Sunday, September 29, 2013

Riyadh is Burning: A View from Sky Bridge Kingdom Tower

 In Riyadh I climbed to the top of the Kingdom Tower Sky Bridge and rested over the city of 5 million people as the sun went down over the sands.
 To get to the top of the Sky Bridge you must enter Kingdom Tower and find the elevator entrance on the second floor.
 I arrived just after prayer time and only had to wait once for an elevator full of women to go up first.
 The  view is worthwhile.  Riyadh is a sprawling city of low buildings and two long flowing roads...
 That light up at night like sky like coursing veins of fire.
I sat there waiting for the sun to fall, wondering how long I could sit before the fire burned out.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The White Desert Grasses of Al-Dir'iyah, Arabia

Al-Diriyah, on the outskirts of the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
I arose early and hired a driver to take me out through the desert to the ruins of Dir-iyah.
These old bricks rising from the sand served as the first capital of the Saudi dynasty from 1744 to 1818.
Today... it's just another abandoned series of buildings with a fancy mosque and restored tower.
Funny the signs of life around us... even here in the desert.
The ruins of the old city of Diriyah lay on either side of a narrow valley in the Hanifa Wadi.
The structures are mud-brick and set high atop a hill over looking the remnants of gardens dried up and swallowed in dust.
The chroniclers of Nejd write that the history of Diriyah date back to about the 15th century.
 But for me, once again wandering through yet another ruin of some previous life... Diriyah felt eerie.
 Perhaps it was the blaring heat.  The blinding sun.  The dizzying way the land and the buildings fade into one another in shape and color without any distinction except for the mighty blue sky.
Wandering away, far out toward the rocks and empty space of the desert, I turned around, afraid that the city would disappear behind me and I'd be lost.
Around a dune, I stumbled upon these white desert grasses whispering in the dry wind and sat beside them staring up at the sky.
Where is the wind that carries me home?  I fear it's lost in the desert sea.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Victoria’s Secret in Saudi Arabia & the Starbucks' Mermaid in a Burkah! You’ve come a long way, Baby!

 (Victoria’s Secret, Kingdom Center:  Riyadh)

The day before Mad Dog was to be released from the Saudi Detention Center, I had the day to wander around Riyadh.   Comically enough, I found myself in front of an actual Victoria's Secret.  What on earth is this store doing here?  It baffles the mind!  These poor Saudi women wrapped head to foot in black sack cloth, why? 
Interestingly enough, the entire third floor of the massive department store at Kingdom Center was roped off so that no men could enter.  It was only for women.   This is in accordance with Sharia Law… because if a man were even to see a pair of women’s undergarments hanging in a store window… he might turn into a savage.  
 (Would you like fries to go with that shake?  Segregation of sexes at Mickey Dees, Riyadh)

I couldn’t resist adding a second picture of the segregated McDonalds here because it’s just hilarious.  It was very hard to take live action pictures in Saudi due to the presence of the Mutawa or religious police, dressed in brown thobe robes.  They have the power to arrest you if they see you committing a crime against Islam.  They can’t stop the people from having their Big Macs though.  Sorry Mutawa!
 Seriously, a Chinese / Asian restaurant in Saudi?  Who wants to eat sushi in the desert?
 (Funeral Pyre)

Back in 2002 there was a tragedy at Mecca Girl’s School when a fire broke out and 15 girls perished.  They were fleeing the burning building but school guards locked the gates and trapped them inside despite the pleading of the children.  The girls were not wearing their headdresses and the guards thought it better they die burning in flames than disgrace themselves by stepping outside with their head uncovered.
 (Whatcha Wearing Under That Burkah?)

