OUTSIDE-IN: FOOTNOTES FROM A SQUINT-EYED
No other pedestrian in sight, I sidestep the
spikes of another stumpy-trunked palmtree springing fully-armed
from the pavement. Out along the four-lane dual carriageway
predominantly American cars flash by on the planet’s cheapest
petrol in a 24 Hour motor-race open to all males above the age of
twelve. It makes a curious contrast with the shuttered stillness
of narrower sidestreets where almost nothing moves, humanity
having succumbed to the noonday heat. At last a bus. Except it’s
in the outermost lane and speeding also. The windows of the women’s
only compartment, I just have time to notice, are blacked out,
presumably from the glances from quick-eyed males like myself. The
back is marked: ‘Warning: Frequent Stopping’. I watch it
vanish at 100 kilometres per hour into the sun-blanched distance.
Whatever enthusiasm I had on setting out
vanishes through the soles of my desert boots. Excessive heat can,
I begin to realise, have as depressive an effect as drizzle. With
each step my mind computes opposites. Pedestrian versus driver.
Foreigner versus local. Male versus female. Moslem versus
non-Muslim. A block or two later and I have a grim inventory. The
friction could be unbearable or revolutionary or both. Except, of
course, for those trusty ball bearings: a tax-free salary higher
than one could ever command back home; the diminishing numbers of
hours, days, months until next leave; the delusion, however
necessary, that ‘real life’ somehow lies elsewhere, elsewhere,
That here’s a country like no other becomes
clear as soon as one enters the area for baggage collection. Three
queues for men. Another for a line of unsmiling maidservants just
landed from Indonesia. Headscarves religiously in place, their
faces are set silently toward the future while, alongside, their
Indian minder cracks jokes with an interested local. The outside
world swings shut and now someone has applied the lock. The queues
inch forward, stop as the passport officer disappears, reappears,
disappears, is replaced by another who one minute stamps a
passport, the next three minutes savours a cigarette.
The passport desk queues were long; those at
Customs are longer still and growing. No random checks here, but a
scrutiny of every suitcase, every cardboard box, hold-all, trunk,
toilet bag. Compared to Immigration, the Customs personnel are
alarmingly energetic. ‘What this? What this?’ the question
echoes at intervals. Now a CD of Handel’s Messiah is
taken away, now a video-cassette of Disney’s Snow White and
the Seven Dwarves. The Realm of the Forbidden has all at once
increased its terrain. Out on the metal counter impounded copies
of the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Times Colour Supplement lie
beside ‘Prayers for Lent.’ Just beyond is a room banked with
TV-screens. In front of one of them a strictly-bearded supervisor
sits scowling at an episode of East Enders.
‘The goodly watermelon seller’: His wares
stacked like ordnance from Eden. Pale green mantling deepest red
ringed again and again with jet-black seeds as, now smacking it
like drum, he heaves down a melon from the top, and in one muscled
slice of knife surrenders it, slightly dripping, for our
Round and round our compound orbits the little
brown-coloured jeep manned by two military policeman, also in
brown, but with bright red caps. Each time I go out for some fresh
air, there they are, following my every footstep. I turn right at
the corner, seconds later they turn right as well. I swing left,
they swing left. I do an abrupt U-turn. They stay put and as I
walk past them, they demand to see my papers. I ask, as
even-headedly as I can manage, whether walking is forbidden.
‘Babers, bring,’ they reply from the other
side of the rolled-down glass.
I translate my question into a situational
Arabic unenvisioned by my text-book with its smiling faces and
hospitable cups of coffee.
‘Babers, bring,’ they reply.
I take my pass from my pocket.
They’re protecting me, it seems, from blowing
up my own house.
The glare of their headlamps as I walk on. A
limelight one could do without.
King Abulaziz ibn Saud, the nation’s founding
father: In this most priggish of states, his reign provides a
classic example of sex as politics by other means, wives then
concubines as spoils/vehicles of conquest. (David Wallechinsky’s
Book of Lists in our compound library has the King down as
number 19 in his ‘23 Busiest Lovers in History’, claiming that
‘From the age of 11 to 72, the monarch had sexual relations with
three different women every night - except during battles.’)
