While Sudan and Qatar might be tougher bets, most Americans could spin a globe and pinpoint Saudi Arabia’s deserts with relative ease. Even if your geography fails you, you’ve no doubt at least heard of Saudi and perhaps recall Peter O’Toole shouting across the desert sands in Lawrence of Arabia. The average American might know that the country is the world’s largest oil producer, that it has two coasts—its arid land mass is sandwiched between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf—and that it is one of America’s allies in the Middle East (this, in spite of the fact that Osama bin Laden was a Saudi national). You might also believe, if you’ve watched certain afternoon talk shows, that women there are imprisoned in their homes and regularly beaten. Or, if you are a Michael Moore fan, that the princes of the Saudi Kingdom have conspired with the Bush family to start wars for oil. If you listen to right-wing radio, you might think that the country is almost entirely populated by people who hate freedom.
My wife and I have friends in Saudi Arabia. Bob and Reem—he from rural Pennsylvania, she a Saudi national from Jeddah—are a pair of doctors who live in one of the many employee compounds designed to give Westerners a little slice of home in the desert. They have been asking us to visit for too many years, hoping not only to show off their country but to bring a bit of understanding about the place to Americans—any Americans. So recently, my wife and I became unlikely tourists for three weeks in the desert kingdom.
It’s not easy to visit Saudi Arabia. There’s really no such thing as a tourist visa. Westerners go to Saudi because they are working for the government, have business there (usually oil business), or are pilgrims on a Hajj. Upon calling the Saudi embassy in Washington, DC, and inquiring about how to get a visa, I was asked my occupation. But the attaché interrupted before I could say “writer.”
“Ah, ah, ah! I don’t want to hear it. Listen . . . get someone to say you’re working for them, and you’re all set.” “But I’m not—” “Ah, ah, ah! Forget it! Just do like I say, and you’ll be fine.” With that, he hung up.
Fortunately, Reem’s family has Vitamin Waw, or Wasta, what the Saudis refer to as “connections.” Her uncle agreed to sponsor me as a contractor with his vast refrigeration company. And just like that, we had the necessary documentation. “You’re going to have to lie to airport security?” a neighbor asked. “That’s ballsy.” He had a point. For the remaining weeks before we landed at the Dammam Airport, I cooked up a long story about my work in the refrigeration business, hoping my lie wouldn’t be exposed.
The Dammam Airport.
Before leaving the U.S., we checked the Saudi weather via the Internet. We knew it was going to be hot, with temperatures approaching 120 degrees during the day, cooling down to a balmy one hundred at night, accompanied by mild humidity drifting in from the Persian Gulf. As we flew over Iraq, I searched the terrain for landmarks and worried about stray missiles. Upon our arrival, airport security promptly took my wife’s passport and left us sitting by a giant prayer rug. The well-intentioned cautions of friends and family rumbled through my head as we waited; “Be careful over there!” my dentist had warned. Why had they taken my wife’s passport? After all, I was the guy lying about my occupation. Was this the first step toward seeing the inside of a Saudi jail? Thankfully, the customs agent returned after a half-hour with Janice’s passport, touched his heart, and welcomed us to his country.
The Expat Compounds.
Employee compounds are, in every sense, small cities unto themselves, typically surrounded by eight-foot concrete walls topped with razor wire. Armed guards at every gate lazily wave in every expat—the common name for employees from America and Europe—without hassle. Inside, the compounds look like any suburban townhouse development, dotted with tiny green lawns that are forever being watered.
To keep Westerners from having to mingle with the native populace, they also have a commissary, a mosque, and often, a Christian church hidden in someone’s house; no religion other than Islam is openly welcome in the kingdom. Every company, national or international, that hires Westerners tries to offer as many amenities as possible: soccer fields, pools, basketball courts—even, according to some rumors, horse stables and movie theaters.
The last is an important diversion, considering that cinemas are banned in Saudi; but apparently, the presence of a theater isn’t as threatening as a church. Because there’s no such thing as rush hour (work and home are literally minutes away), and virtually no distractions, the expats have tremendous amounts of free time on their hands. As a result, most are hardbodies. Kids and adults belong to running and biking clubs or swim teams; they play soccer in the heat of summer and baseball throughout the relatively mild winter. For all intents and purposes, the compounds are a bit of suburban American utopia carved into the heart of the desert.
