The Promotion (a short story from Saudi Arabia)

22 November, 2021
“Pros­per­i­ty With­out Growth II”, 2020, dig­i­tal print and gold and col­or paint on rub­ber stamps on alu­minum, 24.8 x 49 in. ( 85.5 x 124.5 cm ), cour­tesy artist Abdul­nass­er Gharem, Riyadh.

 

My moth­er wasn’t done. “A non-white thobe com­mu­ni­cates to your Pak­istani friends that you are under­go­ing a mid-life cri­sis. All will be forgiven.”

 

Waqar Ahmed

 

The thobe was sprawled on the bed, as if wait­ing for its man­nequin. Two madas Gul­fie san­dals were guard­ing the thobe from my father, who regard­ed the long white gar­ment sus­pi­cious­ly. “Should I put the head­piece on too?” he asked my mother.

“Ghutra,” she replied. “If you plan to wear it, know the name.”

Baba scratched his cheek, walked around the bed and con­tem­plat­ed the thobe from a dif­fer­ent angle. “Ghutra,” he repeated.

My moth­er raised the thobe in front of her and remarked how it was the same mate­r­i­al as a shal­war-kameez, only longer, all the way to the ankles, and with­out slits at the sides. Baba backed away and scowled, as if her touch­ing the thobe meant that now he’d have to wear it no mat­ter what.

Haleem wore it, why couldn’t he, my father asked. It was a dai­ly ques­tion. Haleem was our neigh­bor and, for­mer­ly, a Pak­istani cit­i­zen. He dressed in the thobe because he’d mar­ried a Sau­di woman, and through her, acquired cit­i­zen­ship. For a Pak­istani such as Baba to under­go a sud­den fash­ion meta­mor­pho­sis after work­ing in Sau­di Ara­bia for fif­teen years would draw atten­tion. But in a mat­ter of months, he was up for his first pro­mo­tion from Asso­ciate to Full Pro­fes­sor of Chem­i­cal Engi­neer­ing at the King Fahd Uni­ver­si­ty of Petro­le­um and Min­er­als. Could a change to the local dress seal the deal?

To be clear, many South Asians in Sau­di Ara­bia wore the thobe to work. But they were fruit ven­dors and minor mer­chants deal­ing in car­pets, pic­ture frames, and the like. Nev­er pro­fes­sors, who opt­ed for West­ern cloth­ing. Except Haleem; but he was viewed by the Pak­istani com­mu­ni­ty in Dhahran as an opportunist.

It was a risk. What if word got around among his Pak­istani friends and col­leagues? If unsuc­cess­ful, the under­tak­ing would become stuff of leg­end. But Baba want­ed news of the fash­ion switch to cir­cu­late else­where: through Sau­di cir­cles. The Dean of the Chem­i­cal Engi­neer­ing Depart­ment and the Rec­tor of the uni­ver­si­ty — both of whom were Saud­is — would opine when it came to the pro­mo­tion, as would the gov­ern­ment, but no one knew how much weight each review or rec­om­men­da­tion car­ried. Baba admit­ted to my moth­er that it was safest to put on this show so that report of his behav­ior could reach even the remotest cor­ri­dors of power.

He had the Dean’s vote in the bag. A hum­ble man, the Dean often sum­moned my father into his office for no rea­son but to gal­lop into con­ver­sa­tion about his child­hood. Reek­ing of alco­hol obtained via U.S. Con­sulate con­nec­tions, he liked to tell Baba how dur­ing the Eid, such was their pover­ty that his Bedouin rel­a­tives hud­dled around a sin­gle egg and cut it into eight por­tions. Now he and his two sons drove match­ing Mer­cedes; they were so spoiled that it embar­rassed him that the uni­ver­si­ty had taint­ed its stan­dards by admit­ting them on account of his posi­tion. One day when the oil dried up, he and his now-rich rel­a­tives would return to the nomadic life of the desert, while air­planes cross­ing from oth­er coun­tries mocked them from above. What was unique about the Dean was that he was the only Sau­di Baba knew who felt guilty about his obscene wealth. My father guessed he might ini­tial­ly laugh at his change in dress, but ulti­mate­ly lament that had he pos­sessed an ounce of Baba’s ambi­tion, he would’ve hit reli­gious instruc­tion hard, and risen in the cler­i­cal ranks.

