My phone rang. Mustafa told me I had 15 minutes to get ready.
I called the Bitch and told him he had 20 minutes to get ready.
I hurriedly completed the email that I was writing and left the house.
I picked up the Bitch at his place and we met Mustafa in a vacant parking lot somewhere near my office. From there we headed to Ahmad’s place where we met up with him and his friend, Nabil. Mustafa insisted we take two cars, so I agreed to follow Ahmad in my car, with the Bitch riding shotgun and Mustafa in the back.
Taif is about 2500m above sea level, and is only accessible via a stunning and terrifyingly harrowing mountain road known as the ‘haunted highway’. The road was built by the Bin Laden family as a gift to the Saudi Royal family in the 1980s and, as the legend goes, construction workers who carved the road into the face of the mountain were so poorly equipped that dozens of them perished during its construction. And I can only assume that dozens more are killed annually on innocent family excursions.
We were able to make it up to Taif unharmed in a shade under three hours; we spent about an hour just driving around with the widows rolled down – a rare treat in Saudi. According to my car’s internal thermometer, the temperature in Taif got down to about 13 degrees Celsius. I was the only one who did not need a winter coat.
We stopped periodically at observation points to take photos, do a bit of rock climbing and hang out with the wild monkeys that live just off the highway. But we were generally too lazy to do much else. As we had gotten a late start to the day, the sun was about to set and we felt it best to get back down the mountain before it got completely dark.
It only took about 45 minutes to get beyond the really treacherous parts of the descent; as we were nearing a plateau, Mustafa spotted the launching point for the cable cars and insisted that we rent one and basically go over the entire trip again but from an elevated position. For some reason it sounded like a decent idea.
It only cost 200 riyals to rent out an entire cabin, so the five of us piled into this thing and floated towards the top of the mountain in silence. It was initially a little unnerving given my natural propensity to loathe anything involving heights, but the longer we rocked calmly in this cradle, the more comfortable I felt. As we turned the corner at the top of the mountain and began the slightly more rapid descent, I was legitimately taken aback by the view. I perched myself up on the back of the bench seat and just stared into the seemingly endless valley. It was completely dark in the car save the glow of Mustafa’s cigarette; we all just sat in silence for about half an hour as we gently rolled back down towards the launch.
It was already getting a little late so I urged everyone to pile back into the cars and begin the 2-hour journey back to Jeddah. I grew excited at the notion of speeding home along the dark and empty highway. I spend a great deal of my time going on long drives armed with a can of Red Bull and some good electronic music. I seem to fall into some strange lull on these drives, one of the rare places where I can feel truly relaxed. Sadly, this is how I get my kicks out here.
I slid in a trance CD and cracked open my first can.
The Bitch immediately fell asleep in the back while Mustafa kept me awake with his constant smoking in the front. His cigarette smoke mixed with the chilly air was a great mix of stale and fresh.
About an hour into the drive I noticed that we had lost Ahmad; I wasn’t sure who had outpaced whom.
Within a few minutes, Mustafa’s cell phone rang.
He answered softly.
The car was instantly filled with Ahmad’s screaming voice.
We all stiffened to attention.
After about fifteen seconds of listening to Ahmad scream at him in Arabic, Mustafa kindly asked me to pull the car over.
I flashed my hazards and pulled over.
“What’s up?” I asked, trying to mask my concern.
“We are in deep shit, dude. You missed the exit to Jeddah”.
Mustafa points towards the highway and laughs. “Dude, we are now about 10 kilometers from Makkah”.
“Shit….so let’s turn around then.”
“You missed the last turn, dude. There is no way to turn around now.”
The Bitch, now wide awake, freaked. The. Fuck. Out.
Mustafa instantly grabbed the masbahah that was hanging from my rear-view mirror and began to pray.
I became tremendously cognisant of the fact that we were in my car, registered under my name and tied directly to my sponsor.
How had I missed the signs?
Ten clicks short of the Islamic holy land, the three of us sat on the side of the highway for a few moments and silently digested the situation.
Mustafa’s phone rang. It made us all jump.
Ahmad was on the other end asking how we were doing.
Without being too hostile, he sternly told us that we had to start moving; security around Makkah is so tight that we will be questioned for sitting on the side of the highway before long. We just had to head for the city and hope for the best.
The Bitch and I took off all our jewelry. I hid my guitar and his bongos in the trunk and disposed of everything edible. I hid all my CDs under my seat and threw out every receipt from my wallet. The Bitch took off his hat, put on his seat belt and began to mutter indecipherable phrases in Filipino under his breath.
I was trembling as I shifted gears. We started moving, slowly at first but, as the tension increased, I began going a little faster. Within a few minutes we had caught up to Ahmad’s car and followed him into the city.
One kilometer later and our worst fears were realised: there was a full military roadblock just outside the Haram and we had no choice but to drive right through it.
As I joined the back of the line, The Bitch began screaming “FUCK YOU!” from the back seat over and over, knowing that if we were caught he would get mistreated the worst because he is Filipino. Mustafa was trying to calm him by praying out loud. I rolled up the windows and turned off the stereo.
“Mustafa, what do we say when he stops us?”
“I don’t know, dude.”
“Shall we just give ourselves up?”
“I don’t know, dude.”
“What will happen if we are caught?”
“I don’t know, dude.”
“Shall I show him my ID if he asks for it?”
“I don’t know, dude”
As we approached the front of the roadblock, I could see an armed man inspecting every single car that came through. I glanced over at Mustafa and he looked like he was going to faint. As we drew closer to the inspection point, I half expected the Bitch to make a run for it. It was dimly lit and he may not be spotted should he make a dash for the bushes. I stabbed looks in my rear-view mirror and could see his pale face tremble in the soft light. He was too afraid to move.
Like a passenger in a plane hurtling to the earth, I guess it is best to just sit still and hope.
The car in front of us was waved through and quickly disappeared into the night. I pulled up nervously to the armed man and rolled down my window. I greeted him in Arabic. He greeted me back. I felt like I was rolling through US immigration with a pile of bodies in my trunk. Stuffed with heroin. Stuffed with bald eagles. That I had clearly raped.
“Rookhsah wa Istimaarah”. License and registration.
I turned to Mustafa and he shrugged his shoulders. My driver’s license clearly states that I am a non-Muslim.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out my wallet.
As I tried to remove the stubborn registration papers from the mysterious corners of my wallet, Mustafa was startled by the guard in the adjacent lane and let out a shriek. The sudden noise caused a nervous recoil so violent in me that the car lunged forward and I lost my wallet to the dark floor.
I immediately slammed my foot down on the brake and we all flew forward.
The Bitch groaned. A fear groan.
Fearing a strong reaction from the guard, I immediately threw my hands up in surrender.
I could hear the blood screaming in my ears.
This can’t be good.
Click here for Part 2.