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Dave Eggers: The long ride to Riyadh

A tense taxi journey across the Saudi desert makes the author consider the folly of nationality.

Espen Rasmussen/Panos

We are flying down an empty six-lane highway, on our way from Jeddah to Riyadh, a seven-hour drive, and I’m thinking of possible routes of escape. I’m in the passenger seat of a new Toyota sedan travelling at 140kph through the Saudi Arabian desert and I’m racing through the implications of opening my door and leaping free.

The driver is a stranger to me. He is young, no more than twenty-five, with a smooth face and a tentative moustache. His name is Shadad, but he is not a taxi driver, and this is not a taxi. This car and this driver were arranged hastily by my guide and friend, Majed, who helped me around Jeddah the previous week. Before this drive began, Majed and I considered it a decent, if necessary, idea to employ such a driver for this trip, but now I am pondering how I could leave this car. If I open the door and roll out, would I survive? And if I did survive, where would I go? There’s nothing but rocks and sand for miles in any direction.

But still. Vacating this car might be necessary, because though I want to trust this young driver, he is not really a professional driver, and he has no taxi licence, and most of all, moments ago, while he was talking to a friend on his cellphone, he looked over to me with a mischievous smile and said to his friend, “Yeah, American, boom boom.” Then he laughed. He did everything but point his finger at me and pull the trigger. I’m not sure how many ways there are to interpret this.

It did not have to be this way. I woke up this morning ready to spend the day in Jeddah, having lunch with new Saudi friends, dinner with new Saudi friends, and then fly out of Jeddah in the late evening, heading back to the US on a red-eye through London. But it was soon after waking up that I looked closely at my itinerary to find that the flight I am booked on is not leaving from Jeddah at 10pm tonight; it’s leaving from Riyadh at 8pm – five hundred and twenty-five miles away.

So I made a flurry of frantic calls back home, to airlines and travel agents, confirming that this was indeed the itinerary, and learning that there were no available flights that would get me from Jeddah to Riyadh in time. There are various reasons I need to get out of Saudi Arabia and back to the US this day, so I had no choice but to look into driving across the country, to Riyadh, to make the flight.

And I had to tell all this to Majed.

“How could this happen?” he asked. I told him I had no idea, that I was very sorry.

Majed couldn’t do the drive himself, so he and I searched around Jeddah, looking for someone who could. We made our way to the outskirts of the city and through a brief labyrinth of small alleys. Finally we reached a dead-end, where about a half-dozen men sat outside on folding chairs. It was not a taxi stand or anything like it.

“This place?” I asked. “Who are these guys?”

“Our only option,” Majed said, and got out.

I sat in Majed’s car, thinking about what had transpired the previous day. Majed and I, who had enjoyed a fluid and friendly rapport for a week, had a strange exchange, which put in question if or why he should trust me. I made a joke about American-Saudi relations, and our military, their oil, various complicities and maybe even the CIA, and from then on, things went cold. It was as if he suddenly realised I was an American, and presumably participating in my country’s various crimes, real or imagined. Since then, he had been visibly anxious to be done with me; we barely spoke, and he seemed to be counting the hours till he could be rid of me.

So I was in Majed’s car, in this alley, watching him negotiate with the group, wondering if this could possibly be a good idea, getting into a car, for a six-hour drive across the Saudi desert, with a man we meet in an alley.

Majed soon returned to tell me the price they’d arrived at. Because I trusted Majed’s judgement, and because the price was far less than what one would pay for a six-hour drive in the United States, I agreed. He and the men and Shadad chose the car we would take, among a few of them parked outside, and I took my suitcase from Majed’s trunk and put it in the trunk of this new car.
Majed and I said our goodbyes – which were far more perfunctory than I’d expected earlier in the week, when we were close – and Shadad and I took off.

And because I always trust people until I’m given a reason not to trust them, I was content. It was noon, and we had enough time to make it to Riyadh. And because I was sure we would make it in time, I relaxed and planned to watch the passing scenery and possibly take a nap. But then, ten minutes into the drive, Shadad was on his phone, talking to his friend, and while on the phone he looked askance at me, a bloated grin fattening his cheeks, and delivered the “Yeah, American, boom boom” line into his silver cellphone.

