Autobiographical writing is an interesting literary field that is not always appreciated at its true worth. To me, its purpose is to convey an inside, intimate picture of something which, perhaps, I was not well informed before reading it; to convey a new perspective, or else to remind one of something familiar, but seen from another’s viewpoint; in any case, to transfer and convey something of the experience and inner spirit of the writer.
Chuck Ekstrom’s SHEESH! Is not quite a conventional autobiography; it is perhaps more of a reflection, albeit an animated one, on the writer’s long and extraordinary experiences in some pretty hairy parts of the world, former colonies and the autocratic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where to get on the wrong side of the authorities can be very dangerous indeed.
Chuck gives one of the most balanced accounts, which this reader, at least, has ever encountered of existence in these countries. We really do feel we know what life was like there.
There are some fascinating insights and personal stories, which Chuck shares with us in a lively, readable style. This book is intimate and conversational. It has some darkness, what life does not, but more light.
This is a personal and human book. The book is a good length, takes the space fully to develop its themes, and at the end we feel that we really know its author. That together we have been on a worthwhile journey.
Editor in Chief
OUTLINE FOR SHEESH
Dream on about the world
We’re gonna live in
One fine day.
Dream on. Spend the night
In heaven. I’ll be here until I go away.
The Oak Ridge Boys.
I could have never dreamt this. I could have never planned this. And I can’t put it down.
This life, that is.
There’s no explanation other than God and his gift to redeem us all. Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.
The love of an infinite creator and savior who watches us all, for every moment, and allows, nay, creates these possibilities.
The stories here are true, with a few embellishments. And probably a little fiction thrown in just for fun. But I’m not just telling stories. The fiction is sometimes like a little salt, pepper or salsa! But sparingly, like any good chef!
The answer is best given in the words of one of the old writers: they are "not all a lie nor all true, not all fable nor all known. . . 1
Some ideas on that.
All art is the arrangement of previous perceptions.
It doesn’t mean you’re not just telling stories. “Telling Stories” by Tracy Chapman”(excerpts)
Walter: Those stories about Africa-about you, they’re true aren’t they?
Hub: Doesn’t matter.
Walter: It does too!
Hub: If you want to believe in something, then just believe in it! Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things that a man needs to believe in the most:
That people are basically good.
That honor, courage and virtue mean everything.
That money & power, power & money mean nothing.
That good always triumphs over evil.
That true love never dies.
It doesn’t matter if they’re true or not, those are the things that are worth believing in.
The “Believe in” dialogue from “Secondhand Lions”.
This doesn’t mean that this is anything more than the truth. Just some parts have been changed a little to protect the innocent. And sometimes, the not-so innocent.
It’s not necessary for you to believe this story. I lived it, and I am living it. Every day, and I mean every day, something extraordinary occurs. Something that I couldn’t have planned or done myself.
Let’s Rock! Total triumph. Total exasperation. Total letdown. Total bliss! Totaled!!! I call it Sheesh!
An explanation of it all, so far:
6 days at the police station: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
My wife, Sally and I were contemplating what we would be doing for the next few months or years, when a knock came at the door. I had been living in Jeddah, for five years and the economy had started to go sour. I was in the satellite TV business, semi-legally I guess, since the big dishes weren’t officially allowed in the Kingdom. This was in the era of 16’-60’ satellite dishes. Of course, there were assuredly over 100,000 of them there. Probably more than a half million and maybe more. When something’s illegal, it’s hard to count.
Anyway, the knock persisted.
I answered the door. There was an official representative of His Majesty’s government at my door. (A police sergeant) As I enquired as to his wishes, he informed me that the local precinct Captain wished to talk to me at the local police station. When I pressed him as to why, he just insisted that I come with him. I asked what he would do if I refused, but he warned against that. In Saudi Arabia, the police and the army are the same thing.
My wife, Sally, asked what was happening and I told her not to worry, that we had good sponsors and everything would be fine.
We had already made plans to move to Jordan, probably Amman, as King Hussein had just signed a peace treaty with Israel. We’d met and dined with the consular officer from Jordan in Jeddah, and had received numerous helpful suggestions from himself and other Jordanian citizens that frequented the offices there. We had phone numbers, addresses, and business contacts and, without exception, some of the best recipes for middle eastern food that existed. We’d had scrumptious dinners consisting of lamb, fish, chicken and the best Lebanese vegetarian dishes.
In short, we were planning to leave Saudi Arabia. As it was, Sally lived about half of the time in England, the place of her birth, with her son of a previous marriage. We would get together in England from time to time; but, as things worked out, she would come to Jeddah for an average of three months and then return to England for about the same period of time
But back to my story.
