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    Entries in Saudi Arabia (25)


    Reading These 5 Writers Will Make You a Better Person 


    Peter Matthiessen

    In Saudi Arabia, I was still trying to make sense of the insane thing I'd done in America. Which was to quit a perfectly good job at Rolling Stone, pack a bag, and walk from New York City to New Orleans. My wife and I had given that Louisiana city a try, staying for a few months in a rambling shotgun house by the race track, drinking and eating and walking around, but in the end it had made sense, I suppose, to move to Riyadh, capital of the world's most Islamic country, itself a custodian of the religion's two holiest sites. 10 thousand miles from anything I knew well, I'd wander the dirt paths of the sprawling compound we called home, dark and windy on the city's western edge, and I felt as disconnected as I ever had been before. I was trying to be a good husband. And an American. And soon enough, I'd be a dad.

    The book that resonated with me most then was Snow Leopard, the late Peter Matthiessen legendary account of trekking through the Himalayas to find the reclusive cat. More than a record of physical hardship, the book is a long mediation on pain and suffering and perseverance. Why do we do hard things? It's not just about the steps he takes through the snow, but about all the moves he's made in his life up to that point -- the choices big and small that found him alone, away from his children and with a dying wife, trekking in search of something that didn't want to be found. The copy I had was a friend's, illegally photocopied in some stall in Nepal. The cover was fraying but the writing inside was gorgeous, subtle, and much better than anything I could do. I still haven't written about that walk to New Orleans. But when I do, a copy of that book will be on my shelf.

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    VICE - 13 MAY 2014

    I was having lunch at the swan near Hyde Park and some son of a bitch took my bag with all my documents, the email began. It was June of 2009 and I was sitting at a desk in Riyadh. Assuming this was spam, I was about to press delete, when something made me reconsider.

    Outside, it was summer in Saudi Arabia, where temperatures could exceed one hundred and thirty degrees. My wife Kelly and I had lived in the country for nearly a year. We’d spent much of our lives in foreign countries or in strange corners of North America. We’d met in Cambodia, spent years in Southeast Asia, got to know Russia and the former Soviet Union, and I proposed to her on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska. This time, however, the Middle East in general seemed a little beyond my talent set. Maybe it was the heat making me feel weak? By this time of year everyone was spending entire days indoors, emerging only to drive air-conditioned cars, in which metal could be so hot it might burn your skin. Streets buckled, the wind howled in from the desert, and meanwhile booze was still illegal, women were forbidden from consorting with men they weren’t related to, and it was hard to imagine why anyone would ever choose to settle here. Considering all this, we—the swashbuckling couple who had never shied away from doing something insane—were about to bring a new baby into the world.

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    Once Upon a Time in the Middle East


     There was one day near the end, when I took a taxi up a hill, to see a man. We sliced through canyons, making our way into the mountains north of Beirut, riding a black strip of asphalt upon which no lines were drawn. The span of tar was sometimes wide enough for two cars, sometimes one. We drove fast, nearly hitting someone when the road narrowed, nearly hit by another car ourselves when we bisected a second road—no stop signs, no stoplight—and then I realized: Nowhere at any point had a sign indicated a sharp curve or steep drop-off. We were on our own. When we finally stopped, four black dogs came running. 

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    The writing life: From Beirut and Cambodia to New York, Florida, and parts unknown


    Because summer in Beirut was so brutally hot and because the grandparents missed their granddaughter and because the dream was still alive and I had signed up this winter for a low-residency creative writing MFA program in Tampa, which required me to travel from Lebanon to the Florida campus for 10 days in June, I began to sketch out an entire summer in America, anchored by that MFA residency and then two weeks at a writing conference four hours north of New York City.

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    Innocent and Abroad: Mark Twain and the Art of Travel Writing

    THE MILLIONS - 16 MARCH 2012

    Not long ago, I lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where I wrote stories about, among other topics, a meet-up of Twitter users, a dire sandstorm that befell a mixed-gender rock show, a tour of one of Riyadh’s oldest hotels, and what happens when the most Islamic country in the world attempts to hold a festival to “celebrate culture.”

    I was young and proud and eager to share my work. So every month or so, I’d send out an email to friends and associates with a link to my latest. Not too many complained. Some, apparently, even enjoyed what I sent.

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    Citizen of somewhere


    Before the memorial for the fallen journalist, I stumbled down the hill toward the church, hungover and hungry.

    Consider the falafel sandwich. At under $2, it was my obvious move. But I was sick and sad, and the kids behind the stove looked like 12-year-olds who should have been in school. An alarming percentage of children here work instead. The last time I bought a falafel sandwich, the guy ahead of me had a growth on his face. It was so big I worried he might tip over, face-first, into the grease. 

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    Right into the fire


    My daughter is bawling, red faced, legs held ram-rod straight.

    Loretta was born in Saudi Arabia, turned two in Turkey, and we've just moved to Lebanon. In a stroke of luck, we found a rare flat in a stunning French Mandate house. But until our boxes arrive, the place is empty, echoing.  

    I reach out to touch Loretta's head, assuming she's hot again with fever. But maybe it's something else.

