THE REVIEW - 26 JUNE 2009
Riyadh wasn't made for people on foot. The pavements are willy-nilly, with each business evidently responsible for its own frontage. In sandals one night en route to a bookstore, I scaled a three-foot precipice between two stretches of pavement at different heights and stepped through half a pane of plate glass, which broke in an explosion of glittering shards. For blocks, sweat blinding my vision, choking on exhaust, gingerly taking steps with glass in my foot, I wondered how my wife and I - how anybody, really - could ever make a life in such a harsh place.
One way people cope is by riding the battle-scarred public buses that bomb through the Riyadh traffic night and day, filled to capacity with the hunched shoulders of commuting men more free to move about than the city's labourers and maids but poor enough to take the hot bus rather than a car. Soon after I arrived, I joked with a new friend about hopping aboard. "You've got to be crazy," he said, with the authority of someone who knew things I didn't. "Those drivers are on drugs. You will be killed. You don't belong on those buses."
Six months later, we moved into a ground-floor apartment in a predominantly Saudi neighbourhood - a move that was met with alarm by many of my expat friends. Their worries were not unfounded; westerners have been targeted often enough in recent years. But my wife and I both liked the idea of living among Arabic speakers. And I liked the idea of riding the bus to work. I stood on the north end of Olaya Street. Even at 8:30am it was already well over 40 degrees. The southbound traffic was building up with rumbling Mercedes SUVs, iceberg-sized Yukons, and chugging 1980s Caprices. In the distance, weaving insanely through the scrum, came a bus.
With perspiration streaming down my face, I put my hand down. I'd learnt the drill from a taxi driver from Kerala: Just stand there with your hand out. Keep the two-riyal fare in your pocket. Guard your valuables (I'd heard of stolen passports and cell phones gone missing.) And, most importantly, hold on. The driver leaned hard on his horn and showed no sign of stopping for the red light. With two wheels up on the kerb, he was grinding around two Camrys and heading straight for me. The bus slowed down, but not much. I put my foot on the running board, and the driver hit the gas. My other foot was still planted; I felt my legs splitting. A Pakistani guy in a shirt that said "US Army Hipster Yes" grabbed my other hand and dragged me aboard. At last, a feeling of fraternity!
With my briefcase clutched to my chest, I took a seat on a greasy bench, where I choked on diesel smoke and body odour. The driver, a wild-eyed Saudi with black teeth, chewed on miswak, the local twig-version of a toothbrush. He jammed the bus into gear and roared into traffic. Taking the bus morning and night, I learnt more and more. The bus never actually stopped, so when I got off, I had to be careful to land left-foot-first and be prepared for momentum. I knew to yell "Nazzer, Nazzer" when my stop approached. I realised I had to pay a few blocks early if I needed change.
But it took me a while to realise how basically unwelcome my presence was to my fellow riders. One day on the bus, I sat near a Filipino guy gripping his late-model Nokia in a wet paw. It vibrated to life, and the ring said, in a perfect British lilt: "Will the owner of the 2009 BMW please come to the front counter?" I burst out laughing and tried to catch his eye. In English, I said, "Very funny!" He shot me a look of bitter dismissal. Other men on the bus murmured and clucked. One guy even moved a seat away from me.
That afternoon, to beat the heat and stretch my legs, I took a walk at the mall next to my office. I never expected to see anyone I knew. But there, in a window display case, crouched the Filipino guy. He was working for a clothing store, installing its new product line. The display's theme was an Outback tavern; he was wrestling with a vintage bicycle and a fake sign that said, "Hippies Use Back Entrance."
"Hey!" I thought excitedly. "It's my bus-riding buddy!" For a second, I even laughingly thought of us both as hippies - rebel bus riders - both needing to use the back door. But when the Filipino guy caught my eye, he turned away from the glass and turned scarlet. A moment later he was gone. I stood there in front of the display, struck dumb. On reflection, I started to understand my mistake. Crossing Riyadh's unspoken boundaries is not a trivial matter. The Saudis erect them first, putting great walls around their homes, wearing veils, and empowering fearsome morality police to enforce harsh social strictures. As guests, we expats are obliged to follow along. Our women also cover, we eat in segregated restaurants, and we disappear into gated compounds when we want to escape those rules - and because we're afraid. Even in retreating from the public sphere, we ironically absorb and emulate the security-conscious, privacy-loving ways of our hosts.
Perhaps it didn't matter to the Filipino bus rider that my economic circumstances were such that taking the bus made sense. (A taxi is 15 times more expensive than the bus.) The simple fact was that, as an American here, I was supposed to live in a compound, I was supposed to shop in luxury malls, drive a giant 4x4 and stick with my own people. As much as anything else, it was a matter of safety - for him, perhaps, as much as for me. In late May this year, a minibus in Saudi's Eastern province was shot up en route to an oil installation. Windows were shattered but no one was injured. On board were three Britons, a Syrian and one Saudi.
When I stepped out into hot, dusty Riyadh that afternoon to put my hand out again, I did so with new-found discomfort. Everyone knows that the country's quiet peace is a product of a carefully managed state security system - which is a kind of parallel of the rigid social system that divides people into compounds, habits and subcultures. Everyone knows that between 2003 and 2006, dozens of people were killed in attacks here.
It's a catch-22. Saudi's rules stifle feelings of trust and fellow feeling between people. But Saudi has rules for a reason.
This piece was published by The Review. Read the original here.