The Red Sea

"Yella!" Mustafa yelled. He stomped on the brakes, acknowledging the brand-new white Cadillac that swerved into our lane. As my regular driver, Mustafa had just picked me up from the airport for the umpteenth time. He only knew a little English and I, the spoiled American, only spoke enough Arabic to ask for basic necessities. Nevertheless, we had managed to communicate well and had become friends. I had grown to trust and depend on him; he seemed to always know when he was needed. We had first met on my first day in country years ago. I had traveled countless hours by plane from the States to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, disembarking from the cold metallic stale air of the plane directly onto the airport tarmac. One may compare this experience like being high up in the mountains with the temperature well below freezing. Step outside and your nose freezes instantly and you cannot breathe. Except in Jeddah, it is a wet humid heat at sea level, gagging you with an overpowering thick stickiness with the signature taint of salt and fishiness of the Red Sea.

Mustafa had been holding up a large white sign, my name misspelled and scrawled almost indecipherably across it. We shook hands as he pointed at my luggage, gestured emphatically, and spoke loudly, "no dirty picture! No drugging! No 'sediki'!" I shook my head, not understanding what he meant. He nodded, mistaking my confusion as acquiescence, grabbed my bags, whisked me past the customs desk flashing the maroon passport he had taken from me, then loaded me up into a beat up rusty white Toyota truck. Later I found out he was asking if I had any ***********, drugs or 'sadiqui' the code word Americans used for alcohol; 'Sadiqui' means 'Friend' in Arabic.

I lived in a small compound on a landfill in Alhambra, on the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula, on the outskirts of the city of Jeddah, right on the Red Sea. A large industrialized area and the King Faisal Naval Port was to the south and the continuous expanse of desert lay to the north and east. Every once in awhile a Bedouin family would travel through, leading their large single hump camels and herd of goats. I would go out and greet them, waving. I have found everyone I have ever met all over the world to be very friendly. If you welcome people with open arms and an open heart, they in turn are very open and welcoming. They allowed me to come close to their animals and to their families. Camels are majestically handsome animals or at least until you get close to them. They have a tendency to slobber, spit on you, make your clothes smell like camel and then they leave you with the gift of poo, a trail of large round rabbit pellets.

It was safe living in the walled compound, not that there was anything to fear, the crime rate is very low in Saudi Arabia. In addition, we had our own guard dogs, a pack of wild dogs who had adopted us and lived within the walls. The pack blended in well with their surroundings, all shorthaired mutts, all with sandy coloring. The children of the compound had named them Pringles, Ruffles, Lays, Bugles and similar names after their favorite American snacks. Once in awhile, another pack of wild dogs would invade our territory. Our dogs always protected us, running down the invading pack to drive them off.

On the weekends, I did not spend much time at the Red Sea close to the compound; it was too close to the industrial area and too new of a landfill for nature to establish a balanced ecology. But sometimes I would still try to fish off of a half submerged dump truck. I used frozen shrimp as bait, thawed and warm by the time I walked the one hundred yards to the water, or sometimes, a piece of bacon. I believe the fish here were Muslim too; they were never caught with the bacon.

Usually, I spent weekends at a resort called “Jeddah by the Sea.” It had a large slimy dark green salt-water pool, surrounded by single room cabanas. I have nightmares about the pool; it was deep, cold, slippery and was so dark it seemed bottomless. There was a long wooden pier, the pilings encrusted with barnacles. I could spearfish off the pier at night, armed with a spear gun and a flashlight, hunting for octopus; at least until the tiger sharks started coming in. During the day, I would be transported out to sea in a large homemade pontoon boat, six fifty-gallon oil drums welded together, with a platform of steel beam and wood planks. Railing made of steel pipes and mesh fencing kept in the bodies while a steel gate lowered in the front to let people on or off or to climb back aboard after a dive. The floating dive platform would go a few miles out to huge coral heads at fifteen to twenty meters deep. I free dived with mask, snorkel and fins, filling my dive bag with a multitude of conch, cowry, pearl oysters, and cool looking razor coral. Taking my treasure home, I would boil the animals out or place the shells near an anthill; they would completely clean the shells in a couple of weeks.

