The Swans of Arabia by Tom Fillion

Another instructor, Gilbert Swan, arrived the week after our trip south from Taif to Al Baha. He had taught at King Fahd airbase before, as well as at other locations in Saudi Arabia. He was British, but his liberal politics didn’t mesh with the Thatcher or Major governments so he no longer resided there. Scotland had accepted him and Mrs. Swan with open arms because of her Scottish lineage and, perhaps, his liberal politics.

Floyd Stevens who had driven us to Al Baha in the mountains of the Hijaz interceded with the Saudis on Gilbert’s behalf. Neither Major Mudather who was in charge of the training wing nor Mohammed Algarni, his deputy officer in charge, wanted Gilbert back. He had the reputation for never finishing a contract because of the domestic pyrotechnics for which he and Mrs. Swan were notorious.

Gilbert was in his mid to late sixties, tall and thin, like the cheap cigarettes he chain-smoked. When he was abroad by himself on the last few contracts he was forced to live on a small pittance each month. The rest of his money he sent home to Mrs. Swan, a wisp of a Scottish woman, who had blackened his eyes on several occasions when she lived with him in Saudi Arabia, the land where Eve of Adam and Eve fame was supposedly buried. The Kingdom was not her cup of tea which she preferred to drink back in Scotland where she could mull over her failed dreams as a young woman for a career in the theater. It never materialized with the wild goose chases to Saudi Arabia so Gilbert took the brunt of her artistic frustrations. Over the last few years Floyd related she became reclusive, perhaps mad, and rarely ventured from their house in Dundee, Scotland. Then, she quit eating properly, quit cleaning the house or washing anything except for her hands which she washed hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day as if she were cleansing herself of Gilbert or Saudi Arabia or both.

Thankfully, Mrs. Swan didn’t accompany Gilbert on this occasion to Saudi Arabia. The company, Bell Helicopter of Saudi Arabia, wouldn’t allow it, primarily because she had in an act of fury almost burned down the pissy-smelling trailer they lived in on one of his previous contracts. As a result, she was banned from the Kingdom forever. Secondly, Gilbert had sold the only thing of value in her eyes they ever owned, a grand piano, because he was desperate for money to make their mortgage payment on the house in Dundee. That drove her completely mad and prevented her from leaving Scotland because she currently resided in an asylum in Dundee.

However, she still had Gilbert’s checkbook because he felt sorry for “the poor dear” as I heard him call her after he had been back for a while. She and her private nurse went on shopping sprees in Dundee while Gilbert lived on one hundred riyals a month, less than thirty dollars. Perhaps that was why he smoked the cheapest cigarettes available, another plentiful resource, besides oil, in Saudi Arabia. The cheap cigarettes were an attraction and a reminder that Mrs. Swan was back in Scotland fantasizing about her lost career in the theater on her way to the wash basin.

By the time Gilbert arrived that week I knew quite a bit about him because Floyd Stevens had prepped us on our lengthy drive to Al Baha. He was one of those people like myself, involuntary pilgrims who returned to Saudi Arabia, caught in a cycle of desperation it seemed, each time vowing never to return to the Kingdom. The more vociferous the complaint the more likely you were to be seen again, resurrected, to use a Christian term in such a non-Christian country, and reborn with a new one or two year contract to break.

Gilbert rode to the airbase his first morning back in Floyd Stevens’ Mercedes, the same one we had taken to Al Baha. Floyd drove all the Bell Helicopter instructors from their cramped trailer park, sandwiched between a lavish Mediterranean compound owned by a rich Saudi on one side and the Intercontinental Hotel taken over by Kuwaitis, evicted from their own country, on the other side. Across the Taif Highway from the trailer park loomed the dark, golden palace of Prince Abdullah which he used when visiting Taif.

That morning along with Gilbert’s less than triumphant return, Floyd transported Bill Wilkerson and Francis Brown, both Americans, and Ken Andrews, another Brit. Gilbert’s presence was noticeably different than the others. He had a regal, aristocratic air about him, except that he was dressed like a pauper and walked with a pronounced hitch in his stride caused by a stiff right leg. Step. Half step. Step. Half step. His first day back on the job in his second adopted country, it looked like he had thrown himself together and, in fact, he hadn’t shaved or brushed his teeth. He did that shortly after arriving at the English Language training center where we taught Royal Saudi Air Force recruits and enlisted men.

“It’s good to be back working, synonym “job”, opposite “unemployed.” I’m practicing for the students. They’re big on synonyms and opposites,” he said, standing at the mirror, his face lathered, and a razor in his hand.

“Huh?”

“Money, synonym, “cash”, that’s what I need to make our mortgage. It’s hard, synonym, “difficult”, for a person my age to find a job.”

Gilbert, I found out after our first meeting, oddly enough at the wash basin, was a non-stop talker of synonyms and opposites. He continued talking even though I made a fast exit from the restroom. I was halfway down the hall, and his voice still echoed from the cavernous restroom. He shaved and talked, oblivious to the fact that no one was listening except maybe Mrs. Swan back in Dundee.