Head of the uni­ver­si­ty, the Rec­tor lived two streets from us, in a much big­ger house. Dai­ly, he walked the neigh­bor­hood in the evening. Baba made it a point to acci­den­tal­ly bump into him from time to time and exchange pleas­antries. He planned to do the same in the com­ing weeks, except this time wear­ing a thobe.

As for the Sau­di gov­ern­ment, Baba’s hope was for the Dean and Rec­tor to spread the word about his fash­ion awakening.

 


 

A few days passed. Baba hung the pressed thobe on the mas­ter bath­room door. The Gul­fie san­dals migrat­ed with the gar­ment and tem­porar­i­ly func­tioned as bath­room slip­pers. Baba believed he couldn’t slip and take a tum­ble in the thobe, but those san­dals might pose a prob­lem when walk­ing through the uni­ver­si­ty. What bet­ter way to train than to wear them from time to time on a wet floor? After a few rounds of prac­tice, he decid­ed the san­dals were too pre­cious to sub­ject to the bath­room. “They resem­ble exot­ic fish,” he said. True, there was the loop for the big toe which looked like an animal’s eye, and that majes­tic sweep of leather which cov­ered the oth­er toes, resem­bling the col­or­ful scale of a fish you might find in the Red Sea. This wasn’t the first time he’d mar­veled at the aes­thet­ic design of the slip­pers. Every time we’d go to one of those work­ing class shops with san­dals hung on the wall—the type of mar­ket­place where South Asian mer­chants wore thobes—he’d com­ment on the san­dals’ resem­blance to exot­ic fish. To me, they looked like dap­pled armadil­lo car­cass­es hang­ing in a butch­er shop. In any case, he was final­ly wear­ing the col­or­ful fish, and too good for the bath­room, he nonethe­less need­ed prac­tice walk­ing in them, so they became house sandals.

The san­dals were get­ting exer­cise, but the thobe con­tin­ued to hang on dif­fer­ent walls of the mas­ter bed­room. White to begin with, it start­ed to spook us. It didn’t help mat­ters that Baba refused to try it on, even in pri­vate. One day, while both of us were star­ing at it for no rea­son, he said to me that he had to do this so I wouldn’t have to. I under­stood what he meant.

The Sau­di boys called me Hin­di. Since many of the migrant labor­ers in Sau­di Ara­bia were from South India, the mes­sage was that we were no bet­ter than them. The oth­er accu­sa­tion was that we weren’t authen­tic Mus­lims, and might even be idol­aters, which for Pak­ista­nis — who already over­com­pen­sat­ed when it came to reli­gion and vis­it­ed Makkah more than Arabs — was espe­cial­ly damning.

Though I lived with Saud­is in the uni­ver­si­ty hous­ing com­pound, I had lit­tle con­tact with them. I knew as much about the pri­vate realm of their cul­tur­al world as I did about Ther­mo­dy­nam­ics, Desali­na­tion, and Heat Trans­fer (there was no Google in the eight­ies) — class­es Baba taught at the uni­ver­si­ty. My friends were from all over the world, but not Sau­di Ara­bia. Sau­di nation­als weren’t allowed to enroll in the Amer­i­can school we attend­ed. Our fam­i­lies didn’t mix.

The clos­est inter­ac­tion I had with locals was on our week­ly shop­ping bus which drove fac­ul­ty kids from uni­ver­si­ty hous­ing to the one mall in Dhahran. It was iron­ic for us South Asian expats, who had nev­er­the­less learned our Amer­i­can his­to­ry well that, while rid­ing to the mall, we were rel­e­gat­ed to the front of the bus. The Sau­di boys occu­pied the back. And week­ly, trot­ting to the hip sec­tor of the bus, at least one of them threw a men­ac­ing look my way, and called me Hin­di. My Pak­istani friends and I nev­er asked them why they called us that. We had an idea. Since many of the migrant labor­ers in Sau­di Ara­bia were from South India, the mes­sage was that we were no bet­ter than them. The oth­er accu­sa­tion was that we weren’t authen­tic Mus­lims, and might even be idol­aters, which for Pak­ista­nis — who already over­com­pen­sat­ed when it came to reli­gion and vis­it­ed Makkah more than Arabs — was espe­cial­ly damning.

