“Yes, please” I hear myself respond. The Asian flight attendant held the dallah in her left hand, as is customary to serve Arabic coffee. She poured the boiling hot liquid into a white thimble-sized coffee cup known as a fenjan, which she then handed to me with her right hand. I was impressed with her perfection of the ancient Arab tradition.
Saudi Arabian traditions can be confusing and stressful, because the slightest thing can offend someone. Serving a guest Arabic coffee must be done with the right hand – it’s the ultimate expression of hospitality. This can be a challenge for right-handed persons, such as myself, because the coffee has to be poured fresh out of the dallah into the fenjan with the left hand and served to the guest with the right hand. The delicate act of pouring the hot coffee into the small coffee cup is a skill that takes practice and getting used to. Saudis always want to ensure that they present themselves in the best possible manner, even if they are indifferent towards their particular guest.
My favorite place to have Arabic coffee is on Saudia Airlines flights. As soon as I get a whiff of the boiled cardamom and lightly roasted green coffee beans, my senses are awakened. As I carefully sip the steaming drink, aware of the caffeine entering my bloodstream and aware of the fact that I am on an airplane, the thrill of traveling hits me. My favorites flights are outbound – exiting my country.
Traveling is an essential part of the Saudi lifestyle. Perhaps this practice is remnant of the Arab Peninsula’s ancient past – of the trade routes and covenant journeys by winter and summer mentioned in the Holy Quran. For thousands of years, these routes extended throughout the Middle East, starting from India to Bahrain, all the way around the south of the Arabian Peninsula, and up the Red Sea, eventually finding themselves in Souk Okaz of Makkah. Personally I love to travel – to fly away in hopes of rest and relaxation from customs and suffocating social obligations.
I take every opportunity I can to hop onto a plane and visit a far away land. It is common knowledge that Saudi society is conservative by tradition, and some might even claim that it is oppressive. I don’t support the “oppressive” perspective, but I do find relief when I travel. The relief is a feeling of freedom, a freedom from judgmental attitudes and minds, from unforgiving social norms. Traveling provides us the opportunity to be ourselves. We are able to spend our days as we wish, enjoying ourselves from within the comfort of an anonymous community.
The first thing I do when I arrive at my travel destination is take a walk. I relish in the experience of seeing faces, and watching people move around in the clothes they chose to wear this morning. Colors are vibrant and human expression is exciting. The fact that I can see people jogging, talking, laughing, rushing to work, or even sitting on a bench revives my soul with purpose and poise.
I sip my Arabic coffee and feel totally content in my seat. The pressure of the cabin changes as the aircraft ascends into the skies, enhancing the feeling of the anticipated freedom in my chest. I look forward to my trip and I think of all the different things I want to do. I look forward to being myself.