x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Taxis and youthful rebellion left behind

Off in California, far away from Saudi Arabia, where I am from, Ramadan came and went and I would not have had a clue except when my grandmother called to ask why I had not called to wish her "Ramadan Mubarak".

My father always tells me that I have been westernised beyond repair. I tell him it is his fault. After all, he paid for my 15-year stint in the US and another four in the UK. Off in California, far away from Saudi Arabia, where I am from, Ramadan came and went and I would not have had a clue except when my grandmother called to ask why I had not called to wish her "Ramadan Mubarak". This is how I remember those conversations:

"It's Ramadan?" I would ask, surprised. "Yes it's Ramadan, what's wrong with you?" she would say. "I guess you aren't fasting then, huh?" "Errrr, no," I would tell her. "But I will start tomorrow." "No you won't," she would say. I tried to explain that because I was in a predominantly non-Muslim country, Ramadan was like any other month, with more fanfare and excitement surrounding the Fourth of July.

"Do you ever see Christmas decorations at the malls in Saudi?" I would ask her. She said she didn't. "Well, the USA celebrates Ramadan like the Saudi religious police celebrate Christmas. They don't." "I knew it was a bad idea that your father sent you so far away," she would say. "Get some Muslim friends and don't forget our religion or your people and if you want your college allowance from me, you better start fasting and praying."

And so, to meet Muslims and supplement my income, I started driving a taxi in Palo Alto. The money was good, but the hours were long. I drove the night shift and my studies began to suffer. That's when my father said: "You need to come back to Saudi, or I will come and get you." I was not about to do that and rebelled. I left college and decided to drive a taxi full time. I changed my phone number and checked out of the dormitory.

For the first few months I called my grandmother and my father from time to time to tell them I was fine. Grandma would cry, and Dad would shout. Eventually I decided not to call them at all, just send messages through my cousin who lived in New York that I was alive and well. Then, one Ramadan, I met Ahmad, an Egyptian engineer who climbed into my taxi. He recognised that I was a young Arab. "Ramadan Mubarak," he said.

"It's Ramadan?" I asked, surprised. "It's been Ramadan for the past three weeks," he said. "Where is your family?" "In Saudi," I said. "They didn't call you?" he asked. I told him they couldn't. "Ramadan is the time for family to gather, you should call them," he said, handing me a US$100 (Dh367) bill. That night I called my grandmother. Grandma was overjoyed and cried tears of happiness. "It is indeed a blessed Ramadan," she said. "Your father and I and the rest of the family have spoken. We are not angry. Come home and see us for a couple of weeks and go back to the States to finish college."

The following week I was with them, all of us celebrating eid together. Then I was off to finish college. I have never driven a taxi since. @Email:ealghalib@thenational.ae