'Not From Here,' stories by Nathan Deuel

Night of the sandstorm: Seeing Saudi through American eyes

riyadh_flag

The calamitous scene at the US embassy in Riyadh. (Courtesy of the Pine Leaf Boys/pineleafboys.com)

I’m back in Riyadh for the first time in 45 days. Along the highways, Saudi flags – that fearsome green banner with the ornate script and the crossed swords – flap in the hot desert air. Ramadan is over; Islam’s annual, month-long ritual of day-time fasting and night-time feasting has at last come to a close. The capitol hasn’t recovered yet.

For the first time – taking a familiar drive into the heart of town, cresting the western ridge of the city’s wide river plateau – I see how beautifully Riyadh sparkles at night.

Time away is good. It gives you perspective, letting you appreciate things anew. But it also helps you sharpen your instincts, re-remember what once made you pause. (As I’m thinking this, the flashing lights of a police checkpoint come into view.)

I tap the steering wheel and realize this: In the coming weeks and months, I’ll let this column be a kind of record of that tension between fear and awe.

For now, as awe takes the lion’s share, I’ll share another piece originally published in The Review, a weekly supplement to The National.

In the piece, we encounter a band of American musicians – most of whom had never left America, let alone North America. Because of their wide-eyed enthusiasm, what could have been a disaster becomes a kind of catharsis.

Assembled in a plush anteroom at Quincy House, the US Ambassador’s formal residence here in Riyadh, the Pine Leaf Boys were a crew of guileless, fresh-faced Louisianans in their mid-20s. The bassist, a handsome bearded man named Thomas David, had never left the US before. The drummer, Drew Simon, compact and slouching, said he postponed his wedding to attend. The wispy-thin fiddler, Courtney Granger, said he was so nervous about coming to the Middle East that he’d spent the previous two days vomiting.

The Pine Leaf Boys are accustomed to playing smoky Louisiana bars. For their two shows in Riyadh – to be followed by stands in Jeddah, Abu Dhabi, and Jerusalem – their stage would be a tennis court. Covered in Middle Eastern carpets, the court featured an array of formal dining chairs, upon which sat some of the 200 or so polite and quiet guests — a mix of Saudis, Americans, Brits, East Asians and other expatriates – all of whom had passed machine gun nests to enter the invitation-only event.

Two American state department officials paced the carpet with microphones in hand. They seemed shockingly young – fresh-faced and smiling – and made cheery appeals to the audience: “Any one ever been to Louisiana?!” If the desert had crickets, we would have heard them chirping. “Ready,” the woman said, “not to talk politics – but to hear music and dance?!” At the words, “talk politics”, the young diplomat had mugged a clownish frown. I didn’t envy her.

Their welcoming act was directed primarily at the two dozen or so Saudi guests in attendance. They ranged from portly men with moustaches and crisp thobes accompanying chic, uncovered Saudi matriarchs, to young teenaged boys with gelled hair and designer T-shirts.

Just before the band began tuning up, I had spoken with the embassy’s cultural attaché, Dennis Curry, who had helped arrange the Riyadh concerts. After years as a political officer, Curry had moved over to the cultural affairs department for his stint in Riyadh. It seemed a bit rehearsed, if no less honest, when he told me how nice it was to dangle carrots rather than wielding a stick.

With the Pine Leaf boys, Curry told me, the embassy had nearly done something momentous. Normally, the State Department can only hold tiny, invitation-only concerts at the heavily fortified embassy. But for one of the band’s Riyadh performances, American officials had nearly secured the King Fahd Cultural Center, a venue that holds several thousand people, and which actively promotes its events to make sure those seats get filled.

German diplomats were the first to hold a major public event at King Fahd, a May 2008 performance of Mozart before a mixed-gender crowd. Then in February 2009, the Japanese embassy snagged the same space for a traditional drumming rehearsal. Negotiating such events in Saudi Arabia is a delicate proposition. And an open-invitation concert by an up-tempo and young ensemble like the Pine Leaf Boys – who would be playing live music of an eminently danceable kind – would have marked a new level of musical thaw in the capital. But last-minute snags intervened.

On the embassy tennis court, the thumping bass and fiddling gained momentum, playing to just the small crowd of 200 but no doubt carrying outside the compound and across the night desert air. Then a young diplomat – an American woman in the kind of snug outfit that would have been normal at home but seemed jarring here – began to dance. As other expats joined her, I saw a hint of what might have been. Tapping my foot, I wondered whether the next concert – there are plans for hip-hop and country shows in upcoming months and years – might have a bigger stage than the ambassador’s tennis court.

On the night of the second show, in the same plush anteroom, I spoke to the band again. They were no longer hesitant to make eye contact with Saudis they encountered. In the last night’s post-concert scrum, they told me, a Saudi national in his 20s had said they were better than the Backstreet Boys. A 10-year-old Saudi gymnast, her thoughts utterly unedited, had told them they were surprisingly creative, but were probably worse gymnasts than her. Jon Bertrad, the band’s grinning guitarist, fingered his snap-front cowboy shirt and told me they’d posed for more pictures than ever before in their entire career.

After the interview, I wandered out to the stage and watched a Filipino guy doing sound check. He picked out a Beatles bass line and I thought I saw lightning crack in the sky. The flashes continued through the band’s set, but I convinced myself they were camera snaps. Then an hour into the show, the tops of the trees began to sway. A terrible wind began to howl, bringing choking clouds of sand. The giant American flag behind the stage began to billow. The rugs hiding the tennis court whipped up, knocking over tables and sending expats and Saudis running. Rain began to fall, and the band started ripping down their equipment. It was a mad dash into the wood-lined quiet of the residence.

I joined the army of formally dressed guests running to and fro with delicate musical equipment. The stage and grounds were littered with upended tables, broken bottles, and sand. In some respects, it seemed a sad comment on the evening. I heard more than one Saudi suggest, jokingly, that the terrible storm was divine retribution.

When I entered the residence lugging a bass amp, what I heard sounded like the opposite of retribution. Wilson Savoy, the lanky, unflappable bandleader, had found the Ambassador’s grand piano. In front of a rapt audience of expats and Saudi men and women, abayas checked in the cloak room, the Pine Leaf Boys had begun a spontaneous set. Sitting behind the black immensity of the piano, Savoy had his eyes closed. Courtney was holding his fist to his chest and singing powerfully.

It was just a small gathering, but yelps and claps were ringing out. The crowd glowed. I stood on the grand staircase of Quincy House– named for the vessel upon which President Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz had hatched the foundation of the two countries’ relations – and regarded the scene: a mixed crowd of men and women, Muslim and non-Muslim, standing together in a tight, intimate circle, swaying and stomping to music from southwest Louisiana in Riyadh.

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