4:42 p.m. October 25, 2012

The War Nerd: Shi’a Me

You may have been wondering where I was for the last couple of years. Then again, you may not have. I can’t say I was too worried about your whereabouts, so there’s no reason you should’ve cared about mine. But I did get a few letters asking why I wasn’t writing any War Nerd articles until I got hired by NSFWCORP.

The answer’s pretty good, if I do say so myself: I spent the last year living and working in the most remote city in the Arabian Peninsula. Not bad for a Fresno hick, huh?

The best part about the whole experience, for a war writer, is that I was living in a Shi’a town—in a very, very Sunni country. So I learned a little about what it means to be Shi’a Arab. Of course I’d studied Shi’ism and the Shi’a/Sunni divide for a long time before that—could’ve passed a quiz on all that, probably. But I can promise you that living among them, working with them, that’s a whole different thing.

It’s not that I wanted to play Peace Corps or broaden my mind. Nothing like that. Plain old poverty. I was living at Ground Zero for the crash. You could’ve bought a house in Tracy or Stockton for the price of a tank of gas, but everybody needed the gas to get out of there, as far as they could get.

For me, that was a town in Saudi Arabia, where I landed a job teaching English. I won’t name the town, because who knows? I may end up back there one of these days. But I’ll give you some clues: it’s one day's drive from the malaria mosquitoes of Nizan and the cool breezes of Abha, and it’s famous for a massacre that’s mentioned in the Quran. Oh, and it’s a ten-minute drive to the Yemen border.

Most important of all, it’s a Shi’a town. I didn’t realize how big a deal that was, in my first month there. I was too busy being angry at everything around me. That’s how it is when you hit Saudi, believe me. It’s nothing as simple as “Islamophobia,” although the Lefties would love to call it that. I’d like to see them tell it to the Muslim Pakistanis or Indians or Bangladeshis or Moroccans who were the cheerleaders when the expats had their Saudi-hating bull sessions. Nobody hates the Saudis as much as their fellow Muslims, because they—some of them, anyway—expect Muslim solidarity. And when they find out there’s no such thing, they get seriously hurt, then mad.

Even for us kaffirs—and you do hear that word a lot, “kaffir”—there was plenty to hate for that first month. The traffic. We had a KIA one week after I got there. Ray, a small, neat, very polite gay dude from London. He was doing one of us newcomers a favor, zipping across the six-lane main drag to pick up some groceries for a woman from Mauritius who was afraid to leave the hotel. He made it across the street, but not back. We never found out who killed him. They cleaned up the road, the hotel servants cleaned out his room and his savings, and he got one line in the company email next week. That was that. A lot of people die on the roads there, it’s not a big thing. I always thought women should use the Saudi road stats to demand lower premiums, because Saudi, the country with the worst accident stats in the world, is also the only country in the world where women aren’t allowed to drive.

Then there were the students. You get used to them after a while, and some you can even like. But not at first. I’m no ESL teacher anyway, just faking for the paycheck, and these guys—all guys, remember, no girls—would drive the world’s best teacher, like the Dead Poets teacher, to start thinking of bringing a can of gasoline and a lighter to class. The noise hits you before anything else, a roar like a stadium crowd. Go in and the roar drops maybe a few decibels, as 50 teenage guys in white robes and white tablecloths on their heads stare at you, discussing your finer points in Arabic like you’re a car they wouldn’t be caught dead buying. I was tired before I even started.

Then the little dance of “Teacher, present me!” meaning “Mark me present so I can cruise the main drag and maybe splatter another of your colleagues all over the pavement”—which is what they do all day in their white Toyota pickups. They get their stipends, which are the only damn reason they show at all, just for being present. Don’t need to pass, just attend. The Saud family’s “warehouse da yout’ so they don’t Arab-spring at us” program, that’s all it is. Besides, what do they need English for? No tourists there, no such thing as a tourist visa to Saudi, and they never wanna leave, think that stinking desert is the best place on Earth and kabsa is the only food worth eating.

