Life Happening, Part 1 (or, "Sleeping Man & Sleeping Cat")

I have lived in Saudi Arabia for nearly two years now. A mere eyeblink, really. An airplane will take me away in a few weeks. So I find myself pausing more often, looking closer, listening harder, talking less, trying to absorb as much as I can in the time I have left. The heat and the water vapor, the car horns and garish storefront lights, the harsh, pungent smells of gasoline and sewage and salt water and sweat. The everyday rhythm and motion of humanity. It's low and earthy and raw and human. It's ugly and beautiful -- and to me that's the best kind of beautiful. Because it's real.

Old City, Jeddah. 2014.
I've met a few princes and princesses and fabulously wealthy barons of industry during my time in Jeddah. I have shaken their bejeweled hands, visited their opulent palaces, lounged in their plush offices, dined at their sprawling seafront homes. Without exception, they are pleasant people. But they're not real, at least not to me. I cannot relate to the way the universe revolves around them, and they cannot relate to paying bills, shopping for groceries, or having others tell them no. So, to me, they are surreal, even unreal. They are caricatures. I can't siphon any meaning from that. There is no life in it.

It is in the unguarded, often unexpected, moments that life happens. I often miss them because I'm not paying attention. Too busy being busy. So I try to ease up, watch, hear, think.

African men with blank, bored expressions operate the mechanical barriers that control access to my housing compound. They typically slouch in white plastic chairs beside the button that raises the drop arm, absently seeing us approach in our large, expensive cars. Then they press the button, and the drop arm goes up, and we drive through and go home, and they stay there.

One day I slowly approached a barrier, checking my email on my phone, thinking of schedules and places besides where I was. I rolled to a stop in front of the drop arm, glanced up from my phone. The drop arm didn't rise. I looked around for the attendant. In the shade of his guard shack I spotted him, asleep in his plastic white chair, a stray kitten curled up in this lap. His dark hand rested on the kitten's dirty white fur. They were real. Unposed. Candid. Caught in the act of life. I paused and watched, content. And my car idled.