I’m sitting in the backseat of the brand new Audi A5, whipping on my seat belt with a frenetic pace conducive of the adrenaline rush swelling like a wave, bubbling up from a place in my brain that registers somewhere between terrified and thrilled. The driver laughs, lights up a cigarette, and accelerates out of the turn, intent on catching the careening bright white BMW about forty feet in front of us. I hold my breath and throw a sideways glance to the guy sitting next to me, whose eyes return the same “Oh dear Lord” look as we both white-knuckle the hand grips above the windows.
Mohamed “Mike” Ramadan is in the back seat next to me. Mike is Arab by skin tone, American by passport, and Muslim by faith. He goes by “Mike” in the States – “Mohamed” in the Middle East. He lives in Maryland. I’m from Ohio. As fate would have it, somehow we’ve managed to cross paths in the unlikeliest of places, thousands of miles from home. Now, we’re bound by mutual insanity, and the common prayer that we’ll live to at least taste an American hot dog once more in this life.
We are in the port city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I came for adventure – and to earn a few tax-free bucks teaching English at the local university. Mike came to visit his old acquaintance, my new friend, and the lunatic driving the car – Prince Abdullah.
Approaching a red light and a line of traffic, the prince shows no signs of slowing down. It’s at this point I start to think that drafting my will before I left home would have been a good idea. Dodging cars as we run up to the light, Abdullah slams the brakes, takes a drag on his smoke, chuckles with pomp, and settles back in his seat. He might as well be out for a Sunday cruise.
The Beamer rolls up now and he rolls down the window to start yelling at the other half of the entourage. It reminds me of a scene from a Budweiser commercial – guys hanging out of sports car windows cackling and hollering at each other. Everything’s there but the beer (which is illegal in Saudi, and of which these guys definitely have no need – On second thought, maybe they do). Amidst the back and forth banter – all in Arabic – I start to get the distinct impression that this is definitely not their first drag race.
Green Light. Go.
The chase resets, and I relax against the seat back as the initial shock of driving like we’re the stunt crew of The Fast and the Furious wears off. We squeal through a roundabout. Abdullah pops half out of the open window and barks some choice words at a car moving too slowly for his taste. I’ve been here a month, and I don’t speak a lick of Arabic – but given his general tone of rage and the fact that he leans half of his portly middle linebacker’s body through the window to raise his left hand as he yells in disgust, it’s clear that the prince does not like stragglers.
We whip onto Tahlia Street, a glitzy boulevard full of Armani shops and one too many Starbuck’s. Tahlia has it all. Mosques and malls. Millionaires on the sidewalks and Bangladeshi beggars on the street corners – Hummers and Ferraris, all driven by Saudis wearing ankle-length white thobes and the traditional Arab red and white-checkered headdresses, or shimagh. My mind can’t reconcile it — The whole night is turning into a paradox. I feel like Hunter S. Thompson on drugs in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. What the heck is going on?
I hear the sudden woo-woop of a siren and the flashing lights of the law in our rear-view mirror.
My hands clutch my pockets out of instinct. I check to make sure I’ve got my passport on me. “Great…two weeks into being here and I’m going to get booked for reckless driving with these wing-nuts.” Having been told before I boarded the plane back in the States that the Saudis would scan my computer upon arrival and confiscate it if so much as a picture of my sister in a swimsuit or an article from Rolling Stone containing the F-bomb popped up on the hard drive, I’m not exactly eager to have a run in with the local fuzz. Chop chop square: the pseudo-affectionate name for the place that the Saudis (still) cut off heads for heinous crimes…like grand theft. Reassuring myself that I probably won’t be scimitar-slain for street racing, I look over at Mike for reassurance. He has forgot his passport and is as equally uneasy.
But no sooner do I locate proof that I belong to the United States of America than the skinny Saudi sitting shotgun starts cackling and hysterically half-gagging on his cigarette.
“What’s going on?” I ask, trying to act cool like Steve McQueen as I lean back against the seat.
“We love this shit!” Abdullah interrupts with American slang and a careless snicker – and like that, he’s out the door and approaching the police cruiser. Mike and I turn to look out the back window. Is he seriously approaching a cop? Our Western mindset swivels. We see him saunter up, wag a finger at the police, exchange a few exclamatory words, gesture at himself in the “who? me?” universal gesture of shock and innocence – and then motion for his friend to get out of the car.
“I have to take him his I.D.” the guy chuckles and jumps out of the car.
The policeman, dressed in uniform but diminutive next to the domineering figure of the Prince, inspects the documents, shrugs his shoulders, utters a few more words, and then slugs sheepishly back into the cruiser. The Saudis trot back to the car and get in still laughing.
“What was that??” I ask, baffled.
“Pfft. Nothing,” Abdullah says, visibly frustrated as he gets back on the road. “Happens all the time. I just have to show them my I.D. and they get lost.”
He high-fives his buddy and starts laughing: “The policeman says he’s going to write a report to my uncle. I told him, ‘Fine, do it! See if I care!’” It just so happens that Abdullah’s uncle is the national head of police – at least that’s how it was explained to me. I should’ve guessed.
Lesson Number One.
Saudi Arabia is a land equally misunderstood as it is misrepresented, a land where the royal family still rules the unabashedly Islamic state. But there are no old crowns or bijou-clad hands here – instead, there is bankroll, divine right, and a legal immunity that would make a diplomat jealous. So in the case of my friend, the 20 year-old Prince Abdullah, his Lamborghini Super (incidentally won from his father in a bet having to do with flipping a Sea Doo jet boat…) isn’t just a toy. It’s even more than a signet of status. It’s a not-so-subtle symbol of his family and the country it represents. In many ways, for him to drive anything else would be simply unthinkable. I guess the same applies to the recklessly insane driving habits. After all, what’s the point of being prince if you can’t every once in awhile exercise your God-given right to tell your local sheriff to shove off?
My new neighborhood is surreal and I shake my head in smiling disbelief.
Abdullah hits the gas.
Tahlia fades behind us. We downshift onto the Corniche highway that leads out of the city and up the Red Sea coast. The Audi hums, the prince leans back, the palm trees flash by, and the Saudi sunset blazes an other worldly orange in the rear-view mirror.