Living in Jidda
Many of us here live in compounds. This is not done, as in other colonial arrangements, to protect ourselves from the natives, but rather the opposite: to protect the Saudis from us. For while the average Saudi will let you know that his culture is “superior” to yours, he is unable to account for the fact that ours has such a corrupting, seductive appeal to him.
I live in a place called Shorbatly Village, which is a fenced rectangular compound of seven hundred flat-roofed houses ten miles out on the desert from downtown Jidda. This compound, this “village” now housing seven hundred families of foreign workers (mostly Americans and British and some Pakistanis) was trucked out piecemeal to this site, as ships freighted it in, and erected barely three years ago. Although the houses are “prefabricated,” they are permanent and do not give an impression of flimsiness. The foundation is a concrete slab covering 1,320 square feet of ground to which, like a pre-measured, pre-cut do-it-yourself kit, the walls, ceilings, doors, windows, moldings, and all the rest have been bolted and screwed. Around each house there is a head-high concrete wall enclosing a sandpile yard. This village (Shorbatly is the name of a Jidda merchant) has its own power station at the southeast corner which burns oil day and night through four chimneys with the sound of a giant blowtorch. It has to keep 3,500 air-conditioners as well as lights and other appliances alive. In addition, Shorbatly has its own water tower, mosque, supermarket, gas station, swimming pool, and tennis court.
Once behind your wall, inside your house, you can surround yourself with familiar objects brought from home and forget where you are, but go out into the “streets” and your sense of visual aesthetics begins to register distress. Pre fabrication aims at speed and economy and sacrifices diversity. There are no peculiarities of architectural detail to interest the eye. Nothing purely whimsical or eccentric. Were it not for the numbers stencilled on the walls in black paint, you wouldn’t know which was yours. There is nothing in sight higher than these sun-baked houses, which have been plunked down on the raw desert. The monotony deadens. No high trees. No shade anywhere. The only green is in the yards that you see behind a left-open gate, and they are planted in grass, flowers, acacia trees, and oleander shrubs. Some of these, with two or more years growth on them, are already higher than the wall; but, for instant leafage, practically every wall has dense ivy-like vines that have climbed up the inside and taken off down the outside, their outermost creepers reaching across the gravel area next to the walls where cars are parked and even out into the asphalt streets, where the vines’ innocent take-over-the-world energy is finally discouraged by the crushing reality of automobile tires. These vines, as grateful for water as the stray cats hereabouts are for food, grow so quickly in sand that in a few months, if there were no cars, their exploring tendrils would grope over rooftops and twine across roadways and Shorbatly Village, seen from the air, would look like a square of unbroken Amazon rain forest set down on the garbage dumps of Saudi Arabia.
Take a map of old Jidda—the Jidda known to the ancients and pretty much unchanged right down to the time of T. E. Lawrence—and superimpose it on the new, and you’ll see that it was barely a twentieth of what it is now. Maps are useless. The city outgrows each new map before it is printed. Only a few of the bigger, older streets bother to have names and even these, like the fickle channels in a volatile river, are constantly changing. Today I drove to work along an avenue which two years ago was the corniche along the waterfront. Now the water has been pushed a mile back, the land filled, and houses built where then all was sea. You’d think that unlimited expansion in three directions would be enough to satisfy the wildest growth; but Jidda, the insatiable, advances westward too.
As a result of this carcinomatosis, Jidda is a physical wreck. Modern Saudi Arabia is the ugliest, unkemptest place on earth: the trash that is simply everywhere; the heaps of construction rubble; the out-and-out dumps; the millions of cement sacks and random papers and cartons and plastic bags blowing on the sticky wind and plastered against fences and snagged on every scrap of wire and metal and smashed abandoned car (of which there are hundreds)—all this is tackiness on such a monumental scale that one is as much awed as offended. Surely, one thinks, to achieve a litterscape of such breathtaking dimension requires more than mere slovenliness; some plan must be behind it all. This logical deduction I am unable to prove, but I do know that on yesterday’s dump are this morning’s villas. One can only hope that eventually houses and roads will cover all the rest of it and a system of garbage removal will have been devised; otherwise the tells of Jidda will keep reaching upward toward Mecca and meet hers halfway down in an unbroken litteropolis.
