Hassan Shaban was a successful Palestinian businessman in Saudi Arabia. We met in Jeddah where I was temporarily based for the Hajj season. He was a man in his late forties going to overweight from good living. We were both extroverts, sharing a raucous sense of humor. One day he invited me to a barbeque party he was giving for some friends in his beach cottage at a location everyone referred to as “The Creek” on the Red Sea. This was where the wealthier local residents went to get away from the sizzling summer sun. The fact he owned a place there told me he was a lot richer than I had imagined.
“David, why don’t I pick you up at the dock Saturday at ten o’clock? Bring a bathing suit and dress casual, okay?” ONA had leased a Greek ship for all their employees; it was safer for the stewardesses, the food was American-style, and because the water was pure, there was less illness due to dysentery.
“Sounds good, I’ll be there unless I get stuck on an extra-section trip. Can I bring anything?”
“Just your sense of humor and a few jokes; I think you’ll like my friends.”
“I’m sure I will.”
Saturday rolled around; it was fortunate my bid-line held, I had the day off. The launch was filled with stewardesses and pilots heading off to do some shopping at the souk, as the local market-center was called. Several girls asked if I was going shopping, letting me know the price of gold was down in case I wanted to buy something for Vickie. When I told them I was going to a party out on the creek, they all wanted to know how I got invited to go there, and who was the rich sheik, and did he have a harem, and advised me to be careful he might be gay. Walking up the gangway to the gate, there was Hassan waving to me beside his shiny-new black 600 Mercedes four-door sedan.
When the crew spotted the car there were a lot of whispers like; “Jeez, Dave can you take along a guest?” and “Case, you’re not back doing some CIA shit, are you?” Good naturedly I brushed off the comments, breaking away from the group to greet Hassan.
“You didn’t have to bring out the big car for my benefit,” I said as I shook his hand.
“It’s not for you David, I have my family in the back and my wife likes to ride in comfort. Do you mind riding in the front with me?”
“Of course not.” The only time I’d seen his wife she was with their daughter, both had been covered in head-to-toe black abayas completely hiding them from view. “Is Sam going too?” Sam was his thirteen-year-old son; a min-version of his dad with a constant twinkle in his eyes that said, mischief. I’m sure he had another, more formal Arabic name, but he was always Sam to me. Hassan opened the door for me, as Sam called out from the back, “Hello Captain Case!”
“Hi Sam, how’s it going?”
“Dad’s going to let me drive the car when we get to the creek.” Sam excitedly informed me.
“Good, don’t run into anything or we’ll have to take a taxi home.” Hassan’s wife and daughter wrapped in their abayas remained silent.
It was actually cold in the car during the twenty-five minute drive on the new smooth highway. The Saudi’s did everything first-rate; the road was better than anything we had in California, with very little traffic. We turned left to another well-maintained secondary road, eventually arriving at a large double gate surrounded by a very secure looking eight-foot fence that I noticed was topped with imbedded broken-glass. Hassan got out and opened the lock from a set of keys he had in his pocket. “I don’t like servants here when we’re here, this is my private sanctuary,” he explained as he got back in the car.
It looked like the fence enclosed about two acres of sand, (probably one hectare, a unit of measure in Saudi) the unpaved circular driveway was graded. At the far end, next to the water, was a strikingly lovely white house of perhaps three-thousand square feet; simple, yet elegant, in its design. Tall pillars supported an open roof leading directly to the water’s edge. Rooms I assumed to be bedrooms were on the right, while the left contained the kitchen, dining, and a large living/library area.
As soon as the car was unpacked Hassan’s wife and daughter went down the hall to one of the rooms on the right. Sam began nagging his father for the keys to the car. “Dad, dad, can I now? Can I please have the keys? Can I? Can I? Huh, can I now?”
Hassan reached in his pocket, handing Sam the keys, “Close the gate and don’t go over thirty miles an hour.”
“I won’t,” he was off to close the gate, do circles inside the compound, raising clouds and clouds of dust.
“I love that boy; I can’t say no to him.”
“How old does he have to be before he can get a license?”
“Here I don’t know, but I want him to know how to drive so when he goes away to school he hopefully won’t do anything stupid.”
“Where do you plan to send him?”
“I like England but my wife favors France for some reason. Come on, let’s have a drink.” We walked back to the porch that extended over the water where a mini-bar and fridge was all set-up by a big, fancy barbeque. He may not have had any servants while he was in residence; but somebody had prepared all this before we arrived. “What would you like?”
I knew drinking alcohol was against the law in Saudi Arabia, “How about an ice tea?”
“How about a scotch, or a tall gin and tonic?” Hassan said as he opened the bar to reveal a completely stocked liquor cabinet.
I was amazed; I didn’t think he drank, “Gin and tonic sounds good, thanks.”
“I’ll have one too – Tanqueray all right – do you like lime?”
“Tanqueray’s excellent – yes please.”
We’d just taken a couple of sips on our drinks when his wife walked out wearing a low-cut peasant blouse, a pair of tight-fitting silk toreador pants and high-heels. Her hair was down to her shoulders, she had a touch of make-up and was drop-dead gorgeous. She looked at me and smiled before turning to Hassan; “I’ll have a tall gin and tonic and make it light – I don’t want to get tipsy.”
My shock must have shown; I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t someone who looked like she’d be right at home on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. She smiled at me again, “It’s the custom here, women have to wear the abaya in public, but I can dress as I want in my home. Hassan lets me go shopping in Rome a couple of times a year…”
“That’s all I can afford,” he winked as he chimed-in while lighting the grill, “Between her and my daughter, they keep me broke.”
“Oh you poor baby, think how much it would cost if you had to support more girls?” she responded as she stroked his cheek.
