Arid Letters

The Diary of an English Teacher in Arabia


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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.)
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Tie Up Your Camel

 
 
The other day, when it was time for me to come back from Qassim to Riyadh, I asked if I could take a bus instead of fly. The drive was about four hours, and I wanted to “see the countryside,” such as it is. I’ll never take a bus in Saudi Arabia again if I can help it, only because it was so cramped and deodorant isn’t really a popular product here.
 
 
 
In any case, I arrived in Riyadh and began trying to get a cab to take me from the bus terminal – on the outskirts of the city – to my hotel, which is in the center. The first taxi driver I talked to said he would take me for seventy riyals, which is a stupidly unfair price. I told him it was too much, at which point he turned and talked to the other cabbies, and then NONE of them would give me a ride for less then seventy.
 
 
 
So I grabbed my bags and walked from the terminal out to the highway. The first couple taxis I talked to were still asking too much – sixty riyals, then fifty riyals – finally one said he would do it for thirty, a fair price.
 
 
 
I opened the back door of his cab, unslung my first bag from my shoulder, set it on the seat…. And he just drove off, leaving me and taking my bag.
 
 
 
I was speechless – at least I was less any speech that I will reprint here. This was my important bag, containing my iPad, laptop, camera, lucky rock, photo album from Mom… yeah, THAT bag. Not to mention, it contained all my official documents.
 
 
 
I sat on the curb for about ten minutes with my head spinning. Eventually, I got up and just began walking. A short thought ran through my head – it was a little prayer. Generally, I have a principle that I only say prayers of thanks. I think people should rely on themselves to deal with their personal problems. But this quick thought ran through my mind before I could stop it – “God, if You’re really up there, I’d be so thankful if You could just bring my bag back.” In the split-second after I had this thought, two things happened:
 
 
 
The first thing was that I began thinking how wrong it was to have an idea like that – how faith isn’t contingent on good or bad luck, and the presence or absence of my valuables doesn’t tell me much about the nature of God, and it’s not like it proves there’s no spirit world at all just because I don’t get my bag back – etc.
 
 
 
The second thing that happened, was that the taxi cab came whipping around the corner, with the driver speaking excitedly in Arabic, motioning for me to get in quickly. Keep in mind – my accidental prayer, existential considerations, and the appearance of the cab all took place in less time then it took you to read about it. Like, two seconds.
 
 
 
The driver spoke no English, and I couldn’t understand much of his Arabic, but the best that I could pick up was that he didn’t want the other cab drivers to see him giving me a ride for a cheaper fair just outside the bus terminal.
 
 
 
Lesson learned: respect the taxi drivers. I’m just thankful I got my bag back.
 
 
 
Here are two practical lessons that I learned after I almost became the victim of a perfect crime. Because really – he could have dashed off with my bag SOOO easily.
 
 
 
1) Always check the number of the taxi cab before you get in or put any luggage in the door.
 
 
 
2) Try to put your least valuable bag in the cab first, and keep that smaller carry-on bag, which probably has all the important stuff in it, on your shoulder, then in your lap, as you sit down.
 
 
 
I read a funny line the other day in the novel “Herland,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I doubt she knew much about Arabia, but the line was, “As the Mohamedans say, ‘Have faith in God, but tie up your camel.'” Seemed fitting.