Jidda, now grown mighty in its own right, was originally important only as the port of Mecca and as the burial place of Eve. A strong legend persists that this was the Garden of Eden, and Eve’s grave—how far back can you get?—has always been a sort of local curiosity, pointed out by the natives quite matter-of-factly. That is, it was until 1928, which is the year the Wahhabis, Muslim fanatics for whom any veneration of the dead savored of idolatry, covered it over. But they left the wall around it standing, as if some deep and final superstition prevented them from being responsible for obliterating the site altogether. Perhaps they should have. It is still known as “Eve’s tomb,” but now “destroyed by. . . .” When you get close to that wall, by the way, there is the strong smell of a country outhouse and a swarm of flies. Any wall is as good as another in this country of emigrant workers and no public bathrooms.
Mecca is forty miles inland from Jidda. Since I am not a Muslim, I am not allowed to get even a glimpse of Mecca, much less pay it a visit. There is a special highway for non-Muslims which makes a wide respectful detour around Mecca (for those driving eastward to Taif, or Riyadh, or the Arabian Gulf), and no planes are allowed to fly over it lest it be profaned by the eyes of the infidel on board. Mecca is the home of the Great Mosque, which is the holiest mosque of Islam. Inside the mosque is the cube-shaped structure known as the Kaaba, said to have been built by Abraham. In one corner of the Kaaba, like a dark precious stone girdled by a wide band of silver, is mounted (remounted by the hand of Mohammed himself) the sacred meteorite which Muslims hold in such reverence that countless of them, over the centuries, have perished in an attempt to make pilgrimage to it. In Mohammed’s day (and before: Mecca and the Kaaba, once a repository for the graven images of paganism, predate Islam as a pilgrimage site), they came to it by ship and on foot and “on every lean camel,” and of course many of them never returned to their starting places. It was always a brutal, dangerous trip for the pilgrims from Cordoba, Fez, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Isfahan, and other soft centers of Islamic civilization; at least the Arabian tail-end of it was. They had to travel through a desert ever attended by thirst and disease and tribes of ragged Bedouins who thought that Allah had sent these plump caravaneers expressly for their plunder, as he from time to time sent on the west wind the hordes of fat locusts to be roasted and eaten (and still does, though his former largesse has been reduced by the efforts of the British and American locust-control stations in the Sudan). The Bedouin has always had a notorious reputation as a pillager. An anonymous sailor, writing in the 1st century C.E., remarks, after first describing the tribes of Fish Eaters along the coast, that the “country inland is peopled by rascally men speaking two languages” (did he mean that they spoke with forked tongue, i.e., that they were habitual liars?) “who live in villages and nomadic camps, by whom those sailing off the middle course are plundered, and those surviving shipwrecks are taken for slaves. . . . Therefore we hold our course . . . and pass on as fast as possible by the country of Arabia until we come to the . . . regions of peaceful people, nomadic, pasturers of cattle, sheep, and camels” (Yemen).
Several hundred yards off the eastern fence of Shorbatly Village there is, under construction but nearly finished, a prison. The only thing that distinguishes it from other prisons (it has the high walls, the in-curving strands of barbed wire at the top, the guard towers) is the slim minaret rising above the wall. From the forbidding look of the whole place I assume it was built for maximum security; how could anyone hope to get over a wall twenty feet high? The mystery to me is, why such a prison at all? The crime rate is very low; and, besides, Saudis do not go in for long detentions. Basically, a jail is regarded as only a kind of temporary holding pen until the punishment, whatever it is, is carried out. For minor crimes, e.g., drunkenness (beginning drunks always get off with a couple of warnings), the offender may be assigned forty-five public lashes to be administered over a three week period. The poor wretch will be detained three weeks, publicly humiliated on three successive Fridays when he will be led out before witnesses, his back bared, his name read, his offense proclaimed, and given fifteen lashes with a flexible bamboo cane. No blood is drawn. The whipping is more token than earnest.
Nearly everyone by now has heard what happens to thieves, but nearly everyone I have talked to has got only half the story. A thief caught red-handed is not hustled away to the police station where his hand is cut off. He is given three warnings. If he steals because he is poor or because he is sick and cannot work, this is a mitigating circumstance and he is helped, not punished. But if there is nothing wrong with him, and he keeps stealing, not driven to it by desperation, then he is deemed incorrigible and in need of a lesson that he will remember. His right hand is amputated. If he persists after that, his left hand, and on down to his feet if he’s stubborn and can spare them.
