The sky didn’t darken until late in the afternoon that day in Amsterdam. It’s normal for it to rain at least once every day here but I had confused the shadow of the towering thunderheads with the coming of night since their coming coincided completely.
Our trio had hurried home from a stroll around the old center of town that had culminated in our stopping by our favorite Thai food place in Amsterdam, “The Bird”. We’d ordered the usual takeaway pad thai and other miscellaneous dishes. We went back up to my flat at the Nieuwmarkt and finished the hodgepodge we’d wandered out for earlier that night. Then we filled up the glasses on the table. Each of us had a half pint of beer in front of us and it was Shane’s job to keep them full with the tall boys I’d scattered around the kitchen. He and I also had small tumblers of bourbon that I was to keep wet. Jo had a glass of wine since she was wary of the Jim Beam I was pouring, and even more afraid of the unopened Jack Daniels that stood eagerly over the fridge.
I’d recently returned from my trip to Saudi Arabia, where I did business for two weeks straight plus another two weeks after a pause. I’d suffered in their heat and their strange customs for what seems like longer. I’d spent almost two months on the road, coming home for barely six hours at one point just to do laundry during a coincidental layover in Amsterdam. I’d strolled in Rome, hopped to New York, hung out in Barcelona, slaved in Riyadh, taught in Prague and then made a sale in Zurich, with a bit of time to head back to Amsterdam and take some sailing lessons. It had taken a brutal toll on my body. And, you know, it doesn’t really end there: Edinburgh and Istanbul are next.
It wasn’t the travel, though; I’ve been doing this for far too long for my body to complain about small confined spaces like economy seating and the perils of jetlag. I’ve been doing this for long enough to have withdrawal symptoms if I stopped, come to think of it. No; what was taking a toll on my body was a combination of stiffled desires and high levels of stress induced by the rigors of social mores in Saudi Arabia and a very serious lack of fun. Never knowing what’s appropriate and what’s not, not inclined to be the jackass American and start guffawing inappropriate questions left and right and no access to good information will drive a writing traveler insane in no time at all. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Because for a moment there I was back home and there we were, drinking ourselves silly under the pretext of discussing international politics and the place of culture in business and ethics in culture.
“Is it true that they have no women there?” Shane asked, only half joking. I guess that’s because I could only be half sure, since all you have when in Riyadh is half a notion that someone is a woman covered in a black abaya, or else a ninja assassin, which is what I told him about.
“How do the women feel about how they’re treated?” Jo asked.
“You mean the ninjas.” Shane corrected her.
“Yes, Shane, the ninjas. How do the ninjas feel about how they’re ranked in society?”
“Well…” I started, already knowing it would make little sense. It never made sense to me and I had to go there just to understand why it would never make sense to me. “I asked around, because nothing I ever read made any sense to me. It still doesn’t, but I can tell you what they told me.
“I talked to these two women at the airport, foreigners, of course. A Brit and an Ozzy. They were wearing their abayas, though not covering their faces. I approached them at a coffee place at the terminal and using my charm and signature reporter’s notepad, told them I was writing a piece on women in the international marketplace. They must’ve assumed I was from the New York Times or something.” I paused, then looked up at Shane and Jo.
“Yeah. You must’ve been SOOOOO charming.” She said, breaking my silence cynically as all hell. She can do that. Shane smiled his goofy smile and waited for my comeback.
“Yeah, well. They talked to me, so, there. She didn’t retort but Shane looked disappointed, and rightfully so.
“They told me that their agency had told them to get abayas before coming and that they had to put it on before they got off the plane! Crazy, right?” I could see they agreed.
“Yeah, but how did they feel about it?” Jo asked. Obviously, her interest in the matter was more deeply rooted than Shane’s.
“Who? The foreigners or the Saudis?” I tried to clarify.
“Well, the foreigners are pretty much in accordance that they resent it and don’t understand it, but do it because it’s not their law and they don’t want to make a commotion. The locals don’t seem to love it, but that’s what they’re used to – taking it away from them would leave most of them in a distraught state of disarray. Not to mention that to them tradition is more important than history or happiness. Or at least maintaining the illusion of tradition. Understanding is not a requisite of obedience for them.”
