Friday, October 17, 2008

Just an Average Night in the Wadi

Wednesday night I went out with a few friends from work to the home of a Saudi guy who we know. He's a cool guy, usually comes to our house parties, and he has a lot of Embassy friends, far more than I do. So he invited us down to hang out with him for an evening and sent a driver to pick us up. He lives less than a half-mile away from me, but it's about a ten-minute drive because there's only two entrances to the DQ, so it takes some negotiating to get there. He lives in the wadi that forms two edges of the DQ, and you can actually see his house from here (well, I haven't personally seen it, but I haven't exactly taken many walks to see the sights here).

Now I knew that he was a wealthy guy, based on some conversations I've had with him at parties, but it didn't really click until I saw his family's compound. He has his own house inside it, just for him, built around a pool in a central courtyard whose area is easily twice the size of my parents' house in Arkansas. (Let me clarify my modifiers - the pool is more than twice as large as my parents' house.) The back terrace is adjacent to the edge of the wadi, and there are lights sunk into the craggy cliff face that throw light down on the terrace and almost obscure the view at night of the razor wire fence that marks the edge of the DQ. A handful of us, Americans and Saudis, sat around all night smoking hookahs, , and watching the full moon and stars rise over the cliff face. Our host provided us dinner at about 1 AM, and I'm sad to say that it was the first Arab food I've had since I landed here on the 30th of August - lockdown has meant that we can't get out much, and there aren't that many sources of quality Arab food here anyway. (The Lebanese, the best cooks in the region, wisely stay the hell out of this country.)

We left his place and went back to a party in the DQ at about 2, but before we left, our host changed from his thobe into what he called his "Crusader clothing," or jeans and a t-shirt. As we were driving back into the DQ, he casually pointed at the estate across the road from his family's and said, "That's where one of the important government ministers lives." You know, like it's totally an everyday thing that one of the men who runs the country lives across the street from you.

Obviously, I was dealing with someone who is very much in the extreme minority of Saudis. This would be approximately equivalent to me hanging out on Nantucket with the Kennedys for an evening. Wealthy Saudis are known for just how ostentatious they can be, and this house, even though it's owned by someone I consider a friend who just acts like a regular guy in normal interactions, just proves the point. There's no need for him to comment on his wealth. The stable of Lexuses (Lexii?) in front of his massive house with marble and carved wood everywhere says all that need be said. It's quite surreal.

In one respect, however, my friend is on the same level as everyone else in the country, including diplomats: he can't get tonic water. Evidently the entire country is out of it. Our bartender at the embassy went to every grocery chain in town and called other cities, and no one has it. People are sending drivers to Bahrain (about 4-6 hours away, depending on how fast you drive and how crowded the border crossing is) to bring some back to Riyadh. Even the royals are out of it. The Brits are going nuts without their gin & tonics. It's something of an equalizer for us all, perhaps the only one that's to be found here.


  1. But your mother is the provider of all things tonic. Nothing like an APO box with a flat rate of $10.95 to send my kid 5 bottles of Schweppes. Enjoy!
    ILyB, M

  2. Tonic on the way! Your mumsy loves you!