Another minor offense that can keep a man in jail for a while is over the question of something called blood money. If you are involved in an automobile accident in which somebody is killed or maimed, you are obligated to pay blood money to the victim’s family. The amounts vary, but you can count on ten to fifteen thousand dollars. Foreigners take out liability insurance which theoretically covers them, but most Saudis don’t bother. Insurance, as a hedge against the unknowable future, is an alien concept. So, for that matter, is weather forecasting. They report the weather that was, not the weather that will be (although nothing here is easier to predict), for who can know about that but Allah? Anyway, a man will be kept in jail after a fatal accident for as long as it takes him or his tribe to get the money together. When it is paid, he is freed. Incidentally, as a curious illustration of the Saudi’s fatalistic logic, if you are the passenger in a taxi which is involved in someone’s death, you, not the driver, are liable for the blood money. It is your fault. Why? Well, look at it this way: if the driver had not been taking you to a certain place, he would not have been in that spot at that moment the accident occurred, would he?
For serious crimes—murder, rape, adultery—one is detained in jail only for as long as it takes for the death sentence to be passed and carried out. That usually does not take long. Our penal quagmire is not theirs. Murderers are beheaded. Rapists and adulterers are stoned. These executions always take place on Friday (the Muslim sabbath) in a public square after the midday prayer at the mosque. Nobody is discouraged from attending, although women are rarely seen and foreigners who attempt to take pictures will have their film confiscated. The beheadings, for as long as I can remember, have been performed by a big Sudanese who, as a reward for years of faithful service in the most disagreeable profession imaginable, lives in style in a grand villa here in Jidda. I have never seen an execution. I have never wanted to. I have had them described to me by eyewitnesses, and that’s as close as I ever want to get. No man dies easily, that’s the point, and when a man’s head comes off, there is a great deal of blood.
In the summer of 1977 in Hofuf, an oasis town in the Eastern province near Riyadh, three men were stoned, and one beheaded, for raping a woman. I just missed seeing it by an hour. Had I been there in time, I think I would have taken a peek at it. I went to Hofuf from Al Khobar, where I was then living, to poke around the rug souk. It was then, at about one in the afternoon, when the streets were empty, the shops closed, and everyone eating lunch or napping, that I came upon the three bodies. I knew instantly what I was seeing, but I think I might have needed some time to figure it out if I had not been already imaginatively prepared for it through my years here. It is, after all, one of the shocking sights of a lifetime. Most of us by now have witnessed executions. Who, in the global world of TV, isn’t familiar by now with the gas chamber or firing squad? But television is still a film, not life, and for 3-D cinemascopic verisimilitude there is nothing like finding yourself in a typical Saudi Arabian square (with shards of squashed Nido milk and Velveeta cheese cans and soft-drink flip-tops and thrown-out hooves and ears of butchered goats half-buried in the churned and filthy sand), in the breathless glare of a desert afternoon, seeing three bodies buried to their waists in pits, slumped like rag dolls in the abandon of death. Their hands (with fingers swollen like sausages) were bound with rope behind their backs. Their crime was rape. Their mistake, I mean their strategic mistake as criminals, was that it wasn’t rape and murder. They had not killed their victim, believing that she’d keep her mouth shut rather than live in the obloquy sure to follow if she talked. For society, which will duly execute the rapist, will nevertheless always be impatient with the victim, believing that somehow—in something she did or didn’t do—the woman was not careful enough. Especially would that be true in this case, since (as I was to read the next day in the English-language newspaper) she knew the men, or at least one of them, He was in fact a neighbor, and it was for this reason, she said, that she had accepted a ride home from the souk with him. Why didn’t they kill her? Perhaps because, more than appalled by what they’d already done, they were paralyzed by fear and so incapable of thinking through the consequences of their act. Or who knows? Perhaps they debated killing her but couldn’t bring themselves to do it. Rape is one thing but murder is something else. Whatever stayed them, letting her live meant death for themselves. She told. When the soldiers came to the house of the man who owned the car used in the abduction, they needed no further confession than his incoherence and incontinence.
