Weekend mornings here in Saudi Arabia are like what Sundays used to be in America in the 1950s. Completely dead. No one on the streets. And most everyone is asleep. Since the roads are clear of cars, I can ride my bicycle without fear of being smashed into a bloody pulp by some maniac driver. My mind, normally laser-focused, even if I'm riding on the sidewalk, runs a bit more free.
Since I can't exactly crack open a couple of cold beers after work on Thursday evening—instead I usually gorge myself on stuffed-crust pizza from Pizza Hut—and because there is absolutely nothing else to do I wake up early, even earlier than I would wake up to go to work. I pack my orange REI bag with the following: my wallet with a debit card and iqama, which is my residency permit that has information about my work sponsor, age and DOB, and, yes, my religion; a mobile hotspot that turns the 4G network into WiFI and are an ubiquitous item among the smartphone obsessed Saudis; my Kindle (thank you very much #cortopher;) and my phone with a cracked screen in two places that makes my Saudis students wince and ask why I don't want to buy a new one. I tell them it works fine and to stop being so vain.
I bike to Starbucks, which is about 2 kilometers from my apartment complex. Starbucks is open because the Westerners are awake and they want coffee. A few motivated Saudis are there too, but it's less common to seem them out and about before 9am. The Starbucks occupies a space on the bottom floor a rounded building that has a couple of fast food chains, including a Little Caesar's Pizza, an indoor amusement park for kids called Sparkey's, and a bowling alley. The front of the Starbucks has a fine view of the corniche, an expansive stone boardwalk that runs north to south along the Arabian Gulf. You don't call it the Persian Gulf in Saudi Arabia for reasons that lie about 200 kilometers northwest of me. The Starbucks has wide bay windows and comfortable plush seats from which to take in the view of the corniche with a group of your fellow coffee drinkers. This section, including the view, is only for "singles," or males. The "family" section is tucked away further inside the building. Men can take their wives and children to this section, and single ladies can gather to drink and eat here too, but no single men are allowed inside the family section. Compared to the singles section, the family section has no view and the windows are tinted black.
I go to Starbucks because, well, I like Starbucks. I liked it in the States and I like it here. The offerings are almost the same, except no ham on the sandwiches and they don't keep the cream out for self service because milk is expensive. I suppose I could partake in the custom of drinking local Arabic coffee, but after a week of teaching rambunctious Saudi students I enjoy a complete indulgence in the somewhat familiar.
The baristas are from India and the Philippines. They recognize me on sight now and offer a friendly greeting. I always make it a point to greet them with equal enthusiasm and ask about their morning. Employees in food and drink service make good money in Saudi Arabia, but they are seen as beneath many of their customers and often treated accordingly. The counter is split down the middle with a large wooden wall which separates the singles section and the family section. Behind it I can hear the voices of a few women chatting in English and Arabic, children playing, and babies crying.
I order the usual: coffee with milk and a cheese croissant. Lately they've been trying to up-sell me on Pumpkin Spice Lattes and as of last week the Toffee Nut Latte. I joke they have too much sugar and that's why we are all fat. They look at me with polite but confused smiles. Incidentally, they are also selling the controversial Starbucks red cup. Tis' the Season, even in Saudi Arabia.
I occupy a seat near a window where I can keep an eye on my bike; call it a habit carried over from living in urban America. Like anyone would even consider touching it lest they lost a hand, which is a real punishment over here. On typical day I people-watch and read till about 10:30am when the baristas usher out all patrons and the shop shutters for the Friday prayer—the most important one of the week. But today would prove to be far from typical as I notice a Saudi man looking at me while I'm in line. He overhears me order and we make eye contact. I smile and say hello. A huge grin appears on his face and he says "I hear your English and it is perfect but I cannot place where you are from."
Now I've reached a fork in the road of my morning. Depending on how much I reveal, I will be invariably sucked into the same old conversation I always have with most non-Westerners here. He inquires as to whether or not I'm Turkish, maybe Syrian…no, Lebanese! I cut his guessing short with, "no, actually, I'm from America." His response, mashallah (meaning, God—Allah—has willed it.) and he invites me to sit with him. "Come, let us drink coffee together."
My Friday is now officially interrupted. I was looking forward to drinking my coffee, eating my croissant, and enjoying the column of Western oil workers that come through the door. Many of these guys are from Houston, and wear Astros or Texans hats, Harley Davidson shirts, or drab nylon shirts from brands that are not sold at REI but at Bass Pro Shops or Cabela's. With thick Texan accents they order machiattos and cappuccinos and americanos and the baristas repeat back the orders in their Indian or Filipino accents. And I find the whole scene to be very amusing. But now I must sit and drink my coffee with this perfectly nice yet pushy man who has already occupied the table where I put my bag because he spied the conversational pushover in me. He invites me to sit at my table with the same wide grin, "please, let us talk."
I suppose I could've politely said no. If I was back in the States, I would've assuredly said no, had I not been in the mood to talk. But I'm a guest here and by refusing this gentleman would've lost face as a result, and Jubail is a small town. Since I could very well run into him again, I didn't really have a choice. Plus, I always hold out hope in situations like these that someone who is a little bit eccentric will strike up a conversation with me; and by eccentric I mean normal for me as a Westerner which means completely out of character for a Saudi. I meet those people in about 1 out of every 20 encounters I have, like the gentleman from Ann Arbor who works at Bechtel and rolled up one day to Starbucks on his ancient Raleigh bicycle. But today is one of those regular encounters.
