Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Inshallah is Wild!

 “Hassan, will the text books be here tomorrow?”
“Ahh… you know, my friend… here in Saudi it is…Inshallah.”

Any kid worth his salt knows things instinctively.  Never hide the Sears underwear catalog under your mattress.  Never stick your tongue to the flag pole when it snows.  And if the house is on fire, save your older brother’s record collection first. 
But the number one rule of the “Kid Universe” is:  Everybody gets a Do-Over!
 “Ahmed, you said tomorrow, we go to the Health Clinic, yes?”
“Maybe yes… Maybe no.  Inshallah.”

It’s part of the natural rhythm of childhood.  Dice rolls off the table during Monopoly… Roll it Again!  Balls flies over the neighbor’s fence… Mulligan!  The Do-Over is a no harm, no foul system that keeps everybody from spitting in each other’s eye.  It works because it’s the Joker on the bottom of the deck. Nobody is ever to blame but the Joker, and nobody is blaming that clown.  Yet to my surprise in Saudi, they've taken the Joker Do-Over to an art form with the invention of: Inshallah!
“Abdul-Aziz, What about the Iqama?  Have you heard from immigration yet?”
“Ahh… if it is written yes, if not… you know, Inshallah.”

Inshallah loosely translates to: If it is the will of Allah.  And let me tell you, Allah ain’t too interested in willing much of anything.  This suits Saudi’s fine because, they ain’t too willing to get anything done either.  It’s the first phrase you come to understand after arriving in the Kingdom.
“Will my connecting flight leave on time?”
“Ahhh… Inshallah.”
“How about my bags, he’s just throwing them on a donkey cart, will they make it to my destination?”
“Haha… again, Inshallah.”
“Errr!”
“Klimnt, how about the internet, it’s been out two weeks.  I’m going nuts.”
“Tee-hee, it is as the Arabs say… if it is the will of Allah, Inshallah.”

Of course, this extends into every aspect of professional and personal life in Saudi as well.  You ask if the class lists would be printed today or if the school copier was fixed from last week or if the air-conditioning was coming back on after the blackout … and the answer was always… Inshallah!
In fact, I knew I was in trouble when expatriates started using the phrase to my face. 
“Hey Mad Dog, we going to hoop it up this weekend?”
“Ahhh… Brian, you know, it’s so hot outside… Inshallah.”
“Flintstone!  You got that fiver I loaned you?”
“Oh I forgot… next week, Inshallah.  I pay you then.”
It was beautiful. 
I came to appreciate it because, if Allah really willed anything, I might still be stuck there.   So, here’s to no personal responsibility and mud in your eye… Inshallah!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Skyping Old Mother Hubbard

 “Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to give her poor dog a bone.  When she came there the cupboard was bare and so the poor dog had none.”

The German’s name was Klimt, and watching him carrying his ladder around the compound leaving a trail of cables and modem parts like scattered breadcrumbs, pleading with the Saudi’s to stay late and finish the job, would have been pure comedy if we all weren’t begging him to bring us internet.
 “She went to the baker’s to buy him some bread.  When she came back the dog was dead.”

German Klimt was the oddest man.  White skinned, soft spoken and bespeckled, slipping out of his shoes at call to prayer with the other locals and bowing in the crowded mosque, then running wires from antennas and knocking at our door at 11 p.m. to drill through our cement ceiling.  I should have known that skyping my daughters would be nearly impossible.
 “She went to the undertaker’s to buy him a coffin.  When she came back the dog was laughing.”

But try I would.  After staring at their pictures and little funny videos of them bicycling in the park or building a living room fort or singing me nursery rhymes on my phone, I would step out into the middle of the compound and plead with my signal bars as I attempt to open a browser.
 “She took a clean dish to get him some tripe.  When she came back he was smoking his pipe.”

I would squat directly upon the main wify server but… nada!  I would plug into the main office computer but… kaput!  I would stand so very still like a hopeful monument to Google in the middle of the compound with my arm raised toward the high power antenna receiver as all the Saudis looked me up in bizarre wonder… all to get two or three minutes of scratchy and shaky contact with my daughters.
 “She went to the alehouse to get him some beer.  When she came back the dog sat in a chair.”

