Déjà vu in Dammam

By Titus Green

The plane crawled along, as unhurried in its taxiing on the runway of Dammam’s King Fahad International Airport as a sedated sloth. I was apprehensive. I’d been here before, having deplaned at this airport nine years previously. My last English teaching job in Saudi Arabia had had a miserable ending when I’d been fired from an English language training company that had really knocked me around. The company had a high turnover and an unappealing reputation on the Middle East TEFL circuit as a grinder of teachers which turned its instructors not into processed beef but stressed-out, gibbering wrecks. Get your barge-poles ready read the assessment of the enterprise on Johnny MacSporran’s notorious TEFL employer blacklist website. Did I heed the warning? Or respect the red flag fluttering so conspicuously? For the job, I had been hired to set up a teaching centre in a giant oil refinery 200km north of Jeddah with shambolic resources, confusing lines of communication and a cohort of aimless young Saudi men loitering around dressed in khaki. It was a journey into professional damnation full of confusion, duplicity and double binds. One minute the conniving, ruthless British director coordinating the project from Dammam was bellowing down the phone at me to pull teachers out of classrooms and get them to remote, inaccessible testing sites at the whim of the client and the next, criticising me abrasively about allowing the same lessons to be disrupted. Talk about schizophrenia! Saudi Arabia attracted sociopaths, narcissists and control freaks to the English teaching sector with a constant gravity. As for my team, that particular circus of ersatz ‘English teachers’ had a diverse cast of performers: lechers, alcoholics, bullies, bankrupts, petty criminals and a self-styled Lebanese ‘Byron’ who was convinced his doggerel was award-worthy poetry and whined to me constantly about the pay gap between native and non-native English-speaking teachers in the company. Fortunately, my ‘sentence’ in that dreadful job wasn’t long. Like a wily practitioner of Machiavelli luring me into a trap, the British reptile from Dammam arrived onsite one day with the client, a Sudanese ex-Aramco bigshot who was a real cobra—he slithered into rooms hissing—under the pretext of inspecting the project’s progress. They then sat me down in a poky office and dismissed me, giving me my marching orders with the tact and delicacy of chainsaws.

“We need an Arabic speaker to run this post,” they told me matter-of-factly as they got up to leave and head for Jeddah Airport’s business-class lounge.

“So, we’re bringing in Mohammed.”

 I learned that day that working for ‘oil people’ was a Faustian contract. Your employers had petroleum for blood and preferred crooked deals to humanity.

 Inside the hot fuselage of the 747, I waited for the familiar deplaning rituals of economy class passengers to commence. I was desperate to leave the stale, over-cycled air and eager to get out of the company of a young Saudi man who’d been making tedious English language practice small talk with me for at least three out of the five hours of the journey from London. He wanted that premium company of a native speaker, but what on earth had he been doing for two years in the U.S. as a student that made this need necessary? Living with other Saudis and speaking his mother tongue 24/7? It was strange, but I had my own list of concerns to address as I arrived in this country of opaque procedures once more.

An announcement on the PA system gave us the local time in Dammam as the inflight movie refused to say goodbye and muted scenes of cinematic dross continued on the embedded screen ahead. A recent Hollywood ‘action comedy’ full of CGI explosions specially formatted to fit this screen kept on running, as if determined to prepare me psychologically for entrance into the ‘Magic Kingdom’ of Saudi. Yawning males rose and reached for the latches of overhead stowage compartments while the eyes of their Saudi womenfolk darted back and forth between the vision slits of their abayas. Mothers clasped restless children and the elegant Philippine flight attendants in their sky-blue pinafores pulled back the aisle curtain, with their awkward, frosty farewell smiles in place.

The flight’s stress had been elevated at Riyadh, where I’d been obliged to catch this connecting flight to the kingdom’s Eastern Province. The check-in clerk at Heathrow hadn’t bothered to inform me that all baggage would be offloaded when we touched down in the capital city and needed to be collected from the baggage claim and checked in again. It was the Saudi way: an added logistical ritual I found inexplicable. It was like an additional tax payable in agitation and elevated heart rate. A toll of hassle collected on entry to the country when you had to sprint out of the plane, move frantically through an unfamiliar, labyrinthine airport to a constipated baggage carousel that refused to defecate luggage as the minutes available to haul your case to yet another unfindable check-in desk, amidst a throng of disorientated, jet-lagged humanity disappeared. Clear signage had seemed illegal at Riyadh and airport staff were nowhere to be found. Asian cleaners just nodded when I mouthed ‘where?’ questions or offered conciliatory smiles in place of helpful answers when I bothered them briefly with my incomprehensible language and mysterious expressions. I left them in their confined lives of drudgery and moved on, managing to find the Saudia baggage drop desk with forty minutes to spare. I had sprinted to the boarding gate with my DELL laptop shoulder-bag jiggling frenetically.

