Friday, October 22, 2010

Off The Beaten Track: Headdress Diplomacy

Canadian crime writer Anthony Bidulka counts academia, accounting, footwear, food services, and farming among his former careers. A decade ago, he left all that behind to write novels full time. His award-winning Russell Quant mystery series features a gay, world-traveling detective who lives a big life in a small city on the Canadian prairies and whose adventures take him, and the author, to settings as varied as Barcelona, Botswana, the Arctic, Hawaii, and, most recently, across the Middle East. Date with a Sheesha is his seventh book in the series.

Writing a mystery series where in every book the main character travels to some foreign destination, begs the question. Which comes first? The travel? Or the story? The answer, for me, is not as straightforward as it might seem. I can say this. I never select a travel destination solely for the research possibilities. Yet, when I arrive in certain places a neon sign seems to light up in my head blaring the message: this is a location you'll want to write about. Although I always do some amount of journalling while travelling, in these instances, I pay closer attention to details, to smells and sounds and food and drink and weather – all the things I use in my writing to evoke a foreign setting.

All this being said, the story is still tantamount. A foreign locale needs to fit the story I want to tell. Not the opposite. I often tell the story about when I was on my honeymoon, which took me sailing around the Arabian peninsula. At the time, I was in the midst of writing what would become the sixth book in my series. It would have made sense – given the proximity of source material and inspiration – that I would have set the book in the Middle East. The book's title? Aloha, Candy Hearts. As you might guess, I did not use my adventures in Dubai, Fujairah, and Jeddah in this book. Why? They simply did not fit the story I wanted to tell. Of all the books in the series, this was meant to be the most romantic and whimsical of the bunch. Hawaii fit the bill. Riding camels in a dust storm and dealing with the religious police in Saudi Arabia did not. Even so, the neon sign in my head lit up like Christmastime. I did write about my Arabian adventures in the next book, Date With a Sheesha.

I was blissfully unaware (at first) of the import of our big, white, birthday cake of a cruise ship docking in Jeddah (the first American based vessel in five years). But as the women donned their abbeyas prior to disembarkation, turning the ship's jovial ballroom half black, it started to sink in.

At some point during our time ashore, my spouse and I deviated from the group to do some investigating on our own. We shopped for shoes and spices in the old souk. The vendors seemed less than friendly. But we ventured on, undaunted. At one stall a rather aggressive seller managed to fit me with a Middle Eastern headdress (complete with skull cap) before I could manage to say a polite 'no' and move away. He was that good. And fast. This was my first moment of true discomfort. What to do? I was certain if I walked the rough runway I'd just come through wearing this sideshow version of the populace's daily dress, I would be scorned, spit on by camels, and run outta town. I decided to buy it (to be polite), and wear it only as far as the other side of the nearest corner. But I had no idea what I was about to be in for.

The headdress was ridiculously inexpensive – something like Cdn$3. I paid and walked off, almost immediately sensing a change in my environment. Vendors who'd previously ignored me when I'd tried to buy something without speaking the language, suddenly smiled as I sauntered by, the thick white shafts of fabric floating behind me like a cape. Others waved. Some began to follow me and tell me (they suddenly knew some English) that I looked like the King of Jordan. By the time I returned to the tour bus area, I had a Justin Bieber-ish entourage. And then the media descended. I spent half an hour giving interviews for radio and print and having my picture taken with the head of Saudi Arabian tourism (who just happened to be our tour guide that day...guess who alerted the media?). I could almost believe that if you were to visit Jeddah today, you might see my face on the latest travel brochure for 'Visit Saudi Arabia'.

As writers, we wear many hats. Creator. Editor. Financial manager. Promoter. Salesperson. Spokesperson. Researcher. This headdress was never a hat I'd expected to don. But it brought me a wonderful experience and taught me a valuable life lesson. I learned that the best way to show respect for a person's culture or way of life is to walk a mile in their...hat.


  1. Wow, what an experience! I always enjoy a culture shock, and for some reason it's the Middle Eastern culture that interests me the most. I kept wondering as I read the piece - did that aggressive seller outfit you both? Did your spouse notice the same change in people’s attitudes? And, by the way, I assume that's you in the picture, because you DO look like the king of Jordan! I’ve spent three weeks in Jordan, and I can attest there’s no home, store or goat hair tent in the country that doesn’t have his picture.

  2. Anthony, what a fabulous post! Yes, writers do have many, many roles and you expanded the list. What an interesting way to find out such a valuable lesson! Has it changed the way you travel forever now?

  3. Great story, Anthony! If governments adopted your form of diplomacy, the world would be a more peaceful place. If I go to Saudi Arabia, I'll look for your face on the travel brochures. :) Where are you off to next?

  4. Oh, I have to chime in here, Heidi! The first time I asked Anthony to blog for us, he said he'd have to get back to me when he returned from sailing off the coast of Ecuador. This guy's living my dream life...

    Anthony, thanks for joining us today. I can't wait to read your new release!

  5. Wow what a tremendous view of your Middle East experience! Since I love travel and wish I could visit the ME, this post was a pure treasure! Just priceless! thanks. Patti

  6. Hi everyone - and thanks for your great comments.
    @Lina - Indeed that is me in the picture - only I got the headdress - someone had to take the photos! When I first heard the comment I did not know what the King of Jordan looked like, but I still felt and acted complimented.
    @Alli - you are so right - it really has changed how I travel and how I react in strange travel situations - and if at all possible, I always find a local's hat to wear - the latest was this ridiculously huge sombrero in Mexico (then again, that could have been the tequila talking)
    @Heidi - just returned from a Portugal/Spain/France trip and a San Francisco book-related trip. Come winter I do some regular hot spots like Hawaii, Zihuatanejo. Our next big trip though is a month long Asian cruise beginning in Singapore and ending in Japan.
    @Patti - I'm sure you'll have great experiences if you make it to the ME
    @Supriya - thanks for inviting me to join you here!