20 January 2015

Holding On

In a hundred days I’ll be on Koh Tao, swinging in a hammock that overlooks the sea, already in disbelief that I used to live in Saudi Arabia.

So before I forget...


My alarm chimes—a needless noise. I am already awake thanks to the wailing outside my window. “Allah is the greatest. I bear witness that there is no god but Allah. I bear witness that Mohammed is the messenger of Allah. Hasten to worship. Hasten to success. Prayer is better than sleep…” The call to prayer can be beautiful but in the moments before dawn it rarely is. I stand on creaky knees and open the only window in my apartment. The glass is an impenetrable shade of yellow reminiscent of 70’s shag carpet or bile. Outside the black sky is brightening and the air is cool. The prayer assaults me from all sides. I close the window and shuffle into the kitchen to begin another day.

Coffee grounds flushed down the toilet, oatmeal with blueberries cooking on the stove and Al-Jazeera flickering on screen; the war in Syria, ISIL advancing, the false imprisonment of Al-Jazeera journalists Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy, and Peter Greste for their coverage of the Egyptian uprising; the news is the same every day and every day I watch.

My room has a half-burnt glow like a cardboard box lit by dying Christmas lights. I cinch my tie and swallow distastefully. I am, and always will be, convinced that ties were invented by an asphyxiation perv.

Outside the bus is waiting. It is three shades of brown smeared in a dusty fourth. The women's bus is just behind it, a different bus to a different campus, as always we are separate.

Our driver’s name is Yaseen. He is from Morocco and like everyone else he came here for the money. There are 28 million people in Saudi Arabia, only 18 million of which are Saudi nationals. A very small percentage of the foreign population is comprised of professionals recruited to fill positions at universities, hospitals, and big oil companies. I am amongst the recruited, a privileged immigrant. Yaseen is not. He is a migrant worker and like the millions who flock here from North Africa, Bangladesh and the Philippines he lives beneath the Saudi boot for a job that hardly seems worth it—for money that hardly seems worth it.

The bus pulls away. Yaseen waves to the cops who are always on guard and weaves around the barriers set up to defend us against who knows what. I listen to familiar music and watch the familiar suburban sprawl. Yaseen bullies his way through traffic, his antics a daily source of amusement. Nothing is open, and nothing will be until 4pm. I don’t know where the cars are going. I’ve never been able to figure that out. Throughout history the people in this region have stayed away from the harsh weather during the day, prayed often, and conducted commerce mostly at night. The modern world sprung up late and quick but they didn’t change to accommodate it, they just stuffed it into their millennia tested routine.

The university recently moved to a new campus and they’re still working out the kinks; the toilets overflow, there are never enough garbage cans and the thermostats in the classrooms are nothing more than 3D art. By higher learning standards it’s on par with a big community college, by ESL standards it’s downright swanky.

I walk into the classroom where a few of my students are already waiting. They are all adorned in traditional Saudi dress: white thobe, red and white shumagh and a black coiled igal. They don’t see me. They are hypnotized by their smart phones and they should be; they're nineteen and the first generation with access to the big world. Amused, I greet them loud enough to scare, “Good morning, gentlemen!” They look up startled and mumble, "Good morning," before returning to their phones. Class doesn't start for another ten minutes. I uncap a red marker and begin outlining our day.  

I have been unable to find contentment in Saudi. I am constantly evaluating and reevaluating my perceptions.

It’s a great job and ya know life isn’t so bad here!

I enjoy the work, but am I wasting what’s left of my youth?

 I’d be crazy not to cash in as much as possible, this’ll set up the future. 

Fu#% this

The conversations I have with my friends are always about the future. What are you doing over the break? Are you coming back next year? Are you working the summer? Do you even want to work the summer? The present is a joke about surviving. The past expresses gratitude for time past quickly. I often wonder what it would be like if I could live with this group of people anywhere else. Imagine the times we'd have if we weren't just killing time.

I ask one of the Ahmeds to close the door. I have five Ahmeds in a class of fourteen. I do a quick head count to make sure everyone is present.


