The courtyard is covered in dust. Beyond the chainlink fence stands rows of F-15 fighter jets. The Bengali movers lounge under the only tree that can be seen for miles. It is three in the afternoon and close to 43 degrees Celsius.

As I look for my new apartment, we leave a trail as a giant slug might in the fine dust that covers everything, including the palm fronds that lay dead on the ground. We wander around looking for my rooms, number 418. I can see 298 and 117 in the same block of nondescript units. There seems to be no order, no sequence, no sense. 221, 38, 479 are upstairs, 110 down. How would I ever find it? No one who met me at the airport speaks English. My driver is as baffled as I am. He wears no shoes.

Some local kids are screaming on the patio in what looks to be a child’s sandbox, or was it simply a poorly-maintained garden patch? I hope they aren’t my new neighbors. I want to scream, too. We take the steps to the upper level of the building. Bingo. Number 418 in all its glory. I wonder what made me climb those stairs. I try the key and it works. We are inside now. Thankfully, the air has already been switched on. In fact, it is cold. It is freezing. No windows, just one sliding door off the living room. We find the same in the back bedroom. The walls are high around the little patios, so I can walk around naked.

Large fridge, a nice change after Japan. Empty. No gas. Fuck. I am looking forward to doing some cooking. I want to fry up our smuggled sausages. There will be none for quite some time. Better get them in the fridge asap.

No TV, of course. Computer hook-ups will have to wait until Sunday at least, when the university reopens. Arriving on the Sabbath is not a good idea. The whole place is shut down. I have no personal phone numbers and the English department is closed for the weekend, Friday and Saturday, of course. Classes begin on Sunday.

I will be living on this faculty residential compound adjacent to the university in Jeddah on the Red Sea. 85 percent of the residents are employed in the military sector, working at the nearby base; most are single men, but some come with families. There are the miscellaneous compound workers, too; lots of kitchen help, lawn-care workers, drivers and the like. Finally, the humble English teachers, in Saudi for the high salaries and low cost of living, who teach basic conversational skills to students who are majoring in engineering or finance.

My brother warned me against going to Saudi Arabia. He said I would be kidnapped and left in the desert to the jackals. I admit to allowing his paranoia to get to me, but not enough to dissuade me. I took the job teaching at King Fahd University and left for Jeddah.

Teaching Saudi boys is not easy. These guys were immature and rather rowdy. They tested my patience and made me feel at times that I might not make it. The students had to pass my course before being allowed to take college courses for credit. Many would fail.

I live on campus about half a kilometer from the classroom building. At 36 to 48 degrees Celsius, it could be tough going, that walk. Nonetheless, I do it twice daily. It is cooler in the evening, but I finish class before the sun sets. The first week is disorienting. I still don’t have a phone, and I don’t know how to call for a taxi on especially hot afternoons. I have discovered the dining hall, but I don’t know how to order in. I like the kids, but I haven’t yet completely adjusted, nor have I forgotten my brother’s warning.

One afternoon, as I was walking along on my way back to the Shabaab, our apartment block for singles, the week’s events passed through my mind. It has been a trial. I have the same students, 21 males, for four hours of instruction. The boys are physically dynamic. One lad weighs close to 400 pounds; the others are beefy but in far better shape. They all dress in bright white thobes, all miraculously spotless.

In addition to this traditional one-piece robe, the boys wear slippers and a headpiece or ghutra. They vibrate with energy, desperate to horseplay, always brimming with fabulous tales and jokes they are unwilling to keep to themselves. Once, in a near state of collapse and frustration, I ask the class if they had been deliberately trying to make me break my resolve; were they trying to make me cry? “Is that what you want?” A boy in the back of the room who had been talking nonstop for days looked at me with great compassion, and said, “Teacher, if you cry, we will cry.” The fact that he meant it moved me deeply.

That evening after class, the day’s events cascade through my mind, turning over and over again as I make my way home. There is no perspiration in the heat as it is so quick to evaporate. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice that one of the passing cars has slowed considerably and appears to be following me. Now barely inching along at my pace, it is a bright red Mustang with dark tinted windows, front and back. Suddenly, my teaching day give way to rampant paranoia. My brother’s worst fantasies begin to fill my mind, as my failings as a teacher withdraw.

My brother had offered a colorful if dire image of my likely demise. Once kidnapped, I would most likely be chained to a radiator. On this point, he had been adamant. I never got straight just where this radiator would be located. In the desert? I could expect to be tortured. Rape would be a real possibility. All of this, he pointed out, was well-deserved, as I had been a fool to accept a teaching position in Saudi Arabia, well-known for harboring—if not training—terrorists. I remember all this with no small amount of bitterness.

The Mustang is now just feet away. It seems to me ages before I know what is happening, and in that period, all sorts of terrible thoughts come racing through my mind. Finally, the car stops. The passenger side door flies open, and a young man with an extraordinarily wild head of hair leaps out and greets me. It is Labban from my class.

“Mr. Lohrey,” he says with a huge grin. This is one of the class clowns, and by my estimation its leader. I wonder what he wants and can’t help thinking the worst. I fear slightly that he might throw an egg at me or do something playful if embarrassing. “Hey,” he shouts. “Get in.”


“We will drive you home.”

“There’s no room,” I reply, “but thanks anyway.” There were five boys in the four-seater.

“We will take you. It’s too hot.” No American student would have made such a gesture.

