[2 of 4]...Part 1.
Our plane had a very rough landing in New York. We had to change airports and take another flight to our final destination. I was stunned by the colorful scenery between the airports. It was very unlike the dull and bland Kingdom. My dad and I finally arrived at the place and stayed at a hotel. It was around 2 a.m. and I couldn’t go to sleep because it was 10 in the morning for my mind. My dad, as usual, fell asleep within seconds.
I was interested in viewing the many TV channels. We had about 3 channels in Saudi Arabia, 5 when the weather co-operated. I started to flip through the clear variety on display. I was confused by this one small detail. Quite a few channels had women who wore nothing but bikinis. This wasn’t new to me since we had satellite dishes in Saudi Arabia and every good Muslim in the land devoutly watched Baywatch. The confusing part was that all these women offered a phone number.
“Why?” I thought to myself. “What purpose would it serve to call them at 2 a.m.!?”
I had a lot to learn.
Next morning, we went down to the lobby for breakfast and came upon this most unusual of breads. It was round and rather tough. My dad didn’t add anything to it and simply ate it. He said that the bagel wasn’t very satisfying.
We left the hotel for my new high school. I was to share a boarding room with two students. I was given a class schedule and then given a tour of the school with the rest of the boarding students. In Saudi Arabia, our classrooms were fixed and the teachers switched rooms after each session; in the US it was the other way around. And more visibly the sexes were not segregated in the school. Though, the dorms were all single-sex.
My dad left for Saudi Arabia after a few days and for the first time in my life I was alone. Nobody at the high school spoke my language. So, I had to always converse in English. The atmosphere, the varied people, and the food were all so strange. It took me a few weeks to get into the rhythm. My English wasn’t poor but I was certainly bashful. That earned a lot of giggles from girls in my classes.
“So, you folks don’t have the guys and the girls together, right?” one of the curious girls asked during physics.
“No,” was my reply.
“You must really be enjoying this then!”
“Um...,” I just stared at the ground. The curious clique laughed.
Slowly but surely I started to talk, and have dinners, with the same kids. Soon, my English flowed more smoothly; I enjoyed the non-infernal weather, and the only food I abhorred was the vegetarian option.
It was surprising to see the hard work of the teachers. Sometimes they failed spectacularly but almost without exception they tried their best. When a student got a result that was considered poor, the teacher would ask him/her to come after school for extra help. I would go to such a session if I was stuck on a question. There I would see the teacher try to help the students one-on-one. I had rarely seen such dedication before.
Most students in Saudi Arabia would go through their entire education without asking a single question. The fear of offending the teacher and thus receiving verbal and physical abuse was always a present danger. Yet, in the US, students would often say that they didn’t get the material. The teacher, instead of being offended, would try a different approach or provide a new example to illuminate the situation.
I finally had true teachers after 10 years of barbarity.
My dorm was filled with colorful characters from different nations. We had Americans, Brazilians, Bermudians, Germans, Koreans, a Thai, and a Venezuelan. For quite a few, my first year in the US was the same for them. The diversity brought different cultures, languages, and music together.
I was once in the bathroom when a dude walked in with his boom box. He plugged it in and turned it on. When he was done with his shower, he asked me a question.
“Yo, do you like this music?”
“I don’t really know since I don’t understand what they’re saying. If the words were in English, perhaps I would like it.”
I sensed that something was wrong. I looked at him.
“It is in English,” he replied with an expressionless face.
The Bermudian then left with his boom box.
* * * *
A completely new experience for me was the internet. I had heard about it so much on the BBC but had no idea what it was. Finally, I could see its awesome power. Business or entertainment, the web provided everything. I was fascinated by the almost costless transfer of data through email and online chatting. I learned a lot from online sources. Soon, I was hooked on Encarta because my learning wasn’t limited to “acceptable” books. It was not all reading though since I very much enjoyed my introduction to Quake.
I didn’t like to hang out with most of the boys in the dorm. I preferred to have conversations with adults. Those had a dual purpose. I improved my English and had many vexing and versatile questions answered. A vivid example follows.
We had teachers as dorm proctors. On a weekend, a girlfriend came to visit one of them. They talked for some time and then she left. It was that proctor’s duty time on the same weekend. I had done all -- okay, most -- of my homework, so we were sitting in the lobby and talking about stuff.
I casually asked him about his girlfriend and what they talked about and immediately I sensed that something was wrong.
“What did you say?” he asked.
“Um, it’s none of my business, I shouldn’t...”
“No, no, did you just call her my girlfriend?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. At this point I was a little confused. “She is a girl, well a woman, and she is your friend. Hence, she is your girlfriend. Right?”
He laughed. “No, no, that’s not how it is. When we talk of a girlfriend that means someone with whom you’re...romantically involved.”
