Monday, October 22, 2012

"Radio Comfort”

I have always loved the radio. Whether it was pop music or a Dodgers game with Vin Scully, listening as a child brought me much comfort. I even dreamed of one day hosting my own radio program where I’d interview interesting and important people! This love of radio continued into my young adult years when I found a favorite in National Public Radio. To this day, unless I have a lecture to listen to on CD, the radio dial in my home or car remains set on NPR.

In 1998, I went with my wife and four children to teach English in Saudi Arabia.  My students were all members of the Royal Saudi Navy. However, my first trip into the “magic kingdom” was without my family as it was customary for new teachers to first complete a requisite probationary period. “Some teachers have their families arriving after only two or three weeks at most!” said our Saudi contact, a certain Mr. Rashad, as he broke the news to me just days before our scheduled departure.

It was only a few days after all, quite reasonable, we thought, so on August 6th, after a long flight on Saudia Airlines, I landed in a different kind of holy land. Before the plane descended, I watched several Arab women transform from jean-clad and open-faced to abaya covered with their faces hidden behind the omnipresent veil. An abaya is a kind of ankle length, long sleeve robe which is always black. My wife describes it as a “heavy wool blanket,” but “otherwise quite comfortable.” Most Saudi men cover their heads and wear white robes, called thobes. I would soon get used to seeing the sight of these men in lab-coat white trailed by women in black, their brown eyes alone exposed behind thick veils.

I saw no clouds in the late evening sky and on the ground everything appeared covered in lunch-bag brown.  I noticed that air conditioners were attached to every building, regardless of size and that all were running. Within a few days, I realized that a hot, indoor shower and a summer day outside in Arabia were similar experiences! And I would quickly learn how to relieve my sweat-soaked necktie through arduous squeezing.

My temporary “single status” apartment was just a few blocks from the Persian Gulf on the Navy compound itself. Right away, I received the first of many corrections: “No, Habib. This is Arab water. Persia is over there, but this gulf is ours. It is the Arabian Gulf.”

Late into the night I watched CNN and then the BBC and for a few hours the television helped to tame the homesickness. At 4 AM, I finally admitted that facing my aloneness and falling asleep were better companions than forced insomnia. But sleep remained elusive and I became tormented by all that I had left behind. I began to panic because I couldn’t visualize the faces of my children so I sprang up from the bed and returned with a picture of my wife and children. For a while, I tried sheer silence. Finally, I turned on the radio and found in a PBS broadcast a familiar voice from NPR.  I was comforted by news from home and was soon fast asleep.

I have often reflected on that early morning trial. I prayed hard. I sought relief through distraction, through exhaustion. I was inconsolable until I closed my eyes and that invisible voice spoke to me, sang me to sleep. A mundane heavenly lullaby touched me. Words spoken from earth to sky and back again gave me the peace I so desperately sought.

It took 10 weeks before my family was allowed to join me in Arabia. I’m still not sure that 70 days was worth the cost but we did end up having some wonderful adventures over what would eventually be three years in that sleepy, sandy place. No, I never became a radio personality. And I’ll admit that it wasn’t the last time I fell asleep listening to NPR! But I am so grateful the radio was there when I needed it.

And yes, I recently made a pledge.
~Arabia 1999~


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