October 17, 2000
This is being dictated into a microphone use in IBM's ViaVoice for Windows software which I purchased just today. I have not spent too much time and actually trying to train this fascinating software tool, and I will not spend too much time making corrections into what I'm dictating, at least not for now. My main intent is just to get my recollections down has rapidly as possible since those many wonderful memories are fading light the colors at the end of Fall that are just around the corner here in Atlanta. This tool is very impressive, and I am amazed that I can just sit here and speak almost naturally and see the words appear magically on my 19 in. computer screen. So forgive the typographic errors and I hope you enjoy these memories. I also haven't yet had time to go back through the document to correct spelling errors and anything else that might be wrong. At least not yet, though I am painfully aware of the fact that I need to do so at some point.
My name is Narayan Sengupta. I am going to try to dictate my memoirs of my time Living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I would eventually like to go back to start from my earliest memories and then come forward to my most recent ones and have everything in one journal. I would really love it if something like this was actually able to survive the test of time and to survive whatever destruction by the elements or electronic problems that may occur. Clay tabblets crack, but they are hard to demagnetize. Perhaps modern man will one day rediscover clay tablets to preserve writing and thinking for perpetuity.
The last time I really started this project, I wrote "It's frustrating writing all of this starting in April of '96 because it has been fully 13 years since I was living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I wish that I had kept a diary at that time during that one year in Saudi Arabia - or "Saudi" as we usually referred to it, as in "so how do you like living in Saudi?" Actually, I think that I did to some extent or other, but it would never be the insightful diary that I would hopefully keep today. I have outlined, or at least started to outline some memoirs several times over the past few years, but never sat down and actually started to commit those souvenirs, impressions and feelings to paper. That is still true today.
It is now the year 2000, so it's four years after the last time I tried to start this journal. It seems like so long ago. The memories are starting to fade, like an ink-jet photo, but they were so strong to begin with that they are still in my heart and in my eyes all these years later. I still see the smiles, feel the heat, hear the sounds, taste the food, and can visualize so much that happened in that one short year that I was there from the summer of 1982 to 12 months later in 1983. I was 15 or 16 in 1982 when we arrived in Saudi Arabia and it was 1983 when I left my family and came back to the United States to live with my mother. So it has been 18 years. I am now all 34, so it has been more than a half of my life ago.
That exotic and desolate land, its people, culture and sights fascinated and still fascinate me all these years later. From time to time, something simple like a certain song will trigger a memory. And in the memory, the wind picks up quickly and the sand stings all over my face sharply for a fraction of a second, but it's over quickly, and in a moment, I'm back here at home with a nostalgic smile still on my face and my mind slips in and out of Saudi the rest of the day. Most of the memories are still vivid, in direct proportion to the impact they had on me. Others have been buried over the years, but are occasionally uncovered by some other trigger, like the way the desert winds in the Rub al Khali shift back and forth to encourage the desert to give up what she has hoarded away for so many years. The wonderful memories are unfortunately partially obscured by some of the worst ones of my life. But over the years, the desire to never go back to Saudi Arabia has decreased to the point to where it is less than the feeling to go back there and reexplore the exotic and often mesmerizingly strange sand-swept kingdom that was my home for a year.
Saudi Arabia was the first place where I was exposed to what I would call a foreign culture. It's probably that way for many Americans and other expatriates who've never been abroad before. That's not to say that everyone would feel equally alien in a place that is so different from what I've grown up in. I'm sure that my fellow Americans who hail from the great state of Texas or perhaps its neighbors New Mexico and Arizona might not find the desert climate and the ubiquitous oil derricks discomforting. They may have even felt a little at home even while stepping into Saudi soil for the first time in their lives. But for me, it was different. That's not to say that France is completely non-foreign or that India is a place I would call home. But those two cultures are my parental cultures and, consequently, have been a part of me from birth. And as someone born and brought up in North America, Canada and the US have also been as much home to me as for anyone else born and brought up here. I've been in Atlanta since 1970, so I'm from Georgia. Georgia has verdant trees that merge together to form great forests of pine and oak and who knows what other trees. The hills go up and down cut by valleys that run in every possible direction and are often bereft of the wind or the river that cut them in the first place. But Saudi was something else...
We were living and Lafayette, Louisiana and 1982. We moved there in 1981 so that my father could accept a teaching position as the chairmen of the Department of Architecture at U S L, also known as the University of the Southwest Louisiana for. Lafayette was a wonderful place, full of festive people and beautiful girls and phenomenal food. I made quite a few very good France and three best friends. My best friend in the neighborhood was Will (Troy) Raxsdale. Will was about a year and a half younger than I was, and I suppose still is the year and a half younger than I am, and became a constant companion in the after-school hours. I used to spend a lot of time with him and would see his kid brothers John and Jeremy quite a bit as well. My best friend at school was Barry Schuermann. Barry was absolutely terrific. My third best friend was a guy named Neil Vincent. Neil went to high school with me as did Barry, at Acadiana high-school in Lafayette, Louisiana. Our pep-rally cry was "G-e-a-u-x, go Rams, go!"
