Saturday, October 15, 2011

Do we still get paid if we get kidnapped?

Honestly, just a minute or two before I had sensed danger. I was walking back from the high-end shopping street because every thing was closed. Friday is holy day. I was taking a shortcut from the shopping street back to the compound.

“Do we still get paid if we get kidnapped?” I had asked our boss Joe a week or so ago. There has been some sort of skirmish in Yemen so in retaliation there has supposedly been a rash of American kidnappings. I was in a remote area. I had just passed an armed guard. I was taking a shortcut. There was no one on the street because today is Friday.

Here Friday is Sunday. Jim said nothing gets done on Friday. I had asked him earlier in the day if he wanted me to direct him to the hotel. This is the hotel a few blocks from our apartments in the Saudi City Airlines compound. He is navigationally challenged. He wanted to see about getting maid service, which could be done through the compound hotel, but he did not want to be frustrated so he said he would wait.

“Nothing gets done on Friday,” he said with finality.

So I walked to the shopping plaza by myself. The hotel is on the way. Jim did not want to go out in the heat. I do not blame him. By the time I had reached the gate of the complex, my face was dripping with sweat and once again I had forgotten to bring a kerchief.

D&G, Just Cavelli, Burbbery, Gucci – all closed. The two or three malls with food courts were closed as well. I was hungry. In the distance, I saw the Golden Arches. I would like to say that I have not had McDonalds for ages but through no fault of my own I would be lying. A student took me there a few days ago.

The student is not one of my students. We pass in the halls. And he always extends his hand and smiles and asks emphatically asks how are you? I had seen him at the Kibda place the week before and he had given me a ride back to class but then he wanted to take me riding around in his car as young men do and I was too tired. I had work to do in my office so I told him we could ride another day.

A few days ago, I passed him in the administration building hallway when I was taking advantage of the air conditioning on my way to get Kibda – a curried lamb liver (surprisingly good) sandwich.

“Do you want to go to lunch?” I asked as I passed him.

He took a minute to translate what I said from English to Arabic and then he answered - “Yes.”

I walked fast but he walked faster. He kept looking at his watch. We took a shortcut through the classroom building out the backdoor to his car. We got in his car. He turned on the air conditioner and we sat. He called his friend. And we sat. He told me that his friend would come. We sat and waited.

Five minutes later, two friends showed. They got into the car. We drove off.

“Eat what?” he asked me.

“You choose,” I said but I realized he did not understand.

“Anywhere,” I said to clarify but he still did not understand.

“McDonalds” he announced.

“Okay, great” I told him.

We made our way through the lunchtime traffic in his late model Toyota Corolla, which still had the plastic over the seats. The traffic was not bad until we got on the main road and then it came to a sudden halt.

“Cars bad,” He told me. “Lunch prayer soon start.”

Now I knew why he had been rushing and looking at his watch and tapping the steering wheel waiting for his friends. Prayer would start within the next ten minutes and everything would close five - or sometimes ten - minutes before. It was imperative to get to McDonalds soon or I would have to wait until after prayer which could sometimes be a good 30 minutes and that would mean I could be late to my afternoon class.

Prayer takes place five times a day – the first at sunrise or a little before. The next one comes a bit after 12 pm. A third one comes sometime after 3:30 pm. The forth one comes near 6 pm. The last one comes at 7:30 pm.

During this time, non-praying Muslim shopkeepers and non-Muslim shopkeepers take breaks and by no means rush back to work. So a twenty-minute prayer time can easily turn into twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, or even forty minutes. Forty minutes is absolutely not uncommon. So getting to McDonalds for food before prayer time was most important. This often becomes a game of sorts.

Finally, traffic cleared enough for us to hop a curb and brave a shortcut into the McDonalds parking lot just as a worker was locking the door. With this the student jumped out of the car and pointed to me and shouted in the direction of the door:


I got out of the car and went to the door. And the student to reinforce what he had just said pointed to me and once again shouted to the worker locking the door:

“This is American.”

From what I have been told, businesses can be fined if they let in Saudis during prayer time but Westerners are given amnesty.

The Filipino worker - many workers at the Arabian McDonalds are Filipino I have been told – opened the door and let us in. He told us there was nothing but various chicken sandwiches left. I took a chicken sandwich. The student had nothing. At this point, I realized the student was just giving me a ride to lunch. He had not planned on eating himself. He had probably just eaten Kibda when I met him. I thanked him and we got back in the car and headed back to school.

