The following piece was submitted for the World Nomads Travel Writing 2017 Application.
Throwing open my abaaya, she smiles at me with stained red lips and endearing eyes outlined by a pastel blue. Her fingers dipped in henna quickly pat my girlish frame, eventually reaching the small bun on my head. She motions towards it saying, “’iizalatan.” Within seconds my blonde hair is awkwardly hanging by my neck, and she’s grabbing my shoulders to kiss my cheeks. “Welcome to Jeddah!”
According to the hawks back home, I’m not supposed to trek into the holy land of Makkah to Mada’in Saleh. A young, American girl who listens to the Dixie Chicks, can barely handle the potency of Saudi tea, and flaunts a pink backpack shouldn’t be here. According to them, I’m going to be kidnapped by a terrorist or thrown in jail by a religious zealot for showing my ankles. “I’m a foreigner” they say, “and Saudis don’t like foreigners.”
Emerging from the estrogen-only curtain, I’m given a Quran by a man with a long, grey beard. All around me religious pilgrims seem to float like angels, speaking hundreds of languages that mesh into an indistinguishable one. Each heading to the one place where God’s presence is as tangible as a ripe date between your fingertips.
Makkah isn’t my destination however, instead I travel by bus into the quiet darkness of the desert, disturbed occasionally by headlights which hint at the encroaching Hijaz mountains. As the whispers of fellow travellers morph into a dull hum, I try to reconcile the fear fed to me by those hawks and the realization that I’m just a fleeting, forgotten character in the play of locals.
After a week exploring the Nabatean-era tombs carved into sandstone with a handsome guide named Ibrahim, I naïvely believe that I’m tiptoeing into the realm of being memorable. I realized quickly that fear was nonsense, and now an overwhelming desire to be embraced by this land has kidnapped me.
Heading back to the airport, I cautiously trace my eyes in preparation to once again meet the woman who unknowingly pushed me into a new, unabated realm of discovery and curiosity. I want to show her my admiration, and thank her. As I peel back the curtain however, I don’t recognize the eyes staring back at me. They lack the pastel colour that now awkwardly outlines mine. It isn’t her.
Emerging once again, I frustratingly debate rubbing the blue from my eyes but a quiet man with a long, grey beard interrupts me. Looking up, he squints beneath his glasses and hands me a Quran.
“I remember you.”