Labban’s pal Al-Otaibi climbs out of the car. “We will wait here. Get in, Mr. David. Be my guest!”

The air conditioner is on full blast. The driver beckons. I climb into the front seat. The boys are giddy with excitement. I don’t know the lads in the back seat, so I turn around to introduce myself. They are goofy as hell, smiling wildly, both with thick heads of curly hair, dark eyes; so dark, in fact, they look as if they have on mascara. They pass me a bottle of cold water. I don’t live far.

Initially, I feel suspicious, but within minutes I am beginning to relax. The boys seem to feel honored that I’ve accepted their invitation. I am touched by the gesture.

We are at my front door in minutes. We all shake hands. I bound up the steps and run into the Shabaab, feeling that I have passed some sort of test. I think it a very good sign that the boys have taken this much trouble for me.

This took place at the beginning of the term, shortly after my arrival. The boys would prove again and again capable of acts of genuine kindness. They tried my soul, but in the end were always gentlemen.

In no time, we were heading for the end of the term. I had been transferred to the accredited program on the other side of campus. Some of the guys would be transferring with me; others would be heading home for good. I’d been teaching for only four months.

For the last week, we plan a pizza party. We order ten pepperoni pizzas from Domino’s in a 2-for-1 deal. A few boys leave to pick them up. The class leader, Labban, returns empty-handed and explains that there has been a set-back. The shop was closed, he says. Minutes later, Mohammad Al-Otaibi appears with the food and several bottles of soda. Great gales of laughter ensue. One boy has the biggest grin on his face: “psych.” It is a joke on me. I have been punked.

Before I know what is happening, the boys form a circle around me. They begin chanting in Arabic. I have no idea what they are saying. They are clapping their hands in unison. Then the boys begin stomping their feet as they dance around me. They bring their feet down hard. Lots of laughter, great big grins on their faces. They clap. Suddenly they turn around and begin moving in the opposite direction. They continue stomping and clapping, louder and louder. They begin ending their sentences with the single syllable, “LOW.” Then they shout a bit and cry, “REE.” They are singing and chanting my name: “LOW-REE, LOW-REE, LOW-REE.” They make rhythmic movements, swaying and kicking as they sing: “LOW-REE, LOW-REE, LOW-REE.” They’d been about three feet back away from me, but now the circle draws closer, then away again, now closer.

They vary their pace and the loudness of their chant, at once almost a whisper and then nearly a shout. It’s gotten so loud, so close, and so dramatic, I become overwhelmed.

Finally, they let fly “Al-ḥamdu lillāh,” and throw up their hands. “Hurrah!”

The chant is over. They toss their gutras into the air. They come in close for hugs and kisses. They kiss me on the cheeks and want me to kiss them back. It is intense. Now the silence is a relief. It is over.


Being waited on hand and foot for months by Filipino waiters, a Malaysian maid, a Turkish barber, Bengali drivers, male and female housemaids, Indian gardeners, and Chinese bargirls with long fingernails…this is the life. Of course, I know I will go to Hell for thinking so. I know, too, that for saying this I might even be arrested, and perhaps rightly so.

If I were a good man, I would never wish to be served. It requires a depraved soul to enjoy servants. No doubt I am that rare case. It is quite clear to me that most of mankind shuns service and would refuse offers from the desperately poor to do menial labor for low wages. Many if not most people, unlike me, have moral integrity and common decency. They would prefer to do their own dishes, and they find scrubbing floors fulfilling in its own right. Getting on one’s hands and knees and giving the toilet a good scrub is what most people enjoy doing. It is just me and a few others, no doubt wankers and chronic masturbators, who would just as well have others do their chores. Some say that one of the hidden pleasures can be found in inhaling fumes from the ammonia and in taking a good look while the corrosives do their thing. What a kick. What kind of sick puppy would hand this sort of job over to anybody else?

He pours hot wax into my left ear, then the right. When it hardens, my Turkish barber picks it out, along with the ear hairs that stick to it. It is painless and, if I am being honest, one of the most sensuously pleasurable sensations I have ever experienced. I don’t mind the hot lather and the razor shave either. All that plus the hair cut sets me back $5. Believe me when I say that I go as often as possible, but it isn’t easy to squeeze him in between prayer times. If there was traffic, by the time I arrived, he would already have pulled down his metal security gates. He might still be inside, but he wouldn’t dare let anyone in. If I am already inside when prayer is called, he locks the door and continues snipping. We speak little. He is an expert in his craft. Part of what makes him sexy is his nonchalance. He could do it all blindfolded, including shaving my throat with a straight razor. Why in the world would I ever trade this $5 masterwork for a $200 act of indifference in downtown Beverly Hills?

After my cut, I have the driver take me home. Residents have a set of drivers more or less available upon request. All male, they drive without shoes. A few are stern, but for the most part they are quite jolly. They spend their days in air-conditioned Chevys with pride. Most are married, but none is permitted to bring his bride into Saudi Arabia. They could be separated for years. They spend their days driving back and forth to the airport, which takes up to two hours. They might repeat this as many as eight times a day. It is usually over one hundred degrees outside; in the summer, one hundred and thirty. The dust clings to one’s eyelashes. Believe me, standing in the noonday sun waiting for a taxi can be dangerous. There are no buses in Saudi Arabia. If you want to survive, you embrace the royal treatment.


For all installments of “Deserted But Not Abandoned,” click here.