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 Dhahran.
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 lived on campus about ½ kilometer from the classroom building. At 36 to 48 degrees Celsius, it could be tough going, that walk. Nonetheless, I did it twice daily. It was cooler in the evening but I finished class before the sun set. That first week was disorienting. I still didn’t have a phone, and I didn’t know how to call for a taxi on especially hot afternoons. I had discovered the dining hall, but I didn’t know how to order in. I liked the kids, but I hadn’t yet completely adjusted, nor had I forgotten my brother’s warning.
One afternoon, as I was walking along on my way back to the Shabaab, an apartment block for singles, the week’s events passed through my mind. It had been a trial. I had the same students, 21 males, for 4 hours of instruction. The boys were physically dynamic. One lad weighed close to 400 pounds; the others were beefy but in far better shape. They all dressed in bright white thobes, all miraculously spotless. In addition to this traditional one-piece robe, the boys wore slippers and a headpiece or ghutra. They vibrated with energy, desperate to horseplay, always brimming with fabulous tales and jokes they were unwilling to keep to themselves. Once in a near state of collapse and frustration, I asked the class if they had been deliberately trying to make me cry. “Is that what you want?” A boy in the back of the room who had been disruptive 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 cascaded through my mind, turning over and over again as I made my way home. There was no perspiration in the heat as it was so quick to evaporate. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that one of the passing cars had slowed considerably and appeared to be following me. It was now barely inching along at my pace. It was a bright red Mustang with dark tinted windows, front and back. Suddenly, my teaching day gave way to rampant paranoia. My brother’s worst fantasies began to fill my mind, as my failings as a teacher withdrew.
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 remembered all this with no small amount of bitterness.
The Mustang was just feet away. It seemed to me ages before I knew what was happening and in that period all sorts of terrible thoughts raced through my mind. Finally, the car stopped. The passenger side door flew open, and a young man with an extraordinarily wild head of hair leapt out and greeted me. It was Labban from my class. “Mr. Lohrey,” he said. This was one of the class clowns, and by my estimation their leader. I wondered what he wanted and feared slightly that he might throw an egg at me or do something playful if embarrassing. “Hey,” he shouted, “get in.” “What?” “We will drive you home.” “There’s no room,” I replied. There were 5 boys in the four-seater. “We will take you. It is too hot.” No American student would have made such a gesture. Labban’s pal Al-Otaibi climbed out of the car. “We will wait here. Get in.” The air conditioner was on full blast. The driver beckoned. I climbed into the front seat. The boys were giddy with excitement. The lads in the back seat I didn’t know so I turned around to introduce myself. They were goofy as hell, smiling wildly, both with thick heads of curly hair, dark eyes; so dark, in fact, they looked as if they had on mascara. They passed me a bottle of cold water. I didn’t live far. Initially, I had felt suspicious, but within minutes I was feeling more relaxed. The boys seemed honored that I had accepted their invitation. I felt touched by the gesture. I was at my front door in minutes. We all shook hands. I bound up the steps and into the Shabaab, feeling that I had passed some sort of test. I thought it a very good sign that the boys would take this much trouble for me.
This took place at the beginning of the term, shortly after my arrival. The boys proved again and again capable of acts of genuine kindness. They tried my soul but in the end were gentlemen. In no time, we were heading for the end of term. I had been transferred to the accredited program on the other side of campus. I’d been teaching for only 4 months. For the last week, we planned a pizza party. We ordered 10 pepperoni pizzas from Domino’s in a 2-for-1 deal. A few boys left to pick them up. The class leader, Labban, returned empty-handed and explained that there had been a set-back. The shop was closed. Minutes later, another lad appeared with the food and bottles of soda. Great gales of laughter ensued. One boy had the biggest grin on his face: “Psych.” It had been a joke on me. I had been punked.
Before I knew what was happening, they formed a circle around me. They began chanting in Arabic. I had no idea what they were saying. They were clapping their hands in unison. Then they began stomping their feet as they danced around me. They brought their feet down hard. Lots of laughter, great big grins on their faces. They clapped. Suddenly they turned around and began moving in the opposite direction. They continued stomping and clapping, louder and louder. They began ending their sentences with the single syllable, “LOW.” Then they shouted a bit and cried, “REE.” They were singing and chanting my name: “LOW-REE, LOW-REE, LOW-REE.” They made rhythmic movements, swaying and kicking as they sang: “LOW-REE, LOW-REE, LOW-REE.” They’d been about 3 feet back away from me, but now the circle drew closer, then away again, then closer.
They varied their pace and the loudness of their chant, at once almost a whisper and then nearly a shout. It’d gotten so loud, so close, and so dramatic, I became overwhelmed. Finally, they let fly “Al-ḥamdu lillāh” and threw up their hands, “Hurrah.” The chant was over. They tossed their gutras into the air. They came in close for hugs and kisses. They kissed me on the cheeks and wanted me to kiss them back. It was intense. Now the silence was a relief. It was over.
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. I left it with my students who may have been difficult to teach but were never difficult to love.