Patience is the most pain…
My brother forwarded me an email once. Some school in Saudi Arabia was looking for an English teacher. I read it and deleted it.
Meanwhile, things continued as before. I knew that to get my life together I needed a regular schedule and salary. So I signed up for a temp job at Dell. It paid less than driving a limo could, but, at least I knew where I was going to be at a given time of day.
Now when I told my wife that I was going to work in a factory, I made a mistake, and she made a mistake. I told her I was going to work from 4 pm to 1230 am. She started imagining the sweatshop her brother worked in with me in it.
So she was expecting a call at 1230 my time, but I had made a huge mistake. I was working until 230 am. We could not use phones at any time or place in the factory, so I just kept working. When I finally did call, her only words were tears.
“Do they have AC?” she kept asking.
I said, “Yes, they have AC, they give us breaks, everything’s fine.”
She didn’t believe me. She thought I was covering it up just so she wouldn’t worry. Her brother worked long hours at a sewing machine with no ventilation and dim lights, and that was actually pretty good, considering what goes on in other factories.
“Don’t worry. America only allows that outside of our country,” I assured her.
I wasn’t the only over-qualified guy in the factory. I used to meet up for coffee before work with a Tunisian guy who was very intellectual, and working on a Master’s degree. I should say coffees. The guy picked me up for work at 2.15 and we didn’t start until four o’clock. And my house was only 15 minutes away! When he called I was barely awake, which was not a problem because we spent the next hour and 15 minutes exploring the outer reaches of free refills. Once we spent 3 hours at a Starbucks on a night work finished early, which means I kept having to tell my wife I’d call her back. Needless to say, she didn’t approve of this friend. She doesn’t seem to approve of any of the friends I have coffee with, now that I think about it…
Somehow, I started to think about that email my brother had sent me. My first trip abroad ever involved backpacking Europe in a Mercedes, if you can imagine that, and I’d had the “travel bug”- this desire, this need to be other places- ever since. Maybe it started a little before that, but ever since I felt like a fish in a fishbowl that was floating in the ocean. I had to get out. My teaching license petition wasn’t going anywhere either, so maybe that was it, too. I asked my brother to resend it, and alhamdulillah he still had it.
My interview with the school changed my life.
They told me about the job, blah, blah, blah, but when I started asking them about bringing family, they said I would be able to have my wife there within 2 months. Getting that job in Saudi Arabia became my mission in life. Saudi or bust..
I did everything. They told me to get any teaching certificate, so I found the only one that was immediately available, a 20-hour weekend certificate in New Jersey. I missed a flight to New York, got on another one to D.C. and took a train to New York, slept out in Jersey. I needed some, any teaching qualification to be eligible for a visa. I straggled my way back to my D.C., where my brother was working. Then I called them to let them know everything was ready. And you know what they told me?
They played me. They were all off on summer vacation.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and this only hardened my resolve. I looked up an old friend, the same one who had invited me to Islam in fact, who I’d heard was teaching in Saudi Arabia. He directed me to some English language teaching websites where job ads were posted. I literally applied for every single job in the Middle East. Unless they said they wanted a Ph.D, they got an application from me that summer.
Saudi Arabia has its particulars. Their work visa requires a medical screening that should be the newest Olympic sport. I took the form from the consulate to ProMed, and they kept looking at it, scratching their heads, going to ask someone in the back, looking at me, and scratching their heads again.
“What’s this for?”
“It’s for a visa to Saudi Arabia.”
“But why do they want all these tests?”
“I guess they don’t want any diseases in their country.”
“Yeah, they probably have enough problems already…”
I had to give a blood test, drug test, urine test, AIDS test, chest x-ray. There was even a stool sample. I didn’t know what a stool sample was, but, now that I do, I can tell you that you do NOT want to know how to “collect” and store one.
Whatever, I was on my plane to Saudi.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but when I saw Jeddah for the first time on the highway from the airport, I was shocked. It was just. like. America. The billboards, the cars, the clothes. Everything. OK, well there were about 100 times more people wearing black or white robes, but still. Somewhere, apparently, and without my permission, they’d figured out that AC is much more effective than the shade of a palm tree, and traded in horses for horsepower… It was just- I guess I’d read so much about the first generations of Muslims that I hadn’t imagined what else could have happened in the land they once lived in. It’s not that I expected to go back in time or to be in some kind of holy land. But I was expecting the difference to be greater.