Blank stares. I knew it. I didn’t understand it; how could I hope to explain it? I tried again.
“It’s like I heard the other day: ‘you’ve got to catch a girl without getting caught’…” I paused, hoping they would get it because a taxi driver had told me this with a lot of confidence, and I didn’t have time to have him explain it.
“Look, as an example: I asked 3 cab drivers, 3 Saudi co-workers, 3 co-workers from Dubai and then did some reading…there’s no legal or acceptable way for a boy and a girl to meet.”
“WHAT?” snapped Shane, incredulous.
“I know. Crazy.”
“Does it have to be arranged, then?” Shane followed up.
“Legally, yes. But no one does it. You can imagine kids our age these days… our generation, as spread over the globe and facebook and myspace and all that… it is knows enough about the size of the world to realize that arranged marriages are about as good an idea as moving to Kansas City… it’s bound to fail.”
Shane laughed but Joanna didn’t get it and just mumbled, “… you American boys…”
“So how do they do it?” Shane asked.
“Well, there’s chat rooms online, but most people use bluetooth technology on their phones to find people within 10 meters of them and chat that way, and if they like each other they agree to meet secretly.
“I turned my phone on once and searched for available devices… you wouldn’t believe the shit that came up, man.
“In the airport, with parents and what not all around them… all I saw were children, between 10 and 16. The older girls were already old enough to cover themselves with veils and abayas… but a list of at least 40 different phones came up, with names like ‘so good to you’, ‘lonely and looking’, ‘girl unclaimed’, and ‘what’s your mobile nmbr sexy?’ I was appalled. I’ve never heard of such sexual frustration. Not even at an airport.”
“This is nuts!” Jo proclaimed.
“Everyone knows, of course, but the important thing is not to get caught. Parents supposedly facilitate it for their kids by looking the other way and giving them some privacy, but if caught, the fines and jail sentences are steep. It’s a savage place, man.
“Do people get out?” Shane asked. “You know – like the Dutch from Holland?”
“Some do, but it’s very difficult. You have to either be unemployed or else have permission from your employer to leave. And god help you if you’re a woman. Then you need a husband’s permission or a father’s… or you can go to Bahrain like the older men do for prostitutes.
“Surprised? You shouldn’t be. It’s like putting too much liquid in a glass bottle. You can’t try to stuff it in there; it’s got nowhere to go. People have needs, man.”
“Why do you keep calling me, ‘man’?” Jo asked. A fair question, I thought, but I ignored it all the same.
“But that’s just HYPOCRITICAL!” Shane announced. I agreed.
“I know. But it’s no different then those Catholic priests in Boston, man. These guys get on a plane in Riyadh on Wednesday nights (their Fridays) bound for Bahrain, a plane full of men in traditional and pious clothes. Everyone knows why. They get off in Bahrain, or Dubai, or wherever they went and their first stop is the duty-free shop, where they load up on whiskey, vodka, cognac and cigarettes. I’m talking CRATES.
These rich guys disappear into the prostitution houses of Bahrain and Dubai and when they come out on Friday (Sunday) they have their traditional clothes on, their heads covered and their smiles soft, likely like other parts of their bodies at this point. They get on a plane back to Riyadh and live out the rest of the week proclaiming how bad alcohol is for the spirit and so forth.”
“That disgusts me,” Jo said. I told her I understood.
“What’s really weird is how there is a lot that is similar to Brazilian society, at least on a detailed and fundamental level. You know, things like male-dominated structures, strong sense of religious propriety and favoritism for outsiders. Actually, that’s just like anywhere that has allowed religion to dominate the society…
I paused for a second, contemplating the fact.
