Wednesday, January 19, 2011

With a Gun Held to my Head by Time

I don't know how long I will have internet for so I need to make this quick.

I stayed up very late last night talking to my best friend about various things: helping him with his resume, his cats, job applications, and a date he has coming up. Believe it or not, every single one of those things was emotional.

I also read more new about Tunisia, including some very emotional stories and blog post written by the internet's finest.

I was woken up around noon by the loud noises of visitors, the house, and my Dad taking my phone for reasons I didn't really think about.

I finally got up when my Mom told me that Mr. Mo, the man who has done our ironing for years, wanted to say goodbye because he needed to get back to work. I saw him and felt so horrible because I felt that I looked ungrateful; sleeping all day and staying up all night, not interacting with others. He apologised for waking me up and my heart hurt. He shouldn't apologise to me, I'm sorry. Hearing him say goodbye and telling me to listen to my parents was...not easy.

I found out why my Dad took my phone away and I haven't stopped crying since then. He was disconnecting it, so now my SIM card doesn't work. I was going to call Mr. F one last time from my phone, because God knows I won't be able to say goodbye properly in person.

I did not know this was going to be so difficult.

This is what happens when someone like me becomes too acquainted with a place. Leaving it is so difficult and when the day comes, I am a mess. I have a suitcase to repack, carry-ons to sort out, and other logistical things, but keeping a rational, controlled mind is very hard when you begin to truly understand and register that you are leaving a place behind and with it its people.

For people who have never had to move, wow, you are so lucky. Sure, you miss out on a life experience. I do not regret my life and the many times I have had to move, but this...this never gets easier. I am 21 years old and right now I know I feel the same way I did when I left every other place at those younger ages: Saudi, Oman, Mauritius... It never gets easier. I always feel a huge sense of loss and it tears me apart even if I have nothing left to live for here.

It is time for me to go and yet I would always love to have just a little more time. It's not possible. I have to leave. Having the internet and phone cut is what makes it harder. I feel like I am at a complete loss.

I don't have anything more to say right now. I want to leave, but I don't want to go through this either. This is so hard, for me and my family. Saying goodbye to this terrible place should be a good thing but it's not. Whether we liked it or not, Saudi was our home for many years. Leaving it permanently is leaving behind a friend. A friend who is insane and who needs a shitload of therapy, but a friend.

I also feel like this therapy-needing friend is a friend in need, but honestly, there are other people who can take care of it better. I just feel like I neglected my friend too much. Now that I realise it, how can I rectify this now that I am leaving? I can't. Tonight's my flight and that's how it goes.

This is how it goes. Every time, questions of how things could have been better, reflections on how it could have been worse.

Every time, tears of frustration and conflict because I do not know how to feel and I have never learnt ways of dealing with these feelings.

Every time, a huge loss.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Who Built the Garden of Eden?

As many of my readers are aware, the United States is usually described as a bastion of capitalism, a temple to consumerism, and the lovechild of money and greed. I tend to agree with all of that, but then I think of Saudi and realise that it could very well share the title of Lords of Wastefulness. Yes, the land of the free and the home of the brave has a lot in common with the Kingdom. But what I will talk about today is rather unique to Saudi Arabia. Similar things happen in the US, but this has a true Arabian Gulf flavour.

In a recent blog post, I briefly stated that I sometimes felt like I was walking through a waste here in Riyadh. I can only imagine that thousands of riyals are spent forcing plants to grow in this crazy desert. As I listen to the rain pounding outside, I can only imagine that these forced gardens are being destroyed while I type here. A lot of manual labour was just wasted; work done by expatriates from the Indian sub-continent no doubt on very little money or mercy at the hands of their employers.

This, to me, is the real shame. Saudi Arabia is a rich country, and whoever the hell wants to spend money on "beautifying" the country can do so if they please. I understand that this place is a brown, dead desert and seeing things like water features and green is a symbol of luxury. I can appreciate that to an extent, even though I'd like for the money to go to other things (like, for example, education). What I cannot forgive, and I hope I will never forget for the sake of the blood and sweat that went into the work, is seeing those people being shipped in from other countries. They are gardeners for random people who usually don't give a crap anyway.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? In rows of flowers to display the wealth of this oil Kingdom.

I feel like I could write about this every day, or every time I left my villa to waste some time. Time is something I have no problem wasting, but the people who have to work on floral patches such as the one you see above...their lives are wasted.

