ST. PETERSBURG REVIEW - ISSUE 4/5, 2011
After living for six months in Mohammad’s apartment – a 1980s unit in central Riyadh with tall ceilings, dark windows, roaches and fluorescent lights – I could no longer dodge his repeated invitations to visit his farm. And so, on a recent Thursday afternoon, my wife Kelly and I loaded up our rented Toyota and headed north.
As we drove further into the desert, I looked hungrily for Exit Four, the only usable clue I had divined from my Saudi landlord’s excited over-the-phone directions. Aware that I had no idea how far north we needed to go, I fought off a mounting feeling of dread by telling Kelly what I knew of our host.
I’d come to know Mohammad gradually, first as we negotiated the rental price, then on an appliance-purchasing trip, then over Pepsi one night at his family’s istriha. He was born, he told me, in 1963, one of 12 sons of an upper-class family. He’d attended junior high in Los Angeles while his father was studying in America. After graduating from a Saudi high school, he began working for Sabic, the sprawling Saudi petroleum and plastics company. He started in the warehouse, rose steadily through the ranks, and eventually was sent by the company to study at Boston University. Upon his return, he did well enough that he could retire in his 40s and move his wife and children from their dark apartment (where I now live) into a Riyadh mini-mansion. Last year, tired of the conservative capital, he bought a farm in the desert.
After an hour of driving, I found Exit Four and looped up and over a bridge that spanned the expressway. One of those Toyota pickups with red racing stripes was speeding toward us, kicking up great clouds of sand. My phone rang, and I picked it up.
“Is it you?” Mohammad purred.
We followed his truck off the road and into the dirt, bouncing over rocks and diving deep into ruts. When I first met Mohammad to negotiate over his old apartment, he had whipped out his cell phone to show me photos of his new dream house. Apparently, just as he’d finished erecting the place, a flash flood had struck. I saw in the grainy snapshots that a great river of mud had knocked over palms, threaded great fissures in retaining walls, and filled his pool with brown slurry. “Come visit some weekend,” he said when I handed over the first six months’ rent. “It will be nice.”
As we rounded a bend, the house came into focus: a three-story sand-colored castle, with a moat, scalloped walls, and acres of desert. We parked behind his truck on an insanely steep driveway that had probably made more sense on paper, then sat outside at a plastic table, where Mohammad took deep pulls from a five-foot shisha and drank a homemade concoction of dark purple juice, which we declined.
Growing emotional, Mohammad began telling us how his family had been a powerful tribe for centuries. There had been a battle here, right where we were sitting, just after the Prophet’s time. The leader of his tribe, he told us with an air of melancholy, had led his men straight into the strongest part of enemy lines. Spears had pierced his horse’s chest, Mohammad said, but the leader had pushed on.
“I call my land the –” Mohammad paused, frustrated. “You know, it is the horse. The breast of the horse.” He pointed to his chest.
The chest of the horse?
“Yes, that is the one.”
There was silence. A few moments later, Mohammad brightened a bit, pulled out his wallet, took out a well-worn identification card and handed it to Kelly.
“Nice mustache,” she remarked.
It was Mohammad’s Boston University ID card, dated 1984-1985. His kids sometimes wanted to play with it, Mohammad told us, but, wary of the card fraying, he wouldn’t let them anymore.
“I hate this fucking place,” he said.
Lately, he confided, it was his kids that were causing him the greatest pain. He was happily married, but his wife’s brothers were more conservative than Mohammad liked. “They take my kids and enrol them in summer school,” he said. “When they come back, they talk like little Bin Ladens. It’s bullshit.”
We piled into Mohammad’s truck for a tour of the property and the ruins of the old village. I was surprised to find that he was actually farming the land: there were rows of palms and a 30-foot plot of peppers, spring onions and eggplants. Once past the gates, he drove at breakneck speed through a moonscape of rock and fossilized sea creatures.
“When did Columbus discover America?” he asked playfully – losing the smile and growing serious as he waited for my answer.
“In 1492,” I said reflexively, nearly in singsong.
“This village is much older than that,” Mohammad said sourly, no joy in his words. He tapped the steering wheel absent-mindedly and drove faster.
Soon we pulled up to the ruins, then got out and walked along the deep grooves left in the hard rock by water. There were sand and mud walls some 20-feet high, and the remains of a three-storey guard tower. I fingered the rough walls, seeing that the constant assault of wind and occasional rain was revealing the stones that made the wall strong. As the sun set, Mohammad sighed and offered to take photos, but I could tell he was ready to leave.
Back at the house, we retook our seats and Mohammad resumed sipping his homemade purple drink. It was almost nightfall; I sheepishly told him we would probably need to leave soon.
“I’m not going to kidnap you,” he said sullenly, and became silent again. He urged more of the purple juice on Kelly, who declined, saying she wasn’t thirsty. Take some, he slurred. No, Kelly said. Mohammad sat heavily back in his chair, murmuring something about drinking alone.
“Next time, you must bring your friends,” he said. It had grown cold with the setting sun, and it was hard to picture our friends agreeing to come out here, even after Mohammad started a small fire and started grilling marinated chicken.
“I want to show you something,” he told me.
I followed him inside, where the lights were low and the only furnishings were carpets and pillows. We headed upstairs, snaking through empty, echoing rooms. In a darkened hall, he reached up into the back of a cupboard and brought out a small, gray pistol. I started to panic: I didn’t like the tightness of Mohammad’s grip, or his finger’s position on the trigger.
Mohammad just smiled and pointed the gun out a window. I pleaded with him to put it back.
“Don’t worry,” he slurred, leveling the pistol, letting his arm rotate, his thobe glowing in the moonlight. “It’s not loaded. I just want to show it to you and your wife. I want you to see.”
Suddenly he started stealing back down the stairs, through the darkened rooms, seeking my wife, who we could hear downstairs.
“She hates guns,” I said, dashing after him. “Please don’t do this!”
He reached her before me, but I heard him say, as if in a trance: “This is my Spanish pistol.”
“How nice,” Kelly said through clenched teeth.
Out of breath, I gave her a wild look, then decided to take my landlord and would-be-friend’s arm and steer him outside, where we stood in the dark.
“It’s not loaded,” he said, pulling the trigger again and again, the dry click echoing over the sand and under the moon. “It’s not loaded. Nothing will happen tonight.”
At last, Mohammad put the pistol down on the plastic table. It was the last thing he would show us that day – hoping, at long last, for someone to see – but in the end we didn’t understand, and he couldn’t explain.
This piece was published in St. Petersburg Review.