Riyadh Calling … #3

by on March 20, 2010 · 4 comments

in Culture, Riyadh Calling

by John Williams/ March 18, 2010

So far, I’ve commented on Saudi society with the intent of relating how different it is from the US. I haven’t intended to be critical. It hasn’t been my intent to elevate one system over the other. I haven’t wanted to choose. Now, though, I want to say some things about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) that I think are positive.

First, these people walk the walk when it comes to the question of hospitality. For example, as I’ve said, I live in a hotel. One afternoon, I was near the entrance having a smoke when a youthful Saudi man was also in the lobby (you are allowed to smoke inside of buildings here), pacing, apparently deeply in thought. At a point, his route brought him close enough to me for me to remark, “You seem to be thinking very seriously about something.”

We began to talk, he spoke haltingly in English. By the end of the conversation it had been revealed that he wanted me to help him to improve his English language skills. He knew I was a teacher. I said that I would be happy to try. As we spoke, having already agreed to meet for this purpose, it naturally became necessary to define this agreement further. When? Where? How often? Part of that discussion included the following exchange.

Mike: So, I live in the hotel. Are you staying here?

Mohammed: This my hotel.

Mike: Oh, good, so we can meet here.

Mohammed: Yes.

Mike: I’m in room number 50. What’s your room number?

Mohammed: What?

Mike: I’m in room 50. What about you?

Mohammed: What?

Mike: What room are you in?

Mohammed: I no live hotel.

Mike: I thought you said this is your hotel.

Mohammed: This my hotel.

Mike: What? If this is your hotel, what room are you staying in? I’m in 50.

Mohammed: I not stay hotel.

Mike: What?

Mohammed: I not live hotel. I live home.

Mike: What?

Mohammed: This my hotel.

(Light beginning to come on in the mind of the foreigner. We are standing on the entry porch, outside the hotel. There are cars strewn along both sides of the side street – Saudis are pretty lackadaisical about spaces. I point to a beat-up red Toyota across the street.)

Mike: Oh! This is your hotel like this is my car? This is your hotel?

Mohammed: Yes. (with a smile)

Mike: Ah!

Well, that finally established, we went on to agree, at least, to the time and place for a first meeting.

We went to a Jarrir Bookstore to take a look at the ESL offerings. Most, of course, were relatively expensive packages including CDs and other puff up the deal sorts of things. I just wanted a reader. I like that as a start. I read, you read. You hear and try; I go over sounds and meanings; we discuss.

Anyhow, we settled on a small book published by Muslims of short stories (two pages of large type at most) and some jokes. The stories are all rooted in Islam. Some of the jokes, I didn’t get. Mohammed wanted to go to a coffee shop.

Not my first choice since was already after eight p.m. and I’m not 20 anymore so sleep doesn’t come as easily or as deeply as it did then, and though I love coffee and once sat in a coffee shop long enough to drink 26 cups, don’t know why the waitress was so kind, and then went home and fell asleep, I can’t do that now. But, hey.

So, he drove us across Riyadh to Dr. Café, a place he likes. It’s nice. The coffee’s good and Mohammed can plug in his laptop, not that we need it this time. He insists on paying for the coffees. I’m fine. It’s a cup of coffee and a slice of not-quite cheesecake and I’m tutoring him so that’s fair.

In subsequent meetings, the pattern is repeated. We never talk about a fee for me. Not sure why I didn’t bring it up. Maybe friendship. Maybe, because he’s driving me around Riyadh. Maybe, I just like helping him. Maybe, I’m learning from him, too. Don’t know. Anyway, because of schedules, I get home at one time, he gets off work at another (he’s a junior officer in the National Guard – what we would call the Army), and there are two prayer times at the end of the day, it sometimes gets a little complicated to work in dinner at the Green Olive and an hour and a half or two hours of English.

So, eventually, inevitably, Mohammed and I end up eating together. It is my only meal of the day and I have a full plate. He has a what equates to a small wrap. Again, he wants to pay. This time, I do not agree. It is my dinner. I chose it. I ate it. I pay for it. This is not to be. I kid you not, he is adamant. He rushes to the cashier and pays. I remonstrate. He is unmovable. He just says no and shakes his head. The guy who runs the restaurant, Lebanese, I think, who knows me a little from so many visits to his restaurant, just smiles and gives me the “that’s the way it is” shrug. In the end, I say fine.