I always wonder how Baba heard about Saudi Arabia and what prompted him to want to pick us up and move us there. Certainly the prospect of making lots of money, perhaps double US wages, no income tax, and generous benefits must have had something to do with it. Would it be worth the sacrifice? Would we be cut off from the rest of the world? Would we be safe? Would we see something evocative of a 1001 Arabian Nights? At that time, to me, it seemed like it would be an adventure no matter what happened. So the idea of a sacrifice didn't seem like all that big an issue. An adventure is almost always something that is good. At the very least, it is something that is memorable. And life, when all is said and done, is a collection of memories. Some good, and some bad, but that is almost all that there is to life.
Baba applied for two positions. One was for teaching architecture in Riyadh, the other for yet another King so and so university located in the port city of Jiddah. Riyadh is the more conservative city and the position at King Saud University there paid less than its counterpart in Jiddah. Of course, the offer from Riyadh came first and my father accepted. The other offer came about a week later, but it was too late. So we were off to the heart of Saudi Arabia for a year that would change my life as well as my outlook on life.
In the brief period before we moved, I was genuinely excited. Moving was becoming a habit for my father. I was no longer able to count the number of schools I had attended during the past five years. Every year I lost a new set of friends that I worked so hard to acquire. I became more rootless than ever, forgetting what it was to live in a house I could call my own. But one postive thing about moving is that it always felt like an adventure. First India for eight months, then back to Atlanta for a year and a half. Then in 1979 it was off to Lubbock, Texas, home of cow feed, Buddy Holley, Texas Tech and where Waylon Jennings crooned that "happiness is Lubbock, Texas in my rear view mirror" and more wonderful new friends like my soccer coach Martin Boyd and his wonderful family including my buddy - his son - Shannon Boyd. Lubbock was followed by a move to another oil town, this time Lafayette, Louisiana and more wonderful friends in 1981. Each of these moves would take place during the summers between the academic years.
But the two of those oil towns paled in comparison to where we were going next, and I knew that the adventure of moving and the adventure of being in a new place would be even more than moving to Lubbock or Lafayette. I was excited. Very excited. I read a recent 1982 National Geographic article about Saudi Arabia. It pointed out that Riyadh was the fastest growing city in the entire world with a population that was now at 800,000. The photo of the downtown skyline wasn't very impressive in magnitude or in architecture, and it didn't have the beauty of a traditional waterfront. So it was no New York with all of its visual drama, but it was fascinating in its juxtaposition of 33 story high-rises right behind traditional atriumed houses built of mud. The main feature common to almost all of the buildings was tan color of native sand and a sparse usage of glass. I found that article several years later after I came back One of the high-rises in that photo ended up being the one we lived in, so my bedroom window is in National Geographic. I stared at the photo many times over the time leading up to our move to Riyadh, not realizing that I would soon be living right in the middle of the photo. I even bought an Arabic phrase book to complement some photocopied orientation information from Baba's future employers and proceeded to build a 50 word vocabulary before we hit the ground in Riyadh. It was very fundamental basic words including the numbers to 10, greetings, and learning (the correct) variants of Arabic words I already knew in other languages.
I do not remember exactly how my father came across the position in Saudi Arabia, but I think that it must have through an advertisement in a Architectural Digest or some similar magazine. As a matter of fact I think that he apply to tutor for universities in Riyadh and in Jeddah. He applied to King Saud University first. That was the one that was in Riyadh. And then he applied to the university and Jeddah. King Saud accepted and first, so he accepted them back, and pretty soon we were thinking about our moved to Saudi Arabia. Along with the acceptance letter, we received a fat manilla envelope containing an lots of photocopies that made up an information package. The package included some Arabic phrases, the kind of like a very simple phrase book and other orientation information that I wish I still had. I quickly set about to memorize than, so that by the time we actually arrive in Saudi Arabia I had a working vocabulary a half perhaps 50 to 70 words which I could use and a handful of phrases. My father's next acceptance letter came from the of the University in Jeddah all along with a better salary and a list of better perks, but my father is a man of incredible integrity and he had already accepted the first position. I think that that took some courage because we already knew that Riyadh was a much more conservative city than Jeddah but the die were cast and before I knew it we were off on a long, chaotic, tumultuous, and is very fascinating journey to a very distant and exotic land.
The list of perks that my father was offered, and that we would all get was rather long though I don't remember the full extent any more. But to give you an example, or rather some examples, here are some of the things that I can remember. the first one which comes to mind was first-class air fare for all four of us from any American city of origination, which my father designated Los Angeles since it was about as far away as one could get from Saudi Arabia and still be inside the United States, to Riyadh and back once a year.
So my father made sure that he put down Los Angeles as a point of origination instead of Lafayette, Louisiana. Tickets to Los Angeles would be worth more, plus my uncle and family lived there. This would be important later but for now it was just great for me since I loved flying so much. The more mileage the better. And we'd have great frequent flyer statements to boot.
