Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Kingdom of Dates

As you fly into Saudi (the Kingdome of) airspace, the flight attendants come through the cabin clearing all signs of alcohol. Then they distribute your landing card, where you have to identify your religion. Apparently, Christian and Muslim are the only acceptable responses.

When I came here with Jesse five years ago, I was surprised to find myself not wanting to write Christian on the little yellow card. As you may know I'm not a “big jew”, though as a Kohen (a priest from the tribe of Levi and a direct descendant of the Biblical Aaron) on both my mother and father’s side I could be called, if you were Hawaiian or my mother, a “big kahuna”. Nevertheless I was in a bit of a dilemma; something about knowing that Jews are not allowed in the country, I guess, even if I didn’t feel personally offended. I thought about leaving the question blank or writing Buddhist, but in the end decided it wasn't worth the hassle. You've got to pick your battles, right?

Inspite of, or because of, being conscious of not giving myself away, I found myself coming out with Yiddish words in random conversations, the types of Yiddish phrases that I don’t normally even use. I would be visiting a teacher’s house and admiring all the different decorations that they had acquired from Indonesia and Africa and say something about how I loved all their tchatchkes, or I would describe the usual food stain on Jesse’s chin and shirt as a bit of schmutze. We also had a funny moment when a teacher was talking about a race called the Hash and Jesse asked him whether he had some. Silence.

This time around I am prepared, at least for the landing card and long lines at customs, but sure enough as I'm filling it out I realize that the book I am using as a support, the one book I'm bringing into the country, is a Primo Levi book called “The Periodic Table”. Gulp. And as I'm reading the first few chapters I realize that it's not just a book by a celebrated Jewish holocaust author, it's his memoirs and the first few chapters are filled with anecdotes about his crazy Jewish-Piedmontese ancestors and all their funny sayings and quirks. In French this is called an acte-manqué, the Freudian slip of your actions/intentions. Oh, I wonder why I would have done that...

We started hanging out with a really cool teaching couple, the Gallaghers. The first thing they asked us when we walked in the door of their suburban house (suburban except for the compound walls, bomb proof security gates and Saudi desert beyond) was “white or brown”? This referred to the color of moonshine we wanted. The brown is the same distilled white alcohol that has been soaked in Jack Daniels bbq wood chips. It actually tastes pretty good. It's funny seeing grown adults discuss their “connection” meaning getting some smuggled hops to make beer in their house or a new batch of white.

Later in the week we go for a drive into Khobar (the city near the Aramco oil compound). There was a bombed out building where they had chased some Al-Queda, which they only refer to as deviants, then got in a stand-off and blew them up.

We learn there is no dancing in the Kingdom, or that’s not quite true, there may be dance places we are told, but women are not allowed. While it is not uncommon to see two men holding hands in public, public displays of affection between husbands and wives is frowned upon, between unmarried couples unheard of. Even the weddings are celebrated separately by the men and women. It’s one of the few times outside of the house that the women are able to dress in their jewels, western clothes and lingerie. The combination of this religiously repressive and gender segregated society leads to a certain amount of homoerotic and homosexual behavior among the men (and camels?) and apparently when you mix in a lack of sex education in schools the result is that it is not uncommon for women on their wedding night to be taken to the ER because they have been sodomized.

Women are also not allowed to drive, or only if they get a royal decree. And when his aforementioned royalness died recently all the state and oil employees got a raise or a bonus of one year's salary. Thanks to oil revenues, Saudi standards of living are extremely high. Manual labor has to be imported from Pakistan or India. I got the sense that Saudis sort of disdain this type of work and believe that they are above it.

People are quite friendly to us. There are a lot of security checks and although it is super strict it doesn't seem like suicidal fundamentalist crazy, though I guess they just send those types to Pakistan and/or fund them. And of course the oil continues to flow like ambrosia from the heavens at about 95 cents a gallon…

We meet another couple called the Snakenburgers. Both of them are gym teachers from someplace in the Midwest. I think because they spend all day yelling across gymnasiums their voices are a combination of loud and hoarse, even in small rooms, and this adds to their hard-core-Harley-driving-leather-wearing-beer-drinking mystique. We go over to their place for cocktails and a poker game. Snake, as even his wife calls him, tells us to remember to bring our swim trunks. “We like to party,” he tells us.

He’s right. They, too, immediately offer us glasses of brown or white, and then the homemade beer is pulled out of the fridge from behind the wet bar which has been built into their living room. Snake is, no surprise, a fairly aggressive poker player. He goes big and rarely goes home. He also likes to be in charge of rules and etiquette. At one point, he kind of starts barking at this neighbor who is a secretary at the embassy or something for making an inappropriate bet or maybe she went out of turn. It’s her first time playing and she breaks down crying. Snake doesn’t appear abashed.

At the next break in the action, Snake says, “follow me” and leads Jesse and I to his garage where he shows us his and his wife’s Harleys (the description above wasn’t just for effect). He explains that they even started the Saudi Arabian Harley club or something. Then he fires one up. Again. He’s revving it louder and louder and with the garage door closed it’s hits a deafening roar. All the while he’s grinning, slapping us on the back and explaining how he and his wife like to go to Bahrain (which he draws out into a Bah-rain) on the weekends to party at the yacht club where they are members. They don’t own a boat, but enjoy the privileges.

Back inside the game continues and pretty soon a woman arrives and joins the game. She is playing completely wild while continually laughing and chatting away about anything and everything. It’s hard to decide whether she is drunk and has no idea how to play poker or she is working us. She will call a raise and then turn over a small or middle pair, and the next hand win big without apparently knowing that she has the nuts. The next thing you know, she is standing up, waving an arm in the air like a rodeo rider and grabbing her crotch to emphasize a point. What point exactly, I can’t remember. Maybe it was just shit talking, which between her and Snake there is no lack of, in quantity or volume.

The party breaks up and Snake tells us to put on our trunks while he sets up the music. He drags two huge speakers out to the backyard where there is a small swimming pool. Now the classic rock (I remember a lot of Eagles) is booming out over the swimming pool and down half the block. Did I mention it’s a school night?

If we were wondering what kind of partying Snake and his wife liked to do, now was the moment of truth. We came out the sliding door to the wave of music and to the site of both Snake and his bobbing in the pool with big cups of moonshine beer in their hands, you know those plastic cups that you can put in the freezer to keep your beer extra cool on a sunny day or Saudi night…

I remember feeling nervous. I wanted to hide behind a fern like Ben Stiller in “Meet The Fockers”. Pretty soon though, Jesse and I are bobbing in the pool as well. We are kind of facing each other talking and I know Jesse is thinking that this is about one of the craziest situations we’ve ever gotten ourselves into (and Jesse’s been around the block, in fact the equator, once or twice too). Somehow it comes out that Snake was a collegiate wrestler for one of the big Midwest wrestling schools like Iowa and he is explaining to us how he mastered the arm drag, had taken it to new heights, past the technical, made it into an art form. We make the mistake of telling him that we wrestled in high-school and now Snake wants to demonstrate his stuff. Jesse kindly volunteers me and next thing I know I am being arm-dragged through and around the pool. Ground, water, sky, ground, water, sky. “What do you think of that?”

Jesse keeps talking about, “next year in the Kingdom...” and I have to say I don’t know at this point whether it is a threat or a promise.

Welcome to Saudi. The Desert. A kingdom of dates, but not dating. It's kind of like what Vegas would be like if it were run by Mormons.