Oscar and I sat in the back of a shisha lounge called Green Light Cafe. The bar was tripped out and smoked in, a hopeless scene of smokers from all walks of life, not a one of them local, which meant no Dutch people.
Don’t get me wrong, you know — Dutch people and I have a lot of things in common and I esteem their practicality and straightforwardness. It’s just that, hell — I needed a fucking break from the freaks of blunt.
And for that I was thankful. In that pillow-covered hole of wall to wall carpeting and blue and green and yellow and red neon floating on the ceiling there were no Dutch people. Not even the barkeep, who alternates on different nights from being a beautiful and petite Thai girl and a chunky English douchebbag.
The music there is usually a mellow kind of Jazz remix that seems to have engaged in acts of coitus with punk rock and steel drums. The chilled out clientele — overeager Erasmus young’ns, dreadlocked white guys, hippie chicks and Israeli stoners — always in character. They’re all straight off the train, backpacks and all. Haven’t even found their hostels yet.
I watched Oscar blow elegant smoke rings from the shisha pipe we shared. The man’s been everywhere and when he says he learned to blow smoke rings in the Middle East, motherfucker means Mecca, man. Or, at least as close to it as non-Muslims can get.
“Jeddah is the coastal port on the Red Sea, just outside of Mecca,” he informed me after seeing the blank stare on my face. He seemed surprised by my ignorance and I snapped out of it.
“I know where it fucking IS, Oscar. I’m just contemplating what a fucking cool job you have that by the sheer will of the mind, you can, on certain weekends, decide to just hop on a plane into the port of Jeddah and smoke enough shishas alone on the edge of the Red Sea until you learn to blow smooth smoke rings that smash calmly into the ceiling.”
He dragged the pipe a bit, and still took a second deep breath, exhaling slowly, as if his soul was leaving his body through his mouth. “You know, man, this job…it’s great. But it’s not as great as you think.”
“How do you know what I think, Oscar,” I said, with a spritzy tone in my voice that I hadn’t intended. He wasn’t annoyed.
“I’m telling you that this job has its curses and isn’t for everybody. Especially if you have specific needs.” I nodded, my head in my hands, showing him how bored I was with that topic I’d heard so often, so many times before.
Still, the man has been everywhere, it seems. But I knew that there are two roads to Mecca: one that actually goes to the city and one that goes around it, for foreigners or non-Muslims that think they can see Mecca just because they’ve traveled for god-knows-how-long? Nope, they’ll put you back in your blistering car and send you off. Everyone has their own problems.
He tightened his lips and thought for a moment, eventually saying, “Yeah. That was an interesting weekend. What a fucking shit country, that is, though.”
“What do you mean,” I asked, reaching for my pint of Heineken. “You told me you went from an air-conditioned Marriott — with a pool, which you swam in quite enjoyably, to hear you tell it — to a beach-side restaurant to smoke and watch the sunset and then the next day you took a drive to the sandy penninsula to search for a boat and ended up meeting a bunch of Dutch guys on the docks…”
“First of all, exactly. I went to Saudi-fucking-Arabia and who do I meet there, as if I didn’t have enough of that around this town of lunatics? The Dutch. I don’t see what you see in these people, honestly.”
“In my defense, I’m not all that happy with them either,” I said, looking around and smiling. I’m pretty sure I let that little gem slip every now and again. You should pay more attention.” He hesitated.
“Anyway,” he said, “it was shit. The town lists TGIFriday’s, Chilli’s and Pizza Hut among their top ten restaurants. People who go there return with pictures of their standard rooms at the Hilton, of unimpressive statues, some sunsets and occasionally, sidewalks.”
“I can picture,” I said, “the kind of people that take pictures of their hotel rooms at the Hilton. Clear as day, right?”
He furrowed his brow at me and took a deep drag of the pipe. “You mean people from the midwest?” he asked, holding it in. Then he blew another elegant masterpiece that grazed my left ear.
“Never mind,” I mumbled, grinning.
He went on. “And did I tell you that when I was about to sit at the restaurant where I smoked that shisha — by the way, it wasn’t beach-side, it was water-side; they don’t have beaches in Jeddah. There are some stretches by the highway that hug the water that are lined with large rocks to muffle the waves, but definitely no beaches.”
“ANYways…” I said, suggestively.
“Right. Did I tell you that at that restaurant I had to sit on the second floor, away from the water because the section — the empty section, I should say — of seats by the water is reserved for family seating? No single men allowed.” He seemed happy to have gotten that off his chest.
“Really?” I asked. I knew that Saudis segregated their men and women, but I figured there was space to move or something.
“Single men,” he repeated, “are the lowest fucking rungs on their social ladder.” He folded his arms and leaned back into his chair, his long, curly black hair bouncing on his head. I was surprised no one in Saudi had ever suspected he was Jewish. In any case, he was very satisfied with himself for that story.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “I remember when you told me of those boys on that lawn in Riyadh one time and how the police chased them down…”
“But they let me go,” he reminded me, “when the bell boy came out to explain I was a foreigner in the hotel.”
“An expensive hotel?” I asked him.
“The most ridiculous thing I’ve ever stayed in,” he said, which is saying a lot. “In the Egyptian Marble shower I could lie flat on my back and roll away from the showerhead, rolling five times before I hit the other wall. I know this for a fact. I had enough space to do cartwheels in that suite.”
“That explains why the guard didn’t give you a hard time then, right?” I offered.
“Right,” he said. “But that’s not the point. The point is that single men, especially young ones, are scum, the lowest class.”
