My time here is rapidly drawing to a close. Thank God. Don’t get me wrong, the people are nice, the money’s been good, and at 65, hell, it’s just good to work at all. I hope I’ve stayed long enough, but even if I haven’t, I gotta get out of here.
Why do I need to leave?
More than any other reason it is because I’m starting to lose my patience. Things I could shrug off before are becoming too tiresome to let go by. I’m starting to tell administrators things they’re not interested in hearing. In class, I started straying further and further off the prescribed and only acceptable path. My ability to pretend I’m happy as a clam in company and school meetings is deteriorating. I’m just too tired of the bullshit.
There’s a story sometimes told by friends to newcomers about the two buckets.
When one arrives in Riyadh, one is given two buckets. One bucket is for bullshit and the other is for money. When either bucket is full, it’s time to leave. My bullshit bucket is definitely full. I hope the money bucket is, too.
Other than that, I miss my wife, Michele, too much. We’ve had to put up with each other for only 60 days in the last 32 months. That, of course, does tend to keep us from fighting, but I feel a stong need to go a few rounds with her. I miss my friends. I miss the color green as part of the landscape. I miss rain. I miss birds and insects. I miss hearing the coyote chorus at night in Tecolote Canyon. I miss Guinness Stout. I miss dogs. I miss fog. The ocean. Sailing. In-N-Out burgers.
I recently took a drive into Bahraini territory to renew my visa. While there, I saw a seagull and the coastal waters of the Arabian Gulf. Wow. A highlight. Made the trip worth while. A seagull and some shoreline? Yeah. A seagull and some shoreline. I’m getting desperate.
Cats, I dont miss; we’re got three here that belong to other people who are somewhere else. Why are there cat people? It’s like having a baby who’s already got an attitude.
“I want to come in. I want to go out. I’m hungry. Pet me. Oh, were you sleeping? I wanna take a shit. Open the door! I’m thirsty. My litter box needs to be cleaned; otherwise, you know I’ll shit on the tile. What makes you think this is your bed? Hey! Pay attention to me. What’s wrong with cat hair?” So much trouble for so little return.
I miss all the flavors which were previously standards in my life. Mexican food at Casa Loma. Italian food at Volare. Breakfast sausage anywhere. Fresh vegetables. A ham sandwich. Split pea soup. Potatoes that aren’t French fries or pre-formed and pre-cooked triangles of what ought to be hashbrowns. It took me three months to get the guys at Kudu (a chain restaurant next to school) to cook eggs right. They like them runny. They never did actually master scrambling them properly before I gave up. They like to use a spatula chop them up so small on the grill that a fork is useless. Try the spoon or a straw. Also, I solemnly vow not to eat another french fry as long as I live.
The best meals here, other than a properly cooked Club Breakfast at Kudu, are at Tokyo, a very good Japanese purveyor, a Pakistani place I know neither the name of nor how to get to, an American chain called Johnny Rocket’s (Actually, just great malts! Burgers are closer to what I want to taste, but still not there.), and almost any Turkish place. Why do people who aren’t Thais like the food? Most of it you could eat with a straw. Tiny bits of what the hell is this? Or soups. Okay, enjoy.
Riyadh may be the home of the knock-off. Since social status is announced by wealth, the icons of it are displayed by almost all can afford them, and knock-offs adorn many others who don’t really have the money, but want to look as though they do. Almost Raybans. Almost a Rolex. iPhone? No, but just like it. iPad? No, but just like it. Of course, a Mercedes is a Mercedes and a Toyota is a Toyota; can’t fake that.
Many major American brands have outlets here. (I’d bet that a significant portion of the sales of Mercurys is made in Saudi Arabia.) You can get a Pepsi almost anywhere. I’ll bet you could stop a random Saudi kid on the open road, open the trunk of the kid’s car, and find one. And, if you did, that Pepsi would make a nice foot warmer in colder climes. You can get a Big Mac. You can a Whopper. You can get Baskin and Robbins ice cream. You can get a Dunkin’ Dount. You can get a Krispy Kreme (Ugh!). What would be Carl’s Jr. in the U.S. has outlets called Hardee’s. You can go to Fuddrucker’s or Applebee’s.
But you can’t get a grilled cheese sandwich and you can hardly get a cup of soup of any kind; certainly, you can’t any soup I would recognize. Even those that are called by names I know, don’t fill the bill. They’re similar, but no match.