He asks where I'm from. I repeat that I'm from America, specifically California but my family is in Colorado now. He brightens again and says, "Califooooooornia!" He tells me he was certain I was from Turkey or Lebanon or Syria. I tell him, "yes, I remember you said that." Then, out of habit and to clear the mystery that I envision is swirling around in his brain, and since I'm clearly in this conversation indefinitely, I throw the curveball that my grandfather was from Pakistan. Now the knowing look comes and he says, "I knew it," followed by the statement, "so, you are a Muslim!"
Rarely is this a question. Because my grandfather was from Pakistan he must be Muslim and so must my father and so must I, is the thought process that goes on inside his head. I have to remind myself that Islam isn't just a religion as we think about religion in the United States. It's a way of life as well as a brotherhood and sisterhood, so in one way we are all connected. But I can't be deceitful so in a few words I distance myself from the brotherhood by saying, "no, actually I'm not Muslim." He counters: "so you are Christian?" This time, the inflection in his voice is more quizzical, puzzled. I smile and say, "nope, I'm not Christian either." He then throws me a curveball by asking if I'm atheist to which I quickly answer no, mainly because it's highly illegal to declare oneself as such. Christians and Jews at least worship the same god as Muslims. To be an atheist is to deny the very existence of the person I am talking to.
I tell him (his name is Mezar, by the way) that my one grandfather was in fact Muslim and my other was Christian. I further explain that my father was sort of Muslim, I flatten my hand in front of him and tip it side to side; the universal gesture for so-so. Same thing for my mother. He nods again in understanding and quickly moves the conversation away from my misguided past, my neglectful parents, and focuses on bringing me back into the fold.
I think most people would find this conversation exhausting, but there is something truly genuine about Mezar's approach that is flattering. He calls me "friend" and "brother" even though we just met, but he is 100 percent sure about his convictions. I have strayed from the righteous path and it is his duty, as it is everyone's duty, to get me to come correct. He quotes the Quran. He offers his wisdom. He challenges me with logic. And he even offers to bring me some literature so I may be moved to learn more. He defends his arguments by telling me to watch some YouTube videos on Islam.
Flattering yes, but otherwise I am completely and utterly unmoved. Conversations like these reveal the vast cultural divide that exists between me and a world where most everyone feels I am some sort of long lost connection.
I'm not doing much of the talking here as, aside from trying to guide me, he's also using this as an opportunity to practice his English. I pay him several sincere compliments as his English is quite good, but he waves them off in modesty even after revealing he lived in Santa Barbara and Boston.
One medium coffee later and he invites me out of my seat to enjoy my bike ride. Maybe this was all just a fantastic ruse to steal my prime spot? I don't balk at the opportunity though, but instead I take my leave and wonder where in the hell I am going to relax and read. So, I exit the Starbucks…
...only to see a peleton of about 10 bicyclists race by on the street.
Unlike my encounter with Mezar, seeing a group of cyclists on the streets of Jubail is not a normal occurrence. So I pull myself together, hop on my Trek, and give chase. Lucky for me there are still few cars on the streets, so I can aggressively stalk them until I am about 10 meters back. All of the riders are wearing cycling kits of varying styles, pro helmets, and bike shoes. I recognize a red Cofidis jersey, which is the sponsor of a French professional cycling team that competes in the Tour de France. Then all of a sudden I see a lime green jersey that says "Jubail Cycling Club" on the back.
I've now committed myself to discover more about these wonderful cyclists and where they came from. "These guys," I think to myself, "are my people." Just then a horn blares to my left and passing me in a white Toyota Land Cruiser is Mezar, waving and gesticulating happily in my direction. I give him a curt nod and focus on my peleton as Mezar zooms off at a reckless speed.
About a kilometer or so later as I'm making a move to talk to the trailing cyclist, two of the riders crash in a sandy spot. The peleton suddenly halts. I approach and ask if everyone's ok. Because my sensitivity to nationality is so heightened here, I immediately recognize that they are all from the Philippines. Apparently the Cofidis rider is one of a few others with a pro kit from off the rack. The other riders are wearing custom-made jerseys and shorts. One is gray and black, with the Philippines flag emblazoned on the back and the word kabayan on the sides, which in Tagalog means "fellow countrymen" and is a sign of welcoming in addressing other Filipinos. Another is wearing a jersey with the Chevron logo, which I assume is his place of work. Yet another has the logo for the Saudi iron and steel company, Hadeed. Each rider is of various shapes and sizes and I immediately fall in love with each and everyone them. I want to be a kabayan.
The leader, a tall, muscular fellow named Victor, explains when the club meets and that I should definitely join if I want to. Looking me up and down he says, "though, you will probably need some bike shoes and a jersey. We can have one made for you for about 300 riyals" (or about $80.) I come at him all Californian and say, "dude, that would be AWESOME" and several of them giggle.
"Can I take your picture?" I ask of them. "I brought my fancy camera with me today," and pull my Nikon out of my bag. A chorus of "oohs" and "ahhs" erupts and they quickly fall into a line, posing with their bikes. I hear one of them yell at me, "habla espanol?"
I respond with, "un poco… ¿cómo se dice "queso" en inglés?" The Filipinos roar with laughter and I smugly smile to myself and think that out of all the weirdos I meet here on a daily basis, occasionally I stumble upon my people. And that's one of the most comforting feelings, especially when you're so far away from your own.