Attempting to bring standup comedy to Saudi Arabia, Yaser Bakr sketches the scene at his country's first aquarium. The dolphins are the star attraction but after a few days in Saudi Arabia, they're swimming up to shows 15 minutes late, growing too fat for their hoops and their smiley faces turn serious.
It's a recognizable stereotype. In place of in-flight entertainment between Cairo and Riyadh, an imam intones to images of a mosque and Koranic script. The call to prayer echoes around the immigration hall as we line up at passport control. Women, dressed head to toe in black, are in a separate queue. When we've stood for over an hour the officer in front of us shuts his booth for a break. We're left waiting until he decides to return half an hour later. The men huff but no one dares speak out loud.
This is the border crossing I've been dreading the most since filling out my visa application: name, religion, sect, mother's maiden name. As an agnostic Ashkenazi Jew I seek advice from an agency in Riyadh. “They shouldn't discriminate, but if you want it processed quickly …” So I write: “Christian, Church of England, Lieberman.” Oy vey!
I'm silently rehearsing my lines as I finally reach the officer. I hand over my British passport and the man jabbers at me in Arabic. I tell him I don't understand. “Why come if no speak Arabic?” he sneers ...