Arid Letters

The Diary of an English Teacher in Arabia


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Saudi Aromaha

In the months before I left for Saudi Arabia, and during my recent vacation back home, I’ve picked up one common sentiment from a majority of strangers or acquaintances when they first learn I’m working in KSA. Questions like “Aren’t you worried?”; comments like “Stay safe over there”.  These words reveal a general anxiety about the idea of living or working in Arabia. Granted, maybe people are more inclined to xenophobia in my region of America than some other places. Middle America is a conservative bastion, which carries some unfortunate side-effects, such as a propensity for using terms like “towel head” or ignorance of the geographic fact that the place where I work is separated from regions of conflict by thousands of miles and multiple socio-/political borders. I suspect this confusion has roots in conflating “radical Islam” and “conservative Islam”. This generalization is about as accurate as lumping together Branch Davidians and the Amish.  But more about that in my next post.

You’ve probably picked up by now that I’m not in the least bit worried about getting my head cut off or anything like that. The only time I’ve feared for my life is when I’m riding in an unlicensed taxi cruising 160 km/hr (~95 mph) in the “fifth lane” (actually the inside shoulder of the freeway)

The hard shoulder, or "Saudi fifth lane".

The hard shoulder, or “Saudi fifth lane”

while the driver is searching YouTube so he can show me a specific dabka dance from his home region (this one).

All things considered, my life here is kind of boring. (About as boring as dabka to be honest. Seriously I come from a country where my grandma can still swing her partner and dosey doe at a square dance.  USA is home of the Charleston, b-boys, and Party Rock Shuffle.  In the context of these Western dance traditions, dabka seems catatonic and castrated, like some Dziga Vertov b-role of a Walking Dead clog troup.)  Whether or not Arabic dance styles are exciting (and some of them certainly must be – I mean, belly dancing, right?) my life here is not terribly (exciting, that is).  I spend my free time watching movies and getting angry at people on the internet.  On the weekends, I go to KFC, usually alone.  I try to wake up early so I can get in a jog before work.  I’ve finished eight books and five one-thousand-piece puzzles in a month and a half.  I definitely spend zero time hiding from MERS or dodging terrorists.  In terms of mundanity, I might as well be in Omaha, Nebraska.

The comparison between Riyadh and an insular, quasi-rural-but-still-metro environment like Omaha holds up in more ways than one. For example, let me tell you about my weekend. This weekend, I went down to Al Kharj with my friend Memo.

Memo and I

Memo and I

Kharj is where I worked last year, about one hour south of my current location in Riyadh. Guess what crazy desert adventures Memo and I had this weekend. Did we wrestle camels in the midst of a sandstorm? Nope. Throw sheikh-sized fistfuls of Bedouin gold at a harem of houris with everything veiled except their intentions?  Negative. Did I dodge stray RPGs from militant laillaha mouth breathers? Wrong again. What we did is Memo and I set up a chicken coup.

Actually it was a pigeon coup.  And actually we didn’t so much set it up as just go and pick up a handful of Pakistani day-laborers from the designated Paki day-laborer chill spot, and they set up the pigeon coup.

Some Paki day laborers chilling at the designated pick-up-Paki-day-laborer spot.

Some Paki day laborers chilling at the designated pick-up-Paki-day-laborer spot

(The similarities between Pakis in KSA and Mexicans in USA are numerous and will have to get more focus in another article, but for now just see I told you about that Saudi is like Omaha thing).

So my summer in USA was spent kind of hanging out with family and yknow mucking out my grandpa’s rabbit shed,

Grandpa Brubacher is definitely not cuddling this bunny.  He's doing some sort of farmer evaluation before either butchering it or keeping it alive only so he can eat its babies.

Grandpa Brubacher is definitely not cuddling this bunny. He’s doing some sort of farmer evaluation before either butchering it or keeping it alive only so he can eat its babies.

or spreading garden waste in the pen for my brother’s laying hens.