One of the friends in the back seat who had been silent spoke up:

“Champagne, you like?”

Alcohol of any sort is forbidden in the Kingdom. These students have heard of people talk of alcohol. Bottles of smuggled whiskey of the Jack Daniels variety and the like can fetch $400 American and up.

“Too much,” I replied. “I like champagne too much.”

The whole car laughed.

“America crazy?” the other backseat passenger asked.

“Oh America so crazy,” I replied in accidental broken English and added, “American girl crazy.” With that I pantomimed the taking off of my top and the shaking of my make believe breasts. All of the boys shrieked with laughter. As you probably know, single guys cannot be around women other than mothers, sisters or grandmothers. Thus every unmarried male whether he is 13 or 40 has the raging hormones of a teenager. Thus, if during my lesson, I happen to draw a female on the board, you can practically here the thump thump thump of the overly attentive member hitting desk around the classroom. You would think that I would be old enough that this would not give me a perverse pleasure but I am not.

Today, I was alone looking for food and McDonalds was the only thing open. Maybe having to do with the fact that it was on the same street as Burberry and Gucci and other high-end designer brands, the inside was very chic as if Ligne Rosset had designed it. This was definitely the swankiest place that I have ever eaten a quarter pounder with cheese. I chatted with the Filipino worker as I ordered. He seemed to enjoy speaking English. Later when I was leaving, he told me to have a nice day and to come back soon. I told him I would but I hoped that I wouldn’t.

“Do we still get paid if we get kidnapped?” the question I had asked Joe when he announced that Americans were getting kidnapped once again ran through my head. He had just laughed as a reply. I took that to mean that we would not get paid.

But to tell you the truth, every single person that I have met in Jeddah - be it on the street, in the souk, in the grocer, at school (which includes my somewhat surly student named Hassan who never brings a pen and has a somewhat nasty scar on the left side of his face) – is nothing but friendly to me. When I tell the people I meet that I am from America, they never fail to say:

“I love America.”

Thus, I think about the media and what agenda the media has. That agenda is, it seems to me, is to sell more advertising.

Nevertheless, I do opt to take a short cut on the way back to the compound. And yes, our compound, as is every compound here, is walled with armed guards manning the gates. So I take a side street off of the main road and I wander down the side street thinking about my students.

My students have names like Saadoon, Fareed, Wafi, Rami, Ibrahim, Bandar (who wore a cap sideways the first day and still always has this look of surprise on his face), and Ziad (who wore the full Arab dress the first day and did not write but motioned that his buddy would be doing the writing which made me wonder if his buddy was his personal assistant. He had the air of a sheik.) Naturally, there are a half a dozen Mohammad’s and just as many Abdullahs.

They really do not speak much English but they did understand my pantomimes. Already, I have fallen in love with Saudi. I love Saudi I told them. I spoke of the magic of camels, the possibilities of magic lamps and genies. Although they do not speak much English, through drawing pictures on the board and just being generally goofy, they understood.

As I am walking, I am thinking and not paying attention really. There was a guard post but no walls so I did not walk down that road. Nevertheless, about 100 meters down the road there was an alleyway that looked to be a nice little shortcut. As soon as I darted down it and spotted the graffiti covered port-a-potties, I thought something strange. There was not really anything other than a feeling but I kept walking and soon emerged onto a paved road that ran by an unseen guardhouse.

An armed guard emerged and I looked at his automatic and was nervous, shaking in my shoes nervous actually.

“Where you go?”

“I am just trying to find my way home.” This I knew he did not understand. He just kept staring at me with his gun ready. He made a gesture with his hand that I assumed meant he wanted some identification. I took out the card with my address at the compound and handed it to him. He looked at it but did not give it back. This annoyed and scared me.

Another guard approached. This guard was unarmed. This guard smiled. This guard spoke a bit more English.

“This belong to King,” he told me.

“The King’s property?”

“Yes, King.”

“Oh, I am so sorry,” I said and I may have bowed or I may have cowered at their feet. I am not sure which. “I am dumb. I am a dumb American.”

The guard smiled and the other guard gave back my identification card.

“Can I go that way?” - with that I pointed to a barricaded road that I assumed was barricading traffic from coming onto the road where I now stood on the King’s property. The smiling guard nodded yes.

I started walking and to be honest I felt a bit like Dorothy on the yellow brick road. About half way to the barricade I turned around and called to the guards:

“I love Saudi.”

“I love America,” the smiling guard called back.


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