So it goes. We are nobodies who have nothing, we little teachers, but in the order of things, we always have more than our servants. If we make $2,000 per week, they take home $300. If lucky, a driver makes enough to save some for his family. They sleep ten to a room and are frequently robbed by their co-workers. They have to stay alert. One of the most dangerous enticements for them is the promise of a big payoff for smuggling in alcohol for rich Westerners. Brits and Americans will pay the drivers to bring alcohol in from across the causeway in Bahrain to Saudi. If caught, the driver faces public lashings which are guaranteed to leave them crippled for life. The beating would require him to return home in a body bag or in a basket for paraplegics. Few ever walk again.

My maid is an Indonesian mother who often brings along her two daughters, who sit quietly on my sofa and watch cartoons. I often brought them popsicles or candy bars to munch. Shalaya is Muslim but has a husband working nearby, so she is allowed to be alone with me in my house. She stays eight hours, does the dishes, the laundry, the ironing, vacuums, and brings cheer to my narrow, male-only life. I adore her. She also cooks at home and brings me delights, such as little cakes or dumplings. She makes about $20 for the day. Her husband, a car mechanic, works in the compound’s maintenance department and earns American wages. I guess he takes home about $750 per week. Outside, he might earn about $5 per hour or less.

I like being called “sir,” as I once was as a young boy in Memphis back in the 1960’s. It is rare to be given the American shrug in a place like Saudi. The locals won’t tolerate it and are prepared to enforce proper respect through violence. The indifference with which we egalitarians treat each other is a no-no in the Arab world. Taking one’s order or the customer’s money while looking away is a very good way to get one’s teeth knocked in. Failing to hop to can get one into hot water, a screaming match, or even piping hot coffee tossed in one’s face. Clerks and waiters know better than to turn their backs on Arab customers. The locals simply will not have the kind of low-pay equals poor-service attitude imposed on them. Their philosophy is that one should be grateful for the job and do one’s bloody best.

I like good service. Of course, I know I am suffering from a treatable mental disorder. I know that a normal person would rather die than see another person so degraded. Like all the Germans who turned their backs on Nazism, I know that most decent Americans wouldn’t tolerate seeing another human being reduced to domestic servitude. I have even seen a psychiatrist about my condition. When I told Dr. Cohen all about it, he became so disgusted he threw me out of his office. He told me he had never seen a case of slave-owners’ consciousness, a syndrome he said had virtually disappeared from North America. He pointed out to me that my symptoms can only be found among whites and nearly always in males. Few women will have a maid. Even Hillary, he said, is known to scrub floors. Evidently, all African-Americans cook their own meals. Oprah Winfrey, he reminded me, irons her husband’s underwear and darns his socks. He said I should be ashamed of myself.

The love of egalitarianism thrives in minority communities. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are well-known visitors to the local coin-operated laundries, where they do their weekly chores. Jesse, it is said, has been heard humming old Gospel tunes as he folds towels. Al Sharpton loves to do housework, so much so that he is known to accept the wash from neighbors for whom he willingly irons. He still scrubs his mother’s floors.

It is against their religion to see a man work for low wages while others live in luxury. One can only wish the same could be said of whites. John Kerry, our former Secretary of State, we understand, is notorious for employing a valet whose duties include the task of holding the Secretary’s boxers near the floor as he steps into them after bathing. Evidently, several of said valets have been terminated for making the error as they pulled up the Secretary’s 100 percent cotton shorts whilst allowing themselves a stare at his privates. Kerry forbids his man-servants the pleasure of taking a peek. He’s said to be shy. Evidently, Winston Churchill, although white, employed a valet but always insisted on dressing himself.

It has been reported, but nobody believes it, that Barack Obama, that champion of social equality, conferred with billionaire David Geffen while on his yacht last summer on the subject of his desire to acquire a dutiful valet. He asked where he might find a gentleman’s servant. Just to show his sense of social justice, Obama specified in his request that he was open to taking someone who was LGBT. He would not be adverse, he is said to have pointed out, to having someone in his dressing room who might take pleasure in seeing the President’s naked body.