Hassan’s daughter appeared in a black bikini, carrying a large Turkish towel, ignoring us adults, she spread it out on a corner of the porch, laying down to soak up the rays. She too was a stunner; seventeen, hard-body, long flowing jet-black wavy hair, beautiful eyes and full lips. She sported a gold chain around her ankle and diamond studs in her earlobes.
I tried not to gawk at this vision of killer-beauty as Hassan commented for her to hear, “If she doesn’t start acting more sociable, I’m going to offer her to one of the Sa’ud family for their harem.”
“Hassan, don’t say that; she’s just going through a phase – she’ll grow out of it.”
Hassan lowered his voice and replied, “Habibti, you know I’m just teasing – I would never do that.”
Within the next thirty minutes the remaining five male guests arrived separately in Porches and Mercedes. They ranged in age from mid-thirties to mid-forties; all were wearing casual western clothes, slacks or Levis, Aloha or short sleeve summer shirts, with expensive Nike tennis shoes. English was the common tongue; gin or scotch the drink. There was an Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, Jordanian, and a Saudi Royal; I was the only westerner. All were well educated; mostly in America. The Saudi had graduated from Stanford.
I gathered most were doing business with Hassan. Conversation was light and easy:
“Tell me David, what do you do on that ship all night long?”
Before I could answer the Saudi Royal interrupted with; “Orgy with all those beautiful hostesses,” which brought a nervous chuckle from all.
“Not quite; we mostly work our butts off flying, so the free time is spent resting up for the next trip.”
“Any chance you could get us out to the ship?’
“I’ll check it out, but I doubt it. The company has very strict rules, nobody wants to lose their job.”
Sam had stopped making circles in the front yard long enough to come in and grab a big orange from the bowl of fruit Hassan’s wife had put out on the table.
“Those are good looking oranges,” I commented, “they look like the kind I fly from Israel up to Rome.” I hoped I hadn’t offended anyone by mentioning Israel.
“They’re the same, only we import them from Cairo,” Hassan acknowledged, “My friend here keeps us supplied.”
“I thought you guys were bitter enemies?”
“David, our governments are bitter enemies. We are businessmen – we do business. There is no profit from being enemies,” the Syrian explained to me.
“Yes, it’s amazing what a change in billing, or a lost manifest, or a little cash in the right spot can accomplish,” the Jordanian added.
The Israelis purposely did not stamp the passports of flight crews when they knew we were going to be working a contract out of Saudi to avoid getting us hassled. Still, I was learning things I didn’t know existed; here these guys were doing business as though there were no problems in this end of the world. Maybe their governments could eventually work things out.
“The problem is not with the merchants; it’s with the religious leaders. They want the power and they make our lives miserable in the process.”
More drinks were poured. Hassan’s wife brought out a tray loaded with hamburger patties, which Hassan carefully laid on the hot grill. The air filled with the smoke of meat freshly cooking. Going back in the kitchen his wife returned with all the fixings to make a good hamburger, together with a sack of Lay’s potato chips on the table next to the fruit bowl. “Hassan, you’re going to burn the meat if you don’t pay more attention.”
Hassan flipped a couple of patties, checking to see if they’d cooked long enough, “Habibti, they’re all right, I’m doing just fine.”
“The fire’s too hot – you’d better turn it down unless you want charcoal.”
“Habibti, everything’s under control…”
“I don’t want you to spoil the meat…”
Suddenly he hands her the hamburger flipper and says, “Here, you do it! I’m making another drink.”
She took the flipper, lowered the fire, and started turning the burgers, thereby saving what could have been an embarrassing moment for Hassan.
Under his breath he said to us, “Women, they’re all the same – I don’t understand them. Anybody want another drink?”
I thought how perfectly normal; this is exactly a scene from a barbeque party in the States. On a one-to-one basis these people are not much different from us when it comes to core values and attitudes. How did they ever get such a reputation for being a bunch of primitive ignoramuses? Religion? Who knows?
The day went well; I commented about how I loved the falafel & hummus served to me in Damascus by our ground representative.
“Better than these hamburgers Hassan tried to cremate?”
“Not better, just different and every bit as good.”
“David, why aren’t you a diplomat? You’re wasting your time as a pilot.”
“In a way a pilot is a diplomat; flying around the world he has to make sure the plane keeps moving, that sometimes takes a lot talking,” I responded.
“And a lot of bullshit;” this, from the Saudi Royal, which again brought a laugh from everybody.
Along about six o’clock the sun was getting low on the horizon, it was time to end a lovely day. The five guests bid a friendly goodbye to me and Hassan’s family with promises to do it again. Watching them drive off in their fancy cars I turned to Hassan, “Let me give you guys a hand cleaning up.”
“No problem David, don’t worry, we have a very good way to clean up. It will only take a minute.”
We’d eaten off paper plates, using paper napkins; there was partially consumed food and mess all over. I knew it would take his wife some time before we’d be ready to head back. To my surprise everybody started throwing the waste into the lagoon, making a terrible mess on the pristine waters I’d snorkeled, and the water Jacque Cousteau once called the most beautiful ocean in the world. “Are you sure you want to do that?” I asked; I was dumbfounded.
“Don’t worry David, the tide will take the garbage out to sea where the fish will eat all the food and the plates will disintegrate.”
“I don’t know, in America we always put waste in bags to be carried away by the trash haulers.”
“Here, we throw everything in the water – everybody does the same thing. Besides, we don’t have trash haulers out here. The sea will take care of everything – it’s natural.”
But I did worry, although there really wasn’t much I could do about it. In America we’re so very conscious of our environment, third-world countries don’t give a damn and there’s not much we can do about that.
Hassan’s wife and daughter changed back into their abayas, got in the back of the car with Sam, and we drove back to the city as the sun set in the west; the end of an almost perfect day.