The position of the three bodies formed a rough equilateral triangle, each one about twenty yards from the other. The fourth man involved was a bachelor. Since he presumably had more incentive than the others, he was let off lightly with a decapitation. It was the three married ones that I was looking at. During the actual chucking of the stones they had worn canvas hoods. These had now been removed. The swollen faces looked calm, but it would have been difficult to recognize the features even if you had known them personally, for each face was covered with a fine white dust such as a clown, or someone in the role of a ghost in a play, might use as makeup. It was as if someone, perhaps one of the relatives of the victim, had thrown a double handful of sand on each one of them when the hoods were removed. There were flies around the blood that had dried in their hair. No, they were certainly not spared the indignity of exposure. The whole point was exposure. You are supposed to go by and say to your son, “Well, there’s Ali. And there’s Saeed. And there’s Mohammed over there. Come to this. With wives and children, too.” How many women have been widowed in this way, I wonder? In America they would form a club, WSR (Wives of Stoned Rapists), and have monthly meetings and encounter sessions. Here, each widow (who was not allowed to choose her own husband, after all) will go back to her father (who did), back to her tribe whose name she never gives up. Or, if her father is dead or old, she will go to one of her brothers, and her children will be absorbed into an ongoing family and be raised as one of them. To a Saudi, his family, his tribe, is everything. The tribe gives him his identity, his place in the world, his strength, his security, his welfare. The web of kinship is very strong and wide. Now the government is taking the place of the tribe, with mixed success. Tribe was here before the government and it will surely be here after.
A barefoot black boy in a dirty thobe (ankle-length shirt) walked by. He was more interested in looking at me looking at the bodies than in the bodies themselves. Perhaps he had seen it all from the beginning: the men brought by soldiers through the excited, death-smelling mob to the freshly dug pits. Names read out. Offense proclaimed. Punishment decreed. Last words of the condemned. The hoods placed. The crowd suddenly silent. The three piles of demitasse-sized stones trucked in earlier for the occasion. The first stone thrown by the executioner (not the Sudanese, the sword is his specialty), whose job it is to act as a sort of master of ceremonies, encouraging the faint-hearted, and to throw enough well-aimed stones to insure, one hopes, at least a quick unconsciousness if not a swift death. The doctor kneeling from time to time in front of each man with a stethoscope, either to signal the end or to stand back and let the stoning recommence.
As the boy and I stood there, each of us looking at what we found interesting, a Hofuf municipality truck puffing out blue-gray clouds of insecticide in synchronization with its one-cylinder pump—poop poop poop poop poop—and followed closely by a half-dozen skylarking boys, came spraying from the direction of the vegetable souk, entered the square, sprayed the living and the dead—poop poop poop poop poop—and went on toward the meat souk where carcasses hang on hooks and where blood and offal tramped underfoot for generations on the greasy stone slabs draw millions of flies and have made vegetarians out of more than one foreigner. I held my breath as the truck passed by. The boy took off after it, laughing and shouting, and was soon enveloped in the dense, oily-smelling fog.
To get back to that prison—I wonder, every time my after-dinner digestive perambulations around Shorbatly’s two-mile perimeter bring me parallel with its western wall, whether it could house—dare I breathe the word?—political prisoners. It could, for the truth is that nobody knows what happens to dissidents here. No one even knows if there are any dissidents. There are certainly no demonstrations of any kind, there are no unions, no strikes. The universities, which in other developing countries (although Saudi Arabia is in no way a typical “developing” country) may be hotbeds of youthful unrest, are here no better than glorified secondary schools. There is no such thing as liberal education, free discussion of ideas. It is a closed society. When considering where the Saudis are intellectually, it must be remembered that a citizen cannot even change his religion, and the punishment for apostasy is death. Any threat to rule by the Saud family would have to come from inside the government, from the ministries and the civil service, whose members comprise a sort of U.S.-educated club. Or else it could come from the officers’ ranks of the armed forces, another Western-educated elite.
But if there have been fledgling conspiracies, or even an attempted putsch, the government, of course, has kept it quiet. There are only rumors. One rumor, which persists to this day, maintains that in 1969 a cell of air-force officers was caught in a plot. The officers confessed under torture and were taken up in a C-180 to 10,000 feet and pushed out over the Empty Quarter. But rumors are a dime a dozen in a place like this. The latest rumor has it that a routine spot check for smuggled whiskey at the Jordan border turned up a truckload not of whiskey but of arms and ammunition. That, they say, explains the current scarcity of scotch, for now every truck is stripped down and searched.
I first began hearing that rumor in August, but didn’t think much about it until the seizure of the holy mosque in Mecca three months later. Whether those men were religious fanatics or political revolutionists will never be known by the general public. The government says that they were motivated purely by fanaticism, and views as perverse and unfriendly the dispatches of Western reporters trying to suggest that Saudi Arabia is vulnerable to the same sort of Islamic revolutionary turmoil that hit Iran.
