“There are 32 pods to represent the 32 boroughs of Greater London, up to 25 people to a pod and it takes 30 minutes to make a full rotation. They thought they’d keep it around only a few years but here we are 18 years later, and 10,000 people ride the London Eye every day. Last year, 4 million!” I was atop a double decker tour bus on a gorgeous sunny day, getting ready for the mini chaos that occurs at the Westminster Bridge stop, where lots of customers get on and off.
Down on the pavement, I see people waving. One of my colleagues, a ticket-seller, is with them. It’s a family, it seems. Mom, dad, two children. The mother is wearing a headscarf; it’s an Arab family. We get lots of Arab families on the busses. I look behind me to see who they are waving at — oh! they are waving at me! They are grinning so wide, they are so happy to see me and I have to squint to see their faces and I suddenly recognize the father. Once they see that I know who they are, they all start laughing and the little girl starts jumping up and down. I meet hundreds of people so it’s not easy and also I am very new in this job so it’s all been a bit overwhelming. So my memory of them is not precise but it is a tender one.
The dad is gesturing writing a note and pretending to give it to my colleague. He is trying to tell me something but I don’t understand at all and the bus is taking off and I need to handle the 20 or so people who have just gotten on so I smile and give a thumbs up.
I run into the ticket-seller colleague the next day and all becomes clear: the family had done a tour with me a couple of weeks ago and had been trying to track me down because they wanted to take me out to dinner to show their appreciation for whatever it was that I had done for them on the tour. Like I said, I meet hundreds of people and I just try to be as helpful as I can but no, I don’t remember details.
I get in touch with them and we arrange to meet outside the Covent Garden station. It turns out that I do remember them, especially when the mom, Maha, reminds me that her 7 year old daughter’s name is Latifah, “like Queen Latifah”. We had shared that joke on the bus. Latifah smiles and tosses back her head giggling, leaning onto her mother’s side. But it is her older brother, Hamad, that can speak some English and he states very proudly, “It is very nice to see you,” after which the children and parents get lost in fits of giggles. Apparently, he’d been practicing that sentence since we’d made plans to meet. The children’s skin is dark as mahogany as are their pupils so that the whites of their eyes and their teeth shine brightly. Smiling and so happy to seem me, they are beautiful. Abdul the dad, seems especially pleased that I have come — he is touched I have taken time to spend with them.
“Wherever you want to go, we go!” Says Addul. I tell them I want meat because I live with vegans and never get to eat meat! They all laugh.
“Latifah is a vegetarian,” says Meha the mom. “But is no problem, there be things to eat for her.” (Although I do find out she does make an exception for hamburgers.)
Abdul tells me there’s an area of London where you can get all kinds of Arab food but he says they haven’t eaten there. “We are here for the experience, not to do what we know!”
The maitre de asks if they want a Halal menu as Maha is wearing a scarf. Abdul and Meha order from the Halal menu but the children do not. Hamad, is terribly excited to look at the menu and hold back not a bit! He’d like to order everything. As side dishes, he orders garlic bread with cheese on top, and sweet potato fries. Upon learning that I also love sweet potato fries, Hamad gives me a fake serious nod of the head and a fist bump after which we both start to laugh.
Abdul insists that I order a bottle of wine and tells me he will drink a little (turns out very little) and I can take whatever is left home. He encourages me to drink as much as I want. I’m fairly sure drinking is not allowed for Muslims and so it seems he’s going out of his way to be accommodating.
Right away Abdul starts telling me how important this trip has been especially for his children. “I want them to experience life. We are good people in Saudi Arabia. People want freedom. We are like other people. We want …” He searches for words… “… to be happy.”
Hamad takes over ordering for his father, saying to me with playful rolling eyes, “My father he don’t know what he wants but I do.” He orders rib-eye and barbecue sauce for both him and his dad. “Hmm yum, I love barbecue sauce,” he rubs his belly and nods and smiles to indicate to me how much he cares for the stuff.
They are such a happy family, happy to tell each other things, share funny observations and just to laugh. While the others are trying each others’ food, Abdul says to me, “This is so nice that you came. For me it is important that the children meet good people from other countries. I don’t want my children to be .. ,” he gestures with the palms of his hands on either side of his head. “Small minded?” I offer.
“Yes! In my country, we do still have this mentality, small.. small-minded. We know only our country. But do not misunderstand, people want freedom so much! But…. they do not know how. But we want.”
For dessert we order practically everything on the menu. Hamad can’t wait for his Oreo Milkshake – although he agrees to share. I say to Maha – “You know, I am full but dessert takes up a different part of the stomach.” She claps her hands and laughs and says, “Exactly! It is different!”
While we wait for dessert, Abdul wants to smoke so I accompany him outside and he is glad to have me alone. He seems desperate for me to understand so many things but he is struggling to communicate all that he would like to. “I have a very good job. I am an engineer. For my job, I must travel — Belgium, France, London, Rome. I meet people and I enjoy! I want my family to enjoy. I want them to know people are good. People are the same.”
He tells me that his company does engineering works for other countries, often to “help them” he says. They recently did a project in Africa. I can’t follow all the details but from what I understand, his company does projects in underdeveloped areas and are directed to do so by the Saudi government.
I tell him that I’d been offered a job to teach in Saudi Arabia but it wasn’t as much money as they had offered in years past. In years past Saudi Arabia was known for paying up to 100,000 pounds a year for an English teacher.
“Saudi Arabia now give money to many country to help them. The United States tell them to do it and we do. We want to help but now we have less money than before but we are still ok.”
Back inside, we all share the desserts, giggling over how good everything is. The kids are in absolute heaven, it would seem.
Hamad excitedly tells me that tomorrow they are going to see the movie, The Incredibles. He has some difficulty with the pronunciation which makes us giggle. “At 5:30!” he adds, throwing his arms up the air. He looks directly at his father and says, “At 5:30,” then does the same to his mom, apparently to make sure they remember. They shake their heads and smile telling me Hamad hasn’t stopped talking about it for days. I advise them to also see the show the Lion King – that it would be a great experience for them, not just for the children.
Walking back to the Covent Garden station, Hamad and Latifah are skipping and running ahead, pointing out and showing each other things in the shops and giggling, running back to mom telling her things and running off again. I note how free the children are, and how happy they all are and so kind to each other.
I guess I wanted to write this post because all I knew about Saudi Arabia was women aren’t allowed to drive, where it is on the map, and generally negative things. But like everywhere else, the most important bit about a place is the people. And spending time with this lovely family simply opened my eyes. That’s all.