By Titus Green
“Hi Peter. I don’t know how to tell you this, but the apartment floor is covered in raw sewage. It seems it all came up from the bathroom drain last night.” So went my ice breaker to my new colleague and administrative guide. My English language teaching career had been full of weird episodes, such as being stuck in a war zone in the Balkans in the 90s and being housed next to a farmyard of constantly crowing cockerels in Seoul in 2000. Surreal surroundings and challenging accommodation were familiar features of the expatriate English teaching experience, wherever you went.
“Really? That’s stinking luck boyo,” replied a jovial UK West Country voice on the phone. In my exhausted and agitated state, I interpreted this as a poorly timed pun from him. Typical. What a riot. Did he expect me to bust my insides with an explosion of laughter? I just said, flatly: “Yeah, it stinks, quite literally, like nothing you can imagine.” Sensing I was in no mood for these juvenile quips, he changed his tone. He became more concerned. “Has it got onto anything important?” he asked. I thought of my passport floating, face up, in that swamp of urine and excrement and shuddered. Fortunately, my suitcase and clothes were on the other side of the room, temporarily safe. However, the sewage was still flowing. Fortunately, I’d managed to open the rear sliding door of the apartment, so could get out onto the square patch of barren, crumbling soil that was the garden. “No, I replied. But there is no way on earth I’m staying here tonight. I have to be moved Peter and can’t concentrate on anything else until this is sorted out,” I said firmly. The assertive tone didn’t come naturally to me. However, I was in a culture that wasn’t sympathetic to the pusillanimous. You needed to be blunt and demanding, or you’d get nothing done for your benefit.
I went outside and waited for Peter to arrive in the car park. It was nine o’clock in the morning. The sun was climbing in the cloudless sky, and it was getting hotter by the second. The campus was even uglier in daylight; the night had disguised its unappealing features. The buildings were like giant cardboard boxes and to my left an edifice stood: a large building that sat on top of a concrete base with a staircase stuck onto the side for access to doors on the upper level. An external pathway encircled the upper building which had large windows and a parapet where one could walk with nothing but a 25 foot drop to one side. Like mainland China, Saudi Arabia was the land where health and safety considerations came to be buried in the sands of industrial necessity. I saw campus workers in green overalls sweeping the steps and their colleagues scuttling here and there carrying implements. The campus population was waking up and functioning. It was like the opening scenes from Trumpton, the juvenile show from my childhood which depicted life in a dreamy fantasy town populated by blobby-faced model people. Cars zipped past on the adjacent road. Most of them were 4X4s driven by Saudis, while guest workers commuted in more modest vehicles. Large, rusty buses with peeling paint and groaning transmissions stopped on the other side of the road and deposited cohorts of maintenance workers from South Asia. They exited wearily, wearing their orange bibs and clasping tools. Fatalism was etched into their features as they faced another day of toiling for a pittance for people who didn’t know their names and barely noticed them as people. Numbers were conspicuous on their bibs. All they needed were chains and they would become extras from a scene out of Brubaker: a chain gang of the poor and obscure. They were the other kind of expatriate in Saudi Arabia not collecting the cash, guzzling Siddique or buying debauchery in Bahrain. The shadows. The ghosts condemned to haunt this pitiless, scorching hot Arabian prison. Nobody knew where these men slept, what they ate or what they were paid. Few cared.
I surveyed my surroundings like a cinematic camera panning around on a dolly. The amorphous mass of Al-Khobar was beyond the perimeter walls where expatriates like me were probably hustling away for their tax-free spoils and chunk of Gulf paradise. Day one: how would it unfold? What would I learn from the place that would make me stay or cut my losses, repack my cases and skedaddle, as luckless, exploited teachers in South Korea had done decades before when the ‘midnight run’, or dishonourable escape to the airport was the only solution to finding oneself in unbearable new living and working conditions? Then I realised I couldn’t run anyway because by entering the country I’d used up my initial business single-entry visa. I was stuck. If the employer paid me on time and moved me out of this open sewer, this wretched excuse for housing, I decided I’d try and make a go of it. ‘Running’ was difficult to disguise on a CV if it caused a significant gap, and it wasn’t an achievement to talk up in future interviews.