“Christ! Careful! I’m getting too old for this. Don’t you know my warranty ran out long ago?”

This was what my precious Inspiron 15 5000, purchased in 2016, wanted to say. The old maid had served me consistently for four years sending my missives across the planet and keeping my internet citizenship maintained.

Within minutes I was off the plane and back in Saudi Arabia for the first time in seven years; I had been hired as an ‘instructor’ to teach on the freshman English program of the Prince Salman University of Petroleum Sciences and honestly, I had surprised myself by agreeing to take on another hardship posting in the Gulf. These jobs put your mind, soul and body through a premature aging machine. The paralysing heat trapped you in a sweaty lethargy while the burning sun, pollution and sandstorms weathered your face as if by a sanding tool, leaving the wrinkled skin covering it a grim testament to expatriate greed. The students sometimes exhausted your patience, and the Saudi government’s intractable bureaucrats could induce ulcers like nobody else. The clergy were forbidding, the social landscape was bleak, and the food was close to inedible. If you weren’t a Muslim, the society and the norms were as remote and incomprehensible to you as they’d be if you were time-tripped back to ancient Egypt. Why on earth had I decided to do this? Then I remembered the  call from James Price, the exceptionally pushy recruiter who had tried to align me with a ‘high-paying role in the Emirates’. The interview hadn’t worked out, but he was still busy hunting his commission like a ravenous hound.

“Can I interest you in another very promising position in the Gulf?” Ambient office noise accompanied his nasal voice. A few muffled voices in proximity and the impression of a tiny cubicle in a hastily rented, no-frills office near central London came to mind which belied his company’s grandiose name of Rapier Recruitment Global Education HR Solutions.

“Sure. Go ahead.” Well, why not I thought. I’d recently finished a three-year contract at a university in mainland China that had paid well but burned me out. I still didn’t have quite enough saved for my second property plan. A potentially less demanding job in The Emirates, Oman or Qatar perhaps didn’t seem such an unwelcome next port of call.

“It’s in Saudi. A government university. Two-year contract and £39,000 tax-free. What do think?”

“Ah, Saudi,” I replied flatly. He’d seen my CV of course, and the brief time at GULF TRAINING ENTERPRISES PLC in 2012 recorded.

“Fancy walking the walk of fire, again? Go on, think of the coin!” He reminded me of a used-car salesman slipping into the fourth gear of his pitch. He probably had the interview already scheduled. Although I’d sworn never to return to The Kingdom after my experiences in 2012, before I knew it, I was being Skype interviewed, in a rather disorganized way, by a British and American man from the university. “Earning respect with the students is key,” said the shifty Brit who’d slouched into the interview late, without apology, clasping a foolscap folder. Earning respect. An ominous euphemism I understood to mean control the classes with discipline. My teaching experiences at Gulf Training had involved working with surly, disruptive and sometimes abusive young men furious at being corralled into classrooms and resentful at having any discipline introduced into their slack, workshy lives. I recalled being eyeballed by several who’d taken offence at being asked to study. The dregs of Saudization. Was I doomed to teach such cohorts again? The interviewers asked me about teaching grammar, and whether I knew the ubiquitous Headway textbook series and three months later I was on the plane.

 Back at the airport, I proceeded along corridors full of notices and typical commercial signs. Mobily and STC told me that they were happy to trade data for riyals while a slew of posters for car rentals tried to tempt me onto the certain death-race highways of the kingdom.  I was tired and concerned as I headed towards passport control because I wasn’t sure if the driver that the university had sent to collect me would show and without a local SIM card in my phone, I had no way to reach him. The prospect of being stranded and forgotten here, in the sweltering heat of 2a.m with no one but bored looking Saudis occupying their stalls languidly for company filled me with apprehension. To my surprise, there were no queues at Passport Control. A young man took my passport and with a weary reluctance began keying in the relevant data regarding the document and visa into the monitor.

“Finger. You.” 

I frowned and prised my mouth open to show my incomprehension. Then he turned his left hand into a ‘thumbs up’ fist and gestured a downwards pressing motion and I understood he meant fingerprints.

“Sorry. Where?” I asked, trying to sound as dumb and humble as possible. The official pointed to a tiny scanning device to the right of the counter slot. Its glossy black cable snaked through a little hole in the glass through which my biometric impressions would be sucked and deposited in some vast, foreboding database that would hold them forever. I felt as powerless as a species of corralled farm animal.