Now sixty, seventy years later his offspring,
whether one or two generations removed, are numerous and
self-multiplying enough to make up the government, both local and
national. They also head most of the para-statals, the diplomatic
corps, the directorships of several football clubs, each of the
four amply-armed armed forces, the national Air Line, the Customs
Service, etc, etc...
2000, 3000, 5000? The exact number of princes
varies according to the report. Enough, anyway, to provide almost
every street in the capital with a different name and still have
some to spare.
In the open-air souq shampoo from Cyprus, al
Bint Sudani perfume from London, henna marked Omdurman, Sudan.
Jordanian figs, Guatemalan coffee, Spanish saffron. Some Thai
high-heeled shoes; low-heels from Korea and Taiwan. Leathery red
pomegranates by the literal bucketful. Also apricots, grapefruit,
tangerines, some gigantic rough-skinned lemons. A variety of dates
- from hard and fibrous like unripe plums to a deep gooey amber
squashed into a solid block. Toilet rolls in see-through plastic
sacks of fifty or a hundred. Some Dutch baby-milk, labels whitened
from too much sun.
By one of the stalls a stocky white-bearded
barrowboy waits with a green wheelbarrow. He’s here to earn a
few more coins for his grandchildren the other side of the border,
part of that impoverished country’s hand and muscle drain, one
of Oil’s Have Nots.
After the hail, a thousand-thousand pocked
vehicles, a boom in panel-beating such as comes once in several
Turned away at the Zoo’s Gate, I’m informed,
‘Women Only’: Meanwhile, there beyond the mudbrick wall, apes
and ostriches are exempt; two cockatoos flirt outrageously; Mr
& Mrs Elephant touch trunks; a chimpanzee does something that’s
better left unsaid; the python’s beyond suspicion...
Out in mid-desert oceanic dryness complete with
swirl and ripple, its anemones long-turned to stone.
Now add a silence that you can hear: Immersed
somewhere at its midst, life starting anew...
Another April/ Thu al-Hijjah - the nearest cloud
several months away, on a delayed flight from the Caucasus or
beyond. The compound swimming-pool a lozenge of iridescent blue
squaring up to the surrounding swelter...
Dr Ibn Linah, the department despot with a PhD
in fault-finding that here comes index-linked. Five to ten minutes
every lesson, his face appears adjacent to the classroom window
like some radio-active cheese; seems to disappear but is actually
lurking at a sly diagonal, just out of view, only to reappear as
the teacher changes position.
Come morning’s end the inevitable warning
letter spell-checked and translated into coldest officialese by
his expatriate henchman, then delivered with a faultless smirk to
whomsoever it may concern.
The henchman safely cynical. The addressee’s
paranoia proved all too true: He gazes down at his own language
turned suddenly against him, and gauges the poison behind each
euphemism; thinks about his recently accrued mortgage, about his
soon-to-go-missing salary, about what on earth he is going to tell
the wife and kids.
As the news filters through the staffrooms, each
colleague thinking: There but for the grace of God go I...
Brown and leathery as a four-foot winklepicker,
the giant lizard at the garage door: Our neighbour insists we give
it water. Then a guard drives up in his Air Force jeep, grabs the
creature’s tail, drives off with the prize ingredient for this
Beneath such overweening space and heat, any
green’s heroic, water a deep outsider. From afar cars
dart mercury: Angular flashes, light redefining light, three to
four mile glimmers, supersonic gleams.
If not the sandscape’s stars, at least its
meteors - hubcaps, bumpers, windscreens trail photons by the
billion. Sun as philosopher’s stone, discarded cans and bottles
are plated silver and gold as trash turns precious. That
stilt-legged water-tower becomes a Bedouin’s beacon. Flints
flare skywards in simulated flight. So with one random blink solid
prosaic inches get diffracted as far as sight can reach - quiddity
unbound, free-floating as air, eclipsed by no recession.
