If you haven’t read the first part, scroll back one story…
Even with rational thinking restored, it was still a bit freaky to me that I was half a world away from my home, my culture, and the people I love. As I set my bag on the suitcase stand, started unpacking, and hanging clothes, I started letting the cool factor of it all wash over me. This felt bad ass to me.
It’s NOT bad ass – it’s not even close. People do this every day.
But, in fairness to me, firsts are always a bit scary for lots of people. First day on a school bus, first day in college, first kiss, first day on the job, these are all exciting – and a little scary – just like someone’s first trip to a Muslim country where people are actually beheaded for serious crimes.
I didn’t sleep well on my first night in Saudi Arabia. I woke to a menacingly rude alarm at 7:00AM. Ate breakfast of eggs & toast – just like at home, and then we met our Saudi sponsor, Diya, at 9:00 in the lobby of our hotel.
Diya is from The Sudan, dark-skinned and bright-eyed, he was well dressed in a khaki colored gabardine suit with a white button down Oxford, tastefully accented with a royal blue tie, but all you really noticed was a smile that instantly gives comfort. We have spoken on the phone 3 or 4 times, communicated by email a half-dozen times more, we got on well from the very beginning, so it was nice to meet face to face. Diya is probably 35 years old, married, and has three boys that are often a subject of conversation, and a big part of the light in his smile. He’s a lot like me, just different.
We hopped in his car; it was about a 30 minute drive to Second Industrial City and the offices and factory of Diya’s company. Here is where I learned my first cultural lesson on the differences between my country, and Saudi Arabia:
α Traffic lanes in Saudi Arabia are clearly marked, but also… clearly…don’t mean anything. They’re not even a guideline.
Diya drove as aggressively through traffic as anyone I have ever seen. To give you a point of reference, I lived in Northern VA & Metro D.C. most of my life. I have witnessed (and participated in) some of the ugliest ‘road rage’ incidents you could imagine. No driving experience was as scary as my first commute in Saudi – cars inches from each other, sometimes 5 wide on a 3 lane road, all of them driving way over the speed limit. I was in the passenger seat, and kept pressing my imaginary brake until I got a cramp in my calf.
We made it to his factory, alive. Took coffee (they “take” coffee, or tea, they don’t “have” it) went on a tour of facilities, and then took lunch. We were guests, so even though we are the vendor (or bitch) in this business relationship, in the Saudi Arabian culture, all shared meals are the responsibility of your host. It’s considered rude to offer to buy or share in the expense if you are invited to a meal. I was somewhat anxious about what we might be served, and how it would be served. I imagined a roasted lamb or a grand presentation of unleavened breads and hummus with olives, and maybe some things I didn’t even recognize…I was in ‘immersion mode’ so my anticipation was high, and I was ready for anything. Bring on the culture!
We sat in a meeting room, at a Large conference table, and 4 of us (Diya’s boss joined us) discussed the virtues of my company and some of our amazing products. As I scrolled through my Power Point presentation, one of the employees came into the darkened room with some familiar looking paper bags. Our hosts asked if we could pause the presentation so we could eat…our lunch…our KFC.
Are you kidding me? K F C? Are you K F-ing kidding me? You don’t allow alcohol, weed, or indiscriminate premarital sex, but you’re cool with industrially captive raised chicken, deep-fried in a hydrogenated fat/Teflon type product.
But, it got better on our second day.
On day two, we went to a factory where they used the same kind of stuff my company makes. We met their Director of Engineering, an impressive dude from Syria, educated in the United States. We learned lots of stuff about how our products would work in this country, and we got a better grasp on how we could chase the market. My boss and I were encouraged by this man’s predictions of our great success in the Middle East. But, as cool as that was…he had a better story.
It was prayer time, and then lunch time; so we had to wait for some employees to return to work to get some engineering documents. While we waited, he told us about the places he lived in the U.S. and about how his mother helped him get out of an arranged marriage with someone from his village (hilarious), and then how he met his American Muslim wife.
He told us about how when he was in high school, at age 16, his mother made him leave Syria. He left his home for the United States, because it was an everyday occurrence that boys from their neighborhood would leave for school and were never seen again.