Then there’s prayer time, guaranteed to send all expats into a quiet little rage: everything shutting down for 40 minutes five times a day, and always just when you need another bottle of water. Oh, and remember, water’s all you’re gonna get, or maybe some syrupy Fanta, because a bottle of beer or anything stronger is a felony. Add in the fact that there are no women, not even to look at (which is about all I ask by this point in my miserable life)--not a sight of one. For good reason, too, because when the stroppier South African or Brit women teachers do march out on the street they get hassled by bearded loons, the Mutawwa, the Morality Police.

You get the picture: not an easy place to like at first. But God created Arrakis to train the faithful, right? So eventually, you learn from all these annoyances. You move out of the hotel and the company bans you from their van, so you have to stand by the main road and put your hand out every morning if you want to get to work. (You don’t walk in that place, not if you have any sense, because it’ll be a race between the sun and the SUVs to see who gets you first.)

That’s what I did. My relatives didn’t believe it when I told them I hitched, got into the first car or truck that pulled over, every single day in Saudi, Homeland o’Terror. But I did. And after a few flinch rides that first week, I just stopped worrying. This notion that Saudis are scary people is total bullshit. Every tribe has its crazy mode, one trigger or another, but I can tell you that in months of jumping into any vehicle that stopped for me, the biggest hassle I had was one snotty twenty-something in a Lexus SUV who wanted 15 riyals, about four dollars, for a ride to my school. Seriously, that was it. Oh, I mean there were lots of near-death experience, because Saudis drive like they’re the only people on the road, no matter how jammed it is—you can count on a close call or two every time you get in, and fastening your seat belt is an insult to the driver—but you get to like those close calls after a while. I got to be kind of a fan of edgy drivers: “C’mon, push it! Ya gonna let that truck intimidate you?” Back seat maniac, that was me after a few weeks. And when I came home to the US, I couldn’t believe the way young men drove like old ladies, it made me sick. Everybody here seemed like an old lady, in all kinds of ways—no offense to old ladies. I was at a café and this big guy about 20 at the next table says, “I thought it wuz reeeeeelly inappropriate.” “Inappropriate”? When did that become the big word around here? Decline of the male race, I’m telling you.

Before I moved out of the hotel, I rode the van, and that taught me the same lesson: these guys are just not aggressive compared to Americans. We’re the scary ones. There was this guy Allan who rode that van with me, a loon even by Saudi ESL standards, and that’s serious company. Allan was a fat, mean black guy from Mississippi who was smarter than most and thought he was smarter than everybody. He didn’t have much of a life, didn’t seem like he ever had, and he hated everyone in the world. Which is reasonable enough. Been there, felt that. But Allan wouldn’t shut up about it, and the people he hated most were Arabs and Muslims—he wasn’t clear on the distinction and didn’t much care. There was one ride I took with Allan goading himself—he was one of those guys who can double-dare themselves into being even stupider after they do something stupid—into saying nastier and nastier stuff about Arabs. And Muslims. And our students.

There’s me scrunched in the back corner seat trying to merge with the upholstery; there’s this friend of mine, Carlos, half Brit and half Peruvian, a boxer from the Manchester housing estates, sitting next to me (Carlos knew his military history, did four years in the British Army); there’s Allan, right in the middle of the van, taking up a bench to himself and popping out Islamophobia, the real thing, every few seconds; and finally, there’s four goddamn Jordanian English teachers—which means they goddamn well SPEAK ENGLISH—listening quietly, not saying a word; and the nice Yemeni who drove us—who also understood more than enough English to get, as they say, the gist.