Stop Press: Jelly-babies outlawed along with
other sweets ‘in the form of worms, bones, teeth that might
endanger the moralities of the nation’s youth...The Ministry of
Commerce warns that merchants introducing such products in Kingdom
must suffer the consequence in strict accordance with the
Censor turned Surrealist? Zionists’ joke to
bring their foes into disrepute?
No; cf. The Riyadh Daily, 1st Safar 1420, one
more proof that fiction’s less strange than fact: Stretch virtue
to insanity, and even candy can be certed X...
As yet unreported, the souq price of
jelly-babies sky-rockets. In shadowy corners, sweet pushers keep
an eye out for mutawwas. Back inside his pink palace Prince
Sweetie-pie, top-secret supplier, corners one more profit...
The paving-slabs hot enough to fry an egg on,
boulevards take a trip into the middle of nowhere, then stop.
Between here and the horizon, Mars on earth: Rocks, sand, rocks,
miles and miles of sameness, as far the eye can reach...
The round-about restaurant - olive salad, spiced
kebabs, stuffed aubergines; a runny in-house pepper sauce
overflowing its small steel plate; hubs of dough which a hot-faced
baker with a long wooden spatula inserts into a furnace’s
glowing innards, minutes later scoops out as flaky sweet-smelling
discs of bread, each the size of a small tabletop. Talk about
asbestos fingers! The man sets about his work like a pyromaniac
made good, a stoker of appetites. To cool things down, several
varieties of yoghurt; trays of cucumber; fish lying comfily on
beds of lettuce; chilled bottles of strictly non-alcoholic beer
wishing it were the real thing. Across the open kitchen fly shouts
in Turkish, in Arabic, in Farsi, or is it Pushtu. The waiters are
models of speed and courtesy, the clientele a miniature United
Nations - an American, Arabs, Indians, Filipinos and Thais from
the Pepsi-Cola factory down the street. Beside the exit a quietly
beaming cashier takes in payments and hands out toothpicks.
The emir’s place floodlit and empty. Somewhere
within, giant chandeliers from Venice; gold-plated taps and
fittings; a marble forecourt that, so rumour has it, is washed
daily with Chanel No 5.
Just outside, loose-lying porter-cabins -
several guest-workers per single room.
04.32: The muezzin’s cry stretching from where
earth and heavens meet.
A snug Nasrani, I doze on, my own prayers
answered by this extra hour in bed...
Work's slings and arrows. "Let go, no
clinging," lays down the Master of Zen. "Pull the chain
on it," advises a colleague from Manchester to equally good
Along King Fahd Expressway a six-mile tailback;
the camel tethered a few trucks down flares its nostrils, shakes
A few days ago three falcons perched on a
speeding GMC’s rollbar and wondering beneath their leather
hoods: How come we can now fly without a single flap of wings?
Just half an hour and sunset has repainted the
whole of the white palace pink...
Men everywhere. As if by decree of some
misogynistic djinni all the women turned to shadow. Or the few of
them still visible. From souq to supermarket to gas station to
adjacent mosque a relentless surplus of yang. The palm trees and
lamp-posts and bollards male. The boulders. The tarmac. The
flyover. The fences and spiked iron gates. All male. The various
types of concrete. Male. The people in the restaurants and cafes
and cassette shops and call-cabins, male, male, male. The police.
The military. The staff of the newly-opened Body Shop. The
personnel back at the airport. Even the vendor of bras and
lingerie, male, with a wispy rather uncomely beard as proof.
After such expanses of sand and basalt this glut
of neon winking ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’, ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’,
‘MacDonald’, ‘Burger King’ in Arabic then Yankee script.