The Bollywood music started and the crowd parted. My wife walked out of the terminal, saw me, started gushing, and in a near run interrupted by bounds of joy, she fell into my outstretched arms and bouquet of roses.
Then I woke up to the fight of my life.
It was Ramadan, which in the Arabian Gulf means shortened work hours, which means that the application for my residency permit, essential to my wife’s visa application, was going nowhere slow. If you ask anybody for anything, they’ll tell you “After Eed.” It’s not a holy month, it’s the perfect excuse…
I had to work on site till about 12 at the outskirts of Jeddah, hop on the first thing smoking back to my office, and start hounding this guy or that guy, whoever the buck was being passed to, about the application. It turned out my boss was giving me the run-around. He kept telling me to have someone else sign something that only he had the authority to sign, and by the way, he always takes Ramadan (and most other months) off, so the only way to get him to sign something was to give it to the guy who drove to his house from the office once a night. I had to figure this all out bit-by-bit while getting over jet lag, fasting, going through a heat wave that makes Texas seem like Switzerland, and some mysterious headaches, probably brought on from the aforementioned three.
I had to get violent on those cats. I went through all this trouble to get the driver guy to get a signature, then get that paper to the stamp guy, who doesn’t give a stamp without a signature, and then give the paper to the PR guy, whose job was to take things to government offices. Do you know what this PR fool did when I finally tracked him down to give him the paper? He picked it up like it was a towel and practically crumpled the whole thing. After all I’d done. I punched him in the chest. I wasn’t angry (that’s what every guy says when he’s angry)- I was just the new guy takin’ the shortcut to a little respect. I hope that didn’t break my fast. astaghfirullah…
Finally it was all done. Me and my wife’s paperwork were ready. According to one veteran ex-pat, it was the Saudi record for getting the family’s paperwork done.
There was just one more thing, to bring her. Normally, people just buy their wife a ticket and meet her at the airport. I, however, was unwilling to break the Prophetic order forbidding a woman to travel long distances without a close relative.
“Brother, honestly, you’re wasting a lot of money.”
“She’s not going to be traveling alone. Her family will bring her there, then she’s on the plane with lots of people, and then you’ll meet her at the airport. Someone will be there the whole time.”
This is what people were telling me, including my boss, who’s money I was borrowing to buy all the tickets, and whose travel agency was booking the ticket, and who’s language center I was going to be absent from for a day. It’s a miracle this even happened now that I think about it. alhamdulillah…
I didn’t care. I was willing to pay for a $100 visa to Pakistan, and a roundtrip ticket, only to stay for a day, on top of her one-way ticket, to follow my religion.
Besides, I wasn’t gonna take no chances wit’ my baby…
Her dad and brother met me at the airport. When I walked into the house, she was helping her mother in the kitchen. The first thing she did was look away, shy…
We didn’t hug- they don’t do that in front of other people in Pakistan. We didn’t even smile. There was too much worry, relief, gladness, and nervousness to know what face to make. We’d been longing for so long we didn’t know how to feel anything else right away…
“wa álaykum as-Salam”
Those simple words had so many thousand shades of meaning at that moment, and we meant every single one of them.
People had a certain smell when they are sick. She had it. Her skin was sallow, her voluminous hair thinned. They say patience is a virtue. I say that of all verbs, ‘wait’ is the most painful. I don’t know what’s worse, being burned by the fire of the urge of what you think you can do, or the torment of knowing you can do nothing. I’d had a lot of both.
As if on cue, our flight from Abu Dhabi was delayed. Overnight.
You’re a young sheltered Pakistani girl, who’s only seen planes in the sky. Now you’re in the middle of of one of the world’s busiest hubs with all kinds of people flying past- a line of 50 Malaysians with mini-visors sticking out of their hijabs making a beeline at you, a towering, Sudani family wearing miles of cloth taking your breath away, some squawky Brits brushing you aside. Announcements blare in languages you can’t understand. You’re alone and you don’t know where to go, who to ask, or even what to ask.
What would I have done if her flight had been delayed overnight and I was sitting in Jeddah not knowing where she was or how to reach her? What would I have told her family that night at the time they were waiting to hear from her? What would my friends and their advice do for me me then?
I felt vindicated.
As a reward, al-Ittihad Airways sponsored our second honeymoon: a one-night stay with a free breakfast buffet in an Abu Dhabi hotel.
I had rented our apartment the day before I left. I hadn’t even slept there myself, nevermind furnished it. But it was home, our home, at last. Only then could we finally take a breath and get a real look at each other again.
She was still beautiful…