“Don’t ever ask him what time it is,” Francis Brown warned us. “You’ll get the history of Time from him. He can barely tie his shoes in the morning, but if you ask him what the religion of the Pitcairn Islands is, he can tell you without any problems. He’s already got the nuts and bolts of Bell Helicopter riled up. He talks while the only TV in the entire compound is on in the TV room. That’s a big no-no, especially if you talk during Wheel of Fortune. The other Brits hate him after only a few days back, and there’s a Scot who mumbles about the “fu’in cocksucker” whenever he sees Gilbert. Maybe Gilbert’ll catch on, but I doubt it.”

~

Several weeks after Gilbert arrived, Ken Andrews, the other Brit, returned glumly from his conference with Mohammed Algarni, the deputy Officer in Charge. Major Mudather, of course, was not available because he was asleep somewhere in the building. Ken was always orchestrating some way that he could get sacked and be sent home at Bell Helicopter’s expense, far from the squalid, spunk-ridden trailers he complained about and which Mrs. Swan had almost torched. He spoke to the group that surrounded his cubicle in the smokers’ office. I had ventured over from the non-smokers’ office. The training section had elected to divide itself, not along religious lines, Christians and Muslims, but according to smoking habits. Gilbert was there, along with Kurt Weimar, Bill Wilkerson, all smokers, and Sean Higgins, Francis Brown and I from the nonsmokers’ office listened to Ken’s latest attempt at a one way ticket home.

“I did me best, but he wouldn’t fire me. I gave it the ol’ college try,” Ken said, hugely disappointed. “I even told him I went to Saddam’s birthday party a year ago April which is true, boys. I had a short-lived job in Kuwait before the invasion. I made friends, drinking chums is more like it, with some Iraqis in Kuwait City, and, bingo, I got invited to that bugger’s birthday party.

“But woe is me. Algarni told me the air force blokes like me. He’s had very good reports. Can you believe that? He said I was a good teacher. Is he crazy? Look at me, I’m a wreck. Maybe if I talk about sex with them, they’ll report me. That’s my next avenue of escape.”

“Report you? They’ll want to know all the details!” Francis Brown answered.

“I was afraid of that,” Ken said.

He fumbled around his desk, looking for his Marlboros, which he smoked profusely and luxuriously. Unopened, back-up packs lined the inside of his briefcase.

“Where’s me fucking cigarettes? Now I can’t find me smokes. I just opened that pack too.”

He stood up and looked around for the cigarettes, thinking he had dropped the bright red pack on the floor. Francis Brown nodded in the direction of Gilbert’s desk. Ken turned the corner and there was the bright red pack of Marlboros on Gilbert’s desk.

“Fucking A, you old bugger. What are you doing with me smokes?”

“I, I was counting them for you, mate,” Gilbert stammered.

“Counting them, were you? Keep your mitts off me smokes if you know what’s good for you.”

“I,I was only counting them for you, chum. You have seventeen left by my count.”

“Yeah, and I probably had more before you started counting.”

Gilbert reluctantly, but with diffidence, handed him back the pack of Marlboros. When it came to smokes, there was no loyalty between countrymen.

~

One evening during Ramadan I drove into Taif with Kurt Weimar from the smokers’ office and Nelson Glassby who was a staunch Episcopalian descended from staunch John Birchers in Richmond. Glassby rarely ventured out of the non-smoking office or from his villa on our compound which was separate from the Bell Helicopter compound. We lived in lavish circumstances compared to the Bell Helicopter employees. Our prefabricated two bedroom, two bathroom villas came with completely furnished kitchens, appliances, milky water, and a Third Country National houseboy.

That evening I sat in the front passenger seat of the Suburban. Nelson Glassby was in his reserved spot all the way in the back compartment. The entire middle section was vacant. He was a bitter and silent man like so many involuntary pilgrims and he sat back there bitter and silent as usual. He was just something you got used to after a while in Saudi Arabia. Although he was in his thirties his hair was already gray and his features had started to take on the countenance of an old man like Gilbert Swan. His pupils were barely distinguishable from the narrow sockets he suspiciously peered out of in order to condemn his present surroundings. As much as he purported to hate the Saudis and Saudi Arabia, in a strange way, a reverse of Dorian Gray, he began to look more and more like what he hated: an elderly Arab gentleman.

Kurt Weimar parked the Suburban on the main street in Taif. The downtown was brightly lit with strings of small lights. It looked very much like a Christmas celebration. The mood was festive with a lot of activities in the early evening as people who slept or were inactive during the day, finally woke up and moved about. It was hard for me to figure out what the celebration was about though, except for the fact, it was dark and they could eat and drink again, although I’m sure there were as many backsliders here as there were Christendom, sneaking snacks throughout the day on the sly.

We crossed the two main roads and walked toward the souk area. As we entered, to our astonishment, there were hundreds of black women standing in front of the Saudi National bank. They were exclusively African, Sudanese, Somali, or Ethiopian, and on the low rung of the social order in the Kingdom. They were usually the ones in the souk with trifles and cheap wares spread out on blankets next to the mosque. They would sit like a misshapen feed sack in their black abyads and peer at you mournfully with fear in their eyes.