“But nothing quite like Riyadh. Take this time, for example, just outside my hotel on like, the 2nd night that I’m there…
“I had gone to the food court at the mall across the way for some fish & chips and spring rolls (yeah, that’s a combination they’re into) and was going to eat them sitting in the middle of the grass. It was 11:30 at night and the heat was starting to get bearable. That and there was a fantastic full moon I wanted to get familiar with.
“I didn’t know whether it would be ok for me to sit on the grass in front of the hotel… I didn’t know if there was a policy or religious rule, you know, that said that that kind of thing is or is not ok… but I went and sat anyway.”
Shane scoffed at me. “You rebel.”
“I know, right? But soon I saw a handful of kids come running out onto the grassy area where I was sitting, doing cartwheels, sommersaults and basically being boys. They fell somewhere between 12 and 16 years of age but in that kind of crowd, boys will definitely be boys.
“They were chased off of the hotel’s grass suddenly and efficiently by 6 men in black suits that came out of nowhere. 4 men in desert fatigues came after them, armed with automatic rifles and vests that looked heavy with something or other. I froze, trying to reason that I couldn’t possibly be in any real danger there, right in front of the hotel but totally unsure of that. Riyadh is not a place to dick around and kids here have to learn fast or else get their balls cut off.
“Well, on that day, 2 of them were arrested, it seemed. I guess all I know is what I saw. They were 14 or 15 years old and they were dragged off by a group of 6 to 8 armed men… who KNOWS where they’re being taken or what became of them?
“As I watched the kids go off in a dark sedan I noticed a black figure coming towards me across the lawn. Still sort of frozen, afraid to run and unsure of what to do if I stayed, I squinted until I could see that it was a thin black man in a dark suit, approaching me at a pretty committed pace. Even though his stature was small and his face was thin I was filled with a sudden panic. His stride was long, his steps, purposeful. It was definitely ME he was coming for and I didn’t know why. All I was doing was eating bad fish & spring rolls and drinking orange soda at 11:30 at night… but then, what were those kids doing?
“He walks with no swagger, but full of purpose – scrawny, unshaven, like so many of his ilk…
“My left hand shakes, ever so slightly. ‘Don’t let them see it, Pete’ I tell myself, unsure of what else to say. ‘Don’t let them smell the fear on you…’
“Another black suit approaches on my left. The air is warm. The night is fiercly dark and the dust is building in the atmosphere, but things are well-lit by the full moon. As the man on the right approaches he has a stern, slightly confused but genuine look on him of what-the-hell-do-you-think-you’re-doing? I remain silent, sure I’ve had it for good this time but still curious to know why, to know how deep this hole here goes. I must understand the obstinately obtuse resolution of these people. I say nothing. He says something in Arabic and I quiver but I don’t cower. How bad could this be?
“The man on my left approaches, smiling like he recognizes me. Must be a security guard from the hotel, I think, to kindly tell me to leave the hotel’s grass. That’s fine, I think to myself, having figured that I was pushing it anyways. But the other guy…
Uh-oh. The other guy is pretty upset, still.
“Then I hear the word ‘guest’ from the smiling man. He repeats it to the upset man, ‘hotel guest’. He smiles at me and tells me I can stay, ‘it’s ok, alright, please.’ he points to the place where I was sitting.
“‘Hot damn,’ I think. Thank God for preferential treatment for foreigners. They’re just like Brazilians in that sense. Man! I love a good string pull.”
Shane chimed in: “Yeah, I’ve heard the people there can be very angry-sounding.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Yeah,” Shane replied.
“Totally,” I said. Joanna shook her head.
“So what about this heat?” Jo asked me with an urgency that suggested her next meal selection might depend on this knowledge.
“Well, it’s serious,” I said, trying to get it across. “I mean, 45 degrees isn’t a number to be taken lightly. And it’s DRY, you know? Sometimes at lunch time I have to walk something like, 5 blocks to get to the shopping mall where there’s food. In my work shirt and pants, I walk 5 blocks in 45 degree heat and don’t sweat a DROP. It’s nuts.