It wore me down, and I wasn’t alone.  All the teachers were plugged into the same outlet.  I would open the door into the blinding Saudi sunshine and see Scoopes in black shades screaming to his girlfriend, “I said… ‘Can you hear me now?’” or Crooner Bill slumped over the curb, “They froze my account.  I logged in from Saudi and Chase Manhattan thought I was a hacker terrorist and froze my account.  Now I can’t access money for rent and I can’t call to clear it up.  Makes a bloke go mad as hell.”
Then German Klimt would appear, huffing and puffing and dragging his soggy bottom up and down the ladders, assuring us the internet would be stronger, “Maybe tomorrow, if it is the will of Allah.  Inshallah!”
“The will of Allah, huh?” Crooner sighed.  “From what I see, Old Al ain’t willing much.”
German Klimt laughed so nervously it bordered on hysterical.  “Yes, maybe he has forgotten us in Saudi.  Maybe we must answer our own prayers.”
“She went to the barber’s to buy him a wig.  When she came back he was dancing a jig.”

So I joined them in action and commissary.  All of us,  these wandering zombies of godless technology with our light speed gadgets still stuck in the superstitious dark ages.   Taking every ounce of contact we could steel.  It didn’t matter that our contracts stated we’d be provided with high speed internet, we all knew by now, some Saudi cupboards were always going to be bare.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Sticking

 “TeeCHER!  How many wives you have got?”
I’m standing in a cement classroom in the middle of the Yemen desert full of twenty-five Saudi male students.  It’s the end of the day, ten minutes before dismissal.  Teachers have been told to not let students go early, so one of the engineering masterminds has broken into the main circuit board and cut electricity to the entire school.  The classroom is dark.  The air-conditioner hangs on the wall in silence.  I’m wearing a tie and dress shirt.  It’s 105 degrees.  My skin baking.
“TeeCHER… how many ... of the wives?”
Yeah, I’m game.  
 “I can have more than one?”
“Tee-CHER!  Come on… you can have four.”
“I can have four wives?  What I want four wives for?”
“Tee-CHER!  You know!”
I stand looking at these poor helpless saps.  They have no idea how pathetic is their line of questioning.  Half the males in this room have never spoken to a female outside their sisters.  Half will marry a woman, meet her at the wedding, attempt to impregnate her on the wedding night, and not see her again for months.  Some will divorce this wife because she could not bare a son.  Some of these men will be divorced because they will fail out of this program and not afford their wives coffee.  These are all legal grounds for dissolution of marriage in Saudi Arabia.
Then of course, half are just asleep, never recovering from the huge portions of rice and chicken Kepsa over lunch.  The other half either split on extended bathroom breaks  that turned into smoke timeouts and never returned or staring at me with scimitars in their eyes.  So now it’s me in the dark with ten guys and they want to ask me about sex but won’t directly say it.  Seriously, I’m not making this conversation up.
 “Tee-CHER!  Four wives is good, yes?”
“What I want four wives for, huh?  That’s four times as many dishes I got to wash.  Four times as many garbage cans I got to empty.  Four times LESS sex I’m going to have.”
“Luh Luh Luh Luh Luh Luh,”  They all wag their fingers in the air.   “Tee-CHER!  That is not true.”
Then they explain it to me.  It takes time, but finally Raeed, the student leader, tells me.
“Tee-CHER, this is what you do… first… you find a young one, maybe 12 or 13.  Her father give you many camels.  Camels nice, huh?  You like the camels?  I like the camels. Then you take this wife and you give her a good sticking (Raeed makes an OK sign with one hand and inserts his finger from the other over and over)  You know… the sticking?”
(I stand like a dumbstruck donkey)
“Tee-CHER!  You know… the sticking!”
“The…  sticking?”
“YESSSS!!  She gives you many sons.  No daughters.  Only sons.  Sons good.  Daughters bad.  Woman is filthy dirty beast.    Then maybe one day this wife get old.  Her teeth fall out and her bosom sinks like ship with hole in floor.  Then you take a second wife with buttocks like a ripe apple… then you know what you do... yes?"
Raeed is nodding and smiling slyly.
“The… sticking again?”
All the students begin to cheer…  “Very NICE!” Raeed walks to the front of the class to slap my hand five.  He is followed by his classmates who one by one pile past me as I try to block the door.  The bell has not rung.  There is still five minutes left to study.  Too late.  It is hopeless to even stand in their way.