After a few minutes, a sports utility vehicle pulled into the car park. The driver waved and smiled. He was wearing a hat and sunglasses and looked confident and highly adapted to this forbidding place. A sandy-haired, middle-aged Brit got out and shook my hand. It was Peter.
“Apart from the obvious plumbing problem, how’s everything else?” he asked. At least he was friendly and seemed sociable enough. He was clasping a folder.
“Well, the roof hasn’t caved in yet,” I commented sardonically, and we both chuckled weakly. Perhaps he had met and greeted multiple new recruits who’d nearly drowned in effluent, and this was a familiar routine where he’d spout some reassuring spiel that everything would be fixed. Don’t worry—Saudi style all the way. What would he hide from me behind this contrived, good-natured manner? I always felt like a poker novice surrounded by seasoned card-sharks, offering my hand to all but seeing nothing of theirs. I didn’t want to get overly familiar with Peter, but I needed to pump him for information and get more closely acquainted with the ‘angles’ of this potential catastrophe I’d walked into. “It’s very unfortunate this happened, because we’ve got a heck of a lot of things to get through, starting with getting you registered with the Faculty Affairs office. I’d like us to complete at least five items on this list by today if possible.” I just shrugged fatalistically.
Peter gagged on entering the apartment. The hideous ooze had stopped advancing, but at least seventy percent of the living area’s carpet had been covered by the devilish, chocolate brown mass. “I’ll call maintenance,” he declared. He suggested we stay outside, so we went around the back of the building to the front entrance. Bleary eyed, depressed and in t-shirt and shorts, I felt categorically unready to face a classroom full of students and start teaching lessons on the present perfect tense. However, I paid attention to my body langue and tried not to appear too despondent. I didn’t know Peter, his loyalties or who he was obliged to report his initial impressions of my character to. This was Saudi Arabia and petro-ESL where you were sized up without sentiment or second chances. I was wary of all external signs of trust. The Gulf Training Enterprises experience of 2012 had made me paranoid, and William S Burroughs once said: ‘A paranoid man knows the facts.’ Peter said we should report the issue to the Housing Office, and to be sure to take photographs of the vile sludge to support my case. “We’ll get you moved, don’t worry,” he said.
While we waited for the campus maintenance staff to arrive, Peter went through my arrival bureaucracy schedule. I needed to visit the Faculty Affairs office to get my ‘reporting’ to the university confirmed, then the passport office to get my iqama application started and a temporary residence permission letter issued. I also needed to get some photos taken, my university IT account set-up, my office key procured and my hand shaken by Dr Al Qahtani, the Head of the Preliminary Year Program. I wasn’t looking forward to that particular social ritual. I was in no mood to crank out a groveling smile and make deferential remarks. Peter also gave me an outline of the operational activities and my role in them for the coming week, provided I hadn’t drowned in a lake of my own doo-da before then. The semester was due to start August 31st, before which new students needed to be level tested and placed in their classes. The timetables would be drawn up and I would be assigned classes, probably with an experienced partner teacher to guide the newbie through it all. I also needed to press the flesh with Brad Fulton, who was allegedly the director of the Preliminary Year English Program. With my accommodation rapidly turning into a biohazard, how are you settling in was a question I didn’t particularly want to hear.
Peter and I chatted in the rising heat, summarising our teaching CVs. We’d taught in some of the same locations: Japan, South Korea and China. He had a Japanese wife and child who lived with him in the family staff quarters. He’d been at the university for seven years, so clearly had a good set-up for future prosperity, which was confirmed when he boasted about his UK rental property portfolio which was considerable. It seemed there’d be no problem financing his offspring’s future university education. He also confided in me that he moonlighted as an IELTS examiner for a local IDP testing centre, which must have supplemented his university salary generously because examiners were paid £10.00 every time they administered this English proficiency test. He also had an M.A. in TESOL, which gave him the pick of top jobs in the region. In contrast, my Cambridge DELTA qualification was the MA’s poorer relation, barely recognised outside of Europe and counting for nothing among most of the teacher recruiters of the Middle East and Asia, who’d simply never heard of it. As we talked, I met some of my new colleagues passing through the quadrangle. Rick was a tall American in his fifties. He was dressed casually and wearing a reversed baseball cap that made him look more like a trucker or mechanic than an English teacher. He came out of the apartment opposite, which I’d seen the giant roach heading towards. Peter introduced us and told him about my plumbing travails.
