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December 20, 2004

Car Park Madness

Posted by William G. Ridgeway

I returned to my car today to find I was blocked in by a large white 4x4. I knew the driver was local, as a shiny CD hung from the rear-view mirror and there was a decal of the ruling Sheikh stuck to the windscreen. Damn, I thought.

Arabs are notorious for parking their cars where they will, and they seem to relish blocking people in. They are certainly very skilled at it. If you or I wanted to block somebody in, then we would drive our car so that it was the top of the vehicular 'pi', all rational angles and obvious intentions.

Not so in Arabia. Arabs are skilled at leaving a car at just such an angle that it seems they stopped as an afterthought; that they just 'popped out' for a minute. Being less rational, less decisive, the act seems less intentional, less blameworthy.

If one is a victim of this particular practice (as one often is), one has no option but to wait until the offender returns. The wait can be a lengthy one and hot. Most expatriate victims spend this time working themselves up into an impotent rage, cursing the Arabs, their country, their system. The disregard! The cheek! This wouldn't happen in Chester! The car parks of Arabia can turn the gentlest westerner into a fulminating Victor Meldrew.

This frustration does not diminish when the protagonist finally returns. Western ideas of politeness, of decorum, of cultural relativism usually mean that most button their lips as the Arab smiles and shrugs his shoulders before driving away with a cheerful beep. Some even wave their tormentors off, overcome with relief that at last they can move on. Usually, however, the rage reasserts itself as the latest anecdote about Arab disregard, incompetence, hubris . . .

On this particular occasion, I swore and lit a cigarette, assessing the few options I had for squeezing my car to freedom. I surveyed the scene from several angles. No, too tight. No, impossible. No, I'd have to wait.

A local stood by his car, watching the scene. I smiled. He smiled. Eventually he walked over and shook my hand.
"Yes, problem," I said.
The man tutted, walked around the car and dropped to his haunches. His eyes narrowed.
"Mmm . . should be OK."
"You think?"
"Yes, no problem."

I didn't believe him, but it was worth a try, so I started the engine and watched him signaling in the rear mirror. Back two inches. Hard lock left. Forward three inches. Straighten up etc. At one point, the car was wedged at such an angle that any movement seemed guaranteed to scrape the paintwork. This was getting us nowhere.

Eventually, however, after what seemed like hundreds of hand jerks and whoa whoas, I noticed that I could just slide past the offending 4x4. Slowly, slowly, inch by inch, the car emerged into open space.

I reached through the window and shook the man's hand.
"Thank you so much," I said.
"No problem," he smiled and waved me off.

As I drove away with the wind in my hair, I realized that I had uncovered one of the many paradoxes about Arab culture. Both my saviour and my tormentor were Arab. Not good Arab/bad Arab, but Arab, pure and simple. On another day, it might have been my saviour's car blocking me in. Meanwhile, had timings been different, the man I had cursed as thoughtless may well have helped me out.

Arabs are thus both more thoughtful and less thoughtful than westerners. On the negative side, their belief in luck and fate means that many will pull up their handbrake thinking, "If God wills it, I'll be back before them." This view is compounded by a relaxed conception of time, which means that if, while locking their car door, they have second thoughts "what if they do come back before me?" - they are comforted by the thought, "No worries. They won't mind waiting a bit".

What many expats don't understand when confronted with such a situation is that the person parking the offending car assumes that the other cars are Arab-owned. Therefore, no problem. If I come back in time, no problem. If they come back first, well, they'll have to wait a bit, but they can easily fill the time chatting on their cellphone or texting a funny message. Anyway, chances are that when I return I will know that person or at least know somebody he knows, so that will give us time to get to know each other better.

And, yes, it works. People wait, and chat into their handsets. Friends of friends are reunited. Hands are shaken. Telephone numbers are exchanged. At the end of it all, parties leave amicably with a wave and a triple beep. It's great to be an Arab.

Then in steps ajnabi, expecting everything to conform to him. In steps ajnabi, shaking his head and throwing his eyes up to heaven. Imagine getting all hot under the collar about having to wait a few minutes. Imagine being all thin-lipped and frosty when meeting someone for the first time. Imagine falling out over a silly car. Westerners are a funny bunch, beyond the comprehension of Arabs. Cold. Hard. Unreachable. They behave in ways that are just plain weird.
retained by author 2004

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Nice little story Mr Ridgeway. However, I am glad I don't have a car or drive because I couldn't stand being in the situation you humorously described.

Posted by: David Airth at December 20, 2004 06:20 PM
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