Who really knows what goes on behind closed doors? What we do know is that people these days eschew the luxury of hiring servants. Statistics show that dining out has lost popularity. People do not like being waited on. The computer kiosks at McDonald’s are well loved by all, as are our coast-to-coast self-service gas stations. We are moving toward a more just society. As in the former Soviet Union, a new man emerges, a truer, stronger symbol of humanity. That old dead language Latin once supplied us with our national slogan “e pluribus unum,” but with even greater pride still, we can all say today our motto ought to be, “Get it yourself.”


My former student al-Otaibi drops by my office to invite me to a party. I hesitate to accept, but I am also loath to disappoint my student, who has entered my office with a huge grin and an air of excitement. “My father is back,” he announces. His father, he explains, has been away for some time on business. He explains further that his father will be hosting the party and wishes to thank all of his son’s teachers for helping him through his English studies. Well, before you know it, I hear myself agreeing to attend. How can I refuse?

That night there will be a party, 20 or so guys, maybe a few faculty wives, homemade booze perhaps, depending on who attends; local hooch, or “vodka,” will probably make its way to the party; many of the guys can’t get through a night without it. There could even be bathtub wine and beer on tap in the right circumstances, but all alcohol is forbidden, and no crime is more serious than serving alcohol to a Muslim. Many of my colleagues are heavy drinkers. Surprisingly, many Saudis are alcoholics.

The party goes strong for about three hours and then begins to thin out; maybe it is after 11. There are four of us left: myself, a chunky, short black guy named Reggie, a top-heavy guy with grand biceps in a tight T-shirt named Jeff, and Shaun, a married guy, who has come alone. He is an Italian-American from Connecticut, dressed as usual in school attire, smart casual, without his classroom tie. The host, Mr. al-Otaibi, has been in and out all night, spending a great deal of time on the phone, taking frequent trips out to his car to hide his bad habits of smoking and drinking, both of which are haram or forbidden.

I am 52, Shaun about 44. He is built like a tank: rock-hard upper shoulders, no give. I’d patted him on the back once and it was like hitting the back of a classroom chair. He’s arrived drunk and, as I learned later, has a reputation as a mean drunk, someone to be avoided. He spends most of the evening looking for something more to consume. He`d been fine at first, friendly and relaxed, but as others started to leave, he seemed to become more restless and fell into a funk. Eventually, he wanders over my way and we start talking. We are just getting to know each other. I know him from our three-man carpool organized by military security due to recent terrorist attacks against foreigners. A German businessman had been killed recently in downtown Riyadh on his way to the bank. We’d been instructed to vary our route, avoid caravans, and to keep a low profile. Many of the guys are tense, bored, or lost. Nobody is fine in Saudi Arabia, as people say, but Shaun seems troubled.

Wracked with guilt, he tells me the story of his having watched passively by while his old bodyguard mates back in New Haven had beaten a man to death. Someone had told me that Raul had once been a member of a group of heavies working for the syndicate or something as an enforcer. This had been his job while in college. He begins now to tell me that he hates himself for being unable to stand up to the bullies, his colleagues, who took pleasure in hurting people. He blames himself for being weak. He calls himself a pussy.

He and the goons were debt collectors. They’d go out and break the fingers or legs of men who owed the loan sharks money. The other guys, he explains, used to get rough and loved it. He never stepped in, although he insists that he did not participate. He watched as they beat guys, broke their arms, or shot them in the balls, all the while laughing their asses off. He gets very emotional and the room begins to feel very small as I listen. He is angry and gets angrier when I try to express sympathy. “You don’t know me.” Finally, after for a bit, I pathetically offer words such as “God forgives you” or something to that effect, in the hope that he would calm down and go away. He stares at me for a second. “Thank you.” He looks like he is dying. Finally, he steps out on to the balcony for a smoke.

I depart for some fresh air. I haven’t been drinking much, just a glass of beer, but I am feeling tired, so I decide to take a walk. As I head around the block, al-Otaibi, my student’s father, calls to me from a great big white Audi SUV parked to the side of the apartment block. “Mr. David!” He is sitting directly in front of me, so it is rather difficult to avoid him. He looks back again and sort of winks. “Get in.” His low-slung position looks uncomfortable. He has his pants open. “Close the door.” He takes my hand. I rest it there and finger his silky hair. I fiddle. But I am bored. I am tired. I am tense. I wonder how to get out of this. One phone call and he could have my visa cancelled. He is clearly drunk, very.

