Hero Dad (or "Mogwai Fear Caesar")

There is a place where the Saudi highway leaves street lamps and garish city lights far behind. Where it streaks through the sand and the rocks, hurtling into the puny circle of your headlights and under your blurry tires, then dissolves into inky oblivion in the blackness you leave behind. Where the only light dribbles from the dashboard and the night is a veil, and you wear it like a widow.

It's alright. He moves in mysterious ways.
This is where Grace announces to everyone in the speeding car, "Let's play 'I Spy'!"

"Okay!" Savannah squeals. "Cool!" says Halen.

"I spy with my little eye..." Grace sings slowly, "... somethinnnnnnggggggg... black." Shannon and I glance at each other with arched eyebrows, glances that, for the intense darkness, you sense more than you see.

"The sky!" Savannah shouts.

"Dang," Grace sighs. "You got it."


I've never been to this town that clings to the lip of mountain walls that plunge thousands of feet to narrow valleys below, but I'm driving the strange, winding streets in the dark looking for a Little Caesar's. My kids have been eating limp french fries and iffy chicken since yesterday morning, so when they saw a flyer covered with Arabic script that nonetheless showed the little Roman pizza-eating munchkin, they focused like little lasers on their sudden hankering for Pizza! Pizza!

And I secretly sort of want to be a hero dad. You know, the kind that will strike out into the night in a strange, lumpy town strewn over sharp hills and sudden troughs, with meandering, serpentine roads, searching for American pizza for his children who are stuck in a sketchy motel in a city full of people who don't dress or talk like them.

It's 8:30 when the kid at the front desk of the motel gives me directions to Little Caesar's. He points and draws loops in the air, incomprehensible Arabic words dripping from his mouth. I catch "right" and "left" a few times. He also says "U-turn" and, I think, "international conference." It could also have been "chaotic intersection." It's hard to be sure in the heat of the moment.

Saudi dudes.
The air is un-Saudi-like here at 6,000 feet, dry and cool. I roll down the car windows for the first time since arriving in the Kingdom a year ago. I weave through the traffic. I pop on some Mogwai. I realize I am quite possibly the first person to ever listen to Mogwai in this town, especially at a stoplight with the windows rolled down. This realization fills me with an irrational and overinflated sense of pioneer-ness.

I circle town a few times before I happen upon Little Caesar's, quite by accident. It's a busy weekend night and the lobby is full of thobes. I wait for my pizza for 45 minutes. The satellite signal on the lobby television is poor, so the news anchor keeps freezing and his face keeps pixelating. Bearded men carelessly cut in front of one another in line, angling for the counter. The South Asian cashier serves whomever is most in his face at any given time.

Two hours later I return back to the motel for a hero's welcome. Everyone is asleep. Except Savannah. So me and Savannah sit cross-legged on the hard tile floor, eating pizza and chugging the Pepsi straight from the bottle. We don't say much. She doesn't have to tell me how amazing I am -- I can tell how she feels about me by the way she tosses the crust in the pizza box and gives me a little grin before rolling over to go to sleep. It's the little things.


Saudi chicks.
We're still two hours east of Jeddah atop the gnarled mountains that mark the eastern rim of the Great Rift Valley. It's noontime in Taif, a town high above the sweltering seaside plains, where men in suits and ties and thobes and shmaghs ended Lebanon's civil war in the early-1990s over tea and coffee. We stop for juice boxes and cookies in a gas station on the outskirts of town. Halen says he has to go to the bathroom.

So we amble through the candy wrapper-strewn parking lot toward a dirty little mosque in a grimy corner of the parking lot. I've lived in Saudi Arabia long enough now that I know that the muddy bathrooms are always near the mosques. The call to prayer crackles from its squat old minaret, slightly grating, as if the muezzin is leaning too close to the mike. We're a long way from the smooth, haunting prayer song recordings of the upscale neighborhoods of Jeddah, and I think for some reason of the contrast between the biblical Pharisee, well-dressed and prayerfully boasting of the size of his offerings, and the publican who stares at his shoes, smites his breast, and mumbles a plea for mercy. This is the kind of parking lot -- the kind of tumbledown house of worship -- where I can picture the publican with his hands in his pockets, kicking at the dust, hoping for salvation to come from somewhere more likely.

Halen and I cross a tiny alcove on the way to the bathroom and the door to the little mosque is wide open. The prayer call has long since ceased and I expect to see the room full of all the men who 10 minutes ago were milling about the parking lot, meandering the aisles of the mini market, all the men who scattered and disappeared at the first notes of the prayer call. But they're not here. There's only one man near the front of the room, prostrate, forehead buried in the faded and torn carpet.

He's alone in the empty mosque and he doesn't know anyone is watching. And I suppose it's these two facts that make me figure, as me and Halen quietly move away, that today this mosque is a pretty likely place to find some kind of salvation.