Good morning new day in Jeddah. It’s my last week here on this seasonal trip and, as usual, I’m getting anxious about my passport and my return visa. I always get anxious near the end of my trips to Saudi Arabia. Should I make that call and find out if it’s been issued and if I can have my passport back? Does that really speed it up or does it only aggravate? Sheer helplessness is my share as a woman, and as a “foreign” woman, whenever I visit.
What’s a return visa? That’s a long, twofold story. One part me, one part Saudi Arabian laws. Let me start with me.
My mother’s hometown was Medina, Saudi Arabia. Like many Medinans and other inhabitants of the hijaz area (the western coast of Saudi Arabia along the mountains) she was of immigrant descent. Many Saudis living along the Hijaz have Eastern European, Turkish, Central and South Asian, and even African roots. They’ve been living for generations in Saudi Arabia and are full citizens, yet their cultures, family names, and even accents, are an interesting hybrid you’ll find especially conglomerated in Medina. They always find themselves different from the rest of the peninsula because of the way many of them are brought up but, most importantly, because the Najd Saudis (indigenous inhabitants of the vast Arabian desert of the center and the north, covering Riyadh, and from which the royal family descends) see to it that they’re constantly reminded of their “unArabianness,” for lack of a better word. Stereotypes are exchanged between Hijazis and Najdis. The former call the latter “primitive bedouins” who mutilated the land of the Prophet and the latter call the former “pilgrim remnants,” like abandoned, unwanted leftovers from foreign pilgrims who don’t understand Islam the way God intended it. The real Saudi Arabia on the ground is in fact rich in its variation and multicultural society.
But that’s for a whole different post with lots of complicated details and I have no idea why I’m telling you all of this. What I’m actually trying to tell you is simple: My mother was from Saudi Arabia.
Yet somehow, ironically, I’m still a foreigner by law. I’m still not entitled to citizenship even though there’s been lots of official talk that people like me, born to Saudi mothers, should be.
Fine. Where does that leave me?
Foreigners should get visas to enter Saudi Arabia. Woman foreigner? Woman foreigner must have either pilgrimage visa where she must enter with a group of pilgrims (this visa is seasonal, open only on certain months in a year, and confines the trip to certain cities within Saudi Arabia) or a regular visit visa in which a male guardian has to be involved; either as the person sending her the invitation from inside Saudi Arabia – in which case he would have to be present at the airport to meet her – or as a travel companion with his own visit visa (which by the way can be a multiple entry business permit lasting up to six months). Apart from the whole male guardian complication, if the male guardian is there and is available, the process should be pretty much straightforward, but in reality it can quite unpredictably take well more than a month.
I’ve had all kinds of interesting incidents on my trips to Saudi Arabia. On one occasion I was held at the airport even though my passport’s been stamped. I wasn’t allowed into the city because my uncle had to physically show up at the airport and show himself to the authorities. I was placed in a room full of women from Asia and Africa who had just arrived for work, waiting for their custodians to pick them up from the airport. Some were curled up by their things and sleeping, some appeared to have been in that room for very long hours – if not overnight – and certainly all of them were very, very exhausted. I was the only one fuming. The family fixer back then did his usual magic tricks and got me out.
As a way to get past all of this I decided that I would work on getting a residence permit based on my mother’s custody. This process ended all trouble for me for almost ten years. I only had to show up in the country twice a year to keep my residence going and, upon leaving, a return visa had to be issued each time. I’d be getting a piece of paper, stamp it at the airport, and it would be my means of reentering the country.
Complicated to many, but still pretty much straightforward. Believe me! Until then no action had started yet.
Then one morning my mother decided not to wake up again, and everything became a huge deal since. For the past four years I have been trying to move my visa custody from my mother to my uncle and it’s been proving to be more than an uphill task. You see, I happen to have an older brother, and according to custom, my brother gets priority in my guardianship. Never mind the fact that he is an Egyptian living in Cairo. Never mind the whole idea that the guardian needs to be a Saudi national living in Saudi Arabia so that I could actually get his custody for my residence permit in the same country he is in. I have a brother living in Egypt and my Saudi mother died, so as a “foreigner,” I should pack and leave. I have no privileges being the daughter of a deceased national. None at all.
