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 April, 2003.
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Due to increasing public pressure, I am sending out an overdue installment of my monthly notes from this dastardly barren place. I do acknowledge that it has been quite the interval between letters; and that not a single one of you bastards has noticed.
Nevertheless, I shall continue to pretend that I have a loyal readership and push on.
This month finds me in better spirits; a predictable bout of frustration gripped me a few weeks ago and I have spent the better part of the last month trying to shake it. I won’t even try delving into the severe psychological traumas that inflict those that live here, but rest assured that everyone suffers from it at one time or other. Even the Saudis can’t go more than 6 months without getting the hell out of here for a break. Can you imagine how our young hero must be feeling now that he is approaching the 7-month clip?
Subliminally, the troubles in Iraq didn’t really help matters all that much. Although the war never touched us here, there was an increased and very palpable feeling of tension. Military road blocks erupted all across the city and now, suddenly, soldiers carrying machine guns are barking at me every kilometer or so to produce my papers. The Canadian embassy in Riyadh began issuing public warnings telling all non-essential personnel to leave the country. For those who stayed, we were asked to avoid public places. We were all expecting a couple of minor incidents out here but, thankfully, nothing happened. There was, however, an attempt to blow up a shopping mall near my house but that was thwarted when the detonation device malfunctioned. Idiots.
Moreover, the compound where I live began emptying. All expatriate schools were shut down so all resident students fled back to their native countries. All U.S. military personnel (a group that constitutes about 50% of the compound residents) were called for duty so the streets of the village felt remote and abandoned. The Air Force pilots with whom I worked out at the gym were now gone. Not pleasant times.
Despite this, life at the office carried on. We joked insincerely about fleeing the city in our cars if the airports shut down (we later found out that the international airport did shut down for a few hours. I would have lost my mind had I known this at the time).
We all knew better than to discuss these issues at work. My colleagues are professional enough to know that there is a time and place to discuss such matters. Despite this mentality, there are a few whose behaviour was a little surpising. Here is the very long version:
When I was five years old, my mother pulled me aside when we were in a crowded shopping mall and gave me a simple but elegant gold chain. She told me it was gift from a mother to her only son and that I should always remember it as something special – a symbolic gesture of our relationship. I must say that my immediate thoughts were that she was either a) dying or b) leaving my father. Pretty paranoid thoughts for a 5-year-old, I have to say. I naturally put it around my neck and was a little embarrassed at how long it was. It drooped over my chest and hung as low as where a high strike would be called.
I could even loop it around itself and still wear it without choking.
As the years passed, I started to grow into it. By the age of 16, I actually worried that I would grow too large for the chain (this used to be a legitimate pubescent cause of anxiety). But, as all good mothers seem to know, I stopped growing at precisely the point where the chain hangs around my neck comfortably. For those of you with astute observations (or for the fortunate few who have seen me in the nude), you will always associate me with this chain. The chain and I have been together for 20 years.
This chain has seen its fair share of pendants over the years; a rectangular 1-gram slab of gold; a silver ram (I am an Aries – not a lover of obscure animals); one half of a coin (whose other half was donated to an evil ex-girlfriend); a small, gold cedar tree (I am Lebanese – not a botanist). This chain has witnessed all of my life’s landmark achievements and all of my heartbreaks. Only it knows the true construct of my character. I just hope that some bastard grave robber doesn’t steal it from me when I’m gone.
As I am not obliged to wear a tie to work, I generally leave my shirt collar unbuttoned. This leaves the base of my neck uncovered, thus exposing a small and very northerly tuft of chest hair (try and contain yourselves) as well as my precious chain. When I am in my office attire, the chain is very visible.
Shah’ria law dictates that it is haram (forbidden) for Muslim men to wear any clothing or jewellery made of gold. (As far as I know, the same applies to silk). There is, however, nothing that forbids women from wearing either. The fact that I am seen wearing the chain immediately identifies me as a) a non-Muslim and b) (inaccurately) as an American (the mindset being that only an American would wear something of this nature). The only ‘side-effects’ of wearing the chain that I had encountered up to this point revolved around over-zealous merchants who think that I am an easy financial target. (Actually, come to think of it, the chain is probably entirely responsible for me failing my first driving test. I passed the second time around – I was wearing a tie that day).
With the war under way, people started to act differently. I began to feel the angry stares from bearded men in the souks; small children would poke one another and point at my neck as I walked by them in the street. There was a very definite feeling of not belonging. The real disappointment came about a month ago when I was cornered by three guys at the office who, in no uncertain terms, said that it would be best for me to remove the chain. I wouldn’t have been so upset if they had explained to me exactly what I have just explained to you above. Instead, they pawed at my neck while telling me that an eager beggar may try to swipe it and I should dispose of the chain for my own peace of mind. One of them reached over and tried to rip it off my body, much like a dead soldier. I stopped him abruptly and politely told him that I would break his arm if he tried to touch my chain again. The three of them have left me alone since.
I don’t know how anyone else would have reacted to this, but I reacted poorly. Although very subtle, my ‘otherness’ was brought to the fore over the last several weeks. It makes you edgy, it frustrates you and it makes you paranoid. In the end, I acquiesced to the Saudi custom. Instead of removing the chain, however, I began wearing a wife-beater under my dress shirts; the rounded neck conceals the chain entirely.
Things have now returned to ‘normal’ and the collective mood of the nation is improving. As for me, this week brings with it an excitement that leaves me unable to sit still. This holiday could not have come at a better time. I leave here late Wednesday night and get into Toronto Thursday afternoon. If all goes well, I will be at Typhoon on Saturday night spending a foolish amount of money. And I mean foolish.
I hope to see many of you there.