Could it be true? Could some deluded schemers have been hoping for an Iranian-type uprising? Fools if they were. Iran had a large subclass of wretched peasants, a large population with many unassimilated ethnic elements, and an obviously unfair distribution of wealth. Saudi Arabia has a homogeneous population of only six million and most of them are making money hand over fist. There are a few latter-day Wahhabis who want to turn the clock back, but nobody else does. It should be understood that Saudi Arabia is having its revolution right now. The doors of opportunity are opening for everybody. Only a few years ago girls did not go to school. Now the wives of two of my colleagues, to have something to do, teach classes at the women’s wing of Abdulaziz University. One teaches drama and poetry, the other teaches the English novel, and they report that their girls wade into Jane Austen and Thackeray, dissect the poems of Herrick and Marvell, as if to the culture born. This is revolution enough. The wealth of the royal family, while it is known to be great, is not generally envied. Everyone is so much better off than he was when the game started, so busy counting his own chips that he hasn’t time to be worrying about the size of his neighbor’s pile. Of course, the fact that revolution, Iranian-style, is not a serious possibility in this country may not deter the true wishful thinker, for whom facts don’t matter. Remember, only a few years ago lots of our own youth actually thought that the American revolution was just a shove away. So it’s possible. Anything is possible. And the prison is there.
But politics is not uppermost in the minds of most Westerners here. Politics is for the downtrodden or the well-off or the victim of injustice. We don’t have the leisure for politics. We are down to basics, which means that most of our spare time is spent worrying where our next drink is coming from. It wouldn’t be this way if we could just go out to the corner store and buy a six-pack of beer or a bottle of wine. But Saudi Arabia is dry. Not that Saudis don’t drink. They do, everything they can get their hands on, and if they can’t get their hands on any then they get their minds on it and daydream about drinking. The other evening I took a taxi from the souk to Shorbatly. After a miserably humid day a hot dry wind from the desert lowered the humidity drastically and turned the half hour of dusk suddenly into night with the fine sand it brought in with it. The driver turned on his headlights. I asked the man, a Jiddawi, what this kind of wind was called. Hawa robar—air hazy, he replied. It’s good, he added. Yes, I agreed, good, even if it was a little hard to breathe. Wallah, the driver said, on an evening like this a man doesn’t want to be driving a taxi.
I thought that with the exorbitant rate I was paying (there are no meters; you agree on a price before you get in) he should be happy enough doing what he was doing. How, then, I asked him, would he rather be spending his time? He flipped the end of his ghutra (headcloth) over the top of his egal (black rope) to expose his ear. On an evening like this, he explained, when there is no humidity, I would like to be outside, sitting on a rug under a tree, with a bottle of whiskey and some ice at my side. There was a silence. Damn it. As if the mere naming of it had created the need, my dry throat suddenly ached for the taste of cold whiskey. His must have too, for we both sighed at the same time. Finally I tested him coyly. Well, yes, I said, but whiskey is forbidden. He flipped the other side of his ghutra onto his head. Forbidden? Many things are forbidden. If forbidden to you means forbidden, then it is forbidden. It isn’t forbidden to me, I explained, because I am not a Muslim. But it is against the law, and besides it isn’t always available. It’s available, he said. During Ramadan (Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, was just over) they crack down and it becomes more expensive. Yes, I agreed, it’s very expensive. What is the price now? I asked. The price now is two hundred riyals (fifty-six dollars) a bottle. That’s ridiculous, I said. What are you? he asked. American, I replied. What’s the price in America? Thirty riyals, I said. Available everywhere? Everywhere, I assured him. We again fell into a whiskey-longing reverie. Our throats were parched. Ah, that dream of ice and scotch whiskey. I never felt such sympathy for a man. Doomed all his life to dream of a place where whiskey was affordable and available everywhere.
At my door I thought of inviting him in for a drink, but decided against it. It’s always risky to offer alcohol to a Saudi unless he’s your friend. It isn’t that I was afraid this one would turn me in. I know a drinking man from an informer. I was afraid that he would show up at my door the next time the north wind blew and he had a thirst on. Poor devil. He drove off into the dry night and I found myself pouring, with trembling hand, a sidiki and tonic.