Sometimes we would get a bunch people for a trip to the beach further north. I would call my friend Mustafa, have him get a bus from motor pool and take us on an outing. We would go to uninhabited and pristine beaches, large expanses of sandy dunes meeting up with miles of unpolluted shallow bright blue water. I would wade out a hundred yards, chasing blowfish and manta rays and then step up on top of the reef, to look out into a large horizon of deep green. I would dive off the reef, falling off the face of the world as the adrenaline and vertigo hit my senses. The living reef, full of vivid and almost luminescent myriad of colors, was pristine; a gigantic wall full of life, seemingly teeming with millions of different species of fish, corals and sea anemones.

Mustafa would wait patiently in the bus as we spent hours at the beach. I would invite him to have lunch with us and we would talk, mostly in sign, gestures and broken Arabic and English. We had gotten pretty good at understanding each other.

"Come my house. Good asha'a." Mustafa said.

"Sure, I'd really like, Mustafa." I replied. "Dinner at your house. Yom? What day?"

"Week tomorrow, Yom al-A'had." He said.

"Okay one week from today and one day, on Sunday, Yom al-A'had." I gestured, holding one finger up on my left hand for 'one week', pointing at the ground for 'today' with my right hand then held up a thumb to signify 'plus one day.'

"Jayed. I get you." Mustafa pretended to hold and turn a steering wheel.

"Okay, good. You come get me." I said.

Mustafa's downtown villa was completely enclosed in a ten foot concrete wall and took up half a block. It was huge. He hopped out of the old beat up Toyota and opened the eight foot tall steel gates, jumped back in and drove into the courtyard. He parked in between a white Mercedes Benz 500 SLC and a black Jaguar XJ6 with red trim.

"Nice cars." I said, wondering who the other guests were.

The two story villa had a mix of modern and ancient architecture; arches supported by pillars of white marble. The top floor had ancient wood artifices of engraved wood, intricate with open swirls and geometric shapes. As we walked through the wide double front doors, Mustafa signaled for me to remove my shoes and socks, and placed a pair of gold embossed and jewel encrusted leather slippers at my feet.

We walked through the foyer into a very large sunken living room. A large thick hand-woven carpet, rich in red geometric designs lay at our feet; hundreds of pillows surrounded a huge low slung table. The gigantic slab was made from a single cross cut of old growth wood, lacquered and polished to a dark ebony shine. There were no chairs; we would be sitting on the floor. The ceiling and walls were covered in light colored tapestries, giving the room a tent-like feeling.

Mustafa gestured for me to sit, propping up pillows behind me. He sat down next to me and clapped his hands. Four women came out, their faces covered with a veil, a niqāb. They were carrying polished brass bowls, brass pitchers and white towels.

"Number one wife." Mustafa gestured to one of the women. I did not know if it was proper to address her directly, so I just nodded my head. A brass bowl was placed in front of me and filled with water from a brass pitcher. I followed Mustafa's lead and washed my hands with the cool water. One of the women handed me a towel.

"Shokran. Thank you." I said, then looked over quickly at Mustafa to see if it was proper to address her. He smiled.

"You're welcome. Afwan." The woman said. I could see her eyes were smiling. I was totally caught off guard.

"Number two wife." Mustafa said, his eyes amused, as the women quickly whisked away the cleaning bowls and pitchers.

I realized the cars outside were not from other guests. I was the only guest. Mustafa was a very wealthy man.

"All your wives, arba'a?" I asked.

"Na'am, yes. Four." Mustafa said.

"Children? How many?" I asked.

"Ashra. Ten." He said, moving his hands up and down, denoting different sizes and ages.

