Saudi Arabia absolutely deserves its renowned title, “the last forbidden kingdom in the world.”
There are virtually no tourists in the country. There is also no such a thing as a tourist visa. In order to get into the kingdom, I needed to have an invitation from a friend or a company. After a few months furiously networking, I still found no one who was bold enough to want to get involved. A colleague of mine kindly explained: “You don’t make friends with a Saudi through email. You need to have incredible luck to meet one first, then wait until you have eaten all their dates and your body has been swollen with their tea, then you may say you have a friend.”
However, I must say I do have some self-claimed friends from a Saudi forum. One of them, not sure of his nationality, has helped me generously up to a point where he asked me to send a photo so he could pick me up at the airport and (word by word) “…make sex together”. After many other dramas, I decided to contact the embassy and frankly told them my whole idea: “Sir, I would like to travel along the Islamic history route, from where Islam began, which is your country. And then I will follow its expansion path through three continents. Think Ibn Batutta! I want to show people that there is also a different Middle East than what is described in media. I’m a good person with good purpose. Please help!”
I started to email and call Saudi embassy in The Hague nine months before my journey began, without much luck. Then I decided to just knock on their door. The first man I talked with made me jump to my feet when he said this is an amazing project, and the embassy “has to” support me. I came back home, preparing a cover letter and all other documents as suggested. A month later, I got an appointment with the first secretary and was overwhelmed by the friendliness I received. I came home again to prepare a thick package of paper as suggested, even got to details such as who I plan to meet and where I plan to visit. Mr. Secretary promised to inform me if anything else is needed. He kindly asked for my patience as the papers would have to wait after the annual Hajj to be submitted to the Ministry of Culture. Three months later, he informed me that my application had been sent away.
Then I patiently waited for another three months…
And I am still waiting…
Now, let me tell you another story. When I was small, my father – a colonel in the North Vietnamese army – had in his room a small safe that nobody was allowed to touch, let alone to open it. My siblings and I used to stare at it for hours, arguing what it was inside. Our imagination ran wild, starting with all sorts of guns and weapons, or maybe poison. One day, I – by then five years old – stood up and seriously concluded that there must be a monster being kept in the safe. None of us ever thought of something beautiful, like a precious stone or similar treasure. Daddy would share it with us no doubt if it was a beautiful thing.
Years after, when my father got his cancer, in one of the last days of his life, he called me to his bed and gave me the secret that he had been keeping away from us for so long.
It is a bible. It is a small bible with a beautiful red leather case.
In another story, I will explain to you why the bible must be hidden in my family. For now, whenever I recall my childhood staring at father’s safe, letting the wild rumor and imagination consume my mind, I could not help a chuckle. It still surprises me how far from the truth our guess work had been.
My friends, don’t you think we have done enough guess work about Saudi?
It’s nice to meet all of you here on the Cultural Detective blog! I am a proud member of this team, and co-author of Cultural Detective Vietnam. I am in the midst of a journey that traces the path of Islam, from its origins as it spread outward around our planet. You can follow my journey daily in Facebook or via my blog.