It has taken a brutal murder by a barbarous people of the Middle Ages to remind us that it is long past time that America, a country with a notorious bad batting average for picking its enemies and its allies, finally must sever its sick relationship with the cultural litterbox of the Middle East. Somehow, these greasy bastards, who no one would have anything to do with if they did not have a huge oilfield underneath their sandbox, have managed to get away with murder for a long time. Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 terrorists, in addition to its mastermind Osama bin Laden, were Saudis. On 9/11 day it was only two Saudi passenger jets that were allowed to be exceptions to the national shutdown of air traffic, back to their sandbox. The Bush administration immediately set about convincing a majority of the dim-witted American public that the Saudi terrorists were Iraqis so we could go to war in search of mythical weapons of mass destruction. (Just in case you forgot that Presidential lying did not originate with the current Prevaricator-in-Chief.)
The Obama administration was just as cozy with the Saudis, by 2015 concluding a record $111 billion in arms deals with the monarchy, notwithstanding a Saudi crackdown on peaceful protesters in neighboring Bahrain and a Saudi-backed military coup against Egypt’s first democratically-elected government. Now some of those high-tech lethal weapons (supplied to a people whose primary contribution to civilization has been the invention of a little shovel to dig a defecation depository in the sand) are used to commit what is amounting to genocide against the neighboring Yemenis.
Trump, we know, is a man who has boasted that he could shoot someone in 5thAvenue and do not lose any political support, so it is no surprise that he is already set about creating a narrative that will cover for the Saudi royal family with which he laughably maintains he has no financial relations. As he continues to drag American political life down to the level of these murdererous desert scumbags the political consequences remain in doubt as, amazingly, it appears that there are some Republicans whose stomachs were actually able to be turned by the accounts of how Mr. Khashoggi was dispatched. But each time I read or hear of the twisted relationship America has with these scum who like to refer to themselves as royalty, I am brought in mind of my first encounter with their ilk in 1979, in London. I first recounted it as a chapter titled Once a ‘Yank,’ Always a ‘Yank’ in my book, The Stranger is Me (2007). It always reminds me how contemptuous we can be of people who think they can buy us. Here it is.
Once a ‘Yank,’ Always a ‘Yank’
The wonder is that I wasn’t busted by whatever they call the narcotics police in London. I know that what I was doing was perfectly innocent (at least mypart of it was innocent as far as I knew), but somehow I felt guilty anyway.
What would passersby think about a swarthy bearded guy, not impressively dressed, standing on the sidewalk outside a place that sells donner kebabsin London’s Queensway, who is reading a newspaper but scanning the street every few minutes for someone, or something?
In a few minutes a black Bentley pulls to the curb where he is standing. The glass on the Bentley is tinted so dark there could be a disco strobe going off in the back seat and it wouldn’t be noticed outside. The rear side window rolls down a few inches and I, the bearded guy, walk over to the side of the car. I remove a wad of English pounds from my pocket and pass them in through the window.
The window closes.
I wait beside the Bentley.
The window opens and a little piece of paper is handed out. I take the paper and walk off down the street. A) Drug deal? B) Maybe espionage á laCarré? C) Rent payment?
It’s “C”. I’ve got the receipt to prove it. Well, I think it proves it. The receipt is written in Arabic. For all I know, it says that I just purchased a kilo of heroin.
In the late 1970s it was rough finding an affordable apartment in central London. With the oil crisis in full swing the OPEC countries were pulling in money by the barrel and had the rest of the world over one, and they were buying up everything in sight, especially London real estate.
Many of the once fashionable town houses in the areas surrounding Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens were in the process of being converted to apartments, B & Bs, and small hotels. What at one time were elegant one-family residences with quarters for cooks, butlers and upstairs and downstairs maids now accommodated several families or small tour groups. With property values rising much faster than a middle-class Londoner’s wages, these buildings were a good investment and easy pickings for the oil-rich “sheiklords.”
My landlord was a “sheik.” At least he looked like one. I caught a glimpse of him a couple of times through the open window of the Bentley. He still wore the almost cliché burnoose, galabiyyaand Ray-Bans, as though he’d been outfitted at Sheiks-R-Us.
Originally, I had secured the flat through an estate agent, who then put me in touch with the Sheik’s flunky. He interviewed me in the pizza shop in the Queensway, and decided that my “credentials” as a university professor settling in London for a few months with his (one) wife and two daughters were sufficient to present for the sheik’s final approval. I passed, and we moved into a one-bedroom furnished flat in a Leinster Gardens Court six-plex. I was to present myself at the Sheik’s rent collection place every two weeks, this street corner on the Queensway, and insert my rent, in cash, in the Bentley’s window.
I wasn’t the one who named my landlord “the Sheik.” That was Evan’s contribution. Evan, the doorman at the expensive hotel on the North side of Hyde Park, drank those nasty little bottles of super-charged English ale they sell in pubs and that have names like “Red Devil.” He was drinking one when I met him at a pub a couple of blocks from the flat. The first night I went there Evan insisted on buying me one of those nasty little ales, a hospitality by which he arrogated to himself the right to fulminate to anyone who would listen about the “Arab Invasion.”
Evan despised Arabs, and made no attempt to disguise it. As the doorman of a deluxe hotel he had plenty of contact with them. The pub was a couple of blocks away, a sanctuary for him, and a place for what he considered an appreciative audience for his rants.
“Bloody ragheads,” he called them, “comin’ over ‘ere and carryin’ on likes they own the bloody place!”
“More than acting like it,” I said, and told him about my landlord.
“Another bloody oil sheik. E’d still be ridin’ a camel if we didn’t find the oil for ‘em and then get it out of the bloody sand. An’ the bloody Turks would still control the lot if bloody Lawrence, the Arab buggerer, ‘adn’t run ‘em out of the desert. ‘Sod’ the lot of ‘em.”
