First up is fresh air, lungs wallowing, holding the oxygen like a wine-taster does claret, savouring it before exhaling coolly.
Second is rain, cool downpours every now and then, plump drops plummeting from pine needles, cloud-lined windows of healing sun rather than the blast furnace of the desert.
Third is a huge variety of delicious food, especially pork, deer and duck. May God spare me from ever seeing greasy sheep, oily rice and sultanas again.
And finally, chicks, of course ... all over the place against a backdrop of minimal religious interference because Mother Nature shows who the real boss is.
Yet through the fug of life in Europe's Jamaica my mind does sometimes flip back to a sandy recollection or two, and one has just dropped into my mental lap that involved the Unfortunate Arab and his Unfortunate Love of Money and All That Entails, etc.
What’s your salary? is a question I was often asked by nosey parkers and after a while my stock reply became, ‘There are two answers to that question, Mohammed: One, absolutely none of your business. And two, more than you.’
It wasn’t just the Saudis who glowed green with envy, at times fury, when salaries were being compared, because in the expat Saudi world salary is directly connected to nationality. Thus, a Bangladeshi is cheaper than a Pakistani and he is cheaper than an Indian who is cheaper than a Filipino who is cheaper than a westerner who is expensive. That’s the way it is. The majority of Saudis do jackshit and are paid in between a Filipino and a westerner.
I always argued that the disparity in cost of living in our home countries offset this discrepancy in salaries and I’m talking white collar work here. In our little training centre, other than the Saudi boss, I was the best paid mainly due to birthplace but also down to some negotiation when contracts were renewed. I got double, if not more, what the Indian computer geeks and Jordanian instructors and Saudi secretaries got, and they knew it. And they didn’t like it one little bit. But the Indian guy’s salary would certainly go further in Bombay than mine would in London.
There were also three guys who spent their free time queuing at the British and Canadian Embassies for immigration, and a few years ago one of them who did become a GB citizen saw his salary immediately double on receipt of the new passport that had replaced his Sudanese nationality.
When I arrived the Saudi king gave me a wad of cash, thanks for coming, termed a Relocation Allowance. Bonus before a stroke of work has begun! They also gave me a pleasant apartment in a leafy, peaceful, residential street 100 metres from a 24-hour supermarket where the Yemeni youths stacking the shelves always gave a cheery hello whenever I went in, no matter day or night.
In the bachelor’s housing block, the only problem downstairs were the ice-cold stares of the wannabe-fundamentalists from Bradford and Lahore and Ottawa while upstairs were a trio of harmless Filipino poofters who sang karaoke at weekends. In my final months I did notice a much more regular stream of Saudi men trundling up to the third floor for their ‘fun’.
The Filipino guys were so effeminate – hairstyle, gait, demeanour, fondness for skin-tight clothing - that they were pretty much female and there were times when I had to fight to control my laughter, but I had to give it to them (figuratively speaking), they did have a lucrative sideline going on up there, moonlighting as Homo Hookers. A Filipino teacher once told me that a Saudi secretary in his workplace would phone at one in the morning asking for a massage and react aggressively when refused.
Almost as soon as my wad of cash from the king had arrived, a rotund Jordanian wobbled into my office and asked to borrow it. Or 10000 Riyals/$2666 of it, which was craftily hidden in my flat and not doing much, so in an act of benevolence that would not be repeated, I handed over the dough. In fact, he drove me home to get it, explaining on the way that he was finishing off a house he was having built back in the Levant. I was financing the finishing touches.
“When can you pay it back?” I asked.
“After two months … Inshallah.”
Oh God no … Inshallah, meaning in English ‘God willing’ and a phrase ubiquitous throughout the Arab world. Allah controls everything, comprendez? So when things go wrong – highly normal – the perpetrator premeditates his likely fuck-up by laying any blame on Allah, because really it’s Him who does everything. Not us. Clever, huh? Not really. Thus my new-found friend and debtor next to me in his Mercedes Benz covered his sure to be defaulting tracks by passing the buck, as the yanks say, on to his god. How could I argue with Allah? Or get 10000 Riyals out of him?
The initial “two months … Inshallah” became 14 months and I had to extract it in bits and pieces from sweaty palms that really did not want to pay it back. Real anger lurked in the eye when hard cash was handed back to my side of the desk. Unfortunately interest payments on loans are not allowed by Allah (surely he’s passing up a marvellous money making opportunity here) so I received what I gave more than a year earlier – ten grand.
A few months later he was back in my office, dry washing hands, shuffling from foot to foot, asking for another ten thousand because the house is ready and his son is living in it but he hasn’t got a playstation or hi-fi (Allah forbids music) or computer or dvd or even a television, in this day and age, huh? I had become his de facto, non-profit bank and I seem to remember hearing that Allah permits his followers to deceive and rob from Kuffars (infidels) because they don’t believe what he says.
“I can’t,” I lied. “I’ve transferred it out of the country.”
Lying in the sand never bothered me because apparently for believers in Allah it’s OK to lie to Kuffars because they don’t believe what Allah says, so if that’s true for them then it’s good for me. An eye for an eye is an integral part of Allah’s law, known as Sharia and what the Islamic State and multitude of scattered fans would love to introduce to the global community. Unbelievers will have throats slit slowly, or be burned alive, or cut into pieces, livers sometimes eaten. Be careful kids, there are some deranged fuckers out there.
The rotund Jordanian was dejected. He would have to look elsewhere for credit and his grievance would burn until he found retribution; his version of an eye for an eye.
Right now is Ramadan the Islamic holy month of fasting. Read: not eating in daylight then mass gluttony by night for 30 consecutive days, and expected to work during that time but ‘excused’ for their piety. Saudis and oil-rich states only for work and eating because Moslems from other countries have to put in the full day’s labour and the price of food always goes up (sometimes triples) during this month. It’s basically 30 Christmas days on the trot. Then (great news for the likes of me) there is a two week holiday at the end known as Greed Recovery Period or some such. Many non-Saudi Moslems don’t get it. Mr Infidel made full use and every year he got out of dodge.
Due to the machinations of summer holiday breaks I was forced to endure a week of Ramadan in 2012 before my holiday officially began. During daytime NOBODY can eat or smoke or … some other stuff, I forget what … so to get round this I would secrete myself in a half-built security gate and adjacent office where the guards would sleep … I mean work, and where on the pan, still covered in a plastic sheet, I sat and smoked. A pick-up arrived one time. Two men got out, came into the office, waffled about something then left before looking in the uncompleted toilet cubicle. Thank God.
In our largish training centre there were almost no people the entire month so I would take sandwiches to my classroom, close the door, and eat them. During this period the rotund Jordanian had taken on the mantle of Mr Religion and when he saw me disappearing into my classroom he demanded angrily, “Are you smoking in there?”
“Yes, but out of the window,” I answered as that was in fact my intention. Thank god I had already devoured my sandwiches, having made a mental note to make more for tomorrow. Once he’d gone I closed the door.
About three minutes later the same door flew open and a fat Mullah (long-bearded religious enforcer) barged angrily in. I was sitting at my desk, not a cigarette or Mars bar in sight, and he stopped, saw what I was doing, was embarrassed, said sorry then left.
Mr Religion had his contract terminated not long after. There was khama in the sand that day. Lower class infidels caught eating or smoking were being whipped and imprisoned around the Kingdom and in this respect I want to draw attention to this guy, Raif Badawi, a truly brave Saudi soul whose alleged crime is to have an opinion contrary to what Allah says.