“Gotta be careful with those pipes when you’re on the bottom level. Never, and I mean never put paper down the toilet,” he said firmly.
“I don’t think I did,” I said, forgetting in my fatigue how absurd this sounded: not putting soiled lavatory paper where it ought to be placed as a matter of normal twenty first century hygiene. Where the hell was I supposed to put it? The job. This place and its dirty, destitute, third-world ambiance amplified my regrets that I’d allowed James Price’s third-rate, alleyway hustler pitch to wrestle my better judgement into submission. Walk the walk of fire indeed. Should I take some pictures of the lovely shit soup in my apartment and e-mail them to the runty little chancer with the caption special opportunity in the Gulf? Prime time America’s Dr Phil was ready with a what were you thinking line for me. I deserved it!
“How long have you been here?” I asked Rick.
“Five years. I came here from Japan when the yen just got too weak, and the salaries stagnated.” I said that I was aware that salaries for English language teachers in Japan hadn’t risen since the late nineties. A wistful look came over him and he shook his head. “It was great while it lasted man. The drinking, the fun the women.” I grinned to signal my understanding of this once stimulating and lucrative milieu.
“And back in the day people used to make an absolute fortune, charging a killing for private lessons,” I added, thinking of the greedy horn-dog hedonists I’d once known in North-East Asia. Twenty-five years on, where were those profiteering Casanovas I’d been in awe of who I’d watched making fistfuls of cash, downing pitchers of beer and juggling women like featured lotharios in a seduction circus? Had they moved on like Rick, when their hairlines started disappearing, the wrinkles started appearing and the paunches started growing? Had they come to this career cemetery just for the last financial hurrah? The illusory pension they were likely to squander in a year in Pattaya or Manilla? These dismal life trajectories seemed most plausible for my former associates and partying companions, whose livers had probably become wasted and shrivelled by now.
“There’s not much in the way of a party life out here though,” I said thinking of the stark contrast in nightlife between Seoul and Al-Khobar.
“Well, that’s where the bridge comes in to keep us going. Keeps the juices flowing,” he replied with a lusty twinkle in his eye, which met Peter’s in a fleeting glint of understanding. Peter flexed his eyebrows mischievously as I struggled to grasp the insider reference.
“The Bridge?” I asked.
“We’ve got an innocent one here Rick, not corrupted by sordid temptation,” said Peter with a snicker.
“The Causeway. Bahrain,” said Rick gently exasperated that I wasn’t aware of this vital haven of hedonism. Of course, I knew where Bahrain was and the role it played in keeping alcohol and stimulation deprived expatriates ‘medicated’ against the psychological hardships of alcohol and casual sex deprivation in Saudi.
“Right,” I said, now enlightened. “Are you a frequent flier over the causeway then Rick?”
“It’s his second home,” guffawed Peter.
“Well, we couldn’t get over this weekend because Roy’s car is at the garage,” said Rick taking off his cap and uncovering tousled grey hair. “But we’re going over next Friday for a little pit stop.”
At that moment Roy, Rick’s accomplice in weekend Gulf debauchery, appeared. He hollered a greeting and waddled up to us. He was a portly American in his late fifties, possibly sixties, with tufts of defiant grey hair barely surviving on the back and sides of his head like a monk’s tonsure. On being told I was a new faculty member, he was welcoming and effusive, and clasped my hand in his fleshy paw.
“Welcome to the happy PSUPS family man!” he said in a New York accent.
“Rick’s been telling me about Bahrain,” I said. He grinned.
“Come over with us sometime man! In a couple of hours, you’ll forget you live in this dump. It’ll make you feel a new man.” He savoured the last two words, dipping them in the kind of innuendo normally used by hormonally dominated adolescents.
“Well, after the experiences of the last 12 hours I could use a few double Jack Daniels,” I replied. We told him about the scatological fountain in my apartment and its foul, copious jets. He grimaced. “Man, that sucks,” he said in consolation. Rick and Roy said they’d see me around and went on their way, just as a flatbed truck carrying South Asian workers pulled up in the car park. Evidently, they were the plumbing catastrophe international rescue effort. They were wearing blue overalls and had rags tied around their foreheads as improvised sweatbands. They got out of the truck, opened its back door and carried out a contraption on wheels that had some kind of pump and rusty metallic cable attached. The manager of the crew, stocky and practical in his appearance, approached us.