“What the hell is going on here?” Weimar asked.

We walked across the road to the opposite sidewalk of where the commotion was at a high pitch. The crowd of women covered two lanes of traffic, a traffic island in the middle, and their numbers expanded along the street. No traffic could pass because of the large throng of shrouded women. It was difficult to pass on the sidewalk because a crowd of men, Saudis and expatriates, milled about, gawking at the unusual spectacle.

The women pressed against the ornately carved, wooden doors of the bank. There was a tremendous roar as they yelled and shouted at each other. Security police were already on the scene, but more police cars with flashing lights arrived.

The policemen gathered around the front doors of the bank and one bank official stepped outside. He quickly shut the doors but stayed in front of the mob of women. He yelled and shouted instructions at them. The police did likewise and stood ready with raised wooden mallets poised like crickets bats.

A few moments later he opened both doors, and the women stormed into the bank. There was a steep staircase beyond the doors, and the bank lobby was up one flight of steps. The stairs were completely clogged with black abyads when the women stampeded. Weimar drifted over to other expatriates and spoke to them momentarily.

“It’s some kind of give away,” he explained to Glassby and me when he returned.

“The King does this every Ramadan. They get two hundred riyals apiece for themselves and their children. There aren’t any Saudis in there. You wouldn’t catch Saudi women doing that.”

The crowd multiplied. There were so many that it got out of control. Too many women had entered the bank so the police finally stormed it. They waved their wooden clubs that were long and flat. From the stairway, the police threw women down the stairs. As more tried to enter the front doors, the police, dressed in brown uniforms and black berets, pounded women, striking them with their clubs. There wasn’t a Mrs. Swan among the group. She would most assuredly have gotten back up and swung at the police, perhaps blackening an eye or two to match their berets in the process.

The women fell down the stairway as they tried to miss the clubs. The crowd outside was gradually prevented from entering by the police who congregated at the front doors with their clubs raised high. The noise and bedlam continued until order was restored. When that happened the women were allowed to slowly negotiate through the phalanx of policemen and other gift seekers.

While all this was going on, Glassby paced back and forth on the sidewalk.

“This is great. I love it!” Glassby said ecstatically, aroused and comforted by what he saw.

“Huh?” Weimar grunted.

“I love a police state. The clubs. The machine guns. This makes my day,” he said.

After we had gotten our fill of the give away and Glassby’s euphoria dissipated, we headed towards the Green Valley Restaurant, the Filipino dive frequented by expatriates. We were barely out of the souk area when I saw a familiar shadow. It was Gilbert Swan. It was easy to spot him because he was tall compared to the Saudis, and his walk was unmistakable. Step. Half step. Step. Half step.

His clothes were, of course, unique too. He was in the same outfit he had worn for weeks, perhaps years. The same one I had seen on him the first day. His wool slacks were baggy around his waist, and at least eight inches too short in length. The short sleeves on his shirt barely covered his shoulders.

“You should see what’s going on over there,” Weimar said loudly to him.

Gilbert’s head was up as he walked, but it was turned to the side. He was oblivious to our presence even though we were the only people, Saudis or expats, in his vicinity.

“Huh, who’s that? Oh, hullo, it’s you chaps. I was walking down the street here, and what did you say was going on?”

“They’re giving away money at the bank around the corner. It’s from the King,” Weimar repeated.

“Money. Bank. How much is the old boy giving away. I’d like to know,” Gilbert replied.

“They said two hundred riyals.”

“Two hundred riyals! That’s about twenty-five pounds. I suppose that’s for Saudis only?”

“What are you talking about? Saudis wouldn’t line up for two hundred riyals. It’s for the Third Country Nationals. Looks mostly like Africans,” Weimar answered.

“I could use two hundred riyals, that’s the truth. I sent my check home to Mrs. Swan, and I cut myself this month,” he said with a characteristic chuckle.

He did that every month he was in Saudi Arabia, and, by then, we all knew it. He could barely afford anything including the cheap cigarettes he was always smoking, except for the occasional one that he managed to pocket from one of the other smokers.

“I looked at a new radio in the Sony store, but it was too dear, synonym “expensive”, so I didn’t purr-chase it,” he emphasized with a flourish. “Well, cheerio.”

Gilbert continued on along the sidewalk. I watched as he went on his way, window shopping in his ill-fitting clothes, perhaps thinking about home, like so many of us involuntary pilgrims, and life with Mrs. Swan back in Dundee. Step. Half step. Step. Half step.

——-

Tom Fillion has been widely published online at Ramble Underground, Hamilton Stone, Cautionary Tale, Word Catalyst Magazine, Storyglossia, DeComp Magazine, and Smokebox.net.

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1 Comment

  1. CARMELO SARACENO

    The characterization of Mr. Swan sticks. A limping expatriate….metaphor for a defective unable to make it in his own country?
    Sad and vivid.

    Reply

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