This chicken is so stupid why is it in the chicken feeder.  Chickens are so dumb that ending their life and consuming their flesh or stealing their unborn fetuses for the same purpose would me make me happy even if they weren't delicious.

This chicken is so stupid why is it in the chicken feeder. Chickens are so dumb that ending their life and consuming their flesh or stealing their unborn fetuses for the same purpose would me make me happy even if they weren’t delicious.

Upon return to Saudi, I’ve apparently just gone from one hobby poultry species to another. Life is kind of the same everywhere.

It’s not the first time that I’ve had this feeling: a sense like I’ve found my way into exactly the same kind of place that I came from. I first experienced it last year, on a massive dairy farm outside of Al Kharj.

If you're eating a Danon yogurt product anywhere in the Middle East, chances are it came from here - the Al Safi dairy.

If you’re eating a Danon yogurt product anywhere in the Middle East, chances are it came from here – the Al Safi dairy.

Often on weekends, I’d head out to this factory farm where I taught business English, and avail myself of their gym and pool facilities. One Friday night, as I was floating in the pool, laughing with my Arabic dairy farmer friends, and I thought of my grandfathers (both retired dairymen), uncle (still milking), and father (who worked as a dairy farmer when I was young).  I realized that I must be destined to spend my life in the immediate vicinity of folks who know their way around cow tits. I’m so blessed.

Moses once promised the children of Israel to “bring them up to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3). Coming from the Midwest I always knew he was referring to my neck of the woods.  My family is from the dairy capitol of America. The last place I lived, I got to to help establish a population of honey bees.

miss you guyzzz buzzz thankz for teaching me how to magic

miss you guyzzz buzzz thankz for teaching me how to magic

I was sad to leave behind the American Heartland, rich in nature and resources, but I was interested to discover what my “new life” in Saudi Arabia would be like. How could I guess that I’d spend my weekends hanging out on dairy farms and becoming a connoisseur of Middle Eastern honey. There are many shops here which sell nothing but honey and honey-related products.

Honey store in Riyadh.

Honey store in Riyadh

I love to visit and sample honey from Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, and of course every corner of Saudi Arabia, from Jazan to Tabuk. When I leave, I’ve always got a kilo or two of whichever strikes my fantasy. It costs maybe fifty riyal, or right around ten dollars, and I always push the shop keeper until he throws in a free portion of bee pollen.

Kilo of Paki gold and some bonus pollen

Kilo of Paki gold and some bonus pollen

Read this article in two ways. 1) Read that people and places are the same all around the world. At the risk of sounding like a Reading Rainbow platitude,

Go anywhere.  (On Starship Enterprise)  Be anything.  (If you can fund it on Kickstarter)

Go anywhere. (On Starship Enterprise). Be anything. (If you can fund it on Kickstarter).

I want you never to forget that from every corner of the planet, no matter the climate or culture, humans are all kind of the same and all want the same things. 2) Read that wherever I go, me, personally, I’m always drawn in a somehow magnetically inevitable fashion to the things that have defined my entire life. Let me tell you a couple stories to illustrate this:

Last year, a Saudi acquaintance invited me to his house for dinner. After dinner, he invited me to drive out to the desert with him and look at the stars. As we sat together, chatting and sipping coffee, he began to get, shall we say, very hands-y. “Hands-y” as in he was touching me a lot, with the clear hope of touching me more. Let me be clear that he wasn’t really molesting so much as just hitting on me.  I was never in any danger, but I’d never been in quite such a situation and felt more than a bit awkward, as I’m sure you can imagine.  This guy was my only way to get a ride back in from the desert, so I was kind of at his mercy.  In the US it would be as simple as “sorry not interested homie”, but I wasn’t (and still am not) sure what the local etiquette is in such a situation.  At just this very moment, a desert dog came trotting past us, maybe fifteen yards away. I leaped to my feet and whistled at her. She seemed quite well trained and responded agreeably to my gestured commands. She came, lay down, and believe me that hound proceeded to get a very vigorous belly rub. I was of course overjoyed, as I love dogs, so I freely gave her sweet puppy kisses on her desert dog nose and scratched her dusty belly as she whimpered and grunted in pleasure. This interaction had an added benefit: my amorous companion would now come nowhere near me, as Muslims of course have a strict taboo against dogs. I’m still confused about which taboos Saudis are comfortable flaunting and which they respect, but I definitely know that I love dogs, and even though dogs aren’t loved in KSA, I found one at just the right time. Or maybe she found me. Anyways, I’m always with the dogs.