Another night our paths crossed when we hadn’t planned to meet. I was heading down to the restaurant, he was just leaving the hotel. He gave me a ride. That was nice, but once we got there he wanted to wait while I ate so he could take me back to the hotel. “No, man, thanks. I’ll take a cab.” (I take a long time to eat a meal; only one tooth left on top.)

“You call?”

“No, Mohammed. I’ll just get a taxi.”

“But, you like my father. I live near.” (Actually, I’m older.)

“Mohammed.” Said in that way which means “let it go.”

“Okay.” Said in that way which means, “okay, but I don’t want to.”

A few nights ago, we had planned to meet. As it happened, another teacher, Shish, who knows Mohammed, asked if the three of us could go to a particular restaurant which he, a third teacher, Elan, and Mohammed had gone to before.

I asked Mohammed about this idea, after all, it is his lesson time, and he acquiesced readily. So, we go for kopsa (excuse me if that’s misspelled – phonics for me), a traditional gulf region food. The restaurant is traditional, too. We take our shoes off, sit on the floor (bones creaking), a plastic table cloth is spread on the rug. After a bit of negotiating, mostly between Shish, Mohammed, and the waiter, with an occasional “whatever” by me, it is decided that we’ll have meat and labna. I ask where I can wash my hands and am directed across the small dining room to a pair of sinks.

In short order, a very large plate of spiced rice and huge lamb chunks is placed before us. Each of us gets a plate with raw onion quarters and lemon wedges on it, a small bowl of what I would call thin salsa, and a small plastic bottle of liquid yogurt (labna). Aside from the absence of the table and chairs, there are no napkins, no utensils, no individual plates, no serving spoon, no bread, no salt, no pepper, no glasses of water, no ketchup, and no one to come by to ask whether everything is all right.

The rice is good, the lamb is wonderful, exceedingly tender, the labna is unflavored. The three of us cannot finish the single plate of food.

On this evening, I had a small problem.

My monthly salary in paid in cash, and most of it comes in 500 riyal notes, and that’s what I was down to. Even the Green Olive, a busy, popular place, is unhappy to see me pull one of these out of my wallet for a 21 riyal dinner (3.75 SAR to $1), and the guys who run the small market, the barber, the laundry, the tailor, and the baker are positively hurt by the request, and though I have had only the smallest of problems with cab drivers, I’d be loathe to hand any of them a 500 riyal note for a 15 riyal fare, so I try to break the big notes in some place where I believe it won’t be a problem.

Consequently, I had planned to pay for the meal at the restaurant to break that note, even though I’m pretty sure the owner will not be overly pleased that I’ve taken so much of his working change. I’m pretty sure he’ll get through it.

So, we’re done eating and I am stuffed. A very, very good meal, and more than all I could eat. Mohammed ate a little. The side onions went down with the kopsa and only the lemon wedges remained. Mohammed begins to clean his fingers with one. Ah! (another light going on in foreigner’s head). I give it a try. It works pretty well, but I want that washed with soap and water feeling. So, I go across the room to the sinks and Mohammed joins me.

I say to him: “Mohammed, tonight I need to pay for dinner.”

“No.” he says with a smile, a shaking of the head, and the wave of an extended index finger.

“Mohammed, I need to. I need to get change.”


“Mohammed, I have only 500 riyal notes, I need change. You can give me cash back, if you want, but I need to get change.”


I show him the note. I repeat myself. I am unsuccessful.

“How will I get change? I have to pay a taxi in the morning.”


“The hotel will make change for me?”


Well, I already knew the hotel wouldn’t readily make change for me. They keep less than a hundred riyals on hand as petty cash. Hell, they have as much trouble as the little market; not sure why this is.

Once, I asked the desk for change for 500. They hesitated, then took the bill, gave it to one of the guys who do all the side jobs here (cleaning, mopping, repairing, carrying baggage, and stuff like this task) who had to go out and find someplace to get the bill changed.

Now, I realize he went to the gas station close to the hotel, but I’m pretty sure he had to explain to the clerk that an American staying at the hotel couldn’t manage to take care of his own money needs and shared with the clerk there a joke about how untogether the privileged can be.

Anyway, nothing could be done with Mohammed. At least, nothing could be done without making a big deal out of it. As it turned out, I had just a little more in small bills than enough to pay for the cab to school. Once there, I went to one of the coffee stands. Hesitantly, I asked Igbot whether he could change the 500 riyal note. Happily, he could; and now, days later, I still haven’t run out of that change.

