For more than a year, I have been teaching English in Saudi Arabia. Living in this country is as much a part of the experience as it is to teach here. If you are interested in teaching in Saudi, I am sure you naturally have a lot of questions about what what to expect. My goal through this article and others I’ve written is to shed some light on what it’s like to work and live here. This is the third of a series of posts I’ve written about Saudi Arabia. This one pertains to my thoughts on driving in Saudi Arabia related to my experiences commuting to work on a daily basis with fellow teachers. To read more about my writings and adventures, visit leeleonard.org.
My experience commuting to work one day while teaching English in Saudi Arabia
“At any rate, he won’t be trying that again,” I say to the other 3 ESL teachers in my car pool, concluding a few minutes of speculation as to the cause of the fatality. We then veer onto an exit ramp off Mecca highway on the southern outskirts of Jeddah, but nobody acknowledges my somewhat macabre quip. Will, our driver, is now navigating his brand new metallic blue mini SUV past the barren hills in the wide U turn that takes us to the access road leading to our technical college. Just after we pass the open air camel stable, my roommate, sitting in the front seat, his arm dangling from the grab handle on the ceiling says in his London accent, “That was well fucked up.”
Unlike most fatalities that one sees on the treacherous roads of Saudi Arabia, this one did not seem to have involved cars colliding. This appeared to be a case of a car hitting a pedestrian, which is far from being unheard of, but not the norm. The only reason there are so few people killed while walking, is that there are scant few pedestrians. In fact, there is no place for foot traffic in general, even if people had a mind to walk, which they don’t. After two years teaching English here, I have yet to see a sidewalk of more than 50 feet long in this country.
Although we were not certain how the commuter had met his demise this morning, there are some clues left where the calamity had occurred a few miles back up the road. It was there that we had seen a car that was pulled over on the left hand shoulder of the road next to the median. It appeared to be intentionally parked, possibly due to a mechanical difficulty, a flat tire, or maybe having run out of gas. As such, we reasoned, the victim that morning must have been the owner of the car, and had made the extremely irrational decision of trying to run across the two lanes of incredibly crazy, fast moving, traffic. In addition, he tried pulling off this highly ill- advised stunt while wearing a now blood soaked Thobe that was conspicuous among the trail of carnage that was scattered for about 20 yards along the black asphalt near the parked car.
Running across Mecca highway cannot be done safely at any time, much less rush hour. Even if you possess the speed and agility of an NFL running back and were wearing gym shorts, this is a dangerous undertaking. Attempting the feat while wearing a Thobe is especially nuts. Or, to regionalize the idiom, you might say “It’s dates.”
A Thobe is the long white, robe worn with a red checkered turban in the Gulf region. Other Arab lands have their version of colors that change with the seasons, but in the Gulf region it is normally white. In the not so distant past, the garment offered the indigenous Bedouin clansmen protection from the scorching desert heat, as they crisscrossed the white sand dunes and the sun baked wastelands of the Arabian Peninsula, most of which now is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Today however, virtually every car and building is air-conditioned, and the Peninsula has become a very cool place to live indeed. But the Thobe perseveres. In spite of the ubiquity of the air cooling technology, and plenty of cheap energy to keep this wonderful breeze blowing up everyone’s fat ass, it remains as an important symbol of Arabic pride and tradition. It hearkens back to a noble independent time, when the sword wielding Islamic nomads roamed the sands of “Al Jazeera” between the Arabian and the Red Seas, sustained by their stubborn resilience, dates, camel milk, and of course the grace of Allah.
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As noted this morning however, that although the garment may be a wonderful article of clothing to help protect the body from the desert heat, it is an exceedingly poor choice for trying to dodge traffic. And most decidedly, it ain’t worth a shit when it comes to protection from the impact of a car going 90 miles an hour.
As we ride down the access road towards the half dozen block-like, tan colored buildings of our austere looking campus, I notice, as I do every day, our college’s bland architecture. Today however, for some reason, I remark the way the buildings sit isolated on the arid terrain, and I’m reminded of the miniature castles we used to mold from the course brown sand on the beach in my hometown in Florida when I as a kid. This memory of my childhood leads to another far more unsettling recollection, still fresh in my mind five decades later, as if it had just happened.
I think back to the time when I was about 4 or 5 years old, and I was holding my mother’s hand while we were standing on the corner of New Haven Avenue and Pine Street, waiting to cross the road. Something came over me, and I broke free of my Mother’s grasp, and decided to run across our hometown’s somewhat busy main street. In doing so, I ran directly out in front of a car that was approaching, probably doing about 30 miles an hour. Luckily, the driver was alert enough, and had time to slam on the brakes before the 8,000 pounds of steel came crashing into me rendering my body a bloody little corpse laying under the summer sun, on the hot gray concrete of New Haven Avenue.
It was one of those things you never forget. I remember the look of shock on the driver’s face as he sat wide-eyed with his mouth hung open staring at me from the other side of the windshield. I remember then turning to look at my mom, and seeing the horror in her eyes, the sight of which evoked my first feelings of real empathy I had ever had for another human being in my life.
I realized I had almost fucked up real bad, and a shot of terror shot from my tiny little balls, deep into pit of my small round stomach. Having not thought of the incident in years, I relive the moment and a faint twinge of that same terror, forever hardwired into my experience, pays a me brief visit, as does a deep profound sense of guilt for having frightened my mother so horribly.
