Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia - The Prettiest Pearl

by Hmakonnen on June 3, 2011

In 2008, during my first stay in the Kingdom, I observed up close a struggle far more severe than anything I had ever encountered in the United States. This was not my struggle, but rather it was the struggle of many of the laborers working in the Kingdom. One day while I was leaving the local mosque for the pre-dawn prayer, a migrant worker from Sri Lanka named Armanallah invited me to his home for tea. Honestly, I did not want to go because it was so early in the morning, and I wanted to go back to sleep. But I obliged in accepting his humble invitation. At the time, I was unaware that drinking tea in Armanallah's home would forever alter my life.

Armanallah was a short, older man with a graying beard. He stood at around 5'7" with a rotund potbelly. His calm brown eyes were the perfect compliment to his gentle handshakes. We walked for five minutes until we reached the front of a four-story apartment with a marble facade, like all the others in that section of Madeenah. Armanallah worked at the building as the haris, the equivalent of a superintendent. His job was to clean the building and complete other handyman-like duties.

Following his lead, we eventually stopped at a large iron door leading to an alleyway between his building and the building next door. Inside of the alley stood what I believed to have been a shed. Armanallah walked to the door of the shed, unlocked it and then he said, Tafaddal, meaning, "welcome or enter." The shed was his home.

I was in sheer shock at his living conditions, as I tried hard to not let the shock show on my face. Doing so would have been extremely rude of me as his guest. His home looked almost like a prison cell in size. The walls were literally the cemented walls of the two buildings he lived in between. The roof was a thin sheet of plywood. His simple furnishings consisted of a twin-sized bed wedged horizontally between the two cement walls. There was also a medium-sized refrigerator and a propane tank connected to a single eye, which he used for cooking. The most telling appliance was an old school three-speed, oscillating desk fan drilled to the wall directly over his bed. The meek fan stood out to me because the Madeenah heat is a brutal dry heat easily reaching 120°F in the summer months. Just as a cup of water is not enough to stop a large fire, his fan was no match for a city where the summer breezes feel like a blow-dryer on the most sensitive parts of the ear. Those simple possessions were all that could fit inside his humble home.  

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the live sight of Armanallah's abode was undoubtedly the equivalent to the combined lexicons of every spoken language on Earth. When I looked into his home, I was so overwhelmed that I wanted to cry. As we stepped inside, he requested that I sit on his tiny bed while he prepared a cup of tea on the makeshift stove and retrieved a few dates from his refrigerator. He began to tell me about his family in Sri Lanka, his wife and his three daughters, whom he supports toiling away as a haris in Madeenah. His gentle eyes lit up as he proudly informed me that two of his three daughters were married and going to college. He was also elated that he and his wife were able to perform the ritual Islamic rites of the Hajj pilgrimage, which is something people from poorer countries like Sri Lanka save up for for a lifetime. As we sipped on the tea and ate dates, I saw a hardworking family man like myself, but he was in a position that I could never fathom.

After I had finished the first cup of tea, he offered me another cup. Then after we exhausted his dates, he offered me cookies. The cookies were stale, but I could not bring myself to reject his offerings. It would have been extremely rude for me to do such. Furthermore, sharing his company immediately humbled me. As I sat on his bed while he sat on his floor, I began to see something foreign to my eyes. Before me, there sat a poor man who offered me what seemed to be everything, while it was obvious he had nothing. Never in my life had I come across a person with nothing who was so giving. I was even more surprised by his demeanor, the content calm he projected. I asked myself, "How can a person so poor be content and at peace with his situation?" At the time, I just could not understand it. Perhaps, being socialized with American culture obstructed me from grasping his secret.

While speaking with him, I saw a beauty as dynamic as anything I had witnessed prior to our talk. The beauty was so immense that it caused me to feel as if I did not have sight before I laid eyes on him. Armanallah radiated patience, gratitude and generosity. I was totally in awe. Shortly thereafter, I had to excuse myself from his humble home; I needed a long walk to take everything in. To me, it seemed I had just shared tea with the richest poor man in the world.