Yes, another lingerie shop.  I just couldn’t help NOT taking this picture.  After months in Saudi and Yemen, after living such an isolated and weirdly censored existence, to see these shops was amazing.  Do the women need to burn their bras first… maybe burning something else might be in order?
 Oh yes, it’s good to see Tony Manero is alive and well… straight out of 1977.
 Seriously, man… don’t even ask!
Sometimes it’s all about creature comforts.  I was told that Starbucks was creating a new Company Logo due to complaints the mermaid didn’t cover her head.   This story is developing… more later.  It’s time to pick up Mad Dog from jail.  
I'll have mine extra black!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Notes from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

 (Kingdom Center, Downtown Riyadh)

My Saudi students loved to tell me that this building, the greatest landmark of the Riyadh, was designed after September 11th.  They joked that if America ever wanted to crash an airplane into the center it would pass right through.  They all laughed.  They thought Americans were stymied by this design.
(Muslim family, Air-al Souq) 

At the hotel I stayed at in Riyadh, there was satellite TV playing the American show:  So You Think You Can Dance.  A crowd of about twenty men had gathered around the small screen to watch a white woman from Brooklyn wearing a black jog bra and black bikini bottoms, dance wildly on stage.  Gyrating her hips.  Leaping and twirling in pirouettes.  They were mesmerized.  At the same time, a group of five elderly women in full black abaya gowns and black burkah head scarves were attempting to descend a stair case blind.  They couldn't see a thing.  Hands outstretched.  Fingers searching for anything in front of them.  Completely stumbling in the dark behind their veils.  One woman tripped on the last step and tumbled over.  Not one man even noticed.
 (Along Olaya Street in busy Riyadh.) 

 I stood here for about thirty minutes during evening prayer as nothing was open.  The constant Muslim prayer schedule becomes such a hazard for the traveler to Arabia.  Businesses will simply close indiscriminately without any indication of when they will re-open.  It becomes such a part of the daily routine, travelers download prayer apps to warn when everything in the city will shut down for hours at a time.
(Muslim woman in black abaya talking on cell phone.) 

I was surprised that in Riyadh, as opposed to the southern more traditional areas and in Yemen, that non-Muslim women were allowed to go outside without covering their head.  I saw many foreign women walking about uncovered.  These black abaya robes can be purchased anywhere.
(Ladies Banking)

I really didn't want to bank her anyway.
(Riyadh McDonalds)

Yep, that's a divider so that women can order on one side and men the other.  I think women appreciate it, don't you?  I mean, who really wants to watch a man eat a sloppy Quarter Pounder with Cheese anyway?  

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.
Iqama?”
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?”
“Yes.”
“Have you been hurt?”
“No.”
“Are you being charged?”
Silence
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.