“Problem no good working?” he asked attempting communication with his pidgin English. I pulled out my key and opened the door. The workers entered, wisely keeping their boots on. There was no revulsion on their faces. They conversed in their rapid-fire language, pointing, gesticulating and hypothesising. The manager summoned a couple of them to lift a drain-cover outside the unit which I hadn’t noticed. Cockroaches scuttled out as it was opened, fleeing guiltily as though they were the saboteurs responsible for the stinking misery that was colonizing my new home. The workers inserted the cable, and the pump started its work. Inside the flat, I took pictures of the mess on my camera at Peter’s suggestion to show the faculty housing office. He then asked me to gather my documents and passport so that we could get started on the administration task-list. He assured me that my housing crisis would be sorted out, and that we could leave the maintenance staff to finish the gruesome task of draining the blockage. I packed the documents and all my cash into my shoulder bag. I didn’t want to leave my precious laptop in the festering confinement, and the company of strangers, but I had no choice.
“Right, first stop Building 15,” said Peter as I buckled up in the passenger seat of his 4X4. The plastic of the dashboard scorched my finger when I touched it. With the windscreen acting as a giant magnifying glass, I was surprised it hadn’t melted. The drivers of all the parked cars in the lot had left special reflective ‘blankets’ behind their windscreens when they’d left their cars overnight so that their hands wouldn’t get burned on the steering wheels. Peter pulled out of the car park and onto the campus main artery road that had delivered me to my luxury housing the previous night. We passed rows of palm trees, more beehive-box shaped buildings with shaded windows and more chain-gangs of industrious migrant workers engaged in gardening or construction work. Further down the road, they were operating diggers and clearing large swathes of earth in areas of land beyond the road. On another stretch, stacks of paving stones waited for positioning. Peter was driving within the posted speed limits and approaching a red light at the main intersection that bisected the main entrance gate to the university through which I’d been driven the night before and the road leading up the huge Building 15, which it seemed was the administrative heart of the university. Suddenly, a large black SUV that had been tailgating us pulled out and overtook, fortunately without any traffic coming from the opposite direction. It barely made the service road that meandered away to our right without mounting the curb.
“Tosser! Prick!” cursed Peter, but nothing more. This was routine Saudi driving after all. Having avoided an accident, we turned left up towards Building 15, past a large stone sign in English which stated in letters a metre high:
In Excellence we Strive
There were hedges partly concealing car parks to our left and empty tennis courts to our right. More gangs of workers traipsed up and down this long road in the baking heat. The campus had the eerie quality of a slave plantation from the bygone American Deep South. We approached the entrance to Building 15, and for the first time I noticed the tall mace-shaped tower which was the focal point of the entire campus, overlooking all activities and people like an imposing concrete sentinel. After parking in the enormous subterranean car park, we took the elevator to the Faculty Affairs office on the fourth floor. The building looked to have been made in the 1970s, with some dated touches of opulence within such as mahogany frames for the elevator doors and old plants dotted here and there. I followed Peter, whom I’d noticed had quickened his step and started glancing at his watch. It was 11.55 and we were nearing the time for Duhur, the midday prayer. In my time outside the kingdom, I’d forgotten that you had to conform to a rigid clerical timetable in this country. All shops closed and all business operations without exception came to a sudden halt when the adhans sounded and the believers shuffled towards the mosques. Living and functioning successfully here required a constant awareness of the changing prayer times and if you failed to plan your trips and errands around them, you’d face many a frustrating day and wasted time as shutters came down and clerks, adamant that they weren’t going to serve you, appeared. Living was coordinated around the cycles of prayer.
“Prayer time?” I asked. Peter nodded ruefully.
“Starts in two minutes. We’re not going to catch the visa office by the looks of it.” As we rounded the corner leading to the office, we saw prayer carpets being unfurled and Saudis ambling out of their offices, greeting colleagues effusively with hugs and kisses on their way to designated praying points, where they would genuflect towards Mecca as one. We entered the visa office, which was an austere place with a glass window through which one pleaded with the nonchalant staff behind for help. A man, possibly Indian or Pakistani, was remonstrating with the Saudis not to close, but it was no use.