It was amazing to listen to this 51-year-old (my age) man’s tale about life in Syria, then in the U.S., then how he met his wife, and the things he went through to build a life with her. It was also quite humbling. He tells this tale, detailing only the good stuff, passing over the horrors as if they were simply part of the passage. He tells this tale with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face. He tells us men, us industrialist men, the love story of a lifetime. He tells us how his God led him to this woman, and all the things that were meant to be. I love a good story; this was one of the best I’ve ever heard. This dude is a lot like me, and a lot like my friends, he’s just different.
That evening, we took a 4 hour ride on route 40 to Riyadh, Saudi’s largest city. We stopped twice to pray, and have snacks. The Saudi version of a truck stop has gas pumps, convenience stores, Large restroom facilities, maybe a few fast food places, and most have a mosque.
Islam is the ONLY religion allowed to be practiced in public, and it’s practiced often – the people in this country take time for prayer 6 times a day. Our first ‘prayer stop’ caused some discomfort for me and my boss. We were clearly viewed as an oddity, maybe an intrusion, even though we just sat in the car as Diya went into the mosque. People were milling around, in and out of the mosque, and the various shops; they all seemed to stop – just for a second or two, to stare at us. They seemed to make sure they made eye contact with us, and they moved on. They didn’t respond to my smile, or my ‘hello’ nod; they didn’t respond or react at all, but there was something there; a coldness in their gaze. My boss felt it too. We both needed a restroom break, but we decided to wait for another stop. It was the only time we felt unwelcome.
Route 40 has 4 checkpoints between Dammam and Riyadh. Diya told us to have our passports available at all times. Probably because of our experience at the first prayer stop, the checkpoints were kind of scary. The Saudi Police stop you, ask for I.D., in many cases they search your car, and they send you on … or they detain you. On our journey out to Riyadh, I saw lots of people being searched, and a few of them being pushed around and roughed up a little. It was a bit freaky – a “not in Kansas anymore” feeling. After a day of friendly interaction, I was seeing some rawness related to this region that reminded me of the reality of where I was. We were NOT stopped…not ‘checked’…we were looked at, and waved through each checkpoint.
All along the drive from Dammam to Riyadh, we saw camels by the road. Camels are not wild, at least in this region, they’re owned by somebody. We saw them along the highways, everywhere we went; I found them fascinating. Diya had no knowledge of the GEICO commercial, when I explained it to him, he simply stared at me…they don’t have “hump day” in Saudi Arabia; I believe they are poorer for it.
We made it to Riyadh, had a late dinner…9:30. What the eff, dude? We passed like, five KFCs, and a place called, “Corn in a Cup”. I’ve always read that late night meals are not good for digestion. We got to our hotel, I was hopeful for a good night’s sleep, but when prayer chants filled the air via the city’s loudspeaker system… at about 4:30 AM…well, that was that.
But things turned around on day 3…
On our third day in country, we met 3 people who changed my life. This isn’t an exaggeration, and this isn’t drama for a blog (although I’m not above it).
Mr. Asim, Mr. Abdulazziz, and Mr. Salah.
Mr. Asim is a salesman who works for Diya; he is also from The Sudan. He is about 3 inches taller than me and about 50lbs heavier; truly, a Large Man. He has my love for revenue generation, my love for people, and my love for folly. Asim is the Sudanese version of me. His English was decent, good enough for him to mess with me.
There was a guy in his office from Sri Lanka, who kept staring at me. I asked Asim, “Why?”
“Because he hate you. You blue eyes mean devil to him. (Pronounced heem) If I not here, he attack you!” Asim tells me this, extremely animated and he balls his fist over his head as he says “attack”.
“Really?” I reply.
“No. I booshit with you!” with a hearty laugh. “I don’t know why he look. Ask heem!”
I’ve know this dude for twenty minutes, and he’s bustin’ balls. I like him.
Asim took us to visit Mr. Abdulazziz
Mr. Abdulazziz has a camel ranch, a date plantation, (dates are a fruit that is similar to a fig), a chemical & gasoline tanker repair shop, a gasoline tanker manufacturing plant, a fleet of gasoline delivery trailers, a salon that is used for prayer and for fellowship… and a smile that disarms you in 2 seconds. Abdulazziz is of Bedouin descent…Abdulazziz is a desert tribesman, old country, old school. He wears the Keffiyeh, or scarf type headdress, and he wears it well…now THIS is bad ass!