So much for ‘A Thousand and One Nights’! Here Aladdin and his
lamp is eclipsed, the exotic made corporate. Its glitz censored of
cabaret and slot-machine, envisage instead some puritanical Las
Vegas - men and more men sipping fruit juice, looking bored; and
hardly a woman in sight; what pleasures exist, strictly for
One more inner emigrant, I switch the car radio
to 1323 MW and the BBC World Service and apply myself to
As the term drags on, the talk in the staffroom,
between lectures, again turns to ‘hit lists’, ‘the chop’,
dire chatter about ‘who will be next’.
One old timer cites the Arab proverb, ‘The
executioner first strokes the head he wants to cut off.’ Then as
a second thought adds, ‘The severed head does not dread the
Through my own head, like a wishful mantra, ‘To
leave, leave, leave!’.
Bank-manager, family, returnees all muttering:
‘Not yet, not yet...’
Wonder of Censorship no. 1: an idolatrous,
now-beheaded garden gnome
No. 2: cigarette-burned hole marking the state
of Israel, several cartons full of now uninflatable plastic globes
No. 3: The Wimbledon’s Women’s Final
replayed on the Customs video monitor as a version of Crime Watch
No. 4: A copy of the Church Times, while
Royally Imported Love Toys pass Customs by the crate full, express
delivery, are even perhaps saluted along the way
No. 5: Across the front page of the Weekly
Telegraph the many inked-out legs of the drum-majorettes at New
York City’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade
No. 6: Inside a cassette shop Elvis Presley’s Crying
in the Black Out
No. 7 A: This incredible but true accolade to
Barry Humphries’ artistry: From last Saturday’s Daily Mail a
photo of Dame Edna Everage with deleted knees.
No. 7 B: Any of the 7 observations above, once
it sees the light of print?!? So free speech, no longer as free as
it might have hoped, gnaws on second thoughts, the virtues of
‘First there was the pen.’ And true, the ban
on images even in run-of-the-roadside hoardings is made up for by
the swirling and speckled script. So beautiful one could imagine
stars had swooped down to earth. By comparison its Roman
equivalent seems almost mechanical...
Here at the traffic lights I match ‘ba’, ‘jiim’,
‘aleph’ with my Macmillan Arabic course. The meaning hidden
somewhere underneath as in a kerbside dance of the seven veils. As
the lights turn to green, my feet stuttering between brake and
clutch; the rude bare of horns behind...
"Under a tyranny, whether the scale’s
national or departmental, the best that one can aspire to is to go
unnoticed," pronounces X, the old timer, before slipping back
into his usual silence.
‘AFDO!’ goes Bruce, our staffroom’s
talking calendar. Meaning ‘Another F...ing Day Over.’ In dire
red felt-tip, one more number is obliterated from the company
calendar on his patch of wall. Tomorrow and tomorrow like
yesterday and yesterday, a sort of slaughter of days that will let
up only with next leave.
‘Teacher, my father boor and no money for
wife, not even half, what I do? Here in Saudi Arabia wife cost
fifty-thousand riyal. What do me?’ laments Nawaf, the son of a
local melon seller, as if wives came in such quantities. He buries
his regulationally shaven head in his hands for a minute or so.
Then, a few minutes later interrupts my flailing attempts to teach
the Present Perfect, with the far more interesting suggestion, ‘Rubber
doylies! Rubber doylies! Teacher, you go Bicadilly and buy me
four. I give you sterling, no problem...’
To accompany the cultural festival this
unofficial guide/inventory counter-balancing the official one: A
thousand and one imported pick-ups; a greybeard hawking sandals,
prayer-mats, brass pots and trays at thrice the price you can get
them for down the souq; camels as valuable as any sports car,
numbers painted across their necks; their twelve-year jockeys
flown in from Somalia and Sudan for the occasion; guttural whoops
and hollas no phonetic dictionary could equal; much heat and
Women, meanwhile, are kept strictly within their
enclosure. Dancing, if that’s the word, consists of all-male
sword-wiggling. The only music’s a syncopated nasal wail as from
someone in not particularly great pain. Equipped with a frown, a
stick plus the regulation thobe hoisted up around his ankles, a
‘mutawwa’ patrols against any outbreak of over-enjoyment,
impresario of grimness, frustration’s connoisseur.