These are people that are shipped here with the hope that they can send money back home. Today, a man we have seen working for Granada Mall is finally going to be able to go back home to Bangladesh for a one month holiday. Who knows how many years he has had to work here in order to afford the vacation and to be allowed to do so. It was the best goodbye: it was our last trip to Granada as we are leaving, but we know that he is leaving too, if only temporarily. He is probably excited to see his family. He is one of the luckier ones for this fact alone.

Most of these people live in rooms where 6 or more people sleep practically on top of each other. There is a bus taking them to their work every morning. I saw that bus for the first time a couple of nights ago and my Dad called it "the jail bus." I didn't like hearing that, even though I knew the truth behind those words. They work during the day, and depending on the job they will be working at night, too. In my opinion, that might be better - if they don't work at night, they work in the hot sun - and I know that hot, hot sun. I have seen them sleep under the shade of the very trees they planted.

Two men planted the tree, another few dug that pit.

And these trees, are they for our benefit? For the benefit of us dependents and workers in this country who barely see directly outside of our villas? People don't like to go outside, here. I rarely go outside, no matter what the season, because of the weather and because there isn't much reason to.

The compound in which I live is not the most attractive and it has very little for entertainment. You get out of your villa for the gym, the pool, or for one of the stores. You go outside because you need to get to another building. If you have kids, you might use one of the playgrounds. If you are daring, either in the desert cold, a sandstorm, or blazing heat, you might play basketball or tennis. They recently covered the basketball court - but it isn't done just yet. Guess who is employed to do that work, too.

If the construction workers and gardeners working outside all day were given what they deserved, i.e. a steady pay and a decent contract with an honest boss, I would understand the need for them to work here and I would applaud their strength and bravery to leave their families behind to work in a land that is not familiar to them. It would be difficult, but worth it - right? There are many other issues, mostly psychological, that are up for discussion, but at least their basic human rights would be assured.

The plain truth is that all of these people, whether they come to work in construction, as maids, or whatever...they are lied to. They do not get those basic human rights and they are not treated well. Someone mentioned to me that these people don't get enough money to eat as much as they need to, for the work that they do. I absolutely believe it. On top of all this, they are not treated as equals by many Saudis and non-Saudis alike. One of the worst things I keep seeing is at Riyadh's airport.

Lines and lines of men, squatting on the ground, wait for instruction as their papers are scrutinised. The airport officials make them wait unnecessarily long. When they finally get through the lines, groups of these men are herded by a representative of whatever company is hiring them. They have no souls in their eyes. The desert is already being cruel to them, as I am usually reminded by my father while I am there that these men's passports will be taken and they will become slaves to their companies.

Look at this. This is what they do for us.

I don't want to see a beautiful patch of flowers and green in this compound. The thing is, people see this pretty landscape art on the way to whatever and then that's it. Even I forget that it is there for a while. The people who worked on it were probably treated moderately well for all I know, or they could have been treated horribly. All of that is behind closed doors and I'll probably never get the truth, anyway.

What I do know is that I forget them because I want to forget them sometimes. I must not forget that they were once there and that they have left something behind. That is a terrible thing to do, a wrong thing. That's kind of why I am not ashamed to write about this when I know I have mentioned it already. Now that I am leaving, this is the last chance I have to write about this while I am still here, in the middle of it.

Tomorrow night I leave behind a land of many things I love, but so many things I hate. I am leaving behind a country that treats people of certain races and nationalities as if they are dirt. I want to give this place and its fake landscapes the finger and say, "good riddance!" but that isn't going to make me happy. What I really want to do is say a big fuck you the people who make a living off of treating domestic workers, construction workers, janitors, etc. like they are nothing.

I have never had enough footing here to make any kind of difference. I am leaving here, heartbroken for leaving behind happy memories but also leaving behind so many people who I have seen in great need of justice. But who am I to do anything? I don't even know where I could start.

This is the last picture I am putting up for this post. It describes exactly what is going on here, in my mind and in this country. No matter how pretty the flowers look, there is a big ugly thing in the front that takes up most of the frame. It is an eyesore and you don't want it to be there, but it's there. The ugly piece, whatever it is, is the reality of those workers' lives. The gardens may be pretty and it takes away from the ugly dry brown of the sand, but it cannot save the fact that they were created by people who are treated as lesser beings. They work for nothing because they are not seen as having any value whatsoever.

Who built the Garden of Eden in Saudi Arabia? Most likely a man who doesn't see his family for years, smells the sweat of other men in the room as he sleeps (and he barely sleeps), and who does not eat more than one meal a day. He has sacrificed his time and energy so that your walk to the compound's bus stop was just a little less dusty-looking. Aren't you glad?

Isn't your life so much better now?