Aviation in the Muslim world back in the 1960s

I’m working my way deeper into Three-Eight Charlie, Jerrie Mock‘s book about her 1964 round-the-world trip in a single-engine Cessna. Mock’s route takes her through Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. All of the countries stifle private aviation with bureaucracy. It typically takes Mock 6 hours to get through flight planning, weather briefing, fee paying, fueling, immigration, and customs and be ready to depart.

Cairo:

We drove along the beautiful, wide, modern “Corniche” that runs along the eastern bank of the historic Nile. Across the broad, brown river, almost hidden by dusty haze, faint outlines of the giant pyramids could be seen between tall antenna towers and giant billboards …

Soon an efficient-looking gasoline truck with a Shell emblem appeared, complete with a crew of four, dressed in uniforms just like home. The crew chief didn’t speak Engligh, so I motioned to the airplane tanks and the AID man said something in Arabic. But instead of unwinding hoses and pumping gas into the airplane, they all stood around, waiting for something. After a while, I asked the translator why the men didn’t get started. “In a few minutes.” Peter Barker and I waited for a few minutes and then I asked again. “The ‘man’ is not here.” “Which ‘man’?” They shrugged. Finally I asked where he was. “Oh, we will call him.” One of the truck’s crew was sent into a nearby building. Nothing else happened, and the messenger didn’t return. He must have been trying to call the “man who wasn’t there” on another phone that didn’t work.

On the way home from the reception, we searched for the Marconi Overseas Communications Building, which would take my RCA credit card. Peter Barker had decided that the best way was to take a taxi, but the driver didn’t speak English and we spent about an hour going in what seemed to be circles and backtracking before we finally found the place. For some reason, the giant modern office is closed daily from two to six. I’m curious. It’s too late for lunch, too early for dinner, too long for a siesta, and it can’t be because of the afternoon heat, because the building is air-conditioned. I wonder what would happen to Wall Street if we tried that at home.

The U.A.R. is a country of contrasts. The government is racing to cover, in a few years, the distance between the ancient past when Egypt ruled the known world and the present, and to make the country into an industrial complex that will rival any in the atomic age. But in its headlong dash to impress, little details are overlooked. Just a few feet from me rose a giant, marble-tiled terminal building, equipped with the latest of air-conditioning, escalators, loud-speakers announcing arrivals and departures in five languages, a tower with a radio-communications system that worked, and surrounded with silver jets that could fly at speeds exceeding five hundred miles per hour. Beside all this magnificence sat the ridiculous-looking little barrel of gasoline that a dozen men couldn’t make work. A little private grass strip at home is expected to give better service.

When it came to paper work and polite conversation to kill time, the Egyptians were masters. But the airplane was a mystery to them.

Saudi Arabia:

Dhahran Airport may be the most beautiful in the world. Its gleaming concrete strip is 10,000 feet long, and the marble-columned terminal is a worthy reminder of the graceful grandeur of the Islamic architecture of the Taj Mahal. A U.S. Navy Blue Angel jet was taking off as I came into the traffic pattern. Several hundred white-robed people were crowded onto the broad steps of the terminal, waiting to see the first flying housewife to venture into this part of the world. As I climbed from the red-and-white plane and was presented with a huge bouquet of gladioli (they had been flown in from Cairo especially for me), they saw from my blue skirt that I truly must be a woman, and sent up a shout and applauded.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the most puritanical, or orthodox, of the Muslim countries, and the Islamic religion makes the laws of the country. From the time of the Prophet Mohammed, Arabian women have been hidden from all but their immediate families. They may not see, or be seen by, the outside world. To show one’s face or even wear bright clothes is a great sin. For a woman to drive a car in Arabia is not only wanton but prohibited by law, under penalty of her husbands being sent to jail. While European or American women are permitted to go in public unveiled, even they may not drive. So the men were puzzled. Probably no one had thought to make a law saying a woman couldn’t drive an airplane, but somehow the men thought it couldn’t be happening.

Then, in the excitement, one of them evaded the handsome airforce guards that Prince—later King—Faisal had sent to look after Charlie and me. He looked into the crowded cabin, saw the huge gasoline tanks that filled the inside of the plane, except for my one seat. His white-kaffiyeh-covered head nodded vehemently, and he shouted to the throng that there was no man. This brought a rousing ovation.

Despite the warm welcome of the Saudis, Mock was not tempted to join up as a permanent member: “It sounds terribly romantic, but as long as Islam rules the desert, I know that if I find a black camel-hair tent and venture in, I’ll be hidden behind the silken screen of the harem, with the other women, and my dinner will be the men’s leftovers.”

Pakistan:

No veils, although I guess some of the Muslim women in Pakistan still carry on the old tradition of purdah. This was the sixth country I visited where Islam is the state religion, but each place seemed to have its own way of obeying the Koran.

Karachi is the biggest city in Pakistan, with a population of over two million people [10 million today!], but much of its growth was a rapid expansion that occurred after it was made the capital of the new country in 1947.

The aircraft was not kept at Karachi International, but at a smaller field. To make a cross-country flight, one first went to the small field to get the plane and flew it over to the International Airport. Then followed the weather folder and flight-plan form, before they could leave. It was impossible to use either the airplane radio or a telephone for any of this. When they returned from the flight, they again went into the International Airport to close the flight plan in person, before returning to the Aero Club location. You could spend three hours on paper work for a hundred-mile flight.

Only yesterday, I had been on the far side of the Persian Gulf where the centuries-old attitudes say women aren’t allowed to drive a car. Today, after only four and a half hours of flying, I was in a completely different culture, equally Islamic, being shown through preflight procedures by two women pilots.

Mock observed that “The airplane is shrinking the world. People from different backgrounds and cultures are being thrown together, sometimes so quickly and briefly that they don’t have a chance to know each other. Hurt feelings can easily be caused by an innocent action.” A good thought to remember as Americans keep trying to control events in distant places with radically different cultures.

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2 Comments

  1. Don Hodges

    April 3, 2015 @ 2:46 pm

    1

    I bought the ebook after your first post, and it is terrific. The idea of any pilot, woman or not, whose very first solo instrument approach is by RDF to a mountainous island after a 13 hour/2300 mile, night crossing from Bermuda, is simply unthinkable in today’s risk-averse climate. Looking forward to following her all the way around.

    Reminds me of a sailboat crossing of the Gulf of Mexico years ago, using only a neon-blinker rotary fathometer. If it was over 60 feet deep, tack inshore; less than 60 feet, tack out – very close to the rhumb line from Tarpon Springs to Apalachicola, eastern end of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Where there’s a will …

  2. Fazal Majid

    April 3, 2015 @ 3:21 pm

    2

    If anything Saudi Arabia has gotten worse since then.

    American smugness on the condition of women in the Muslim world should be tempered by the realization that many of the largest Muslim countries voted in female rulers in democratic elections: Indonesia (Megawati Sukarnoputri), Pakistan (Benazir Bhutto), Bangladesh (Sheikh Hasina, alternating with Begum Khaleda Zia), Turkey (Tansu Ciller). This is something the US somehow managed to elude this far.

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