Three Moments In Time

Moment 1

Friday in KSA is like Sunday in the U.S. – slow, lazy, sometimes boring.

Bibliophile that I am, I find it quite enjoyable to wander through the maze of shelves in a bookstore, even if I don’t buy a thing. Pick up an interesting title. Read the cover, the flyleaf, maybe the preface/introduction. Put it back on the shelf and look for something else that is interesting. Friday afternoons and bibliophilia seem to go together, and I often find myself in one of the many Jarir Bookstores on those days.

A couple of Fridays ago, true to form, I got in the car and drove to a nearby Jarir. I found my place of solace and comfort in turmoil, however. As many stores do these days, they were in the midst of moving items from one spot and putting them in another spot. Theoretically, it’s to force customers to walk through new parts of the store they might not have ventured through previously. Realistically, it’s a royal pain in the rear that seldom results in me doing anything more than cursing the marketing consultant who made this advisory and the high-up-mukiteemucks who bought into the scheme. This time I did have a new experience.

As I looked to see what the store folks had moved where, I noticed an Arab guy, wearing a thoub, but sans gutra, kept looking at me. He was looking at dictionaries, English dictionaries, and he finally stopped me. “Sir, can I bother you for a moment?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“You are American, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” I am always reticent when that question is asked, and I make sure I know where all the exits are.

“Can you recommend for me a good English dictionary? I am an English teacher, though I am Syrian, at a school here in Riyadh, and I am trying to find a good dictionary.” He smiled. He was clearly trying to be friendly, and it seemed to me the dictionary was a pretext to initiate a conversation in English. This is not uncommon in Riyadh.

He was holding the Oxford English Dictionary. I pointed to it and said, “The OED is hard to beat. It’s the one I’d pick.”

He arched his eyebrows a bit. “You are an American, yet you would recommend the OED?”

“The best is the best.”

He smiled again, and we began to exchange some pleasantries as he asked me about myself and volunteered some more information about himself. He was especially interested in how his English usage and accent came across to me. He was very good, I assured him. Our conversation, a very enjoyable one, went on for maybe 10 minutes, before I finally excused myself, suggesting that if we ran into each other again, we should share some coffee (there’s a Starbucks next door). He thought that was a good idea.

As I started to leave, I stuck out my hand, and he took it and shook it. Then, he looked me straight in the eyes, a wistful expression on his face, and told me, “I wish our two countries had better relations.”

“So do I.”

Moment 2

Starbucks.

Huge profit gouging corporation preying on innocent coffee farmers or responsible corporate citizen working to save the environment and ensure a working wage for coffee farmers the world around?

I don’t know. For me, they’re a touch of home, and I often pay a lot more for an Iced Venti Americano inside a Starbucks store than what it would cost me to make the same drink back in my apartment. Sometimes I just need that tenuous emotional connection to back home. As a result, the baristas in two of the stores know me by sight, as I do them. The familiarity is comforting.

One morning not so long ago, I found myself to be the only customer early on a very, very slow Thursday morning (read Saturday). The young man behind the counter asked me where I was from, and I told him America. The U.S. or the United States, as a response, is too detailed (though many like to say, “USA,” as a clarifying phrase). There is only one America as far as most of these guys are concerned. His face lit up, and he smiled. In turn, I asked him where his home was.

“Nepal,” he told me. A wistful tone colored his voice, and a not quite smile/not quite frown took his mouth.

“I’d like to visit Nepal,” I answered.

He offered a real smile this time. “It is such a beautiful place. I can’t wait to go home. I miss it so much.”

I smiled back. He handed me my Americano. I thanked him, and I left.

I haven’t seen him since. I hope he’s in Nepal.

Moment 3

The two cars in front of us vied for the same position in traffic. The cab held the advantage, sitting on the inside lane. The non-descript Nissan trying to punch in front of the cab twitched aggressively toward the front fender of the cab. Normally, I don’t pay much attention to this sort of behavior; it’s all too common. This time, though, the aggression didn’t seem limited to vehicle versus vehicle.

A young guy, late teens early twenties leaned out the back window of the Nissan and gesticulated with his left hand toward the cab. In the back of the cab, two very slender young women in abayas and hajib – but lacking veils – watched the verbal and somatic onslaught. The young woman on the left just turned away and faced the other direction. But, the girl on the right, lifted her right hand and uncurled her middle finger, offering a non-verbal response recognized around the world…repeatedly.

With conviction.

Another first for me in the Kingdom.

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