My Year in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and, 30 days solitary confinement

Single women from other countries were not allowed in Jeddah at the time I went in the 80’s. I received a visa only after my coach from when I was on the U.S. Parachute Team and I got married. He was a jet pilot and was offered a job flying for a Greek – Saudi construction company.

I knew very little about what it would be like for a woman in Saudia Arabia at this time.

When I arrived in Jeddah, it was after I had been traveling quite a bit and also competing at the World Parachute meet in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. I was used to traveling and entering different countries.

But, Jeddah was different. It felt like I was not accepted – something about the energy. After getting my luggage, we went to where where our car was waiting, but the driver would not let me sit with my husband. As all women here, I had to sit in the back.

What a head-trip – it really does make one feel demeaning and unworthy.

As we drove through the streets to our apartment, I felt like I was in Biblical times. The city was a maze of walls and streets. New buildings were being built everywhere. Workers were climbing up high-rise buildings on flimsy scaffolding held together with ropes and wood. Piles of rubbish from construction was piled high at every turn. This scene was intermixed with new Mercedes, BMW’s and Land Rovers that were stuck along the road here and there, like they were broke down for some reason or out of gas – whatever. Here you saw goats, dogs or animals living in the cars or just being trashed.

And, I did not see any women!

All the way from the airport through the city streets, it was men. Men with men. I wondered where all the women where. My coach informed me that you mostly only see women at the souk.

We arrived at our compound, however, we were not in an American compound or any International community. The company my coach was flying for was a private company with no U.S. or international workers. We were given a little apartment within the Saudi compound. This was a huge disadvantage, as we had no one to “be with.” We had none of the niceties that the Amercian compounds had like a movie hall, swimming pools, things to do, picnics and bar-be-que’s and “FUN.”

Our apartment was behind more big walls. Inside the walls it was like a big compound. There were about 20 cars parked here. They were all brand new with the stickers still on the windows. They were full of dust and looked like they had never been driven.

We walked up a flight of stairs to our apartment. It was actually ok. Nothing fancy. I saw the furniture was new and from Italy. We had an air conditioner!! Yeah! The temperatures where over 105 degrees.

Morning, noon and night you could hear prayers being given through loud speakers on top of the mosques. It was then I realized just how far away I was from any normalcy I was used to.

It is very intimidating actually.

Shopping at the Souk – I loved most of the food.

We went to the souk to get groceries and buy the things we needed. It was busy and now I saw other women. They were completely covered, of course. I was instructed to always wear a long dress, long sleeves and scarf over my head, which I did.

Within minutes of arriving, I was grabbed from behind. I quickly turned around only to see a sea of people coming and going. I felt dirty and abused.

In the shopping area there was store after store with gold bracelets and necklaces. I mean lots of stores – so many, that after awhile all the gold jewelry just looked like cheap trinkets not worth owning. I learned that gold was the only thing that women could own.

There were also a lot of stores with beautiful materials and silks. I ended up buying a small sewing machine so I could try and sew some nice clothes when we were stuck in the apartment. I had never really took the time to learn, so it was my new challenge.

I was given an official airport pass, as I was now a part of the flight crew. It felt special, until my first trip to the airport. It was comical. The airport guards would not let me through the gates when arriving. We had to drive around to different gates until a guard decided to let me through – – even though I had my official airport pass and was in the car with the other pilots. As a woman, I still had to sit in the back of the car.

We were assigned to the Falcon – a nice mid-sized jet! Now, I was in bliss. I played like it was “our jet” as we flew to far off places, often to Geneva, just to pick up fruit and candy with no one else on board. Or, we would go to Nice or on to Paris when the plane needed servicing.

When back at our apartment, it was – – – boring!!

There was no where to go and no one to visit, although one day we were able to go out to the Red Sea with a couple of people from the American compound. It was hotter than hell, but floating in the Red Sea was kind of special. You literally do just float on top of the water.

Stranded in Jeddah

One morning very early, we woke up to loud knocks on our door. My husband was told to leave immediately and get the jet ready to take a trip to Djibouti in Africa. However, they said no women. I would have to stay at the apartment. The trip was only to be overnight, so I thought, well, no problem, we had just gone shopping so there was food.

By the next evening, the crew had not returned. It felt a little uncomfortable, however, I know how a trip can go and thought they decided to stay another day. But, the next day, again, no one returned. Now, I felt even more uncomfortable. There was no one I could call. I blew off my worry and thought they’ll be back tomorrow.

Again, they did not return!

Now, a few days turned into 10. I’m getting really concerned and worried and now I’m starting to make sure I don’t eat too much and save the food I have.

I start thinking, where can I walk to?

There was a very nice Saudi man who was a pilot for another company that we went to visit once, and it did not seem too far. I wanted to go there and let him know our pilots had not returned. But, with all the high walls – it’s just like one big maze. I would never be able to tell which way to go. Also, it would be dangerous for me to be out walking alone as a western woman, if I were to be picked up, no one would ever find me again. I simply had to hole up in the apartment and stay put.

I was bored but stayed focused. When two weeks had gone by, I started setting up a strict routine for myself.

My Routine went like this

I’d sleep as long as I could so I did not have such a long day. In the morning I’d go up on the roof and get some sun before it was too hot and read. However, soon, I could see men from all the other houses and buildings staring down at me. Now, they knew I was here! Back into the apartment – I had to stay inside now.

I exercised each morning, then had a little food. Then I would sew some interesting outfits from the beautiful materials I had bought. One of the pilots had left some little cigars at our apartment, so every day I would smoke a little. I read and I meditated.

Now, it is over 23 days.

I’m feeling very down and worried, but also strong in a sense because I realize I’m not crazy yet or doing stupid things. I’m pretty “heads up” and wait. I have not talked to anyone– and no one has come by to check on me.

And then, they all return! Almost 30 days later! What a relief!

My husband and his co-pilot were held up by the airport authorities in Djibuti, as they did not have the proper authorization nor had they given the 24 hours notice that was needed before arriving. However, the Saudi company had insisted on going anyway, so the crew was in trouble, but not the Saudi passengers. There was no way for them to call me as they were in the same bad pickle of a time as I was.

A Near Crash Landing before Coming Home

After almost one year, we decided it was time to leave Jeddah. But, not before we were to take another trip into Geneva. This turned out to be the trip of all trips!

On the way to Switzerland, our gas stop was in Iraklion a 5,000 year old city off the coast of Greece.

While flying into Iraklion, the landing gear was showing that it had failed to open.

We flew around trying to get the wheels down as we were running out of gas. At this time of year, it was winter in Iraklion and there were limited services. It was also late at night.

My husband informed me we were going to have to go in for a belly landing. We were all a little emotional, of course, but we had to prepare quickly. There was no ground crew at the airport that could do anything for us.

Have you ever known you were going to die?

It’s like, this is it!

It feels so final.

My first thought was that I did want to die by being burned up. And with a belly landing, this is the first thing you think of.

At the same time, my soul ached for my two daughters back home. My whole life came before me, but at the same time I felt calm.

You just kind of wait your fate.

As my husband came to the back and told me to get ready we were going in, we said our good byes – we were brave. It is what it is.

I felt spiritual.

As we landed, we could feel the wheels underneath us. The wheels WERE down, even though it was showing that they were not.

We had made it!

And, soon, we made it out of Jeddah also.

This was an adventure I’m glad to have had, but am so glad also that we left early and that my time in Jeddah had come to the end.