“So, she is only my friend, not my girlfriend.”
“I get it. She is a friend.”
One can understand why he’d want to stress that point. He was married.
There were a few breaks during the school year. The school and the dorms would close at such time. So, resident students had to find a place for themselves. The school offered, for a small price, the option of residing with a local family when the dorms were closed. It was an economical choice.
My first stay was very pleasant. The family had one son about my age and a friendly dog. The American family was genuinely warm and interested in my alien culture. Later, that hospitable experience was repeated with another family. Through many conversations, we learned a lot about each other. I was surprised to hear about so many different backgrounds of these few Americans and they were amazed at the harsh punishments for crimes in Saudi Arabia.
These experiences helped shape my views of Americans. I can honestly say that I talked longer and with more Americans in any 10-day period in the US than I did with Arabs in over 10 years in Saudi Arabia. I was a student in Saudi Arabia for over a decade, yet not one friendly Arab ‘brother’ invited me or any of my family members to his home. We spent all the time within our detached Pakistani community.
However, in a couple of years in the US, I spent many days with different families. They were always respectful of my customs. They didn’t cook pork or use alcohol in the food when I stayed with them. Their understanding, generosity and openness were in stark contrast to the Arabs.
My education wasn’t limited to just the course work. Oh, and by the end of the first year, I had figured out the reason. The reason all those women offered their phone numbers late at night. Ahem.
* * * *
I went back to Saudi Arabia at the end of the year. I had to work on an English assignment. I had already started writing it in the US, so I decided to take it with myself to Saudi Arabia via a floppy disk.
I kept the disk in my pocket within a plastic cover. After passing through customs, a Saudi in a police uniform took me aside into a small room and patted me down. He found the disk and with a look of triumph waved it and asked me about it. “Ah, a floppy disk, you know, you put it in a computer, and-” he cut me off and took me to another room.
There, a Western teenage girl was pleading, with a bearded official, for her books. The man gave her a receipt and told her to come back in two days to pick up the “acceptable” books. You see if a book contains “harmful” material or, even worse, is authored by a Jew, then the Saudis confiscate it.
The official then came towards me and waved the floppy in my face and said four words that I’ll never forget.
“NAKED WOMAN, NAKED WOMAN?”
“No,” was my horrified response. I told him to put it in his computer and check it right then. He didn’t listen and inquired about my dad, noted my passport number and gave me a receipt. Later, my dad had to drive all the way to the airport to pick up a bloody floppy disk.
We had to move in the summer. Again. My dad had long desired to own a house in Saudi Arabia. But non-Saudis are not allowed to buy property. For that reason, we had always had to rent an apartment in the country. Some Saudis would initially ask for a reasonable rent but after the first year, they’d jack up the rent by over 15%. Perhaps, this was their way of showing us their brotherly Muslim love.
My dad would always refuse to pay such an exorbitant amount and naturally we had to move to a new apartment. We’ve had to switch apartments on at least 5 occasions in the past 10 years.
That time, my dad found a place for a decent amount. The landlord came over once and was talking to my dad in the guest room. I wanted to meet him simply for courtesy.
“Do you need any help?” he asked my dad in Arabic as I entered the room. He laughed as he saw me. “Oh, you already have help!” We moved towards each other to shake hands. At that very moment, my dad mentioned that I was doing my studies in the US.
Immediately, revulsion was etched in his face. He took his eyes off me as though I was a maggot-infested carcass. He backed off and motioned me away with both hands as someone would a leper. My dad did nothing except laugh. I was filled with rage as I lowered my hand and left the room. Later, my dad said that the landlord tried to convince him of sending me to a highly reputed madrassa in Saudi Arabia for a decent education. My dad politely and repeatedly refused. Of course, next summer we had to move again.
Later in the summer, we were watching morbid scenes on the TV. I had heard his name before but that was the first time I had seen his capacity for evil. Osama was serious about his war against the US. The charred US embassies in Africa were a warning signal for the world.
A monster had followed through with an attack on the US and had promised to do so again. Yet, the Americans and their government didn’t treat the matter as a war. I was to be very underwhelmed by the US response to the embassy attacks.
* * * *
My dad decided that I should apply to Canadian universities since the tuition in the US was too high. And so I did. I didn’t think that I would miss the US much since I thought that Canada was basically a clone of their neighbor to the South.
I still had a lot to learn.
I arrived in Canada after over 30 hours of traveling time. I was exhausted as I came upon the residence service desk. I provided them my name and after a few minutes they responded.
“Um, we don’t have you on record.”
“I’ve checked all the records for the resident student applications, and your name doesn’t show up.”
“I got accepted some months ago, I filled out the residence application. I...I’ve got my student visa and everything.”