First class travel was a wonderful perk, but there were also all kinds of subsidies as well. There was a housing subsidy, a food subsidy, a transportation subsidy for purchasing a car, full tuition reimbursement of up to $10,000 per year per child, and all kinds of other subsidies which I will have to talk to my father about for him to jog my memory. perhaps one of the most important works which persuaded many an otherwise skeptical American and are expatriate to go over to Saudi Arabia was that there was no income tax on any income generated in Saudi Arabia. A think that you have to go ahead and pay U.S. taxes after $75,000 on any amount exceeding that figure but that wasn't too much of a concern for professors in 1982 even for professors who were making Saudi salaries. Still money was a dramatic part of the equation and the Saudis paid a huge premium to have Americans and other expats works there since they did not have the built-in talent pool at that time. I think that most of the professors who were teaching at the university at that time were probably making about $75,000 per year; in the meantime their American counterparts who were still working in the United States were making perhaps $30,000 a year and had to pay taxes on that figure. So the American working in Saudi Arabia was making $75,000, not paying any taxes on that amount, had most of his or her expenses taken care of or heavily subsidized, and therefore might be able to save something like $50,000 per year. In sharp contrast to the American professor working in the United States was making $30,000 a year and paying 40 percent of that in taxes both federal and state and was left with maybe $18,000 after that. And then that $18,000 was used to pay the mortgage, the car or cars, tuition for private school, a food, travel, gasoline, and so much more leaving that person with perhaps $5,000 at the end of the year if even that to put away for savings and for the future. So you can see why spending a year or two in Saudi Arabia was so tempting to some individuals. Many of them went well beyond the one in two years and stayed on for 15, 20 or even 25 years and made their fortunes.
It was the first part that I enjoyed the most right off the bat, because we had never flown first class before. We packed up all of our world belongings, utensils, music collections, photo albums, tapistries, soccer trophies, board games, books, medicines and just about everything else that one could ever think of.
From Lafayette, we flew to Los Angeles where we stayed with my Uncle and my Aunt (Amal and Khushi Sengupta), and my little cousin Sharmi who was yet to be. My little brother Shomit was all of three years old at that point, and anywhere we travelled, we traveled with his stuffed dog named Doggie. well, much to our chagrin, we arrived at my Uncle and Aunt's house only to realize that Doggie had been left on the plains from Lafayette. Of the next day we found in, with a note attached, reading "Where is my little boy?" that was certainly the most traumatic part of our first leg of the journey.
We flew from Lafayette to Dallas to Los Angeles. We stayed in Los Angeles for it may be a day or two, but not very long however long it was, and kind of enjoy it our last contact with any familiar faces which we would know for a year. I think that even at that point we had a sense of understanding that we would feel quite isolated once we arrived there in the desert kingdom.
Los Angeles to New York was completely uneventful, which is the best kind of flight. From there, it was on to New York. And from New York, we flew in a 747-SP which was designed for long haul flights. And at that time, that flight was the second longest commercially scheduled flight in the world. The Pan Am terminal at New York's JFK is always like visiting the UN with no two people looking like they stepped out of the same fashion catalog. Each flight is off to a different country, and they all seem to leave between 7 pm and 9 pm. The place quiets down a great deal after that with only the passengers of delayed flights left holding down the fort. I didn't quite realize that Pan Am flight would be about the last time that I felt like I was in the West. I would have savored it even more if I had. But sitting in first class in the first row, the slight curvature of the nose affording me a view that was almost forward, caviar and all kinds of good food made me enjoy the flight quite a bit. I was almost disappointed when we touched down in Jiddah 14 and a half hours later.
Our flight from Los Angeles to New York to Jeddah to Riyadh was a Pan Am and Saudi a code share flight. At the Los Angeles International Airport. We picked up frequent flyer pamphlets for Pan Am. It was the first time that we had enrolled in any frequent flier programs. I remember how excited the was that we collect these kinds of. To be used for future travel and encourage my father very strongly to fill them out for all four of so that we could eventually take advantage of and earn free travel. Just as an aside, I finally used my point is for the first time jurist two weeks ago when Janel, Ma and Baba and I all flew to Billings Montana so that we could see Yellowstone National Park all together. So my it enthusiasm for frequent flyer points was realized after it is 18 short years. Anyway, back to the story...
At JFK, we went through the usual drill of waiting for a number of hours to catch our connecting flight. Most of the flights leaving JFK board at around 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. or so. Ours was probably no exception. So we took off in the darkness on what was then at the second longest nonstop scheduled commercial flight, in the world, lasting just about 14 hours nonstop. To make this ultra-long journey, The flight from JFK to Jeddah was in a special 747; it was a 747 S P that was short and stubby, far from the graceful and aesthetically pleasing full length fuselages of the normal 747s. Even the inside seemed different because it was so short. As such, it lacks the majesty of its larger siblings, but it was comfortable and spacious nevertheless. I was absolutely thrilled to be in first class and took exceptional delight in getting to sit in the first row on the right hand side which was all the more fun because there was only one seat on the right hand side of the aisle even though there were two on the other side. The window actually curved a little bit so that I could see a little bit towards the front but not much, but it was enough to give extra sense of satisfaction and to make the journey to even more fun if. I can't tell you help excited the was that we were going to this completely new country, new culture, new everything! I thought about it non-stop in the same somewhat obsessive way that anyone who is in love thinks about the object of his or her affection. It wouldn't leave my mind. So I was very excited and that excitement accentuated my enjoyment of just about everything. With I enjoyed the movies which were up close, the caviar, which was a pretty rare treat for me, and holds the other good food that one never sees in economy class where we always traveled.
The aircraft must have been full of Westerners and the flight crew was Western and the aircraft was American since it was, and the food was American or continental. So up till this point cut I still had no real feeling of transition or impending transition into a foreign culture.
Night turned to morning the with the extra special sunrise that happens in rapid motion to even while the flight crew busies itself to prepare breakfast and to serve coffee. So wonderful aroma of the coffee fills the entire cabinet. For if it is the special Ramadan combined with my love of travel and which actually made me start drinking coffee. I can't say that I had any real love for the way the beverage tasted, at least one first that, but there was something special about having coffee and I came to link it very strongly with international travel which was probably my favorite endeavor at that point in my life, and which still remains one of my favorite things to do. So night turned to morning as we crossed the coast of Ireland or maybe North Africa, I just don't remember any more, and then turned to night and again some time before we approached Jeddah.
