This is my last post about my memories of the desert before my novel, Electric Souk, is launched in a few days time. And for this post, I have to write about my goodbye to the desert.
I prepared to leave with a torn heart. A great part of me wanted to stay and learn more about this mysterious world and deepen the incredible friendships I had made with local women. But, it was a troubled time and after a summer of trauma, which had seen friends and colleagues, both expat and locals, harassed and forced to leave, I knew it was my time to go before events turned any darker.
Rumours were swirling of a list of expats who were to be terminated and deported, and day by day another colleague was marched from the office building to jeering and spitting. Beyond the glittering seven star hotels, the champagne brunches, the designer sunglasses and Souk silks, tensions were surfacing. The recession in the West was lapping at the edges of the desert – gas, oil and property prices had crashed. Riots in the labour camps were whispered about caused by rice shortages. Purges of foreigners from government posts were promised. A new fundamentalism was taking hold in the souks and mosques. The ‘Maglis’, where community leaders met, worried about a royal coup between the more liberal and conservative factions. Suspicion about sinister foreigners intensified, and given some of the malignant characters I had tangled with in my time, I could understand this only too well. The roots of the Arab Spring were being nurtured deep in the sand, we just didn’t know it yet.
We knew we were in trouble if our email got cut off at work, that was always the first sign that you were about to find yourself on a plane home (hopefully – there were stories of detentions in places out in the desert). I went to the mall and bought the sparkliest pair of shoes I have ever owned – if I was going to be marched from the building I was going in style.
The day came. I had been harassed now myself, subject to an alarming and bullying set of accusations about instigating an IT system to spy on the local staff. Anyone who knows my IT skills knows this was laughable. Other allusions were made too though, ones that deeply worried me. I didn’t have an exit visa, there was no way out. I cannot say how frightening it is, feeling so trapped.
I called the Irish Embassy. The Ambassador was actually going to be in town this week, for an international summit, along with Mary Robinson, and he was not having an Irish citizen treated in this way. ‘Resign now’ (not an easy thing to do as I had verbally signed a three year contract and there’s no breakout class, I discovered) and prepare to leave.
I submitted my resignation and girded myself to be hounded from the building. The news flew around the offices and one by one members of the local staff came in to see me in tears, apologising for for treatment was having. Emotions ran high and I bit my lip all day, determined not to cry, to show my strength.The strength that the local women gave me with their friendship and support.
As lunchtime and the end of the work day approached, I was shaking, ready for the ritual humiliation. Instead, all the women who worked in my department gathered around me. ‘Come with us now. We have a surprise for you.’
My sparkly heels clicked all the way through the corridors.
We left the building, it was silent. Everyone had gone. No one was staying to jeer me. Now I did cry,as I cry again writing and remembering this.
Into a fleet of Land Cruisers we hopped and off to a local restaurant. The girls wanted to treat me, to show me how much they loved and cherished our precious friendship. Normally, they would be expected to go straight home for their family duties, but all that was put aside as they took me to a sumptuous restaurant to celebrate our time together.
The staff were ready at the restaurant, huge bowls of salads and platters of steak weighed down the table. The girls commented on how pale I looked. No wonder after the harrowing past few months and now the torment of leaving my friends behind, like this – and knowing I could never go back. Added to which, I was viewing a bloody plate of raw meat – as a vegetarian. This was a fact they all knew, but none could accept.
But not a problem, hands were clapped and all the restaurant staff came running. A massive chocolate cake ablaze with candles was placed in front of me; and one by one, the staff, from all corners of the world, sang to me in their own language – Happy Birthday To You.
And then the tears flowed as they have never flowed before in the dry desert…in such a strange, surreal place this was the only goodbye possible. Ma’a-asalaama.