I’ve got a year-long gig in Saudi Arabia, subcontracted by Aramco Oil, to make slide/tape training programs, which means I fly around in helicopters taking pictures on oil rigs and at gas-oil separation plants. American tinkerers have been taking apart radios and cars and putting them back together for fun since the dawn of the 20th century. In 1983 the Saudi’s don’t yet have a comparable background in technology so we take their money and teach them the blue-collar and computer skills that will eliminate their dependence on us. They don’t want us there. Too many American expats are assholes, especially in a country where everyone is of a darker complexion and doesn’t speak English or wear pants or worship Jesus.
I live in a camp a few kilometers inland from the Persian Gulf with about 3,000 men, most of whom are third-world worker bees with long contracts and shit wages. The few hundred Americans are paid high-end blue-collar tax-free wages and housed in long trailers with six rooms and three bathrooms on either side. My room has a single bed, a wardrobe, a desk and chair, a sink and a mirror, a small fridge, and a black and white television. I share a bathroom with the guy next door.
Women are not allowed in the camp and an outbreak of the clap in the Filipino neighborhood has been traced back to a blow-up doll named Farrah. Alcoholic beverages are illegal and possession could mean jail time and lashes. I favor a clear moonshine called sadiki, which I mix with Pepsi. The kingdom has no Coca-Cola. When opening a new bottle I pour a little puddle in an ashtray and set it aflame. If it burns blue it’s a good batch.
Monday is the official Aramco day off and an hour before dawn I haven’t yet gone to bed and I’ve just switched from sadiki to coffee. I have a motor-pool Toyota and, along with a video guy named Jim from San Diego, I’m driving north and then west into the Arabian desert. This is an unauthorized trip and we’ve unhooked the odometer. The main roads are paved but the super highways are yet to come and street signs are a thing of the future. Turn left at the rusted skull of a car and hang a right at the bloated camel. We stop in Dammam and pick up Jim’s friend Abdul Aziz, a coworker, who will be our guide and translator.
Taking pictures of the roaming Bedouin tribes, especially the women, is forbidden in Saudi Arabia, which is why we’re making this day trip and why I have my camera and two rolls of film. Abdul, who is an urban transplant from a nomadic family, has an idea of where to find Bedouin tribes and he directs me off the road into the desert without a trail; around hills and holes and dunes like we have four-wheel drive. He is grinning and smoking a Marlboro, telling me this way and that. He tells me he wants to go to America next year and he’s looking forward to fucking American women. I tell him it might not be as easy as he thinks and he tells me all he has to do is give them money, all American women are whores. He tells me he knows this because his American coworkers have told him and shown him filthy pictures. I tell him yeah, that figures.
I’m lost in the vast emptiness for 20 minutes when on the horizon I see a herd of camels and a couple of kids in underpants. I see a long horizontally-striped tent made of home-loomed goat yarn and overdressed women in niqabs. Two men appear on another horizon in a Toyota pickup. They have a couple more women bouncing in the truck bed. I park to the side of the tent, which is separated into multiple living spaces. There are goats everywhere and the sand is speckled with small baked-black turds. In the trunk of our car we have two big chunks of ice along with a case of Pepsi and a box of Milky Ways (two of which I’ve already eaten), and toy cars and dolls. Abdul tells the men in the truck we’re Americans and one of the guys says, “America, Ronald Reagan.” I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. Abdul tells them we just want to hang out for a while to better understand their culture and opens the trunk to show them the booty. They accept the gifts and invite us in the main room to take an afternoon meal with the family. We take off our shoes and socks and sit on mats in a circle. I’m wearing my Nikon and make occasional exposures. No one seems to mind.
We are with an old guy and his three wives and a younger guy with his one. The men smell like sweat and cardamom; the women smell like hippie girls and flowers. The women show their hands and feet, their hair and eyes. They mostly seem like jovial wrinkly grandmothers, but one is young. She has long pigtails and her hands are dark. Her fingers are ringed and her palms are hennaed like iodine stains. I point the camera at her face and wait for her to look at me. My right eye is on the viewfinder and my left is watching from just above the camera so that both eyes, at different angles, look into hers when she looks at me and I hit the shutter. I get a little throb in my dick and I send her a bolt of love and lust but she just blinks and looks away.
I ask if they go to Mecca once a year and the young guy, Mustafa, tells me of course they do. I say that’s a long trek from here and Mustafa says yes it is. I ask him does he ever go into the big city, and he tells me he doesn’t need to because the city keeps coming to him. He asks me why do I want pictures of him and his family and I tell him pictures will help to keep my memories fresh. He smiles and says he likes to tell stories. I ask if he’d like to tell one now and he says no, it’s time to eat.
I’m not hungry. The heat, the drive, the coffee, the candy bars, and the sadiki hangover have all come together to make me sick. My neck muscles are tight, my jaw is clenched and I’ve got a head full of bells. My stomach is boiling and bloated. I’m holding in hot farts and the thought of the upcoming feast is making me perspire.
First we pass around a large tin of dates. Flies are suspended over the sticky brown fingers of fruit like a flock of starlings. I’m polite and take one like I’m choosing from a box of chocolates. Next we get jiggers of hot tea that taste like Lipton’s and are sweetened almost to syrup. Now a large round tin pan heaped with roasted goat and Biryani rice is set before us. We ball up admixtures in our right hands, pop them into our mouths, chew, and swallow. Jim seems to love it and takes extra greasy handfuls. I tell them mmm yum yum, but don’t ask for the recipe.
Our hosts have outdone themselves. A Toyota hubcap appears filled with warm curdled camel's milk, bits of dromedary hair, and desert detritus. We pass it around like a joint. When it gets to me I go to blow a fly off the rim but instead blow it into the milk where it buzzes around a clotted-milk-burg like a toy boat. I pretend to drink then hand it to the guy next to me who pinches out the fly and buries it in the sand. He takes a long drink and then gives me a big missing-tooth smile and offers me another.