Most Moslems are quite modest in their dress, especially by Western standards. Mohammed taught the necessity of this modesty. The Saudi males cover everything, from their ankles up to their necks with only their faces, hands and feet exposed. Each Saudi male thus becomes a cover model for white cotton or other fabrics, also inevitably in white. Saudi women were even more covered, often exposing just their eyes and sometimes not even that, with everything else, even their faces, hair covered behind a series of black fabrics which must have absorbed the desert sun. There were many more men in thobes and women in black abayas when we disembarked then when we were in New York. It wasn't until later that I learned that many Saudis start out in their Western clothes when abroad only to change just before landing. It was here in Jiddah that Saudi Arabia started to become more than a distant reality. It was here that Saudis in traditional garb started to become more than people seen from afar on very rare occasions. But Jiddah was a quick stop in the middle of the night.
In Jiddah, we transferred from Pan Am to a green and white Saudia L-1011, the mainstay of that airline. I started realizing, perhaps too late, that I could no longer turn back physically or emotionally. The flight crews were still Western or Asian, just like on Pan Am. But instead of an American captain's warm and chipper voice, full of flight information and small talk, we were greeted in Arabic and then English. Small talk was non-existent; instead, a Moslem prayer, completely incomprehensible to my ears, came over the announcement system. They prayer must have worked since we arrived in one piece with all of our luggage there along with us. The tilted and charred tail section of another Saudia L-1011 proved that not everyone was always so lucky. That one had taken off from Riyadh on August 19, 1980. Six minutes into the flight, the crew realized that there was a fire in the C3 cargo compartment. They turned the plane around. And thanks to the expertise of the crew, the plane had landed safely. But then due to the lack of the crew to immediately evacuate the plane, all 301 odd people on board had died making it the second most lethal airplane disaster in history. We arrived in Riyadh, from above just a collection of lights in the middle of the endless desert, probably around 4 am. Dad's friend from college wasn't there to receive us. I think that he was the one who convinced my father about what a great position teaching was in Riyadh. My father didn't have any change, and the local phones accepted only Saudi Riyals. The Thomas Cook office, or its equivalent, was shut down for the night, and it looked like we were stuck. I collected the bags, we passed through customs and then I went and stood outside for a moment to get my first glimpse of my new home. It was dry and windy, and it didn't look all that wealthy at this point. As a matter of fact, it really looked like any Indian airport or city from this vantage point.
We were soon on our way on the final leg of our journey between Jeddah and Riyadh, the that flight is a short hop of maybe an hour to an hour and a half. I stared out the window trying to see anything in the darkness that was underneath us above us and all around us, but there was nothing, nothing and all. And it that's the way the desert looks at night.
I knew from the National Geographic that Riyadh is buried deep in the center of Saudi Arabia. There is desert all around, which made me wonder why any city would be located right there. Was it a trading center? Unlikely since it is hard to believe that anyone would go all of the way through the middle of Saudi Arabia when there must have been perfectly good trade routes sailing around the coast. But to actually see the endless waves of sand was something else.
Once we arrived in Riyadh the scene was utter chaos. I think that the airport must have been built back in the '60s probably for a population of 100,000 people and maybe to handle one or two flights per day. There was fluorescent lighting everywhere marble or perhaps linoleum floors and basically the airport reminded me very much of the Bombay airport, except for this one was air-conditioned and the vast majority of the foreign looking people were Saudi instead of Indian. I say "foreign looking" jokingly because of course we were foreigners, and they were not.
There was supposed to be someone there from the university to greet us. It must've been 2:00 the morning or maybe as early as midnight but it was dark, so it felt like 2:00 in the morning. And we were tired. We were very very tired. After all we've been in transit in some form or other for nearly five days or six days from the time that we had left Lafayette. So we had been kind of nomadic and certainly not at home for this period of time. We had probably six to eight to be very large suitcases and 3 year-old child who couldn't carry much if anything in all and who also required all Ma to keep an eye on them and very often carry an or hold him in someway or other. I can barely imagine what must have been going to Shomit's mind at that time, and I wish that he'd been still a bit older so that we could've gotten his impressions as well. And along the same lines I wished I had kept a better travel journal of any kind, but that is one of the reasons that I'm doing this now.
In any case there was no one at all to receive us at the airport. there was nothing and resembling a a visitor Information desk or any kind of up help desk and the Saudia desk was also closed I think. so we were effectively stranded at the airport along with probably about half of the other passengers of our flight. Of the luggage took forever to arrive which only compounded our impatience and made us even more tired. This Saudi customs officials, who we would grow to fear and despise for their capricious and over zealousness in enforcing of Saudi Arabia, were very thorough and went through each of our suitcases onto it and combed an effort, and all kinds of contraband materials. They would gruffly demand for us to open one staircase at time, which they proceeded to ransack throwing clothes and books and any of their possessions we had in the suitcases at about the little tables they use. Each suit case looked like it had been hit by a tornado, which in some way is it had. the customs officials were hardly apologetic for what they were doing. they continued to process one suitcase at a time and one family at time leaving each family shaking its head, or heads wondering what we were getting into.
