Photo: HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images
My Drive Through the Saudi Desert
Travelogue

My Drive Through the Saudi Desert

By Photo: HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images

We are flying down an empty six-lane highway, on our way from Jeddah to Riyadh, a seven-hour drive, and I’m thinking of possible routes of escape. I’m in the passenger seat of a new Toyota sedan travelling at 87 mph through the Saudi Arabian desert and I’m racing through the implications of opening my door and leaping free.

The driver is a stranger to me. He is young, no more than twenty-five, with a smooth face and a tentative mustache. His name is Shadad, but he is not a taxi driver, and this is not a taxi. This car and this driver were arranged hastily by my guide and friend, Majed, who helped me around Jeddah the previous week. Before this drive began, Majed and I considered it a decent, if necessary, idea to employ such a driver for this trip, but now I am pondering how I could leave this car. If I open the door and roll out, would I survive? And if I did survive, where would I go? There’s nothing but rocks and sand for miles in any direction.

But still. Vacating this car might be necessary, because though I want to trust this young driver, he is not really a professional driver, and he has no taxi license, and most of all, moments ago, while he was talking to a friend on his cellphone, he looked over to me with a mischievous smile and said to his friend, “Yeah, American, boom boom.” Then he laughed. He did everything but point his finger at me and pull the trigger. I’m not sure how many ways there are to interpret this.

It did not have to be this way. I woke up this morning ready to spend the day in Jeddah, having lunch with new Saudi friends, dinner with new Saudi friends, and then fly out of Jeddah in the late evening, heading back to the U.S. on a red-eye through London. But it was soon after waking up that I looked closely at my itinerary to find that the flight I am booked on is not leaving from Jeddah at 10pm tonight; it’s leaving from Riyadh at 8pmfive hundred and twenty-five miles away.

So I made a flurry of frantic calls back home, to airlines and travel agents, confirming that this was indeed the itinerary, and learning that there were no available flights that would get me from Jeddah to Riyadh in time. There are various reasons I need to get out of Saudi Arabia and back to the U.S. this day, so I had no choice but to look into driving across the country, to Riyadh, to make the flight.

And I had to tell all this to Majed.

“How could this happen?” he asked. I told him I had no idea, that I was very sorry.

Majed couldn’t do the drive himself, so he and I searched around Jeddah, looking for someone who could. We made our way to the outskirts of the city and through a brief labyrinth of small alleys. Finally we reached a dead-end, where about a half-dozen men sat outside on folding chairs. It was not a taxi stand or anything like it.

“This place?” I asked. “Who are these guys?”

“Our only option,” Majed said, and got out.

I sat in Majed’s car, thinking about what had transpired the previous day. Majed and I, who had enjoyed a fluid and friendly rapport for a week, had a strange exchange, which put in question if or why he should trust me. I made a joke about American-Saudi relations, and our military, their oil, various complicities and maybe even the CIA, and from then on, things went cold. It was as if he suddenly realized I was an American, and presumably participating in my country’s various crimes, real or imagined. Since then, he had been visibly anxious to be done with me; we barely spoke, and he seemed to be counting the hours till he could be rid of me.

So I was in Majed’s car, in this alley, watching him negotiate with the group, wondering if this could possibly be a good idea, getting into a car, for a six-hour drive across the Saudi desert, with a man we meet in an alley.

Majed soon returned to tell me the price they’d arrived at. Because I trusted Majed’s judgment, and because the price was far less than what one would pay for a six-hour drive in the United States, I agreed. He and the men and Shadad chose the car we would take, among a few of them parked outside, and I took my suitcase from Majed’s trunk and put it in the trunk of this new car.

Majed and I said our goodbyeswhich were far more perfunctory than I’d expected earlier in the week, when we were closeand Shadad and I took off.

And because I always trust people until I’m given a reason not to trust them, I was content. It was noon, and we had enough time to make it to Riyadh. And because I was sure we would make it in time, I relaxed and planned to watch the passing scenery and possibly take a nap. But then, ten minutes into the drive, Shadad was on his phone, talking to his friend, and while on the phone he looked askance at me, a bloated grin fattening his cheeks, and delivered the “Yeah, American, boom boom” line into his silver cellphone.