It is hard being next to someone without going after them or being gone after, probed, poked, and urged on. Sometimes it is nicer to find someone who will let you do nothing. What’s erotic about sitting next to a stranger with your hand down his pants? Men are very soft down there. All of them and that’s comforting to know, I guess. All that oily muscle power and then quite suddenly something else. The softness in women simply deepens, but with men, a secret is revealed; their womanly side is exposed in their male parts. They’re vulnerable down there. Their balls are their Achilles heel.

He reaches for my fly. A warm, wet engulfing is felt, like a towel. I am unresponsive but curious to see where this is going. The answer comes quickly as I am surprised by his warm tongue, generously perfumed. It is like a warm Tootsie Roll Pop: not hard, not sticky, but soft. His face has a five o’clock shadow and that adds to the effect. It’s a man’s face. I pull away.

That kiss so soon. Licking, sucking, slurping, plunging, absorbed. That odor. His? Mine? The wetness, too close. All of it, and from a stranger. Who is this? Do I want to know? “Oh,” he moans. Does he? Time to think. Evaluate. “I love you,” he says unconvincingly. “It’s hot,” I answer. Too close for too long. What the fuck have I gotten myself into? “I love you.” He must be out of his mind.

After a rather substantial sampling of what he had to offer, I say, “Nice to meet you.” He laughs. He offers his name. I, mine. “Mr. David,” he repeats. He gives me his business card. I have none to offer. I tell him it is hot. He laughs again. “I gotta go.” “Okay, okay.”

I go. He doesn’t follow. It is windy. The palms are swaying dramatically. Anywhere else, you’d swear it would rain. I look down to find that I’ve forgotten to zip my trousers. I step back into the apartment and out to the grill to grab a couple skews of meat. The flimsy paper plate is not strong enough to hold them, so I stick them in a paper cup. A little later, I head back to what remains of the party.

Ten minutes later, he is back, standing in the middle of the room. Al-Otaibi’s eyes are fixed on me. “You are the sexiest man I’ve ever met.” He goes on. I am handsome, he says. He loves my sharp tongue, the way I talk. He finds my bald head a turn on. “Why don`t you follow me to my place? We could have a lot of fun.” There is a pause. His face is red, his eyes, watery. I realize that he is even drunker than I’d imagined. The others in the room are listening. There is a silence. For a moment, I, too, am too stunned to speak, but then I sort of chuckle and wonder aloud what could be sexy about not having a head of hair. He ignores me. He is not listening at all or listening very intently. I can’t tell which. He is really quite fixed on the whole thing. “Let’s go right now.” He begins to unbuckle his belt. He can barely stand. He looks grim. There is an intensity about him that alarms me. I look to the others and wonder what they must be thinking. The atmosphere is in fact so heavy I am not sure if he wants to show me his penis or to beat me with his belt. One might have burst out laughing but, somehow, we all know that laughter might incite violence.

Suddenly, Jeff jumps up and calls a halt to the proceedings. “Al-Otaibi,” he says, “my friend.” He moves toward him. We all get up to leave. “Time to go!” “Lets go; its been a long night.” “Thank you.” We are out on the stairs in no time. Everyone goes home.

The next morning, Jeff tells me that al-Otaibi won’t remember a thing from the night before. He’s a well-known boozer and does the same thing every time there’s a party. The guy’s a big wig in the area and has ties to the chancellor. When we see each other, he might attempt to apologize. If he does, Jeff tells me, just laugh it off. Don’t acknowledge it. He will be sincerely embarrassed. Don’t say anything to make him feel bad.

Over the course of the next 18 months or so, Reg, Shaun, Jeff and I continue in the same carpool, having lunch or coffee together, going out to dinner. Shaun comes with his Yemeni wife, the hairdresser. I never again accept an invitation to a party if I think al-Otaibi will be there. I learn that I was not his first nor his last. He is a troubled man, an alcoholic, and has jeopardized his job on many occasions due to his behavior in the compound. I never see him again except passing on the road. He doesn’t attend my farewell party, but the next day, my last in Saudi, he sends an email. It begins, “David my David.”

I had come to Saudi after 9/11 with all sorts of ideas, not one based on anything real. I was ignorant but also on guard. This class and the many others that followed proved my brother wrong. I ended up having the time of my life. I left my heart in the Arabian desert, but not with the jackals.


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

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1