Joyriding in Riyadh

By TARIQ AL HAYDAR

 

“Saudi wastemen came over the bridge for boozy orgy celebrations.” —Noor Naga

The horror of the city. As Dhari tapped the steering wheel, he calmed himself by visualizing the beautiful woman who should be sitting next to him soon: shoulder-length blonde hair and sky-blue eyes. He eyed the two security guards idling at the gate of the hospital, joking with each other. The gangly one spit on the ground, then turned to the one with long hair, who handed him a cigarette. Dhari’s friend Dawood got caught with a woman he wasn’t related to once. Dawood was actually lucky to spend only a week in jail, but Dhari knew he couldn’t handle prison for even a day. If only he could have been born somewhere else, where people weren’t separated from one another like this. Whenever he watched American movies, he marveled at how men and women got together, threw dinner parties, clinked glasses. Relationships, dances, first kisses, all these things were taken for granted. How would they view Saudi weddings? Separate ones for men and women. At a wedding, all one did was shake men’s hands, drink tan Saudi coffee in small ceramic cups, and sit, waiting for meat and rice to be served.

A knock! Dhari jumped and clutched his chest. When he saw her, he exhaled and unlocked the door.

“You scared me!” he said as she climbed in.

  “Nice to see you, too.”

Dhari shot one last glance at the security guards, then sped off. Eyes everywhere. He didn’t say a word until they got onto the highway, the Eastern Ring Road. Dhari sat back, turned to his right, smiled, and said in English, “You look beautiful, Vanessa.”

“You always get so nervous,” she sighed. “Play some music.”

“Come on!” he laughed. “You’re angry at me?”

“I didn’t say I was angry,” Vanessa crossed her arms. “I like going out with you, but this country can feel stifling!”

“What’s stifling?” 

“Oh,” Vanessa put her hands around her neck. “You know, like suffocating. Like you can’t breathe.”

Dhari kept his eye on the road, weaving his Infiniti between cars, but set his right hand on Vanessa’s shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, Vanessa! I love you! Sorry! I love you!”

“Shut up!” Vanessa couldn’t suppress her laugh. “I love you too, you silly little man.” 

Vanessa irritated him sometimes, especially when she seemed to blame him for the restrictions she was forced to endure. Still, he couldn’t deny she was interested in the music he listened to, the books he read, the reasons he dreamed of migrating elsewhere. Before Vanessa, his mother had tried to arrange a marriage for him. Twice. Both times, he felt that the Saudi woman on the other end of the phone viewed him as a commodity, like a car or something: Does this man have air conditioning? Leather seats? A sunroof? I can’t marry someone who doesn’t at least aspire to acquiring a sunroof. He knew that he couldn’t generalize, that not all Saudi women were like this. Also, most of his male friends had the exact same attitude. They always talked about women’s “specifications.”

A Toyota Corolla, a few meters in front of him in the next lane, began inching closer to his lane, without signaling, of course. Dhari accelerated, but so did the Corolla. He leaned into his horn and screamed obscenities as the Corolla veered back into his own lane.

“Why do you always have to drive so crazy?!” Vanessa threw up her arms in exasperation.

“Because everyone drives crazy here!” laughed Dhari. “Listen, you hear the… I don’t know the word in English. Like something all people say sometime?”

Vanessa squinted, “You mean like a proverb? A saying?”

He nodded. “I don’t know what proverb is, but yes maybe saying. The saying is: If you’re not a wolf, the dogs will pee on you.”

She sighed. “So where are you taking me?”

“The desert.” Dhari smiled to himself. “I have a surprise.”

Rows of cars were parked outside the complex of istirahas, rooms or tents with little yards that were separated from one another by thick concrete walls. Young men would pool their money to rent these little houses, ten to fifteen kilometers outside the city, so that they could smoke their shishas in peace. Rashed shuffled the cards and proceeded to deal: three cards, three, three, three. Two cards, two, two, two. Then he put the rest of the deck down and flipped a single card over. Ace of hearts.

“First,” said Rashed.

“God damn these cards,” sighed Dawood, to Rashed’s right.