The Saudi person who is helping me with my papers has been going here and there and checking in every direction he could to find out if there’s anyway we could still move that custody. He was presented with two solutions: Either my brother accompanies me to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Cairo and writes an official renunciation of my guardianship, thereby officially moving it to my maternal uncles (I do have Egyptian paternal uncles but SHHHH!!) or I get my permit as a nanny in my own uncle’s household.
It may raise a few eyebrows, but red tape, tardiness, turtle speed and the occasional bumps on the road to any official paper work have actually made the nanny option quite appealing to me. As long as it doesn’t involve the embassy as well, which could mean more and more papers back and forth and officials taking vacations and locking papers up in their desk drawers, then at least I’m still only dealing with the ministry inside Saudi Arabia.
But a voice inside me tells me that something would be very, very wrong if I ended up with this option. So I’m going to go ahead and see if the embassy procedure in Cairo is in anyway doable, like if somehow miraculously the embassy is less tedious to deal with. They do have a whole new headquarters near my home now with a huge helicopter platform at the roof, so they should feel pretty fresh, eh? It actually took some five or more years to finish and lots of harassment to me by their Egyptian construction workers each time I walked to the gym, but I’ll try not to think too much of that when I walk in. The harassment part is a Cairo problem really, so let’s not confuse culprits.
I’ll just play it by ear till my residence expires. Until then, and in the coming few days, I need to restrain myself from thinking too much about whether or not my return visa has been issued yet and whether or not I can actually fly back to Cairo on the date scheduled. This is my predicament each and every time I come here. I have men doing this on my behalf (since it would be virtually impossible for me to do it for myself) and I really appreciate the help so I hate to push, but I never quite understand why they don’t get me out of their way from the very beginning by getting my shit done instead of leaving it till the last minute.
Apart from that, I have a little confession to make. I think a lot each time I go back to Cairo whether the whole experience is worth it. I think a lot about losing that permit and just not bothering with Saudi Arabia anymore, but it’s hard. I have family here. I have childhood memories. I care about the old places and the old cities. I care about the time old, authentic beauty and spirit in the little bazaars and the aromatic alleys and the holy places. I can’t let ugliness win, can I?
#1 by nadiaelawady on March 24, 2014 - 7:43 am
I know your story pretty much by heart, Arwa. We’ve talked about it a lot. But seeing it in writing is very different. It brings the issues home more. Possibly because I’ve lived through the residence permit crap of Saudi Arabia myself for a few years, I just take it as part of the reality that is that country. But when I read this in writing it just makes me think more how wrong this whole situation is. And not just for you, of course. The whole guardianship thing for women is wrong. The kifalah issue where foreign employees all have “guardians” is wrong. The fact that someone else has control over your passport in Saudi Arabia as long as you are a woman or a foreigner is wrong. I read an article very recently where a Saudi diplomat was saying that the guardianship of women in Saudi Arabia was going to be annulled. Have you heard anything about that while you’ve been there?
#2 by Arwa Salah Mahmoud on March 24, 2014 - 10:05 am
Your sentiment and mine prevail over most of the people I meet here in Saudi Arabia but it seems that very little is being done about it. There are a lot of things that are being said regarding the emancipation of women here but unfortunately it amounts to little beyond rumors. There’s chaos in the issuing of the laws and even more chaos in carrying them out. It’s very hard to be fully informed about all the relevant laws here even for nationals who live here and try to get their own business done. Lifting guardianship might be just another one of those “rumors” just like I was told last year that I was entitled to the citizenship. Most of it is baseless. Prominent scholars here still have a problem allowing women to sure because they fear it would give a woman too much freedom. I actually heard Sheikh Fawzan say that. It’s like they’re going in all directions at once it’s almost impossible to see any real progress in the near future.