April Fools in Saudi Arabia?

Had April Fools Day come weeks early half way around the world? The thought had crossed my mind just before harsh reality hit.

A Short Trip to Saudi Arabia

It was a long day and I had given several lectures the day before at a medical symposium in Riyadh and headed to King Khalid Airport with just under two hours of sleep. It was just after midnight and I was anxious to get on that long, polar flight home and see my family.
“Sir, your return flights have been cancelled,” said the airport attendant in broken English.
Thinking that exhaustion was affecting my hearing, I leaned over and politely said: “Excuse me?”
He repeated the sentence and then watched me in silence. Both flights. 18 hours. All gone.

A First World Human

In our particular “first world” culture, we are surrounded by, and have access to, lots and lots of things, including information. Much of what we need can be mailed to us from Amazon in neat little packages. We expect our food to arrive fast and hot. We like to place our coffee orders using 4 to 5 adjectives (“triple decafe soy latte”) like the brunch scene in Steve Martin’s LA Story. We also tend to live by written contracts and agreements. We sign for everything. And dammit, I’m sure there was something written somewhere that I could use to get back on these flights.
But I was not in America. I was in Saudi Arabia, where things are different. This is a place where handshakes and eye contact matter far more than a signature. And this has been true for thousands of years, since the time of Mesopotamia and Babylon. As a man named Richard kindly reminded me at the airport, the information age has been incredible, but unlike people, “the Internet does not care, only people do.”

An Old World Human

I wasn’t thinking about all of this at that moment in the airport. I am a surgeon and all I saw was bleeding. Something had to be done and done quickly as the flights were nearly boarding. Unfortunately, I was alone. No colleagues were with me nor available to call at 1 am. I briefly considered responding impulsively, with anger. But, having just spent the better part of a week in the middle of this remarkable country and remarkable people, I thought about it for a moment. The reality was that I was utterly and completely…powerless.
“I really need your help getting home today” I said softly, admitting this to them.
The attendant nodded. As I waited patiently, he moved quickly and grabbed his superiors and they put their heads together. Over the next half an hour, it was as if the seas had parted. After several minutes tapping away on a computer one of them looked up at me and said: “We can get you standby on one of your flights.”
I responded “that’s a great start, thank you” with an encouraging smile.
Several tense minutes later, another attendant looked up and said that my ticket had been restored. I smiled, shook their hands and said “Shukar” or thank you in Arabic.
I still have no idea why my ticket was cancelled. But having access to the world with a smart phone served me no purpose during that tense hour. Trusting in my fellow man, however, made all the difference. I will always remember this old and sturdy concept in our new and fragile world.