After I graduated from college, I worked in film and TV for six years before I returned to Arabia in January of 1974 to start up the television department at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh. I was one of the first 20 American employees, and the hospital was still being built when I arrived. Housing was tight, so I lived with my brother Michael, who had been there for two years and lived in a unit of three villas — actually spacious, one-story bungalows — surrounded by the usual god-awful cinderblock wall facing the street.
Michael worked for Citibank as an account executive; one of the perks was they’d finance any car he wanted, so he bought a new burgundy Pontiac Bonneville with one of those vinyl landau roofs that were so popular then. It was a sweet ride with comfy seats, dynamite air conditioning and a killer built-in 8 Track with surround speakers. Unfortunately, it was heavy and low to the ground with soft suspension — great on the strip in LA, but the mean streets of Riyadh immediately chewed that Pontiac up. I doubt if it ever had all four tires properly aligned since it left Detroit.
In the first few years after the 1973 oil boom, hundreds of European and American technocrats, construction superintendents, management experts and outright speculators had come and gone. An odd consequence of this phenomenon was that many of them left their dogs behind. I went to the Riyadh Zoo in 1974, and one of the enclosures displayed a pair of Great Danes, given to the zoo by some departing Scandinavian dignitary. So, I’m more than willing to believe the legend of the Dog Gang known to all in the expatriate community.
In those early days, these high-level consultants and managers, their families — and their dogs — would fly into Riyadh only to be removed or replaced for a variety of reasons within a year or so. Sometimes it was just easier to turn Fido over to the gardener and give him 100 riyals. The Swiss broker in a failed bauxite mega-deal just ejected the tiresome Dalmatian into the alley and flew to Zurich. But of course too, there was seven-year-old Lucy. Just two hours before she and her family left for the airport, Spunky, her dear dachshund companion, “escaped from the yard,” and she waited and waited for him to come back, until the family had to drive off from their villa to the airport. Lucy crying for Spunky and pounding against the rear window the whole way.
In those early days, these high-level consultants and managers, their families — and their dogs — would fly into Riyadh only to be removed or replaced for a variety of reasons within a year or so. Sometimes it was just easier to turn Fido over to the gardener and give him 100 riyals. The Swiss broker in a failed bauxite mega-deal just ejected the tiresome Dalmatian into the alley and flew to Zurich. But of course too, there was seven-year-old Lucy. Just two hours before she and her family left for the airport, Spunky, her dear dachshund companion, “escaped from the yard,” and she waited and waited for him to come back, until the family had to drive off from their villa to the airport. Lucy crying for Spunky and pounding against the rear window the whole way. Apparently the foreign breeds were not accepted by the resident packs of feral dogs. Actually, it was quite dangerous for the Yorkies and Pomerians of this world. Eventually, a German Shepherd met a wild, unshorn Standard Poodle abandoned by a Belgian bond trader. They encountered a Sheltie and a Bull Dog. Soon an Irish setter, a golden Labrador, two terriers, and a lazy, old Cocker Spaniel joined up. They careened around the outskirts of Riyadh, scraping along as best as they could, learning that food didn’t come in cans anymore, until one day they met their Alpha male. And the Expat Dog Gang began its reign of terror.
It’s about five in the morning. The air is damp and cool, a soft haze hovers over the asphalt just before the dawn. The dogs are silently slinking along both sides of the dark street. The Cocker Spaniel gets distracted by a cat’s hairball and trails behind. Their victim is in sight, but they can’t afford to be careless, so they sneak closer. Waiting for the signal.
They are about five yards from the prey when there is a sharp “Yip! Yip!” and Spunky leads the attack on my brother’s burgundy Bonneville. He leaps up to the bumper — twice, scrambles over the trunk like an uncoiled Slinky and mounts the landau roof. The feral dachshund emits a wild, spine-tightening howl and then slashes the vinyl with his claws. Seconds later, the entire pack, terriers and all, is crowded on to the top of my brother’s car slicing the faux Corinthian leather into ribbons.
By some entirely unanticipated design flaw, the top was bonded to the entire surface of the inner steel with an organic based glue probably made from rendered race horses, but secured around the perimeter with fancy trim. Mother Nature will always find a way. It turned out that the glue area between the vinyl and the steel — a thin layer subjected to fantastic temperature extremes in the Arabian sun — bubbled up and just happened to provide an ideal feeding ground for a species of grub that was full of protein and apparently quite tasty. The dog pack shredded off long burgundy strips and licked the steel roof clean, as if they were crazed socialites at an all-you-can-eat caviar buffet. Spunky saw headlights down the block, growled twice, and the pack evaporated into the shadows.
As the dogs faded off, just as the sun rose to thrust a low-lying stab of light down the street, Spunky returned to stand 20 yards away, casting a long shadow on his victim. He yipped twice at the violated Pontiac, barked to himself a soft congratulations, and then waddled off to join his gang.
Two hours later, my brother, who is fluent in many languages, came out of his villa, opened the gate to the street and began swearing in a bewildering string of obscenities ranging from traditional Anglo-Saxon to colorful Arabic words and off into allusions to Zoroastrian deities. Worn out, he called the office to say he wouldn’t be in and listened to Wagner playing loudly on his Hi-Fi long into the night.
Earlier stories by Tim Barger are included in his collection Arabian Son.
ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories
by Tim Barger
Paperback: 142 pages ~ $12.95
Available at Amazon