"Where?" I asked, turning my head, pretending to look around.

"We eat, then they come." Mustafa explained.

A small quiet pause lapsed as I nodded.

"Okay, we eat, yes?" Mustafa clapped his hands again.

Dinner was exquisite. Mustafa's wives kept bringing out interesting smells and spices, hummus, unleavened bread, olives, dates, fruit, skewered barbequed lamb and whole roasted chickens. The main course had to be brought out by all four of the women. It was laid out on a large brass platter; a bed of saffron infused long grain rice, full of nuts, white and black raisins, a whole spit fired goat - the head still attached and cooked until the meat was falling of the bone. It was a strong flavorful meat, succulent and gamy.

I was careful to only eat with my right hand as it was proper, taking my time and trying everything offered. Mustafa leaned over towards me and held out his hand.

"You guest. Must eat." He said.

There were two bite sized greasy lumps in his hand. I took one.

"What's this?"

"Glawi." He pointed to the goat, then flexed his arm. "Make strong."

"Glawi." He said again, cupping his hand, then pointed to the goat's hind quarters.

"Testicles." I stated.

Mustafa popped his into his mouth and chewed. I shrugged my shoulders and did the same. It tasted fine, a bit like liver, but a little more chewy.

"You, Sadiqui. Good friend. Good man." Mustafa said.

"Thank you Mustafa. You're a good friend too." I smiled back.

The wives came out and cleared our platters, placed the washing bowls in front of us and took them away as soon as we were finished washing up. A sweet tea was brought out and one of the wives set a hubbly bubbly between us. An aromatic blend of tobacco and orange was fired and Mustafa and I relaxed, smoking.

Then the children came out. Laughing and playing, they all stopped one by one and kissed their father, then came up to me and patted me on the head. One pretty little girl in a fluffy pink dress came up to me, with no inhibition, shyness or fear, and plopped herself onto my lap. She started pointing at food items on the table, so I reached over and picked up tidbits and fed her. The wives removed their niqābs and joined us, making sure the children were eating and ate a few bites in between feeding the children. I imagined this was the same all over the world; mothers getting a bite in here and there between feeding the little ones. I smiled, feeling satisfied and tremendously enjoying the company of this wonderful loving family.

Over the years, Mustafa remained my friend and driver. He took me to the gold caves, to old Turkish forts, into the desert, and up into the mountains of the city of Taif to see the baboon colonies living among the rocks. I especially enjoyed our shopping trips to the famous Jeddah souk, the main market. Mustafa taught me how to barter aggressively with the merchants for gold jewelry and handmade Persian rugs.

I had never asked him about his wealth or why he decided to be a driver. But as a guest of his country, my time was finished and my last day was bittersweet and very surprising.

"Mustafa, Shukran. Thank you for your friendship and your help all these years." I said as I shook his hand. He had picked me up in the Jaguar, the first time I had ridden in this car.

"Not a problem, Sir. Have a jolly good time back in the States. If you will allow, I will call on you sometime, the next time I visit the States." He said.

My jaw dropped. He spoke perfect English without any Arab accent whatsoever, only the slight rounding of vowels in the crispness of a British accent.

"Yes, I know. Sorry about the façade old chap. Must keep appearances. I was just doing my job. But you must understand, I was trained and went to college in Oxford. MI-5 and all that. I'm so very sorry this comes as a shock, as I imagine it does." Mustafa said.

"Ah . . ." Is all I could manage to get out.

"It is all right my friend. We are still the same people and we are still good friends. My job was to ensure your safety, that's all. Just following protocol."

"Ah . . . okay." I was in total shock.

"Have a good flight. I'll come visit the next time I am in the States."

Mustafa walked away and got into his Jag, leaving me standing there, my bags at my feet, staring at the road long after the car disappeared around the corner.

I imagined he was laughing really hard at that moment.
Acht Acht
Jan 6, 2013