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Foreignness and the Other
He had been among burqas before, but to see these shadows moving through the playground, following the children—it gave Alan a chill. Was it not something from a nightmare, to be chased by a flowing figure in black, hands outstretched? (IV.6.30)
There's something about the fully covered women that sparks fear in Alan's mind. He doesn't pinpoint cultural difference as the culprit here, but clearly, he's seeing the playground scene through Western eyes.
Charlie's body, when they pulled it from the lake, looked like debris. He was wearing a black windbreaker, and the first thing Alan thought was that it was a pile of leaves wrapped in a tarp. Only his hands were visibly human. (IV.58.35)
There are several moments in this work when people turn into something else, something less than human. It's a play on Alan's fear that the world—and even humans themselves—is becoming overly mechanized.
When Alan sees Charlie's body, he doesn't recognize it as human. One could argue that death turns us into something other than a person, but we're not here to philosophize. Perhaps the "objectification" of Charlie's corpse is a final way to show how thoroughly alienated Alan had become from his friend.
"But the bridges I did not see coming. By God, we're having other people make our bridges. And now you're in Saudi Arabia, selling a hologram to the pharaohs. That takes the cake!" (XII.66.87)
Alan's dad becomes the mouthpiece for the "average American" who feels the sting of the globalization of the economy. Ron Clay is from an era when actual things were made in the U.S., and strongly believes that all decline—moral or otherwise—is linked with the movement of manufacture to developing countries.
While Ron may have a point, his point-of-view and view of the world is overly simplistic (and just plain wrong—the pharaohs were in ancient Egypt, not Saudi Arabia). It leads him to demonize his son and further isolate him for his role in the changing economy.
My God, he thought, did people belong in this part of the world? The Earth is an animal that shakes off its fleas when they dig too deep, bite too hard. It shifts and our cities fall; it sighs and the coasts are overtaken. We really shouldn't be here at all. (XV.41.107)
When Alan is brought face to face with the Saudi Arabian landscape, he feels even more like a stranger in a strange land. It's clear to him that humans really are the "other" on planet Earth—and it's just a matter of time before we're all given walking papers.
"Let's have a joke," Yousef said. "For good luck."
"That a Saudi custom?"
"I don't know. I never know about our customs. Or what people think our customs are. I'm not sure we have customs" (XVI.66-68.118)
Alan learns pretty quickly that Saudi Arabia is a "place of contradictions." There are customs and laws, and then there are those unspoken attitudes and behaviors that really rule the country. It's really disconcerting for Alan. But it turns out that it's not so easy for the residents, either. Yousef reveals here that pretty much all of them are ad libbing, all the time.
Again his guidebook had been incorrect. He had been told unequivocally that though there were plenty of women doctors in the Kingdom, they wore abayas, and rarely if ever treated men. Only in circumstances of emergency, life and death, when no male doctors were near. (XIX.33.158)
When Alan first meets Dr. Hakem in the hospital, he doesn't know how to act or where to look. He thought he had a handle of the role of women in Saudi society, but it turns out he doesn't really know jack about it. But before you judge his naivete, know that even Yousef is surprised by Dr. Hakem. It's another instance of Saudi Arabia making up the rules as it goes along and knocking everyone off balance in the process.
Again, he stepped outside his skin and doubted his sanity. It was one thing to wander the site. Another to make his way to the beach. But to take off his shoes, roll up his pants and wade in (XX.22.167)
This is a moment when Alan becomes the other to himself. He has more than one out-of-body experience in this work—perhaps because he's struggling to figure out his identity in a world that seems to have moved on without him. He finds himself doing and saying things that he would not normally do or say. Some of it is pretty cool (like taking off his shoes to wade into the Red Sea) and some of it, not so much (being dragged into, uh, stuff with Hanne). Either way, it's leading to a serious crisis of identity.
The man said nothing. They hadn't played this game. As Alan was trying to decide how to explain heads and tails, the other man grabbed the phone and left the room, bounding down the stairwell. (XXV.71.224)
This is a classic clash of cultures. Alan tries to resolve the question of cell phone ownership by flipping a coin—but that's just not a thing among the workers at KAEC. They can't be on board with a diplomatic tactic they've never seen before. And with the language barrier also at work, Alan finds himself at the center of a potentially scary situation.
If only he'd watched Star Trek enough to understand the Prime Directive: no interference in cultures you don't fully understand, in conflicts whose contexts you don't know.
Salem had been living there for a year, and had seen this family of five come and go, and had occasionally seen the middle-aged man, too. But not until then did he realize that the man was not some friend or uncle, but a slave brought with them from Malawi. (XXVI.77.238)
Sometimes when we encounter the other, we don't really see them for who they actually are. Yousef's friend Salem has this experience with the middle-aged man who just seemed to be tagging along with a family from his apartment building. But when Salem really pays attention, he awakens to a terrible reality.
His response? Move to a better neighborhood, where he doesn't have to live with such things. Salem has no hope of making real change for this man, so he tries to shield himself as best he can.
People shouldn't live here. People should not settle in a rocky terrain devoid of water or rain. But then where should they live? Nature tells man that she will kill him anywhere. In a flat land, she will kill him with tornadoes. Live near a coast and she will send tsunamis to erase centuries of work […] Nature wants to kill, kill, kill, laugh at our work, wipe itself clean. (XXVII.74.263).
You know how Alan has "out-of-body" experiences while he's in Saudi Arabia? He often can't believe he's there, or acting a certain way, and feels like he's got some kind of split personality issue. He's having another moment kind of like that right here, except with larger cosmic issues at stake. Here, man is the foreigner, the "person" who doesn't belong at the party. The Earth belongs to Nature—and she has no intention of making exceptions to help man thrive.
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