More recently, I spent the weekend at Memo’s. I woke up early on Friday morning (jum’ah weekly holy day for Muslims, the same as Sunday in the west). I ate a bowl of oatmeal with honey and bee pollen, then I went outside to lay in the grass. That’s right, Memo loves grass, and keeps a pretty respectable lawn flourishing inside the walls of his courtyard. (All the houses are walled in. So it’s not exactly like Omaha I guess. The thick walls and barred windows are maybe more like, say, Kansas City convenience stores.)

As I inhaled those universally sweet sweet grass fumes, I wondered whether I should pass my day reading or binge watching 80’s post-apocalypse flics on YouTube. Then it hit me. Right now, the place I’m in is Saudi Arabia, but I’ve always been in the same place.

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Where In The World Is Simeon Brown?

Go ahead, just start off by listening to this.  You know you want to.
*
Now that we’ve pondered the musical question, “Where in the world is
Carmen Sandiego?” perhaps I can more adequately answer the question,
“Where in the world is Simeon Brown?”
*
The short answer is – Al Kharj, Saudi Arabia.  It’s a really nice
place (no offence to Sheldon, Iowa – the original “Really nice place.”)
I’ve been here since the end of May, so going on three months now.
Al Kharj is a “farming community” – or it was at one point.  It is
still the home of some of the largest dairies in the world.  (The Al
Safi dairy, located southwest of Al  Kharj, is one of the primary
suppliers for Danon products).
*
Al Kharj is a city of roughly half a million people.  It is a cheap
place to live.  Food is cheap everywhere in Saudi Arabia, since the
government subsidizes costs, but transportation and housing are also
only a half or a third of what they cost in a larger cities like
Riyadh, Dammam, or Jeddah (granted – even these costs are considerably
lower then what I’m used to paying in the USA).
*
Al Kharj is a city full of friendly people.  In my short time here,
I’ve made many friends – Saudi, Egyptian, Yemeni, Syrian, etc.  Do not
believe the negative messages touted by Western media; Arabs are
friendly, generous people.  I feel safer on the streets of Al Kharj
then I would on the streets of a major metropolitan area like
Minneapolis or Chicago (well, I feel safer from crime, although the
insane driving here is another story altogether…).  Since I’ve been
here, friends have invited me into their homes for meals, they’ve
taken me shopping, and have guided me on tours through their farms
and, um, camel ranches? I guess? I’m not sure what you call a herd of
camels in the middle of the desert.  But, yeah, they showed me that
too.  Good friends.
*
Al Kharj is only an hour drive south of Riyadh (less if you hire a
crazy driver and tell him you want to get there fast – I only made
that mistake once).  This is nice, because I can enjoy the benefits of
a smaller city during the work week, but still easily bump up to
Riyadh on the weekend if I’m so inclined.  My city is also just a few
hours to the west of Dammam and the Persian Gulf, and a few hours to
the north of the “Empty Quarter”, a picturesque area of clean, red
sand and rolling sand dunes, which I have still yet to tour.
*
Al Kharj used to be located on top of one of the largest natural
aquifers in the country.  Unfortunately, a booming population has
mostly drained this supply, and now the city’s water comes largely
from desalinated sea water, like the rest of the country.  However,
the presence of this aquifer was enough to establish the city as one
of the major farming communities in Saudi Arabia, as I mentioned
above.
*
Speaking of water, one of the things that living in Saudi Arabia has
taught me is how truly precious water is.  Growing up in middle
America, I kind of took water for granted, with our cheap, delicious
supplies of fresh lake and river water supplying every city.  Of
course, it’s a different story here in the desert.  One doesn’t have
to look far to be reminded what a struggle it has been to build a
civilization here.  I plead with my fellow westerners – never forget how precious water is.  With many scientists warning of climate change in different incarnations, it’s never too early to start practicing smarter conservation practices.  I pretend that I’m on a mission to Mars when I use water now – using the smallest amount possible for washing dishes, showering, etc.  I’m not
perfect, but I’m getting better at it.
*
Salaam!  More coming soon! Simeon.


