I - STREETS OF DAMMAM: YOUSEF
As I hopped into the taxi, Yousef the driver greeted me with a warm smile. Eager to engage in conversation, I decided to bring up a topic that had been on my mind.
"You know," I began, "Western media often portrays Saudis in a certain way, focusing on the negative aspects."
The taxi driver chuckled heartily, his eyes twinkling so much with amusement that I could clearly see them shining through the dark night.
"We get as much bad publicity about our culture as our reputation for being bad football players!"
The absurdity of the comparison lightened the atmosphere, and I found myself curious about his perspective. "Bad football players?" I questioned, raising an eyebrow - secretly hoping he'd talk about his culture.
"People assume we're not great at football, but that's not the whole truth. We have our own style that often goes unnoticed."
As we swiftly navigated through the chaotic traffic, effortlessly bypassing the frozen traffic jam, the taxi driver shared anecdotes about some misconceptions surrounding Saudi culture.
By the time we reached King Fahd International Airport, the taxi driver's infectious laughter had transformed the ride into a journey of cultural exchange. We bid farewell with smiles, grateful for the unexpected connection forged through humour.
When I left the taxi, Yousef shouted from the car:
"Niiiiiilson! Come back to Dammam and I'll coach you - you're still on time to become a top level Saudi player at age 45."
II - WHISPERS OF ARABIAN ROADS: CHRONICLES FROM THE SAUDI TAXI VEIL
Abdulrahman, a once-enthusiastic art education student, found himself navigating the streets as a taxi driver and working at a restaurant to make ends meet. I guess that the vibrant hues of his paintings were replaced by the bustling city lights he now faces every night.
Five years had swiftly passed since Abdulrahman last held a paintbrush, as he has been lost in the demands of his dual jobs. I told him not to worry, that I also didn't paint for seven years after I finished uni. Doesn't the essence of academia lie in extinguishing dreams, molding each student into but 'another brick in the wall'?
Our communication relied on Google Translate since he couldn't speak English. I learned about his artistic past and shared my intention to visit the restaurant where he worked the next day.
Jokingly, I put a certain thought through Google Translate... I knew I was risking it, too easily crossing the unspoken limits about what is humorous and humourless. And religion is often the limit.
Google came up with this:
عندما أذهب إلى مطعمك، ترجمة جوجل ستعطيني لحم الخنزير بدلاً من الدجاج
I pressed the 'play' button and a contemptuous robotic voice emitted the following sounds:
'eindama 'adhhab 'iilaa mateamiki, tarjamat jujil satuetini lahm alkhinzir bdlaan min aldajaj'
... and there was silence, Abdulrahman's facial expression veiled by the darkness of the night.
Suddenly, he burst into laughter, his eyes tearing up of so much joy. The sentence I had gotten translated was 'I am concerned that when I arrive to your restaurant, Google Mis-Translate might lead me to eat pork instead of chicken.'
For the remainder of the journey, he chatted animatedly, switching between some 95% of very fast Arabic and about 5% of broken English.
Amidst all the torrent of sounds, I tried to decipher his words, catching a few glimpses of precious, glistening, poetic phrases like "no fart." Each time he'd talk about "no fart", his expressive hand gestures mimicked the brushstrokes of a painter.
I finally understood that he was emphasizing his regret at having abandoned his artistic passion, wanting to say "not enough art".
Abdulrahman told me to go to his restaurant for lunch. He wrote something in Arabic on Google Translate and rolled on his seat laughing - while Google Translate's hideous, ghastly voice promised me an 'unforgettable meal'.
I don't know what the insolent, rankling voice of Google Translate will order for me - but I hope that soon Abdulrahman finds a way to reconnect with the canvas, alchemising a constipated "no fart" into a resounding "more art."
III - CHRISTMAS EVE: ABEER In a perplexing encounter at the arranged time, I stumbled upon mysterious fruits that blended the earthy hue of hazelnuts with the elegant contours of almonds. Their peculiar allure was heightened by a moistness reminiscent of a finely polished tiger's eye gem.