Flor De La Mar

 Aulia Consuela Sukarnoputri was born in the village of Palau Macan upon the pristine beaches of Tiger Island a half days drive from the city of Jakarta.   A quiet girl, she spent most days rolling coconuts in the front yard among the high palms and running with the other village children when the city buses passed in dusty clouds.   
 She was unremarkable in every way, this scrawny brown skin and bones filthy island girl.  Except for one feature, to the shock and amazement of everyone in the village, even the elders in their long bamboo huts, Aulia Consuela Sukarnoputri was born with the most piercing and crystal blue eyes any had ever seen.
 Her father was a boat guide, spending his days on the white sand beaches leading tourists in wide brimmed hats to secret fishing holes.  Scratching out the most meager living as he tied knots in sun bleached ropes and smoked hand rolled tobacco. 
 But what he loved most, were stories of adventure.  Kidnapped and Treasure Island, a small portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson hung tacked to the wood above the steering wheel of his small sailing vessel.  Often a visitor would ask the origin of the man with wide set black and white eyes in the photo and the guide would say, “There sails the man who taught the world to dream.”
 But the father’s favorite book was A Thousand and One Arabian Nights.  He was convinced the tales were real.  Sinbad’s gold.  Ali Baba’s pirate cave.  Aladdin’s magical lamp and flying rug.  The riches of Persia laid out like a treasure map for one brave enough and smart enough to find it.   His reason for this was the story teller herself, Scheherazade, who kept herself alive each night telling tale after unfinished tale to the love drunk king, staving off her own execution long enough to finish the tale and begin another.
 Every night Aulia Consuela Sukarnoputri’s father would sit beside her little bed and read the Arabian Nights by candlelight and ponder about the hidden secrets in the story.  How it must have been a coup upon King Shahryar, brought about by the sultan’s chief vizier, Jafar, who just happened to lead the king back to his bed chamber to see his wife in the naked arms of her slave lover, who just happened to put the scimitar in his hands, who just happened to later offer his own sly daughter as wife to quell the king’s mad revenge, and the equally brilliant Dunyazad, as lady in waiting. 
 How these three must have conspired to use the stories, one after the other, to elicit the secret locations of the kings hidden treasure and to, piece by piece, slowly steal it from beneath him.  He would whisper to his daughter, “That is what I did with you, my precious child, stole the bluest sapphires in the world, and laid them in your eyes.”
 Aulia Consuela Sukarnoputri adored her father and believed him to be an honest and just man, but a man nonetheless with his eyes on the faraway sea.  One day a large boat arrived at the village dock with a Captain who was hiring a crew of locals to help lead an expedition far out into the Indian Ocean.  The Captain, a broad shouldered man with gleaming bronze skin and thick black mustache spun a tale so wild and furious it wrapped the entire village up in a frenzy.  It was a tale of sunken treasure, the Captain’s distant ancestor had lost almost half a millennia ago.
 The ancestor’s name was Admiral Alfonso d’Albuquerque.  In the year 1511 he sailed from Portugal to the ancient land of Malay and sacked the city of Malacca, stealing 60 tons of gold ingot coins and 200 chests of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, even the throne of Sultan Mahmud Syah itself and sailed into the rough waters off the Sumatra coast where the ship, the Flor De La Mar, a four-masted carrack, sank to the bottom of the sea.  
 It was this ship the bronze skinned Captain, who also shared the long historic name, Albuquerque, hoped to locate and plunder.  With his collection of ancient maps and purses bottomless as the sea itself, he needed brave men to lead him into the waters, to watch the skies as he dove below.  
 Many of the men in the village were enraptured by this story, but none so much as the father of Aulia Consuela Sukarnoputri.  He said to his daughter on the day he set sail with the bronze skinned Captain, “In every life there is one great adventure, and this is mine.  Never be afraid of the horizon, my darling.  Your eyes will lead you to your destiny.”  She never saw her father again.
 Aulia Consuela Sukarnoputri stayed in the village through elementary school  then moved with her mother to Jakarta to finish her secondary courses.  She excelled in school, placing high on a list for entrance into the city wide medical learning center.  At just eighteen, she qualified for the nursing abroad program that placed young Indonesian girls in the homes of rich Saudi families as nannies.  
 Traveling to Saudi Arabia, to the land of Scheherazade, was too perfect to be true.  Excitedly she accepted the offer, remembering her father’s words about every life having one great adventure.  She knew this was hers.  The money she earned would allow her mother to retire.  In just five years, she could return to Pulau Macan a woman of wealth and means.  A woman of stature.  A brown skinned woman with the crystal blue eyes.  A goddess of the sea.
 Of course, her adventure to the land of the Arabian Nights didn’t not turn out as planned, fated like the sunken Flor De La Mar, when she arrived in Riyadh she became a prisoner to the rich Saudi family who promised to protect her.  
 She was not allowed to leave the house, beaten if rooms were not cleaned, beaten if the baby cried, beaten if the food was not prepared perfectly.  She was not allowed any contact.  No calls home, no internet,  no connection to the outside world.  She was now a slave. For three years she lived this cruel way and then things got worse.  The master of the house took a liking to her blue eyes.  He raped her and left her with child.  
When the first wife discovered this, Aulia Consuela Sukarnoputri was arrested for adultery and sentenced to public execution.  There was no one to save her, to speak for her, to even send word to her mother this heinous act was about to be committed.  Only one man knew.  Mad Dog received word on a little note stashed behind a peanut butter jar from an unknown ally.  He left immediately for Riyadh with two clear objects.  Free the woman he’d promised to marry, and kill the man that raped her.