It was a scene of utter bedlam. There were all kinds of a short men looking let characters out of Star Wars scurrying about our suitcases trying to get us to use their services. we had serious language barrier and my 50 to 100 word vocabulary was not going to do the job.
It should have been no surprise, but it was really foreign. It looked like Bombay or any other third world airport. But no one spoke any language that was remotely familiar. In Bombay, the Hindi script that I can't really read has at least a comforting familiarity since it's like Bengali. Dad must have begged for money from someone because he made some phone calls from the phone booth that accepted only Riyals and spoke to his friend who told us to take a limo out to their place at the new faculty housing at Dirayah.
Moments later, we were being whisked from the airport at the edge of the city out to the pitch black road which twisted and turned through the desert. the lights illuminate City and the airport and crashed in the distance very abruptly . Saudi construction methods immediately appeared to be geared for speed and not longetivity or safety. The two lane road trampled all over the terrain, in and out of small sand dunes, then over and in between others. The ribbon twisted like a cassette taped removed from its housing and tossed, nonchalantly into the wind to twist and turn and come to a rest where it might in a tangled heap. Huge concrete barriers showed scuff marks from where Saudi drivers had bounced off of them in the night, or the way they drove, perhaps even in the day. Construction was helter skelter here, a pattern we would see everywhere in the world's fastest growing city. The National Geographic aritcle had talked about a young Saudi driver leaving Riyadh for a short period of time and how he had practically been reduced to tears when he couldn't find his way home because of all of the construction.
Riyadh was supposedly the world's fastest growing city at that time. The population was at 800,000 or so at that time which may not have a very impressive compared to a population many other cities, but by Saudi standards it was large. By this time, I think that majority of the Saudi population was urban and living in cities . But what has to remember the Saudis were a nomadic people; they were Bedouins . and as a result they still had their bedouin ways. But because they were Bedouins and because the country was relatively recent to the ranks of prosperous nations, the the urban infrastructure was the very limited. And because the country is so vast and the population so small, the population density is very low. And on top of this, the vast majority of the land is inhospitable and barren. So I think that people either lived in the city's or they lived in the middle of nowhere has no debt with their camels and in tents.
The stars fell behind us or to one side or the other only to reappear in familiar places as the car careened left, then right, then left again. Stars seen in the pitch black desert make the sky look white and the sky loses all sense of depth. The ancients seem to have had it right when they thought that the sky was just a huge bowl suspended over the earth with many holes to allow the sunlight. After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived in to a brand new modern township lit up by orange tungsten lights. It was the newhousing for the new university campus, part of the most expensive engineering project in the world.
Moving to the American building: It's funny, but I don't remember sleeping on the floor or anything, so we must have had all of our furniture provided for us. Or perhaps Baba and I did go to Manfuha or some place and buy the stuff before we moved from there. I can't remember all of the furniture anymore. But the overstuffed sofas could have been something that we would have owned in Texas or any place. I doubt they were Saudi in origin or in style.
Our first building was located on Sharra Khazan (Khazan Road), which to the best of my recollection served as perhaps the the primary east-west artery bisecting the city into northern and southern halves. The northern half was the dominant side; it held to the airport, most of the bigger buildings, most of the new development, and seemingly all of the roads leading to all of the new developments that would be far outside of town.
We moved into this new apartment maybe a week after we arrived in Saudi Arabia. The building was six stories high, and we lived on the second floor by American standards, and on the first floor by those standards of the rest of the world. Or maybe we're on the 3rd floor by American standards and of the second floor by everyone else's . So our apartment number must've been something like 107, but I don't remember for sure any more. Think that there were six apartments per marble covered floor, built and kind of a new shape around the elevator bank which had to elevators. And the stairwell was inside just in front of the elevators.
We got to know several of our neighbors as we were there. Gus and Nora Linton and their son Marshall lived directly below us though they hailed from Pennsylvania. Nora was a very charming quiet woman from some place in Latin America. Gus was a very gregarious handsome American, tall and laid back guy with a easy going smile who turned me on to the pop group Dire Straits and who studied Arabic with me and some of the other guys once a week at the University at night. Ma was friends with a French Canadian lady named Marie-France who was married to a North African gentleman from Morocco or Algeria. Their son Jameel was perhaps the biggest brat I have ever run into in my life, even though he was also a very cute kid; he's probably a goodwill ambassador or diplomat or something now. He was always causing a ruckus to such an extent that I always regretted not having ear plugs. Peter and his wife (Beverly?) were both in their 50s. They lived in the building of the fourth floor some place.
My friend Towne (Mark) Cryer and his mother lived of the third or fourth floor. I didn't meet him until after we had moved out of the building, but he was to become my best friend and was just a year or so younger than me. After all, he was my only playmate my age. As a matter of fact, he was pretty much my only friend who was my age. I eagerly awaited going to Towne's place at every opportunity. We would usually play games, like D & D or perhaps chess. There wasn't much else to do other than that. This was also in the era before PCs and video games becoming a household item). The two Mohammeds who lived in my building would have qualified, but I would only see them in the halls at my building perhaps once every two or three weeks when our doors happened to be open at the same time. There was a third Mohammed whom I thought was a terrific guy: Mohammed Javed. He and his wife were both from Pakistan. He was a perfectly proportioned and handsome former olympian who was teaching PE, and she was teaching English at the women's school of King Saud University. His wife and I ended up competing in a quiz bowl on Riyadh's radio station. Surprisingly, we lost the first time. But then, equally surprising, we were invited back for a second time, which we won. I vaguely remember the event. But I was impressed with the gleaming white marble TV tower as well as the sound studio cones jutting out sideways from the wall.