To my bewilderment, these enigmatic fruits seemed to possess an otherworldly quality – they blinked!
I became painfully aware that I was hopelessly under the spell of the most beautiful eyes I had ever beheld.
In the quiet whisper of a breeze, she cradled the syllables of my name, weaving them into a sonnet. Each utterance lingering in the air like a fragrant note, turning my bannale name into a melody.
"Abeer" - my voice croaked.
I enthusiastically extended my hand for a handshake. My well-intentioned greeting collided with local customs, a faux-pas I'll always remember. The velvet black silhouette gracefully sidestepped my handshake, and left me feeling like a momentarily misplaced puzzle piece in the intricate Islamic mosaic of Saudi social etiquette.
"Salaam سلام" - she replied.
I was curious to know why would this young girl want to be a writer, expressing herself into a world that scarcely pauses to read.
The hands of the clock spun through time in that garden-cafe in the trendy Jax District outskirts of Riyadh. The light turned orange and then dusky indigo. It was Christmas Eve.
Now, as I reflect, the specifics of our words escape me... a timeless connection that transcends the ephemeral nature of language.
As we bid farewell, Abeer suddenly gave me a fist bump. "It avoids COVID."
An eloquent alternative to the brashness of me trying to shake a Muslim woman's hand.
IV - OLD AND NEW: JIHAD As I wandered through the ancient ruins of At-Turaif World Heritage site, I met 26 year-old Jihad. Despite the unfortunate misunderstandings and negative connotations associated with the term abroad, the true meaning of his name conveys a sense of striving for self-improvement. We exchanged contacts and met a few times for coffee with some other friends.
The Saudi's complicity and humor is in stark contrast with the pervasive solitude that shades European lands. The oppressive weight of loneliness, like a cold heavy fog, clung to me during my recent years in Portugal and the UK. In these 'developed' societies, the warmth of genuine companionship is now a rare luxury, quickly vanishing like desert sand in an hourglass. Bitterness and selfishness currently characterize European interactions. A chill wind still sweeps through the heart of social connections in the West, since the COVID pandemic. The metallic, poisonous taste of Europe raises profound questions in my mind. Why does the landscape of friendships seem so barren and unyielding in those distant Western realms?
"Those distant Western realms..."
A few days later, Jihad felt sick from working too much. Despite his recent ailment and a headache, he insisted on showing me the heart of Riyadh under the night. Of course that in typical Saudi fashion, he arrived over an hour late. I was fuming, but acted cool.
As we strolled through the illuminated streets, he shared stories of his life. Riyadh at night was a spectacle of lights and shadows, a tapestry woven with the fast decaying threads of tradition and a non-recyclable plastic-like modernity.
Midway through our nocturnal exploration, Jihad's car was on the verge of sputtering to a stop. A realization dawned upon him – the need to refuel. He checked his wallet, only to find his finances also running on fumes. His car neared empty, revealing an empty wallet. Undeterred, he phoned a friend who had owed him money for a very, very long time. Rather than engaging in a heated debate, the conversation flowed with ease and tenderness. Jihad even mimicked the sound of a kiss when his friend promised to transfer the money promptly. True to his word, his friend swiftly transferred the funds.
Despite having been penniless just moments ago, Jihad's spirit remained undaunted and he immediately took me to a hidden gem that boasted the most mouthwatering falafel in Riyadh. As we savored the delectable bites, I marveled at the generosity and warmth that still permeates many corners of this foreign land. Jihad is a testament to the poetic heart that beats within the Arab culture. A heart as vast as the desert.
Around 2am, as he was driving me back to my place, it started to rain very strongly. The buckets and buckets of water washed away the desert dust from the furiously fast car. Jihad, with a twinkle in his eye, remarked that while my spirit might be youthful, to the Arabs, I am already a grandfather.
This banter made it very clear to me that a friendship suddenly blossomed, like a desert flower during a rare rainstorm.
