'Not From Here,' stories by Nathan Deuel

In defense of Dubai's migrant labor system

Emirate of Dubai

There's money here. (Image via Wikipedia)

You’ve read the horror stories from Dubai. Beyond all that glitz and glamor lies a dark underbelly: The wretched lives of the mostly Indian and Pakistani men who actually build the place, clean it, and make sure everything works.

It’s all too typical to read media reports describing these men as being transported like cattle onto scorched earth building sites, where they work all day. At night, the story goes, they are corralled into substandard bunkhouses, where they eat bad food and drink worse water. Much of this is not in dispute.

What is important to consider is the idea that migrant workers in the Gulf are paid badly, or unfairly. Foreigners who come to work in oil-rich Gulf countries can make as little as $125 a month. Some analysts call this income tantamount to slavery. Others go further, calling that level of pay a systematic outrage that makes the world a worse place.

But what if precisely the opposite is true? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Business, Economy, Middle East, Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., , , , , ,

Living in Riyadh's ghost town

A typically desolate, beautiful DQ park.

One of the Diplomatic Quarter's desolate parks.

It was September 2008; after a few days in Riyadh, my wife and I left our spartan hotel room, with its bouquet of sweat and sewage, to rendezvous with two American bankers we’d met at the Sharjah airport. “Poor you,” they’d said, learning we were just moving to Saudi. “Let’s meet for dinner.”

Outside, the dust was thick. The bankers — one a buff guy with a buzz cut who looked like a parody of a CIA agent, the other a wry Korean-American — picked us up, and off we barreled through snarls of sun-baked cars. Battle-scarred Crown Victorias gunned their engines past late-model Toyotas. A Hummer ploughed over rumble strips, cutting off a brand-new 700-series BMW. The low-slung immensity of central Riyadh — economy booming on oil, population growing exponentially, housing at a premium — shimmered in the late summer heat. This was home, if we could find a place to live.

Since King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud’s reconquest of Riyadh in 1902, and his subsequent rallying of the country’s tribes under one flag, the city has been the seat of Saudi government — at least in theory. But harsh deserts and a harsher culture meant it long remained one of the most closed-off cities on earth. For years it was instead Jeddah, the much older and more open Red Sea port town, that brokered Saudi’s relationships with the world, hosting the country’s government ministries and foreign embassies. In 1975, however, it was announced that the foreign ministry and embassies would be moving to Riyadh, and that many of the westerners and Saudis accompanying them would be housed together in an experimental new neighborhood called the Diplomatic Quarter. Now, more than three decades later, I was hoping to live there too. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, World, , ,

In awe of new 9/11 tower collapse photos

33297870I’m probably not the first and I certainly won’t be the last to comment on these photos, but goddamn: I’m blown away.

ABC News filed freedom of information act requests to secure release of images taken by a New York City police department helicopter on the morning of 9/11. Capturing the towers before, during and after their collapse, the photographs give a never-before-seen perspective on a pivotal moment in modern history.

It’s absolutely chilling to see the bright red flames in the still-standing tower. It’s just as eerie to see the quiet, perfectly crisp edges of the dust cloud as it envelops lower Manhattan. (See a slideshow here.)

I don’t know if I’ve been so affected by a set of images. More than my breath being taken away the first time I saw the lurid Abu Ghraib prisoner photos or the queasy surreality of Saddam Hussein caught wide-eyed in his bunker, these copter shots of the World Trade Center towers show a moment with which we are all — the whole world — all too familiar. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: 9/11, Photos, , , ,

Happy Valentine's Day? Not in Saudi Arabia

A Saudi woman is seen at a flower shop on the ...

Some Riyadh flower shops get away with stocking pink flowers , such as this one pictured on V-day last year. (Image by (AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

Think you have reason to loathe the treacly holiday? Try Saudi Arabia, where it’s actually illegal.

The battle here against chocolates, red teddy bears, and red roses is upon us again. Pitting the Saudi religious police (known officially as the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice) against love-sick teens, it’s an old chestnut, worn smooth by overuse, so much so that locals collect and ridicule the latest headlines. Among the winners this year:

* “Roses are banned … violets are too”
* “No Valentine’s: Saudi religious police see red”
* “Roses are red, violets are blue, Valentines in Saudi risk a flogging or two”

As bored as I am by stereotypical news stories from Saudi and the lazy thinking that pigeonholes this place as nothing more than barbaric, the notion of a banned romantic holiday speaks to a larger problem for young people here: Loneliness.

But boys will be boys, and girls, girls. Seeking each other, Saudi kids have for years been evolving better and better contra-religious police strategies. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Islam, Religion, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, World, , , , ,

I dream of war

John McCain waits to deliver speech in Denver,...

Image via Wikipedia

Woke up early this morning with John McCain slapping me on the back. I was in fatigues, standing among fellow soldiers for some sort of honor guard ceremony. I leaned uninjured against crutches, trying to fake my way out of fighting. McCain, his big scarred face a plastic mask of fellowship, slapped me on my back again and nearly knocked me over. Then a towering, super-buff Latino General — of higher rank somehow than McCain — came over and laid his crushing, buff arm over my head. This Latino General regarded the field of soldiers, the gleaming guns, the spectators in the stands. How was I lucky/unlucky enough to have the two important guys on either side of me? Then I realized the Latino General thought McCain was a bullshit pussy, and I — with my glasses and touch-typing fingers — was someone just as bad.