I made acceptable thumb prints and the officer stamped my passport, returning it with a lethargic push through the slot. I then went to the baggage claim, reassuring myself that I hadn’t accidentally packed anything alcoholic or indecent into my luggage. I was approaching the crossing point of life and death for some, such as the hapless drug mules from Pakistan and elsewhere with their stomachs bloated with cocaine condoms. When living in the Kingdom before, I’d read the stories in the Saudi Gazette that consistently instilled fear and a ‘watch your step in Saudi’ mentality. Two drug traffickers executed in Jeddah and Egyptian beheaded in Mecca for murder and robbery headlines were accompanied by the familiar Reuters copy reminding us that Saudi Arabia had a strict interpretation of Islam and all drug traffickers were executed.

A bleary-eyed, unshaven customs officer motioned for me to put my case through the scanner, and it passed through without scrutiny. I hauled my case through the arrivals area, where bored-looking men waited for names scrawled on A4 paper cards to show up. How long had they spent of their lives doing this? These factotums from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, worked to ashes by their Saudi sponsors, seemed reconciled to this life of waiting for strangers. Circumspect obedience guided them which kept riyals flowing into their pockets and through the Western Union offices.

As I entered the arrivals area, hustlers approached.

“Taxi? Taxi?”

Several hawkers in thobes targeted me in quick succession, pestering me as I walked. Some of them followed me more than two hundred yards and their persistence was aggravating. When I saw their temporary grins and opportunistic eyes, I imagined their ancestors badgering travellers in similar vignettes from the past. There must have been British colonial types from the Victorian age getting this treatment at the ports of Arabia with camels and promises being pushed at them as they said dash it all with these Arab bounders and grasped their monocles and waved their canes erratically. Back in 2021, I sought out an airport assistance desk but when I saw the familiar question-mark symbol identifying one I found it deserted. The unplugged phone suggested it hadn’t been staffed for years. I traipsed down to the next occupied position, which was a Mobily telephone and internet stall.

The young Saudi staffing it tipped his chin up at me in greeting and his lips formed into a fulsome yet cunning smile. A certain charming guile emanated from him, along with the pungent whiff of perfume. His boxed beard was closely cropped, and his eyebrows were trimmed. Before he even spoke, I’d assessed him as a desert dandy on the make.

“Welcome my brother! Welcome to Saudi Arabia! Where are you from?”

“Hello. From England,” I answered. The adrenalin from the stop-start, grab and dash phases of my voyage had disappeared, and a vast vat of liquid exhaustion dropped on me, soaking me with fatigue. I hadn’t slept properly for 24 hours, and it was now a significant effort to speak.

“I have just arrived and urgently need to contact a driver who’s waiting for me, but I have no Saudi SIM. Is there somewhere I can just make a quick call to a Saudi mobile?”

“I am sorry my brother,” he said placing the palm of his hand on his chest in the style of courteous Arab greeting. “I don’t have much recharge on my phone.” His Gulf English, cultivated for commerce, was slickly intelligible in a way typical of his generation that had acquired it through Hollywood, Spotify and YouTube.

“Look. We have many SIM for good price,” he said pointing to a display stand promoting various prepaid data and voice packages, with each picture showing the gigabyte, minutes and social media price increments next to a grinning twenty-something clasping his or her mobile device as though it was already an extension of their bodies, merging seamlessly with the flesh of their hands.

Maybe his credit was low, or maybe it was just a white lie to avoid expending his personal resources. Whatever was true, I needed communications quickly, so I whipped out my credit card and purchased a basic prepaid package.

“Shokran,” I said wearily to close the transaction.

“Wow! You speak Arabic,” he said.

“Where are you from, London?”

I lied and said yes. Telling him that I lived in Bournemouth was redundant. Or perhaps not? Many young Saudi men ‘studied English’ in U.K language schools where they sat in tatty, cramped classrooms and received suspect sermons on English grammar usage from cranky unemployables and summer season TEFL dinosaurs who were friends of the Director of Studies and who hadn’t planned a proper lesson in decades. I knew that some of these students from the kingdom sampled forbidden night-time pleasures when they weren’t not doing homework on verbs from Headway workbooks. Some of them even bonded with the UK, savouring memories of their adventures in the country of Premier League football and haram temptation.