“Well?” said Rashed. “Hurry up! We want a fast pace.”

“Pass,” said Dawood.

“Pass.” Rashed’s teammate lit a cigarette.

“Pass,” said Dawood’s teammate.

“This is an ace, you little boys,” taunted Rashed. “Second.”

“Pass,” said Dawood.

Hukm,” Rashed’s teammate bid, indicating he would select the trump suit.

“May you rule and dole out injustice, khawy!” cheered Rashed.

“Over my dead body,” announced Dawood’s teammate as he snatched the ace of hearts. “I won’t allow you to bid hukm on an ace!”

“Suit yourself,” sniffed Rashed. “You’ll lose either way.”

“So, sun?” asked Dawood.

“What do you think?” Rashed tapped his cards with his fingernails. If it’s not hukm, it can only be sun. Funny word, sun; nobody knows that it comes from the French sans. ‘Without.’ No trump suit. Once—at a drifting procession, of all places!—he met a gay researcher from Marseille who seemed to know a lot about Saudi Arabia. Especially the games. For years, Rashed had assumed that sun was from the English word that denotes a fiery star, although he had never considered what an actual sun might have to do with overthrowing the dominance of a single suit. 

“Would you fucking play?” said Dawood’s teammate. “God damn it!”

“It’s my turn?” Dawood looked up from his phone.

“No,” said Rashed. “It’s my mother’s cousin’s niece’s turn.”

“Eat shit,” said Dawood as he played the jack of diamonds. “You think I want to text like this? Women’s bullshit never ends.” This marriage was not what he had signed up for. The only reason he had agreed to it was to silence his mother’s incessant carping. He had imagined that a wife would be easier to deal with, but she wanted him to change his lifestyle, to control him, and that was something he simply would not allow.

“Where’s Dhari?” someone asked once they had finished the hand.

“Dhari doesn’t have time for you,” another replied. “He’s with his American.”

“A date?”

From across the room, Dawood looked up from his phone and said, “I swear by God’s immaculateness that Dhari is the wisest of all God’s creatures. Who needs these Saudi girls when you can get an American?” Then he turned back to his phone and started typing furiously. Before long, he sighed and screamed at the top of his lungs, “God damn the mother of the hour I married this woman!” 

Rashed glanced at him. Dawood did not appreciate what he had. Most of his friends were “fuckboys” who secretly had multiple girlfriends, but in a perverse way he envied them because they didn’t feel as conflicted as he did. Reem. He hung out with her all the time (his annex had its own door, separate from the main house, so his family didn’t know about her visits), but he could never express his feelings to her. It wasn’t that he feared rejection. He could endure the pain. But what if his proclamations of love offended her? That’s what had been rammed into his psyche since even before he hit puberty: there must always be a respectful distance between him and any woman who was not a relative. His grandmother would even throw a fit if he joked with his female cousins. What if Reem found his love disrespectful? Would she cut ties with him? Would she remain his friend, but erect barriers between them? He stood up.

“Where to?” asked Dawood.

“Home,” said Rashed.

“Come on,” Dawood waved his hand. “We barely see you anymore.”

“Yeah,” said Rashed in English, “because you bore the shit out of me.”

Dawood laughed.

On the way home, Rashed’s heart raced every time he saw a police car. He hadn’t done anything wrong, but you could get in trouble regardless of what you do or say. Construction. He cursed the roads, the endless detours that made it almost impossible to get from Takhassusi Street to Oruba Road. The city was perpetually under construction. 

Mona plopped down on the couch and stared at the various screens staring back at her: Gulf melodrama on the TV, thirty-six open tabs on her laptop, Zorba the Greek on her Kindle, and Fairouz on her iPad. And, of course, Dawood’s inane messages on her phone. She feverishly typed a reply:

If you’re going to be out all night, I’m going out too.

What reason do you have for going out? 

Funny how Dawood did not require a rationale for leaving the house. But Mona? Why should Mona step out? Why show herself in public? Stay home in order to keep Dawood’s honor intact. Otherwise, chaos, right? Because what if a man—a man who knows Dawood!—sees her and recognizes her? And what if this man, upon looking at her face, spies a type of beauty that moves him? What then? How could Dawood exist in a world where a man—a man he potentially knows—finds his wife physically attractive?