Our first week was spent lounging in this suburban dream world that served as our base of operations as we visited sites in the Eastern Province and Reem’s family in the city of Al Hofuf. At the compound pool one morning, I met an expat from Florida. He was an edgy character—a short, trim, middle-aged man with sunken eyes—who seemed to stare through me, nodding intently as he told me horror stories. Although Fearful Jim, along with his two children and friendly spouse, had lived in Saudi for six years, he’d never ventured out of the compound. “They all want to cut my head off!” he explained.
I had initiated our conversation simply by asking how he liked Saudi; his response was a rambling twenty-minute screed that spanned recent history, from September 11th through the Chechen school massacre. Some of Jim’s paranoia was fueled by a 2004 attack on the nearby Al-Khobar Oasis compound in which, according to Jim, armed men had killed dozens of Westerners. Meanwhile, Saudis I spoke with, including a number of Reem’s family members, claimed the number slain at Al-Khobar had been two. Internet research wasn’t much help in pinning down a precise casualty count; the number of purported victims ranged from twenty-two to twenty-nine, most of whom were apparently unfortunate guest workers who might well have been Muslims. At least one American was killed, and everyone agreed that an Italian chef had had his throat slit. After that incident, Jim had packed his family off to America for a year before bringing them back to the walled paradise.
Like so many expats, including our hosts, he was likely drawn by the money and the benefits of the Saudi experience, which reign supreme. There is also, though, a strong sense of community, and the kids tend to grow up with friends for life. I couldn’t get my mind around people like Jim, who would never leave a city for fear of getting murdered. There are exceptions, like the American woman who goes out every day with her driver (women are prohibited from driving in Saudi) to have lunch with the roadside vendors—a daring venture that even Reem, a native, wouldn’t brave, as such vendors aren’t the most sanitary. But most of the expats I encountered, while perhaps not as paranoid as Jim, were content to remain in the compound. They seemed largely disinterested in the culture surrounding them, leaving only to travel to and from the airport. Yet even Jim admitted, “I love the place.” Leaning back in his lounger, reaching for his wife’s hand, he added, “I mean, look around—how could you not like it here?”
Under the Peaceful Eye of Allah.
Since every Saudi is a Muslim, mosques are ubiquitous. And beautiful. One morning, I accompanied Bob and his son to the jum’ah, the special Friday noon service, at a beautiful mosque by the Persian Gulf. There, under its bright-white arches, with the sharp contrast of the deep-blue sky and dark sea, I watched dozens of men pray. The sea burst against the shore, the women sat quietly in a separate section by the water, covered from head to toe in their long black abayas, their children alongside. I just stood and sweated, wishing I could take a photograph and chiding myself for such a blasphemous thought.
Later that week, just as the evening prayers were beginning, our group stumbled back to the car after a big dinner with a distant cousin of Reem’s in the Persian Gulf city of Jubail. The call to prayer was broadcast from speakers atop the dozens of mosques situated throughout the cities, each minaret lit with a soft green light. I stood beneath a crescent moon smudged by blowing sand, listening to the cries of the clerics. The calls came not simultaneously but in rapid succession, with one imam intoning the call, then another, say, four seconds later. Then, somewhere in the distance, another cleared his throat and began to sing until the air was filled with the holy sound, a musical intonation calling the faithful to pray. It was a scene of almost overwhelming sublimity.
When I mentioned to other expats how beautiful I found the calls to prayer, most agreed that there came a time when they had simply stopped hearing them, just as one ceases to hear the jets when living in an airport’s flight path. Fearful Jim said they made him sick.
Black Gold … or Black Plague?
Whereas Islam is certainly the soul of Saudi Arabia, oil is its blood. Bob calls Saudi “a third-world country with first-world wealth”—wealth that gets pumped out from vast tracts of land in the north. (Control over these rich fields remains a point of contention between Sunnis and Shiites.) If doctors are to be found in this desert community, they are here because of the oil companies, if only by a degree or two of separation. Computer technicians are here to assist in the discovery and extraction of oil. Universities are built out of the desert sands by the oil that flows beneath them.