“Nerds better be giving up on robots,” the Latino General said, crushing my head and making my fake crutches crumble. He looked at McCain and sneered. “This war is among men.”

***

Surrounded by war these days: Saudi with Yemen, America in Afghanistan, and maybe soon, Israel versus Lebanon, and my oldest friend heads to an Iraq FOB this summer. Feels like there’s no refuge, especially late at night.

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Filed under: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Military, War, World, Yemen, , , , , ,

Reading Stephen King in Riyadh

Cover of "Under the Dome: A Novel"

Cover of Under the Dome: A Novel

I hadn’t read Stephen King since I was 12. Needful Things, which came out in 1991, was the last gasp of what you’d probably call a childhood obsession. Over about 16 months, helped by an aunt who ran a used book store in rural Montana, I devoured them all — The Stand, Misery, even his pseudonymous Bachman Books. I was hooked on the horror and drama, of course. But there was an inkling in the breakneck reading that I was being driven by desires more important than mere titillation.

On reflection — and as inspired by this latest reading — I now realize that my King thing was more than a child’s first crush on scary stories; it was a young man’s effort to figure out how to be an adult. Because — more than macabre tales — King’s novels almost always take some big-hearted stand on what is wrong and what is good and how we should live. (Cujo was about the frailty of man in the face of animals; The Stand about the inherent danger of big cities and the technology that comes with them; Pet Semetary cautioned us not to love animals — or each other — too much.) And a King book is invariably a very long book, a fact that made reading any of them feel like that much more of an accomplishment. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Books, Homesick, Writing, , , , , ,

Last night, at the checkpoint

Biometric United States passport issued in 2007

I need one of those, the blogger said, eying my passport. (Image via Wikipedia)

The blogger stood beside his compact green sedan, the police lights washing over his polo shirt, jeans, and sneakers. I coasted over, surprised at how slight he seemed in person. The gears of my Chinese-made bike clicked, and I felt in my breast-pocket for the comforting heft of my U.S. passport.

My wife had explained to me that her Saudi visitor would need someone to meet him at the gate of our walled compound. But we no longer rented a car — I had become terrified of traffic and the idea of blood money — so I would face the checkpoint police born on the unenviable conveyance of two wheels.

The night air was cool, and men with guns swarmed. Stretching beyond the guards was a long line of vehicles, each waiting to gain entry. Next to an armored personnel carrier, two heavy-set soldiers in berets sat smoking in the shadows. I noticed the glowing red bulb of a burning cigarette. It was the gunner manning the .50-caliber cannon. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Journalism, Media, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, World, Writing, , , ,

In which my friend tells me he's leaving forever

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

This is a long drive for someone with everything to think about. (Image by Bakar_88 via Flickr)

I’m riding in the back of a taxi driven by Sabic, a six-foot Keralite with piercing yellow-green eyes. Dust from the Empty Quarter bathes the morning in an ill, yellow haze. Usually I read, but today I’m sizing up the central city buildings, reading signs, taking note of the way people drive.

“When are you going home?” I ask Sabic.

It’s a familiar question; vacating Saudi is always on our minds, because so many of us here — seven million by some count, compared to a local population of just three times that  — are expatriate workers here on indefinite assignment. But it’s a queasy infinity: None of us can be buried in Saudi, and citizenship is granted to few foreigners born here.

Officially, at least, the Saudis are eager to get rid of us, and there are elaborate “Saudization” plans that call for the training of locals to do jobs currently completed by foreigners. But the reality of a Saudi Arabia in which locals do all the work is still far off.

So here we are — driving along the clogged arteries of 2010 Riyadh — an American and a man from southern India.

Sabic’s been here 14 years. Over that time, he’s completed Hajj, heard from afar about the birth of his daughter — now six years old — and has learned how to drive slow and steady. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Family, Hajj, Islam, Middle East, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, World, , , , ,

If you read only one Salinger tribute

White Mountains National Forest, New Hampshire...

New Hampshire: It's really not at all like the Lower East Side. (Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr)

At least for this week or so, J.D. Salinger is as brilliantly alive to a world of readers as he has been any day for decades. Among the many moving tributes, one by The New Yorker’s Lillian Ross stands above the rest. A friend of Salinger’s for five decades, Ross writes a tribute with feeling and intimacy. Several moments stand out.

He loved children:

After watching his son, Matthew, playing one day, he said, “If your child likes—loves—you, the very love he bears you tears your heart out about once a day or once every other day.” He said, “I started writing and making up characters in the first place because nothing or not much away from the typewriter was reaching my heart at all.”

Salinger was generous with writers he admired:

When he read a story of mine about kids skipping around a Maypole in Central Park, he wrote to me, “The first and last thing you’ve done is to redeem everything, not just make everything bearable.”

He found simple pleasures:

He told me that one day he went out and bought an iron, and had his housekeeper iron his shirts. “How it cheered me up,” he said.

Interesting how a man — whose work is alreadly immortal — gains, in death, a strange flare-up of deeply human presence among a world of many who may have long taken his body for granted. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Books, Death, Entertainment, Journalism, Media, Writing, , , ,