Something Remains

The number I dialed was engaged, so I put my mobile phone to one side. I was gripping the steering wheel with both hands when a traffic jam appeared up ahead, between the concrete barriers on the side of the road.

The early summer sun was beating down on the cars travelling the Dammam-Khobar expressway, toasting the asphalt. The restlessness of the drivers and passengers showed in their movements and their eyes, squinting against the dazzling sunlight. I looked at the digital clock. Five minutes of my lunch break gone, forty left.

To break up the long hours of work and escape its monotony, I had made a habit of going out for lunch in Khobar, only a few minutes away from my workplace.

Sometimes we would go out for lunch together. He introduced me to some restaurants which had that wonderful European flavor, and he in turn was very keen on the taste of kabsa, the traditional eastern Saudi fish biryani dish my wife prepared. The first time he tasted it, sitting cross-legged in front of the communal dish on the floor, exactly like we do, he said, “This is the best kabsa I’ve ever eaten in my life.” Then, as if suddenly realizing he’d committed a faux-pas, he gestured towards his wife and joked, “except for the one Janet makes, of course.” Janet was sitting on one of the sofas in the lounge of their apartment in the residential compound of the company’s foreign workers, eating a slice of kanad from her own small plate.

I noticed that the cars in front of me were veering off into the two right-hand lanes, as the concrete barrier blocked the road on the left-hand side, so I put on my indicator to join them.

I had met him four years ago. He was transferred to the Sharqia branch of the company after he and his wife had spent more than ten years moving around the Kingdom.

“I’ll refuse to transfer away from this area.”

It was one off his firm decisions, made after a trip I accompanied him and Janet on to the local villages, and the Thursday market. He was convinced the Sharqia was less frantic and noisy than anywhere else in the country.

I approached the end of the queue of cars. The third lane I was in was even more congested than the others, and I could see the cause of the traffic jam from where I was. The extreme heat had obviously been too much for one of the cars--an older model, judging by the steam rising from inside its open bonnet. A man who had been its owner stood beside it, waiting. A little further on, at the front of the queue, were several state security officers in bullet-proof vests standing at a check point and inspecting the identity documents of everyone in the cars.

Conversations with him used to have a different air to it; I was astonished by the simplicity of the way he presented his convictions. In short sentences and informally.

“It is just a passing phase, nothing more- this country’s the safest place on earth.” he said as he put a spoonful of food into his mouth, and calmly began to chew it. This was his response to the numerous call for foreigners to leave the kingdom.

The young security officer holding my identity card was scrutinizing my face. I took off my sunglasses so that he could see me more clearly and our eyes met. He looked deeply inside me and I didn’t need to sink into his eyes to feel that trust that once existed had begun to seep away.

Twenty minutes of my lunch break were left by the time I was allowed to leave the checkpoint. I drove faster, trying to make up for lost time. I wouldn’t be able to eat at the restaurant and flick through the newspaper now. A sandwich and a bag of fries were on the passenger seat to my right as I sped back to work.

On the first day of June as we were sipping our morning tea in the company café, he said, “She wants to leave as soon as possible, because of what happened last Saturday and she is insisting that I go with her.”

Then in a strained voice which was nothing like the one I’d become used to, he said,

“The truth is, I can’t stay here without her.”

I shook my head without saying a word, and we both stared into our cups of tea. They didn’t even wait to get their terminal gratuity. They gave me their bank account details and asked me to transfer it to their accounts.

After what had happened my sense of wanting to do everything I possibly could for them had only intensified.

I was just about to park in the company car park when my mobile phone rang. It was his number, the one I dialed earlier. He said a few words, asked me about Sharqia and then told me that the money had arrived safely. Before hanging up he promised to stay in touch.

“Thank you” he said. Everything is in order, thank you.

His final words of thanks were in Arabic “shukran.”

 

 

 

*On 29 May 2003 gunmen entered an accounting office of large company and asked several non- Saudi workers about their religion and then shot them dead in front of their Saudi colleagues. Al Qaida was responsible.