Wanted: English and a Motorbike

ALL the time now, I look for Ghalib in those clips by TV reporters who roam cities in the Middle East. You don't see many shots from Yemen. But I watch anyway because I suspect he may still be working somewhere outside his homeland - Jordan, Lebanon, maybe Syria. He's probably not in Saudi Arabia anymore, since Yemenis working there now need Saudi sponsors. Wherever he is, he'll have a better job, probably still sending money home. And still thinking - when he returns home - about moving from the Yemeni family farm to what he called "big city life" in the city of Sana. Yemenis have always flocked to other Middle East countries to work. They have done much of their host country's physical labor: lifting, hauling, digging, driving, carrying, patching up, painting, filling-in, and errand-running. Plus household chores. Household work - that's how we met Ghalib. There must have been a local Yemeni information grapevine in Riyadh. Not more than two days after we moved into our villa (any substantial house is a villa), a young man rang our gate buzzer. Short, wiry, and dressed in work clothes, he pointed back across the street, indicating he worked there. He flashed a questioning smile, "Houseboy?" I had already given him my best kayfa halak (how are you?) but quickly held up a palm - no Arabic. I knew shuwayah-shuwayah (for taxis, go slower); min-fadlak (please, as a request); shukran (thank you); and the harsh lazim (must do!). But there was no problem - he wanted to converse in English. OK, so I explained (loudly, slowly, and distinctly) that the young man who had been working here before we moved in would be coming back to work for us. He looked off in the distance, shook his head and said, "Gone Beirut." "You mean he's not coming?" "No," he told me. I knew Middle Easterners using English often invert meanings (or maybe we do the interpreting wrong). I needed to know if he meant, "No, that's wrong, he is coming back." Or "No, that's right, he's not coming back." I tried to make it more plain, sort of cracking him up. I said, "Not coming here?" I was using hand gestures. No response. Then I said, "Yes? Is coming?" He looked off over my shoulder. Here's a pretty confused American, I saw him thinking. Finally he said, "No. Not come back." And looking down at his sandals, "Never mind, I bring cousin." Everyone in the Middle East has a cousin who can help. And that's how we met Ghalib. I had no idea how to run a background check on a Yemeni live-in. So we just accepted him based on the letter from his former employers, a French-speaking family. Ghalib turned out to be 5 feet, 7 inches, with a head full of Omar Sharif curls, brown laser eyes, gleaming teeth, and a willingness to get to work. We wanted to know why he left the French family. "Ma-dame," he told Betty with a Gallic flourish, "need gooder English." "Better, Ghalib," I said. "Oh, better." Ghalib turned out to be wildly eager and fun to have around - with a zest for everything he tried. American cooking fascinated him. When Betty showed him how to make down-home biscuits, we ate his passable experiments often. He found out where to get scarce butane tanks and kept us well supplied. Still, Ghalib would often forget how hot the on-demand kitchen water heater could get and scorch a finger. He had a terrible time getting up in the mornings. His job - at first light - was to make breakfast so I could move into the up-very-early Riyadh stream of commerce well before 7 a.m. It took an old-fashioned loud-ticker alarm clock and some loud morning requests to get him on any kind of consistent schedule. He really worked at improving his English. He obtained several self-help pamphlets, and he studied hard. In conversing with us for practice - it seemed as if he spoke nonstop - his vocabulary and syntax got quite good. Sometimes after evening cleanups, he'd ask to come in to sit on the floor in front of us and read aloud or - again, talk. He loved to tell about his family in Yemen, how they lived high in the mountains with terraced farms below; and how they kept marauders away with junns (guns). He'd talk about how the whole family helped on the farm, how one day he wanted to have enough saved up to buy a motorbike (ubitquitous in Saudi Arabia then). This he'd take home. Then he'd start a ride service into Sana and back. Good idea, we always said. And he always said, with his joking smile, he'd get rich. Our favorite repeat was his wide-gestured tale about coming to Saudi Arabia to find work. The narrative always began with the tough trip from northern Yemen across the desert to Nejran, a Saudi town a few miles north of the Yemen border at the southwest end of the Empty Quarter. Oh, but that journey was hard: very low on water; no spare parts for the truck; too many people; no help with the many breakdowns; continuing shortage of food; and always, always the beckoning of the faraway lights in the distant night. Ghalib liked that last part best. And as his English got better, so did the detail s of the trip. Once shown any routine, Ghalib was more than dependable. His main job was housecleaning, the removal of everyday desert grit. It seemed to come right through the walls, fine textured and in tiny sandpiles when the wind blew from the north. The cleanup process meant careful dust removal from furniture without scratching. Upon returning home one morning from my downtown office, I stumbled on his housecleaning routine - or part of it. He hadn't heard me come in, so I watched a second or two from the doorway. His head was wound in the Yemeni headdress - a thick, flat turban style not seen much outside his homeland. Well, here was Ghalib moving as though he had been choreographed. He was spinning, dodging, snapping the cleaning cloth and doing little shuffling steps. He'd lift his arms high (as if holding a horizontal gun) a nd make clicking noises. When he turned and saw me, he smiled, stopped, and - not the least embarrassed - said, "We do this at home - like this." I knew he meant the dancing. And I thought right then that back home he would always have his quick curiosity, his smiling enthusiasm, and that deep personal determination for whatever he wanted to get done. I guess that's why I keep watching those TV clips. I like to think I might see him now as a Middle East entrepreneur waving from that motorbike he was saving up for.

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