SMALL FAVORS & Rude Lessons
An Education in the kindness of strangers
I GREW UP from the ages of 7 to 13 in Saudi Arabia, on a U.S. Air Force base fairly far from the goings-on in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, etc.—close to Yemen, actually—in other words, remote.
Turnover was high—many families came for a two year contract and promptly bugged back out to the States or Switzerland; we were one of the earliest and longer-term residents. If you stayed long enough, high school-aged kids had to leave and go to boarding school—the Saudis, they told us, didn’t want horny, hormonal American teenagers and their disco dancing infecting good Muslims with impure thoughts.
Popular legend had it that a Saudi colonel shopping for a second wife, a liaison to the Americans who liked to party with our parents in that dry country over the local moonshine (known as sadiqaa—“my friend” in Arabic,) earnestly offered my parents a fair sum in riyals one boozy night after he got a look at my sister home from boarding school, all grown up with fiery red hair and a “Freshman 15” that went straight to her boobs.
Needless to say, in that sheltered expat community, at a small school where Grades K through 8 amounted to fewer than 100 students, I was pretty naive—unused to the trials your average American public school kid would have already suffered as a pre-teen.
Anyway, sis got pregnant at 16 when I was in 8th grade—NOT the Saudi colonel, but a thirty-something British contractor on the base—so we had to come back to the States for an abortion, and I went to a local Washington state public school for 9th, fresh off the hummus truck with my “gay twang” and no defenses whatsoever.
Among many other tormentors that year, I will never forget this one kid in particular, in my creative writing class amusingly enough.
I should have known I was being targeted early on when he piped up loudly in class one day, “Dude, do you have scoliosis?” I do have a degree of lordosis which, when I’m tired and not minding my posture, leaves me looking a bit hunched. Oblivious, I just answered “no” and shrugged my shoulders as if it were a perfectly natural thing to ask of someone you barely knew.
The kicker, of course, came a week or two later: word had got around about where I was “from” and that same little prick asked me in front of everyone at the lunchroom table: “Are there a lot of f*ggots in Saudi Arabia?”
Fool that I was, and eager to present testimony to new friends as though discussing foreign homosexuals was as common as the weather, I launched into the story about the time I hitched a ride from a Saudi local, little knowing the currency for such a favor was “zugzug.”
YOU SEE, late one evening, I had missed the bus from a school party on another base back to our own. Imagining the 30 minute walk down the road apiece was perfectly simple and safe, if a tad dark, I nevertheless accepted a ride when the little white Toyota pickup (back then literally the only vehicle every Saudi drove—I suppose they all now drive Mercedes) pulled over with a cute, smiling native pointing in my direction and saying “Northrop, Northrop” (the name of my father’s company and the local designation for the base on which we lived.)
Why yes, thank you! “Naeam! Shkran!”
Apparently, I later discovered, in a world where women are swaddled head to toe and watched like hawks, unmarried men often turn to each other for little favors like car rides and cigarettes, in exchange for which a boink in the ass or at least a little sucky is considered courteous.
It would not have been a long ride, perhaps less than 5 minutes, so he got straight to work.
Let us pause for a moment to note the absurd circumstances by which the 1981 Ringo Starr comedy Caveman and the nonsense word “zugzug” became for one lonely Arab the magical “Open, sesame!” by which he hoped to gain access to a blond American boy’s butt. The Saudis liked American movies; they liked the Beatles. The average Arab, who in that time and region was either a shopkeeper, farmer or goatherd, could not know that “zugzug” was not English but gibberish made up for a slapstick comedy to denote sex. Even today, zugzug sounds pretty accurate and obvious.
I think I had, in fact, seen the movie, but probably did not at that tender age—maybe 13?—entirely understand how sex worked, much less what Ringo meant by “zugzug.”
“Zugzug?” I looked at my benefactor curiously.
“Zugzug. Zugzug.” He reached over and put his hand on my thigh.
Still I was perplexed, the hand, surely, only meant to convey emphasis, to urge an understanding which I failed to grasp. I shook my head, puzzled.
“Zugzug! Zugzug!” he growled more passionately, and reaching down between my thighs and grabbing my most privatest parts, at last managed to make himself clear.
Ford knows what I would do today, presented with such a proposition by a handsome Brown stranger on a lonely country road, but at the time I was fairly sure I was about to be murdered, and in a panic actually opened the door of the moving truck to make my escape.
The poor guy saw my terror, threw up his hands in probably as much fright as me upon realizing the trouble he could get in if he pressed his point, and made deferential, placating gestures to the effect: Please don’t jump out of my moving vehicle and hurt yourself, ghostly young infidel—I withdraw my request and will gladly squire you to your destination without zugzug, since it is not your custom, and the penalty for hurting a precious guest in my country could well be the imposition of a sudden, dramatic weight-loss by sword.
We parted as friends.
And so. Back to the cafeteria in suburban Washington state, a place then and probably still fairly Red/Right of my native California, where I was attempting to blend in to an equally foreign locale by speaking in vernacular terms on the subject of gay life in Saudi Arabia—in highly summarized form, of course, being an as yet closeted albino grub of a gay, and generally perplexed by the then relatively recent encounter with Zug Zug, as I’ve come to call my swarthy young Missed Connection.
In fact, I had only just reached the most fraught moment of my story—dear Zug Zug the goatherd imploring upon my trembling ivory thigh—when the kid who asked the question in the first place, all innocence, said, “You put your hand on his thigh?”
“No, HE put HIS hand on MY thigh,” I begged to clarify before noticing the evil smile on his face, and the suppressed hilarity of his friends arrayed around us at the table.
Well, you can imagine the extremes of my mortification when I realized the trap into which I had haplessly walked. In the throes of a dissociative humiliation, I don’t remember now how I escaped that particular cafeteria episode, only that there was at least one other at the hands of a latter-day gang of “Pink Ladies”, after which I spent the rest of the year eating a bag lunch on the step outside my English class, gratefully alone.
Ninth grade culminated on an even more humiliating note, at the end of year awards assembly. I had hidden resolutely in the bleachers as they announced I’d won a math prize (strange because I’m terrible at higher math,) refusing to go up to the stage to receive it, but could not help myself when my adored French teacher announced I had won her prize too (stranger still: I have taken French 1 four times for various reasons.)
Relenting, walking up to the stage, I heard in the searing silence of an 800-strong crowd of teenagers wondering why I was accepting this prize but not the first one, that hateful word, that other F-word which I will not repeat again, screamed out in a most vexing and cowardly manner.
Curses! Fooled again.
And people wonder why I hate awards.
What a wonderful, yet heartbraking story. It is traumatic when our innocense is broken by preadators, and coming of age involves confrontation with bullies. This should be a book Troy Ford.
Thanks for sharing this story, and thanks for the Caveman reference. I had all but forgotten about this movie which, incidentally, I saw its theatrical release. I'm going to risk scorn and say that, in my opinion, his work with Shelley Long and Dennis Quaid in this thing is the most significant artistic collaboration of Ringo Starr’s career.