But my best friends in the building while we lived there and my best friends for the entire year that we would stay in Saudi Arabia were Larry Vest and his wife Diane Stark. They lived upon the sixth floor penthouse apartment. I also had a short-lived friend who was from South Africa. He was my first friend from South Africa, and to this day the only person of non-European descent I've had the pleasure to meet who is from South Africa. He was taller than me, but only by a few inches, had short cropped hair and was incredibly nice. But what I remember the most about him was that he had the coolest named the that have ever heard in my life: Mavula Makuota. Mavula was in Saudi visiting his parents during his short summer break. We hung out for several days while he was here, did the various souks and chatted a great deal. I querried him about almost everything since our perception of South Africa was quite negative at that time. It was my first direct insight into life in South Africa, which I found fascinating. And, to me, he put a much friendlier view on the country.
The balcony walls of our 2nd floor (1st floor in international parlance) apartment reached almost to the ceiling, allowing small slivers of bright yellow white light only when the sun was almost directly overhead. The layout of the place was a living room right next to the entrance with a corridor leading off to the right. That led to the two bedrooms at the end of the hall. Mine was directly at the end and Baba and Ma's was off to the right.
The corridor that led to my room entered it from the right corner. My room was pretty non-descript. I cannot even remember what color the walls were, though I think they were a dark reddish pink, bordering on a pale burgundy or Chablis color. Who knows what the decorator was thinking? My bed - a metal framed twin bed - was along the back corner, off to the left. And a large table and two five shelf metal etageres were the only other furniture I had, or needed at that point. It was in the center of the wall facing the rest of the apartment. The walls were bereft of any decoration and natural sunlight was practically non-existent. The whole apartment was always sad and dark and, in retrospect, kind of reminds me of a darkroom.
It bothers me to know that my memories are fading. I dictated the paragraph describing my bedroom of our first apartment in 1996, and now it just four years later I'm having a hard time remembering it though reading this paragraph has brought the visuals back to life.
I don't know how Ma kept her sanity since she was even more confined than I was for the year that we were there. At least I could go outside. And Baba wasn't that affected because he would go to work. But any time we were inside we all felt very confined in what was a perpetually dark apartment that was only halfway lit when all of the lights were on. Ma would only go outside when accompanied by either me or my father. Shomit would be with us as well, of course.
Eventually we left there. The guard downstairs with the perpetual scowl, and several other factors contributed to the need to leave. So we left the dark and drab building with the beautiful white marble floors and moved down Shara Khazan to the more cosmopolitan, more Arab building whose name I forget.
One of my favorite memories was probably all of the many different trips that we took to the cassette souk to buy $1 cassettes. There were all part made in the Philippines or in Thailand and perhaps Hong Kong and elsewhere. We didn't care where they're made; all we cared about was that they cost a dollar and that's all. For me that was the subsidy they enjoyed the most I think once we were on the ground in Saudi Arabia. Our often go by myself, or with Town crier, and my best friend. In the U.S., by one to set every two or three months. There in Saudi Arabia in the cassette souk I found myself purchasing as many as 41 week, even though that was an exceptional week. Usually I just want to buy one or two or perhaps not all, but just to browse. The cassette souk was on the second story of some otherwise nondescript building that was maybe 56 stories high. To this day I have no idea what was inside that building, but I'll suspected that it was just. I don't remember there being any windows either inside the suit facing to the exterior of the building, or windows that were visible from the exterior on any of the upper floors. On the bottom of the building, much does in most of the other commercial or mixed use buildings in Riyadh, was commercial space for storefront. But again, I don't remember was that the bottom of that building. Inside on the second floor was the typical interior of one of the more recent Saudi buildings. When I say it resends I mean It must've been built in the past 20 years, though the sand from the exterior left a weathered look on all of the buildings which was only exacerbated by the muted colors which the Saudi esthetic imposed on the architectural style of that was dominant throughout the city. The different shops of the cassette souk were mostly manned by Yemenis who seemed to have control over all of the shops and much else in Riyadh. For the most part they were always very friendly in spite of their status as second-class citizens even with then the complex higher key that defined Saudi class distinctions. Town and I always went to the same guy first even though we would browse through almost all of the stores in search of perhaps finding one to setter to that weren't available at the other stores or perhaps in anticipation of one of the stores having a specific set on sale for maybe two rials instead of four reels. At that time the exchange rate was about three rials and 75 whatevers per dollar. Each of the little stores in this building on the second floor look almost exactly the same. They were each perhaps 100-200 square feet with of the bare minimum of room allowed for the shopkeeper and his cash register and then nothing but cassettes stacked jam-packed together on shelves from floor to ceiling all lit in the ubiquitous fluorescent lights.
