Saudi Arabia

Fast and the Furious

Words Georgina Penney

April 2016 from issue 44

Tags: confessions, middle east

Fast and the Furious

As an expat living in the Middle East, Georgina Penney bypasses Saudi Arabia’s conservative regime by jumping the border, but a taxi driver with a death wish has the last laugh.

"You’re not going to do anything unsafe today, huh?” my husband asks as he’s getting ready to leave for work in Saudi Arabia, a short trip over a causeway from our apartment in Bahrain.

“No, no,” I reply, reaching for my abaya and slipping it over my shorts and T-shirt. “I’m just going to stay in camp and have a coffee with the girls.” The ‘camp’ I’m referring to is the compound where my friends in Saudi Arabia live. Every two weeks, to renew my Bahraini visa, I catch a lift with my husband across the border and catch up with my mates. The routine is part and parcel of the expat life and being the wife of a Saudi oil company worker.

After living in Saudi for almost two years, we moved to Bahrain, where I permanently reside on a series of temporary visitor visas. It means I no longer have to spend my days in a heavily guarded compound with my sanity leaking out of my ears.

He looks at me squarely. “Keep your head down. And no taxis. They’re crazy.”

“No taxis,” I nod firmly, knowing full well I’m lying. Since women can’t drive in Saudi, taxis are the main means of transport and my friends and I have already planned a shopping trip. With luck, our regular driver, Saleem, will be free and we won’t have to take our chances.

We aren’t so lucky.

“Good driver! Good driver,” our cabbie bellows three hours later, using the only two words of English he apparently knows beyond basic directions and negotiating our fare to Rashid Mall.

The words don’t instil much confidence. So far the only sign the man actually knows how to drive “good” is the fact he’s worked out how to start the engine in a car that smells like armpit.

Before I know it we’re hurtling the wrong way down a one-way road at more than 140 kilometres an hour through the centre of Khobar. Cars stream past, narrowly missing us. Horns honk and tyres screech. Our driver doesn’t bother looking at the road for more than a couple of seconds at a time. Instead he’s focused on the rearview mirror and the three of us in the back seat, flashing us a grin that I’m pretending isn’t manic. I’m trying to work out if gripping the backs of both front seats in the event of a crash will save my life since my seatbelt is broken.

“You two better stop me from going through the windscreen if he hits the brakes,” I say, looking from side to side at my friends.

“Definitely,” Aaliya says, giving me a firm nod.

“Sure,” Imeen seconds, checking her lipstick in a small handheld mirror.

Seconds later, our taxi rounds a sharp corner and the driver stomps on the brakes. Tyres screech. We all scream. I lurch forward, immediately feeling my shoulders jerk in their sockets as I brace myself on the seats in front, my head whipping forward and lashing back as we accelerate, the car we’d almost hit speeding past with its horn blaring.

Good driver?!

Heart thumping, I turn to look at my friends, only to find them both gripping the leather handles of their designer handbags, wide-eyed: “So your handbags are more important than me?”

The car jerks to the right as our driver answers the phone, holding the mobile in front of his face and speaking in fast-paced Arabic while rifling through the glove compartment. I try not to notice he is steering with his knee.

“It’s okay, George. We would have scraped you off the road,” Imeen says, patting my knee.

“What’s left of me.” I look out the window, and my heart sinks as we zoom past the gold souk. “Hate to tell you ladies but he’s not taking us to Rashid Mall.”

Our driver abruptly drops his phone, studying us in the rearview mirror. “Rashid Mall?”

“Yes!” The three of us cry in unison.

He looks worried for a second before nodding. “Rashid Mall... No problem, no problem. Good driver.”

Seconds later, the brakes slam on. My hands again fly for the seats in front of me and this time my friends catch me, albeit one-handedly, their other hands still gripping designer leather.

Later that afternoon, while waiting in our idling car for the hour it usually takes for Saudi customs to stamp our passports, my husband turns to me. “You have a good day today?”

“Yeah.” I nod. “Pretty uneventful come to think of it.”

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Georgina Penney is an Australian-born author currently living in Scotland. Her latest book Fly In Fly Out is inspired by nine years living as an expat in various countries around the world with her husband, who works in the oil industry.