If only the Saud­is had viewed me as a bud­ding Amer­i­can. West­ern­ers they feared. At home, I was indoc­tri­nat­ed to Amer­i­can cul­ture. Simon and Gar­funkel waft­ed through our house on week­ends. Dai­ly, Baba came home from work, sta­tioned him­self on the couch, lit up a cig­ar and watched episodes of The Gold­en Girls, Colum­bo and The Cos­by Show, some­times flick­ing his ash on a copy of Time mag­a­zine. This, he’d tell us, is what peo­ple did in Amer­i­ca after a long day at work. Sun­days, the two of us watched three-month old foot­ball games tele­vised by one of the local Eng­lish lan­guage chan­nels. It wasn’t until I went to the Unit­ed States to attend high school that I real­ized all the TV I’d been watch­ing in Sau­di Ara­bia was months and some­times years behind the pre­miere date. Our week­ly treat was a din­ner at Hardee’s, one of the few Amer­i­can fast food chains in Dhahran.

Where Baba earned a schol­ar­ship in his twen­ties to study in the Unit­ed States, I was being groomed for an ear­li­er emi­gra­tion. Pri­or to angling for this pro­mo­tion, it had been his wish for me to earn a full ride to an East Coast board­ing school. The oil com­pa­ny where many of his friends worked cov­ered almost the entire cost of over­seas edu­ca­tion for their employ­ees’ chil­dren. But Baba didn’t work for an oil com­pa­ny. An Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor for one of the nation­al uni­ver­si­ties, Baba’s posi­tion made us firm­ly upper mid­dle class. Since most Saud­is and expats lived in sim­i­lar hous­es, a bet­ter gauge of wealth was the car you drove, and also whether you walked the few meters from your door to toss your trash in the main dump­ster, or hired a ser­vant to do it. We had some­one come in to do the dish­es dai­ly, but couldn’t afford a full-time maid. The trash was my job. In the five min­utes it took to walk across our lush green grass of import­ed top­soil, the Sau­di humid­i­ty gnawed at my skin and burned my neck.

To avoid fur­ther edu­ca­tion in Pak­istan, Bahrain, or a local Ara­bic school mas­querad­ing as a British Eng­lish-medi­um insti­tu­tion, I had to win a schol­ar­ship to a board­ing school. Baba’s run­ning joke with me was that if I did get some type of finan­cial aid, not only would he make up the rest of the tuition but fur­nish me with a bride. A Sau­di stu­dent in one of his class­es had once shared with him that his own father had promised him a sec­ond wife if he earned straight “As” in all of his cours­es. Baba delib­er­ate­ly gave him a “B” that semes­ter even though, accord­ing him, the boy had prob­a­bly done enough in class to embark on anoth­er hon­ey­moon. I secured the schol­ar­ship (though I polite­ly declined Baba’s jest­ing invi­ta­tion to enter into an arranged mar­riage). Receiv­ing the news first from my school coun­selor, my father rushed home. As he approached the long street with man­i­cured hedges and over­flow­ing bougainvil­lea that emp­tied into our house, he sav­age­ly honked our car’s horn in cel­e­bra­tion. The only oth­er time Baba had honked like that was when Benazir Bhut­to first became Prime Min­is­ter, mark­ing the return of democ­ra­cy to Pakistan. 

 


 

The pro­mo­tion date was only a few weeks away and the thobe still hung mourn­ful­ly in the mas­ter bed­room. A new plan was under con­sid­er­a­tion. What if Baba drove to the uni­ver­si­ty in west­ern clothes, but changed into the thobe before class and office hours? Because hard­ly any Saud­is worked late, he could exit the uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus with the same out­fit from the morn­ing. Any gos­sip ses­sion with the Dean or run-in with the Rec­tor required the thobe, but Baba cal­cu­lat­ed that he could strate­gi­cal­ly avoid his Pak­istani col­leagues if he timed his out­fit changes just right.