I used my time in Saudi Arabia to argue that my cassette collection to the best of my ability. Before I got to Saudi Arabia, I cassette collection consisted of about four cassettes; at least two of those were Beatles cassettes. Once a year arrived in Riyadh, the first order of business when it came to cassettes was to flesh out a collection. So I quickly set about to purchase any Beatles or beetles related music. So I purchased Sergeant Pepper's lonely hearts Club Band, Abbey Road, revolver, yesterday and today, the magical mystery Tour, yellow submarine, a hard Day's Night, help!, imagine, and so on. By the time I left, about 55 Beatles and ex-Beatles tapes. But that wasn't enough. So then start to buy other music that interested me. I decided that I liked E L 0 and bought all of 10 cassettes of theirs. And I bought things that I'm embarrassed that I bought, such as one or two ABBA tapes and others that I won't even mention.
Saudi Arabia was also the first place where Baba ever got us a VCR. I don't think that he necessarily was keen on spending the money required to purchase a VCR, but entertainment on TV was so limited in Saudi Arabia that one just had to get a VCR and as well as a membership at the local video store which were unlimited it seemed. The videotapes were also all pirated. I think that there was one TV station but demand been more. There was certainly only one very impressive building that was called the TV station, which was a soaring 450 ft. or so structure that gleamed on the night sky because of its beautiful marble construction. the Space needle structure was punctuated two-thirds of the way to the top by a multistory observatory which no one ever visited because of security or Islamic sensibilities toward privacy. We learned that there had been a huge uproar when television was first introduced into the desert kingdom because it was considered to be on Islamic to show human figures on TV to its ads in other aspects of art. Obviously this did not extend to the newspaper, because almost every single edition of The Daily Arab News showed a photograph or two or three of his Majesty King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. it never said what he was doing other than who he was meeting on any particular day.
Most of the English-speaking news was targeted towards the expatriate community by giving the information and that the monarchy wanted the expats to have. But many of the other things that would've been so interesting to us weren't broadcast, or perhaps we just did not make enough effort to find those programs.
The Saudi Arabian version of censorship was both funny and tragic at the same time. I think that going over we had some idea about how strict things might be that was something else altogether to actually feel that strictness as we had our bags searched for whatever contraband material including news magazines such as Time or Newsweek that we might have.
We had very little access to the news other than what we saw on TV through the one English-speaking station that we watched nightly for the Saudi version of the news. the magazines such as Time or Newsweek that we got once a week were like little gems back to the U.S.. I awaited them with great anticipation and before to keeping up with the latest events in the U.S. I might read in the living room or more frequently I would read in bed before going to sleep. I have always been a voracious reader probably from the time I was about six. we used to go to the Library all the time where I would pick up as many books as I could carry in both arms. This process was repeated at least once a week and I devoured all kinds of books, fiction and nonfiction, mostly about history; more specifically I read about famous people and I read about war. And for every 12 books read we got a certificate on the wall with our name there at the Public Library here in Atlanta. I use to take satisfaction in seeing my name show up more than anyone else's every summer from the time I was 7 until about 11. So anyway, I still had the habit while I was in Saudi Arabia and I still have it to this day often read in until 2:00 in the morning. I narrate all this just to emphasize how much I enjoyed looking forward to these magazines every week.
So it might be 11:00 p.m. at night, and all would be quiet throughout our flat. Ma, Baba and my little brother Shomit would all be asleep in the next room. The streets below would be quiet as well. I have not forgotten exactly when the the giant a AWACs aircraft would fly overhead going right above my bedroom window on the ninth floor of our building, but I think that it was at either 11:00 or at 11:15 pm every night. The airplane showed up like clockwork, making it perhaps the most punctual for thing to happen at any given point in the Desert Kingdom.
My responsibility grew but from one day to the next. I think that Saudi Arabia where is where I started to make the transition from a young man or more accurately a child to a young man. Arguably that started and Los Angeles at the airport when we went to get the frequent-flier mile forms for Pan Am which I pushed Baba to fill out. And that increased every single day when we got to Saudi Arabia. Baba sent me out on errands, probably to keep me busy, or maybe more accurately to let me grow. I enjoyed the more and more. Allowed me to exercise my limited Arabic for tabular which was growing every day, but still had so far to go. But it became my job to go to different stores to purchase difference electronic equipment and other furnishings for the home.
One of the wonderful and very funny paradoxical facets about life in Saudi Arabia was the quest for water. Not that we ever have to go look far for water, but we had to go out and get all for drinking water in huge Jerry cans that we would load up in the back of our used Pontiac Bonneville about once a week and then bring it back into our apartment. These were colorful solid red or solid yellow plastic versions of the military Jerry cans seen in many photos of World War II jeeps, trucks and tanks. The way it worked was the falling: We had two large Jerry cans that we would put take - empty - from our apartment into the elevator, downstairs, outside to the parking lot down the street, to the car and into the car's trunk. We could fit two in there pretty easily since the Bonneville was hardly optimized for compactness. From there we would drive to what was basically a filling station just like a gasoline station. And there were gasoline pumps that were at this filling station but instead of pumping gasoline one pumped water. And the little pump would go ding, ding, ding just like it's gasoline counterparts and then we would pay the total. Incidentally gasoline at that time cost about 25¢ a gallon and water at that time cost about 35¢ a gallon, so gasoline was much cheaper than water. The hard part was of course all lugging all of this water back up to our apartment on the ninth floor, even with the rickety elevator that we had. We always managed to get water to our apartments in spite of the elevator instead of necessarily as a result of it.