Last week in my second class, only one student showed up and he expressed a desire to just talk. We did. We talked about jihad, terrorism, the deep schism between Shia and Sunni Muslims, the death penalty, and about this thing of Mohammed being so unwilling to allow me to pay, not just when I thought I should or wanted to, but even when I, more of less, needed to.

Hospitality: Nawaf, my student, explained that Mohammed’s feelings would be hurt if I did not allow him to pay. Literally. The obligation is so deep in the psyche of the people that I would be disrespecting him by insisting. It isn’t machismo. It isn’t defending one’s manhood, but it is implicit in one’s sense of self, it’s defending one’s obligations to others. Walking the walk.

Jihad: Nawaf explained that, in the event the Kingdom was attacked, war against the aggressors would be jihad. He said he could go to another Muslim country and fight to defend that country, and that would be jihad. But, he also said a Muslim cannot start a war with anyone and call it jihad. Maybe, this is something for westerners to think about.

Terrorism: it’s terrorism to him, too. Those who engage in it are outside of Islam. Even in jihad, a Muslim may not kill women and children.

The depth of the divide between Sunnis and Shias: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a Sunni nation. To Nawaf, Shias do not follow Islam. He is not permitted to marry a Shia, but he could marry a Christian woman; that would be permissible.

The death penalty: While I do not support the idea that the state should have the right to end a life because of criminal actions, even the worst, I admit to wavering sometimes and wonder whether I would be able to refrain from revenge in the event those I love were slaughtered. I really rather doubt it.

One of the most meaningful differences between Saudi Arabia and the US is the basis on which each nation is founded. We are, the US, predicated on words expressing ideas unquestionably written by men. There’s some pretty good words, some pretty good ideas. But, even if we have referred to religious ideas for the basis of some of our governmental ideas, we are not a nation in which God is paramount. We are a secular nation. No one claims that the Constitution or the Bill or Rights are the words of God. No one (at least no sane, mildly educated person) thinks that our laws come from God.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on the Quran. Believers accept that these are the words of Allah. There are no two ways about it.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am not a religious man. My experiences with the Southern Baptist Church, American society, the US Federal government, and some study of world history and world religions have all led me to conclude that belief in God is not possible. I continue to believe it would be wonderful if there were a God looking out for us, but I just can’t believe that there is. So, I’m not saying KSA got it right and we got it wrong; all I’m saying is this society is founded on belief, and that, in some ways, that is a good thing.

This leads me back to the death penalty. It is part of this society. Here, some offenders are put to death. It is considered that beheading by the sword is swift and painless. Having not had the experience, I can’t say. Maybe so.

But, unlike the US, where once the courts have spoken, there is no recourse; here there is. A person sentenced to death can be forgiven, spared by the family of the victim. Not such a bad idea. Maybe, but won’t happen, you say? It does. Happened recently. Gives one pause to consider the idea of mercy. The desire is present in US society (Americans are okay, too), but that desire to forgive, to show mercy, just can’t be made real in our country. Which nation is barbaric in that equation?

I want to add that though I’ve asked Mohammed for no money I have benefited beyond the small things already noted in two real ways from working with him: He’s had the internet on my floor fixed and installed a 500 channel television receiver installed in my hotel room.

I have no idea what the dollar value of the receiver is, not something I had even explored, and the preponderance of the stations are Islamic talking heads, but, even so, I can say that the chance to see films from around the world (Italian and British mostly, and some pretty good ones from the US instead of the usual fare of jingoism and might makes right) and catch the news is a big, big plus. The internet? Well, that’s more of less expected when you pay for space and everyone on this floor benefited from that. Still, it was nice.

Till next time ….

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar PSD March 20, 2010 at 7:06 pm

Thanks for these pieces – it’s really fascinating to get a look at another culture from our perspective…


avatar DanaMo March 21, 2010 at 1:41 pm

I really enjoyed this as well, thank you…


avatar Larry OB March 22, 2010 at 4:20 pm

He can stop you from paying, but he can’t stop your words. Tell him about the things he could expect to eat if he came to visit you here…taquitos with guacamole, grilled fish tacos with white sauce, a hot Poma’s roast beef sandwich with melted cheddar., etc. Have him practice his English with this website:



avatar urnmyart March 23, 2010 at 11:08 pm

When I read your articles I am reminded how you have such a keen ability to make profound observations. I look forward to read more about your developing relationships.


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