My students have the habit of asking me a lot of questions. They ask general questions about my life and my job and what I do with my free time. They ask more complex questions about my opinions on Saudi Arabia or to confirm facts they have heard about the United States. From class to class these questions almost never change in terms of form and substance because there's little thinking outside-the-box, which is what happens when life is guided by strict social norms and where cultural variance is discouraged.
This means I know exactly what's coming on any given day. Are you married? - Why aren't you married? - Do you have a car? - Do you go to Bahrain? - Is all of America cold right now? (An appropriate question considering it is winter.) Do you go to the desert? - How is Las Vegas? (followed by) Is it a nice city? - Do you like drifting? (Fast and the Furious; the favorite movie of young Saudi men.) Do you drink? - Do you like Arabic coffee?
But two favorite questions of mine among the countless pointed ones I get from my students go something like this. 1) "Teacher, why did you come to live in Saudia? Saudia is…" at which point many fumble for an adjective and instead flick both wrists toward the floor and stick out their tongues with a smile. "America is good, number 1!" Another hand gesture; this time a thumbs-up. or 2) "Teacher, why do you live here alone? You should bring your family here. Jubail is boring if you don't have family." My answer to the first question is always "for the experience" but they believe they see right through that and add "and big salary!" Uproarious laughter ensues. Before I can lay out my complex answer the second question, I am usually cut off by a student in Arabic who counters by saying my family probably doesn't want to come to Saudi if they live in America. Why would they?
In truth, they are probably right. I haven't seen Saudi Arabia on anyone's travel bucket list. Casual travel to the Kingdom is only for completists—those who simply must have that passport stamp; a goal that was so attractive in my twenties but feels overrated now that I'm approaching 40. In fact, I bet a straw poll among my Western friends and colleagues here would reveal that no one really figured they'd end up working in a place like the Kingdom, much less stay for a long period of time.
Yet, they come anyway. And not only do they come, they also stay. Most individuals I've acquainted with here are not short-timers like me. Instead, they have lived here for 5, 10, even 15 years. I've met men and women who leave and return. And I've spoken with a few who said they planned to fulfill a two year contract and then leave, only to stay one more year, and another, and another. Next thing they know, they're on their 7th year in Saudi Arabia.
Not that we don't have the occasional "runner" to gossip about. Since the Kingdom is a completely closed country—there are stringent requirements for entry, and exit is no picnic either—and contract laws favor the employer, people unhappy with their choice to live here might fake a vacation to Bahrain, Dubai, or Qatar over the course of a weekend and simply never return. I hear about runners every three months or so. Stories abound from the 1970s and 1980s of Westerners with flush bank accounts racking up outrageous debt to buy luxury cars, BMWs, Mercedes, Bentleys, only to abandon them at an airport when they felt like abandoning their jobs. But if Saudi Arabia was only about the tax-free salary, then I'd end this post right now.
I suppose the good news for me is I've never felt like running. I've had my share of frustrations, but not once have I even remotely been so fed up as to cross the King Fahd Causeway to Manama or catch the hour flight to Dubai and leave the Kingdom in my rearview mirror. Quite the contrary, life in Saudi Arabia has been, well, good and easy.
About a year ago, this "sabbatical" (as I'm calling it these days) started quite inauspiciously when my flight from SFO to LAX was delayed because of fog. I landed in Los Angeles and pressed my nose against the window only to see my connecting Saudi Arabian Airlines flight on the runway en-route to Jeddah. Three days and two lost and retrieved bags later, I was back at LAX savoring my last beer and bacon cheeseburger for the foreseeable future. Over 18 hours later, I was standing in the new arrivals line at customs, bleary-eyed but ready for the adventure to begin. Though, hadn't it already begun when I decided six months earlier to pursue this crazy idea?
Now, 12 months later I am once again a short-timer reflecting on what I've learned and gained during this surprisingly good year.
