"If you go outside, make sure you turn left. left only!" instructs Peter Voll, our tour director, as we check into the Sheraton Hotel in Medina. Along with Mecca (some 175 miles to the south), Medina is one of the two holiest sites in the Islamic world. "Take a right and you'll be in the center of the city, which is not allowed. And ladies, you must wear your abayas and your head scarves here."
A groan issues from members of our tour. The women, nearly three-quarters of the 42 of us, have grown fairly accustomed to wearing the black, ankle-length abaya, but a week into our tour of Saudi Arabia, head scarves are still a chore. Nancy York of Pasadena is one of three intrepid women who venture out of the hotel together, only to return promptly: two blocks out, she reports, drivers whistled and yelled at them in a threatening manner. "They think that any woman out by herself is a prostitute," she speculates, then pauses. "Then again, we're all at least seventy years old."
Our two-week trip, sponsored by Smithsonian Study Tours, is the very first to bring a group of American tourists to Saudi Arabia. Prior to last fall, tourist visas to "the kingdom," as it is known, did not exist. But the country, long insulated from the non-Muslim world, is slowly opening up. Educationally oriented groups are the target--alumni associations and museums are sponsoring many of the upcoming trips. To judge by my fellow tour members, Saudi Arabia is a destination that appeals to travelers who have been almost everywhere else and are dying for some place new and unknown. Excepting myself, my photographer, and his assistant, most of the trip's participants are septuagenarians.
In the Sheraton's lobby are the remaining tumblers of colorful fruit juice, dates, and once-chilled, moistened hand towels we were presented with upon arrival. It's not a bad prison, but it's hard to be stuck here in the anteroom of Islam. Mecca, where pilgrims circle the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque, and Medina, where Muhammad's message was first embraced and where he is buried, are the centers of the universe for the world's almost 1.2 billion Muslims. An arrow pointing toward Mecca is attached to the top of practically every hotel dresser in the country so that guests know which way to face when praying. On most Saudi Arabian Airlines flights, a giant arrow superimposed on an outline of the plane is displayed on cabin monitors every 30 seconds or so to indicate the direction in which Mecca lies. On 747's there is even a prayer room.
It's hard to be so close to Medina and not be allowed in. In truth, we came here only because its airport is the nearest to Madain Salah, the country's greatest archaeological attraction (which is still a four-hour drive away). I hear a little grumbling along the lines of "The pope doesn't care who visits the Vatican," but mostly our group is accepting. After all, it's beastly hot outside--and since the fall of the Soviet Union, how many places are left on earth where you can be restricted to your hotel?
Our welcome in this land, warm but limited, reflects the way Saudi Arabia has met the non-Muslim world in the 68 years since it became a nation. This former congeries of bedouin desert tribes, united in 1932 by King Abdul Aziz, has grown into a powerful regional force by embracing Western petroleum engineering, cutting-edge military technology, superhighways, and high-tech medicine, as well as the English language--everything modern except secularism, which elsewhere seems the soul of modernity. It is a nation that claims the Koran as its constitution; you can even read it on the individual monitors beside every seat of the national airline's new Boeings.
Saudi Arabia is no stranger to visitors: between 2 and 3 million faithful arrive every year on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. (The Sheraton Medina is set up for those guests: the five clocks behind the front desk do not show the time in, say, New York, London, Rome, Tokyo, and Mexico City but, rather, the hour of the five daily prayers that the kingdom observes assiduously.)
Some 5 million guest workers--25 percent of Saudi Arabia's population--live here. To the country's rulers, all of them descendants of King Abdul Aziz, these "guests" are very different from tourists. Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the popular governor of Asir province whose recent poetry reading in Jordan drew 10,000 people, told me in an interview that "twenty years ago tourism was almost a four-letter word." The royal family (and the clerics who rule with them) associated tourism with drinking, gambling, and nightclubs--"with all these things that do not go with Islamic teachings or the Islamic way of life." But he saw it as something that could help his mountainous, underdeveloped region, and he established the kingdom's first bureau of tourism. "I coined the phrase 'clean tourism,' " explained Khalid, to suggest visitors without vice--educational groups, sports competitions, Muslims from neighboring nations drawn by Asir's cool summer breezes.
I couldn't arrange a meeting with the prince until three days after the rest of the Smithsonian tour had returned to the States. When we did meet, it was following a grand occasion: the opening of the Prince Sultan College for Tourism & Hotel Sciences. The school's modest building sits next door to the sumptuous Abha Palace Hotel, the jewel of Asir's infant tourist industry, and after a ribbon-cutting at the school, the prince entered a large and crowded hotel conference room. Everyone stood as a cadre of policemen with submachine guns entered the room, followed by dignitaries in thobes (the flowing white robes traditionally worn by Saudi men) draped in gold-trimmed cloaks called bishts, and six bearded men with daggers in their belts and Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, who appeared to be a sort of palace guard. It was a sign of the times that on the stage where the prince sat, only three nights earlier, our group had watched an ever-so-touristic dance performance by tribesmen wearing floral headpieces. The crowd today was a bit different: the room was packed with a sea of Saudi students and businessmen in white thobes, heads covered with the square of red-and-white houndstooth known as a ghutra, held on with the igal, or black band. The hum of the crowd was punctuated by a chorus of beeps, rings, and jingles. Saudi men are mad for cell phones.