Sidik in Arabic means friend, and the i ending makes it possessive. Never has white-lightning been so fondly, so felicitously named. Its production has the simplicity of miracle. Bags of white sugar are dumped into water. Yeast is added. The yeast converts the sugar into a low-grade alcohol only as strong as wine. This is the “mash.” The mash is then boiled in a pot still, the alcohol condensed and run through copper tubes into jugs. It is run through the still four times, until it is pure 180-proof alcohol. It is then cut with water to 90 proof and sold in the plastic bottles of the water used to cut it, usually a brand called Sohat, from Lebanon, or Safa, from Mecca (which I prefer for its delicious irony).
This happy product of American know-how was pioneered by the first Westerners actually to dig in and settle in this hard land (the “Arabia Felix” of the ancients was only a narrow mountainous strip of country beginning at Taif and running down to Yemen), who were the Aramco employees in Dhahran in the 1930’s. They were tough men: geologists, engineers, and roughnecks; some of them sons of moonshiners, one would like to think. In those primitive, start-up days Aramco was generously involved in seeing to the physical comfort and emotional health of its valuable employees, and so it introduced as quickly as it could the amenities of civilized life: air-conditioning, a hospital, a movie, a radio station, paved roads, and sidiki. To make sure nobody blew himself up it even showed them how to make stills. When Crown Prince Fahd remarked, during the first oil crisis, that Saudi Arabia didn’t want to hurt a country that had been “like a mother to us,” he was speaking the literal truth. The U.S. did give birth to modern Saudi Arabia. Aramco was the midwife and sidiki was the mother’s milk. For many Saudis it was, their first experience with alcohol.
The production of sidiki requires special equipment but wine doesn’t, and practically everyone makes it. To make wine all you need is a container (plastic jerry cans are the favorite) and grape juice. The grape juice, shiploads of it, is available in every market and foreigners take it home by the case. I think the minister of imports must wonder about this disproportionate popularity of grape juice over, say, apple juice. He probably knows the reason and would like to ban it as he has recently banned non-alcoholic beer, a malt beverage that has been around for years. The ministry, in explaining that decision, said that it was being consumed with the thought of real beer in mind and therefore violated the spirit if not the letter of Islam’s prohibition of alcohol. With this kind of mentality at work you can be sure they would also like to ban grape and all fruit juices susceptible of being wrought by the magic of yeast into something new and strange; but, fortunately for us sinners, not everyone who buys juice subverts it to Satan’s purpose, while not everyone who buys sugar turns it into sidiki. Of course all this brewing and fermenting takes time and eats into our weekends, but its reward (bottles full of beer and wine in the closet) is a feeling of smug plenitude such as the gardener enjoys at harvest time when the crops are in and the shelves are loaded with the canning. Now let the winter come.
Among the American community in Jidda there are to be found “old hands” who still affect a Yemeni or Sudanese house-boy (everyone could afford one ten years ago before this kind of domestic help was lost to the higher-paying construction industry) whom they trust with the whiskey, letting him serve drinks to the master and his guests. I was present at such a gathering a few evenings ago. The host, a businessman who entertains a lot, cannot be bothered with the cottage industry that I have just described. Through a fat Lebanese bootlegger with whom he places a monthly order of about a thousand dollars, he keeps a well-stocked bar. We were drinking sundowners on the terrace. I suppose, technically, I am an “old hand” here too: I have known the country for eleven years, or before the exponential modernization and expansion that began a decade ago and really got going in earnest five years later. We sip our drinks and talk about the “old” Saudi Arabia. There is a young prince in our company. This is nothing special. There is plenty of royalty to go around and everyone has “his” prince. There is also with us a member of the council of ministers, a Ph.D. from Berkeley who is telling us that he brought back with him from his latest visit to the States some cannabis seeds which he tried without success to grow in his garden.
I am a little shocked by this revelation. A few years ago nobody would admit to smoking marijuana; now a minister is trying to grow it. The sun, a huge unabashed globe of tropical orange, shimmers briefly in mirage on the horizon of the Red Sea, and sinks. At this latitude there is no prolonged twilight. From a minaret somewhere a loudspeaker blares forth the call for Mahgrab, the evening prayer. The houseboy, a small dark Yemeni, glides out on bare feet from the French doors with another tray of glasses in which the ice chinks comfortingly. I am drinking gin. The quinine and the ice and the lime say: good life. We sip. The prayer call reminds one of us that an old landmark, the whitewashed mosque with the leaning minaret, had been bulldozed out of the way for downtown road-straightening. A new one, of course, will be built nearby (in a country that takes its religion so seriously the number of mosques must increase, not decrease), but that isn’t the point, as we reminded our two Saudi friends. Such familiar landmarks, reminders of a fast-disappearing Jidda, should be preserved. (Foreigners are more concerned about historical preservation than the natives.) We have, said the frustrated gardener, plenty of mosques. What we don’t have—he swept his arm to invite us to look at the junk-heaped littoral—is enough grass.
