Saturday, January 12, 2013

I hired a bedu driver from Batta'


I hired a bedu driver from the the Batta’ area of Riyadh to take me 500kms to Qateef and Dammam on the Gulf. I haggled hard to ensure that this last minute change of plan for Friday did not rip a gaping hole in my budget. Begrudgingly agreeing to my price, Abu Abdullah has hardly gone 200 metres before he’s trying to up the price again. Halas, I shout, indicating that the journey was over. OK habeebi, ok, he reasons. But there will be an additional price to be paid. First it’s breakfast for us both, squatting on the floor eating foul (pronounced fool) as members of that amorphous genre rarely known as the Saudi working class file in and out, accompanied by the occasional Pakistani. The beans are damn good, as is the hot, sweet, milky tea. I relax, a little, despite the acute discomfort that an apparently fit middle aged guy feels adopting a seating position that Abu Abdullah, who I think is older than me but I really have no idea, finds effortless, even though he struggles to get his leg and his gut in and out of his own car. We then spend the next half an hour circling the area for other passengers so he can recoup his perceived losses from my hard bargaining.
Batta’ is a poor area of Saudis and Asian labourers notorious for some westerners and quite a few Saudis as the place that was hot with militant Islamism that occasionally fed acts of terror ten years ago. It is where BBC journalist Frank Gardener was shot. 

As we circle an abandoned car park and a series of abandoned buildings I get a frisson of excitement mixed with not a little dread as my understanding of the success of Saudi security forces in crushing Al Qaida at home gives way to the notion of a sudden revival in their capabilities. Abu Abdullah eventually gives up the ghost however and we are finally on our way to the capital of Saudi Arabia’s alternative reality: Qateef, an almost solely Shia city in a vast peninsula that, while peppered with different communities, is overwhelmingly Sunni, quite a few of whom embrace a highly conservative variant of it. If Abu Abdullah realised where he was driving me, I don’t think he would have agreed. I note later his comment that there is no where for him to pray.

Conversation is difficult as we begin to pick up the pace. He speaks Arabic, badly. I don’t really speak it all beyond very basic conversation. However Abu Abdullah’s version is so guttural that I can’t even understand the simplest of phrases – a bit like an American trying to get directions from a barely coherent Glaswegian. A series of entreaties are made, some genuine curiosity, others, I think, intended to encourage benevolence. However what really gets me is his attempt to get all the money up front. My worst side is brought out as I assume that he won’t wait the three hours required in Qateef as I conduct a series of meetings, and I have the possible prospect of hiring another driver or seeking a flight back. He gives way and accepts half up front.

In Dammam, a bustling and not especially prosperous looking Saudi city, even compared to much of Qateef and its surrounding villages, I meet with an old acquaintance, the brother of an influential cleric. Abu Abdullah is waiting for me as I take my leave of our meeting in the husseiniya. There then, inevitably, follows a long period trawling the bus station for extra passengers. Abu Abdullah strikes a hit, eventually, with two guys needing to get to Riyadh. He is hell bent on a third before I put my foot down, or rather suggest that he does. He obliges and we wend our way in what proves to be the wrong direction. Four exhausting hours later we are back in Riyadh. Of course he won’t be dropping me off where I am based, although he would for an inflated price. However the advantages of the anarchy that sits alongside conservatism in this part of the world is that he absolutely no qualms about forcing another taxi driver to stop his car in order to get me a more reasonable deal for the journey to my hotel.          

2 comments:

Nature Strikes Back said...

That's a great little tale. Shame you left out the bit about the praying in the car on the way back tho!

Nicholas Brody said...
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