I accompanied the sergeant to said police station where I was duly questioned (grilled) by the Captain in charge as to my reasons for being in and my ability to afford to live in the Kingdom. Unfortunately for me, he didn’t entirely believe my half-hearted stories that I was a semi-wealthy man who just liked living there. After all, I am an American. Why would I want to live in this place? (I was knocking down about $30,000 a month or more after expenses, tax-free.) Of course I couldn’t admit that! I had no work visa.
He called in my sponsor, a bank official who denied any knowledge of my working in the satellite business. (After all, I had only met him at his home to re-program his satellite system).
After about 3 hours of this, the captain said that I could go home. When I arrived, of course, my wife took over the grilling. I explained that everything seemed okay and not to worry.
But I did call the Jordanian consulate and the American consulate (who had a very apt and capable officer at the helm, who’s name unfortunately, I forget, as do I most of the names in the rest of this story. And subsequent stories as well. Sounds kind of like Oliver North and Ronald Reagan. To be fair, this sounds like a number of other people we’re all familiar with!) These consular officers both advised me (us) not to worry, but to keep in touch. In the event of a problem, to please call. No promises were given.
We had had 3 peaceful days to consider our plan to move to Jordan when, again there were officials at the door. (I hope cops appreciate being called officials) Again I was asked to accompany these robots to the same police station, where, given a Kingdom upgrade, I was interviewed by the Colonel.
My sponsor was brought in again and, of course, duly lied when questioned. Without boring you with the details, let me say that in my five years in the Kingdom, I had, shall we say, acquired a working knowledge of Arabic; in written and spoken form, sufficient to have an idea of who was trying to railroad me and why! (A competitor. A Sheik Hamed Mutabagani, a VERY wealthy man, 2 Maserati’s in the driveway, owner of nine hospitals in the Kingdom. Oh yeah, I was a definite threat to his livelihood) He had decided that since I was arguably the best technician in the Kingdom, (and I was), that I should work for him. He had previously offered to store a few gifts that Sally had bought but decided to leave in Jeddah temporarily, but upon our return, wanted the equivalent of $11,000 rent for the space necessary. Let me say that these things fit in the trunk of an average size car and cost no more than $1,000. The time involved was less than 90 days and the delay was due to 2 of his partners and their inability to get me a timely visit visa. I had been ready to return in less than two weeks.
This man had decided to go into the satellite business and had decided that I would go into business with him. He didn’t want to take no for an answer. He had bought a lot of satellite equipment assuming that I’d go into business with him. When I refused, he was stuck with these things. He pressed one of his sons into going into business with him, and the guy actually became pretty good! At that point, Hamed wanted me out of the way and out of the Kingdom.
So there I was! I sat in the Colonel’s office for 6 days on the floor while he waited for my visit visa to expire. In the end, only the American consular officer would help. Women aren’t allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. She had had my wife driven and accompanied my wife around for shopping, to visit me, etc. The British consulate refused to even listen. (Typical).
Sally was brought to the police station by the American consular officer and brought me my personal possessions. The manager of the apartment building, a Palestinian, had told Sally that he was taking our furniture to cover back rent and phone bills (which was a lie!), but then gave her $2800 to cover the cost of the things that he was stealing! It was worth considerably more than that, around $15,000, but that was immaterial at that point. When she came to the police station, I gave her an additional $5,000 and told her to get the hell out of the country. She did. I never saw her again.
At the 6th day, the Colonel told me that he knew that I had been involved in the satellite business but couldn’t prove it as yet. The business had been proclaimed illegal in April 1994 and this was the 5th of September of the same year. I had $25,140 on my person. He suggested that since the fine for this offense was $28,000, but didn’t want to see me broke, that I could keep the $140. (What due process?) But that he’d keep the $25,000. He didn’t offer a receipt.
That was very big of him. Of course, since my visa was expiring that day, I had to leave the Kingdom. And, of course when the police invite you (sic) to leave a country you go back to the country that you came from. But in this case that was Bahrain, because that was where I had gotten my visit visas renewed.
That was the wrong direction. I’m from Chicago! But Saudi Arabia is a place with double standards. There’s rules and there’s rules, as we say in Chicago. I had a friend and a satellite customer who worked for Saudia Airlines who agreed to exchange the provided airline ticket to Manama for one to Cairo. That’s not very close to Chicago, but at least it’s in the right direction.
What they didn’t know was that I wrote a question and answer column for an Arab TV guide. The guide was published in Cairo! I was Dr. Chuck, the satellite doctor! My picture and name were in the guide, the guide was sold in Saudi Arabia and they never put these facts together with the guy that they had in front of them.
I also had managed a satellite company in Jeddah for a short time, while running my own business. A prince who was part of the government silently owned the company. I promised to not mention his name or his position, but he was right on up there. One phone call to him and this problem would have been solved. But he didn’t get me into this mess, I did. I didn’t call him.