Khalid smiles. He knows where this is going because it goes the same place every day. He beats me to it, "Put your cell phones aaa-wayyy."

The students have been my one constant in Saudi Arabia. They are good kids; polite, respectful, quick to laugh. No matter how up or down I feel about Saudi, I am always happy to walk into the classroom. My current crop of students are going into the medical college, Saudi's future doctors. For most of them it is not a path they chose. They had the highest grades in the region coming out of high school and as such it is expected that they go into medicine--with engineering being an acceptable rebellion.

I don't have Saudi friends. If I did maybe I would know more about the future of this country. I have heard that in the bigger cities it is possible to have a social life beyond the compound, to sit in shisha lounges and listen to liberal whispers. That doesn't happen here. It's too small, too country. Aside from occasional walks to the supermarket I never leave the track between school and home. My students are the only indicator I've got and they're pointing in fourteen different directions.

Besides, this is a story about my Saudi, a story that ends in a hundred days. It would be conceited and unwanted to start flinging prognostications from behind the compound walls. They would be no more accurate than a future with flying cars. I will say this: some of what confounds outsiders doesn't need to change at all, it falls into the category of different isn't wrong. But, there are obvious human rights issues as well and I think that many of those issues could be reconciled without sacrificing ideology or tradition. If the big world has any impact at all, I hope it's that.


I'm sitting at my desk eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I look up because there is a kid hovering in the doorway. He is skinny with dark wavy hair and a starter-kit mustache. I've never seen him before, he belongs to another teacher. Something is up. This little dude looks like he is about to pull apart at the molecules. His teacher finally sees him and ushers him in. The kid makes half-hidden eye contact with every teacher in the room. This is big. He wants us all to hear.

"Teacher something very bad happened yesterday. Did you hear about this?"

His teacher knowing full well what the kid is talking about says, "No, what happened?"

The kid takes a cellphone out of his pocket. He is a rabbit on alert, twitchy, ready to dart. But, he's got this grin too; a wolfish gash that doesn't fit his scared little face. He knows it. He pulls it back between twitching lips. We all know what happened yesterday. We've been whispering about it all morning--whispering as if violence can be lured. I am out of my seat. Everyone is. Does the fucking kid have pictures?

He waits until we draw near. He starts the slide show. People gathered in a semi-circle around a pedestrian looking mosque. Police lights flashing. A woman covered in black, hands hiding her already hidden face. The images close in; blurred shots of an agitated crowd, yellow barriers surrounding the entrance to the mosque. A body. An Arab man in western clothing. The last body to be moved. There are five pools of blood.

"Did you take these pictures?"

"My friend. This is very near. Maybe twenty kilometers from the University."


It's the last class of the day and I'm in Teacher Michael mode. I'm telling jokes and winging board markers around the room. I'm correcting b's that should be p's. I'm helping these kids (who came up through a system of rote memorization) learn to think for themselves and to do it in a language they are learning. I often feel atrophied outside the classroom, but inside I'm (almost) always switched on.

This quarter has been challenging because my students know me too well. Most of them were in my class last quarter and they aren't intimidated anymore. They're always trying to get me off topic. They think they're sly. Picture a bull with a bell around its neck walking on twinkle hooves.

"Teacher. In California how is the weather?"

"California is big, so it depends on where you are. It's warm by the beach, cold in the mountains and hot in the desert. As hot as Saudi in some places."

"What your job in California?"
     "Were you a teacher?"
          "What kind of car you drive?"

"What was your job. No I wasn't a teacher. And don't worry about what kind of car I drove. Open your Reading and Writing books to page 136."

"Teacher! Why? You are our teacher we want to know you!"

"No you don't. You want to waste time. Page 136."

The rabble rousers laugh because they know they're busted. Everyone starts to open their books, everyone except this kid Zuhair who is just sitting there with his face all scrunched up. He looks like a Sultan's kid, not the idealized movie version, the oh... reality version. He blasts air from his nostrils. He can't take it. He has to know.

"Teacher. Why you live here?"

I walk to the window and pull back the blinds. Outside is a nearly empty parking lot with dust devils swirling.