Mona again typed into her phone:

I want to go out, Ghada. Hurry.

There’s always somewhere new opening in Riyadh, and Ghada was the best guide to exploring the places where boys and girls went to look at one another surreptitiously. A December chill filled Mona’s body as soon as she stepped out of Ghada’s old Lexus in front of the steps of the outdoor mall. 

“Keep your phone on!” Ghada called to her Filipino driver in English.

“Yes, madam!” said the driver.

Ghada slammed the door, turned to Mona, and said in a faux-Filipino accent, “Yes, madam!”

Mona laughed. They headed up the steps and past a waterfall. Young men—and some who were not so young—were camped out at the Starbucks. All the seats outside the Singles Section of the Starbucks were full. Guys competed for these seats because they afforded you two luxuries: you could smoke, and you could surveil the female area.

Most of the girls were sitting across from the Starbucks, outside a cupcake place with a pink bird for a logo. The two establishments were separated by a giant fountain illuminated by red and green lights. A large waterfall covered the entirety of one side of the plaza, while customers walked in and out of the large chain bookstore beyond the Starbucks. Of course, none of the women at the cupcake place smoked, not in public. They were all sitting outside for the sole purpose of being seen. Filipino and Indian waiters, all men, zipped between tables. 

Nothing was funnier than a man who stole glances, convinced that everyone else was oblivious. Mona nudged Ghada and said, “Don’t look, but there’s a guy at the last table of the Starbucks, before the Shake Sha—”

“You’re adorable,” laughed Ghada. She lowered her voice and said, “Always late to the party! I know. Gucci glasses in his breast pocket. You can tell he’s poor.”

“Animal!” Mona slapped Ghada’s arm. 

“What?” Ghada kept scanning the Starbucks while pretending she was observing a family throwing coins in the fountain. “I’m not going to doom myself.”

Ever since Ghada’s engagement had collapsed, she had come to view relationships with a certain callousness. It’s almost like she had given up on connecting with another human, as if that were nothing more than a childish fantasy. Whenever she talked about men now, all she seemed to care about were material things. Mona knew this was a manifestation of her friend’s bitterness, and wished she could discuss it further with her, but whenever she tried to mention Omar, Ghada shut her down. Her friend’s predicament also caused her to question her own marriage even more than she already did. She had married Dawood the old-fashioned way. Luck of the draw, as they say, and her luck had turned out to be rotten. 

“How can you even tell he’s poor?” Mona covertly evaluated him. Movado watch. Probably two thousand riyals, max. Neither here nor there. Maroon suede loafers, not Tod’s.

A Filipino waiter appeared at the table. “Do you have red velvet?” asked Ghada in English.

“Of course!” beamed the Filipino. 

“But please,” Ghada looked him in the eye pleadingly, “fresh.”

“Of course, madam!” exclaimed the Filipino. “Everything is fresh!”

“No!” Ghada pointed an accusatory finger. “I always come and sit at this table. Yes, sometimes fresh, but not always.”

“Yes, madam,” the Filipino continued to smile. “I will insist for the chef on his freshness!” The waiter turned to ask Mona, “Are you sure you wouldn’t like anything?”

“I’m good,” she waved her hand.

When he left, Ghada turned to Mona and said, “Did he say ‘chef’? You think José Andrés works at this cupcake franchise?”

“I like their Oreo,” Mona offered.

“Listen,” said Ghada. “As soon as I finish this cupcake, I want you to walk to the bookstore with me.”

“Need more watercolors?” asked Mona.

“No,” said Ghada. “I’m all stocked up. I just want to walk by the Starbucks.”

“Which guy?” asked Mona.

“Eyeglasses,” said Ghada. “Black cap.”

Mona appraised him for a moment and then shrugged. “Seems unremarkable to me. How do you know he’s loaded?”

Ghada wiggled her eyebrows.

“Come on!” cried Mona. “How can you tell?”

“It’s a skill,” Ghada smiled. “You’re either born with it or not. What do you want from me?”

