Our first week was spent lounging in this suburban dream world that served as our base of operations as we visited sites in the Eastern Province and Reem’s family in the city of Al Hofuf. At the compound pool one morning, I met an expat from Florida. He was an edgy character—a short, trim, middle-aged man with sunken eyes—who seemed to stare through me, nodding intently as he told me horror stories. Although Fearful Jim, along with his two children and friendly spouse, had lived in Saudi for six years, he’d never ventured out of the compound. “They all want to cut my head off!” he explained. I had initiated our conversation simply by asking how he liked Saudi; his response was a rambling twenty-minute screed that spanned recent history, from September 11th through the Chechen school massacre.
Some of Jim’s paranoia was fueled by a 2004 attack on the nearby Al-Khobar Oasis compound in which, according to Jim, armed men had killed dozens of Westerners. Meanwhile, Saudis I spoke with, including a number of Reem’s family members, claimed the number slain at Al-Khobar had been two. Internet research wasn’t much help in pinning down a precise casualty count; the number of purported victims ranged from twenty-two to twenty-nine, most of whom were apparently unfortunate guest workers who might well have been Muslims. At least one American was killed, and everyone agreed that an Italian chef had had his throat slit. After that incident, Jim had packed his family off to America for a year before bringing them back to the walled paradise. Like so many expats, including our hosts, he was likely drawn by the money and the benefits of the Saudi experience, which reign supreme. There is also, though, a strong sense of community, and the kids tend to grow up with friends for life.
I couldn’t get my mind around people like Jim, who would never leave a city for fear of getting murdered. There are exceptions, like the American woman who goes out every day with her driver (women are prohibited from driving in Saudi) to have lunch with the roadside vendors—a daring venture that even Reem, a native, wouldn’t brave, as such vendors aren’t the most sanitary. But most of the expats I encountered, while perhaps not as paranoid as Jim, were content to remain in the compound. They seemed largely disinterested in the culture surrounding them, leaving only to travel to and from the airport. Yet even Jim admitted, “I love the place.” Leaning back in his lounger, reaching for his wife’s hand, he added, “I mean, look around—how could you not like it here?”
Under the Peaceful Eye of Allah.
Since every Saudi is a Muslim, mosques are ubiquitous. And beautiful. One morning, I accompanied Bob and his son to the jum’ah, the special Friday noon service, at a beautiful mosque by the Persian Gulf. There, under its bright-white arches, with the sharp contrast of the deep-blue sky and dark sea, I watched dozens of men pray. The sea burst against the shore, the women sat quietly in a separate section by the water, covered from head to toe in their long black abayas, their children alongside. I just stood and sweated, wishing I could take a photograph and chiding myself for such a blasphemous thought.
Later that week, just as the evening prayers were beginning, our group stumbled back to the car after a big dinner with a distant cousin of Reem’s in the Persian Gulf city of Jubail. The call to prayer was broadcast from speakers atop the dozens of mosques situated throughout the cities, each minaret lit with a soft green light. I stood beneath a crescent moon smudged by blowing sand, listening to the cries of the clerics. The calls came not simultaneously but in rapid succession, with one imam intoning the call, then another, say, four seconds later. Then, somewhere in the distance, another cleared his throat and began to sing until the air was filled with the holy sound, a musical intonation calling the faithful to pray. It was a scene of almost overwhelming sublimity. When I mentioned to other expats how beautiful I found the calls to prayer, most agreed that there came a time when they had simply stopped hearing them, just as one ceases to hear the jets when living in an airport’s flight path. Fearful Jim said they made him sick.