Then the grand finale: The appearance of the
King inside his gold-plated bus, a few dozen emirs in Bentleys,
Mercedes, Lincolns bringing up the rear. Drive over, it’s time
for the Camel Race at which by unwritten decree the King’s
entrant always wins. Just to make sure his golden bus trails it
from distant start to finishing post.
Back in the VIP tent diplomats and arms
manufacturers rub shoulders, propose toasts in the most expensive
lemonade, ponder what to do with their date-pips. A roving
reporter with a microphone elicits favorable soundbites for this
"If the place is that intolerable as people
make out,’ observes a wife over here on a family visit,
"then how come they get so upset when any of them is forced
Tired from four hours babbling, I decide to ease
my way through the week’s last lesson by handing out magazines.
‘Don’t worry, they’re totally Hilal,’ Phil assures me
during the break, handing over his pile of well-thumbed copies. I
carry them down the corridor and into the class, two magazines per
student. Frantic riffling of pages all round. Mayhem erupting in
the second row as inside the British Airways Magazine someone
spots a woman in a blacked-out swimming costume. For the sake of
my salary, I quickly force myself into the role of a seventeenth
century Puritan. If only I’d stuck with grinding out grammar,
the Dismal Present, the Dismal Past, the Future Imperfect -
anything but this. Elsewhere a Singapore Airways magazine with a
picture of an air-hostess on the back disappears inside a student’s
briefcase. Imagine a world championships in sexual frustration,
and there’s little doubt about which country would win, goes one
thought. Another foresees my being held responsible by some
fundamentalist uncle of corrupting, like some tinpot Socrates, the
nation’s youth. After a struggle I manage to wrest the magazine
Then the bell goes.
Another day negotiated...
After months of dryness, rain raising
not-so-goodly scents from the sun-baked ground...
Wednesday through Friday: the Saudi weekend and
the Internet Cafe is jam-packed. Like the phone lines as
expatriate and local seek to establish contact with the world
Origami for the ears, a stray locust whirrs
between baking concrete, its swarm moved on. Brown, grey, brown
are the only colours, all shadows stunted and growing shorter by
the minute. The nearest green is beyond the skyline - a hostage to
heat and dust, the beetling sun.
For the evening’s diversion my umpteenth walk
around the compound: Eight feet of wall on one side, on the other
not so much a landscape as the floor of a seemingly endless quarry
set with more compounds with eight-foot walls which sometimes for
variety I walk round also. Three, four times maybe, in a
rectangular anti-clockwise orbit. Does life as we know it exists
within? Behind the mud-daubed concrete it’s hard to tell. The
heavy-duty metal gates - now iron, now steel, now a
heftily-embossed bronze - give little clue either.
‘Mars on earth,’ the phrase again springs to
mind; walking as an exercise in outsiderdom; the odd glimmer of
neon to stop such thoughts from getting too far-fetched...
Sneaking up behind comes that little Airforce
Jeep, 8 miles per hour to my own 5, its engine so quiet that first
only the headlamps show it’s there. I brace myself for the usual
"Bass, bring." This time, however, the Jeep just glides
alongside then proceeds on into the gloom like a slow-motion
space-capsule. I, for my part, head back home with the sense that
solitude here is never quite as solitary as it seems. Tinkle,
tinkle, go my desert boots against bits of shale. Three compounds
orbited already, and the night is still young. Overhead, detaching
itself from the ambient stars, the tail-light of a passing plane
sets me calculating the days till next leave. Rio, Rome, Athens,
Dakar - I shuffle destinations like some middle-aged Aladdin whose
carpet is in the garage, awaiting a crucial spare part.
The government in Russia may be tottering; war
may have broken out in countries x, y, and z. Yet the main items
on this evening’s bulletin is are that the King has sent the
Sultan of Brunei a royal greetings telegram on the occasion of his
birthday, how Prince A, was received earlier in the day at Prince
International Airport by Prince B and C and D, how Prince E opened
a new football stadium: The subtext: No news is good news, all’s
right with the world.
