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Today's quote:

Monday, February 14, 2022

The Devil made me do it


Oscar Wilde once said, "There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it." To which he should have added "... too early" because I scored my biggest job ever as Chief Accountant with the French oil company TOTAL - Compagnie Française des Pétroles when I was still at the tender age of just twenty-nine.

I was given a rambling big colonial house in Rangoon with several domestic servants, a top-of-the-range company car with driver, and a tax-free salary befitting far more senior executives nearing the end of their career. When twelve months behind the "Teak Curtain" and under the dictatorship of U Ne Win had seemed long enough, I took up a posting in Tehran under the dictatorship of the then Shah of Iran.

'Out of the frying pan and into the fire' is the best way to describe this particularly ill-fated move and I left Tehran again soon afterwards. I kept indulging in my preference for working in strange and exotic places, but with the sweet taste of those early Burmese days still in my mouth, everything else that came afterwards just tasted like ashes.

That was until a whole seven years later when I saw the position of "Assistant Manager - International Sales, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia" advertised and wondered if I could recapture those high-rolling days again. And so, while still putting the finishing touches on my Ok Tedi assignment in Papua New Guinea, I dashed off this application:

Three weeks later I was shortlisted for an interview ...

... and soon afterwards reclined on a sleeper chair up front in a Jumbo, being pampered with French food and champagne, en route to Bahrain.

A two-week stop-over in Bahrain awaiting my entry visa to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia seemed a reasonably enough introduction to life in the Middle East, but nothing quite prepared me for the culture shock that awaited me in Jeddah. Of course, I already knew of the Four Pillars of Prohibition in Saudi Arabia, No Piss, No Pork, No Pornography and No Prostitution, but it was the sheer loneliness of the place that could reduce even the most hardened men to tears. I lived in a 5-star hotel close to the office, and some of the resident expats would meet at lunchtime around the wind- and sand-blown swimming pool of the Al-Harithy Hotel on Medina Road in Jeddah for a swim and a game of chess.


"My" corner in my room at the Al-Harithy Hotel


I was the only Westerner in a Saudi company run by three brothers and staffed with a cross section of barely-English-speaking people from all over the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. "Total chaos" was the best description, with a never-ending supply of thimbles full of cardamom-flavoured coffee and sweet mint tea being the only reliable constant.

After endless hours in the office came the long night in the hotel, and the lack of entertainment and the lack of companionship until perhaps some time after midnight, just when I had conquered my insomnia, there was a hesitant tap on the door. Outside stood one of the expats I had met at the pool at lunchtime, with a chess-board under his arm, asking in a timid voice, "Feel like a game of chess?"



But, of course, I wouldn't say that. Instead, I'd switch on the coffee kettle, set up the chess-board, and made the appropriate moves. Literally! Because it wasn't about chess but about the choking isolation, or about a "Dear John" letter from home, or, worse, no letter at all. And so I played the game because it might be my turn next to stand outside someone's door and ask, "Feel like a game of chess?", which happened soon enough when I, too, received my very own "Dear Peter" letter.

Chasing those high-rolling days had come at such huge personal cost to me that to this day I ask myself, "What made me do it?"   See heading!

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