Saturday, September 21, 2013

Lamborghinis in the Dust

 When Mad Dog went AWOL nothing really changed.  Classes weren’t canceled.  Students weren’t notified.  The teachers knew something had happened but information was not provided.  We were still awaiting our Iqamas.  No one was allowed to leave the country.  We were prisoners and it was business as usual.  One less person only mattered if more work was dumped on your plate.
 Back at the compound, Senior Director Martin asked to see me.  I stepped off the bus into the evening heat.  Legs wobbly.  Neck caked with sand and dried sweat.  Eyes barely open. 
“He’s asking for you.”
I stood beside the mosque steadying myself.
“There’s Flintstone, Bangkok, even Scoops.  Try them.”
“He’s asking for you.”  Martin reached a hand into his breast jacket pocket and pulled out my passport.  I hadn’t seen it in months. 
I snatched it from his fingers.  “When do I leave?”
“Tomorrow morning.  First flight to Riyadh.”
 In less than 13 hours I had arrived in Riyadh, the same airport I’d flown into from Qatar in what seemed ages ago.  Strolling under the giant glass dome ceiling, I recalled the hours I’d spent here that first day in Saudi.  Unable to exchange money.  Nothing to eat.  No water.  Just sitting in the airport for ten hours in transit without air-conditioning trying to find a cool place to pass the time. 
Now I was speeding through sliding doors.  In a matter of moments I had found a taxi, haggled a price, and was flying through the bright morning sun into the capital city.
 I’d been told by Bangkok Phil that Riyadh was a good city to live in only if you’re on the Embassy Compound.  There’s brand name shopping, some English bookstores, and a couple of western restaurants like McDonalds (segregated, of course).  There’s even a Chuck E. Cheese, that I wouldn’t be allowed to enter because I wasn’t accompanied by a wife.
“But no matter what you do,” he warned.  “Don’t cross King Fahd Road into South Riyadh.  That’s ‘Chop Chop Square’ where they kill foreigners on sight.”
 When I arrived at the hotel I was too excited to rest.  Travel does that, fills me with surges.  I dumped my small pack and hailed a taxi and passed the address to the driver.  Riyadh streets are well marked, but many businesses don’t have numbers.  But this, the King Abdullah-Aziz Detention Center, was easily found.  
 Nondescript, square, and windowless, the detention center was surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire fencing.  There were broken glass shards sticking out the top of a high retaining cement wall and a small gate beside an anti artillery gun mounted on wheels.  A menacing looking solder in green beret stood at attention grunting as I approached.  
 I flashed my widest and most non-threatening smile.  Hands up waving.  I spoke every Arabic word I knew.  I believe I blessed him, his father,  and his many sons to come.  (I might have even promised him a goat)  Then I explained I was here to visit my friend and offered my passport as some kind of peace offering.
I sighed and smiled even wider, explaining in English now that I had no Iqama as my school had not provided me with one yet.
The guard grimaced and said it louder, “Iqama!”
I smiled even wider, shrugging my shoulders, “Passport?”
 After some time a superior came and I was led inside.   Through the cement ante chamber and a series of hallways.  Past men in green uniform sitting at desks.  Past spinning electrical fans.  Long corridors of nothing.  Then a door opened and another door  locked and I was told to sit and wait.  After some time, when Mad Dog finally came out, he was dressed in street clothes.  His hands were bound in cuffs and there was a small cut under his left eye.  
“Are you ok?”
“Have you been hurt?”
“Are you being charged?”
After a few minutes of orders barked to us in Arabic, we were left alone in the room and he began to speak.
“Whatever you do, don’t ask me about love,” he said.  “ I don’t want to talk about love, alright?”
Now I was silent.
“I’ve chased love all my life, and it’s led me here.  I always knew I’d do time, but for love?  That’s a surprise.  Who goes to jail for love?”
 We talked for about half an hour.  I felt the guards were either very generous or they forgot about us on one of their long prayer breaks.  When I was finally escorted out there were no taxis at the front gate and so I began walking down the highway toward the lights of the city.  Cars passed.  Brilliant cars.  Maybachs and Rolls-Royces and Audis and Lamborghinis.   Their engines blaring.  Revving.  Screaming in the stalled traffic.  It was then I noticed the sign: King Fahd Road. Bangkok Phil be damned.  I was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  I had come so far in my life, even traveling this long road to hell.  
That night in the cell Mad Dog had said, “If it ended tonight, I would believe that everything had been worth it.  I would have closed my eyes one last time and been fully content.  Can everyone say that?”
Sitting now in the dark, watching the Lamborghinis fly by, their headlights in the dust, I didn’t feel that way at all.  I had everything in the world to live for.  Everything.  I started walking.  Hard footsteps.  And didn’t stop until I was in the light.

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