Gas is very inexpensive, less than a dollar a gallon, and when we visited, the Saudis were happy indeed that their benevolent king had just lowered the cost by about thirty cents. Needless to say, we found no hybrid cars among the SUVs lumbering in great herds over the sand-swept highways. Surrounded by all this oil, we began to notice it everywhere—woven into our clothes, wrapping the food we ate, in the toys children played with, in hospitals, on soccer fields, in libraries … oil is in everything. At the same time, Saudis regard global warming as a joke—a particularly silly inside joke that only Westerners would know or care about.
I wondered what would become of this country without its oil. For while oil may be its center, surely that center cannot hold. Saudi Aramco, the country’s national oil company, is the largest in the world, and its presence is felt nearly everywhere. We toured the Aramco oil company museum in Dhahran, about an hour from Reem’s family in the Eastern Province. Despite some fascinating exhibits on Arabic history, the museum visit was a bizarre experience; endless displays proclaimed the great triumphs of oil, culminating in a computer game where youngsters distilled crude into a variety of products to satisfy their customers. I took a crack at the game and failed. “Your customer left to find jet fuel somewhere else,” the computer told me.
The Bootleggers of the Desert.
At an American Independence Day party a few nights after our arrival, we first encountered Sadiqi, which is Arabic for “friend.” Commonly referred to as “Sid,” Sadiqi is abundant and easily found tucked away in garages and pantries throughout the compound. Almost all expats have enjoyed the company of Sid in its different variations: brown, white, and a pale-green variant that is supposed to approximate gin.
Sadiqi is, in the parlance of southern America, moonshine. Sid exists because alcohol is strictly prohibited in Saudi Arabia. One expat we met, whom I’ll call Nate, made Sid for his own enjoyment, with no apparent profit motive. He had a small still in his garage and produced a few gallons every now and then. Sid can be a lucrative business, though; rumor has it that one expat makes so much money distilling and delivering his product that he lives on the proceeds and invests his entire company check. Reminiscent of the proverbial buckets of beer in the Capone era, delivieries of the libation are made to people’s doors in green juice bottles with “Sid” written in red pen on the remnants of the scratched-off labels.
Sadiqi is harsh stuff, no doubt made more palatable by its lack of competition. The mash comprises grain and sugar, products that cannot be made illicit and that are in abundance in every part of the world. As the expats began their miniscule fireworks show, I tried some bootleg gin with a mix of hesitation and a burning thirst for hard liquor. It tasted as I imagine nail-polish remover would, albeit cut with tonic water and a squeeze of lime. Nate admitted he never expected his degree in physics from MIT would someday lend itself to making bathtub gin in the Middle East. “But we’re no backwoods moonshiners,” he said, not without some disdain. “We’re scientists, for God’s sake—distilling is second nature.”
Greetings from the Shamasan Hotel.
After a week of loafing in the compound, we caught a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight to the city of Abha, a moderately popular town for local tourists. The government is trying desperately to encourage Saudis to check out the country’s attractions. Famous for not traveling in their own country, Saudis are also known for spending more money per capita on foreign travel than anyone in the world. Reem, in fact, had never been to Abha, despite the fact that it’s a one-hour flight from where she grew up.
A mountain town with a population of around two hundred thousand, Abha is located in the southwestern Saudi Arabian province of Asir. It is a cloud-filled city whose pretty white houses are tucked into the side of the modest Hijaz Mountains. Abha was cool in the morning, warm in the afternoon, and cool again at night—a relief after the relentless heat of the Eastern Province.
After one day, we abandoned our four-star hotel, where most expats, fearful of the natives, stay and whose insulated rooms keep the chants to Allah from disturbing light sleepers. For the adventurous traveler, there are scores of friendly little hotels, like the Shamasan—a clean, well-lit place where you can sit and sip sweet, hot, thick tea and watch the sun setting over the city from the rooftop balcony. We did this every night, visited on occasion by hotel employees eager to try out their broken English. The other guests appeared to be Saudis who kept to themselves. Bob explained that although his company often sent employees to Abha for conferences, they never left the four-star hotels.
But I loved the Shamasan; unlike its upscale alternative, you could open the rooms’ windows and let in the breezes. I could watch the emerald light of the city’s mosques creep past the billowing curtains and be awakened at roughly four in the morning by the call to prayer echoing across the mountains. Surrounding the hotel were scores of little restaurants and bakeries whose proprietors were astounded by the idea of an American visiting their land and loving the cuisine. (For whatever reason, during the ninety-six hours we were in Abha, we didn’t come across a single Westerner.)