Saudi culture is, of course, dramatically different from our own. Sometimes their morality has a discordant ring to it that reminds us of how amoral our own culture can be, but sometimes it can also come across as incredibly harsh and backward. In either case, it is a constant reminder that we are guests in this country and that we cannot apply our own sense of ethics to the dessert kingdom and that morality is not a universal standard. Much of what we heard when in Saudi was hearsay. As a matter of fact, with the harsh censorship enforced by the religious clergy and with Saudi newspapers free from American influence, my eyes were opened to a different point of view. But that is neither here nor there. But in any case, much of what we heard was from others and often could not be substantiated. But one of the stories that always bothered me was as follows...
King Saud University of Riyadh had two main components: a men's college and a women's college. My father taught at the men's. As a matter of fact, all of the male professors taught at the men's college. And at the women's college, it was only women who taught. Diane Stark was one of the professors there. Towne Cryer's mother was another one. Most of the staff at either school was comprised of expatriates, or expats, as we were collectively known. And the women's college had perhaps a higher percentage of foreigners in teaching positions than its male counterpart.
Anyone who signed a contract received very generous benefits, usually including round-trip air fare to city of origin, free housing, a car allowance, a food allowance, a tuition allowance for minor children, and an allowance for pretty much anything else possible. The net of it was that the salary, combined with these wonderful allowances and a tax-free society meant that perhaps 90% of what one earned was kept. Many Americans and other foreigners went there for several years to earn enough to return home to retire or at least live very well for the rest of their lives. The downside, and the reason for these very high salaries, were the very strict moral standards that we were all warned about before moving over there. And one of those standards was that dating wasn't allowed. You were either married before you got there, or you were expected to remain celibate, or at least romantically impaired, until you returned home. Many of the expats ignored these laws, no doubt encouraged by the Saudi men who believed in violating these laws with impunity.
Sometimes the Saudis went after married women. One case involved someone I knew. I heard of what happened from some mutual friends. This woman was thin, blonde, and of course, very attractive, perhaps the most attractive of the expat women that I knew in Saudi Arabia, though to others she might have been in the middle of the pack at the beach in Florida or California. She was married and had a small child, but that didn't stop some sheik from offering her husband a brand new Cadillac and $30,000 to sleep with his wife. They turned down the offer, but even that couldn't have been that comfortable since the sheikh probably could have exercised his influence to have them thrown out of the kingdom on trumped up charges.
In another case, 29 women, all teachers at the English department of the women's college, were all thrown out of the country for having dated while living in Riyadh. The rubric "dating" might have covered anything from hand holding, inviting one to the other's place or sex, but in many of those cases, it was probably just hand holding. All 29 were deported almost immediately, probably without the customary two weeks notice. And all twenty nine had their passports stamped, in Arabic, with the word "prostitute" in their exit visas. All were forbidden from every working in the kingdom ever again.
Larry Vest was always there when I needed someone to turn to. I spent a lot of time with him at his place. Most of it was spent laughing or having a good time, which was sometimes hard to come by in KSA. Other times it was on the other end of the emotional spectrum. I'm sure that Larry must have wondered more than once what the occasion would be. In any case, he was always there to make me laugh or to have sympathy for my sorrows. Hopefully, he got something back out of his friendship with me. I don't really know where he is anymore. I think that he's in either Dallas or Ft. Worth, but I haven't kept in touch with him in a long time. As opposed to me, who has a lousy final impression of Saudi, one strong enough to overcome many wonderful and fascinating times, Larry and Diane (Stark) enjoyed their stay since they stayed longer than I did and since they named their daughter Sultana.
Larry was average in both height and build with a thick head of dark hair as his crown. His skills were many, but at that time he was in Saudi to accompany his wife Diane Stark. I never did ask why they kept separate last names, but then again, having spent so much time apart before having gotten married, they were probably pretty used to them. He had a hint of a Texas twang that was just that, a hint. He never really dropped any of the Texan vernacular which made him sound like the all-around American guy that he was, and, I suppose, still is. Soft-spoken to a fault, I never once heard him raise his voice at anyone. He had no airs or arrogance which made him incredibly approachable. After all, he was twice my age but related to me as I wasn't. Hopefully part of that is my doing as well, but most of it was his.
When I think of him, I remember him singing "Blackbird", then one of my favorite Beatles songs. He would also sing "Do You Want to Know a Secret" changing "Let me whisper in your ear" to "Let me dribble in your beer." And he would improvise lyrics to other songs too, as he probably had in the years before he came to Texas when he was in one of many rock bands.
The following questions were posed to me in 2004, and I thought I would add my answers here:
What was the cost of living in Riyadh and Jeddah or any other city: The real costs was probably pretty steep in some ways - such as for water, I assume, but the adjusted cost was quite inexpensive since the government subsidized everything at that time. They paid housing allowances, educational allowances, travel allowances, car allowances, etc. So most people working there were able to bank about 90% of their gross income or something ridiculous like that. Over here, of course, we are probably luck to bank 10% of our gross income after taxes and all other expenditures.
What was the average house size: I'm not sure here either. Our second flat was probably around 1000 square feet and probably compared well to places like New York, even if it was very humdrum in every way. I never disliked anything about our flat. It just wasn't very upscale or elegant. But it suited me fine.
What was the cost of having air condition in modern houses: I'm not sure here either. But most houses there use a great amount of natural, non-wooden elements, and must be relatively well insulated as a result. They also use a lot of cooling surfaces, such as marble floors or tiled floors. We had wall units rather than central A/C, but I don't remember ever being hot inside. I do remember being hot outside, of course. :)