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.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Hiding

 “I’m hiding.  I’m hiding.  And no one knows where.  For all they can see is my toes and my toes and my hair.”  -Hiding, by Dorothy Aldis

It wasn’t all bad.  Don’t get me wrong.  As in most of life, some moments were just sublime.
 “And I just heard my father say to my mother- ‘But darling, he must be somewhere or another.’”  -Hiding, by Dorothy Aldis

After a month of living in Saudi Arabia, I still hadn’t spoken to a woman.  That all changed one night while heading out to hookah with Mad Dog and Flintstone and some of the other locals.
 “’Have you looked in the inkwell?’ And Mother said, ‘Where?’  ‘In the inkwell,’ said Father, but I was not there.”  -Hiding, by Dorothy Aldis

Hassan was there.  Thin lipped and greedy, sipping his tea in a red fez with black tassels, taking long slow drawn out hits from the pipe and blowing perfect smoke rings across the table.
 “Then ‘Wait!’ cried my mother, ‘I think that I see him under the carpet.’ But it was not me.”  -Hiding, by Dorothy Aldis

We spoke about everything but what mattered:  The job.  The overtime without pay.  The confiscation of passports.  The iqama process.  Instead we sat back and watched it all burn up in a cherry bowl flame.  
 “’Inside the mirror’s a pretty good place,’ said Father and looked, but saw only his face.”  -Hiding, by Dorothy Aldis

When there are no women, men prey upon each other in hunger.  The slightest subtleties of the male Arab world are so delicate and effeminate.  Caressing of hands.  Kissing of cheeks.  Gentle whispers of the intimate.  It makes even the most fortitude of men long with all their passionate might for a female touch. 
I spent the night staring at the floor.
 “’We’ve hunted,’ sighed Mother, ‘As hard as we could and I am so afraid that we’ve lost him for good.’”  -Hiding, by Dorothy Aldis

Then Mad Dog had enough, he didn’t like the way Hassan kept stroking his goatee and sucking on the hookah pipe and eyeing him seductively.  His abrupt voice broke me out of a dream and the next thing I knew I was on the beach walking in the dark.  Sand beneath my feet.  The lapping Red Sea lay in the abyss beside me.  Ahead, I followed the lights toward a little market stall and a figure cast in black.
 “Then I laughed out aloud and wiggled my toes and Father said, ‘Look, dear, I wonder if those…’”  -Hiding, by Dorothy Aldis

It was a woman, standing all alone selling tourist trinkets to late night beach combers.  I approached cautiously.  Keeping my head low.  Paying her no attention.  She was dressed in long black abaya robe and nicab scarf.  Completely covered except for her piercing eyes.  Cautiously I drew closer and closer.  There wasn’t another soul around us for hundreds of yards.  Just myself and this woman in the market, pretending not to notice one another… until she spoke.
“’Toes could be Benny’s.  There are ten of them.  See?’  And they were so surprised to find out it was me!”   -Hiding, by Dorothy Aldis

She asked, to my shock, in cunning English, if I was interested in purchasing any of her handmade wares.  Then with my nose pointed squarely at the dusty floor and her body placed precisely behind me facing the wine dark sea, we had the briefest of conversations.  She wouldn’t tell me her name or her hometown.  She only stated that she had never been to school and had learned English from her mother’s knee.
It was then I lifted my head and stepped back to face her, looking straight into this woman’s olive skin and shimmering turquoise eyes and asked if she would allow me to take her picture. 
And with that, I destroyed any intimate moment between us.  Her head bent forward in a low, humbling bow, and she spoke in perfect English that it would cause her great shame.  "Please," she begged.  "I would be so embarrassed." 
I walked all the way home that night, about four miles, shivering through the garbage and the sand, my heart in dull embers of remorse, wanting something that was never real at all.  