Control-Alt-Deleting an Uncompleted Opportunity
Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Gregory David Roberts escaped to Mumbai. Under far less extreme but still unusual circumstances, I ended up in Jubail, in the heart of Saudi Arabia's petrochemical industry, teaching males aged 18 to 45. I had no clue what a Jubail was before I landed in Saudi Arabia. So try and imagine what went through my head last February in Riyadh. 48 hours on the ground spent in virtual limbo because the company for which I was supposed to teach literally had no idea what to do with me. A meeting was set up with a general manager in charge of the English program, somewhat surprised that I even made it to Saudi in the first place—there is a healthy rate of no-shows that management accounts for. After 20 minutes of deliberation they shrugged and decided they wanted me to stay in Riyadh. Call it a growth moment, but I refused based on facts I gleaned from a former teacher as well as instinct and maybe even a desire to exert some assertiveness. "Riyadh isn't going to work for me." I stated firmly. "What else do you have?" A few phone calls and five minutes later they relented, "Fine, maybe you can go to Jubail. You leave in four hours."
The last 12 months of my life are filled with moments like this, and I'm oft reminded of time in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan some 10 years earlier. Had I not been through that experience, as well as several lengthy spans in therapy, there's a good chance I would've crumpled into a sobbing, anxious, and infuriated mess. At least 10 years ago I had a support system built into the journey. This time, however, it was me against whatever Saudi Arabia threw at me. Not only am I happy to say that victory is almost at hand, but I feel that I was also able to come full circle on a Peace Corps experience that wasn't quite fulfilled because of frustrations with my job assignment at the time followed by an unceremonious and stressful evacuation from country. Saudi Arabia provided an upgraded version of the Peace Corps, just with a heftier "salary" and modern plumbing. The universe really does provide when you want it to.
Rediscovering My "Likes"
I turned 38 years old this year and, tbh, I still find myself trying to figure out what I like. This has been an issue since I was a child, simply because I always saw myself as one of those people who likes most everything. Nothing was ever really mediocre or disappointing. The eternal and optimistic fire that burns white-hot inside me has always tried, for better or worse, to see the good in all things. But if all things are equal, then can you truly like anything or is it all just diluted?
Life in Saudi Arabia has a tendency to throw dislikes in my face in blunt and rapid succession. The result is my likes are amplified and, even better, I've become more appreciative of the opposite of my dislikes. I shan't dwell on these dislikes too much, but I feel clearer and readier to point them out. I tsk tsk my students' overtly misogynistic comments and firmly explain, as opposed to quietly stew, why they are not allowed to use the N-word in reference to African Americans in my presence. I demand to see a plan of action when it comes to organizing my classes or when I foresee having to sidestep through some bureaucratic nonsense, instead of "going with the flow" which was my previous MO. (Some battles are, however, unwinnable because the clashes of culture here resemble the irresistible force paradox. I keep trying though, mainly in an attempt to satisfy my conscience.) I politely call out litterers like a crazy person and I harass my chronically late and absent students, who in turn look at me with a mix of mild amusement and shame. I scold line-cutters and I call out bad behavior in general. In other words, I'm challenging the dormant side of my personality that deals in assertion and resolve.
As far as my likes go, these may seem basic. But when do we truly have the time or the space to revisit what carries us through our day? I really like what I'm listening to on Spotify and iTunes these days. Because of the complete lack of music in public—forbidden, according to the Kingdom's interpretation of Islam—I ravenously seek out new music or revisit songs that I used to play obsessively. If you follow my Insta (go ahead and do so; zenliveshere will love it) then you might see I'm still at my photography game. With endless thanks to a gift from my favorite newly-minted married couple #cortopher, my Kindle is one of my best friends here. I really appreciate what Saudi Arabia has taught me as far as understanding my own likes in travel. A quest to cross into Kuwait or Qatar is now tempered with a strong desire to return and camp in Big Sur, or hike in Yosemite, or wander the streets NYC, especially after I share stories about how special these places are with my students. Solo travel now, for me, is overrated. Yet finding solitude is underrated. Shortly after I bought my Trek bicycle at a discount during the August furnace when temperatures would easily top 110°F, I would often return from rides with feelings of buyer's remorse, not to mention physically feeling on the edge of heatstroke. As of January I'm cranking out 30 to 40 kilometer afternoon rides every other day against unrelenting headwinds in gorgeous 60°F weather, surrounded by turquoise waters and laughing my way through quiet neighborhoods as I listen to Serial or This American Life or the Savage Lovecast or SYSK, reveling in the bubble of Americana that I've formed while at the same time avoiding getting crushed by a drifting Toyota Hilux. I charge into each day and class with the energy of an extrovert, but I make sure to end my days savoring time that I reserved for me.