Now I’m very much awake. And I’m contemplating my options. I want to roll out of the car, but the car is now doing 160kph. We pass a tanker truck as if it’s not moving. At this speed I have no options. I’m going wherever this man wants me to go.

I want to make clear that I’ve rarely if ever felt in actual danger while travelling anywhere in the world. This could be dumb luck. It could be a combination of dumb luck, common sense and the benefits of reciprocal trust: trust and you will be trusted. Give respect and you’ll get it.

In any case, it’s a result of a gradual evolution. When I first travelled, I was naive, sloppy, wide-eyed, and nothing happened to me. That’s probably where the dumb luck came in. Then I began to read the guidebooks, the State Department warnings, the endless elucidation of national norms, cultural cues and insults and regional dangers, and I became wary, careful, savvy. I kept my money taped inside my shoe, or strapped to my stomach. I took any kind of precaution, believing that the people of this area did this, and the people of that province did that. But then, finally, I realised no one of any region did anything I have ever expected them to do, much less anything the guidebooks said they would. Instead, they behaved as everyone behaves, which is to say they behave as individuals of damnably infinite possibility. Anyone could do anything, in theory, but most of the time everyone everywhere acts with plain bedrock decency, helping where help is needed, guiding where guidance is necessary. It’s almost weird.

But every so often I have the feeling that a certain guide or driver or boat captain or acquaintance has a powerful kind of leverage, and could kill me if they wished, and no one would know, no one could trace where or at whose hands I disappeared. This is one of those situations. Only Majed knows or cares that I’m in this man’s Toyota sedan, and I am therefore at this man’s mercy. But again, I was absolutely content with and trusting of this man before he made the Boom Boom comment. And normally I would have shaken it off, giving him the benefit of the doubt. I would normally think, He’s a young man, and he made a joke to another young man on the phone, and it has nothing to do with me.

But lately things have changed. There is new information. There are the State Department warnings in 2010, which say that Saudi Arabia is not so safe for Americans, and there are the many warnings made by hotel personnel not to get into random cars or taxis. And worst of all there is the fact that I have a friend who shared, I assume, my presumption of the goodwill of all those one might meet, and this acquaintance is currently in an Iranian prison. His name is Shane Bauer.

I’ve known him professionally for about three years, primarily as a translator. Back in 2008, I had just gotten back from what is now South Sudan and had done interviews with women who had been enslaved during the civil war, and I needed help transcribing my interviews and other interviews, many of which were in Arabic. So I was connected to Shane, a young man living in Oakland who spoke Arabic. He translated many of the tapes from South Sudan, and I later helped facilitate a trip he took to Darfur to make a documentary about the rebel movement there. Then, six months later, I learned that he had been imprisoned in an Iranian prison on dubious charges of espionage. And while I’m riding in this Toyota sedan, Shane is still in the Iranian prison, fate unknown.

This is all to say that something I would have previously deemed beyond the realm of possibility – that I would personally know someone being held captive in Iran as part of an internationally denounced power play on the part of the semi-sane government of Iran – has made more realistic the possibility that this young Saudi driver might try to do something nefarious with me today. And then there is Majed, who was my friend, but who now might think I’m some kind of enemy. My mind, alone in this featureless desert highway, creates grotesque possibilities. Could Majed have set me up? Because he came to believe I was some intelligence agent, could he have handed me to someone who would profit from my kidnapping? These thoughts are shameful, embarrassing. But if Shane Bauer can be jailed for hiking near the Iranian border, is it so improbable that I could be disposed of in some way here in the Saudi desert?

I look at the car’s gas gauge. I have the thought that if the driver is running low, and needs to refill, I’ll be able to escape. I assume there’s no way he could stop me. I have half a foot of height and thirty pounds on him. Then again, there could be a secret rendezvous point where he’ll fill up his tank and hand me to someone who will pay some bounty . . .