Mona focused on every fiber of his being. Nondescript shoes. Ralph Lauren polo. OK, looks like a Franck Muller watch, but it might be a fake. She’d have to feel its weight to tell.

“I give up.” Mona crossed her arms. “Are you going to tell me or not?”

Ghada glanced at her, smiled, looked away, and said, “When we first got here, I saw him step out of his Maserati.”

Mona slapped her on the arm and laughed, “Animal!”

“Let’s go,” Ghada stood up. “When we pass by him, I’m going to laugh very loudly. Set me up.”

The man looked up when he heard a woman laughing and instantly locked eyes with her. It only lasted a second, but as with some professional athletes, time slows down in certain situations. If one is conditioned to read the ways in which sluts communicate covertly, one can decode a multitude of signals in a second. He smiled. Out of the corner of his eye, he spied them as they walked past the Starbucks and into the bookstore with the red and blue lights. 

Vanessa threw her black abaya in the back seat of Dhari’s Infiniti and walked to the large tent, which was nothing like the flimsy tents she had used on the few times she had gone camping. This was almost like a room made of concrete. A television dominated one side, opposite a stone fireplace, golden coffee pots with pointy nozzles scattered to the side. Little ceramic cups with no handles. The perimeter of the room was lined with cushions, almost like a floor-level sofa. “So what’s the surprise?” she asked.

Dhari smiled, walked to the fireplace and crouched down, the outline of his trapezius visible through the white cotton of his thobe. He grabbed a red plastic bag that was next to one of the coffee pots, hid it behind his back and turned to Vanessa, grinning.

“What is it?” she tried to sneak a peek.

Dhari held the bag in front of him. The outline of a bottle. 

“Did you get some whiskey?” 

“No,” smiled Dhari as he took the bottle out.

“Wine!” Vanessa threw up her arms. “I thought it was impossible to get any from the black market.”

“For your eyes,” winked Dhari, “I make the difficult easy!”

Vanessa embraced him and then held the bottle in her hand. “Merlot. I’ve been craving red wine for so long! How did you get it? This is good!” Dhari never ceased to delight her. When she first met him, she had given him the time of day out of sheer boredom. One of her friends had convinced her that working in this godforsaken country for three years might help her land a job at the Mayo Clinic, although she now doubted the truth of that claim. The pay was nice, though. The last thing she was expecting was that she would become attached to Dhari. It was the first time in her life that she felt no need to play games with a partner. He was nothing if not straightforward. What troubled her was something beyond his control: the fact that they were from two different worlds. She was sure she could only tolerate living in Riyadh for so long, and then what? She’d find work as a nurse in the States, but would he be prepared to go back with her? Would he even want to commit to an American woman? What would his family think? She tried to stop thinking about the future and just enjoy the evening.

Dhari rubbed his chin. “I don’t know wine. It’s easy to get whiskey or vodka. Expensive but easy. Beer is available, but the price is silly. I never find wine before. Oh, right—” He went to the fireplace and produced a bottle of Black Label. “I only have one bottle of wine, so you can drink that and I will drink this.”

Vanessa sat down on one of the floor-level cushions and said, “No, I want you to drink the wine with me.”

“But it’s one bottle,” said Dhari. “What will it do for the two of us?” He poured some wine into a coffee cup and handed it to Vanessa. “Sorry, I didn’t get wine glasses.”

Dhari walked to the car, produced a gas burner from the trunk, then crouched down in a spot just outside the tent. Before long, he was warming his hands over a fire. He wore a large overcoat lined with wool to keep warm, but when he sat down cross-legged on the carpet he had spread out in front of the fire, he slid his arms out of the coat’s sleeves and allowed it to bundle up near his waist. He rubbed his hands over the fire and called, “Aren’t you going to sit with me?”

Dhari gestured for her to come closer; the way he extended his arms whenever he wanted her near him made him seem like a toddler raising his arms to the heavens, pleading to be carried. Vanessa tried to sit cross-legged like Dhari but quickly decided to sit on her knees instead. She scooted over, and he adjusted his body so that he was lying down on his back, resting the back of his head on Vanessa’s thigh.

