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….)

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