We were in the liv­ing room, dis­cussing fash­ion pros and cons, but Baba kept glanc­ing at the mas­ter bed­room nervously.

“Go to it,” my moth­er said. “The thobe is lonely.”

Baba let out a con­sti­pat­ed laugh.

“What about vari­ety?” my moth­er asked. “The thobes can be brown or blue, the san­dals maroon. You opt­ed for a white thobe and bor­ing black sandals.”

Baba remind­ed her that there seemed to be some inter­est­ing sil­ver needle­work on the scales of the san­dals. Besides, he just want­ed to make a state­ment of intent. The des­ig­na­tion of Full Pro­fes­sor was as good as tenure; the thobe would act as a con­duit to demon­strate to the uni­ver­si­ty that he intend­ed to stay until retire­ment. Get­ting too flashy might send mixed signals.

My moth­er wasn’t done. “A non-white thobe com­mu­ni­cates to your Pak­istani friends that you are under­go­ing a mid-life cri­sis. All will be forgiven.”

Baba’s Pak­istani col­leagues were also PhDs from poor fam­i­lies. They’d worked hard, obtained their doc­tor­ates from coun­tries like Japan, Swe­den, and Aus­tralia and end­ed up at a mon­eyed oasis that paid aca­d­e­mics way too much. Even if the Pak­istani uni­ver­si­ty com­mu­ni­ty as a whole mocked him, sure­ly, as indi­vid­u­als, his friends would under­stand? The prob­lem was, in Baba’s mind, none of his col­leagues had strug­gled through ear­ly life as much as he had. They couldn’t fath­om his dri­ve to promotion.

Once when my moth­er was par­tic­u­lar­ly annoyed with me, she com­mand­ed me to wait out­side the ten­e­ment while she took my sis­ter to the bath­room. She chal­lenged me to prove my worth and race my sister’s feces down the alley and into the bazaar. Cer­tain the excre­ment would win, she wagered ten rupees. We oper­at­ed on the hon­or system.

Every sum­mer, my sis­ter and I had to spend a week in his ances­tral home in Gujrat, Pak­istan. The neigh­bor­hood con­sist­ed of Pak­istani-style ten­e­ments, where rooms were jammed into oth­er rooms, and there was no plumb­ing. An open-air slab of cement closed off by four wood­en planks, one func­tion­ing as a door, was used to both bathe and defe­cate. The refuse emp­tied into canals on either side of tight alleys that vis­i­bly car­ried the sewage away to the local riv­er. Once when my moth­er was par­tic­u­lar­ly annoyed with me, she com­mand­ed me to wait out­side the ten­e­ment while she took my sis­ter to the bath­room. She chal­lenged me to prove my worth and race my sister’s feces down the alley and into the bazaar. Cer­tain the excre­ment would win, she wagered ten rupees. We oper­at­ed on the hon­or system.

Sum­mer nights were hot. With no air-con­di­tion­ing, every­one slept on a small par­tial­ly open-air bridge that con­nect­ed two rooms of the house. Bats dan­gled on the part of the bridge that was cov­ered and we slept look­ing up at the crea­tures. My rel­a­tives joked that com­pared to them I was at a dis­tinct dis­ad­van­tage because I slept with my mouth open, an icy insin­u­a­tion that it was the only advan­tage they enjoyed over me in life.

It was in this gnash­ing mess of a hous­ing scheme that my father grew up, stud­ied six­teen hours a day, and some­how earned a schol­ar­ship to obtain Mas­ters and PhD degrees in the Unit­ed States. The neigh­bor­hood pro­duced suc­cess­ful busi­ness­men, but he was the only mem­ber of the com­mu­ni­ty to go abroad for high­er education.