Now I’m very much awake. And I’m contemplating my options. I want to roll out of the car, but the car is now doing 100 mph. We pass a tanker truck as if it’s not moving. At this speed I have no options. I’m going wherever this man wants me to go.

I want to make clear that I’ve rarely if ever felt in actual danger while traveling anywhere in the world. This could be dumb luck. It could be a combination of dumb luck, common sense and the benefits of reciprocal trust: trust and you will be trusted. Give respect and you’ll get it.

In any case, it’s a result of a gradual evolution. When I first traveled, I was naive, sloppy, wide-eyed, and nothing happened to me. That’s probably where the dumb luck came in. Then I began to read the guidebooks, the State Department warnings, the endless elucidation of national norms, cultural cues and insults and regional dangers, and I became wary, careful, savvy. I kept my money taped inside my shoe, or strapped to my stomach. I took any kind of precaution, believing that the people of this area did this, and the people of that province did that. But then, finally, I realized no one of any region did anything I have ever expected them to do, much less anything the guidebooks said they would. Instead, they behaved as everyone behaves, which is to say they behave as individuals of damnably infinite possibility. Anyone could do anything, in theory, but most of the time everyone everywhere acts with plain bedrock decency, helping where help is needed, guiding where guidance is necessary. It’s almost weird.

But every so often I have the feeling that a certain guide or driver or boat captain or acquaintance has a powerful kind of leverage, and could kill me if they wished, and no one would know, no one could trace where or at whose hands I disappeared. This is one of those situations. Only Majed knows or cares that I’m in this man’s Toyota sedan, and I am therefore at this man’s mercy. But again, I was absolutely content with and trusting of this man before he made the Boom Boom comment. And normally I would have shaken it off, giving him the benefit of the doubt. I would normally think, He’s a young man, and he made a joke to another young man on the phone, and it has nothing to do with me.

But lately things have changed. There is new information. There are the State Department warnings in 2010, which say that Saudi Arabia is not so safe for Americans, and there are the many warnings made by hotel personnel not to get into random cars or taxis. And worst of all there is the fact that I have a friend who shared, I assume, my presumption of the goodwill of all those one might meet, and this acquaintance is currently in an Iranian prison. His name is Shane Bauer.

I’ve known him professionally for about three years, primarily as a translator. Back in 2008, I had just gotten back from what is now South Sudan and had done interviews with women who had been enslaved during the civil war, and I needed help transcribing my interviews and other interviews, many of which were in Arabic. So I was connected to Shane, a young man living in Oakland who spoke Arabic. He translated many of the tapes from South Sudan, and I later helped facilitate a trip he took to Darfur to make a documentary about the rebel movement there. Then, six months later, I learned that he had been imprisoned in an Iranian prison on dubious charges of espionage. And while I’m riding in this Toyota sedan, Shane is still in the Iranian prison, fate unknown.

This is all to say that something I would have previously deemed beyond the realm of possibilitythat I would personally know someone being held captive in Iran as part of an internationally denounced power play on the part of the semi-sane government of Iranhas made more realistic the possibility that this young Saudi driver might try to do something nefarious with me today. And then there is Majed, who was my friend, but who now might think I’m some kind of enemy. My mind, alone in this featureless desert highway, creates grotesque possibilities. Could Majed have set me up? Because he came to believe I was some intelligence agent, could he have handed me to someone who would profit from my kidnapping? These thoughts are shameful, embarrassing. But if Shane Bauer can be jailed for hiking near the Iranian border, is it so improbable that I could be disposed of in some way here in the Saudi desert?

I look at the car’s gas gauge. I have the thought that if the driver is running low, and needs to refill, I’ll be able to escape. I assume there’s no way he could stop me. I have half a foot of height and thirty pounds on him. Then again, there could be a secret rendezvous point where he’ll fill up his tank and hand me to someone who will pay some bounty ...

