Thursday, May 30, 2013

It's a Mad, Mad World

My school, the Saudi Polytechnic, on a sumptuous 110F degree day.  The first thing the Admiral told me upon arriving was, "Look at our million dollar facility."

Every morning the teachers would get on a bus and ride an hour through the desert to the school... to be greeted by this guy at the gate.  He would board the bus, make sure we had our badges (we don't need no stinking badges) and wave us through.  We nicknamed him:  Fidel.

The school was constantly worrying about safety, but the message was hard to accept by the Saudis.  They would smoke cigarettes around flammable gas, drag race in the parking lot, balance ladders on chairs, and leave paper cups filled with coffee next to open electrical transformers.  I'm surprised nobody exploded.

Oh... and the immigrant workers would rob you blind.  The foreign teachers learned you had to lock everything up, every minute.  If you left a half eaten sandwich or your cell phone or... anything on your desk, it would be gone if you left the room.  The teachers were issued little desk keys and we locked our possessions up constantly or we'd be picked clean.

Yes... that's green grass in the desert.  They had miles of water pipes laid to use a couple of sprinklers.  Outside the campus, the ground was so full of oil and road tar and dust... this kind of extravagance was amazing to see.
Yes, Fidel also brought his doppelganger to work.

When I arrived, half the school was still under construction.

The squatter toilets were funny.  Saudi's didn't understand the western sit-down toilets and  many of them would put their feet up on the bowl and squat over the bowls.  I know this because they didn't bother to lock the doors and I was constantly walking in on them.

Yes, that's an artificial turf futbol field in the surrounded by hundreds of miles of sand.

Watching these Pakistani guys work was painful.  They were paid pennies without incentive.  Every day you'd see them make fifty trips from one building to another carrying one computer keyboard at a time.  When asked, "Why don't you carry two or ten or get a cart and carry them all in one trip?"  They looked like you were stupid for even suggesting.  Best part about their day... constant smoke breaks.

Yep... here's Hartenstein in the classroom.  A day before class started I had no white boards, chairs, tables or a computer... and there were big puddles of air-conditioning waste rotting up the floor.  Million dollar facility...?  Nice!

Thousand Yard Saudi Stare

One by one the foreign teachers arrived.  Each lugging his allotted one suitcase full of pressed slacks and dress shirts.  Each with his collection of stories and wild adventures rolled up like socks in a secret compartment drawer.
Mad Irish Dave and Wee Scott Bob.  Bangkok Phil and Crooner Joe.  Ralph the Sheik and Jeremiah Thumbs.  Hired men who have stood in classrooms the world over and would not flinch or cringe.  Men who had seen the edges of the world and were forever bent and burned by this lens.
It didn't matter the country name on their passport nor the port from which they departed.  All these men were the same.  A quiet triumph and tragedy to them.  At home, most weren't fit to pump gas, but abroad, they were giant slayers.  Men that had seen revolutions, dictators topple, and governments fall.  Men who had barricaded themselves in closets while armed invaders ransacked their apartments or crossed boarders at night through bribes and betrayals. 
Zack had sailed the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and faced squalls fifty feet high.  Mad Irish Dave the Libyan uprising.  Ralph the Sheik had missed a car bomb in Beirut by minutes because he chose a different cafĂ© for fresh bread, and Jack the Gut sat helpless ten cars back when the masked soldiers pulled  the kicking and screaming from their cars outside Riyadh a decade before and executed them with a single gunshot to the head.  
Another hired man would appear every morning as we waited for the transport bus at 6 a.m.  to take us through the desert to the school.  Introducing with a nod, acknowledging with a look in the eyes.  Often men would shake hands, but it meant nothing.  There was rarely a point to that formality.  Everything important was said with the eyes.
New faces meant nothing.  This was the desert, and it was all an escape.

Each morning I would sit on the bus and listen to them trade tales in the way men do.  Booming voices echoing in the cramped vehicle.  Bangkok Phil with his button bursting belly and punch drunk nose rattling over and over about Eritrean whores and Somali Kat.    Slingshot Steve nodding, showing scars from a knife fight in Mogadishu while Jeremiah Thumbs cackled and showed off his tattoos.  
We rode through the desert this way every morning to school.  One way, one hour.  Through the burning hot sun scorching the earth as the men traded stories to keep themselves from going mad. 
And I would think, this is what happens to men at the end of the world.  

Then I would close my eyes and lay my head against the rattling window and pray for sleep.

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.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Tea with the Bedouins and Camels on the Sides of Roads

 "From the desert I come to thee on a stallion shod with fire."  -Bedouin Love Song, Bayard Taylor

All my life I'd wanted to see the Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter, the massive barren wasteland of southern Saudi Arabia north of Yemen and Oman. 
 "And the wins are left behind in the speed of my desire."  -Bedouin Love Song, Bayard Taylor

It is considered one of the most barren and deadly places in the world, incapable of supporting life, with temperatures reaching upwards of 145F degrees.  Without water or proper supplies, one could die within minutes. 
 "Under they window I stand, and the midnight hears my cry."  -Bedouin Love Song, Bayard Taylor

So naturally, I couldn't wait to try my luck at going there.
 "Look from they window and see my passion and my pain."  -Bedouin Love Song, Bayard Taylor

It was difficult to meet Bedouins, those wandering nomadic tribesman who knew the mysteries of the Rub al Khali... until I learned their secret.  You have to follow the camels home.
 "I lie on the sands below and I faint in thy disdain."  -Bedouin Love Song, Bayard Taylor

