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    Tuesday
    Feb022010

    In which my friend tells me he's leaving forever

    TRUE/SLANT - 2 FEBRUARY 2010

    I'm riding in the back of a taxi driven by Sabic, a six-foot Keralite with piercing yellow-green eyes. Dust from the Empty Quarter bathes the morning in an ill, yellow haze. Usually I read, but today I'm sizing up the central city buildings, reading signs, taking note of the way people drive.

    "When are you going home?" I ask Sabic.

    It's a familiar question; vacating Saudi is always on our minds, because so many of us here -- seven million by some count, compared to a local population of just three times that  -- are expatriate workers here on indefinite assignment. But it's a queasy infinity: None of us can be buried in Saudi, and citizenship is granted to few foreigners born here.

    Officially, at least, the Saudis are eager to get rid of us, and there are elaborate "Saudization" plans that call for the training of locals to do jobs currently completed by foreigners. But the reality of a Saudi Arabia in which locals do all the work is still far off.

    So here we are -- driving along the clogged arteries of 2010 Riyadh -- an American and a man from southern India.

    Sabic's been here 14 years. Over that time, he's completed Hajj, heard from afar about the birth of his daughter -- now six years old -- and has learned how to drive slow and steady. He lives in an all-male dormitory, where one of his friends is a good cook, making fish curries, mostly. Sabic likes his mosque -- it's a grand one on the west side of the city, but the leader speaks only in Arabic, of which Sabic speaks only the basics. I've known him for a year and a half; he's met my mom, been over to all our various apartments, and some days sees my wife almost as much as I do.

    We crawl through traffic.

    "I'm leaving," Sabic says, meeting my eyes in the mirror. "Final exit." In a few months, his fourteen years will stretch no further. He's saved enough money and owns a solid house in Kerala he'll share with his wife, daughter, parents, and an unmarried, 26-year-old brother. He tells me he'll run his own business -- what kind, he's not sure. And he'll never come back to Saudi for work.

    "Maybe for Hajj with my family," he says, laughing, wading through the dense, yellow-dusted traffic of a Tuesday morning in Riyadh.

    I'll miss him.