Cinema and theatre both banned, we make do
instead with uncensored sunsets, clouds free as the air which
Or to put it another way: ‘Forbidden,
forbidden,’ yabbers meddling man; Nature, thank heavens, quietly
Segregation recurring: Walls and more walls -
writ small across them with an imaginary spraygun: ‘Boredom
Rules, Okay?’ That, or smouldering resentment at being so
comprehensively excluded: Them versus Us set in ten-foot-high
concrete, guarded at every gate.
Crackling from a minaret’s loud-speaker, the
imam’s rant reaches a xenophobic climax and rips the noontime
quiet to shreds. Foreigners huddled around a nearby fountain feel
their foreignness growing more foreign by the minute, count days,
Females all wrapped and veiled, such allure in
bangled ankles, a passing flash of nails.
‘Whenever I return from leave I always have
this vision of the place burned to the ground.’
‘Now whatever might prompt a thought like
But next comes the worry, where then would they
send us to teach? Probably out on the scalding tarmac. One’s
every gesture open to scrutiny and misinterpretation. Then our
Great Leader up in some air-conditioned apartment building close
by and watching us with binoculars, taking down notes for his next
memo: 'During 6th lesson today you were observed fainting in front
of your class. Ref. Company Policy Document, Clause 27B, this
constitutes a serious dereliction of duty... '
A nubile bit of cumulus flaunting all it’s got
- the mutawwa below
wagging their canes in horror, powerless to
‘Employees are reminded that consumption of
alcoholic beverages is strictly forbidden by the laws of the host
nation. Any individual found guilty of such an offence will be
liable to summary dismissal and deportation from the Kingdom, not
ruling out sixty lashes and an indefinite period of imprisonment.’
- Company Circular 417
‘......, ....., ..... received today the
Divine Punishment,’ the newscaster with a neo-Oxonian accent
brings the Friday night bulletin to a close with a dire amalgam of
Next morning at work a colleague - and witness
to the above - tells us that as a foreigner he’d been given an
honorary seat at the front. The victims, evidently drugged, were
led out into the square, forced to kneel, then dispatched. The
ensuing hush made more dreadful still by the observation that one
of the heads had not been completely severed.
Memories of a Somali in Rome narrating how he’d
visited the Kingdom to perform hajj. Arriving in Jeddah, he also
witnessed the ‘divine punishment’. ‘The experience gave me
nightmares not only during the period of pilgrimage, but for
months afterwards. The blessing of peace which the hajj is
supposed to bring with it vanished there and then, with a flash of
the executioner’s sword.’
Scarcely a bush in miles, my eyesight’s
magnetised by plain horizon, there refocused beyond its ambit of
habitual shift and clutter. Proving flatness can be otherwise,
light then more light clears the mind of words while silence,
amplified, camps out along where sky and landmass meet.
‘BENCH-MARK GOAL RELATED STRATEGIES’; ‘WORKING
WITHIN KEY-OBJECTIVE AREAS’: So goes the blurb of the prospectus
in what must be some of the most expensive print ever. Meaning,
down here at the chalk face, trying to teach the Present
Continuous to groups of students whose main interest is catching
up on last night’s lost sleep; more and more desperate appeals
of ‘Wake up, please, Abdullah; Rajah, wake up’; the inevitable
face just beyond the door.
Midnight. I am ferried sleepwards by the air
’Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for
thee.’ Although this time the bell is in the form of a letter
ref. ‘Classroom Supervision’, and now faultlessly delivered by
the expatriate henchman mentioned earlier. The edge of his mouth
twists into a smile that seems to say, ‘We all have the strength
to bear the misfortunes of others.’
‘It has been observed that...’ reads the
print. Then a series of allegations about ‘seriously
inappropriate teaching materials’, ‘students’ sleeping’,
‘an inaccurate bulletin board’, the job-ending conclusion...