As soon as we touched down in Gujrat, we’d start hit­ting all the res­i­dences in the ten­e­ment. Almost every­one in the neigh­bor­hood could be traced as a dis­tant rel­a­tive. Peo­ple active­ly mar­ried with­in the com­mu­ni­ty and rarely moved away. Gos­sip float­ed in the air. Every­one was judged. Which was why his Pak­istani col­leagues’ impend­ing judg­ment was play­ing so heav­i­ly on Baba’s mind. Away from the home­land, they were the clos­est thing to rel­a­tives that he had. 

Though I nev­er vis­it­ed the ances­tral homes of the oth­er Pak­istani pro­fes­sors in Dhahran, I still imag­ined Baba’s to have been the most down­trod­den. At com­mu­ni­ty get-togeth­ers, he boast­ed of Gujrat’s pover­ty. It became a badge of hon­or, some­thing competitive.

My father often sub­ject­ed both my sis­ter and me to the epic of rags-to-upper-mid­dle-class-afflu­ence that he had woven around him­self. You could nev­er achieve what I achieved, but the good thing is, you don’t have to, was his stock line. I had been hop­ing that my schol­ar­ship might damp­en his nar­ra­tive. Instead, the busi­ness with the thobe started.

 


 

The first time Baba tried on the thobe in the bath­room, he didn’t come out for hours. My moth­er thought he’d maybe slipped on account of those Gul­fie san­dals which he’d decid­ed to wear in there for one final train­ing. She called out to him, but he kept say­ing: Not yet, not yet.

When he emerged, Baba looked like exact­ly what he was: a Pak­istani dressed in a thobe for the first time. The ghutra on his head was askew. His stom­ach cre­at­ed a per­fect cir­cu­lar out­line on the gar­ment mak­ing him appear slight­ly preg­nant. The thobe snatched at his neck and armpits. He won­dered why, in such a humid envi­ron­ment, the Arabs didn’t cre­ate a gar­ment that was more for­giv­ing, like the loose-fit­ting shal­war-kameez. Adding to the stom­ach-tight dis­com­fort, Baba was duck-foot­ed which made his ini­tial cat­walk mod­el­ing of the out­fit awk­ward. The two-week beard he’d decid­ed to grow last minute for extra cred­it made the over­all appear­ance odd­ly costumey.

Light-skinned for a Pun­jabi-Pak­istani, Baba’s col­or approached the fair­er Pash­tuns of Pakistan’s north. His nose didn’t look like those of men in the Gulf. It seemed too small for the ghutra, and his eye­brows too thick. A lot of Sau­di pro­fes­sors wore glass­es; Baba didn’t. There was also the dis­tinct absence of suf­fo­cat­ing cologne which was a call­ing card of well-to-do locals.

Baba leant into the counter of my mother’s van­i­ty mir­ror and dropped his head, lament­ing that he was no bet­ter than a Baboo, an Indi­an civ­il ser­vant who, pre and post-Par­ti­tion, was a wannabe British aristocrat.

“He was born three years after Par­ti­tion,” my moth­er offered. “When we first mar­ried, he spent two hours in front of the mir­ror set­ting his tie and hair. I thought he was the last Baboo left on Earth.”

“Yes, yes, you are cor­rect,” Baba said. “There was no rea­son to dress like that after Par­ti­tion. That was about a deep Pak­istani self-hatred. This is about advance­ment.” I think what annoyed him most was the per­fect round out­line cre­at­ed by his stomach.

“You don’t want to look more hand­some than them,” my moth­er tried to reas­sure him. “That isn’t the aim of the exer­cise, no?”

There was no time, he com­plained. The pro­mo­tion process would com­mence in a mat­ter of weeks. He couldn’t be seen like this, in an out­fit more Hal­loween than uni­ver­si­ty professor.

“A thought just came to me,” my moth­er said. “Don’t you need more than one? More than one thobe and at least two pairs of san­dals? You can­not wear the same set dai­ly to class.”

This threw Baba into a full-blown pan­ic. The gar­ment had been hang­ing on var­i­ous doors of the mas­ter bed­room for weeks. We’d dis­cussed dif­fer­ent col­ors. He even took it to the dryclean­ers and brought it back in its soli­tary plas­tic cov­er­ing. Why did it nev­er occur to him that he’d need mul­ti­ple thobes?