The gas tank is full. At the very least, it will be a while before we stop for that particular reason. Looking around the dashboard, I notice that the car’s interior is still covered in plastic. This is a different way of going about things, and I’ve seen it before in other parts of the worldthe reluctance to take the plastic off new cars, new furniture and bicycles. I notice that though the car seems new, there is a cassette player, and that the driver has many cassettes; I haven’t seen this many cassettes in one place in a decade or two. On the mirror itself is a simple sticker that says SAUDI ARABIA, lest he or any other driver of this car forget where they are. I notice, most of all, a blue sign hanging from the rear-view mirror that says “HELP”. Below it is an arrow pointing to an ISBN code, as if that help might come via checkout scanner.

We continue to pass other cars and trucks so fast that they seem stationary. Could he be in a hurry to bring me to his receivers, those he’s sold me to? Now he’s smoking. I try to roll down my window but it’s locked. The driver sees me trying and unlocks it. I lower the window an inch. He looks at the window disapprovingly, and I realize the effect is the opposite as desired: the smoke is crossing the car to exit above my ear. I close the window. He opens his and looks to me.

“Smoke no good?” he asks.

“Smoke no good,” I say.

“Smoke good!” he says, and smiles. He’s making a joke. This is promising, I think.

Sensing the beginnings of a human connection, I open my backpack. He seems unconcerned that I might be taking out something dangerousanother good sign. I take out a folder, where I have my itinerary and tickets and other documents, including a photo of my wife and two kids, which I had printed on an ink-jet printer before I left. In what now seems like prescience, I figured I might need such a photo, to show to a man like this, if such a man had ill-intentions toward me and might be dissuaded by seeing me as a human, as a father; who might even find my children cute and want these children to grow up with two parents and not one.

So I take the photo out and lay it face-down on my lap. And then I ask him if he has kids. He doesn’t understand, so I mime the cradling of a baby, then point to him.

He scoffs and says, “No. No baby. I am the baby!”

It’s a good joke, and we both laugh. This is good.

I turn the photo to face up, and point to it and to myself. He looks at my two children, both very young, two and five years old, and he looks at my wife, and then he sees me in the picture, and he puts it all together. He smiles, nods, and I feel like showing the photo has come off as natural, as a logical enough thing to do during a long drive. And maybe I’ve put a thought in his mind: that I am a father, that my children are young, that I seem like a regular person, probably not a spy or Halliburton contractor or collaborator with the network of government officials and oil and defense contractors who might be the target of his opprobrium.

I leave the photo on my lap for a few miles as we continue driving. He asks no questions about my familynot that he could, with the language barrier, but still, something, I hope, has changed between us. I very well could be imagining it all, but I have no choice but to hope. He flips the cassette in the tape player and lights another cigarette.


Dave Eggers’s view from inside Shadad’s car 

I made no decision to be an American, made no sacrifices to be called an American, did no work to be born into the place and time and conditions that the United States enjoyed in 1970 and my family enjoyed in 1970. It is chance, blind luck, random. And it’s random that this Saudi driver, now hitting 109 mph, was born into a Saudi vesselboth countries are so new that identifying too strongly with their names and flags is a psychic stretchand it would be absurd if this man, this soul-in-a-Saudi-vessel, were to harbor any antipathy toward me, a soul-in-an-American-vessel. So it makes it difficult to take a situation like this, the possibility of danger in this car hurtling through the Saudi desert, too seriously for too long.

I have the frequent thought that if the worst came to the worst, a man like this and I could together recognize the absurdity of our nationalities. You are not a Saudi, I would say, referring to a country that has only existed since 1932. I am not an American, I would say, referring to a country that has existed for 240 years. You are not a driver. I am not your passenger. We believe so little of what we would be expected to believewe believe nothing of the foundational evil of our nations assumed by manybut we do believe that it feels good to be trusted; we believe in the constant movement of souls, the restless nature of the spirit, the profound game of make-believe necessary for either one of us to assume a set of values or motives of the other based on our passports; we believe that we are tired, so tired, of being asked to distrust or hate the people of this country or that culture, the people wearing this uniform or that one, the people who worship this prophet or that god; that we can do better than our fathers and grandfathers and forgo the pretense of rivalries and suspicions; that what we really want are not inherited antagonisms but only some measure of human and material comfort; some frequent stimulation and delight of the mind; some sense of progress for the rights of people; some possibilities and choices for our progeny and the progeny of our neighbors; the ability to love who we want to love; the ability to move freely around the planet as time and means allow.