But my right hand man at this company, Mohammed, an Egyptian, was a very nice and able man. He made my job with that company much easier. Let me say right now that most of the Egyptians I’ve ever met and had the pleasure to work with are good, honest, hard working people. Mohammed was no exception.
He had decided to move back to Cairo a month earlier and I had his phone number and address!
I was escorted to the airport in handcuffs and leg irons. I was taken to the Hajj terminal where the Muslims from other countries arrive and depart to visit and return from Mecca. I asked why I needed all this hardware and was told that it was policy. But the police chief was also a customer and a friend of mine. The Colonel who had ordered all of this was the boss, but the police chief ran local affairs. I was able to convince my guard to call the chief to come to the airport. The chief arrived and convinced the guard to remove the handcuffs and leg irons. I want to publicly thank those people who were helpful. They know who they are. Most of the Arab People are kind and gentle people. They are, for the most part, very religious. Whether Muslim or in the case of Arab countries other than Saudi Arabia, Christian.
(BULLETIN: There are many, many practicing Christians in the Kingdom. This is illegal, but then so are most things.) They are good people. The favorite phrase for visitors in Arabic is Ah-lan Wasahalan, which means a bit more than welcome. They are very hospitable people.
I left Jeddah that night and went to Cairo.
I arrived at 6:30 in the morning. I went through the line and bought my Egyptian visa for $5 and spent a little time in customs. I had two suitcases and a huge cardboard box full of clothes, books, photos and other personal items.
I then went into the terminal where a taxi driver greeted me in English and asked if I needed a taxi. I thanked him but told him that my friend would be meeting me as soon as I placed a call. There were no public phones at the airport but he said that I could use the phone in the taxi office. I called and spoke to Mohammed and he said that he was very happy that I had decided to come to Cairo. That he’d be about an hour but to wait.
I went to the duty free shop and bought a small bottle of Jim Beam whiskey. I hadn’t had a legal drink of whiskey in a number of years so I decided it would be a nice change.
I went into the coffee shop and asked in my best Arabic for a glass, some ice and water. By this time my taxi driver friend was bored. All of the people from my flight had left and he had nothing to do. He came into the coffee shop and I invited him to sit with me. I offered him a drink and he accepted. We sat there for over an hour waiting for Mohammed.
But Mohammed never came. After two hours I called his house again and his wife informed me in Arabic that he had gone to work and wouldn’t return until after seven that night. I spoke pretty good Arabic at the time, having lived in the Arab world for more than five years. But speaking with someone over the phone in a language that you haven’t mastered can lead to a lot of misunderstandings. I decide to go there. I had the address.
The taxi driver and I went to the house where she again explained that he wouldn’t be home until late and, of course, I couldn’t wait there for him. In the Muslim world, it’s not allowed for an unmarried man and woman to be left alone together in the same room, much less the same house.
The driver then asked if I needed a hotel. I hadn’t slept more than an hour a day for a week and so was very tired.
I agreed and he took me to a hotel across the street from the Nile River. I went into the hotel and asked for a room. The fare was $53.00 a night and I had already spent $30 in anticipation of Mohammed’s arrival. But I was dead tired and decided to take the room. I was on the verge of hallucinations from the lack of sleep. I checked in and had the taxi driver call Mohammed’s wife and leave a message as to where I could be found. This was a Saturday, the first day of the workweek in that part of the world.
I then went upstairs to my room and at that time of the morning, around 10:30 or so, the cleaning staff was busy with fixing up the rooms from the night before.
I asked a maid if she could get an iron for me as I had some shirts to iron. She offered just to take care of this problem for me.
I poured myself a drink and kicked back to wait for the shirts. I drank about half of it and went to sleep. I slept until about midnight.
I woke up in the dark and found my shirts neatly pressed and hanging up on hangers in the wardrobe. I poured myself another small drink and then went downstairs. I asked at the desk if I had any messages and the reply was no. I went outside to the taxi stand and found a driver who was also very nice and just liked to talk to Americans. Many people around the world do. I guess they’re hoping for an invitation to the States.
Anyway, I explained my predicament to him and he told me that he had a friend who had a hotel and only charged $5 a night. He took me there and I decided to check in there the next morning. The room had a telephone but no TV. There was no air conditioning, but the window was about ten feet high and eight feet wide and swung into the room fully. There was a community shower down the hall.
I went back to the first hotel and went back to sleep. In the morning I saw the maid who had ironed the shirts and gave her some money. I then took my things to the lobby where the driver was waiting for me as we had made an appointment the night before.
We went to his friend’s hotel where I checked in and proceeded to try to sort out what to do next. First I called Mohammed’s house and left another message with his wife.
