Fending Off the Real World
Our Man in Riyadh
Coming of Age in Saudi Arabia
This novella must come from the proverbial other side of the tracks. Eighty pages in, one cannot help but notice that nothing is happening on the outside. The short novel, a mere forty pages left, is taking place on the inside. The lead character is always reacting while making observations. When he is idle, he is either asleep, dreaming, or raiding the refrigerator for flatbread and sugar. If the literary work is not a product of globalization, I have personally seen to its accomplishment, at least within my own allotted cranial space. The young man keeps a discrete distance; he is not without brainpower. But the village life gets to him. The young woman whose shampooed hair fills his nostrils, the sudden disappearance of a boy who is constantly harassed by bullies, a gaping hole into which another boy one day suddenly falls, fate unknown, the smart avoidance of a rabble rouser with cassette tapes, and his own father arriving home with a rooster and advice to study up on Islam -- are these events and characters for real? Or, are they distant memories, bent all out of shape by time?
Perhaps what is most delightful is the lack of the expected. No calls to prayer, "God is Great" shrieks, no politics hardly at all, except insofar as they serve to establish a time, such as during a spontaneous trip to Kuwait prior to the Iran-Iraq war. It has been years since I habituated myself to reading novels. Nowadays, there are millions of books to delve into. But let's face facts. Many of the most topical and relevant articles and writing in whatever format are themselves evidence of minds, however superior, not really with it. I also try to keep up with the Joneses of Journalism. Foreign Affairs tells of failures to establish a two-state solution in the Middle East, as well as economic lessons from the financial crisis closer to home in 2008. For me, it is what is unfolding before my own eyes and ears on television, or, of all places, a cell phone, that makes me prefer a novel of a faraway place I sometimes follow, sometimes lose track of.
Such is "Life on Hold", by Fahd Al-Atiq. Not the typical image of a Saudi Arabian you have in your head. A life of freedom fighting is not what Khaled, the protagonist, has in mind for himself. He just keeps looking at things, thinking about things, and feeling things as life changes, eventually impacted, as mentioned, by "the spread of satellite channels, mobile phones, coffee shops, and large shopping malls." His life is on hold. In fact, he may never really live, not in the sense in which life is conventionally defined. To be a human amoeba is sometimes the best one can achieve. Stuff gets in the way; the breaks never come. In his neighborhood, nobody seems suited to success. For a spell, Khaled's father and partner rent houses and apartments. Then, later, older, and beaten by life, the old man is routinely dropped off by family to wander about the old haunts, then, later, picked up.
Book of Revelation
The Great Reversal
Naturally, the future remains to be seen. But I am referring to a subtle sensation, as I peruse articles and books, once the domain of religiosity, that has now crept into current affairs. In other words, writing and spoken editorials on what is happening, might happen, has happened, appear as hokey as judgment day and the resurrection of the dead used to sound to the fine-tuned, filtered ears of the secular. It is not surprising that the phrase, Make America Great Again, has crept into the thought processes of distant lands. Take Foreign Affairs again, since my intellectual horizons are so limited. Here is an article on another Peace Plan for the Middle East, based largely on what can be salvaged from the wreckage of the Oslo Accords. Peace? Ain't no such thing. Another article addresses the admittedly real prospect of having to square off with yet another financial crisis. In my opinion, it carries more weight than the former. Still, it is purely hypothetical, since the envisioned crisis has not yet arrived. It is not just America, but the world at large, which is dealing with global decay, a headwind of despair, or, a widespread letdown of unfulfilled promises.
I know I am not alone. Just yesterday, I read an article by an alumnus on somewhat the same theme. He feels left out by the November election. He is also not alone. Here is yet another truism. There is no getting back to the past. Slews of biographies have been published in the last few decades on American patriots as well as leaders from all over. Some are designed to leave the reader breathless with awe and admiration. Others are also written for hissing and howling at villains of bygone eras. There have been times when America has gone through periods of infinite, infantile regression. It looks as though another second childhood is once again gaining the upper hand. Not everyone can be divided into distinct categories such as saints and sinners. The world has never been either black or white, always gray. The answer has rarely leaned to one side or the other, right or left, but somewhere in the middle, somehow off-limits to human effort, no matter how strenuous.
What's Playing at the Roxie?
Mirrors to the World
Why is fiction sometimes more real than non-fiction? I can only reply in the form of another question. Why are films so vivid, yet remote? As a former film teacher, I can pretty much just tell you. Were something to happen in the classroom, everybody would have much to say. Show students a film, then afterwards, it is as if their vocal cords were removed. It does not matter if it is a movie about mummies coming to life and wreaking havoc or what is invariably designated: "a true story". I am watching one now about the aftermath of WWII in Poland -- The Innocents. It is not 1945 anymore. It is 2016, a week away from 2017. Yes, all these amazing events occurred. The movie is worth the while -- a Sundance selection. But it is still theater nonetheless. Theater, too, I might add, with the false notion that exposing a great wrong will prevent its recurrence. Take into account the resilient capacity of human beings to do evil and all bets are off.
Or consider the new, aforementioned peace proposal the UN has only just voted on. Must Israel and the UN fight to the death, like the penultimate scene in Spartacus? Written with appreciable understanding, it is still only an admirable work of pen and paper. If Palestinians came to understand A,B, and C, it reads, then voilà!. In old Marxist-Leninist compositions, everything hinged upon raising the consciousness of the oppressed working class or blue collars. "When the worker comes to understand that he or she is being oppressed. . . ." The latter never materialized, nor will the former. I am all right with settlements thousands of miles from my own backyard. But it drives the people they actually affect crazy. They get agitated. Their hatred ratchets higher. Their vows for vengeance become real. Still, it can be said, in all fairness, that trying, if only in words, to be sensible, is important. In the novel set in Riyadh -- perhaps not the wealthy section with which you might free associate -- Khaled thinks of Israel as a test, nothing more or less, to Muslims. He does not want to end up in Afghanistan while those who send him lie safely in bed at night. All I know is that war novels, movies, and games are one thing, the real McCoy altogether different. It does not take much imagination to comprehend it.
Trujillo & Somoza
Are We Helpless, Helpless, Helpless?
Finally, America elected its own version of a Nikita Kruschev or Fidel Castro, that is to say, a "spokesperson", to put it mildly, or what is commonly known as a strong man on a horse. Trump said what others felt. The silent majority (or minority) won. He is already typecast as more mouth than ears, but has not yet taken the stage. My colleague at our alma mater suggests acting and speaking up; I advocate just the opposite. If the news is irritating, find a novel, sink in, or passively watch movies. Purchase every season of every program at the local Wal-Mart. Fend off reality. Do not become part of it. Things are about as bad as they have ever been since WWII. With serious talk of nukes, it is the wrong time to be alive, the best time to enjoy an extra scoop of ice-cream and go to bed early. Utter madness has risen to the top. It will no doubt trickle down, too. I might as well throw Daniel Ortega, the ideological Sandinista President of Nicaragua, into the witch's brew. Extremism in the pursuit of extremism is actually extremism. Don't get me wrong. The President-Elect might prove to have been the best man for the job. He is still untested. But the feeling in the air is murky and unsettled. People are bracing for the worst. That is why I recommend ignoring politics altogether. For as long as possible and then some. Not that I always take my own advice.