The Land of Story Books

“At evening when the lamp is lit around the fire my parents sit.  They sit at home and talk and sing and do not play at anything.”  -The Land of Story Books by R. L. Stevenson

There is nothing like exploring a new city.  Just walking out your front door, picking a new direction, and heading that way until you’ve had your fill.
“Now, with my little gun, I crawl all in the dark along the wall, and follow round the forest track away behind the sofa back.”  -The Land of Story Books by R. L. Stevenson

I walked everywhere in Jizan.  The school failed to provide an iqama (immigrant card) and so I wasn’t able to rent or buy a car… so everywhere I went was by foot.
“There, in the night, where none can spy, all in my hunter’s camp I lie. And play at books that I have read till it is time to go to bed.”  -The Land of Story Books by R. L. Stevenson

I’d spend Saturday morning this way, walking down the highway toward the unfinished buildings, through the markets, around the mosques, or over the brown hills toward the Red Sea.
“These are the hills, these are the woods.  These are my starry solitudes.  And there the river by whose brink the roaring lions come to drink.”  -The Land of Story Books by R. L. Stevenson

It was always just a matter of time before I was stopped and harassed by the Saudi police.  They wanted to know why I was taking pictures.  They confiscated my camera.  They made me delete pictures they thought were inappropriate.  
“I see the others far away, as if in firelit camp they lay.  And I, Like to an Indian scout, around their party prowled about.”  -The Land of Story Books by R. L. Stevenson

Imagine me standing on the side of the road and a police car rolling up ordering me to stop.  A uniformed man with night stick stepping out of the vehicle, barking at me in Arabic, demanding to know what I was doing? Where I was going?  Where did I live?  What country was I from?
“So, when my nurse comes in for me.  Home I return across the sea.  And go to bed with backward looks, at my dear land of story books.”  -The Land of Story Books by R. L. Stevenson

Then they would always see the camera and snatch it out of my hands, scrolling through the pictures, deleting this and that.  The gorgeous barren mountain with the soldiers napping on chairs.  The mural of the ships battling pirates in the sea.  The woman in black abaya stooping to wipe the brow of a child.  These policemen glaring at me, ordering me back to the compound, screaming that pictures were not allowed.  I would nod, apologize in a new tongue, turn and feel their eyes memorizing me as I made the long walk back home.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Walking to the Red Sea & Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

 “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”  -Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst


Mad Dog said he was lucky living in Jizan.  He didn’t need hot water.  “I always start the day with a cold shower,” he said.  “Nothing in the day can hurt you when you start icy cold.”
 “At breakfast Anthony found a Corvette Sting Ray car kit in his breakfast cereal box and Nick found a Junior Undercover Agent code ring in his breakfast cereal box but in my breakfast cereal box all I found was breakfast cereal.”  -Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst


Bangkok Phil was a grumbler.  “This new dress code wasn’t in the contract.  Why I gotta wear long sleeve shirts in 115 degree heat.  Everything I got is short sleeved.”   (He wore the same white shirt every day for a month).
 “I think I’ll move to Australia.”    -Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst


Scoopes stopped shaving after being called a kaffir.  “I’m looking more and more like a jihadist every day.”
 “At school Mrs. Dickens liked Paul’s picture of the sailboat better than my picture of the invisible castle.”  -Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst


Wee Scott Bob was into alienation, subversively leaving suggested lesson plans photocopied on every teacher’s desk.  He’d casually say, “As a master of classroom management I…” or “You’re welcome to observe my classroom if you want to see how it’s done.”  It was merely a matter of time before somebody took a poke at him.
 “There were two cupcakes in Philip Parker’s lunch bag and Albert got a Hershey bar with almonds and Paul’s mother gave him a piece of jelly roll that had little coconut sprinkles on the top.  Guess whose mother forgot to put in dessert?”   -Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst


Flintstone was always the booming bus ride philosopher.   No one could hide from his voice.  Through headphones or sitting in the front seats, even in your sleep, Flintstone baritone was in your ears.  “The first person you think about when you wake up,” he was always fond of saying, “that person is either the reason for your happiness or the absolute source of your life’s misery.”  (Oh Flintstone… don’t you know how many mornings you were we all groaned to see?)
 “There were lima beans for dinner and I hate limas.  There was kissing on TV and I hate kissing.”   -Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst


When the weekend would come, I would leave all these men behind.
 “My bath was too hot, I got soap in my eyes, my marble went down the drain, and I had to wear my railroad-train pajamas.  I hate my railroad-train pajamas.”   -Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst


The groaning and the sob stories.  The tales of Sri Lankan hookers and Indian kush.  I left them on that bus and headed out into the evening dusk toward the Red Sea.
 “When I went to bed Nick took back the pillow he said I could keep and the Mickey Mouse night light burned out and I bit my tongue.”   -Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst


I know not every day was going to be perfect.   Good cannot exist with bad.  
 “The cat wants to sleep with Anthony, not with me.  It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”  -Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst


But standing on the shores of the Red Sea, it was easy to forget the work and the co-workers…
“My mom says some days are like that.  Even in Australia.”   -Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst


Even the ever encroaching sands.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Imprisoned in Saudi Arabia: The Rooftop Exercise Routine

 “What I can do – I will.  Though it be little as a daffodil.  What I cannot, must be unknown to possibility.”  -Emily Dickinson #71


By the end of my first month in Saudi Arabia, I was still exercising on my rooftop every day.  Within those four walls 40 X 40 feet, whether beneath noontime’s burning sun or midnight moon, rain or sandstorm, I remained faithful.
 “What Thou do’st  is delight.  Bondage as play be sweet.  Imprisonment content and sentence sacrament, just as two meet!”  -Emily Dickinson #154


Some of the other teachers started catching on.  They’d see me through their windows and ask me about it the next day on the early morning bus.  They’d nod.  Stare off in the sand.  We all knew whatever it took to keep sane was worth it.
 “To offer brave assistance to lives that stands alone when one has failed to stop them is human – but divine to lend an ample sinew until a nameless man whose homely benediction on other cared to earn.”  -Emily Dickinson  #27


As things became worse with management, some teachers were beginning to unravel.  Mad Dog kicked over an office chair and Flintstone and Crooner Joe had to be separated.  Wee Scott Bob was pissing everybody off, bragging about his years at ARAMCO, how he felt he should be lead teacher, how we all  needed to be whipped into shape.
 “My faith is larger than the hills.  So when the hills decay, my faith must take the purple wheel to show the sun the way.”  -Emily Dickinson  #58

Bangkok Phil would sit tight and cramped on the bus seat, arms resting across his enormous bloated belly, and tell stories, “A couple years ago in Chiang Mai they closed the school without telling anybody.  Locked us out Monday morning.  Still owe me five grand.”
Jeremiah Thumbs scoffed, “There’s no honor among these foreign schools.  It’s every man for himself.”

“All the more reason for discipline,” shot back Wee Scott.  “There are no real teachers here.  You’re all just hired hands.”
 “The world feels dusty when we stop to die; we want the dew then.  Honors taste dry.”  -Emily Dickinson  #109


We’d arrive home dusty and beaten.  That desert heat taking such a toll on a body.  I’d drag my limbs to the apartment, unlock the door and literally drop on the bed fully clothed in shirt, tie and shoes.  Asleep before I hit the mattress.  
“But he who waiteth while the rest expend their inmost pound, of this man I am wary.  I fear that he is Grand.”  -Emily Dickinson  #3


I’d awake in the dark and feel myself breathing.  I had to move.  Undress and dress.  Up the back steps to the rooftop.  Another day.  Another run.  Another day.  Another run.  Keep your legs moving, boy.  You’ll pass through this fire.