Thursday, April 26, 2012

My Flat-Mates

In the time that I have been here I have associated mainly with western teachers;  South Africans, British and Americans mostly. About half of these are determinedly pessimistic  and are usually unhappy about something or other, things real and things gloomily foreseen. Just ten minutes ago I was chatting to one of my flat-mates; a few days ago he was complaining that decisions take forever "in this place". This morning he was complaining that decisions "in this place" are made on the spur of the moment ("in this place" is a much used phrase amongst the westerners.) He also tends to talk in italics: "Why did no one tell me? I never knew that" (he seems permanently bewildered); "When I got there nobody was there!".

He had a rather traumatic introduction to Al Baha. He was conducted to our flat by the caretaker of the building, Barakaat, and accompanied by my other flat-mate, Timothy. Timothy felt that the newcomer would be better off in another flat. Accordingly, he slipped into the flat ahead of the other two and locked the door in their faces to prevent them from entering while he phoned our manager to try to change the sharing arrangements. Barakaat wasn't having any of it and proceeded to kick the door to gain access. Timothy was unfazed by this and continued with his phone conversation. Eventually Barakaat kicked the door down and our new (traumatized) flatmate was duly installed.

However, that was not the end of induction day. Another colleague later came to visit us and in the course of the conversation he testified that Al-Jazeera management were a bunch of thugs and crooks that cared nothing for us teachers. They cheated, lied and broke promises as a matter of course. The contract he had signed meant nothing because foreigners have no rights in KSA. Finally, Baha is the arsehole of the world with no opportunities for recreation or fun - it is a desolate and miserable place and will inevitably lead to thoughts of suicide.

This then was our new flatmates first day in a foreign and strange (very strange) country. Little wonder that the whites of his eyes were clearly visible and that he wore an expression of disbelief and horror. He asserted that there was no way he would part with his passport and that at the first opportunity he would get a local sim card for his phone so that he could contact his embassy to send in the marines to rescue him if necessary. He wasn't joking when he said this.

His predecessor in our three-bedroomed flat was an English gentleman whom I nicknamed "Pigpen". We always could tell what Pigpen had been cooking as bits of his last two or three meals were always in evidence on the stove, on the floor and in the sink. We would look at his dirty dishes every day with morbid interest for the first signs on putrification. Fortunately he only showered every two weeks or so, so at least the bathroom stayed clean. 

On occasion I would ask him to please clean up after himself. I would also leave notes for him and I printed large notices which I stuck up around the place, all urging him to clean up his act. All in vain. When confronted he would run his tongue around the inside of his cheeks (which reminded me of a cat moving under a blanket) and gesture with jerky and random movements of his arms. The most frightening thing I have heard  was when Pigpen told me that in his last accommodation he had been the one who was always nagging the others to be less slovenly!!

The accommodation itself is more than adequate. There is an entrance hall which leads into a lounge with air-con, couches, table and a TV. The kitchen has a gas stove and fridge and sufficient cupboards. It always has a faint smell of meals past. Continuing down the passage you get the odor of stale tobacco smoke from the first bedroom and further down the more pleasing (to me) smell of incense which I burn daily. At the end of the passage is the bathroom with a rudimentary shower, two toilets (one western, one squat) and a twin-tub washing machine. My shirts are terrified of this machine - after being washed they always have their arms wrapped tightly around each other and can only be separated with difficulty.

The local Saudi companies like Al Jazeera have to pay over the odds to tempt westerners to come and live in what is not only a foreign environment, it is actually an alien and rather grim environment.  Once here some become overly critical and quickly forget how grateful they were to be offered the job in the first place. They instead choose to ridicule our hosts and their (admittedly strange) customs which effectively outlaws any activity that can be seen as fun. There's no going for a beer with your colleagues on the weekend, no social events, no opportunity to associate with any of the fairer <ahem> sex, no parks to relax or walk in, no music.... The few social amenities are reserved for families only. Entertainment and diversion for the unmarried is pretty much limited to internet and shopping malls (on non-family-only days). Working and living in KSA is, to say the least, a unique experience.