Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Iqama Roulette

 The Iqama.  Everything became the Iqama.  The Saudi Arabian Alien Registration Card.  When will it arrive?  When will it be issued?  They confiscated our passports, ushered us through health checks, made us fill out government papers, brought us to the immigration centers.  But nothing.  Two months went by, and nothing.
 Without an Iqama we couldn’t buy a phone.  We couldn’t make international calls on landlines.   We couldn’t rent or buy a car.  We couldn’t get out of the compound and rent an apartment closer to school.  We couldn’t join a gym.  We couldn’t even get an exit visa to leave the country and visit Dubai or Bahrain for the weekend.  Nothing.  Without the Iqama, we were dry as desert dust.
 The first stop was Hassan, licking his thin lips and stroking his freshly trimmed black goatee.   His pants raised tight around his waist, hiding in the back of his office like a rat in a hole.
“Did you apply yet?”
“I tell you… I apply.”
“That was three weeks ago.  That was a month ago.  That was two months ago.”

“What I tell you… I apply.  It comes… maybe tomorrow, inshallah!”
 It didn’t come, and everyday more pressure mounted.  Stopped by police on the street, “Where’s your Iqama?”  A weekend goes by staring at walls, “Teacher, why you no rent a car, drive into desert?”  Day after day of muscle atrophy, The Admiral calls a meeting, “You all should join a gym?  There’s a weight room at Prince Abdu-Aziz University?”

But nothing.  
 Another week passed, and another.  Still nothing. 
“Hassan, what’s the status?”
“Listen, my friend… I tell you.  The Iqama will come, Inshallah.”
“You’ve been saying this for weeks and the Iqama has not come.”
“Listen, I tell you…”
“Are you sure you applied?  Something is not right here.”
“My friend… this is Saudi… Inshallah.”
Teachers start to revolt. 

Flintstone’s thick neck and broad shoulders pounded into his oversized shirt.  He flapped his arms in disbelief, “I’ve been in Saudi ten years, at half a dozen different schools.  The Iqama takes a couple hours to process.  You go to immigration.  You fill out a form.  You take a number.  They hand it to you.”
 Bangkok Phil  was even more adamant, “Listen  Hassan, at my last gig at Prince Sultan, we drove to immigration ourselves and bribed the head man and he personally delivered them.  I don’t care whose ass you gotta kiss, but you need to start puckering pronto.  I’m sure you’ve had enough practice on your knees.”
 Things became so tense Martin was summoned from New Zealand.  He made the twenty-two hour flight specifically to meet with us on the Iqama.  (I didn’t know it at the time, but he was stopping for two furloughs along the way:  A weekend in Dubai on the way in, and a fistful of days in Singapore on the way back.  On the teacher’s dime.)
 We assembled on a Wednesday evening after all the students had gone home.  (According to the Muslim calendar, Wednesday is the last work day of the week.)  We were groggy, exhausted, and grumpy.  A salty gaggle of unscrubbed grumbling rough necks.  Within minutes, Martin took aim and shot us dead:
 “The first thing I want to say is I commend you for taking this leap of faith with us as a company.  Nobody ever said it would be easy.  Life in Saudi is very hard.  Look at the people living here.  They live in squalor.  They live in filth.  Their lives are like dust.  In Islamic tradition, a teacher is one of the most highest members of society, and you have come here to teach.  This is what your contract says.  ‘You are here to teach.’  You are not here to rent a car and travel.  You are not here to vacation in Amman or Beirut.  You are not here to text on cell phones.  You are here to teach.  Look at the Arab folks around you.  Look how they support you, accept you into their community.  They see this bickering.  They see it and think, how ungrateful.  These are not teachers.  These are thieves.”
No one said a word.  We sat and stared holes in the floor and no one said a word.  They had us.  Then Hassan, who had been stroking his goatee, said the bus was ready and Martin rose and was the first at the door, saying goodbye to everyone before turning out the lights, and exiting in his private car back to the airport.

We didn’t know it at the time, but Hassan had not applied for the Iqamas and wouldn’t until a month later.  It was better to keep us this way, tightly controlled, at each other's throats, and at their mercy.

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