“Khallas. Later.” The hirsute man behind the counter who said this reinforced the finality of the process with a dismissive flick of the hand. He saw Peter and me and smiled, deeming us qualified for a milder rebuff.
“Hi Mohammed. He’s a new teacher. We just need to get his border number sorted and temporary iqama issued. Should only take a few minutes,” said Peter trying his best to get us served. Mohammed smiled and gave a what can I do shrug. Peter was clearly on sweet terms with the university’s administrative players. I figured he’d be useful to know.
We went and sat on the only seats in the corridor, conserving conversation in the stuffy building that seemed bereft of air-conditioning. The adhan sounded across the campus and beyond, drawing the faithful to their worship. Non-Saudi staff, conspicuous by their western clothes and greater purpose in their movements, went about their work. Filipino men went in and out of offices clutching folders, speaking Tagalog and dreaming of home. I asked Peter a few questions about the teaching program and students and his answers were full of puzzling acronyms and jargon. I was feeling drowsy, disorientated and worried about where I would be laying my head that evening. Was reasonable accommodation too much to expect, or did the university perversely imagine that having you live in human filth was somehow character building? As if reading my mind, Peter suggested we head to the Housing Office which he believed would still be open during the prayers. We went down the corridor and entered an office that wasn’t shut. A small, young, androgynous Filipino man, fastidious in his grooming, was lolling on a chair and pouting into a smartphone. There was an empty desk opposite him, behind which an open door revealed an office with another empty desk. It was an individual office, suggesting the occupant’s place in the immediate hierarchy.
“Yes. Can I help you?” the Filipino asked coyly. His disconcerting grin annoyed me.
“This is Henry Green. A new teacher who just arrived last night. There’s been a serious problem with his apartment. The drain is flooded with sewage,” said Peter summarizing. The administrator looked at us with exaggerated confusion, a mask of surprise with a skeptical frown which seemed part of his repertoire of regular reactions. From his expression, you would have thought Peter has just told him a tsunami was engulfing the campus. We showed him the footage from our cameras, including video of the maintenance workers squelching through the excremental ooze earlier.
“You should talk to my boss about this,” said our motivated helper. He gestured towards the empty office behind us, and I shook my head, beginning to despair of this abdication of responsibility that seemed to be institutional. The Filipino repeated that he could not help us, breaking his message to us with a broad smile. We left the office and I wondered if my accommodation crisis would, in fact, be dealt with or just shoved aside as the low priority concern of a foreign infidel worker.
“Let’s try the Faculty Affairs office. They should be back from prayer by now,” said Peter. However, this was an optimistic comment since I knew from my previous time in the kingdom that Saudis didn’t rush back from the mosques when prayers were finished. Sometimes they slept in them to avoid returning to work.
“It’s going to be one of those days,” I remarked grimly.
“Talk about Murphy’s Law,” said my companion to concur with my grim forecast.
“No, not exactly an auspicious start to my PSU career, but I guess as that song by D;Ream from the 90s goes, things can only get better.” I didn’t believe anything was going to get better though. In this first 24 hours there was already enough evidence to suggest that this sorry institution belonged on Johnny MacSporran’s ESL Blacklist site, joining GULF TRAINING ENTERPRISES from 2012 in my inglorious archive of the worst jobs I’d ever taken.
“Who are we seeing now, and to do what?”
“A guy called Majed. He’s a nice guy. He’s the Assistant Director for Faculty Affairs. He needs to formally register your arrival at the university and get your staff ID number issued—that reminds me: we should also try and get to the Security Office today, if possible, to see if we can get your ID card created. If not, we’ll have to push that back until tomorrow,” said Peter. His phone started vibrating.
“Hello. Hi Brad. Yes, Henry’s arrived. We’re in Building 15 starting the reporting admin. There’s a problem with his housing in Old Shabab though…” After Peter had summarised my embarrassing issue, he answered a series of questions from the caller who I inferred was Brad, the Program Director. I didn’t sense any interest in or concern about me from the caller.
