Postcards from Saudi Arabia

Greetings from the Shamasan Hotel.

After a week of loafing in the compound, we caught a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight to the city of Abha, a moderately popular town for local tourists. The government is trying desperately to encourage Saudis to check out the country’s attractions. Famous for not traveling in their own country, Saudis are also known for spending more money per capita on foreign travel than anyone in the world. Reem, in fact, had never been to Abha, despite the fact that it’s a one-hour flight from where she grew up.

A mountain town with a population of around two hundred thousand, Abha is located in the southwestern Saudi Arabian province of Asir. It is a cloud-filled city whose pretty white houses are tucked into the side of the modest Hijaz Mountains. Abha was cool in the morning, warm in the afternoon, and cool again at night—a relief after the relentless heat of the Eastern Province. After one day, we abandoned our four-star hotel, where most expats, fearful of the natives, stay and whose insulated rooms keep the chants to Allah from disturbing light sleepers.

For the adventurous traveler, there are scores of friendly little hotels, like the Shamasan—a clean, well-lit place where you can sit and sip sweet, hot, thick tea and watch the sun setting over the city from the rooftop balcony. We did this every night, visited on occasion by hotel employees eager to try out their broken English. The other guests appeared to be Saudis who kept to themselves. Bob explained that although his company often sent employees to Abha for conferences, they never left the four-star hotels. But I loved the Shamasan; unlike its upscale alternative, you could open the rooms’ windows and let in the breezes. I could watch the emerald light of the city’s mosques creep past the billowing curtains and be awakened at roughly four in the morning by the call to prayer echoing across the mountains.

Surrounding the hotel were scores of little restaurants and bakeries whose proprietors were astounded by the idea of an American visiting their land and loving the cuisine. (For whatever reason, during the ninety-six hours we were in Abha, we didn’t come across a single Westerner.) One morning in his falafel shop, Abdulsattar, a friendly Egyptian who had been in Saudi for over ten years, asked me, “You are a Muslim?” When I replied that I was not a Muslim, he smiled and asked, “A Christian?” I said no, and he hung his head and mumbled, “That’s all right.”

“He thinks you’re Jewish,” Reem explained, laughing. “You have to be one of the three.” Abdulsattar made no mention of the subject the next day, instead asking about my wife and our friends. He allowed me to take his photo and beamed when I admired his sixteen-hour-a-day work ethic.

At the Shamasan, we engaged Abul Hossein, a Bangladeshi guest worker, as our liaison and translator. A friendly, modest man in his thirties, he had sad eyes and the overly humble countenance of a fellow used to taking orders from disrespectful patrons. He was there on a special visa and, as is the custom, had signed a contract that forbade him from taking any vacations—including visits home—for at least two years. “I have not had very good fortune,” he admitted. His brothers, he said, had fared better—both were engineers, one in Canada, the other in South Korea. But Abul was stuck at the Shamasan, making a pittance and probably unhappy despite his clamped-on smile. When we left him, having exchanged addresses, he shook hands and hung his head. “I will never forget you,” he said.

Mutual Trepidation Society.

One afternoon, we drove an hour out of Abha to the hanging city of Habala, so named because it is carved into the side of the Asir Mountains and was once accessible only by rope. While climbing the steep walkways to the ruins, we came across a trio of young men, all bespectacled and clean-shaven. One approached and offered his hand, joining the ranks of the many Saudis who took it upon themselves to welcome us to their land. “You are American!” he said, his eyes brightening, and I wondered what gave me away, since I’d purposefully avoided wearing baseball caps, shirts with slogans, and the like. His pals came over, smiling, trying to get their friend to translate our conversation. But his English wasn’t streamlined, and my Arabic consisted of perhaps six words—greetings and good-byes—that I managed to mutilate every time I used them. Reem translated, laughing at the young man’s jokes. He praised America, was eager for us to see his country, and expressed his desire to have us join him for lunch. Finally, he asked, “What is the best way, do you think, for me to learn English?” I thought for a moment, then told him he ought to visit America.

He laughed. “I would love to!” he said in English. But then his smile fell ever so slightly. “Only I don’t want to end up in Guantanamo.”

We laughed with him, but I recognized that at some level, his fear was probably legitimate. There are still dozens of Saudis languishing in that infamous prison, and how did I know whether this kid had friends or relatives in Baghdad, or had some ties, however circuitous, to Al Qaeda? The bin Laden family has its fingers in nearly every pie in Saudi, and the country’s young might well wonder if Americans can distinguish between Osama and the rest of his family (who officially disowned him in a 1994 statement). Then I wondered to myself what this young man would think of America, a place whose cities can be dangerous—especially in the case of Detroit, whose metro area has the largest Arab-American population in the country. Would Americans show him the same friendly reception that he and so many of his fellow countrymen had offered us?

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