“And they keep the air conditioning in the office down to like, 4 degrees. That’s like a refrigerator, dude! These people have no concept of the term “comfortable work environment”. I have to take my suit to work because it’s too cold to work without it. And then when you leave the building, if feels like you just stuck your face next to a catalytic converter.”
“Wasn’t there a sandstorm you called me about once?” Shane asked me. I remembered back to the first time I’d seen a sand storm in Riyadh.
“Was there! The sky that morning had a yellowish hue to it, as if a field of mustard had exploded in the distance and spread over the horizon. Around the time I got to work and viewed it from the 13th floor of the al Anoud tower I could tell that whatever it was, it was closer than it had been before breakfast, and coming on fast. By noon time most of the city was covered as if by a thick desert fog, cutting visibility down to less than 200 meters. Riyadh had disappeared right before my eyes in the matter of a few morning hours.
“‘What IS that haze that’s covered the city?’ I asked no one in particular as I paused my work and stared out the window for a bit. The office didn’t even have cubicles, but was one of those ‘shared workspace’ environments that are getting more popular these days: just open desks all over the place. I suspect that it has to do with making people less apt to surf facebook or other such riff-raff, but anyone who walks around any IT office environment knows that hasn’t stopped.
“‘It’s a sand storm,’ said Hiatham, a friendly and deeply religious Saudi co-worker. ‘It’s the season for these. This is the 3rd one since you were last here.
“‘Sand storm…’ I mumbled to myself, remembering seeing these in films and having no idea there were this viscous. I’d always thought it was an exaggeration of Hollywood. But this thing was consuming radio towers and football fields and beginning to pile sand high against the corners of buildings still under construction. Nothing stays young for long in that place, man.”
“I’m glad you got back with your life,” Shane said.
“Me too,” I agreed.
“COME BACK ‘ERE WIT’ MY PANTS, MATE!” we heard some dripping wet English bloke yelling outside my window on the streets. I appreciated the distractions of Amsterdam, and was, surprisingly, still getting to know them well.
Outside there stirred our own great storm, fierce and violent like ancient angry gods. Whenever we saw the flashes we’d get giddy, and when the thunder roared, we cheered. When the sky brightened we jumped, laughing like hyenas and we felt like children staying up past their bedtime. It brought back memories of those afternoons in Brasilia and of those nights in São Paulo, where all the world was in a spiral around the tower of my hotel, where it seemed the very wind wanted to whisk me out by the throat, where the lightning wanted me saved for its own prickly little fingers. That was a turbulent time for me, when my divorce was still in its early stages of conception, when the trouble was brewing slowly and the bubbles hadn’t even reached the surface yet. And that lightning and that noise grounded me, gave me focus. I remembered it well.
But what I saw now only reminded me about the good parts of those days, like the fury and the texture of the violence in the wind that was such a rush to me. It brought back none of the loneliness or guilt or regret that I struggled with then because here, there was company. Good company.
Jo changed the subject, fumbling with a bowl of M&M’s and running her fingers through them like it was a beach full of sand: “I’m glad you’re back too,” she said, “you boys need to stop and stay in this town for longer than a day or two sometime. It could be fun, you know?”
Shane and I looked at each other.
“You didn’t tell her?” I accused him. “She’s gonna be pissed!” Shane shrugged, unsure of what to say.
“Tell me what?” Joanna asked, sort of innocently.
“Jesus. Jo, Shane lost his job and has to go back home.” Shane looked at me accusingly.
“Yeah, well, HE’s decided to move back to the States and start a business with me,” Shane said, putting what I thought was a little too much emphasis on the ‘HE’, but whatever.
“Oh,” she said, after some pause. We didn’t know what to say. I knew how badly the three of us needed each other’s company in this lonely place and I was afraid that with the two of us gone, Jo would either retreat into a corner somewhere or else blow her top and go absolutely nuts. Maybe she’d find a Dutch guy to hang with, or maybe she might even move to Belgium. You never know what a person will do in the throngs of sudden desperation, right?
“We need to get drunk, immediately,” she decided. I was relieved.
And then we did.