My depar­ture for board­ing school coin­cid­ed with the pro­mo­tion deci­sion. I also need­ed spe­cial clothes. I’d been admit­ted to an insti­tu­tion that required its stu­dents to be attired in ties and blaz­ers for all class­es and meals. I owned just one suit and tie that I’d bought for my mid­dle school prom.

Only twelve, the prospect of leav­ing home filled me with anx­i­ety. Baba left Gujrat for the Unit­ed States when he was twen­ty-three and he had left home a hero. My schol­ar­ship to board­ing school should have nudged me into fam­i­ly lore, but my father had been a poor orphan who had made it to the Unit­ed States from the sew­ers of Gujrat. How could I com­pete with that? And now the achieve­ment that I thought would bring me recog­ni­tion was already being swept away by the glow of his loom­ing promotion.

 


 

Baba didn’t wear the thobe part-time at the office. It was too much work to change, he said. Plus, he was out­ed by a Pak­istani pro­fes­sor friend on day one. Still, he had a sol­id three-thobe, three-san­dal rota­tion; the orig­i­nal was dis­card­ed because he’d decid­ed it pos­sessed a bad aura. Also, the new ones were loos­er in the stom­ach. He’d gone a lit­tle crazy and pur­chased maroon and viper green Gul­fie sandals.

Dis­gust­ed by Baba’s pan­der­ing, our Pak­istani friends stopped invit­ing us to their par­ties even though the ladies were still friend­ly with my moth­er on the side. Nei­ther her reli­gious gath­er­ings nor her time on the phone suf­fered. My Pak­istani friends looked at me fun­ny, but I remained wel­come on the crick­et pitch­es. Our soci­ety was gen­teel; par­ents weren’t made fun of no mat­ter how pathet­ic their trans­gres­sions. Besides, a lot of us were prepar­ing to fan out to dif­fer­ent parts of the world for fur­ther edu­ca­tion — to the Unit­ed States, Bahrain, Pak­istan, the Unit­ed King­dom. Now wasn’t the time to be unkind to each oth­er. We were leav­ing home ear­li­er than our fathers had, but repli­cat­ing a fat­ed spin cycle of expat life that would dri­ve us fur­ther away from Sau­di Ara­bia, and ulti­mate­ly, Pakistan.

Unde­terred, Baba knew his friends would come around once he got the pro­mo­tion. Their opin­ions mat­tered, but some­thing more impor­tant hap­pened. Right and left, Sau­di pro­fes­sors had begun to kiss his cheeks and per­formed the awk­ward nose-touch greet­ing with him that sig­naled equal sta­tus. Dur­ing one of his walks, even the Rec­tor made a move on Baba.

“Did the Rec­tor kiss you first?” my moth­er asked.

 Baba was confused.

 “Did he kiss you before the others?”

 Baba under­stood. The Rec­tor had giv­en his seal of approval. Soon, my father would be the high­est rank­ing Pak­istani pro­fes­sor at the uni­ver­si­ty. To get used to the notion, per­haps, he start­ed wear­ing thobes at home dur­ing TV-time.

I won­dered how he’d spin this episode to us after a few years. Would his fash­ion buf­foon­ery be omit­ted from the epic? Would the nar­ra­tive be reduced to all the com­i­cal kiss­es he’d received from the Saud­is? More than any­thing, I wished that I could’ve wit­nessed the edu­ca­tion­al con­quests of his youth through a time warp. Sure, I had vis­it­ed Gujrat and wit­nessed the pover­ty from which he came, but was there some­thing in his past that gave him an igno­min­ious boost?

A few weeks lat­er, Baba drove into our street, honk­ing tri­umphant­ly. When I’d got­ten the schol­ar­ship, my father had entered the house, a big smile splashed on his face, and hugged me. The only oth­er time he hugged me was on Eid, and on that day it was required. I won­dered if I should return the favor. I didn’t.

 

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