. It is early Saturday morning in northern California and I am sitting at my dining room table, paying utility bills. Out in the kitchen, a second pot of coffee is brewing. I have been awake since long before dawn, wondering how to remake my life in yet another city in America.
“Where do you live?” is an easy question for me to answer.
“Where’s home?” is not.
Physicists would call it a “naked singularity,” this part of me that is like no other part, this span of experience that is like no other time in my life. It is this other side of me that needs expression. It is the side that didn’t know there were utility companies. There were only the brown and weathered towers of “AC” plants, cooling our cement-block homes in the middle of a desert. Our coffee came from a jar that was one of only two brands to be had from the company’s commissary shelf or, deeper still, from beans roasted over a pungent oasis fire, then brewed with cardamom to strong perfection in a brass pot.
By definition, expatriates live outside their native country and inside another. Journalists, business people –spouses along for the ride — can live “on the local economy” around the world. They can shop where the natives shop, socialize where the natives socialize, eat what the natives eat. But ours was most definitely a Western — even American — life. For inside the culture of Saudi Arabia, there was another one, a hybrid life cultivated inside the perimeter fences of the towns built by and for the oil company. I practiced my Arabic in the outlying towns but in the early 1960’s many Saudis were eager to answer me in English. There were Jordanians and Egyptians in my grade school classrooms but the story problems asked us to compute a train’s speed from Chicago to Los Angeles. My girlfriends and I sometimes chose to wear long cotton Bedouin dresses but underneath them were pairs of Wrangler jeans.
Telling a story helps make sense of things. It gives, by the telling and by the hearing, an identity to life; a set place in space and time. But the tense of memory is past perfect. That is even more true when memories are of a time and place in a culture other than your own.
As an expatriate, my carefully crafted world of friends and events dissolved when I left, disappearing away from me into the hot desert haze. But that is as it should be for it was mine only to borrow for a while. My world was surrendered on an August morning in 1975, fading and growing smaller as the aircraft veered to the West and put the Saudi sun behind it. The same sun is now washing the Oakland hills with light and just beginning to set behind my hometown in the Eastern Province.
I can resist the temptation of beginning with “once upon a time.” Let me choose another.
“Kan ya makan,” the Arabic folk tales begin: “there was, and there was not…”