Any place that caters to foreign or upscale Saudi tastes is based on having lots of service (Except Tokyo, which has enough, but not too much). Instead of service, let me say, servants. It seems two main ideas drive the competition for Saudi customers: 1) flashy surroundings (Applebee’s near school looks like a bar inside), and 2) servile over kill (it’s as though Uriah Heep trained every server in the country). (Heep Servility Training Services? Heep’s Help?)
Ten guys standing around watching you all the time with fake smiles on their faces is thought to be worth something, though I’ve never been able to see why. Here, it is standard. Of course, prices are inflated. I will be glad to get home and be able to talk to people who don’t call me Sir.
Americans may be a pain sometimes, but I also won’t miss the sheer number of servants and the assumptions associated with being on the top or the bottom of the heap.
You’re really no better for your money, are you? Better off? Sure. But, better? No. Not at all.
What will I miss when I get home?
Driving like I do here. It seems there is only one rule of the road here: Don’t hit anything. Otherwise, it all seems fair. Not really a lane there. Who says? Can’t make a left turn from the right lane? Wanna bet? A right from the left? Sure. No problem. Can’t stop on a high speed road and back up to get to an exit? Sure you can. Don’t feel like turning on the headlights? No problem. Feel like going way faster than everybody else on this city street. Go ahead; floor that thing. Everybody else on this side of the road is going the other way? Fools! I wanna go there! I’ll just use this little bit of the traffic lane. Gee, there’s no place to turn around. Hop the curb for heaven’s sake. Don’t see a parking space. Park in the road.
I will miss the students. Many teachers feel negatively about them or, at least, say they do. My impression is that unhappy teachers just use the students as a handy scapegoat. They call them lazy. I don’t agree. There are some special ones: Qabba, Bahadi, Baf, Waleed, Faz and a some others, but many of the rest were memorable, and there are none that I want to forget.
I’ll miss the atmosphere created by the crossing paths so many young and old guys from every place English is native. I’ll miss talking to them about their lives and homes and countries and futures and pasts and what they think about things that are. Some are duds. Some are fearful. Some are crooks. Some are energetic and positive. There are many well educated guys here and that often makes for discussions that are interesting. I’ll miss that. Haven’t talked about god so much in a long time.
I’ll miss the absence of cops and references to mightiness and rightiness (I just made that one up.).
But, mostly, I’ll miss the money.
Things I won’t miss.
I won’t miss prayer call. I won’t miss the dust. I won’t miss the heat. I won’t miss abayas. I won’t miss the restrictions on and impediments to learning at KSUPY or the attempt at military precision so dear to the hearts of the administrators of the program. I won’t miss the ridiculously false rhetoric about the school’s intentions.
What have I learned?
Arabs are not all one. Each state has its own society and culture, history and future, understanding and application of the common religion of Islam. Saudi Arabia and Iran (Iranians are not Arabs) have hated each other for a very long time. The schism in Islam is ancient and appears to be unbridgeable. You thought the Irish and English were bad; Sunni/Shia enmity is 1400 years old. Beat that.
I’ve also learned that though we tout democracy, there’s something to be said for a monarchy. Quick decisions and actions. A good leader can mean rapid progress. Of course, conformity helps keep this particular system together, and Islam helps with that quite a bit. Homogeniety also helps. Though that may become a problem. It seems many cousins marry.
I’ve learned that students like to laugh and that they learn better when they’re at ease. I’ve learned to make mistakes on purpose. I’ve learned that a classroom is made of individuals each of whom has unique strenghts, weaknesses, self image, family history, and expectations. I’ve learned to forget what I’m told to do and to do what I think is best but make it appear as though I’ve followed every directive perfectly. I hate that. I won’t miss it. Rather like the army in that sense.
What do I think?
I think Saudi Arabia has two main rails: business and religion. Business is pulling the society into the future and that means education. Education means thinking. Thinking can lead to rejecting the teachings of the old and the adoption of new ideas. Meanwhile, religion tries to keep the society in tune with the perceived teaching of Islam. That means belief in ancient and unchanging ideas. Oil and water, anyone?
Neither of these engines seems to want to destroy or rout the other, but they clash and, I think, will continue to do so for a very long time.
Whether it’s true or not (according to the experts), I’ve come to believe proficiency is a better target than this or that specific bit of grammar or composition skill. I feel more certain than ever that reading is central to improving all language skills, and I feel sure conversation is the best way to start to learn a language.
That’s it. See you. Riyadh out.