Letters From Saudi Arabia: Rolling Into Medina

This is the fourth part in series about travels in Saudi Arabia, along the line of the Hejaz railway.


The complex surrounding the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, one of the two holy cities in Saudi Arabia—the other being Mecca, which is off-limits to non-believers. In the 1980s the bin Laden construction company, founded by Osama’s father, completed a renovation. The terminus of the Hejaz railway is just on the edge of the holy city. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

My 10:00 bus to Medina—the beginning of a nine-hour ride across the desert—departed on time. I had gone to the bus station the day before during my Uber-ing and knew it was little more than a parking lot with an adjoining waiting room, around which touts hawked various services, many related to Oreos and potato chips.

At 9:45 I took a seat near a window in the back. The bus was about half full, and the passengers were a mixture of guest workers and pilgrims. The landscape through which we passed was unending desert, although there was the occasional village and town off the four-lane highway.

Stopped by the Police

About an hour outside Tabuk, a police car with flashing lights pulled over the bus. From my seat I could see the driver in animated conversation with the policeman, who never left his car or turned off his flashing lights.

The driver had with him various manifest documents, and after a while he returned to the bus and said he needed the passports of two passengers, one of whom was me. I gave him my passport and a printed copy of my e-visa (how could it hurt?), and watched from my perch while the driver handed over my documents as the cop verified them in whatever system he had in his car.

At no point did anyone say anything to me, and after a while the policeman returned my passport to the driver who gave it back to me, and we were on our way. I spent the rest of the bus ride wondering whether I was on a list that the driver or policeman was carrying.

All during the long day on the road, I saw other police barriers with other buses and cars waylaid, but we were not stopped again. Nevertheless, I came to think of the Saudi kingdom as a vast checkpoint.

Michael Korda’s Hero: T.E. Lawrence

To get me across nine hours on “a dark desert highway” (I know, it sounds like Hotel California), I had saved Michael Korda’s Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, a full-length biography that was published in 2010.

During my initial research on Lawrence, I had grown weary over the number of Lawrence biographies in the market, and I had thought I could make do without Korda’s, although it turned out I was wrong, as his portrait of Lawrence is well written and definitive.

Best of all, Korda directly answers many lingering questions about Lawrence: Was he homosexual? (More asexual and repressed.) When he was an archaeologist in Syria before the war, was he also a British spy? (No, but happy to cooperate with his majesty’s government.) Was he aware of Sykes-Picot as early as 1916? (Yes, but was in denial and hoped the agreement would lapse.) What fueled the feelings of shame and guilt that he tried to expiate, after the war, with caning? (Betrayal of Arab nationalism.)

Korda has spent most of his life (he’s now eighty-nine) as a senior editor in New York book publishing, and I wondered how he acquired his fascination with Lawrence.

Only toward the end of the book did I find the answer, which is that his uncle, the celebrated filmmaker Alexander Korda, had bought an option in the late 1920s to turn Revolt in the Desert into a Hollywood film. (This was after Lowell Thomas had taken his own film footage and book on the road in London and New York, inventing the legend of “Lawrence of Arabia”.)

Alexander Korda and Lawrence met often to discuss the feasibility of the film, and in his gentle, diplomatic way Lawrence talked Korda out of the venture. Alexander would later quip that he was “the nicest man I ever failed to do business with.”

No doubt the Korda family’s affection for Lawrence passed down from uncle to nephew, to the point that when it came time for Michael to do military service in England, he enlisted in the RAF and drove around the UK on a powerful motorcycle. Only later did he become Lawrence’s biographer.

Lawrence: Saint or Sinner?

In weighing Lawrence’s life and legend, Michael Korda inevitably comes out on the side of his goodness; hence the title Hero and the firmness with which Korda dismisses some of the more outlandish allegations against his subject.

To be clear, he exhaustively sorts through mountains of evidence before he states that Lawrence was probably asexual or that his work for the British government in the Middle East did not count as spying. Nor does he believe that Lawrence fabricated aspects of his military career or inflated accounts in his books, and he dismisses the charge that as the war went on Lawrence developed something of a blood lust and was happy at the prospect of massacring Turks. He believes his motorcycle death on the road was an accident, not an assassination, and he takes at face value Lawrence’s description of what happened in Deraa, where a Turkish officer abused him.

Nor does Korda think Lawrence was a poseur or a publicity hound going around London and Paris in Arab dress. He acknowledges that Lawrence suffered emotional distress upon the discovery of his own illegitimacy and that, come the end of war and the revolt, he became an unwitting instrument of the British government’s claim to Middle Eastern lands and its appropriation of the political control that Lawrence had promised to the Arabs. Toward the end of the book, Korda describes him in these words:

He was a hero, a scholar, a diplomat, a brilliant writer, endowed with enormous courage and capable of reckless self-sacrifice, and behind the facade that Lowell Thomas and the newspapers built up around him, also the kindest, gentlest, and most loyal of friends, and that rare Englishman with no class prejudices of any kind, as at ease in a barracks as he was in Buckingham Palace, in the desert, or at Versailles….He was partly instrumental in the creation of not one but three Middle Eastern kingdoms. Only one of these, Jordan, survives today in its original form; but much of the map of the Middle East was drawn by Lawrence, quite literally, as we have seen; and if he could not give the Arabs what they most wanted—a “greater Syria”—he at any rate helped to give them the states that now exist there, and, for better or worse, the dream of a larger, united Arab nation, which for a brief time led to the union of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic, and which is still the motivating force behind much of the unrest and violence of Arab nationalism.

