Photo by David Hills 1975
At the end of Part Two, I have struck a deal for the Volvo jeep.
Hamud finished his pitch, and I was about to take the jeep for a spin when the call to evening prayer sounded and the din of the arena began to settle. I pulled out a thousand riyals deposit and said I’d return tomorrow with a friend to check out the mechanicals and close the deal. He pushed the money away and shook my hand, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr. Khamis.”
I returned the next afternoon with Phil, a friend of mine who was a biomedical engineer at the hospital and an enthusiastic car guy from Tennessee. When we arrived, the car suq was in its full chaotic splendor. We waded into the swirling confusion for a half dozen paces until Phil froze and slowly swiveled his head a full 180 degrees, absolutely amazed by this tableau of grinding gears, shouting auctioneers, clouds of burnt rubber and diesel exhaust, popped clutches and screeching brakes.
After I introduced Hamud to Phil, he inspected the Volvo’s suspension and brakes, checked the engine’s oil and water, and we test-drove the Volvo around the city streets with the Yemeni kid as navigator. It seemed good to me, and Phil agreed, so we drove back to the suq. For some reason, Phil had to leave and before I could start the price negotiations, Hamud led me off to one of the nearby coffee houses thatched with palm fronds. There were about 30 men talking, drinking tea, smoking the narghile, who studiously ignored us - though they saw everything. We sat at a rickety table on equally rickety painted, wooden chairs joined by woven jute, drank sweet tea and talked about everything except the price of the Volvo.
The price was a bit of a problem because I only had 13,000 riyals to spend. In a month I would have much more, but in Riyadh, whether you’re selling camels or cars, it’s strictly cash. My only hope of closing this deal was to employ my primitive bargaining techniques learned buying firecrackers in Khobar. I was more forlorn because I knew that even at 15,000 riyals the Laplander was an absolute steal.
Hamud was from Anaizah, a city several hundred miles north of Riyadh. If you were born in Dhahran, are you a Saudi? No, I’m a son of Aramco. How is it that you speak Arabic? (as pathetically mangled as it is.) He had three sons, and I had a daughter.
Photo by David Hills 1975
He wanted to know about the hospital. Was it only for royalty and rich people? No, it’s a specialist hospital. It’s not for the richest, but the sickest. They will be sent from all over the kingdom. Is it open now? No, it’s still being built, maybe in six months it will open. Doctors and nurses and technicians are just now arriving to make it ready. Six months? Yes, six months. He nodded to himself and said, “Why aren’t you a doctor?”
I laughed, “I’m not smart enough to be a doctor. I make cinema of famous doctors performing operations to be shown to Saudi medical students. Sometimes, I shoot films that demonstrate to nurses how to care for a patient - how to move him carefully, and sometimes I make videos to explain to the janitors about germs and how to use the cleansers and machines to eliminate them. You need all these things in a hospital.”
Hamud nodded and offered to get us a hubbly-bubbly, but I declined. At the time I didn’t realize that I was sort of a trophy American in that coffee house, nor did I realize that I was probably the only American Hamud had ever talked with. I wasn’t sure how I was going to bring up the price of the Laplander, but I didn’t have to.
He looked me in the eye and rocked his jaw into not quite a smile, but a benign tilt, “The Swedish is 12,000 riyals.”
“Yes, 12,000 riyals.”
“But I thought you said…”
“Yes, 12,000 riyals.” I wanted to hug him. My hand shot out, “Mr. Hamud, it’s a deal.”
“Yes, Mr. Khamis, it’s done, khalaas.” He shook my hand, put his other hand over mine and broke that wide jaw into a grin.
I paid him, he made out a bill of sale and handed me the keys. Hamud told me to return to this coffee house in three days at eight o’clock with 900 riyals to pay for the plates and registration papers - tax and license as they say in America.
I asked him, “Who should I ask for?” He thought that was really funny.
“Mr. Khamis, you take a seat, and I’m sure the agent will find you.” I said good night to Hamud and drove off into Riyadh as the twilight faded into night.