The prayer time was ending as we headed for Majed’s office. The Saudis were ambling back to their posts when we entered. Neither Majed nor his Saudi subordinate were at their desks, but even their mere existence appeared to exert an intimidating aura of power over the foreign underlings who did the real bureaucratic donkey work. The Filipinos and Indians in the office maintained a respectful distance when passing their desks, treating them with the same respect as they would for shrines. When they placed documents on them, they did so with two hands, taking special care not to disturb any of the dormant stationery. Jerry, a Filipino more helpful than his compatriot a few doors down the corridor, told us that ‘Sir Majed is in a meeting’ and that he didn’t know when he would be back. He was at least able to furnish us with some of the forms so that we could get this painful bureaucratic process started. We left Majed’s office and headed back to the Visa Office, determined to get at least one of our tasks completed. Fortunately, we were able to get my iqama application started. In the meantime, I was issued with a letter in Arabic stamped with an official seal which was my protective shield against any harassment or curiosity from external officialdom should I be stopped and asked to produce my non-existent foreign resident permit. I also had to temporarily surrender my passport, which always made me uncomfortable. By now, it was after 1pm and I was getting more agitated about my rather significant accommodation problem. The thought of catching typhoid and worse if I was forced to stay another night in revolting apartment 2471 was tormenting me. If it wasn’t addressed on this very day, and these indolent shirkers continued fobbing us off, I would be facing that dreadful prospect.
“We must deal with the flat Peter,” I said. “Sorry, I’m not being awkward, but I cannot focus on anything else until I have an assurance that I won’t be trapped in that sickening living environment another night.”
“We will. Don’t worry. But we might be able to stop by Dr Al Qahtani’s office first, and then head on over to Building 22 to introduce you to Brad, and you could meet some of the other guys.”
To hell with Dr Al Qahtani, I thought, dismayed at Peter’s sense of priorities. “Please Peter. We have to get this done. That dump is a health hazard. If I’m forced to stay there any longer it’ll jeopardize my work here at PSUPM before I’ve even started. Cholera is festering in there as we speak,” I said in a rising pitch.
“OK,” conceded Peter, unable to argue against this truth. “Back to the Housing Office it is then.” We headed back to Housing at the end of the corridor, with my store of patience diminishing each second. The apathetic Filipino registered our entrance warily.
“Can we get our problem sorted now?” asked Peter. The factotum from earlier grinned and nonchalantly tipped his head up to gesture towards the office across from him. The man he reported to was now back at this station. We walked to the office’s open door and Peter knocked on it. The occupant was a Saudi in his thirties whose eyes were glued to his smartphone and judging by his dilated pupils and open mouth, whatever was on the screen had his full attention. He was so preoccupied that it took two additional knocks from Peter to wake him out of his digital trance. He glanced up, with a peeved frown, and tucked his phone out of our sight. A how dare you invade my liar and violate the sanctity of my salaried indolence with your trivial needs vibe flowed out of him.
“Yes?” he said, curtly. I didn’t wait for Peter to start telling my liquid crap infested hard-luck story.
“I’m a new teacher. Arrived last night. There is human waste coming up from the drain and it is absolutely disgusting.” I finished the sentence by stressing the last two words with a scowl. Peter, taken by surprise by my burst of directness, looked uneasy.
“We’ve called maintenance,” added Peter, to my annoyance. I didn’t want to give this guy any excuse to evade his responsibilities, since he might argue that the problem was now sorted and imply that we should leave him alone to enjoy his time-killing activities. He shook his head and gestured with open palms. His face had a disconcerting expression of peeved confusion.
“What you say? Waste human? Who is waste?” There was no way to paraphrase the explanation any more delicately.
“I mean human shit.” Shit was the best choice because these Saudi boys had their vocabularies enriched by Hollywood, rap music and PlayStation gameplay. Shit was universally recognized by its cursing expletive meaning and as a synonym for excrement. Before he had a chance to object, we showed him the grisly footage of the hallway carpet which made him wince.
“Please. You have to move me. I can’t stay here. I won’t be able to live,” I pleaded. Peter appeared to disapprove of my approach. His furrowed brow implied certain nuanced aspects of etiquette in this tiresome interaction that I had neglected. Rules of the game that I was ignoring. I couldn’t imagine what he expected me to do, but to hell with subtleties! Perhaps he expected me to slip the idle bureaucrat or him a bribe to expedite the necessary action? Already, I was pining for the airport and a return flight to the UK where I could regroup and recover.
“It’s OK now. Maintenance fix problem. Khallas,” the clock-watcher said in a tone that hinted I was making completely unreasonable demands. The ‘housing officer’ was using the tactics I imagined he would to clear us out of his office a.s.a.p. He would also use his low English proficiency to avoid helping me.
