Sunday, May 26, 2013

The After Life

(Brian Hartenstein in front of housing compound.  Jizan, Saudi Arabia) 

Patrick said it was dancing at a punk show in Charleston, throwing punches with his body and dripping in sweat, then standing on stage with eyes closed and bass slung to his waist striking one chord over and over until his fingers bled.
Marcus said it was on the seat of his Pinarello atop Yu Shan after a rain storm when the clouds parted over Tainan and he called his one-year-old on the phone and she said, “Daddy.”
Peter the Russian said it was leaving school his senior year to live in a bordello in Marseilles. Learning to cook and fight and each night a different prostitute took his virginity. “The best education a teenage boy could ever have,” he tells me, every chance he gets.
 (Sand and oil.  An abandoned field in Jizan)

I awake covered in a fine layer of silty sand. My first night in Saudi Arabia, a black swarming sand storm swept in from the Rub al-Khali and seeped in through the shut windows and cement cracks in the walls of my apartment leaving a thin veil of dust everywhere.
Coughing and brushing off my arms and cheeks, I stand in front of the little kitchen window looking out at the grim men tearing up the earth along the highway. They’ve hand dug a long trench to re-attach a pipe. Gas rises from the soil causing a dizzying effect in the dawn heat and for a moment I think of my younger brother Grant. How on summer mornings in Colton we used to race outside and play baseball in the back fields. Hitting off the tee and shagging fly balls against the fence in the fading sun until the night came and the dark chased us indoors.
I decided to go for a run, put on my black shorts and a t-shirt, and headed out the front door into the heat to see what I could find.
 (Saudi taxi drivers directing traffic, Jizan)

Abdu-Aziz said it was his first trip to Mecca, stripping off his clothes and wrapping his body in white cloth before entering the Great Mosque, shouting praises to Allah as his body pushed and surged in the throngs around the giant black marble stone.
Mahmet said it was coral diving with his uncle in Farazan. He was the twenty-seventh and youngest son of his father, who couldn’t always remember his name. Under the sea. Mahmet would hold his breath and recite all his brother’s names until he came to his own, then re-emerge onto the burning white sand of the world without fear.
Raeid said it was driving to Jeddah from Abha at night alone. Closing his eyes while racing along the straight road, begging Allah to take him to paradise. “There the virgins await,” he said. “They await, for I am Sultan in death.”
 (Egyptian sightseers relax at dusk overlooking Red Sea)

Closing and locking the apartment door behind me, past the office and mosque and through the compound gate, I jogged in my little black shorts and t-shirt toward the construction site. On one side of the dirt road was an abandoned oil field littered with filth and refuse and dumped chemicals seeping out of the earth. On the other side the long row of unfinished cement buildings with the hollowed out windows and torn-up floors.
I am used to being one of the first white men people have ever seen. Children touching the hair upon my arms in wonder, poking my ribs to see if I am real. Women gossiping loudly about my blue eyes or height and weight, eyeing me like a piece of ripe fruit. This short little moment in time existing forever between us.
It reminded me of this American woman I’d meet a few years ago while in Taiwan. It was only in passing. I was struggling with Chinese and she appeared out of nowhere to translate for me, just touching me briefly but I never forgot. In passing, she mentioned a Japanese movie I should watch, telling me it changed her life. She had no idea the philosophical quest this comment would lead me on, saying goodbye and walking away. In five minutes, she changed the way I see my life, forever.
 (A real "dump" truck.  Saudi sceptic pump truck.  If you see this thing... run)

Helen said it was baking with her mother before the cancer. Making everything from scratch and passing ingredients back and forth without speaking. She said, “It brought such peace to know my mother gave me her hands.”
Heather said it was after the birth of her first child, when the doctor laid the baby in her arms and she felt waves of relief and insurmountable joy.
Maria said it was jumping horses as a girl, holding the reins so tight in her fists knowing that the beast instinctively felt her intense fear, then letting go.
SungJoo said it was riding in the back seat of the family car with her three sisters. She is eight years old and her father is driving the family to the beach. Her mother is slicing apples and passing rice rolls back and they are laughing and singing with the windows rolled down and the smell of the sea in the air.
 (Red Sea, dusk)

As I reached the construction site the grim men in blue overalls stopped their work. Pick axes slung over shoulders and shovels stuck hard in the rotting dirt. Handkerchiefs wiped brows and others were wrapped around faces with only the eyes to glare in anger and disbelief, telling me that what I was doing was wrong.
I raced past them several hundred yards, realizing my mistake, but not turning back.
I didn’t see the police car until he had sliced in front of me, slamming on the brakes, and cutting off my path.
Before I knew it, both policemen were out of the vehicle, pointing their batons at me and screaming in Arabic. Brown uniforms. Green soldier hats. Military stripes and black army boots. Sidearms on their hips. I began backing away as they approached speaking the only Arabic phrase I knew, “Assalm Alay-kum! Assalm Alay-kum”
The first police officer was furious. His brown face spitting in anger. All I could see were his white teeth and white eyes. Then his baton struck my hand and pointed at my uncovered legs, striking me on the knee.
I had no idea what was about to happen. Was I going to be beaten on the side of the road? Arrested? They were dressed as military men, were these even police officers? I couldn’t think of anything to say. I couldn’t understand anything the man was saying. He just kept poking my knees and screaming at the top of his lungs.
 (Pakistani and Saudi men playing cricket)

