Arid Letters

The Diary of an English Teacher in Arabia


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Trash

Riyadh is the clean city

Riyadh is the clean city.

Riyadh is the clean city. Also silhouette men wear dresses. You can tell it’s not a silhouette woman wearing a dress because it’s outside doing things.

My students didn't get the memo about the clean city thing.

My students didn’t get the memo about the clean city thing.

Riyadh tap water tastes better or worse depending on the day. Everyone says I’m crazy for drinking it. Even my liver flukes wish I would buy some Dasani once in a while. Actually think there’s some left in that bottle in the drinking fountain. Maybe I can just drink that.

My flaccid succulent.

My flaccid succulent.

This is what a cactus looks like if it’s actually been left outside all summer without any water in Riyadh. It didn’t make it, but think I have a cutting that pulled through. Will let you know. This isn’t relevant to anything. Now it’s just another piece of trash. … Pulled that back together innit.


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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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Pictures of the New Apartment

I am finally moved into a nice apartment in a good part of town.  We are close to the mall, although it is a family mall that mostly sells women’s clothes, so it doesn’t have a lot to offer us.

Unless we want love themed stuff.
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Seriously, these stores sell nothing but groovy lights, teddy bears, and hearts – most of them emblazoned with the word “Love.”  And in typical Saudi fashion, there’s three of these stores right next to each other.
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Oh- and if we want clothes with handlebar mustaches on them, they’ve got those.  Mother, guess what you’re getting for the holidays?
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We’re also really close to a huge  produce market.
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By the way, I’m talking about “we.”
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This is my roommate, David.  He’s another teacher.  He’s from Los Angeles, and he’s pretty cool, except that he spent the last two years teaching with the Peace Corp in South Africa, in a mud hut way out in the bush.  So sometimes if there’s a delicious looking bug, he asks me, “You gonna eat that?”  He’s really good at eating rice with his hands.  Also, he smells pretty good for a guy who presumably isn’t bothered if he doesn’t have anything to wipe with after pooping. I haven’t asked him about this, so it’s pure speculation.  Seriously though, I couldn’t have gotten more lucky then to teach with this guy.  And, ladies, he’s single.  And of course, since we’re living in small town Saudi Arabia, he’s completely desperate.  I’ll forward him any fan mail you might want to send.
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Saudis find shower curtains completely unnecessary.  This seems really barbarous to me.  They just let the water go all over their bathroom floor, which I guess they think is o.k. because it dries up so quickly here.  At least in our apartment, we’ll just get shower water on the floor, and not bidet water on the toilet seat.  This is a big issue in public restrooms, and the reason why I often hold it all day until I can go at home – because public restrooms are gross.  But not our restroom!  Right David?  David agrees.  Ladies, did I mention he’s single?
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Our apartment has a couple small balconies, which is pretty cool.
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They have a great view of the city.  As you can see, we’re really close to a mosque, which means the calls to prayer are pretty loud, but we don’t mind.
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I kind of like waking up at 4 a.m. with the first call to prayer.  It makes me feel really good to know that, while others are praying, I’m in my boxers, drinking tea, reading poetry, and surfing the Internet – in my opinion, these are the only things that a well adjusted person could IMAGINE doing at 4 a.m., but I have plenty of family members who used to wake up at that time to milk cows, and I would never call their adjustment into question, at least when I know they’ll probably read this.
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Our apartment is on top of a gym with a pool, which is awesome.  The gym is that place called Body Masters.  Our apartment is three floors up.  I like going to swim and workout, but I’m starting to think I should go in a burka after finding that  leers and advances from other men are quite common in this county, especially in the gym.  It makes sense, since female companionship is so rare here.  The fact is not talked about much, but estimates have about one-third of men here being gay or bisexual.  I’m pretty straight, but I still want to get swole, so I’ll tough out some guy-on-guy flirting for the gainz.
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We’ve got a decent kitchen with a stove, which was one of the main reasons for moving to this apartment.  A lot of the places we looked at only had hot plates.
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This is my bedroom.  It’s nice, but doing yoga on the tile floor adds a new dimension.  Of course, I haven’t seen yoga mats anywhere.  Up-dog to down-dog is really slippery once I get sweaty.  (Quick, can someone please ask me what’s “up-dog?”). And bow pose, plow, head stand, etc. kind of hurt.  But I can deal with it.
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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.


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Inshallah

So I’m back in Riyadh, turns out I won’t be teaching in Qassim after all. The company that hired me has switched all my information around with another employee named “Simon.” So when I finally interviewed with the Dean of the university last week, we found out he was expecting someone else (with a Masters’ degree) and I was promptly sent back to Riyadh.

 

There are positives and negatives in this situation. The positive side is that I can stay relaxed – I’ll eventually start teaching somewhere – there’s no doubt of that. And I’ve been getting paid since my plane landed. So in typical Saudi fashion, I am just supposed to relax and let the situation work itself out… “inshallah.”