“No but the place has to be cleaned thoroughly first. It won’t be ready for occupation tonight,” said Peter in a weak attempt to mediate. I wasn’t encouraged by his performance in this situation. He’d assured me earlier that there’d be no chance I would be staying in the turd-filled hovel that night.
“He needs temporary accommodation. It’s an emergency.” From the bemused look on the man’s face, the word temporary was outside his vocabulary.
“I need a new house!” I cried, disposing of all restraint.
“No person say like this before. You are first one!” my interlocutor said in a prickly tone. I imagined what he’d likely be saying to a university accommodation office in the U.K. if he’d been stuck in a house where he was ankle-deep in liquid faeces.
“Look, can’t you see that this is serious? How do you think I feel, having just arrived and having this in my apartment?” I held up the camera, so he couldn’t avoid seeing the pictures.
“You cannot change your room.” I looked at Peter, who gestured for me to keep calm.
“It’s OK. We’ll sort this out in another way,” he told the obdurate man. On the way out of the office, Peter told me he’d see the Head of Faculty Affairs to get the situation resolved. I was even more agitated than ever.
“Come on, let me show you the Student Mall. I’ll get you a coffee and we can chill out for a while. Take your mind off things. Then we’ll head over to Building 22. What do you say?” What could I say? Back in Peter’s SUV, we headed towards the mall, turning left at a sign emblazoned with the corporate logos of the Obesity and Diabetes Industrial Complex. Burger King, McDonald’s, Subway, Dunkin’ Doughnuts and Pizza Hut clearly all had franchises at the mall, making handsome profits crapping into the mouths of the lazy and nutritionally negligent. Migrant workers whizzed by on delivery motorbikes that had oversized delivery boxes attached to the backs which were large enough to stack multiple pizzas, burgers, kebabs and falafels. Tons of dough and billions of kilojoules were on the move. The breakfast of champion heavyweights.
The mall entrance had a suitable dress code reminder: no shorts allowed. We entered. It was a three-levelled mezzanine structure which had a central area with chairs and tables on the ground level with a spiralling staircase leading up to shops, offices and recreational facilities. Surrounding this area, on a slightly elevated level, with pizza, burger and falafel shops. Burger King, Subway and McDonalds had the largest signage and footprints, as though this was a necessary sign of respect to the desert gods of salt and carbohydrate. Allah may have been in charge of this nation, but they still needed to make room for these temples of cholesterol where the Whopper was worshipped. The mall was crowded. Groups of young men sauntered around in groups, sat at their tables snacking or jostled playfully. There were table-tennis tables set up and games in progress. There were also several gaming consoles and screens set up for recreation. The centrepiece of entertainment for the students was a giant screen placed at the top of some steps leading to a convenience store. It was at least ten metres high and five wide and was replaying a La Liga Spanish league soccer match between Barcelona and Real Betis.
“Wow! The shababs have plenty of stimulation!” I remarked.
“Indeed, they do. Let’s go up here and get a tea or coffee,” said Peter pointing to a coffeeshop at the top of the steps. Minutes later, we were sipping coffees on an elevated veranda that overlooked the campus. I could see the long, unforgiving road that led up to Building 15 which we’d driven up earlier. I thought about having to walk up it, without a car, in the searing Saudi summers to the Administration Building carrying a heavy sack of weak hope that the people inside the building would lift a finger to help me. The prospect was appalling enough: arriving each time sweaty, stressed and dehydrated and then suffering the perpetual run-around from the low-level factotums on the orders of their phantom bosses haunting the corridors with their hatred for work. Going back and forth up there, again and again, and coming back down with zero accomplished, such as we had with my plumbing nightmare. I foresaw these repeated scenarios and shuddered. The frustration and its accumulative impact would be damaging for morale. The heat was creating a shimmering effect on the surface of the road, and from out of this little mirage I was amazed to see Sisyphus inching his boulder, which had futility written in large white lettering across it, slowly up the incline towards Building 15. He turned towards me and shook his head, as though telling me I was wasting my time. And my life. Then he vanished.
“So quite a first day you’re having so far,” chuckled Peter, cornered by the silence.
“You can say that again,” I answered, like a man whose lottery ticket has just drawn the booby prize.