‘Sticks and stones may hurt my bones,’ my
memory accelerates decades backwards. The bell tolls?!? I still
have life, good health and perceptions intact - and now a free
one-way ticket out of here on tomorrow’s plane. Wasn’t that
what I wanted all along? Or dreaded, wanted, dreaded, wanted in
Ok, the British commandment - ‘Thou shalt not
lose thy job’ - has been broken. So what? ‘The severed head
does not dread the executioner,’ the Arabic proverb echoes like
some antique commentator who has seen far worse. After shock comes
relief. Another voice urging, Smile, smile for all your worth. ‘If
you can meet arrival and departure and treat those impostors just
the same, then you are a man, my son...’ ‘To envisage
circumstance all calm, such is the top of sovereignty.’ Quote-unquotes
below which my own crisis shrinks to a suddenly manageable size.
Less a crisis than the answer to a prayer.
Perhaps I should go to Dr Linah’s office and
proffer, along with a farewell, my heart-felt thanks. Only, of
course, he has already left; his office is locked for the
Back at the airport. On the left, behind some
ten-foot railings, stands a mosque, its floodlit dome like a moon
that been hawsered to earth then streamlined. On the right
illegally parked cars are being hitched to a couple of police
tow-trucks. Arrivals. Departures. Behind the automatic doors an
overalled platoon of South Asian porters guard a monopoly on the
heavy-duty trolleys. Men in the standard white thobes and
red-chequered ghutras. Women in darkest black, some with faces,
others on first sight with no faces at all. The sole concession to
the world elsewhere is a papercup marked Pepsi with an
inbuilt-straw held deftly below the veiled chin.
Praying here being something mostly done in
public, a variably-long row of men kneel before a marble wall set
with two lifts whose gleaming steel doors recycle the neon number
of this or that departure gate as an illegible red streak. The men
touch the ground three times with their heads. Then stand. Then
bow. Close by, three youths walk past in trainers and baseball
caps; a guest worker sells bottled water, fruit-juice, coffee,
more and more cigarettes.
In the waiting areas the passengers maintain an
eerie quiet; the only conversation observable is into a mobile
phone. Yet everyone seems to know exactly what to do next, their
comings and goings as if by clockwork. Down at the prayer wall a
man starts chanting. ‘Passengers for Bombay proceed to Gate 36,’
crackles the intercom. Then, ‘Passengers to Rome and...’ The
cue to put away my notebook, departure at last becoming fact...
Chaucer’s Troilus, transported to the Seventh
Sphere, there began to despise this little patch of earth. Looking
down on Zenobia, I feel something of the same thing; albeit the
place, stretching its crinkled shades of brown beneath either
wing, still seems dauntingly large. And still after an hour’s
flying time the drinks trolley has not been wheeled out, an
airline legality in deference to the Host Nation. On the plus side
I am, unlike Troilus, most definitely alive, with a keen thirst to
Then through the high-tech plastic overhead
comes an announcement: ‘Passengers might be interested to know
that we’re now leaving Zenobian airspace.’ I imagine the pilot’s
face lit by a mischievous grin. ‘Do enjoy the rest of your
In response up goes a cheer from the row behind.
The long awaited trolley is rolled into action, the person
wheeling them unequivocally female. The same for the uncensored
figure on the label of the wine bottle she now passes in my
direction - ‘Aphrodite.’ From two seats down drifts a hint of
perfume. Yin, thank heavens, regained.
Neither guest nor worker, I look up at the map
on video screen to verify that the plane has not changed
direction. Headed by a small red arrow, the flight path crosses
from Syria to Lebanon, out over the Mediterranean and home, home,
To savour better the taste of red wine in my
throat, I close my eyes. Such sweet dark: Across it Zenobia and
all its legalisms shrunk to a glimpses vanishing backwards in
time, a sort of cartoon verite, material for a travelogue which
now no censors can get at...
Martin Bennett's collection of poems, Loose
Watches, was published by University of Salzburg Press. He has
had three stories read on BBC World Service and other work appears
in Stand, Poetry Ireland Review and Dalhousie