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.