A good life. A safe life. When we go home on visits people want only to hear more about the head-choppings and hand-cuttings. A lot of them—nine out of ten—inevitably say, “We could use some of that kind of thing here.” Perhaps they’re right. You can’t buy whiskey in Saudi Arabia openly, no, but you can walk anywhere, day or night, in absolute safety. Those “rascally men, speaking two languages” would not touch your possessions today if you left them in the middle of the road for a week. They have been made, and they are kept, honest by fear.
The Arabian peninsula is the eye of a hurricane. Just look at the map. Revolving about us are the winds of hunger, poverty, misery, disease. Start south and move clockwise: Yemen, Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India. Each name tolls its bell of misery, whether it is drought, flood, pestilence, hunger, revolution, war, illiteracy, superstition, fanaticism, overpopulation. Workers come here from every one of these countries, and they are the lucky ones, the ones with jobs. Just across the way from the balcony where we sip drinks at dusk there is a huge villa in the making. I am told that it is for Gaith Pharaon, who is one of the world’s fabulously rich men. It is hard to tell at this stage whether it is going to look like the Taj Mahal or the Alhambra.
The construction of these monster villas—palaces they should be called—can go on for a couple of years, utilizing the labor of dozens of coolies and big machines. The workers live at the site. They live “nowhere”; that is, they spread their rags or pieces of foam rubber and sleep wherever they can in and around the skeleton of the half-finished building. Since they defecate wherever they can, too, their peace, such as it can be on nights so sticky with humidity that you can nearly wring it out of a rag, is further troubled by the flies that they themselves have helped to attract. On a rickety table, banged together out of two-by-fours and plywood, there is a three-burner stove connected by a rubber hose to a gas bottle. On this they make their tea and do whatever cooking they can. They can’t do much. Without refrigeration nothing lasts for more than an hour. To buy food they have to get to the souk, ten kilometers away.
After a long sweaty walk during which the dust stirred up by the cars cakes on their faces, they can crowd aboard a Toyota bus that takes them to Bab Mecca, the old Mecca Gate—now a neighborhood—at the edge of the old town. In the filthy streets between the close shuttered houses there (early travelers remarked on the “clean” streets, even T. E. Lawrence: “It was like a dead city, so clean underfoot”), there are even filthier open-air corner eateries where workmen’s meals of chicken and yellow rice are spooned onto tin plates out of huge black pots and served with round loaves of unsalted, unleavened bread, places where flies abound, where skinny cats crunch bones underfoot and where the grains of rice spilled onto the greasy tables are brushed off by hand before the next patron sits down. After he eats, the immigrant worker makes a few purchases (soap, razor blades), gawks for a while at all the world’s goods, and catches the jitney back to his site. At dawn he prays, has his tea and bread; and by sunup he is loading the cement-mixer with sand. He gets Fridays off. He sends most of the money he earns back to Yemen or Pakistan or wherever he comes from.
Now at the evening call to prayer some of the workers have washed and begun their prayers. They put out a mat and pray where they are, facing us because behind us is Mecca. They are Yemenis, and Pakistanis, and Egyptians, and Sudanese. I wonder whom, or what, their ancestors prayed to 3,000 years ago at dusk on the sites of half-completed pyramids. They drop to their knees, then to their hands, then they touch their foreheads to the ground. We know that Mecca is behind us, but it would have been an easy mistake for someone who didn’t to conclude that it was to us, a priestly caste seated on a height above them, that they were making obeisance.
All was quiet. In front of us, beyond Pharaon’s palace, the night-gathering sea lay unruffled by any breeze. Behind us, so faint that it was like a memory in a seashell, roared the hubbub of modern Jidda. When the houseboy came out again to see who wanted drinks, I had momentarily forgotten who I was or what century I was in. The world was shut out and I had slipped into a kind of daydream where I was one of those men down there. Then—it took something like an effort of will—I brought myself back. I sat forward. Of course I wanted another drink. With plenty of ice.