January 30, 2015
On Friday morning I took a flight from Helena, Montana to connect in Salt Lake City, Utah to later arrive in New York City, where I live. I got to the terminal in SLC with a few minutes to spare before boarding began, so I purchased two fresh Krispy Kreme glazed donuts. It was just past 8 AM as I waited at the gate with the other passengers. CNN was playing on the TVs hanging above our heads. Promptly, I learned that King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz of Saudi Arabia had died. The anchor declared things like “What is to become of America’s relationship with the oil-rich nation?” “Middle Eastern ally to the United States” “Thousands mourn the loss of King Abdullah who has died at the age of 90.” Then there was a segment to focus on current factors that contribute to the recent drop in oil prices. These are the sound bites that I remember.
Once I boarded the flight, I didn’t think any more about the Saudi King’s passing. It was now 8:30 AM and I was jet lagged from excessive time zone hopping. The breaking news was just another chapter in the story of the Middle East.
Across the aisle from me in Row 23 sat a man. As I glanced into my peripheral sight I saw that he was reading from his tablet in Arabic. He was not dressed in traditional custom garb, but then I noticed his dark skin tone and large features. Well into the flight he continued to read—silently at first. Then he began to whisper as someone does when reciting a prayer. He got up to use the washroom and he began the mantra-like repetition again after taking his seat. I kept observing because his actions seemed ritualistic to me. I have always been a person to observe human behavior. We acknowledged one another with a smile when a Stewardess passed down the aisle and we both inquired about the duration of the flight.
On his iPhone, he was swiping through some news or information from people accompanied by photos of Arabian leaders. It was then that I remembered the King had died. I thought he was probably gathering news about that, but I wasn’t positive because I can’t read in Arabic and I didn’t want to be caught eavesdropping.
When we touched down at John F. Kennedy Airport I was holding my phone in hand, ready to switch off the Airplane Mode. He asked me what time it was in New York.
“2:30 PM … Do you have a connecting flight?”
“Yes,” he said pointing to his boarding pass. I read, JFK —> RUH. “I am going home.”
“RUH? Where is that,” I said.
He extended his boarding pass towards me and in small print I saw Riyadh.
“I am from Saudi Arabia,” he said.
“Oh, yes, okay. I’ve never seen the airport code,”
“My King died, so I go back,” he said. He lowered his eyes.
“Yes, I saw that today. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” he said and bowed his head.
Our conversation deteriorated as we were deboarding the plane; we parted with a cordial good-bye. As I reflect on this man’s words, I am awe struck by the devotion he has to the King. The example he makes by returning to Saudi Arabia from the United States (after just two days since his arrival) makes a profound statement about the cultural loyalty of Saudi Arabians to their rulers, or maybe just King Abdullah specifically. A great lot of reform was made with his leadership namely, in education, industry and commerce. However, due to conservative pressure he fell short of promises he made to broaden women’s public liberties. King Abdullah was also known for ordering harsh military action. To the United States, King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz has made Saudi Arabia its only ally, profiting from its rich oil and intentions to eradicate ISIS from Iraq and Syria.
Reigning for nearly two decades and leaving an unforgettable legacy in ways both good and bad, I suppose that mourning must not be interpreted by outsiders but known as a transition best to be observed.