. It presents a very attractive scene with natural fountains coming off and on with short intervals. The bursts of water going quite high with sprays are very dramatic. It appears that there are crevices in the rocks facing the sea. There must have been some water soluble formations which have created these crevices. Once the sea water rushes in with force, it sprouts out to the top as fountains. We stayed to watch this natural phenomenon for half an hour and then returned to Salalah.
Next was our visit to the zero gravity point. This drive is also along the coast but in opposite direction. After about forty minutes drive we came to a spot where there is a sign board claiming it as the zero gravity point. Here a rough unpaved road branches out from the main road along the coast and leads towards the mountains. The entire scene is dramatic. High brown barren mountains on one side and the sea on the other. The driver took us on this stretch of the mountain road. He drove few hundred metres and then turned around and parked the vehicle on a sloppy ground facing uphill. He put the vehicle in neutral gear. After few seconds the vehicle started moving uphill towards the sea. As soon as we reached the flat part, it started accelerating fast. The driver immediately switched on the engine and stopped the vehicle. He told us that he had to switch on the engine as the vehicle had power brakes which would not operate without engine running. He stopped the vehicle just short of the main road. We did not believe him and asked him to go back and park the vehicle at the end of the stretch on a flat portion. Again the vehicle started moving. First slowly and then quite fast! We repeated the performance a couple of times and returned back to Salalah. It was a big tourist attraction in my view but I did not find many tourists there. It seemed to be under sold! We have a similar patch above Nimo in Ladakh but the effect there is nothing compared to the powerful forces at the Salalah point. In the evening, we took a flight back to Muscat.
However, everyone asked us to return to Salalah during Monsoon season which is locally known as Khareef. They said during this period there is fog and mist all over the place. It is like a continuous spray. Everything turns green. It is supposed to be the best time to visit Salalah. May be one day I have the opportunity of visiting Salalah in Khareef?
There was now one thing left to see! That was the famous red sands of Oman. We decided to take rest for couple of days. In the meantime, Nazir would find the ideal place to see the red sands. I was told that one has to drive a hundred kilometres or so and then go deep inside the desert to see these sand dunes. There are many camp sites inside the desert where the tourists go to enjoy the dunes and the desert atmosphere. The most famous are Wahbi Sands of Oman. Nazir had a Toyota land-cruiser with four wheel drive and special mechanism to raise the suspension to give more clearance from the ground. This is an ideal vehicle for moving in the desert. He tried to find out if there was some camp site functioning deep in the desert so that we could go and see the red sand dunes. His friend told him about one of the sites but we would have to drive almost hundred kilometres from Muscat to reach the spot. We started early in the morning and the drive was along a very good road which passed through mountain country. I had the impression of driving through some part of Ladakh. The mountain scenery is same except that there are no high snow covered peaks in the distance! After driving through mountains we came to flat desert country. Here we had to branch of from the main highway and go deep into the desert on an unpaved road. The drive was quite comfortable in the Toyota Land-cruiser.
After driving along a rough desert road we had the first view of red sand dunes going in waves. The sand dunes looked quite attractive. In the way we saw a couple of villages. It was interesting to see old desert type of houses with satellite TV antennas on top! We drove into a camp site. The camp seemed to have been abandoned and we could only see two local care takers. Ahead of the camp were quite a few high dunes. The driver put the vehicle in four wheel drive and raced up the dunes. We were able to climb to the top and descended on the other side. However, the descent looked quite steep. Nazir became scared and came out and started walking down on foot. I stayed inside the jeep with the driver. I told him not to drive but just give a push and let the vehicle slide down. Soon we were at the bottom of the dune! It was a thrilling experience. I had already had a desert safari in Dubai with some professional drivers. The camp care taker prepared some tea for us. We left back after spending an hour in the camp. This being the last sight seeing trip in Oman I went back to Dubai on my way home. I very much remember my Oman trips and find it a nice place to spend sometime on a holiday in winter. However, the best of Salalah is during the Khareef or the Monsoon! Next, I will relate my trips to Saudi Arabia.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Travels in foreign lands-XXXVIII (Journeys to Oman-II)

My second visit to Oman was for a longer duration and this time my relation Nazir Zaroo promised to take me to Salalah and some other places. I again took a flight from Dubai to Muscat. We spent a day in meeting friends and finalising our trip. Nazir telephoned his friend in Salalah who was working as manager of a five star hotel. He reserved a suite for us and also arranged a good car. Next day in the evening we took an Oman Air flight to Salalah. Nazir’s friend was waiting for us. Being already late in the evening, we preferred to rest. The first day we planned to visit the tomb of Prophet Ayyub which was about couple of hours drive from Salalah. The drive was through hilly countryside.