The gas tank is full. At the very least, it will be a while before we stop for that particular reason. Looking around the dashboard, I notice that the car’s interior is still covered in plastic. This is a different way of going about things, and I’ve seen it before in other parts of the world – the reluctance to take the plastic off new cars, new furniture and bicycles. I notice that though the car seems new, there is a cassette player, and that the driver has many cassettes; I haven’t seen this many cassettes in one place in a decade or two. On the mirror itself is a simple sticker that says SAUDI ARABIA, lest he or any other driver of this car forget where they are. I notice, most of all, a blue sign hanging from the rear-view mirror that says “HELP”. Below it is an arrow pointing to an ISBN code, as if that help might come via checkout scanner.

We continue to pass other cars and trucks so fast that they seem stationary. Could he be in a hurry to bring me to his receivers, those he’s sold me to? Now he’s smoking. I try to roll down my window but it’s locked. The driver sees me trying and unlocks it. I lower the window an inch. He looks at the window disapprovingly, and I realise the effect is the opposite as desired: the smoke is crossing the car to exit above my ear. I close the window. He opens his and looks to me.

“Smoke no good?” he asks.

“Smoke no good,” I say.

“Smoke good!” he says, and smiles. He’s making a joke. This is promising, I think.

Sensing the beginnings of a human connection, I open my backpack. He seems unconcerned that I might be taking out something dangerous – another good sign. I take out a folder, where I have my itinerary and tickets and other documents, including a photo of my wife and two kids, which I had printed on an ink-jet printer before I left. In what now seems like prescience, I figured I might need such a photo, to show to a man like this, if such a man had ill-intentions toward me and might be dissuaded by seeing me as a human, as a father; who might even find my children cute and want these children to grow up with two parents and not one.

So I take the photo out and lay it face-down on my lap. And then I ask him if he has kids. He doesn’t understand, so I mime the cradling of a baby, then point to him.

He scoffs and says, “No. No baby. I am the baby!”

It’s a good joke, and we both laugh. This is good.

I turn the photo to face up, and point to it and to myself. He looks at my two children, both very young, two and five years old, and he looks at my wife, and then he sees me in the picture, and he puts it all together. He smiles, nods, and I feel like showing the photo has come off as natural, as a logical enough thing to do during a long drive. And maybe I’ve put a thought in his mind: that I am a father, that my children are young, that I seem like a regular person, probably not a spy or Halliburton contractor or collaborator with the network of government officials and oil and defence contractors who might be the target of his opprobrium.

I leave the photo on my lap for a few miles as we continue driving. He asks no questions about my family – not that he could, with the language barrier, but still, something, I hope, has changed between us. I very well could be imagining it all, but I  have no choice but to hope. He flips the cassette in the tape player and lights another cigarette.

Dave Eggers’s view from inside Shadad’s car

****

I made no decision to be an American, made no sacrifices to be called an American, did no work to be born into the place and time and conditions that the United States enjoyed in 1970 and my family enjoyed in 1970. It is chance, blind luck, random. And it’s random that this Saudi driver, now hitting 175kph, was born into a Saudi vessel – both countries are so new that identifying too strongly with their names and flags is a psychic stretch – and it would be absurd if this man, this soul-in-a-Saudi-vessel, were to harbour any antipathy toward me, a soul-in-an-American-vessel. So it makes it difficult to take a situation like this, the possibility of danger in this car hurtling through the Saudi desert, too seriously for too long.

I have the frequent thought that if the worst came to the worst, a man like this and I could together recognise the absurdity of our nationalities. You are not a Saudi, I would say, referring to a country that has only existed since 1932. I am not an American, I would say, referring to a country that has existed for 240 years. You are not a driver. I am not your passenger. We believe so little of what we would be expected to believe – we believe nothing of the foundational evil of our nations assumed by many – but we do believe that it feels good to be trusted; we believe in the constant movement of souls, the restless nature of the spirit, the profound game of make-believe necessary for either one of us to assume a set of values or motives of the other based on our passports; we believe that we are tired, so tired, of being asked to distrust or hate the people of this country or that culture, the people wearing this uniform or that one, the people who worship this prophet or that god; that we can do better than our fathers and grandfathers and forgo the pretence of rivalries and suspicions; that what we really want are not inherited antagonisms but only some measure of human and material comfort; some frequent stimulation and delight of the mind; some sense of progress for the rights of people; some possibilities and choices for our progeny and the progeny of our neighbours; the ability to love who we want to love; the ability to move freely around the planet as time and means allow.