Riyal for riyal, the Volvo jeep was an incredible price for the perfect desert vehicle. Built on the design of a workhorse Swedish farm vehicle, it was armored and powered by a golden gear box. It was too good to be true. I had seen plenty of Saudi National Guard Volvos driving around town with soldiers in the back, so of course the obvious question was how did my jeep end up in the open market?
Perhaps it was surplused because it required more maintenance than it was worth. Except my jeep’s tires were much better than theirs, and it had fewer miles too. Most likely this jeep had fallen through various friendly bureaucratic cracks into the private sector. It was more than a little suspicious that I was picking up the plates in a coffee house, but it wasn’t for me to judge, I just wanted some sort of quasi-legal ownership.
In the evening, three days later, I pulled up in my new rig, parked on the street and headed into to the suq. It was subdued, the field was empty and the molehills deserted, but the cafes were busy. I checked out Hamud’s lot but he wasn’t around, so I went to the coffee house, found a table against the thatched wall, ordered tea and pretended to blend in, without any hope of that ever happening.
Eventually, I did hang around long enough that I became less of a novelty and the customers went back to their business. It was a low-ceilinged, dark room punctuated with bare, low-watt bulbs dangling here and there. The plaintive voice of Mohammed Abdu on the radio floated over a dozen conversations from clusters of men drinking tea and smoking cigarettes, bantering back and forth in a low rumble. There was an open kitchen at the back manned by a couple of Yemeni cooks and ten-year-old waiters conveying tea and morsels to the house and out into the night.
With my back to the wall, I was vacantly watching all of this unfold when Adnan dropped into the chair across from me. A plump thirty-something with a terrific barber – his thick hair swept back, his mustache and goatee manicured to precision, and a great tailor. His high thobe collar was precisely stitched to fit. He placed a large manila envelope on the table.
“I am Adnan.”
“Glad to meet you, Mr. Adnan. Would you like some tea?”
“Thank you, but I can only stay a minute.”
I put the envelope with 900 riyals on the table. He pushed his envelope to me.
“Look inside. Two plates and the registration book.”
I peeked at the plates and removed the flimsy, cardboard registration book. It had a stamp or two, the description of the jeep and some indecipherable signatures. Adnan plucked the book from my hands and said, “This is license. Mr. Khamis. You must, lazeem, always have this with you.” And gave me a deep, eye-piercing stare for emphasis.
So pleased to take ownership, I was sort of giddy, I grinned at Adnan and replied, “Lazeem, I understand. Thank you.”
Adnan shook my hand and departed. Who knows how many more license plates he had to deliver that night?
I’ve lived in Dhahran, Jeddah and Riyadh, and if you really love to drive in the desert, Riyadh is your only choice. Within an hour, you can visit stony plains as far as the eye can see, traverse pristine, golden sand dunes, tour the craggy cliffs of the Tuwaiq Escarpement or the quiet canyons of Wadi Hanifa, the pools of Al Kharj or head north to Buraidah. You can drive for hundreds of miles in any direction without a fence or obstruction of any kind. At any time you can stop, turn off your engine and step out into a silence that has always been there.
Some weeknights, my wife Janet, daughter Khamisah, and I would drive the Laplander into the empty desert a few miles north, on the rising ground above the hospital, and have a picnic watching the city below us. Nowadays, we would have been parked in the middle of some dense neighborhood that extended for miles all around. Then, it was nothing but rocky desert - calm and peaceful. Framed by a tar-black sky riddled with stars. On the weekends, my friends and I would caravan to a specific place or just drive in some arbitrary direction. No matter what we found, every trip was a great trip. I won’t go on about our various adventures except for two.
Some miles southeast of Riyadh, I was driving along with my friend Ben Michaels riding shotgun over a faint dirt track through a rolling desert covered with clumps of bushes and gentle drifts feathered with dead grasses. We intersected a well-worn trail, so I turned left and carried on. We weren’t exactly lost, but we were a little sketchy about our exact location. At the time, I was growing a beard and wearing a khaki work shirt with a ghuttra around my neck. Ben’s ghuttra was around his brow like a sweat band. The road dipped, and when we came up to the rise… there was a Saudi National Guard encampment a hundred yards in front of us.