One morning in his falafel shop, Abdulsattar, a friendly Egyptian who had been in Saudi for over ten years, asked me, “You are a Muslim?” When I replied that I was not a Muslim, he smiled and asked, “A Christian?” I said no, and he hung his head and mumbled, “That’s all right.” “He thinks you’re Jewish,” Reem explained, laughing. “You have to be one of the three.” Abdulsattar made no mention of the subject the next day, instead asking about my wife and our friends. He allowed me to take his photo and beamed when I admired his sixteen-hour-a-day work ethic.
At the Shamasan, we engaged Abul Hossein, a Bangladeshi guest worker, as our liaison and translator. A friendly, modest man in his thirties, he had sad eyes and the overly humble countenance of a fellow used to taking orders from disrespectful patrons. He was there on a special visa and, as is the custom, had signed a contract that forbade him from taking any vacations—including visits home—for at least two years. “I have not had very good fortune,” he admitted. His brothers, he said, had fared better—both were engineers, one in Canada, the other in South Korea. But Abul was stuck at the Shamasan, making a pittance and probably unhappy despite his clamped-on smile. When we left him, having exchanged addresses, he shook hands and hung his head. “I will never forget you,” he said.
Mutual Trepidation Society.
One afternoon, we drove an hour out of Abha to the hanging city of Habala, so named because it is carved into the side of the Asir Mountains and was once accessible only by rope. While climbing the steep walkways to the ruins, we came across a trio of young men, all bespectacled and clean-shaven. One approached and offered his hand, joining the ranks of the many Saudis who took it upon themselves to welcome us to their land. “You are American!” he said, his eyes brightening, and I wondered what gave me away, since I’d purposefully avoided wearing baseball caps, shirts with slogans, and the like. His pals came over, smiling, trying to get their friend to translate our conversation. But his English wasn’t streamlined, and my Arabic consisted of perhaps six words—greetings and good-byes—that I managed to mutilate every time I used them.
Reem translated, laughing at the young man’s jokes. He praised America, was eager for us to see his country, and expressed his desire to have us join him for lunch. Finally, he asked, “What is the best way, do you think, for me to learn English?” I thought for a moment, then told him he ought to visit America. He laughed. “I would love to!” he said in English. But then his smile fell ever so slightly. “Only I don’t want to end up in Guantanamo.”
We laughed with him, but I recognized that at some level, his fear was probably legitimate. There are still dozens of Saudis languishing in that infamous prison, and how did I know whether this kid had friends or relatives in Baghdad, or had some ties, however circuitous, to Al Qaeda? The bin Laden family has its fingers in nearly every pie in Saudi, and the country’s young might well wonder if Americans can distinguish between Osama and the rest of his family (who officially disowned him in a 1994 statement). Then I wondered to myself what this young man would think of America, a place whose cities can be dangerous—especially in the case of Detroit, whose metro area has the largest Arab-American population in the country. Would Americans show him the same friendly reception that he and so many of his fellow countrymen had offered us?
Those Crazy Shababs and Their Driving Machines.
Shababs are gregarious young Saudi men who usually travel in groups, often hand in hand, and act with all the outgoing goofiness one would expect from males just emerging from their teenage years. Most of them would simply stop to gape at us, or do dangerous double takes in their cars while passing on the shoulder. Sometimes they would wave us over to invite us to lunch.
Without anything better to do, the shababs drive anywhere and everywhere, recklessly, passing on shoulders and into oncoming traffic. There was also this additional shabab curiosity: While camping in the desert, they point their cars toward the highway, jack them up, and meticulously construct stone walls in the space beneath the ground and the chassis, a chore that must take hours. We drove for what seemed like miles down a highway flanked by these autos, which weren’t muscle cars or sleek cruisers—most were Hondas or Toyotas or solid middle-class Fords. When it was time to go, the shababs would dismantle the walls, lower their cars, and drive away. At the last car in the line, we stopped and asked a group of young men sitting in the shade of their tent what purpose these structures served and why they built them. They shrugged and said, “Why not?” Art for art’s sake, I guess.
Separate but Equal.