To look at him, one wouldn’t take Evan for a doorman. He was dressed like a “black-coated” (the British version of “white-collar”) worker. He went to and from his job dressed that way, changing into his maroon doorman’s uniform and cap with the gray piping and gold braid from a locker at the hotel.
As with several other Englishmen I met at that time the “Arabian Invasion” was the most recent indignity to befall the erstwhile rulers of an “empire” on which “the sun never set.”* But now the empire was down to a few little scattered islands that still have money with the Queen’s face on it. One could hear the jeremiads of soap-box English chauvinists at Speaker’s Corner on Sunday mornings with some amusement, but they no doubt also spoke to the more serious feelings of man like Evan. What made it all the more difficult for Evan to bear was that the lavish expenditures of these parvenumulti-millionaire sheiks were difficult for him to resist.
“They got eight-year-old kids with pockets full of ten-quid notes, and e’vry time they pass through m’ door, or I whistle a taxi, they ‘and me one.
I quickly calculated that to be $17.50 every time he opened a door; not bad if you can leave your pride in your locker along with your black coat and derby.
Evan couldn’t quite manage that little bit of self-deception, not without the assistance of those nasty little bottles of ale. It would have been one thing to have been “in service” to, as he put it, “higher-born fellow countrymen,” but eight-year-old oil princes handing him 10-pound notes like they were used Kleenix demeaned him.
“Money means nothin t’ these people,” he continued, while pouring another nasty ale, “because they don’t ‘ave t’ work for it.” Evan smiled his perfunctory smile. It looked more like a wince, exposing his Terry Thomas gap between his upper front incisors. He seemed to enjoy the vengeful recounting of the Arab guests’ excesses at the hotel.
“They arrive in a train of Rolls Royce cars. Not just families, entire clans, Christ, bloody villages full of ‘em. Sheiks, princes, assorted relatives, wives and servants.
“When I say wives, I mean bloody wives! Couldn’t tell you just how many, ‘cause they hire the ‘ole bloody floor of the ‘otel, ev’ry room, they does.”
He interrupted himself, broke into a new pack of Players cigarettes, offered one to me, and lit us both up with a gold butane lighter.
“Gift of one of the last sheiks,” he said, wince-smiling and tossing the lighter on the table with disdain for its value. Gave ‘em to all the staff like they was candy. Must ‘ave bought ‘em by the gross at bloody Harrods.
He took a gulp of ale.
“Not just the ‘ole bloody floor. Then we ‘ad to remove all the furniture from the rooms, ev’ry bloody bit of it, so as they could bring in all their bloody caravan stuff—pillows, rugs, an’ other stuff, all the way from Arabia. English stuff not good enough for ‘em, right?”
“Some people like to have familiar things around them when they’re away from home,” I offered lamely, stubbing out my cigarette.
“Not when it comes to our bloody English whiskey. Mohammadans ain’t supposed to use spirits, but they’d order a full bar to be brought up their floor ev’ry evenin’. Hotel charges ‘em nearly a thousand quid for it. Bloody rich hypocrites, they are!”
‘Mohammadans’ had a quaint, 19thCentury ring to it.
I had heard all of this before. Evan didn’t know that I’d been standing at the bar a couple of weeks earlier when he was telling the same story to a guy from Australia.
I was feeling a bit of a hypocrite myself. Not being much of a drinker (two or three pints of English ale being my limit) I went to the pub mainly to break my vow to my daughters to quit smoking. At the pub I could indulge my addiction and imply that my clothes smelled of smoke because pubs were notoriously smoky. The only person taken in by the deception was me.
So, I knew when Evan was getting to his “closer” on the Arabs.
“Mind you, some of our chambermaids ‘ave dirty minds, but I don’t doubt what they ‘ave to say about the goin’s-on up on that floor.”
I wanted to hear this part of the story again. This was the part about how the maids on the Arab floor had “witnessed,” or just surmised, that each night the sheik had one of his wives tethered naked to some sort of wooden tripod for a little conjugal flogging with some sort of a flail. Evan was titillatingly vague at this point. The maids reported “moans” and “pleading sounds in Arabic,” so there was room for plenty of lascivious imagination to fill in the details. Was the flagellation really some symbolic foreplay and the “moans and pleadings” a turn-on for the old sheik? Was this some sadistic desert sex game? Or was the whole thing something the maids got from some sleazy London tabloid?
A less interesting hypothesis might be that the Sheik was punishing his wives for their excessive shopping. The maids also reported that the Arab women returned from forays to Harrods with their chauffeured limos loaded with expensive western-style clothing. They related that the women dressed themselves up and held little fashion shows in their rooms, but wore only traditional garb in public.
A few years later the venerable Harrod’s itself would be purchased by a Middle-Eastern businessman. The store was a longtime purveyor of goods to the royal family, a connection subsequently tinged with irony when the son of the new owner met his death along with Princess Diana in a Paris car crash.
But that would be years in the future. In the intervening years OPEC’s sovereignty over the world’s gas tanks would crumble, the oil sheik’s buying sprees would abate, and even a beloved western princess could be escorted by an Arab without much diminishing her public’s affection for her.
I soon grew weary of Evan’s guilt-induced anti-Arab jeremiads and took to sneaking cigarettes in other pubs. In London, one has a lot of choices—unless the Sheiklords buy up all, the pubs, too.
Almost twenty years later I would be watching the British Empire’s sun set a bit further while on sabbatical in Hong Kong in 1997, where I was studying the effects of its “handover” to PR China on July 1 of that year.
©2018, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.19.2018)