And right now, driving with this man, what I want is to make this interaction work. I want him to feel good about having met me, and I want to feel good about having met him. One thing you learn after twenty-odd years of random travel is that the people you see along the way – the cabbies, the vendors, the hoteliers, the fellow bus passengers, the man who rents you the kayak on the Isle of Skye – you’re unlikely to see again. So you want to get it right. To get it right you have to make it right.

But I didn’t make it right with Majed. I run the incident through my mind a dozen times during this drive, watching the desert go by. What did I say that was so wrong? Some joke about the American military. Some joke about unnecessary wars. It was not so wrong. He shouldn’t have been offended. Not just offended – he changed his mind about me completely. Had our friendship been on this razor’s edge from the start? One wrong phrase and I’d fallen into league with all US foreign policy wrongdoers – that couldn’t be fair. And then I was offended that he was offended. I was finished, too. I could spend hours trying to convince him I wasn’t some agent of imperialism, or I could wait out our last day or so, allow him to put me in some random car with some random man, and be done with it. Which is what I did.

****

Hours have passed since the “American, boom boom” comment. Shadad has made various other, uneventful, phone calls since then. I have felt comfortable enough to even take a few photos out the window, and even a few inside the car, including the one opposite. Shadad didn’t seem to mind.

And now we’re stopping for gas. The station looks like any gas station anywhere in the world. Shadad stops and unlocks the doors.

He gets out, stretches. I open my door and look around. I could run this way, I think. I could make a phone call at that shop over there. I could hide over behind that shed. I could appeal to that truck driver over there.

But instead I ask the driver if he wants a snack or drink. I mime drinking and eating. He shakes his head.

I walk over to the shop next door to the gas station. Inside, there is a solitary man, in his sixties, behind the counter. He nods to me and says, “Salaam.” I nod back, return his “Salaam”.

In the shop, I think again about escape. I could stay here. I could find a way to call Majed, and ask Majed for his guidance and his help, and maybe along the way apologise for my unfunny jokes about Saudi-American relations. I would miss my flight. I would have to stay overnight in Riyadh. Majed would have to drive out to get me here, four hours away from Jeddah and into the
desert, to get me to Riyadh, or back to Jeddah, or – ? But what’s the alternative? Should I really get back in the car with a man who seemed to have promised some terrible threat to my person?

Travel is about great and illogical leaps of trust, though, so I find myself buying a soda for myself and one for the driver, and a box of crackers big enough that we can share it. And then I’m walking back to the car. Shadad is already inside, a new cigarette filling the car with a toxic cloud. I offer the soda to the driver, but he smiles, confused – Didn’t I tell you I didn’t want a drink? – and puts the car in gear, and we’re off. He doesn’t touch the soda the rest of the drive.

Night comes on as we approach Riyadh. The city’s lights overtake the darkness. I look at the clock and see that because we’ve been travelling so fast we’re almost two hours early. I want to believe that Shadad was devoted to making sure I was on time for the flight, but it’s just as likely that he wanted to be finished with me, with this long silent drive, so he can get home.

I get out at my terminal, and he helps remove my bag from the trunk. “We made it in good time,” I say. I point to my wrist and give him a thumbs-up. He nods and almost smiles. We stand outside and again we stretch.

I take out an envelope of cash and try to give it to him.

Looking confused, he refuses.

“You friend?” he says. “He pay before we leave.”

I should have known. Majed, a young man of no great means, paid for the whole ride when he met Shadad in that Jeddah alley. I think of Majed now, and I want to embrace him, to tell him how sorry I am. But now I have only Shadad, so I shake his hand, my two hands around his one hand, and he adds his second hand to mine.

Dave Eggers’s latest novel, “The Circle”, is out now in paperback, published by Hamish Hamilton (£8.99). His collection of travel writing, Visitants, will be published in the autumn

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.