Allan starts slow: “Our students…’students’!... not even students…who said they’re students? I told’em, you snap your fingers a’me again I’m gonna stab ya in the neck…stab’em in the neck. Stab’em in the neck…” He kind of drifted off into a happy dream for a while with that vision of stabbed Saudi necks. The Jordanians didn’t say anything. Face forward, excellent posture, all four of them. Good listeners. Allan, he’s peeved he’s not getting any reaction, though, so he pushes it: “Nuthin’ but terrorists anyway, all of’em. Every one. If these motherfuckers were smart enough to put a bomb together they’d bring down a plane in a second…fly it into a tower, easy…I’m tellin’ you, every one of those people is a terrorist…”

You can sort of guess that by now the military-history discussion between me and Carlos has kinda dwindled away in the back row. Not a sound, everybody listening very, very carefully even though nobody’s looking anywhere near Allan. Allan—gotta admit, I know exactly what Allan’s doing. Been there, been fat, been pissed off, been too chicken to get in anybody’s face direct, just like he is. He’s found a way to piss on all of us, the whole van, and if anybody complains, “What? I was just talking.”

So he pushes it a little more: “They’d kill any of us for this religion a theirs.” Long red light, longer silence. Van starts to move, Allan starts to talk: “’Religion’…don’ think it even is a religion.”

OK, this is where I expected to die. I’ve read enough about irregular war to know exactly what is going to happen: Allan’s little speech sets in motion a totally predictable retaliation scenario, and you know who gets killed in the first bombing? If you said “Allan,” go to the back of the line. It’s always, always, always polite innocent losers like me and Carlos who get shredded for what pricks like that say. Guys like Allan, walking provocations, never get what they have coming. It’s a law of guerrilla war. Just google “Amy Biehl.” The Brits and the Boers stomp on the blacks for three-four centuries and who gets her head smashed in with bricks when the APLA decides to put that “One settler, one bullet” doctrine into practice? Amy fuckin’ Biehl, not the redcoats or the Boers.

So at this point I look at the four neatly-dressed Jordanians in their ties and their shirts, all facing front, nobody moving or talking or even breathing, while Allan develops his thesis, as English teachers like to say: “It’s not a religion at all…it’s a cult! A terrorist cult…every one of’em, fly those planes into the towers except I don’t think they could.”

The rest of the ride was very quiet. The van finally pulled up to the gate; the fat sleepy security man waved us through (there’s no security there; there’s more security at any gated community in San Diego than there is in Saudi) and the four Jordanians exited as a group, all on their way to lodge a formal complaint. See, I’m not saying they’re persecuted saints either. They’re snitches—you would not believe the snitching that went on in that place. All I’m saying is, they’re definitely not scary or violent. They could’ve done with a little more violence, if you ask me. Four healthy young guys let a fat slob like Allan insult their whole world like that and don’t wait for him when he waddles out of the van? I was disgusted. But when you get to know them you find out they have other worries: they all have kids, they have a wife in Jordan, there are no jobs in Jordan, educated guys are a dime a dozen there, they can’t afford to be fired.

So they do it the safe way, complaining to the head of the ESL mercenary company that hired us all. And that guy, a tired old weakling who looked like the late King Hussein, nodded and sighed and commiserated with his fellow Jordanians… and nothing happened. Allan rode that van all year, slowly going clinically crazy—he called this other American at midnight once to say, no preamble, “Whaddaya think of so-and-so?” and finished with, “Well, be careful, you know they’re tapping these phones.” As far as I know he’s still alive and crazy and teaching there.

So between my violence-free hitching to class, and my memories of the suicidal racist garbage I saw Allan (and not just Allan) get away with, I stopped believing the hype about Arab/Muslim scariness. Like I said, every tribe has a psycho mode, even SE Asian Buddhists; but nothing you’d expect seemed to trigger that mode in the people I saw.

That was before I even realized the most important thing about the town where we were stationed: it was a Shi’a town in a Wahhabi-Sunni kingdom, and just ten years ago it had been the site of a full-on Shi’a revolution against the crazy Wahhabi from Riyadh and Qassim. I’ll tell you about that in my next installment.

Next: The War You Never Heard Of