“I’ll re-check,” was her reply.
I had traveled thousands of miles to be told that I didn’t have any place to live. I sat down on a very uncomfortable couch with my head in my hands. After about an hour of searching, a woman came towards me and called my name. She was holding my approved application. They had moved all the applications from a nearby room and somehow forgot mine. I felt so special.
My roommate was a very likable Canadian. We got along very well. The notable change from my high school dorm was that nearly all the residences in the university allowed both sexes to live next to each other. For most, that was the first time away from their family. They were finally free to showcase their opinions and behavior regardless of how stupid and atrocious they might be. Most made full use of the opportunity.
It was really odd to see some students put up words of wisdom and display pithy one-liners while they drank booze and passed around weed. Their studying was limited to 12 hours or less prior to a test. They copied their assignments from the resident nerds. Once, I entered my dorm and took the elevator with other students. There, a well-groomed guy was complaining to his friends. He was freaking out about his Calculus class.
“Dude, I can’t take this class! I have to drop it. It’s too much. Today, the professor started talking about this FX shit!”
It took a lot of strength for me to not burst out laughing. The poor guy was scared to death of the incomprehensible f(x).
I once saw a group of kids get all well-dressed and asked them the reason. They were going to a library. You see, a library on campus was considered the social place for fluttering souls to pick up mates. And all that time, I naively used the place for research.
Unlike my high school, the university had many Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, and numerous other nationalities. They came from varied backgrounds. Some had lived in the Middle East, usually in Dubai, while some had spent time in Europe--mostly in Britain. My conversations with them were limited to gadgets, cricket and the latest Hollywood and Bollywood movies.
I got a single room in my 2nd year. That was the first time I had a room all to myself. The pleasant experience was marred by the buffoons who lived on my floor. They were noisy throughout the night. Their racket would wake me up at 3 in the morning. I complained many times to the student proctor on my floor. The spineless doofus told me to get earplugs. And I did but I couldn’t go to sleep with those things stuffed in my ears. I had to live with inconsiderate idiots.
* * * *
As usual, I went back to Saudi Arabia for the summer. It was getting more and more uncomfortable to live there. I had spent the winter in Canada and after a few weeks of spring I was in the inferno. The weather in which I used to play cricket was then too cruel to bear. Outdoors, the sweat would immediately start pouring out and the moisture in my eyes would disappear.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. The schools in Saudi Arabia closed for the summer. My siblings weren’t very fond of studying during the break and since the weather was horrid, they all understandably stayed indoors. It was like living in a zoo. Fights over the movies, music, computer, and the game console were a regular occurrence.
My mom, as usual, was again on my case.
“You need to pray. Read the Quran. Follow the religion. You are studying for material wealth. What about the afterlife? You are neglecting the more important duty.”
I had enough of that. One day, after the mini-lecture, I replied.
“Which Islam do I follow?”
My mom was confused. “What do you mean?”
“Well just look at all the different people who claim to follow the real Islam. Which one of those do I follow? Note the Sunnis and the Shias. They can’t both be correct. Look at what the Taliban have done in Afghanistan. They’ve shut down schools for all the girls in the country. They’ve beaten up women who dare show their face in public. They’ve banned TV, music, and kite flying. Should I follow that?”
The silence was very unsettling.
I thought that my mom would say something but she said nothing in reply. I again talked about the Taliban and what they had done to religious minorities and “Muslims” who didn’t agree with them. My mom agreed that that was bad but didn’t condemn the Taliban further.
I had asked my earlier question in frustration but then I realized that it had a consequential meaning. What is Islam? Why doesn’t the Muslim world come down hard on the Taliban? I felt a little filthy to have lived in two of the three countries who supported that vile regime in Afghanistan.
The three countries: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. All three had Muslim majorities. The Saudis punished booze drinking with death, Pakistan and UAE didn’t. Pakistan allowed shops to remain open during prayers, Saudi Arabia didn’t. Women could vote in Pakistan but not in UAE and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan and UAE are eager for tourists but Saudi Arabia isn’t. Even in these three countries, there wasn’t much agreement in these matters.
Why would these three support the Taliban? There aren’t many countries to which the Saudis will look at and say, "Wow, you’re extreme." Yet, Afghanistan under the Taliban had managed just that. Why would the UAE, with its tourist-friendly image, endorse the merchants of the Dark Ages? The Pakistanis love to play music and fly kites. What was their logic for supporting a regime that outlawed both of those activities? Not to mention the fact that the Taliban sheltered one of the most wanted men in the world.
That simply didn’t make any sense.
It was eerie that my mom couldn’t or wouldn’t answer my questions. IX.XI would make the situation crystal clear.
TO BE CONTINUED