“Good idea.” Vanessa wiped his forehead. “Now you can get a better view of the stars.”

Dhari winked and said, “Why should I look at the stars when I can look at Vanessa?”

“Oh my God,” Vanessa laughed. “You’re the cheesiest man alive.”

The bottle of wine approached half-empty. “Listen,” Dhari jumped up. “You know Fairouz?”

“I’ve heard of her.”

“Listen.” He sat back down and played a video on his phone. Grainy black-and-white footage of a woman and two men singing, surrounded by scores of extras. She listened for a few minutes as Dhari sat cross-legged, swaying with his eyes closed, cup in hand. She didn’t care much for the music, but she loved how Dhari was entranced by it. She could see him as an old man, playing this very same song for her with his eyes closed.

“Now it’s my turn,” said Vanessa a few minutes into the song. She fiddled with her phone and then asked, as the opening chords of “Let’s Go Crazy” began to play, “Do you know this one?”

Dhari cupped his chin and looked off in the distance in concentration. “Michael Jackson?”

“Prince,” corrected Vanessa.

“Ah!” cried Dhari. “I know Prince! Did you hear his song called ‘7’?”

Vanessa nodded.

“Have you seen the video clip for this song? There is a woman in it… oh, my God… the second-most beautiful girl in the world!”

Vanessa tousled his hair and said, “You’re so full of shit!”

“Full of shit because I say nice things about you?” Dhari shook his head. “Maybe I should give you my eyes so you can see what I see!”

Vanessa poured herself a cup of wine and said, “Are all Saudis as facetious as you?”

“What’s that?” asked Dhari. “Facetious?”

“Like,” Vanessa looked off in the distance, “you know, saying something you don’t mean.”

At this, Dhari sat up and said, “Look, when I say that you’re beautiful, it’s just because I have a feeling and I want this feeling to come out. So if you say I don’t mean it, fuck you!”

Vanessa spat a bit of her wine. “Fuck you too!”

“OK,” laughed Dhari. “You know, maybe if you mix me and my friend Rashed in one person, we will be one balanced man. If I feel something, I have to express. But Rashed never says anything.”

“What do you want him to say?” asked Vanessa. “Maybe you won’t let him get a word in.”

“OK,” Dhari’s eyes widened. “Imagine. He loves this girl. Reem. Every day, he talks about her too much. And she comes to his house all the time. He has his own mulhaq. But just friends.”

“He’s intimidated,” declared Vanessa.

“It’s always better to express, you know?” said Dhari. “Or you will have too many heart attacks.”

Then Dhari said, “Come,” and motioned for her to come closer. “I want to show you something.”

“What?”

He enveloped her with one arm and produced his phone with another. “Do you know this couple? They became a little famous last year.”

Vanessa shook her head at the screen.

“These are two, like us,” said Dhari. “A Saudi guy with American girlfriend. On YouTube.”

The video began with a young man’s front teeth dominating the screen. Apparently, he didn’t speak a word of English, beyond enthusiastic pronouncements of “I love you, my love!” which delighted the American girl to no end. At first, their relationship seemed contrived: a brunette with red eyebrows and a fleur-de-lis tattooed on her arm, and a bucktoothed chatterbox in full Saudi garb, attempting to communicate without language. Yet they seemed to have bonded through gesture, inflection, tone. Or something. She was definitely out of his league, but she kept saying, “You make me happy!”—and for some reason, Vanessa kind of believed her.

Dhari said, “He went to jail, you know….”

“What?” Vanessa turned her head. “What did he do?”

“He got attention,” said Dhari. “Too many people began watching the videos. This is a Saudi man publicly talking with a woman in a romantic way. YouTube! And worse, she’s not his wife.”

“So he went to jail for chatting with a girl online?” said Vanessa.

Dhari shook his head. “Not just chatting online. It’s public. You have to respect the public. Do what you want in your house.”

She slid a cigarette out of Dhari’s pack and lit it. “Could you ever live anywhere else?”

Dhari asked, “Like where?”

“I don’t know,” Vanessa puffed. “Say, Minnesota.”