 

“Inshallah”… It’s always “inshallah” here, or “God willing.” While I appreciate the relaxed attitude, sometimes I really wish someone would tell me “For sure” instead of “inshallah.” Sometimes I want to grab people by the shoulders, shake them, and say “Get out of here with your ‘inshallah!’ How about ‘inshyourself’ for once!?” But I don’t.

 

This isn’t just a problem in Arabia, although I’ve noticed it here more. But people do this in the States too. They have this idea that some force outside themselves – luck, God, the government, whatever – is going to determine the outcome of their life. This becomes a big problem if people use it as an excuse for not taking their destiny into their own hands.

 

Seriously, Saudis take “lackadaisical” to a whole new level though. It’s not an all bad, or all good, thing. It’s just the way it is here. Sometimes it’s really pleasant to work in such low-pressure situations. But other times, it can be ridiculous. Like when a multi-million dollar company with a skyscraper office in downtown Riyadh can’t keep their employees straight because they apparently only looked at our first names.

 

Here’s another example: last week, I was sharing an office with another teacher. It was the last week of the semester, and every day students would stream in, asking for him to drop some absences from their record so they were eligible to pass. Let me put this in perspective: Saudi students get paid a considerable monthly stipend as long as their butt has the minimum requirement of contact with a chair in the classroom. They are getting paid, as long as they have less then twenty-six absences in a semester. You read that right, as long as they skip less then a month of class they should pass and receive their money. And these kids were still coming in, begging for reprieve, because they had skipped thirty or more classes. I was certainly no honor role student, and I skipped my share of class, but this blew my mind. Needless to say, the “Protestant work ethic” isn’t a major factor here.

 

Their are many elements I love about working in this relaxed culture, but currently I’m drowning my frustrations in a second pot of green tea. My employer doesn’t know who I am, and already gave the position where I was supposed to go, on the east coast, to the other guy. I’ve been in this county almost a month, living in hotel rooms, and there’s no end in sight. They have misplaced my contract in someone else’s file and every time I ask them to find it they say, “We’ll get it tomorrow, inshallah.”

 

And this is all… A blessing. I’ve gotta look at it that way. It’s all good baby. Just a chance for me to breath deeply and meet more new friends in more new places.

 

Maybe soon I’ll stop being such an American. After all, their are other things to do besides work.


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Ennui To This

Yesterday, I began journaling because I felt incredibly bored.  By the time I was finished, I realized that I wasn’t bored anymore and had no reason to be.  Writing is funny like that. 

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Well – they warned me.  The other teachers talk a lot about the boredom.  They say it’s unavoidable.  I shrugged this off.  After all, momma always said, “Only boring people get bored,” right?  I thought, sure, maybe there are less opportunities to socialize here, not so much busyness as I’m used to, but that’s o.k., I had been craving less busyness in my life.  I remember specifically saying, not too long ago, back in the States, “Gosh, I really, really wish I could feel bored, just once.”

Well, I’ve found boredom, and honestly, it’s kind of sucky.

I don’t have internet or TV hooked up in my apartment yet, which is probably a good thing.  Just because I’m bored doesn’t mean I need to tune in to something mindless.

Here’s the list of activities I have available: read, write, study Arabic, revise some documents for work, exercise, cook, nap, or have a bath.  Yeah – I consider having a bath an activity.  What of it?  Actually, I only have a shower in my apartment, so this last option is kind of out the window.

The thing is, I’m tired of reading and studying Arabic, since that’s all I’ve been doing since 7.30 this morning.  It’s almost four in the afternoon now.  I arrived in Qassim with one week of classes left in the semester, so although I have to come to the office every day, I don’t exactly have anything to do.  So I’ve been spending my days reading and studying, which is great.  However, by this time in the afternoon, my brain is tired, and I’m ready for some recreation.

A bus leaves from the compound to take people shopping from four to six in the evening.  The last two days (my first days in Qassim), I went out with the shopping group.  I stocked up on groceries for my apartment (I had ostrich for supper the first night, and camel liver last night), and I took in the sights, such as they are.  Malls are one of the main recreational outlets in Saudi Arabia.  However, these shopping trips were already starting to feel boring, so I decided to stay home this afternoon and check out the gym on our compound.  Good plan – until I found out that from four to six the gym is reserved for ladies only.  You go girls.  I’ll just, y’know… not go… until later.

So.  I’m going to put on some music.  And cook my supper now so I can eat it right when I’m done working out later.  As soon as I finish exercising, I want to quickly eat, shower, and go to bed.  I’ve been going to bed very early, then waking up around four in the morning.  Don’t ask me why I wake up so early.  Maybe I’m hoping I’ll find something to do.

This was the supper I ended up making for myself.  The rest of the roast ostrich, along with roast carrots, cauliflower, onion, and fried green tomatoes.  Moussy Classic non-alcoholic malt bevarage from Sweden.  The cool part?  This meal cost me like three bucks.  And music is always free, this is what I was listening to: https://soundcloud.com/naravingian/the-xx-vs-telepopmusik .  Props to Devanshu Narang for being one great DJ.  My friends may be far away, but they still keep me going.  

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