"Because it's so beautiful."

Now everyone is laughing.


The bus drops me off at our local mall. It's a ten minute walk from the compound and the closest thing we've got to a social destination. As I approach the grocery store, I see the metal gates closing. Prayer'd out as usual. I make a quick right and book it for Costa Coffee hoping to sneak in an order before they turn out the lights. I make it just in time. As a single man I am not allowed inside the coffee shop, but I am allowed to wait out the prayer in the singles section near the front entrance.

And there is that familiar wail blasting from every speaker in the mall.

This particular prayer is called Asr and it begins when the shadow of...well nowadays it begins when the App says so. I would have a lot more respect for prayer stoppage if anyone else did. There are hundreds of people in the mall and none of them are scurrying for the mosque on the 2nd floor. They are sitting on benches waiting out the pause just like me. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the region that stalls completely five times a day. It's pious grandstanding that in my opinion offers no positive benefit. Mosques are everywhere and people use them. The prayer room at school is well trod. I have almost been run over by people rushing to the mosque near the compound. Worship is alive and well. It's deeply ingrained into routine. There is no need to muck-up every trip to the bank, mall, grocery store, kebab shop...

Different isn't wrong. 

I'm sitting here sipping my cappuccino, watching the uneasy collision of old Arabia and new income. Most of the mall patrons are women. As intended they are a mystery floating around in black. I have never spoken to a Saudi woman and I never will. Women are not allowed to drive nor are they allowed to leave the house without an escort so there are plenty of figures in white as well; husbands, brothers, eldest sons keeping watch. There is a flood of prosperity these days and this mall, which emptied out could pass for a mall in suburban America, has all the brands, all the fast food joints, its a regular orgy of consumerism. Ascending the escalators, moving in and out of shops, chasing after their kids; people who perfectly match the sepia-toned pictures of their ancestors wandering through the worst parts of the West. It's like being witness to a bizarro field trip. Welcome to Sin World! Damned if you do!


I'm in the clubhouse and I'm in a shitty mood. Management called a big secret meeting and it must be important because they've got all the teachers here. I don't know what the meeting is about but I'm pretty sure we are about to get a collective wrist-slap for over-socializing. Here they come. Their faces are set. They look grim. Someone just handed me an agenda and the rundown is not what I was expecting. The big boss launches in. My shoulders relax and my arms uncross. My scowl turns curious. This meeting is not about our behavior, it's about our safety.

The neighbors don't want the female teachers out in the community without a guardian. We knew that. The incident yesterday--violence of faith not far from the compound and shocking enough to warrant a bungled report on Al-Jazeera. We knew that too. A Canadian man attacked in a big city not far from here. He was shopping with his family. He was stabbed without provocation. That we did not know.

The managers are telling us about all the new safety procedures and the teachers are raising their hands. They have so many questions, mostly about our own community. What's being said? What's being thought? This rush of discontent, these new procedures, none of it jives with my experiences in Saudi. I've never felt threatened. Occasionally men approach me with friendly curiosity, but for the most part I'm treated with passive disregard. I don't want what ifs to start affecting the way I live my life. I want to see this meeting as HR paperwork more so than genuine concern. I want to carry on. Still... I locked the door when I left. It's open now.


I'm lying on a plastic lawn chair covered in couch cushions, in an apartment that passes for our local movie theater. There are eight other people in the room and despite the heaviness of the meeting no one is talking about it. We have a break coming up and everyone is jabbering about where they are going; Sri Lanka, Kenya, Malaysia, Vietnam, Egypt, Jordan. In this room I don't feel like a foreigner in the most foreign of places. I feel a sense of home. This is the best part of Saudi; the friends I've made.

None of us fit in. We are indescribably cuckoo. The normal people are shouting, telling us that we are going the wrong way, but we aren't. We are trying to get to the Island of Misfit Toys because we think it would be a cool place to check out. We are travelers and this is no phase. Saudi isn't always easy, but it is fueling a future of indefinite adventure. For me the next stop is a perfect little island in Thailand. For my friends...well it's a big world.

For now we are here, together, holding on.