Liang Jing said it was the first time she saw snow. Standing on her balcony in Beijing catching the white starry flakes on her tongue before they turned to ash on the street below.
Jon said it was a kissing in the park. It was a second chance at love and he memorized every sensation. The touch of her skin. The scent of her hair. How his fingers felt against the back of her bra. They were alone in the trees in the night. He said it was the most alive he’d ever felt.
Emily had been through the Air-Force Academy and was fearless. She said that moment in freefall right before you pull the cord, when the split second of doubt flashes in paralyzing terror. She has said this smiling, “Nothing in life compares to death.”
 (Saudi rubble and junk.  Walking toward "Immigrant Hill" Jizan)

It was the second police officer that I could understand. He was saying the Arabic word, “Iqama. Iqama,” which is the national identification card all foreigners must carry with them. As I had only been in Saudi a matter of hours, it hadn’t been issued to me. Martin had told me the paperwork would be late, that the company needed time to apply. I felt the first police officer’s baton poke me in the legs again.
Obviously, I was doing something wrong, but I didn’t understand. It would be hours later when word would reach me through Hassan, the fixer, that it is against Sharia law for anyone to show their naked and uncovered legs and knees in public. That Islamic law clearly states this is an offense against Allah, the Qu’ran, and the Sauid Royal King to be out in public showing off my thighs.
Apologizing in English, I backed further and further away until turning completely and running back to the compound. Past the glaring construction men. Past the rotting soil and the filth and through the hanging dust. All the way to the apartment, where I locked the door behind me, ran up the stairs to my room, closed the door, and lay heaving and coughing on the bed.
 (A land full of garbage and yuck)

The whole rest of the day I lay on the bed thinking what a fool I’d been for coming to Saudi.  It’s easy to think about the mistakes we’ve made, isn’t it?  Rather than the glorious and beautiful moments that celebrate, I often choose the most horrible and personal memories to define myself.  Defeats.  Failures.  Stupid mistakes that have cost me dearly.  Regrets I’ve had for doing something wrong.  Petty feuds and falling outs and wishing I would have said this or that and the long list of people I’d be better off never having met. 
(Everywhere a landfill)

It was then I thought of that American woman I met on the street in Taiwan years ago.  How she told me about this Japanese movie called, The After Life.  It’s the story of this waiting station after death that people pass through before they travel to the other side.  It is set in this school and one by one the old and young and middle aged sit in the chair and tell of the single greatest memory of their life, the one that, if given the chance, they would live again over and over for eternity. 
 (The compound before the dust storm)

Be it a moment of triumph or one of serenading nature, a rush of young love or a tender farewell between friends, the wisdom of age staring back through a mirror or the wonder of watching someone you love be moved… The After Life was such a profound movie.
That woman touched me so deeply. It was as if she understood instinctively there was a void in my life, that I was utterly and completely alone, and she reached inside to nourish my soul. Who does that? Who feeds you like this? Most people we meet leave us so cold, but for the one who conjures this magic, it’s like finding a genie in a bottle, isn’t it?
For years after, I found myself chasing this question in others, as if it were the only real thing to know. What memory would you re-live over and over in the after life? Is there any greater question than that?
(The rooftop)

That night, when the lights of the city dimmed and the moon rose in the desolate starless sky, after last prayers had sounded and the compound was quiet, I ventured outside again. I took the two flights of stairs to the rooftop of the apartment. A little encased 40 by 40 foot square with four bare cement walls that I could stand in and not be seen.
I stripped off my t-shirt in the baking night heat and stood half naked in just a small pair of black running shorts and shoes and started to run as hard as I could. Wind sprints. Wall to wall. Ten lighting fast paces forward. Touch the wall. Turn in one motion. Ten paces even faster back. Shoulders and legs drenched. Lathered in sweat. Sprinting in the dark.
The only sound my footsteps pounding against the cement roof and the rhythmic breathing hard from my chest. Ten paces touch the wall. Ten paces faster back. Ten paces touch the wall. Ten paces faster back.
Like I had done as a boy, chasing down my brother's high fly balls in the fading summer night, I sprinted back in time. Alone. Wanting. In between walls and beneath the Saudi moon. Knowing, this might be as good as it ever gets.

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