And right now, driving with this man, what I want is to make this interaction work. I want him to feel good about having met me, and I want to feel good about having met him. One thing you learn after twenty-odd years of random travel is that the people you see along the waythe cabbies, the vendors, the hoteliers, the fellow bus passengers, the man who rents you the kayak on the Isle of Skyeyou’re unlikely to see again. So you want to get it right. To get it right you have to make it right.

But I didn’t make it right with Majed. I run the incident through my mind a dozen times during this drive, watching the desert go by. What did I say that was so wrong? Some joke about the American military. Some joke about unnecessary wars. It was not so wrong. He shouldn’t have been offended. Not just offendedhe changed his mind about me completely. Had our friendship been on this razor’s edge from the start? One wrong phrase and I’d fallen into league with all U.S. foreign policy wrongdoersthat couldn’t be fair. And then I was offended that he was offended. I was finished, too. I could spend hours trying to convince him I wasn’t some agent of imperialism, or I could wait out our last day or so, allow him to put me in some random car with some random man, and be done with it. Which is what I did.

 

Hours have passed since the “American, boom boom” comment. Shadad has made various other, uneventful, phone calls since then. I have felt comfortable enough to even take a few photos out the window, and even a few inside the car, including the one opposite. Shadad didn’t seem to mind.

And now we’re stopping for gas. The station looks like any gas station anywhere in the world. Shadad stops and unlocks the doors.

He gets out, stretches. I open my door and look around. I could run this way, I think. I could make a phone call at that shop over there. I could hide over behind that shed. I could appeal to that truck driver over there.

But instead I ask the driver if he wants a snack or drink. I mime drinking and eating. He shakes his head.

I walk over to the shop next door to the gas station. Inside, there is a solitary man, in his sixties, behind the counter. He nods to me and says, “Salaam.” I nod back, return his “Salaam”.

In the shop, I think again about escape. I could stay here. I could find a way to call Majed, and ask Majed for his guidance and his help, and maybe along the way apologize for my unfunny jokes about Saudi-American relations. I would miss my flight. I would have to stay overnight in Riyadh. Majed would have to drive out to get me here, four hours away from Jeddah and into the desert, to get me to Riyadh, or back to Jeddah, or? But what’s the alternative? Should I really get back in the car with a man who seemed to have promised some terrible threat to my person?

Travel is about great and illogical leaps of trust, though, so I find myself buying a soda for myself and one for the driver, and a box of crackers big enough that we can share it. And then I’m walking back to the car. Shadad is already inside, a new cigarette filling the car with a toxic cloud. I offer the soda to the driver, but he smiles, confusedDidn’t I tell you I didn’t want a drink?and puts the car in gear, and we’re off. He doesn’t touch the soda the rest of the drive.

Night comes on as we approach Riyadh. The city’s lights overtake the darkness. I look at the clock and see that because we’ve been traveling so fast we’re almost two hours early. I want to believe that Shadad was devoted to making sure I was on time for the flight, but it’s just as likely that he wanted to be finished with me, with this long silent drive, so he can get home.

I get out at my terminal, and he helps remove my bag from the trunk. “We made it in good time,” I say. I point to my wrist and give him a thumbs-up. He nods and almost smiles. We stand outside and again we stretch.

I take out an envelope of cash and try to give it to him.

Looking confused, he refuses.

“You friend?” he says. “He pay before we leave.”

I should have known. Majed, a young man of no great means, paid for the whole ride when he met Shadad in that Jeddah alley. I think of Majed now, and I want to embrace him, to tell him how sorry I am. But now I have only Shadad, so I shake his hand, my two hands around his one hand, and he adds his second hand to mine.

Dave Eggers’s latest novel, The Circle, is out now in paperback. His collection of travel writing, Visitants, will be published in the autumn.

This piece originally appeared on newstatesman.com.

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