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    A tale of two Arabian cities

    THE REVIEW - 9 APRIL 2010

    The clang of metal rings out down a dusty street in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Soldiers in blue camouflage hold oiled assault rifles, standing among a gathering crowd. One of the city’s dispensaries for cooking gas has just received a shipment. There’s a shortage of fuel all around the city, which is groaning under the twin strains of governmental dysfunction and an influx of refugees from the north. A jet streaks high above us, presumably en route to the border with Saudi Arabia, where the Yemeni military is targeting anti-government Houthi rebels and alleged cells of al Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Some in the West have begun to call Yemen a failed state, but at least they’re calling it something.

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    Did I see a man die this morning?

    TRUE/SLANT - 6 MARCH 2010

    Traffic in Saudi Arabia: After every white-knuckled trip here, I was such a raging, quaking mess that I finally gave up renting a car and took to using a driver.

    This morning, heading east into Riyadh, I saw a bronze-colored Camry swerve on the west-bound service road. Trying to overtake slower traffic, he veered onto the soft shoulder but lost control. There was no guardrail, and I saw the vehicle slice into yellow sand and jackknife into the air. Kicking up a dense cloud of dust, the car flipped over once, the dark underbelly exposed, then flipped again. In a concussion of glass and metal, the Camry slammed to the asphalt, rocking on its roof in the middle of a four-lane freeway. Mecca Road.

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    Living in Riyadh's ghost town


    It was September 2008; after a few days in Riyadh, my wife and I left our spartan hotel room, with its bouquet of sweat and sewage, to rendezvous with two American bankers we’d met at the Sharjah airport. “Poor you,” they’d said, learning we were just moving to Saudi. “Let’s meet for dinner.”

    Outside, the dust was thick. The bankers -- one a buff guy with a buzz cut who looked like a parody of a CIA agent, the other a wry Korean-American -- picked us up, and off we barreled through snarls of sun-baked cars. Battle-scarred Crown Victorias gunned their engines past late-model Toyotas. A Hummer ploughed over rumble strips, cutting off a brand-new 700-series BMW. The low-slung immensity of central Riyadh -- economy booming on oil, population growing exponentially, housing at a premium -- shimmered in the late summer heat. This was home, if we could find a place to live.

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    I dream of war


    Woke up early this morning with John McCain slapping me on the back. I was in fatigues, standing among fellow soldiers for some sort of honor guard ceremony. I leaned uninjured against crutches, trying to fake my way out of fighting. McCain, his big scarred face a plastic mask of fellowship, slapped me on my back again and nearly knocked me over. Then a towering, super-buff Latino General -- of higher rank somehow than McCain -- came over and laid his crushing, buff arm over my head. This Latino General regarded the field of soldiers, the gleaming guns, the spectators in the stands. How was I lucky/unlucky enough to have the two important guys on either side of me? Then I realized the Latino General thought McCain was a bullshit pussy, and I -- with my glasses and touch-typing fingers -- was someone just as bad.

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    Last night, at the checkpoint


    The blogger stood beside his compact green sedan, the police lights washing over his polo shirt, jeans, and sneakers. I coasted over, surprised at how slight he seemed in person. The gears of my Chinese-made bike clicked, and I felt in my breast-pocket for the comforting heft of my U.S. passport.

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    In which my friend tells me he's leaving forever


    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.

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    Not dead, I was nonetheless hit by a car today

    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.

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    Down in the floods, something in Saudi Arabia may have changed

    THE REVIEW - 22 JANUARY 2010

    On the first day of Hajj, rain blanketed Saudi Arabia’s vast western coast. As my wife assembled her radio gear in preparation for the next day’s news brief about the storm’s effect on the pilgrimage, I quickly scanned the news online: it was already the heaviest rain Jeddah had seen in a quarter-century, and the city of four million was flooding; four were already reported dead. By the time we woke up the next morning, the death toll had risen to 77.

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    When teenaged Saudi girls attack!

    TRUE/SLANT - 18 JANUARY 2010

    I knew it would happen eventually. I've jogged just about every night the year-and-a-half we've lived in Riyadh. First was in town, when we rented a hotel room for the first month. Back then, I dodged Crown Victorias and made my way round and round the parking lot behind Kindgom Tower, one of two skyscrapers here. It wasn't pretty; choking on exhaust, I was always on the lookout for religious police, who had every reason to bust a geeky white dude pounding pavement in shorts.

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    Checkpoint Qatif: Shoulder-to-shoulder with Saudi's Shiite minority


    My blood went cold at the sight of the checkpoint to enter Qatif, the coastal municipality that is home to almost all of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority. Qatif -- my wife quickly explained, seeing my discomfort as we approached the two officers in brown uniform -- erupted in violent protests in 1980, just a year after Shiites launched a revolution in Iran and, closer to home, Islamists opposed to the Saudi royal family seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

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    Night of the gun


    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.

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    Where seeing a woman makes you gasp


    In an echoing, blast-chilled Riyadh mall today, I saw something unusual. At a series of tables outside an up-market cafe -- rather than a chain-smoking Saudi dude or a pair of ill-dressed European businessmen looking jet-lagged and confused -- I encountered a woman.

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    Home tweet home

    THE REVIEW - 17 JULY 2009

    It was a little after 8pm when I entered the Second Cup cafe on Thalia Street, Riyadh's main shopping district. It was a Wednesday night - the end of the work week here - so Riyadh's cruisers were out. Alongside big Suburbans manned by teenaged Saudi boys just old enough to grow wispy moustaches were Maseratis piloted by cool, princely men in immaculate thobes. Also crawling through the traffic were Mercedes and BMWs with blacked-out windows. Inside were girls.

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