In retrospect, Armanallah taught me something about myself that had my mirror shown me, I would have surely smashed it to pieces. He inadvertently taught me about the ugliness of my own ingratitude and impatience with life. The lesson was one of perception, but it was broken into two aspects, attitude and gratitude. From his demeanor, then in witnessing his lifestyle, his patience was evident. Being able to carry his self with humble dignity during an extremely dire situation spoke volumes on his patience. For instance, the building he worked in contained not just a marble and granite exterior, but the floors and the walls of the interior were also built with the creamy, shiny stones. This is how the majority of modern Saudi apartment buildings are furnished. If he were from those with a half-empty, sour grape mentality, he would have undoubtedly looked at his situation in a negative light. That negative outlook would have surely affected the manner in which he carried out his goal. In fact, an attitude void of patience could have seriously jeopardized his family's lone source of income. So, how was he able to ignore the luxury of his workplace and focus solely on turning his relative squalor into his own personal castle? After giving myself some time, I finally reached a conclusion. Simultaneously, a beautiful pearl appeared in my right hand.

This pearl I pray to cherish for as long as my heart beats and my lungs have air--gratitude. Being the humble guest of a humbler man, bathed me in gratitude, the likes of which I did not know was possible. It became clear and evident to me that he could look at me as being fortunate, dare I say rich. I always knew "poverty was relative"; but meeting Armanallah cemented what was once a thought, inspired by a common saying, into a firm clear reality.

To put things into context, at that time I was living in a rough section of Brooklyn, and my studio was far from the snazziest. From time to time during that period, I had let ungratefulness get the best of me, ignorant to the fact there was someone who would see a mansion in my dingy studio apartment. Looking at the nicer homes in my neighborhood blinded me from thinking about the places on Earth where "homes" are without running water and air conditioning. As the change in paradigm manifested itself, a single tear fell from my eyes. Soon after, one tear turned into a steady stream. Shame can be painful, and verily I was ashamed of my attitude lacking of gratitude. How could I have been so blind in not acknowledging the smallest of fortunes bestowed on me? How could I?

I value this lesson of gratitude, because from it my life has gained more meaning and a greater depth. Changing the way I see the world around me has transported me to a new world, and I am not afraid to admit this. It is quite easy to get carried away focusing on the things I do not have, but valuing what I do has made me feel more tranquil. I will never forget having tea with the richest poor man in the world, just as I will never forget to be grateful for every experience. Of course, I would love to step into the shoes of a man with great wealth, but I must never forget that true wealth comes with valuing what one already possesses. This pearl of wisdom I owe solely to Armanallah.

In Saudi Arabia, it is a common practice to hire migrant workers from extremely poor countries as laborers. Many of these laborers leave their families for long periods to earn about USD$200/month. As we all know, poverty is relative. Now, please imagine the level of poverty in a country where a person would eagerly leave his or her family for the majority of the year for only USD$200/month while working six days a week. What are the conditions in the poor neighborhoods of Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, and other "developing" countries? Witnessing these men who have left their families reminds me of how fortunate I am to see the family I wake up early to provide for, every night. I have long been an admirer of the average immigrant's work ethic, but these migrant workers inspire me to new levels. Whenever I greet one throughout my day, they are always polite and welcoming. It is my goal to adopt their attitude of gratitude to appreciate and value life as it should be valued. 

Gratitude is the prettiest pearl.

Flag Comment as Inappropriate

by Mark
About 6 years ago

Wow, I never seen a beheading, not even looked at the ISIS videos. I come from Europe, a place where the state does not have the right to execute you since the middle ages. Did you know that giving up Islam - apostate, as well as blasphemy are both death sentenced in Saudi Arabia? How ethical do you think this is?

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