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Feb. 2 2010 - 4:54 am | 504 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

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. He lives in an all-male dormitory, where one of his friends is a good cook, making fish curries, mostly. Sabic likes his mosque — it’s a grand one on the west side of the city, but the leader speaks only in Arabic, of which Sabic speaks only the basics. I’ve known him for a year and a half; he’s met my mom, been over to all our various apartments, and some days sees my wife almost as much as I do.

We crawl through traffic.

“I’m leaving,” Sabic says, meeting my eyes in the mirror. “Final exit.” In a few months, his fourteen years will stretch no further. He’s saved enough money and owns a solid house in Kerala he’ll share with his wife, daughter, parents, and an unmarried, 26-year-old brother. He tells me he’ll run his own business — what kind, he’s not sure. And he’ll never come back to Saudi for work.

“Maybe for Hajj with my family,” he says, laughing, wading through the dense, yellow-dusted traffic of a Tuesday morning in Riyadh.

I’ll miss him.

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  1. collapse expand

    Great writing. This story makes me think of the grocer down the street from your apt. Like Sabic, he is far from his country, missing his family and life at home. I just wanted to hug him. Your piece brings home the shifting position all these workers are in, like the desert sands-not here, not there. Give Sabic my regards.

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    About Me

    Since graduating from Deep Springs College, I've written and edited for magazines (Rolling Stone, The Atlantic Monthly), newspapers (The Village Voice, The National), and websites (NPR.org, SixBillion.org). In the summer of 2007, I packed a bag and walked from New York to New Orleans, a trek that took five months, three pairs of shoes, and a couple thousand miles. These days, I live in Saudi Arabia with my wife, Kelly McEvers, who covers the region for National Public Radio.

    See my profile »
    Followers: 41
    Contributor Since: August 2009
    Location:Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

    What I'm Up To

    The Review

    I’m a regular contributor to The Review, which Reihan Salam calls a “younger, radder” New York Review of Books.

    Past pieces include:
    -”Down in the floods,” something in Saudi Arabia may have changed
    -”Checkpoint Qatif,”among Saudi’s Shiite minority
    -”Excursion into the desert,” in which my landlord pulls a gun.
    -”You’ll never walk alone,” a night of soccer in sweltering Riyadh.
    -”Get on the bus,” a story of public transport in Riyadh.
    -”Saudi Arabia’s got talent,” from the nation’s first-ever open TV auditions