Mr. Abdulazziz didn’t speak a word of English, but I understood what he wanted when he invited us into his salon. My boss and I understood when he offered us camel milk. We drank that stuff, and I’m gonna shoot you straight, I wish I had a cup of it right now! It was warm, sweet, and soothing. We sat with this man, drinking warm sweet camel milk, we ate sweet sticky dates, then we toured his facility, and we became friends. A handful of his key employees followed us around the facilities like we were rock stars. We communicated with hand gestures, and pictures from the pages of our catalog. Diya did some translating, and we figured out ways that we could help each other’s businesses. He wanted us to stay for lunch, but our scheduled appointments forced us to leave. Through our translator, I told him I would come back and eat ALL his food; he laughed, and rubbed my belly and winked at me. My greatest regret from this Saudi trip is that I didn’t get my picture taken with this man. He is what we all imagine an Arabian sultan or a sheik to be. He may be the coolest dude I’ve ever met – an absolute character. This guy was nothing like me, but we still connected. He wants to come to the states this summer and visit our factory, I hope he does.
Mr. Salah owned a small factory, deep in the city of Riyadh. Unlike the facility where we met Mr. Abdulazziz, this place was all very industrial, dirty, and urban. Mr. Salah was fascinated that two American businessmen would come to his country in search of opportunity. He showed us the things he did as a businessman, explained through our translator (Diya) the things he would like to see as improvements in our industry, and…like all of our other hosts, he wanted us to join him for a meal. He had Diya translate directly that he “… was honored that we would visit him, and that it was customary in Saudi Arabia that when men met for business for the first time, the host served a meal.” They LOVE to eat in Saudi Arabia…just like me. He held my hand as he asked Diya to translate; Diya told me later that this is an honor. It felt that way.
Because of schedules and time constraints, we couldn’t take lunch with Mr. Salah either. I really wanted to. I left Riyadh before I was ready.
But leave we did. We picked up some fast food in a drive through, and started our journey back to Dammam. After our first prayer stop/snack stop/bathroom break, Diya asked, “Will you do me a favor?”
Finally! I thought. I can return some kindness. “Sure, Diya…what do you need?”
“Will you drive for a while? My back is hurting.”
“Huh?” OH SHIT! I can’t drive in this madness! “Um…sure, I guess. Is it legal?” I asked.
“Probably not, but it’s OK.”
“‘Probably not’ is not the answer I was looking for, Diya. What if we’re stopped at a check point?” I volleyed back.
“Just say you’re with me” he replied, through a giggle, as he handed me the keys.
“OK…” I said reluctantly.
Now, I’m drivin’ the bus! Holy shit! All I can think about are the cold eyes of the dude that stamped my passport and the people outside of that first mosque, and…AND… the searches that I saw on this side of the highway on our outbound trip. As good looking as I am, I will not do well in any prison…but I would suffer even more in a place where they didn’t understand me, and I couldn’t charm or talk my way out of stuff.
And don’t even get me started on the 100 MPH driving.
As we approached the first check point, I asked Diya what we should do.
“Well, you should stop” he instructed as he smiled, and went back to sleep, shaking his head.
I could hear Andy, (my boss), in the back seat, snapping pictures of me and laughing. He told me later that he was imagining me in prison too. He took the photos so that they could be shared with my family, “…your last moments of freedom”. He can be insensitive.
We were waved through each of the check points. When we reached Dammam, Diya got back in the driver’s seat. I chilled, cursed him…and laughed about it.
The adventure was over. Back to the Sheraton to pack our bags and head to the airport for a 2:00 AM departure…I wasn’t ready yet.
There is a “touchy/feely” culture in this country that is right up my alley. These people are all very much like me, they’re just different. I look forward to my return, and I think I’ll thrive in this environment.
I think…we’ll see.
It remains to be seen if this is all just courtesy, the business version of a hand job that is designed to help lull your guest to sleep and then send them on their way. I don’t think this is the case, but my BS detector surely needs some Arabic programing, so only time will tell.
But today, I’ll tell you this:
I’ll go back. There is so much more to see,and to learn… and to tell. The world just got much bigger to me, and a little bit smaller.
Thanks for reading.