“Yes,” said Dhari with a sly smile. “I’ll go home with you.”

Vanessa laughed and said, “You wouldn’t last five seconds in our cold.”

Dhari took her hand and started rubbing her palm. “If you can live here, you can live anywhere.”

For some reason, this utterance caused Vanessa to kiss him, and his body relaxed, preparing itself for her onslaught.

Mona dropped the brown paper bag on the glass table in Ghada’s living room and took out a cheeseburger.

“I told you we should have eaten there.” Ghada eyed the burger and scrunched her nose. “The food is soggy….”

Mona said, “I don’t like to eat in public. It feels like everyone is watching me chew.”

“So?” Ghada scooped up the food and headed to the living room. “My parents aren’t home. Let’s go eat in front of the TV.”

Mona picked up two cans of Diet Pepsi and followed her. “Don’t you care that people might be scrutinizing your every movement as you’re shoving French fries in your face?”

Ghada said, “I don’t care what people think.”

“I know. What do you want to watch?”

Without hesitation, Ghada said, “Full Metal Jacket.”

Mona sighed. Poor Ghada. Ever since her distant relatives managed to sabotage her marriage to Omar, a khadheeri, she only ever wanted to watch Full Metal Jacket. Mona suspected that it was Omar’s favorite film, but she couldn’t be sure because her friend simply refused to communicate. She kept all her rage bottled up inside. Or maybe she enjoyed this particular film because she reveled in the absurdity of war. Who could tell? 

“I’m sorry about Omar, but why won’t you talk to me about it?” said Mona. “I just want to help you.”

“Help me by putting on that film,” said Ghada through her teeth.

Mona often wondered whether she was enabling Ghada by not doing enough, indirectly and unwittingly helping her remain stuck in this current state of inertia. Maybe she should exert more effort to get her to snap out of it. But what could she do? What could she say? 

“You know,” said Mona, “we could dish about Dawood. I have many nasty things to say about my jackass of a husband!”

Ghada laughed. “All men are trash!” Then she suddenly shoved the brown paper bag away from her, buried her face in her palms and started sobbing. She lifted her head and tried to suppress her tears. At first, Mona didn’t know how to react. She sat down next to Ghada, wrapped her arm around her and started singing, “M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E. M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E. M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.”

Finally, Ghada cracked a smile. “God damn this Mickey Mouse country.”

“God damn every Mickey Mouse country!” Mona laughed. She was resigned to the fact that she was trapped in a marriage she could never escape, and that Ghada would never marry the man she loved because he did not belong to the right tribe, but there was more to life than men. 

Ghada put her arm around Mona’s neck and kissed her on the cheek, which caught her by surprise. Then Ghada turned to the TV and said, “Let’s watch. I wish Vincent D’Onofrio was in the whole movie.”

Reem slid off her red Converses at the door of Rashed’s mulhaq and stepped in. He was sprawled out on a white beanbag chair that could barely contain his large frame. “Hala!” he raised his arm.

“Hala,” she hung her abaya and took off her oversized sweatshirt to reveal her sky-blue Death Note T-shirt. “Did you roll anything?”

Rashed smiled and shook a pack of Marlboro Lights.

Reem took it, plopped down on the La-Z-Boy next to Rashed’s beanbag chair, and asked, “What are you watching?”

“Wrestling,” said Rashed.

Reem groaned.

“You know what your problem is, my beloved Reem?” Rashed removed his dark purple glasses, breathed on the lenses, and said dryly, “You don’t have the artistic palette to appreciate how entertaining Ric Flair is.”

“Let’s watch Veep,” Reem took the joint out of the Marlboro box and lit it. “Did you see the last episode? A Qatari prince sleeps with the president of the U.S. You know, Elaine from Seinfeld?”

“A Qatari fucked President Julia Louis-Dreyfus?” Rashed’s mouth and eyes widened in feigned shock.

“Yup.” Reem inhaled.

“An actual Qatari?” 

“Yup.” Reem blew smoke circles.

“No,” said Rashed, “I mean, was the actor an actual Qatari?”