“I stayed in British. Very nice. Really nice,” he said confirming my earlier thoughts. He clearly cherished the experience and with a slow, sensual roll of his head closed his eyes as if to summon and enjoy the memory. Gripped by this reverie, his creased ghutra and its picnic napkin pattern framed his face and gave it a statue like quality chiselled out of the marble of fantasy. “UK ladies….very beautiful,” he said reverentially. I could only conclude that much of his scholarship money from the Saudi government had paid the rent of a few strippers from the pole dancing clubs of Shoreditch. He opened his eyes and smiled.

“Thank you, my friend,” he said effusively with shakes of the head, as though grateful for the central part I had played in bringing his memories back to the present.

“I don’t know if I’m going to find my driver,” I said ruefully. “Or if this job is going to go well over the next two years.” I couldn’t help but release the second thought. It burst out of the core of my anxiety. My interlocutor’s eyes widened with a kind of exaggerated surprise, as though I had said something completely contrary to his expectations.

“Don’t worry,” he said stretching out the syllables of the second word in a contour of intonation that was supposed to assure me. Many expatriates in Saudi were familiar with this two-word imperative when it left the mouths of Saudis. They often used it when you stood to lose or suffer from something going wrong usually due to their negligence. If you were at risk of missing mortgage payments back home because you hadn’t been paid, having your bank account frozen because your employers hadn’t bothered to renew your residence permit or being sent to jail because of a traffic accident, a member of the host country automatically used this incongruous expression to try and assuage you. No matter if your arm was falling off, your house was burning down or you had just been diagnosed with cancer, they’d tell the foreigner not to worry. The words left their mouths effortlessly like bubbles blown through a hoop which floated briefly and then burst leaving no positive impact whatsoever on your circumstances. I grinned knowingly and he sensed my cynicism of his fraudulent confidence.

“What?” he said with a frown, pretending dismay at my lack of faith.

“So do you actually think my driver will come?” I asked with world-weariness.

“Insallah,” he replied instantly. “Everything will be nice. No problem. You will, insallah, be happy Saudi Arabia.” My exhaustion was turning this arrival experience into a surreal movie scene. With tiredness pulling on my eyelids, and increasing drowsiness distorting my senses, this young man had become my Delphic oracle.

Everything will be nice. No problem. Don’t worry.

The words were hypnotic and at 1.30am I believed them. I thanked him and took my luggage to a spot where I made my first call to the driver. The last university message had given me his name and contact number. He was called Abdullah. I dialled and to my dismay an old, gruff man answered in Arabic. He wasn’t interested in practising his English listening comprehension and hung-up. I sighed and my shoulders slumped. I looked around for a seat where I could at least sit and consider this new crisis, but there were none. The airport disliked me. It wasn’t interested in indulging my whims, or physical needs. It could care less about my wanting comfort. It just wanted to shunt me along, get me out of its space. Get me moving. My phone rang a few minutes later, and to my relief it was Abdullah. I located him at one of the exit gates and soon I was being escorted to a sizeable Chevrolet sports utility vehicle. The driver was a slightly built Saudi who, by his self-effacing manner seemed to be a lowly university functionary. Saudis of status didn’t do such menial work as transporting the foreign hired help.

“Salam Allaykum.”

He returned my greeting. I fastened my seatbelt, and he started the engine. As he left the airport’s main exit road and joined the highway for Dammam, I welcomed the cooling embrace of the air-conditioning. I was too tired for any more introspection, or speculation of how the next two years would unfold. I was here, once again. That was it. I had made my bed and whether the sleep would be a comfortable one would be a question for the mattress of destiny. Inshallah. 

With the black canopy of darkness concealing the surrounding desert, we sped along at speeds tolerated in a country of eternally impatient drivers. I thought of the previous journey I’d made on this same strange road nearly a decade before. Was my life destined to be one of replayed scenes ending in regret? Endless loops of folly finishing in disaster?

After forty minutes, from the road a large, concentrated cluster of lights appeared lighting up a perimeter wall in the distance. Within it the outlines of a group of large monolithic buildings were visible, vast concrete corporate blocks coloured filthy sepia by the light of the moon and streetlamps within the university campus. The architecture was certainly grim, and its designers had obviously been strangers to aesthetics. The initial impression of a prison was undeniable.

It isn’t the Parthenon, that’s for sure, I thought as the car turned onto a road signposted in English as University Boulevard and we approached a checkpoint. We weren’t stopped and as we passed it the sight of bored-looking sentries in military fatigues was revealing. Some of them were leaning against the checkpoint cubicle, holding onto the straps of their assault rifles reluctantly as though they were being forced to carry unwanted gifts, while others chatted or smoked. Their minds weren’t on defence that was for sure, and they passed their time in this peculiar costume drama of being on guard against a hypothetical menace from the future.

