From 2002-2004, I was living and working in Saudi Arabia. During that time, I traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia and kept a fairly detailed journal of my experiences. As my web site attracted less than 10 visitors a month, it was more effective to spam my friends with long emails about my life in the Middle East. Dubbed ‘Notes from an Ethnic Land’, I sent out countless posts to unsuspecting recipients over the years. This is one such email, originally sent out in February 2003.
When you exclusively interact with people who do not possess English as their mother tongue, you tend to fall into bizarre linguistic habits and catch yourself making ludicrous hand gestures while trying to explain what certain words mean. There is a popular brand of dishwashing detergent out here called Fairy Liquid (I can’t actually remember if it is available in the civilised world). When someone who doesn’t speak English very well asks you what the word ‘fairy’ means, it is difficult to do so while keeping a modicum of professional decorum.
Conversely, you will find that most university-educated people in the Third World have an excellent grasp of English grammar and can communicate very well in writing (and yes, it is OK calling it the Third World if you live in it). However, their vernacular is somewhat archaic and I find myself constantly bemused by their choice of diction. As is wont to happen, their tendencies rub off on you and you often find yourself using words like ‘stipend’ and ‘abscond’ when much simpler and more fashionable words will do. I used the word ‘truncate’ the other day when discussing the reduced length of a planned meeting. I am definitely racking up my frequent madness miles.
All is well with me (remember, we discuss well-being in relative terms out here). I just got back from another holiday and lived to tell to about it – much to your collective chagrin, I’m sure.
Let us get started…
The flight to Beirut was infuriating. The Jeddah-Beirut route on Middle East Airlines is typically served by pre-Civil-War aircraft – normally cause enough for panic. However, on this occasion we were treated to a chartered plane from a British fleet of notoriously poor caliber. I was seated in between Dad (a large man in his own right) and a poor young Lebanese woman who had to hear me shriek in despair at the aircraft’s every movement. While we’re on the topic, I’m sure there are legions of people all over the world who openly talk about the crazy man that they sat next to on a flight that one time. I openly question every noise that the plane makes – even before the engines are turned on. From the moment I set foot on the evil beast, I start generating more perspiration than a prize fighter. I am almost catatonic when the plane starts taxiing and I start drifting in and out of consciousness as we start creating an unnatural distance between ourselves and the sweet, sweet earth. After about 70 seconds (most planes that suffer fatal crashes do so within 70 seconds of takeoff – or so I’m told) I start to relax a little.
And it is precisely at this point that captain sounds the seat-belt chime. Immediately, the crazy person in me suspects that this is some sort of secret code that the pilot is sending to the cabin crew to prepare for a horrible and gruesome death. The rational person in me is nowhere to be found (undoubtedly stabbed to death by the raging maniac within). I endure this Punch and Judy act in my head until the booze cart rolls on by. If you suffer from the irrational fears, you learn that the only remedy is booze. And lots of it. (Note to self: always avoid sitting next to Joe on a plane.)
To say the seats were small is insulting to small seats. How small were they? The seats were so small that I had to lock my elbows so they could only move along their vertical axes. It looked like I was doing Mr. Roboto as I tried to nervously funnel a beer into my mouth. Thankfully, the flight was only two hours long (oh, and that we didn’t crash and die…)
As we were touching down in Beirut (at which point I released my grip on the friendly lady’s reluctant hand), I recalled my last journey to this land and hoped that I would again bask in the comfort of sweet liquor, brain-numbing Arabic music and delicious ethnic foods. Now, I just needed to get through customs…
As there is still enforced conscription in Lebanon, I need to produce an exemption card each and every time that I enter the country. Years earlier, I had spent a hilarious day with my uncle rampaging through the war-torn streets of Beirut to get some guy’s signature to corroborate some other guy’s testimony that some guy had given to some dude that I was the only male heir in the Issid family (a criteria for automatic exemption). While my claim was legitimate, the proof seemed justifiably flimsy to me and I often worried that this could be called into question when I produced my document to the armed guards at the airport. To boot, not being able to understand what the document actually claims is also somewhat unsettling (to be fair, I can read Arabic script but I just don’t have the vocabulary to understand what it says; kind of like an Anglophone reading French, I guess. Get off my back!). If anything is called into question, I don’t have the requisite skill to offer any form of riposte. There is a very real threat of being thrust into the back of a truck and shipped off to a military outpost somewhere in the South of Lebanon and be forced to throw stones at video cameras. (I discovered, years later, that this threat was even more real than I could have ever feared. Oh boy.)
In the end, the pimply-faced kid waved me through with barely a glance at my eagerly-produced booklet. Well, that was easy.
Off to my grandmother’s house.
The next few days are somewhat hazy as they are mostly spent in a dark room avoiding anything associated with cigarettes. I legitimately thought that I had the whole smoking thing beat. I stood and shook my fist at the tobacco world with staunch defiance and arrogant impunity. I had gone 28 days without a smoke and felt good. Better than good. I felt…actually, I just felt OK. Not bad, really. But the moment I got my nervous hands around a cold and sweating can of Heineken on the plane, I was broken. Every small noise or inane comment over the next few days would trigger a psychotic reaction. I certainly couldn’t watch anyone smoke lest I float behind them like one of those poor, starving cartoon cats when they catch the scent of the delicious pork pie baking in the rich cat’s oven. I spent the next four days lurking on the edge of lunacy. Just imagine how I reacted when a small woman almost took my eye out with the spoke of her open umbrella as she walked passed me on the street. (While we’re on the subject, should there not be a legal height limit imposed on people who insist on operating umbrellas? I contend that anyone under a certain height should not be allowed to carry an open umbrella. Or, the shorter the person, the longer the umbrella must be to conform to a pre-determined and socially acceptable height. Should I be cc-ing someone in Ottawa on this email?)
Anyway, once I was brave enough to venture beyond the two block radius surrounding my grandmother’s flat, I began enjoying myself. I met up with my two cousins daily and spent time with them gallivanting through the rainy streets of downtown Beirut. It was a very touching and reflective time spent with these two young women. I am not sure if any among you have ever been in the strange and awkward position of being introduced to a room full of strangers who happen to share the same last name and DNA as yourself. Well, it happened to me on my last trip to Beirut and, let me tell you, so much has been explained. While we all talk different languages, we all look the same. It was surreal. Standing in front of my uncle Eddie was like looking into a future mirror. We stared at each other, poking and stroking each other’s face in bewildered amazement. My god, he is a handsome man.
Out of this came a truly wonderful gift – meeting six cousins whom I had never met before. Anyway, to cut a long and painfully sappy story short, I have become enraptured with my two eldest cousins and spent my entire holiday with them. And they think that I am the greatest guitarist in the world which, naturally, further endears them to me. Good times.
Now that I’m back in Jeddah and still feeling the effects of an 11-beer outing the other night, I am somewhat grateful to be back in the desert and among the subdued heretics. Only another 8 weeks until my next holiday (and this period may actually be truncated if my boss allows me to take some extra time off).
And yes, you will all be seeing me in the flesh when that time arrives.