“Of course not.” She passed it to him. “He’s probably Indian. Had a British accent.”

Rashed laughed. “I never got into Veep.”

“Of course you didn’t.” She clicked her tongue. “It’s way too smart for you.”

Rashed filled his cheeks with smoke, set the joint down on an ashtray, and blew in Reem’s face. Then he said, in an American accent, “Why you gotta treat me so bad, baby?”

“God damn you!” cried Reem as she waved the smoke out of her face.

“Have you ever seen Rome?” asked Rashed.

“No.” Reem shook her head. “But I’m not in the mood for that kind of thing now.”

Rashed shook his head. “I was just going to say: There’s this scene. Cleopatra is delivering this monologue. And in the background, you hear normal Egyptians talking in the street. Only problem is, what you hear in the background is these supposedly ancient Egyptians speaking Arabic in a Sa’idi accent!”

Reem laughed.

“Imagine,” laughed Rashed. “Nefertiti ordering lunch: ‘Awzah farkhitayn assalik feehom zory!’”

Reem clutched her stomach. “Hashish gives you a sense of humor!”

Rashed passed her a box of Oreos and said, “Hashish makes me fat.”

Reem split a cookie in two. “Let’s watch something.”

“Suggestions?”

Stranger Things,” said Reem without hesitation.

“Watched it.”

“Really?” Reem squinted. “It just came out yesterday. Why didn’t you wait for me?”

“You snooze, you lose, buddy,” said Rashed in English. As soon as he said that, he regretted it. Why did he call her “buddy”? How did other young men communicate their feelings? How did Dhari get to be so comfortable around women, especially women he was attracted to?

“Animal,” said Reem. “Rick & Morty?”

“Watched it.”

“Every episode?” 

“It is a task that every responsible citizen must perform,” said Rashed solemnly.

Empire?” 

“Listen.” Rashed smiled as he shook his head and waved his hand. “I refuse—refuse—to watch network dramas.”

“Eat shit,” said Reem. “Let’s watch It.”

“No horror,” Rashed shook his head. “Why would anyone enjoy being afraid?” Something about being alone in a room with Reem scared him to his bones. In one sense, he felt safe that they were at his house, on his turf, away from anyone who would cause them problems; he would never go out in public with her, at least not in Riyadh. Her family wouldn’t mind, but others might. No, what scared him was something else: this feeling of inadequacy. Would Reem still view him favorably if he summoned the courage to—

“You need to get out more,” said Reem. “Live a life!”

“At dawn…” Rashed bowed his head, “I make compelling cat documentaries on my iPhone. I’ll have to ask you to respect my craft.” 

“I got it!” Reem snapped her fingers. “Mindhunter!”

“Oooh!” Rashed stood up and pointed at her with both hands. But then his face fell and he sighed, “But I’d need to download it….”

“It’s on Netflix!” cried Reem.

“I don’t have Netflix,” sighed Rashed.

“Oh, two shits,” sighed Reem.

“Wait.” Rashed picked up his phone. “I’ll get Dhari’s password.”

 

Vanessa stared at the side of Dhari’s head as he drove. The man who had lit a fire for her under the stars had transformed into a nervous boy imprisoned inside a metal box with wheels hurtling across a strip of asphalt. She knew he was just being cautious, but it was almost as if by behaving this way he was personifying everything she hated about this city. Part of her knew it was unfair to blame him. But she wasn’t really blaming him, was she? What then? All she knew was that whenever they were in a public space together, she felt something negative, and she couldn’t help directing those negative emotions at him, no matter how unfair it seemed. His phone rang. He glanced at it and turned back to the road.

“At least turn off the damn thing!” snapped Vanessa.

He glanced at her with startled eyes. “Vanessa! Why are you sad?”

“I’m not sad,” said Vanessa.

“Vanessa,” cooed Dhari. “We had a nice night. Why are you angry at me?”

“I’m not angry,” sighed Vanessa. “You just get weird sometimes.”

“How, weird?” Dhari said.

“I don’t know,” said Vanessa. “Like, you’re afraid someone will see you with me.” She knew that he had good reason to be afraid, but his fear reflected another fear of hers: that their relationship would end at some point. He had told her many times that he loved her, and she had reciprocated many times. But still. Was that enough? Could he overcome all his fears?