We were on what seemed to be the main artery road of the campus. We turned to the left, went straight and then followed a meandering road up an incline past several buildings until we reached a car park. The driver stopped the vehicle and we got out. I was led up some steps to what I assumed was the foreign staff’s living quarters. The contract had made it clear that the position was residential, so I was going to be led into my home sweet home for the next 24 months. The apartment buildings were old and decrepit looking and certainly hadn’t been constructed to win any beautiful home awards. They were crude maisonettes faced with pebble-dash brickwork and steps to the upper levels. Perhaps they had looked modern and respectable in the 1970s, but now they were just grim. As we approached the door, I saw a colossal cockroach scuttle across our path. It was heading towards the door of the opposite apartment with a furtive determination that was conducive to dread. These sly invertebrates were clearly the block’s unofficial residents.

My companion produced a key and opened the door. As I pulled in my suitcase, he hit the light switch. My first impression was optimistic. It was a poky studio unit, but it looked superficially clean and in good repair. It had old, recycled furniture and a small, shabby kitchenette. My positivity dipped when I saw the bathroom, however. It was claustrophobic and full of cracked tiles and crumbling plaster. Not only that, but a sickening odour came from the encased shower unit which reminded me of the shortcomings of urban South Korean sewers of the 1990s. The university obviously wasn’t sparing any comforts for its bachelor faculty. The driver asked me to sign some forms, smiled and then left. I was tired and slathered in thick coats of sweat from the forty degree plus heat. With relief, I noticed a control panel for the air-conditioning but even that looked perilously attached to the wall with adhesive tape. Emblems of shoddiness were everywhere. It cooperated when I pressed its buttons however and it sent soothing gusts of coolness into the space. I opened one of the cupboards and was pleased to see boxes of tea. In the fridge there were eggs, flatbreads and cans of pasteurised milk. At least there was some provision for breakfast.

I showered, accepting the noxious odour coming up from the drain which gurgled ominously as the jets of cold water struck my body. It was a harsh sound joined by the lament of the central pipes that started wailing like neglected banshees. As I curled up in bed, I smelt the mustiness of the artificial air and wondered if I’d sleep at all. I had to call Peter in the morning. He was a member of the faculty and future colleague who’d volunteered to be both my meet and greet person and guide through the formidable reporting and arrival bureaucracy that I had to face immediately the next day. There was a residence permit or ‘iqama’ to apply for, mugshot passport photos to be taken and offices of intractable, apathetic administrators to visit. I hoped to get at least five hours of good quality sleep.

During the night I drifted in and out of shallow sleep phases. In one lucid stretch of a ‘panic’ dream I was back on the Saudia jet, this time upgraded to business class by my subconscious. I didn’t know the flight’s destination but was enjoying the journey when there was a loud crashing sound and the shudder of a massive impact. The plane started to plummet, and as the oxygen masks dropped, I realised the Mobily SIM salesman from the airport was sitting across from me.

“Don’t worry!” he said earnestly with a broad smile and quick shrug of the shoulders.

Something woke me. It was the sound of the Adhan, the morning prayer call. It grew in decibels, coming from the lips of an unknown imam and amplified through a speaker at the top of the mosque, wherever that was. It sounded very close. The recitation, haunting, melancholy and melodious lasted for about a minute. The air conditioning had stopped working and the heat had closed in, clasping me and toasting me in the darkness into which a few rays of nascent dawn light filtered through the gaps of the blind. I drifted off to sleep again, only to be woken later by more gurgling noises from the direction of the bathroom. They were much louder than before, as though the plumbing was in great distress. Liquid conflict was occurring that could only spell trouble. “What on earth is going on in there?” I mumbled as my head crashed back onto the pillow. When I woke next it was light outside, and a potent stench had reached into the back of my nostrils and throat.

“Ugh!” I retched as I struggled not to vomit. I got up and turned on the light. The hall passage carpet next to the bathroom door had become a canal of brown sewage cocktail about a centimetre deep. To my dismay, the sickening ooze was flowing under the gap at the bottom of the door causing the faecal sea to creep across the carpet, contaminating my new abode with every inch. There was no way of getting out of the apartment without walking through the gifts of the sewer, so I frantically pulled on the cord of the Venetian blind to get access to the lock mechanism of the sliding glass door behind it and escape. The blind came crashing down. “Everything will be nice. Don’t worry,” I said, bitterly mocking the airport SIM salesman. If this was the start to my Saudi English teaching sequel, I didn’t want to contemplate the ending.