It’s New Year’s Day. I’m sprawled on a sofa in the upper lounge of K’s parents house on a compound in Saudi Arabia. K is half-sitting, half-lying beside me. We are watching Morgan Spurlock’s somewhat ill-conceived documentary, Where In The World Is Osama bin Laden? It is the section on Saudi Arabia. A man in a thobe is talking about his many friends who went off to fight jihad in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Outside, darkness is falling quickly, the way it does here. We have not been out today and have no plans to leave the house, let alone the compound. I’m no stranger to remorse for the bottle, but it is not often that I have seen my girlfriend in such a state. She has been bested by booze in a teetotal kingdom. I’m not far behind her on the pain stakes, though I did manage the celebratory New Year brunch. Illicit bacon and illicit black budding, smuggled in from neighbouring Bahrain. But it is last night’s mixture of illicit homebrew and black market booze which has reduced us to this sofatose state.
The main problem was Sid. Sid is short for sidiqi, which, ironically, is Arabic for “friend”. It is the local version of Moonshine, a home-distilled alcohol which is the most readily available spirit. Last night we drank several large measures of something called Wild Bill’s Homemade Bourbon, which was little more than neat Sid with artificial bourbon flavouring. On top of several homemade wines and beers, and a large (but genuine) gin and tonic, it ruined us.
The damage was done in half a dozen gulps half an hour before midnight, during a gathering at the villa lived in by T–, the Californian English teacher, and his Turkish yoga-enthusiast wife A–. Sid kicked in, hard, shortly after midnight. By now we were in the compound’s semi-official bar, which resembles a student bar whose inhabitants have suddenly turned middle-aged. NYE on our compound had been designated a Wild West night, and around us, men and women, most in their 40s and 50s, somewhat overweight, steaming drunk and adorned with cowboy hats or Indian facepaint, danced or exchanged rowdy banter in small, closed groups.
It is the second time K and I have visited the compound bar. On our first visit, earlier this week, the bar was quieter, but equally impenetrable. There are barely one hundred villas on this compound. Everyone knows everyone, and we are new faces. We are more stared at by compound expats than by Saudi nationals, but less spoken to. Our attempts to strike up conversations during the previous bar outing met with minimal response, even though we often clocked the twenty or so drinkers glancing at us in puzzlement. At the NYE bash we feel invisible. Perhaps it is just as well that Sid brings our revels to an early close: we stagger back in darkness and drunkenness around 12.30am.
What I sense among the seasoned expats is ennui at least, but sometimes something darker. Take G–, a robust Scot with whom Girlfriend’s Dad arranges for me to play tennis one day. G–’s wife has never followed him to Saudi, even though he has worked here “on and off for the last two decades”. She is back home in Fife. “This is no place for her,” he says. As we play, G– issues himself a string of stinging rebukes. “You’re weak,” he shouts after netting a service return. “You’re throwing it away, like you do everything.” Later, after a double fault: “Always this sun, blinding me. I hate this fucking sun!”
Or take R–, a portly, softly-spoken Brit whom we meet in the bar of another compound. He is an old friend of GD. Once I am introduced as GD’s nephew, he opens up. He tells me has spent his life teaching English abroad. “Cyprus was best,” he reminisces. When I ask him why he is now in Saudi, he cites obligations to his family. “It’s all very well when you’re younger, but when you’ve got a wife and son…”. He trails off. How old is his son? “Oh, he’s 35 now.” R–’s eyes wander to the cricket on the television screen behind me. We sip pints of homemade beer in silent contemplation.