“Of course I’m afraid!” cried Dhari.

“Like you’re ashamed of me,” said Vanessa.

“Ashamed?” Dhari frowned. “Are you stupid?”

“Dhari!” cried Vanessa. “Don’t be a dick.”

“Look,” said Dhari. “I think maybe you’re not understand.”

“Let me ask you a question,” Vanessa clenched her teeth. “Do your parents know you have an American girlfriend?”

“Of course not!”

“I knew it.” 

“Wait,” Dhari waved his arm. “My parents don’t know about you because you’re my girlfriend, not because you’re American! I never told them about my Saudi girlfriends.”

“That’s fine,” said Vanessa, “but could you ever tell them about me?” 

“Listen,” said Dhari. “What do you want? You want me to marry you next week? Because I will.”

“You wish,” said Vanessa. Was he serious?

“I don’t know what you want,” sighed Dhari.

Vanessa considered it for a moment. “Look, it’s not that I want you to do anything. I’m just… confused about a lot of stuff.”

“I will tell you,” said Dhari. “Some Saudis, yes, true, they can never marry a foreigner. For me, no problem. My family don’t care who I marry. Maybe some problems with other relatives if I marry a khadheeriah.”

“What’s khadhee—?” asked Vanessa.

“It’s like…” Dhari began. “Something related to the tribe. Something like that. I don’t know. I never saw a real tribe. Only names.”

“So am I a… what was it called?” asked Vanessa.

“No,” laughed Dhari. “It’s difficult to explain, but khadheeris are Saudis. Sometimes they have the same names even. For example, a family—Al-Misfihhil. You have Saudis with this last name. Some gibeeli, some khadheeri.”

“So how can you tell the difference?” asked Vanessa.

“Me?” said Dhari. “I can’t. Some people care a lot about this stuff. Two people: same race, religion, even region, everything. The difference is maybe piece of information. You have to look in books or something. Some people know about the history of tribes. I don’t understand a lot about this. I only discover one of my friends from high school is khadheeri maybe few months ago. It’s a problem only for marriage. The prestige of the tribe or something like this.”

The hospital appeared in the distance. “Don’t drop me off at the main gate. Pass it and turn right.”

They stopped in front of a side gate. The posts were all abandoned. No lights. Dhari said, “Are you sure it’s safe?”

“Don’t worry.” Vanessa waved her phone in front of Dhari. “Zakiyya’s car is on the other side. She’ll take me home.”

“Let me know when you get to your building.” 

They sat in silence for a couple of minutes. Finally, Vanessa said, “I’m glad we talked.”

Dhari smiled and said, “Always better to express.”

She opened the door and started to step out of the car, but paused, looked back, and said, “I don’t know if I can kiss you or not….”

He laughed at their shared confusion. “I want to, my life, but it’s not safe.”

 

On the way back, Dhari felt all his energy evaporate. He considered pulling over, but didn’t. He had never felt any emotion toward any woman before. Never had a girlfriend. So rare. And in his gut, he knew he would never end up with Vanessa. He would always be a Saudi man. How could she accept him? Why would a foreigner choose to spend the rest of her life here? For him? He wasn’t worth it. He was willing to move anywhere in the world to be with her, but it was just all too complicated. This was where he had to live and die. Where he had to exist. If she left him, he could train himself to stop caring about women. He could do it. He would even stop masturbating. A single man is not a burden on anyone. He could pass the years watching movies, listening to music, and drinking. Playing cards with his friends, although most of them would disappear once they got married to women they felt no connection to. He would waste away gracefully. His stomach fluttered as he approached a checkpoint. The officer, a short man with a goatee wearing a black beret, inspected his license and registration before waving him through. Only then could Dhari exhale.

 

Tariq al Haydar’s work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, North American Review, DIAGRAM, Beyond Memory: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Creative Nonfiction, and other publications. His nonfiction was named as notable in The Best American Essays 2016.

[Purchase Issue 22 here.] 

Joyriding in Riyadh

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