A New Perspective…
It's not lost on me that I'm in an fascinating area of the world at a unique moment in history. In a few years, I could be staring at a live feed of a region that is either triumphantly emerging or descending into more chaos. Either way, tears will be streaming down my face because of the attachment that happens when you immerse yourself in a place and gain perspective from inside the borders of a country. From the lens that I look through right now, I see a lot of people rooting against the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia in particular. Whether I'm cursing myself for peeking at the comment section following a news piece on Saudi or listening to the inanity of Islamophobes spew bile, I see angry, hateful people who would be completely satisfied if the whole region were to collapse. But the vast majority of people I interact with on a daily basis (and I'm talking 99.5%) are just trying to get by. And I'm doing my best to root for them.
Then, I look back through the lens at the United States and I gain a difference perspective. I proudly answer questions from my students about anything American, and I wear my Americanism on my sleeve with pride and without fear. But I'm also infuriated by the politics and cultural nuances that make America look like an insane asylum to the outside world. We're as free to be exceptional and as blindly bullheaded as we want to be, and damn anyone who accidentally steps into our path. There are many Americans who understand that our actions in the global community have consequences, and are conscientious of that fact. But sadly, there are just as many who would just as well say "tough luck. 'Murica." It's that latter perspective that makes me unsettled and angry because those attitudes are not without consequence. Yet I am grateful that I've been able to use this experience to reevaluate and reform my opinions on many issues, including politics, Islam, the West, and my home in the USA.
…And Renewed Gratitude
I'm thankful for the ability to renew my passport at the US Consulate in Dharhan, which should allow me to return home in one to two months (exit visa and extra work pending.) I'm thankful for the ability to travel for a short while after this trip and visit some close friends in Hong Kong and Taiwan en route back to the United States. I'm also thankful that I don't earn 1000 riyals ($266 per month) pumping gas so I can in turn remit most of it home to my family in Bangladesh and use the rest to pay for a room that I share with 6 other guys. What a seemingly absolute stroke of luck that was born into the privilege I now enjoy. I'm thankful that my job has revealed how awesome teaching and/or counseling students is as a profession and that I should try and stick with it because, damn, I'm good at what I do. I'm thankful that Saudi Arabia has allowed me the space to revisit and do what I like to do best. I'm thankful for my driver, who I found on a complete whim and whom I have been able to trust from day one, especially considering I hopped in his SUV outside the Sharq Hotel in Jubail on the blind faith that he, and his friend that lurked in the backseat, didn't want to deliver me into some murderous death and instead wanted to buy me a cappuccino and a donut. I'm thankful for the completely gracious and adorable American couple who opened their apartment and welcomed me as family into their home and for the perspective they offer as two individuals who are the opposite of me in politics and religion, and yet, believe it or not, we share a happy space together.
And finally, I'm grateful for this, a Once in a Lifetime Experience, because when I get that exit stamp there's really no coming back to Saudi Arabia. In the travel book 1000 Places to See Before You Die, there's a historical site called Mada'in Saleh, which is the only entry in the book for Saudi Arabia. Mada'in Saleh is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is similar to Petra in style; a pre-Islamic archaeological site, with the bonus that it is allegedly cursed and therefore many Saudis are wary of going. On one hand, it's unfortunate that I won't have the time to visit Mada'in Saleh, which means it will only have to exist in my mind through pictures. But after this year, I'm thankful to have developed the wisdom to say, "you know, I'm ok with that. There are plenty more adventures ahead."