TRUE/SLANT - 25 JANUARY 2010
The sun glinted off oil-smeared asphalt. Winter's already over, and the heat was building in the last morning minutes before the call to prayer would ring out across this city of several million.
I stood at one of Riyadh's busiest intersections, half-way across Olaya Street. With cars blasting by to my rear, I checked the light ruling the traffic I'd need to cross. Sweat began to bead. I felt like a bug: All flesh and limbs and fluid, ready to pop against the unforgiving weight of a metal cleat.
No one walks here. Sidewalks are built beyond human scale, with foot-high drop offs at the curb. Driving isn't much better: Women are banished from the wheel, so their 12-year-old sons take up the slack, with predictably dire results. With not much else to do, these boys drag race and hot rod and have perfected the dark art of drifting. For so many locals, disposable income is high enough that one can actually imagine -- after an accident -- abandoned BMWs, Mercedes, and even Rolls Royces, of which I've seen three gathering dust. New cars are easier than fixing old. The accident fatality rate is reported to be the highest in the world.
Thinking all this, surrounded by the sonic and visual whirr of traffic blasting by, I readied myself for the light to change. That flash of red would stop oncoming traffic -- in theory.
Strangely enough, people here mostly observe traffic lights. But beyond that, the only other rules are of physics: Gravity, coefficient of friction, thrust, etc. Driving here is undertaken only according to two strategies: As aggressive as possible (120 mph) or with utter and complete somnambulist fear/indifference (40 mph). In either case, signaling is a sign of weakness or wakefulness, neither of which ever apply.
As I stood there, the light clicked to red, and I -- all meat and bone -- took my steps.
In an instant, the roaring Chevy was rocking on its suspension, engine growling, the bumper up against my leg. Unthinking, in a rage, I pounded the hood, enough to dent. But there was no one to see. As had many of his compatriots -- it must have been he -- this road warrior had blacked out all his windows and windshield with reflective tape. No eyes, only reflection -- the place where a driver sat an inky, oil-black nothingness.
I glared at the window. Only my shadow glared back. With my hand on the hood, I could feel the car nudge slightly. Was he going to kill me? What would stop him? In reality -- no matter how comfortable I'd gotten here -- in any dispute with a local, I would lose.
Beyond the throb of the engine vibrating against my leg, I could sense traffic building up, eyes watching us, a crowd growing. I was making a scene -- one in which I could only be the loser -- and there was no way to gain advantage.
With that, as with so many other minor contests here, I abrogated, turned around, and stalked away, beaten in the moment but salved only later -- and only barely; how good could it be? -- by the balm of reflection.