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Sandy Singles

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IMG_2019Image David and a couple Saudi friends are standing outside the Kingdom Tower, because it was families only that night – NO SINGLE DUDES ALLOWED!!! Because single dudes are just trouble….

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I wish I could think of an explanation for this shoe/sandal graveyard. But I can’t.

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How bout them melons?

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I really, really, really hate sandstorms. But I kind of enjoy the feeling like I’m about to throw a Molotov cocktail.

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Food is so cheap here. When I get the gumption, I cook dinners fit for kings. This is my crab and roasted eggplant from the other night.

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Amanda thought you couldn’t be “hot” in a niqab. Pssshhh. Whatever. Girl I’m fabulous.

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Saudis Do Get How To Dress

I’m writing this post to ameliorate the response that I received from yesterday’s post. I fear it sounded overly judgmental or critical. That wasn’t my intent. I simply wanted to point out things that are different here – things that don’t seem logical through the filter of my own perception, coming from the west. Yesterday’s post was one post full of things that don’t happen here, but please remember that every other post I have written details the many wonderful things that do happen here. In addition, I find myself in the regrettable but unavoidable position of needing to draw some generalities. Unavoidable, because I’m trying to paint a picture for friends and family at home of what things are like here. I make an effort to work strictly from personal anecdotes, but at some point, I have to make statements such as “Saudis are like this.” Not all Saudis, everywhere, all the time. It’s just a general impression I’m receiving as someone new to this country. I will try to avoid generalities from this point in. However, after yesterday’s post about things Saudis don’t get, here is today’s post about just a few of the things that Saudis do.

Saudis get how to dress. I haven’t seen one distastefully clothed person since I’ve been here. This county doesn’t have the equivalent of that lady at Walmart in sweatpants, with “Princess”
bedazzled across a stained, baggy shirt. You just don’t see things like that here. Even the lower classes wear tasteful button downs and slacks. Because Saudis get how to dress.

Saudis get how to have a good time. Once I got settled in Al Kharj, I haven’t had one occasion to feel bored. Trips to the desert, having coffee, playing soccer, going to the mall, going out to eat, seeing farms, going to museums and galleries… You get the point. Once I got settled in and met some local people, I have not had a single occasion to feel bored. Sometimes, on the weekends, I’ve actually wished I could have a little more time to myself. The best part is that Saudis know how to have a dance party without alcohol. Saudis get how to have a good time.

Saudis get good food. Oh me, oh my… Have I been barefoot since I got here? Because the food is consistently rocking my socks off. Kabobs, shwarmas, kabsa, delicious pastries, with all of it washed down by top notch tea and coffee – I’m havingh to do a lot of exercise to keep the weight off. One month in and I’ve been successful so far, but the food here is very carb heavy. Every dish comes with a pile of rice or flatbread, often both. But I think the food is still healthier here then in America. The meat is usually lean, chicken or lamb, and the dishes contain a lot of whole foods, especially fresh vegetables. Despite the desert climate, Saudis grow many vegetables with the use of greenhouses. The city I’m in, Al Kharj, is an agricultural center, and we have a produce market with tons of cheap veggies just a few blocks from our apartment. The food is always absent of preservatives and other chemicals, unlike in America. A burger from McDonalds just tastes like, well, a burger – almost a little bland, really, compared to the MSG and sodium laced stuff in America. And the food is here is so cheap. I can get top notch shwarma or a filling dish of curry for 6 or 7 riyals – less then two US dollars.