V - SCENTED REVERIE: ABDURHMAN
In the heart of Buraydah, where the orange sands meet the azure skies, there resides a perfumer extraordinaire, Abdurhman. He is the maestro behind Deer Perfumer. His shop, a haven of olfactory artistry, rivals the grandeur of renowned fragrance houses in London, Paris, and New York. His clientele includes royalty, with Saudi Arabia's crown prince among the privileged patrons.
Upon entering Deer Perfumer, I was enveloped in a symphony of scents, cascading upon cascades. Abdurhman, the master alchemist, unveiled a world beyond my imagination. His fragrances, each a masterpiece, told tales that transcended the boundaries of mere olfactory sensation. They actually painted vivid pictures on my mind.
I quickly learned that bad perfumes are just what they are. Exquisite perfumes are narratives:
One drop of perfume exuded the essence of a man driving a Cadillac, the aroma intertwining with a summer breeze carrying the faint scent of a cigarette. Another fragrance transported me to the weathered stones of an ancient cathedral, moist with the history of centuries. A third one took me to vintage Italy of the 1950s. And yet another reversed time, by turning wheat-fields in the summer back into the full bloom of spring.
These were not mere perfumes; they were olfactory canvases, painted with strokes of my own forgotten memories and hoping dreams. Each note was a brushstroke, weaving a tapestry that gradually and slowly unfolded with every inhale.
Abdurhman, a magician in his craft, conjured scents with the finesse of a dramatic actor, unveiling the unseen stories within each bottle. As he presented a special Arabian Bois de Oud, gilded in pure gold, the air shimmered with visual opulence.
I was commanded to try one last scent. With a flourish, he revealed the emotion-stirring essence that unfurled before me like a poignant scene in a grand opera.
A fragrance that seemed to encapsulate the very soul of ethereal, eternal beauty.
The following never happened to me before, and it might not happen again: This final elixir moved me to tears.
The scents lingered, not just on my skin but in the corridors of my soul. Abdurhman's genius had orchestrated a spiritual experience, an encounter with the divine through the artistry of perfume. I stepped back into the mundane world carrying whispers of heaven.
VI - MASTIC COFFEE: ABDULAZIZ 30 year old Abdulaziz told me he stumbled in the academic race.
‘Are you a Muslim???’ - his towering father asked, when he saw the very low scores at every single discipline.
‘Yes’ - little Abdulaziz replied
‘Then, how come you even failed in Koranic Studies????’ - retorted the exasperated dad.
Forget straight A's; let other children worry about these banalities. I’m led to believe he was tailored for something greater: he's the maestro of Dostoevskian drama, a kind of Shakespeare of mishaps.
The warmth of his spirit isn't just a Saudi thing; it's a global warming phenomenon.
Saudi may be his birthplace, but Africa holds the key to his heart. He grew up in a neighborhood densely populated with Somalis and Sudanese. His best friend is from Sudan. He wasn’t even remotely impressed by my long list of visited countries, because mother Africa is the great and only mother. And my travels around the world are still orphaned.
His hair and beard? Blacker than his Adidas tracksuit—because why settle for monochrome when you can have a shade darker than your clothes? His hair heard about his academic escapades and decided to out-dark them all. From all of my paintings, his favourite series are my black portraits of ‘The Exiled’.
‘I wanted to study design’ - he says while he impeccably arranges the coffee cups in his cafe.
Yet, it's not just about aesthetics; Abdulaziz's personality is a mix of contradictions and charisma.
The ignorant may label him as a student who stumbled, but in the divine corners of literature and profound thinking, he emerges victorious.
Everyday after work, he drives straight home to read dozens of books. He’s now reading three volumes of Dostoevsky.
Who needs vulgar success at a really bad noisy secondary school when you have a well used library card and a penchant for rarefied Russian literature?
So, as we sip his coffee with mastic—as complex as a Dostoevsky plot—I can't help but admire the man. Abdulaziz isn't just an eternal student; he's a major character in a comedy of errors called life, a literary connoisseur with a love for coffee, and a fashion icon even in a simple tracksuit.
Cheers to my dearest Abdulaziz!