“Why do you think that is,” I asked, suddenly kind of seriously pondering the reason.
“Honestly? I think it’s society’s way of projecting their own self-hatred onto something. I mean, I just can’t reason with the notion that separating men and woment results in anything other than repressed sexual urges. Just look at the Catholic Church.”
“Mmmm,” I nodded, and it felt like he was on a roll, so I didn’t say anything.
“I think that somewhere deep within them where human needs can’t be touched by silly rules, religious or otherwise, there is at least the faintest whisp of a wish that those men didn’t need for marriage to be their highest priority in order to escape the social hell it puts them all in. A kind of a obtuse logic: single men cannot be in the presence of or seen with a woman to whom they are not related. Deep within people must find this repressing and wish it weren’t so. And if all single men were married, they would not have this problem. Therefore, single men are frowned on.”
I looked at him in awe. “Oscar, that was, by far, the craziest thing you’ve said tonight. And that’s following your story of rolling on the floor in the shower in your hotel room in in Riyadh.”
“I know,” he said, half-ignoring me, sort of beside himself for nailing a thought like that down. And then his face lit up. “And what about the Catch-22 of how a boys meets a girl?” he asked excitedly. “Have I told you about that?”
I shook my head no and reached for my beer.
“I had been wondering –” he explained, “after being in that country for 2 months with no alcohol, cheap gas and nothing but sand and flat land around me, how it was that people could, in the 21st century, still go along with the notion of arranged marriages.”
I nodded again, and sipped my beer. He dragged the pipe again and let the smoke pour out of his mouth slowly, like a waterfall. That fucking guy.
“So I did what I normally do when I want a straight answer,” he said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
He smiled, and blew the dense smoke off the table in front of him. “I ask a cab driver,” he said, pursing his lips and raising his eyebrows. Fucking Oscar.
“And?” I demanded.
“And…” he dragged it out, “he told me that when parents won’t look away or pretend that they don’t know what’s going on, what the kids do is go down to the shopping mall with their mobile phones…”
“Mobile phones?” I interrupted.
“Yeah. He said what they do is set the Bluetooth receiver on the phone to be discoverable and when they find a phone they like they start texting and chatting with them. If the kids hit it off, they agree on a meeting place and a way to feign either marriage or relations for long enough to be seen in public before they become engaged.”
I was stunned. “Was he lying?” I asked, only half-kidding.
“No,” Oscar said. “I did this in a mall in Riyadh once and used my Bluetooth thingy to search for other discoverable devices. What came up was sort of sad.” I tried to sip my beer, realizing that I was sipping an almost totally empty glass. “A list of at least 30 or more phones came up. Their names were mostly illegible, but there were some with names like ‘Sexy, Sixteen and Single’ and ‘Ready for love, boy’.”
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “Look, the pool was nice and all, but talk about a vast emptiness… I mean — who pays for all that gold trim?” he asked. I shrugged in agreement. He continued.
“In Jeddah, after wandering around the immediate neighborhood and finding nothing to do I finally found someone who understood enough English to be cajoled into telling me something, even if it was to give up hope. Those are the stakes.”
“Yeah?” I asked. I was partly distracted by the young Israeli kid rolling a joint of hash next to us.
“Yeah,” Oscar said. “This young Jordanian manager at the Marriott, when I badgered him enough about WHAT TO DO there he sort of lowered his voice and lowered his shoulders, leaning in to talk to me. He said, ‘listen, I’m a foreigner trapped here too. None of them will tell you but I’ve been here for two years and all there is to do is go to the mall.”
“I wonder why,” I said out loud, with a grin.
“‘Nonesense,’ I said to him, sort of startled by his honesty. ‘There must be a café where you can go read a book by the sea, right? These people are pious to a fault but they can’t be averse to a good life.’ I decided. He cast a look that told me he was not getting through to me.
‘It’s worse than you think,’ he said.
‘It can’t be,’ I countered. He smiled.
‘You’ve been to Riyadh?’ he asked me.
‘I’ve just come from there,’ I told him. ‘I’m here for the weekend’.
‘What do you think of Riyadh?’ he asked.
‘It sucks,’ I told him. ‘That’s why I came here. At least there is ocean here, right?’ I have him a smile. He smiled back but it was more wishful than it was agreement.
‘Look, the only thing the ocean adds to in Saudi Arabia is humidity.’
My heart sank for a moment. ‘That’s ridiculous. You’re telling me that there is nothing to do in Jeddah except either pay $250 for an hour for a wave runner or else drink tea in the hotel lobby all afternoon by yourself? Why are there even hotels in this place? Why are you people here?’
He adjusted in his seat and a grave feeling dripped all over his face. ‘I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were you. I think I understand what you want. You won’t find it here.’”
“And that,” Oscar said, “was the greatest reaction I’d gotten there, by far. By FAR.
His circles of smoke glided over the pages I was reading in the dim light, casting strange shadows and faint shapes over HST’s words. I struggled with my crude attempts at such cool manufacturings and eventually just gave up, sucking it all down and expelling it forcefully towards the dark blue ceiling.
It tasted like apples.
A long-haired blonde down the bar continued to throw suggestive glances at Oscar while shaking her shoulders in time with the mad noise the DJ was making. He glanced up from his writing every now and again to return them. I got the unshakable feeling he was playing some kind of game but I wasn’t a part of it.
He was deep in thought and I had just taken a deep inhale of the pipe when I saw her, out of the corner of my eye, get off her barstool looking over in our direction. I panicked and looked across the street at the signed bolted to the next building. It read, fortuitously, “Obstakel“. I knew exactly what it meant.