I think for a moment and I question The Bard’s contention that “All’s Well That Ends Well.” It did end well. I wasn’t splattered all over the street in a bloody mess like that poor bastard was this morning, but it’s something I will never get over, which, I guess is only justice being served. The look on my mom’s face will always haunt me.
I knew what that guy felt right before the car hit him. A few miles back, a few minutes ago. Just before he died. I start to get angry at the foolhardy son of a bitch for making me remember all of this. I have auxiliary verbs to explain this morning, I don’t need this shit. Why did he do it? What was he thinking? He was old enough to know better. He couldn’t have been thinking anything, I conclude. Like me, so many years removed in the past, he just did it.
People’s attitude here seems to be that when an accident of any sort happens, it’s fate. You’ve said your prayers, so go ahead and floor it and let God sort out the rest. I reflect the fact that in most people’s minds, people driving like fucking maniacs is clearly a separate issue from the appalling rate of traffic accidents.
We are now passing the front gate of the college, smiling and half waving to the attendant. A few moments later Will spins the steering wheel, gliding it into an open spot under the canopied parking lot next to a colleague’s new silver Chevy Camaro. Dan, the well- dressed Chicagoan sitting next to me in the back seat, with a voice made for radio, asks, “What the hell was he thinking?”
A moment passes, and as I am fumbling for my laptop on the floorboard I mumble, “Nothing.”
“Sorry what was that,” asks Dan, opening the door on his side of the SUV, not realizing I am responding to his no doubt rhetorical question.
Shaking my head as if to cast of the gloomy start of the day I ruefully repeat, “Nothing. I was thinking of just, fucking nothing.”
In Saudi Arabia, it is very rare to see a car in the city which does not have some sort of damage to it. The odds of a vehicle escaping a mishap within a couple of months of being on the road is highly improbable. Thankfully, at least around the city where I do my travelling, most accidents do not end up involving a trip to the morgue. The main reason for this is because there are very few opportunities for head on collisions given the way the roads in the cities are designed. As opposed to the open highway which is really dangerous.
In the urban areas, in spite of the fact that people generally drive as fast as possible at all times, there is always a barrier separating the flow of traffic. If not for this, the larger highways would see continual catastrophic collisions, as drivers would no doubt regularly dash into opposing lanes in an attempt to overtake every car in front of them.
The smaller roads, which run as mini though fares used to access the neighborhood streets on the grid like patterns, would be mired in constant gridlock as the two lanes would effectively become one. Yea it is that crazy.
Of course in Saudi, women are not allowed to drive. However, I have seen pubescent males behind the wheel, and in fact have ridden with a taxi driver that could not have been a day over 13 years old. This is not technically legal, but is overlooked for the most part by the traffic cops. Why do they overlook the obvious danger of having a child that can barely see over the dashboard driving a car? Well for one, they aren’t too concerned about safety themselves. Secondly, since women are not allowed to drive, they realize that at times people can be in a pinch. Quite possibly the woman’s husband or brother was not available to drive them where they needed to go, so the child has to fill in for his elder male family member. Better a 12 year old boy behind the wheel than a 30 year old woman. Yea, it is that crazy.
I contend the day that women are finally given the privilege of driving, the roads will become infinitely safer. Is it because women will prove to be better drivers? Because it will get children from behind the wheel? In part I think that is the reason, but it is not the whole story.
One would have to assume that the idiotic machismo element which has grown men trying to pass every car that has the impertinence to be ahead of them , or to make other insanely hazardous maneuvers in an asinine display of their masculinity, will not be present among women drivers. Thus, when women are allowed to drive, if indeed one day they are, they will be able to drive themselves to wherever it is they are going, freeing them of a reliance on male family members to so. As such, the homicidal/suicidal maniacs will be spared the chore of driving their womenfolk everywhere they need to go, thus reducing the number of hours they spend menacing the roads ergo fewer accidents.
Another factor however, which would prove to be far more influential, has to do with the way men and women interact with each other in Saudi Arabia. Basically, unless required to do so under extenuating circumstances, it is basically illegal to have any interaction at all with the opposite sex outside of your immediate family. As such, the macho head jobs would quickly become very cautious to avoid an accident with a woman driver, even a fender bender, because this would necessitate action which for centuries has been taboo. How can you accuse a woman of being responsible for the damage to your car when she was at stopped at a traffic light after which you ramrodded her from behind, while having your head turned yelling insults at the driver of the car you just ran off the road? You can’t even talk to women, much less start making false accusations, arguing with them and insulting them, all of which is part and parcel of driving in Saudi Arabia. This is the real barrier to women driving here. It all goes back to the separation of everything by gender.
However, even among those progressive thinking men who would like to see women being given the right to drive often cite, with reason, the impracticability of the immediate implementation of a removal of the ban.
Much like the talk of the eventual reunification of North and South Korea, there are considerations to be planned for before the restriction could be lifted. For one thing, Saudi Arabia is a highly motorized place. The cities, for all practical purposes have no viable mass transit system, not even buses. Although the perception that all Saudis are rich oil sheikhs is far from the reality, most families do have two or three cars. As gas has only recently “spiked” to a dollar a gallon, driving is not an expensive proposition, and almost anyone can afford to own a car and keep it gassed up. If women were suddenly given the right to drive, it would dramatically increase the numbers of cars on the road at any given time, overloading the already burdened infrastructure of roadways. Traffic jams are commonplace in the major cities and situation would no doubt worsen drastically. Any change to the status of women driving would have to take into account this reality and prepare for it. Until then, in my opinion, when on the road in Saudi, say your prayers and buckle up because the highways in Saudi will remain dangerous places for some time to come.