Above all, Korda admires Lawrence’s intellectual brilliance (his guerrilla campaigns had aspects of art forms) and his modesty.

Arrival in Medina

I am sure one of the reasons I so warmed to Korda’s biography is that I was reading it in the Hejaz (now Saudi Arabia), where Lawrence first came in contact with King Hussein and his sons, and I could appreciate the bravery needed to cross vast stretches of the desert on a camel with little food or water.

All I had to do was to ride on a bus for nine hours and then—without GPS working on my phone—figure out how to find the hotel that I had reserved (clearly my roaming coverage had not made the Haj).

Eventually, using hotel wifi near the Medina bus terminal, I was able to summon an Uber, and it took me to my hotel, where I had to wait almost an hour at the front desk while three clerks checked in hundreds of pilgrims ahead of me. But it was a warm evening and everyone was in a festive mood (Medina is something of a religious theme park), so I didn’t mind watching the clerks assign rooms to three busloads of pilgrims, all of whom were eager to drop their bags and head to the Mosque of the Prophet. (Non-believers can visit Medina, but they cannot visit the prophet’s tomb.)

Much of what I did in Medina, I confess, was read my books, as I find mosques pleasant places to read and reflect, although in this case I was reading Korda, not the Koran.

In the company of so many Arabs from so many differing cultures (dozens of languages are spoken in Medina), the passages of Korda that most caught my attention were those that describe Lawrence’s endless patience and diplomatic skills in reconciling the differing goals of numerous Arab tribes and uniting them (however briefly) to fight alongside the British in liberating Arabia from the Turks. Korda writes:

The Bedouin had no sense of time; they did not accept orders; they would break off fighting to loot, then ride home with what they had stolen; they thought nothing of stripping and killing enemy wounded; they wasted ammunition by firing feux de joie into the air to announce their comings and goings; when there was food they gorged on it, instead of thinking ahead; when there was water, they drank until their bellies were swollen, instead of rationing it out sensibly; they stole shamelessly, from friend and foe alike; their tribal quarrels and blood feuds made it difficult to rely on them when they were formed up in large numbers; by British standards they were cruel to animals; and they were distrustful of Europeans and Christians, even as allies. In order to lead them, Lawrence had to learn to accept their ways, to share their ribald and teasing sense of humor and their extravagant emotions and love of tall tales, to embrace the extreme hardships of their life, and to understand that because they were intense individualists any attempt to give a direct order to them would be treated as an insult.

Korda adds: “Nobody understood this better than Lawrence himself, who wrote: ‘A man who gives himself to the possession of aliens leads a Yahoo life…. He is not one of them…. In my case my effort for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes, and destroyed it all for me. At the same time I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only.’”

Contracting bin Laden

I only spent one night and day in Medina, but I was happy to be there on a warm evening and a sunny morning, during which I walked everywhere and caught several buses. I had dreamed of renting a bicycle, but the shops that I scouted were closed.

I did walk to the terminus of the Hejaz Railway, an elegant stone building that is now part of a museum complex complete with sidings, a few old rail cars, track, and, inside, a history museum about Medina.

According to photographs on display, when the railway was finished in 1908, pilgrims could walk from the terminal to the Mosque of the Prophet in about twenty-five minutes.

In those days Medina was more of a dusty town than what it is today—a pilgrim city clustered with dozens of five-star hotels and festival lights around the central mosque. (It feels more like Atlantic City than Vatican City.)

The contractor who renovated the Mosque of the Prophet in the 1970s and 80s was none other than the father of Osama bin Laden, Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, who was a construction mogul.

In theory, one should visit Medina after Mecca, as that would be retracing the steps of the prophet who himself in the year 622 fled prosecution and went from Mecca to Medina, and there set up the fledgling institutions that would rule the Islamic world. But from all the Medina tour buses and taxis hawking business for Mecca, I would say that pilgrims now visit the two cities in either direction.

High-Speed Haj

The other engineering marvel in Medina is the new station for the Chinese-built high-speed rail line that connects Medina with Mecca in about two-and-a-half hours.

My train to Jeddah left around 2:30 p.m., and I got to the Medina station early enough to buy lunch in a restaurant, but despite the station’s soaring, glittering architecture I could not find any food (other than gift boxes of dates) before boarding my train.

The others in the departure lounge looked more like business people than pilgrims, and I noticed that most got off in Jeddah rather than ride another half hour to Mecca, although in theory the Saudis commissioned the Chinese to build the new line with the Haj in mind. Pilgrimage is big business in Saudi Arabia.

After my all-day bus ride from Tabuk to Medina, I was happy for the high-speed service, which seemed to float over the desert. (I wonder if the early riders of the Hejaz Railway felt the same way?) The only stop was at King Abdullah Economic City (called KAEC in many circles), which is supposed to be an urban enterprise zone with a population of 1.4 million that will cost some $60 billion to construct, although from what I could tell from my train window, KAEC is a remote station in search of a city.

Covered in sand, Saudi Arabia is part mall, part gas station, and the rest is an endless construction site.

Earlier installments can be found here. Next: the Red Sea port city of Jeddah.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.