But where do you find camels in Saudi Arabia?  Oh... they're everywhere.  In fact, it's one of the first Saudi rules you learn.  Never drive at night, because there are no street lights and camels walk along the highway. 
 "Let the night-winds touch thy brow with the heat of my burning sigh."  -Bedouin Love Song, Bayard Taylor

Yelping insufferable beasts, really... Mark Twain notes in his Innocents Abroad how he witnessed a camel tear the sports jacket off a fellow passenger and proceed to devour it raw. 
 "And melt thee to hear the vow of a love that shall not die."  -Bedouin Love Song, Bayard Taylor

But if you follow a camel into the desert, you eventually come to the young boy who waters and feeds them, and if you smile nicely, he might just let you sit in his tent and drink his cold sugar tea from a thermus, which is exactly what happened to me.
 "My Steps are nightly driven by the fever in my breast."  -Bedouin Love Song, Bayard Taylor

Of course, to get to this tent, we had to ride in his 4X4 Toyota jeep out across the dunes.  Rolling mounds of burning loose earth that never seemed settled, never seemed to horizon, and swallowed the tracks behind us as if we were never there.
 "Open the door of thy heart and open they chamber door."  -Bedouin Love Song, Bayard Taylor

The boys would talk and I would sit, looking out across the empty earth.  Sometimes we would come to the burned out husk of a goat roasted months before or a small cliff uncovered by the ever shifting and shapeless sands.  That's when we all would laugh, sharing this language of the human race.  Nod toward the perils of living and drive away.
"Till the sun grows cold, and the stars are old, and the leaves of the Judgment Book unfold."  -Bedouin Love Song, Bayard Taylor

They never let me get too close.  Perhaps they thought I was a bigger danger than the desert itself.  Little did they realize, I was the one trusting strangers with my life.

The Mill on the Floss of My Saudi Apartment

 ‘“What is it?” said Maggie, in a whisper. “I can see nothing but a bit of yellow.”’ -Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

In Saudi, I spent a lot of time staring at the walls. With 115F degree heat outside, there wasn’t much else to do. I lost hours inside, thinking, pacing, writing letters, and of course, reading.

“But that same nature has the deep cunning which hides itself…” -Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

I read every single English book I could find. There was a book store with limited selection of classics… Dicken’s Bleak House. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. Yeah, I know… a lot of male dominated 19th century lit… where’s the Austen and Bronte sisters? Are you serious? Do muslims allow women authors into their country?
 “But then the need of being loved, the strongest need in poor Maggie’s nature, began to wrestle her pride and soon threw it.” -Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

That’s why finding George Eliot was my own little hilarious secret.
 “But you see, when a man’s got brains himself, there’s no knowing where they’ll run to…” -Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

I mean, what modern person actually sits down to read Bleak House let alone The Mill on the Floss. Narratives filled with unrequited desire, clashes of family bonds, intense awakenings both spiritual and intellectual that result in tragic isolation and death. Books written in the depths of personal anguish and enlightenment, meant to be poured through on rainy afternoons… and so, what else was there to do in the desert. (Personally, I cloud have written about the cache of George RR Martin books I poured through… those books are like Twinkies filled with heroin) But this is a blog about surviving in the desert, and you've already heard too much about Game of Thrones.
 "It is a wonderful subduer, this need of love…” -Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

Here’s what my life in Saudi was reduced to when I wasn't teaching. I’d wake up in the morning and boil water in the sparse kitchen, drinking flavored sugar coffee from a chipped glass mug.
 “She was fond of fancying a word where the people never got any larger than children of their own age…” -Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

I would fry a slice of bread on a pan. Maybe there were eggs from the store.
 ‘“But it’s bad… it’s bad,” Mr. Tulliver added, sadly, checking this blamable exultation, “a woman’s no business wi’ being so clever; it’ll turn to trouble…”’ -Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

Oh… have I mentioned the store yet? No? Well, there was a little grocery store about half a mile from the compound that had only non-perishable foods like cake mixes and soda crackers.  I would walk there every day for water. Of course, if you didn’t have water, there was no other place to buy it… and if you were even one minute late and arrived during prayer time… the entire store was closed and you’d have to wait an hour while you staved off the Grim Reaper (I accidently typed Grim Reader… yes, pun intended).
 “Nevertheless, there was a visible improvement in Tom under this training; perhaps because he was not a boy in the abstract…” -Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

So I would return to the apartment and stare at the walls… or go up on the roof of the apartment and run wind sprints between the walls. Hartenstein… why are you running on the roof of your apartment? Oh, I haven’t told you how I was almost arrested and threatened by the police for jogging outside the compound. Yeah, that was nice. (my make shift clothes dryer is pictured above)
“That in the onward tendency of human things have risen above the mental level of the generation before them, to which they have been nevertheless tied by the strongest fibers of their hearts.” -Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

And... as if I couldn't contain my excitement any more… I would sweep. There was always plenty of sweeping to be done because of the sand everywhere. Sand in my ears. Sand on my toothbrush. Sand on my burnt morning toast. Sand seeped in under the doors, through the closed window, through the air-conditioning vents. Even inside, the desert was always trying to swallow me whole.
“Was it possible to quarrel with a creature who had such eyes…” -Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

So I survived on books.  What a shock!  I can think of many pains worse than that delightful death.