Assignment 2 (Revision: 11/15/15): Direct Observation
Before I leave the serenity of my heated flat at 6:30 am, Saturday morning, and rush out into the crisp desert air of Saudi Arabia, I say a prayer. Not to get me through the seemingly endless workday, or a prayer to keep the attention of SMS addicted students, but a prayer that I safely make it through the unpredictable 15-minute adventure to the university.
Jumping into the dirt-speckled taxi, I’m greeted by my old driver, Uncle Ahmed. “Good Morning, Zahrah!” .. My name is Ashley. However, Uncle Ahmed insists that a name must hold a meaning, and “from an ash tree” wasn’t good enough.
“You moat (dead)?!”, he asks. I apologize for my lateness. I wipe out a circle of condensation from the window to peer out. Uncle Ahmed uses his sleeve on the windshield and rolls down his window to see from a different angle. We teach him about the defrost button and he instantly lights up in amazement of this new invention.
We first pass a playground that holds abandoned balls, bottles, and bags from yesterday’s attendants. The cement football/soccer courts sit on the grounds of an old mosque, making it a temporary babysitter during prayer calls. We come to a median at an unnamed street, which would require a right turn, followed by a U-Turn. However, we always make the left onto possible oncoming traffic, until the break in the median. The motels along this street are identical, besides the unique designs of gated windows that encase its inhabitants. Guarding the door, one of the cleaners is occupying a set of airport benches. Adjacent, a dusty old couch decorates the motel’s outdoor seating area.
We are now approaching what we call “the road of death”, a road left unnamed by city planners. We see our first hazard at the corner construction site, where foreign workers lift a spin saw to the 3rd story of the structure, by tying the handle to a rope. Piles of debris stretch carelessly out into the street.
Facing another mosque, we turn right. It’s pretty much a straight shot from here. The challenge is to navigate an unmarked road of perhaps 3-lanes, unpronounced speed bumps that we brace for by memory, and the absence of signals at crossings. Unbothered, the driver of a sputtering moped speeds past us, using a tightly wrapped scarf as his helmet. Our 65-year old driver slowly makes his way down the street, in comparison to the 20-somethings and occasional 14-year-old driving his mother to the store. Recycled, round trash receptacles line the road. Most of the trash misses the bin by mere inches, while one is used to contain a fire for the chilled workers.
A row of lively, green palm trees peek out from the stone fortress of a private villa. In contrast, outside its walls, it neighbors large piles of dusty rubble and stray cats. Meanwhile, within the taxi, there’s a burst of conversation between my British co-workers “Oh, I hope my students don’t ____”, “Oh My Allah! Did you just see that ______?”, “Just 4 more weeks, ladies, until we _______”. I spend less time chiming in, and mentally prepare for the dreaded road ahead; the 4-way, 3-ish lane intersection without stoplights. Most of us have learned of common courtesy in driving school of how to execute this in a 1-lane, turn-taking, setting. However, patience is not applied here. We are now sitting in the center of a myriad of angry drivers, who clearly voice themselves with their horns and gestures that are universally understood. My driver gives back the same look and yells a stream of Arabic. One full year in Saudi and the extent of my Arabic is knowing how to say, “You crazy, mentally ill person” with fluidity.
Uncle Ahmed’s horn gets him through the traffic, and I can convince my heart to stop racing. The rest of the scenery helps, as everything else is predictable. We will always pass the smaller men’s only shops with unrushed patrons taking in their Arabic tea and breakfast foul. The cluster of pre-teen boys dressed in their crisp white thobes and checkered scarves always pick up a Pepsi from the local gas station on the way to school. And I delight in seeing rare English, as we pass the golden arches of Mickey D’s and a pharmacy, simply titled “Pharmacy”.
We have one more intersection, but thankfully this one comes with a traffic light. The very second it turns green, starts the blaring of every car horn, including ours. After the driver to our right, makes a left-hand turn, we’re in the clear. We make our final turn onto the backroads of the school, passing Arabic graffiti and a pink villa that stands out among the brown city. We hop out the taxi to join the dozens of veiled women in long, black abayas. A student greets me at the door. She smiles with stunning eyes and lavish accessories. I’m pretty sure it’s Ghada.