Saudis get progress. Hear me out here. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble – myself included – so I’m going to stay away from specifics. But there are two elements in this country – the system, imposed by a well-meaning but archaic hierarchy. The other element is popular opinion. From the many talks I’ve had with students, it seems clear that popular a opinion is yearning for change. For obvious reasons, I can’t say much more. Maybe this picture can say what I can’t. 20130527-214544.jpg Saudis get change.

Saudis get how to shop. Malls are one of the primary recreational outlets here. And they’re more then just a place to buy goods. They’re cultural centers and places to socialize. This building is Riyadh is home to one top notch mall – it is also the tallest building in the Kingdom at 99 stories. Saudis definitely know how to shop.
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Saudis get generosity. In other posts, I’ve talked about people giving rides to strangers, and about people never being to busy for another person. I’ve been literally overwhelmed by Saudi generosity – as I mentioned, by the end of last weekend, I was actually craving some time to myself. But we just had too many friends that wanted to entertain us, show us around, give us a good time. Because Saudis get generosity.

Oh one more thing. Saudis DEFINITELY get WWE. And how about Brock Lesner defeating Triple H?! Go South Dakota!

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Everyone is a Cabbie

Everyone here is a cabbie.  I’m in Al-Kharj, a city of a few hundred thousand, located about an hour’s drive south of Riyadh.  The town is small enough that it doesn’t support a taxi industry.  But here’s the cool thing – it’s normal just to flag down anyone driving and ask them to give you a ride.  You offer them a few riyals (the equivalent of about one US dollar), but half the time they refuse payment.  I find it so novel – I get to work just by hitch hiking, essentially.
 
 
This system works here, because giving someone a lift is one of the basic good deeds you can perform to honor Allah in Islam.  By the way, the most basic good deed is giving someone a smile.  How beautiful is that?  In any case, a majority of the drivers here will just stop and give someone a ride wherever he needs to go.  It’s a really inspiring kind of love-thy-neighbor thing.  
 
Saudi culture contains somewhat of an inherent socialism by default.  People are never too busy for one another.  And they don’t have our capitalist drive to always be better, and to have more.  
 
At first, it seemed illogical to me that all businesses here are grouped next to each other.  All the cabinet shops are neighbors, all the tire shops are neighbors, all the phone stores are on one street, all the pharmacies are on another street.  This is counterintuitive from a Western perspective – you don’t have a successful business by opening up shop right next to a “competitor,” you go somewhere where there is a “demand.” Right? 
 
But it seems that Saudis don’t really have this mindset that looks at others as “competitors.” Maybe I’ll find out the case is different as I spend more time here.  But it’s hard to think otherwise when you see neighboring shop owners loitering in front of their businesses, laughing and sharing cigarettes.  
 
Although family and tribal identity forges a stronger bond between people here then their national identity as Saudis, they are all united as Muslims.  A man might not actually believe in God, he might not live up to all the moral values, but it doesn’t matter.  If he’s Arabian, he’s a Muslim.  Every Arab I have met has an attitude of brotherhood and helpfulness ingrained in him that seems very socialist in my eyes, but not overtly so.  It’s more subtle, a casual understanding that everyone here is working together.  
 
It’s beautiful.  
 
(I want to take a moment to acknowledge that, in this writing I have drawn sweeping generalities from isolated anecdotes and my overall impressions of the people and attitudes I have encountered here.  Any generality can be dangerously misleading.  Of course, there are always multiple sides of a story, and I could discount everything I said by citing rivalries, both historic and current, between various Arab factions.  However, I believe my point stands as far as the people I have met on the street and at work.)