The story of Prophet Ayyub (pbuh) is one of perseverance and faith in God Almighty. Prophet Ayyub (pbuh) (also known as Prophet Job) was among the descendants of Prophet Ibrahim. God put him through many trials and tribulations. Ayyub (pbuh) was a descendant of A'mis, the third son of Ishaq (pbuh). Allah had granted Ayyub (pbuh) wealth and a large family. Ayyub (pbuh) was living in comfort and peace, when Allah decided to test Ayyub (pbuh) steadfastness in his faith. Suddenly lightening struck and killed all of his livestock, a terrible storm destroyed his crops. Ayyub’s (pbuh) house collapsed with his family still inside, killing his children.
Ayyub's (pbuh) faith did not waiver. Every time that he was inflicted with a new sorrow, he would bend down in submission acknowledging that Allah giveth and Allah taketh away. Ayyub’s (pbuh) test continued. He became stricken with ulcers over all his body and his flesh began to rot off. Several of Ayyub’s (pbuh) companions left him. His wife Raceme was the only one that took care of Ayyub (pbuh). She would find food and feed him. She would wash, and dress his wounds. Soon the people of their town forced Ayyub (pbuh) and his wife into the woods. Telling them not to come to the town.
All the while Ayyub’s (pbuh) faith stayed strong. Ayyub (pbuh) praised Allah for what tiny food and other provisions that Allah had given them. Allah was pleased with Ayyub’s (pbuh) faithfulness. God asked him strike ground at a place where a spring gushed forth. He washed in the spring and was cured. Ayyub (pbuh) soon recovered fully from his sickness, they returned to their land gaining back the crops. Allah blessed Ayyub (pbuh) with more wealth then he had before. In seeing how Ayyub (pbuh) had recovered by staying strong in his faith. Ayyub (pbuh) companions grew miraculously in number with added strength to their faith in Allah.
There is a nicely built shrine over the tomb of Ayyub (pbuh). The famous spring is also nearby. The shrine is on top of a hill. There were many people mostly from the sub-continent who were visiting the shrine. There is also a mosque there. While visiting the shrine I recollected the entire story of prophet Ayyub (pbuh). It was a rewarding experience. On return Nazir took me to another holy site. This was the place of the strangulation of the she camel by the tribe of Thamud. We also visited the tomb of prophet Salih (pbuh). Both the sites are inside the town of Salalah and we had to go through some lanes to reach these.
The story of Salih (pbuh) is also given in holy Quran. After the destruction of the Ad, the tribe of Thamud succeeded them in power and glory. They also fell to idol-worshipping. As their material wealth increased so, too, did their evil ways while their virtue decreased. Like the people of Ad, they erected huge buildings on the plains and hewed beautiful homes out of the hills. Tyranny and oppression became prevalent as evil men ruled the land. So Allah sent unto them His Prophet Salih (pbuh), a man from among them. His name was Salih Ibn Ubeid, Ibn Maseh, Ibn Ubeid, Ibn Hader, Ibn Thamud, Ibn Ather, Ibn Eram, and Ibn Noah. He called his people to worship Allah alone, and to not associate partners with Him. While some of them believed him, the majority of them disbelieved and harmed him by both words and deeds.
They asked him to show a miracle from God by getting a she camel issue from a rock before they can believe. They asked him that the she camel should be 10 months pregnant. Allah granted Salih this miracle and a huge, unique, she camel appeared from the direction of the mountain. However, the disbelievers did not relent and they killed the she camel and its progeny. Following this the wrath of God was upon them and all the people except prophet Salih (pbuh) and his followers perished in thunder, lightening, and earthquake. The spot where the she camel was strangulated has been preserved with foot marks of the she camel. The tomb of Salih (pbuh) is also nearby. There is a shrine and a mosque near the tomb. It is a very long tomb.
So we spent the entire day in visiting religious places. It was a rewarding visit especially in view of the fact that I had heard the stories of prophet Ayyub (pbuh) and prophet Salih (pbuh) from my parents and other elders. I had also read about it in the holy Quran. Now, we had to visit some interesting spots of geographical/geological importance. These were the sea coast near the border of Yemen where sea water shoots up as fountain sprays through crevices in the rocky beach and the zero gravity point where vehicles move of their own! This we did on the following day and I will describe these spots in the next episode.
(To be concluded)