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THURSDAY, FEB. 28, 1991
Arriving in Saudi Arabia

I was awakened after a few hours of sleep by the early morning call to prayer. Our hotel is across the street from a mosque, a generic building with small dome and ornate minaret. Next door stands a large office building with a competing (and winning) tower bearing its own inscription: PEPSI.

The long, restless hours on the plane were quickly forgotten when we finally set foot in the Middle East--more precisely, the island nation of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. It was 9:00 at night, a cool rain had just fallen, and the first breath of warm salt air said one thing to me: Corpus Christi. They say aromas are the most lingering and evocative memories, and this reaction certainly fit that theory. I could have been back in my childhood home, thousands of miles and years away on a different Gulf Coast.

Passport, please. The excitement began as soon as we cleared Bahrain customs. Local drivers in robes and headgear waved signs saying ABC, SKY, ITN, and lucky for us, CNN. The babble of voices began, but the 3 of us from CNN (Rob, Chester Bielecki from the Detroit bureau, and myself) kept quiet and waited for it to sort itself out. We were all going by convoy of cars into Dhahran, but ABC was squabbling with a British crew from SKY over who rode where with what luggage. Clearly, an extra vehicle was needed. But when anchorman Ted Koppel and his ABC crew appropriated the biggest and best American car and drove off, the Brits got ugly. Worst offender a bloke we dubbed G.I. Joe, who was all decked out in army fatigues, crisp and new right from the surplus store, shiny black combat boots, and jaunty black beret. What made it all the more ludicrous was the fact he was wearing jungle camouflage pattern, a pompous green eyesore in the sandy desert.

Of course my opinion is colored by the fact that he began screaming orders at me to get in the car with him so we could hurry up and leave. I ignored him as long as I could, then as I was just squeezing into the back seat, the spare car arrived. Chester and Rob made a beeline for it, and I was right behind.

We were finally on our way to Saudi Arabia, or so we thought. After wending our way through back alleys of Manama, our caravan halted in front of a garage. Seems we had to unload one cab and switch to a car that could clear Saudi customs. G.I. Joe's partner sprang into action, tossing suitcases and duffel bags out of the cab, and the ones with CNN tags he gave an extra heave in the direction of the nearby mud puddle.

I had enough of this rude behavior, and I told him so. He didn't answer, but he kept his hands off our bags. We reloaded the cars and proceeded to the causeway connecting Bahrain with the Saudi mainland. After the first checkpoint, a further surprise--our car could proceed no further. We were forced to squeeze in with our British cousins. I offered a handshake and truce to Nick, the luggage tosser, and we rode shoulder to shoulder in one car. Rob and Chester joined G.I. Joe in the other.

       receipt for videotape
receipt for videotape Saudi customs inspection lived up to its reputation. Every bag was opened and inspected. Soon they came to my VHS cassette. "Dirty movie?" I was asked. Most emphatic, I denied it, shaking in my sneakers. Would they think "Twin Peaks" was dirty? Was Roseanne Barr hosting Saturday Night Live truly obscene? And what in the name of Allah would they make of the Simpsons?

I was sent to a booth, told to sit, and offered a cup of tea. It was strong, sweet and scalding hot, and I gulped it down. Finally it was explained to me that my tape was being confiscated for 24 hours so they could watch it. If it passed approval, I could return for it the next day. I was given a receipt (written in Arabic) and waved off with the comment "CNN very good." And I left behind in that office Ted Koppel's producer, who had 19 cases of TV equipment and no manifest to bring them into the country. Ted may have gone on, but his show wouldn't.

I didn't look back, and that VHS tape is history as far as I'm concerned. We got to the International Hotel and made our way to CNN Central. Though it was 2 a.m., the joint was jumping. Understandable, under the circumstances: It was prime time on the East Coast, and the situation was rapidly developing. We had had no news for twenty hours, but the supervising producer set us straight. "You got here too late," he said. "Looks like the war is over." I looked at Rob, he broke into a grin and said, "Darn."

They gave us room assignments at a nearby hotel, called for Ernie the driver, and told us to report in at noon the next day. We would probably be heading for Kuwait City. "Darn."





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