HERE I am in Tabuk in the northern part of Saudi Arabia some 400 miles from the Gulf of Akaba in Jordan and over 10 hours drive from Makkah. For the last seven months I have been teaching criticism, English fiction and grammar at Tabuk University. The only Moroccan on campus, I feel a little out of place. This has been my first visit to an Arab country and so far it’s been a life changing experience.
There are at least seven nationalities represented in our department; Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Morocco, Scotland, and USA. A motley crowd you may say, but we are veterans in the proper sense of the word. I get the feeling sometimes that we are like mercenaries– the only cause we have is our commitment to the university. Our private lives, our backgrounds and prospects are jealously guarded away as deadly secrets. Yet we have had our moments of fun, and the sense of close collaboration that reigns in the department leaves little room for complaint. Our Chair, Dr Khalid a Sudanese professor who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Kafka spends his weekdays in a small chaotic office. I could hear his loud staccato laugh from my little office which I share with a Syrian colleague. Did he ever get angry? The first time, I sat in his office; he was listening to the protestations of a Jordanian professor who like me was not happy with his timetable. There was a moment when he seemed on the verge of explosion and I thought, with his formidable, bulky shape he would spring at the Jordanian colleague. It was a comic show after all. I said I would never take them seriously. Already feeling awkward, I had begun to wonder if I should intervene to smooth things between them two.
Our meetings never end without cracking some jokes. One Egyptian colleague has an amazing skill of telling the appropriate joke for the right occasion. I have met some wonderful Egyptians during my previous travels, but never for an extended period as this. The Egyptian community in Tabuk is a very considerable one. Along with the Sudanese, Jordanians and Yemenis, they represent the majority of Arab immigrant community in Saudi Arabia. There are of course Bengalis, Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos and Afghans too. The mosques, in particular, are places where you see gatherings of so many diverse nationalities. You could note clearly from the various garbs and faces that Tabuk’s population is a multi-ethnic community.
Tabuk University was established in 2006. It is located some 8 miles from the city center on the road to Duba (not Dubai). The expanse on which the university buildings and facilities are erected fills you with a sense of loss. You absolutely need a car to move around from one college to another. In another ten years Tabuk University will be an autonomous and thriving town in itself.
For me this was not happy news. There is literally no means of public transportation, and being a foreigner I had to get a local driving licence first in order to be able to buy or rent a car. There are a few taxis which operate in the airport area, but are far too scarce to find circulating inside the town. You could, however, ride a Dabbab which is a small pick-up car. In Morocco, they call it Honda and used it mostly for carrying merchandise or sheep during the Eid Adha. Here in Tabuk Dabbab was a la mode.
If you have been used to comfortable and spacious taxis, you have to swallow your pride and be grateful. The conversation that follows with the Dabbab driver will make you soon forget your plight. The typical questions which begin with your origins and date of arrival quickly turn into such private matters as your salary and cost of rent. But mind you this is a way of socializing and not mere nosiness.
The explanation I get for lack of organized public transportation is that there is not much of a real need for it. Cars are cheap and gas is almost free of charge (less than 20 US cents per liter). It was mandatory for me to get a Saudi driving license. I took the test and (Lo and Behold) I failed! I, who had driven for over 10 years through the busiest, most notoriously hectic streets of Casablanca, couldn’t park the car properly. I certainly had my own way of parking the car and thought I didn’t need to follow the instructor’s meticulous directions. I felt entirely dispirited and swore I’d never go back for the test again. I told my colleagues about my ridiculous and embarrassing defeat and couldn’t find any comfort in their stories of similar failures experienced upon their arrival. However, I did take the test again, and I got my license all right. My first taught lesson was to take it easy and never rush up things as I was wont to do. I could tell that half of my trials and tribulations began to fade away once I had my hands on the wheel. But even the car came with its own worries. Although Tabuk is a small city, driving during the peak hours is really a nerve-breaking test. There are cameras watching speed in all parts of the city and transgressors are severely punished. A minimum penalty is 300 SR (almost $80). Nevertheless, driving to campus and back or undertaking a short trip to the supermarket requires extreme vigilance. I have deservedly got two tickets so far for exceeding speed limit. You get a message on your phone telling you the sad news; but you probably already knew about it because the instant flash of the camera by night or day left little doubt that you had been sanctioned.
During the first week of my arrival in mid August I was lodged at Al-Adel Hotel. The heat was unbearable. The AC in the room worked non-stop; the noise it made was very annoying. Even when I turned the AC off, there was still the same continuous dreary din originating from other machines in the rooms upstairs and along the corridor. It was a remarkable week in which I learned to adapt to a new and different rhythm.
As an expresso drinker, I had no choice but walk a few hundred yards to the nearest gas station every morning. The Turkish coffee offered at the hotel was insipid. Well, in fact, I hadn’t developed a taste for it then; and even now I don’t feel I have gone beyond that stage. At the end of that week, I moved into a furnished apartment….