Shababs spend hours looking for ways to waste time, primarily due to the fact that they cannot hang out with women of their own age. Mixed company is unheard of in Saudi Arabia; a man may mingle only with his wife or the women of his family. The ways in which these restrictions play out in the culture left me wholly confused and feeling battered. Restaurants, for instance, have a strict segregation policy. “Bachelors” (men by themselves or with other men) eat in well-lit dining areas, with waiters at their beck and call. Women with children or men with their wives, daughters, aunts, etc., in tow are relegated to the “family” section, which is usually upstairs, generally windowless, and, in a number of places we ate, without air-conditioning, sanitation, or table service.
Once, after a grueling drive maneuvering the crazy back roads from Habala to Abha and getting lost repeatedly—we had a pair of hungry children and a driver incensed by the standard recklessness of Saudi motorists—we stopped for a bite at a pleasant-looking restaurant. It seemed clean, smelled good, and didn’t have the usual “Bachelors” and “Family” signs out front. Turns out the place was a bachelors-only establishment—“But you can eat in your car!” the proprietor told us with a smile.
Then there’s the fact that nearly all women are covered from head to toe in black abayas. Perhaps miffed at my constant disapproval, Reem once asked me, “Who knows how God wants you to dress?” Indeed, no Saudis I talked with, including women, complained about this custom. It seemed to be an issue mainly for Americans. Reem’s aunt groused about Oprah. “They have a Saudi woman beaten on one show,” she said between smokes on a hubble-bubble pipe (which resembled a hookah), “and that woman becomes all of Saudi. It’s horrible what happens to her, yes, but she’s not a typical Saudi woman. And look: Oprah always has abused women as guests on her show, from her own country, three hundred days a year! But that’s not America?”
Wa ’Alaykum As–Salam.
Maybe I’m spending too much time watching Aljazeera, reading Arab News, and plodding through Robert Fisk’s monumental (and monumentally depressing) The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, but after three weeks, I still couldn’t sleep. Back in the United States, it’s easy enough to ignore the Middle East crisis, but over here, it’s as acute as the ceaseless blowing of the sand.
Tina, a fellow expat and friend of our hosts, is married to a Lebanese man. Two days before Israel began shelling her husband’s home country, he left Saudi with his wife and family to spend a month in Lebanon. A short time later, the Beirut airport was reduced to rubble, bridges were destroyed, and the highways were pitted with bomb craters and unsafe to drive. To make matters even more stressful, Reem has a sister who lives in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), and desperate calls were made to find out if she had been affected by the flooding resulting from India’s devastating monsoons. Then, less than a week later, terrorist bombings in Mumbai killed nearly two hundred people there. Thankfully, Reem’s sister was safe in both instances.
Meanwhile, children in the compound played while jet fighters screamed overhead—the Royal Saudi Air Force flexing its muscles, and public evidence of the king’s benevolence. I realized that back home in the Twin Cities, signs of an American military presence are rare indeed, and I tend to skip over the world news on my way to the sports page. Each day in Saudi, I checked the Star Tribune’s online coverage of the Israeli-Lebanese war, but after a brief period of time, that story vanished. I did notice one day that the Minnesota Twins had won eight in a row—that was front-page news.
We said our good-byes at the Dammam Airport, and Bob congratulated us on our patience and open-mindedness. The pleasure had been ours, and we’d been gratified by the patience of our hosts and the myriad of kind people (most of whom had minimal English-language skills) who’d gone out of their way to make us feel welcome. We’d received a warmer reception than most Americans routinely give foreigners, certainly, and better than we might expect to encounter most places in Europe.
As we flew through the night, I thought of Fisk’s long, sad history of the Middle East, and I longed to get away from it all, to enjoy beer again, to see a movie on the big screen, to smell the green grass and soak in the moderate temperatures of home. The trip had been physically, emotionally, and even spiritually exhausting; I had never been so submerged in another people’s religion in my life. I resolved on numerous occasions to read the Koran but knew that once I left Saudi Arabia for the comforts and distractions of America, I would likely never get around to it.
As the plane descended into Amsterdam, I wondered if I would ever see the Middle East again. I recalled the young man who feared Guantanamo and how he would not allow me to dwell on this fear. I wished that I could see him again, in Detroit or New York or Minneapolis, where I could welcome him and ease his fears of my country, answer his questions, offer him a meal. He’d said: “Please see as much of our country as you can.” Then he and all his friends had offered their hands and added the customary Saudi farewell, “As-Salamu Alaykum”—peace be with you.
This article originally appeared on the December 2006 cover of The Rake magazine.