I slowed down. There was a long, steel-pipe gate counterbalanced with a drum of concrete and three armed soldiers who were now staring at me. This really wasn’t the time to pull a U-ee and streak away, so I sped up just a bit. About 20 yards away the barrier started to lift; by time I was at the entrance, the gate was up, and the soldiers saluted me as I drove into the camp. I wasn’t about to push my luck, so I nodded to a few curious watchers, quickly turned around the Volvo and saluted the soldiers as I drove away on important Saudi National Guard business.
Photo by David Hills 1976
Sometime later, somewhere south of the Wadi Hanifa, I was driving the Laplander with Ben in his Toyota Land Cruiser, when we saw a range of very small dunes maybe only six or eight feet tall. It seemed that if we crossed these dunes we’d be at the mouth of the wadi and be able to drive north. I put the Swedish into 4-wheel drive, low-low and tapped on the gas. With no effort at all the jeep crawled up slip faces and down into the lows before another steep climb. Up and down I drove, over a dozen dunes when I began to believe that I was boldly going forth over terrain never before touched by humanity. A true desert explorer.
I crested the ridge of yet another dune and nearly ran over a single, gnarled flip-flop burnt into an amber crust by the sun. So much for that delusion of grandeur. I pressed on, over the dunes that started getting smaller and then dissolved into the wide mouth of a wadi paved with cobble-stone rocks leading up into a canyon.
We stopped to consider the next step in an entirely vague plan from the start. With the trucks turned off, in the quiet of a cool wind billowing from the wadi, we decided to drive over the stones and up the ravine until we could find a shoulder above the stream bed that we could follow back to town.
I took the lead, and the rocks soon turned into smooth, misshapen volleyball-sized stones and then boulders and bigger boulders. It was great fun navigating through this stone maze, up and around granite rocks the size of bales of hay. I had just maneuvered between two boulders and over a third one when it occurred to me that for sure no one had ever been here before. I was passing over untainted ground. Only my off-road driving savvy and a superb desert vehicle had now made it possible for me to be the King of the Wadi. And I began to like the sound of that as it echoed in my head.
There was a bend in the canyon, I rolled 20 yards forward and turned up the dry gulch. To the right was a steep slope that fell directly to the dry riverbed, to the left there was a shelf, a shoulder above a yard high bank. I drove a little farther forward until I could see all the way around the bend – and there it was.
The pride and joy of 1970s Detroit parked beneath an acacia tree on the river bank. Four thousand pounds of American steel packaged in a sleek, slab-like, sheet metal body, trimmed in chrome, with white walled tires and power steering. It was an emerald green, four-door Buick sedan with the trunk open. Surrounded by several small children, a husky man a bare head of hair and a prominent mustache was tending a coffee pot next to a small fire. A woman, probably his wife, ducked behind the sedan. He slowly stood up. He was wearing a sarong at his waist and an undershirt. He seemed to be very happy and cheerfully smiled at me as I drove by. The kids hopped around and waved; his wife peeked from behind the Buick.
Humbled once again, I ruefully waved back and rumbled up the canyon thinking about this man who had adroitly maneuvered that heavy, soft-springed, low-riding, two-wheel drive behemoth all the way down this perilous wadi without even scratching his white walls. No wonder that he was practically laughing at me. I started laughing too. I had just met the real King of the Wadi - an enthusiastic Saudi dad determined to throw a terrific picnic for his family in a magical desert canyon.
At King Faisal Hospital I worked with two of my closest childhood friends from Dhahran, Mike Benjamin and David Hills. We had a fine time driving around in the desert and each of us had a son in the same year. We posed with them in front of our trucks.
Left to right: Mike and Jeff, Tim and Luke, David and Liston
Earlier stories by Tim Barger are included in his collection Arabian Son.
ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories
by Tim Barger
Paperback: 142 pages ~ $12.95
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