Then I called Sally and told her that I needed her to send me $2,000. She told me that she didn’t have it. I reminded her that I had given her $5,000 a week before, not to mention what the apartment manager had given her.
She agreed that I had given her money in Saudi Riyals but that when she had taken it to the bank to change it, the people at the bank told her that they thought the money was counterfeit.
I was incredulous! For years I had been changing that same money at my bank in England and had never had a moments trouble. Not only that, the bank had supposedly had the cash for the better part of a week and I told her that that just didn’t make any sense. But regardless, I had been sending her money for four years to put in the bank for our retirement. To go to that bank account and withdraw $2,000 and send it to me should have been dead simple. She refused, saying that she needed that money to live on.
We’re talking about something approaching a quarter of a million dollars here in savings. I told her not to worry, just to send me the money. She hung up on me, but not before getting the name and phone number of the hotel.
I decided to phone my editor for the TV guide. I’d never been to Cairo before, much less to his office. He was called to the phone, not knowing that I was in town. He answered and asked how life was in the “Magic Kingdom”, as he liked to call it. I told him the short version of how I had been hustled out and was now in Cairo. He asked where I was staying so that he could send a car. I told him and then he told me that his office was nine blocks away. I told him to never mind the car, that I would walk. Blocks in Cairo, as in most of the old world, are short. I was there in about fifteen minutes.
We’d never met, but had spoken every couple of weeks over the phone for more than two years. He showed me into the office and brought the whole staff in one by one and introduced me to the other people that I’d been speaking to over the phone for the better part of two years.
He then asked for tea to be brought in and we settled down to my story. When I had finished, he told me that his office was my office. That if I needed to make any phone calls or send any faxes that he would make sure that there would be someone answering the phone that spoke English and any replies that I received from my faxes, he would make sure that a message was left at the hotel. He then opened his desk drawer and pulled out a plastic bank envelope and withdrew 2 $100 bills and handed them to me. My salary for the column was about $150 a month but he told me that they had had good feedback and that I deserved more money. This was my back pay!
I thanked him and went out to the outer office and composed some faxes to let the world know where I was and that I was alive and well. This was my standard procedure.
I called Sally and told her what had happened and asked why she had hung up on me. She said that she didn’t know what else to say, that I was right and that she was just scared. But she still wouldn’t send me any money.
I left and went back to the hotel and asked if there were any messages. Mohammed had called and said that he would meet me at 4:00 on Wednesday at the hotel. I thanked the staff and went for a walk.
I walked through downtown Cairo and noticed several American tourists and stopped to speak with some of them.
One lady told me that she had been invited to a perfume shop where all the perfumes were made by hand. She invited me along and we went to the shop.
We went in and the owner greeted us and asked us to sit down. He offered her tea or coffee and then asked if I would like a beer! I accepted and had my first taste of Egyptian beer. ( whiskey up until now) It was like most of the other African beers that I had had, not bad but nothing to write home about. Or in this case, nothing to write about here.
There were a lot of tourists coming in and out of his shop. He had people on the street inviting tourists in and it worked. The lady who invited me to come along left after purchasing some perfume and when the traffic slowed, this gentleman asked if I had seen the Pyramids or the Sphinx. I told him that I’d only been in Cairo going on my second day and hadn’t had the pleasure. He said that he’d arrange a trip for me the next day.
True to his word, he had a van at my hotel the next morning for a trip to the Giza plain. Upon arrival, there was a small charge of two dollars or so to tour the grounds. He had paid it in advance. I guess that he liked this Yankee hanging around his shop. I’d been there for a couple of hours or so. I must have been good for business.
A young man came up to me with a horse and a camel in tow and asked which I would prefer. I chose the horse and off we went.
I must say that I had read a lot about Egyptian history and the Pyramids. But there is nothing like being there!
The Great Pyramid is made up of blocks about the size of a full-sized van, piled up to a height of over 460 feet. Imagine Soldier Field standing on one end! Plus!!
The Great Pyramid, is the largest ever built. It stands with the other two pyramids and the Great Sphinx in a cluster near the town of Giza. 2
King Khufu's pyramid rests on a base that covers 13 acres (5.3 hectares), and each side of the base is about 756 feet (230 meters) long. The Great Pyramid once rose to a height of 481 feet (147 meters), but the top has been stripped. Originally 471 feet (143 meters) high, Khafre's pyramid was only 10 feet (3 meters) lower than his father's tomb. Menkure's pyramid, much smaller, rose to 218 feet (66 meters). Three small pyramids built for Khufu's queens stand near his pyramid. Also nearby are several temples and rectangular tombs built for other relatives and courtiers. 3
The Greek historian Herodotus, writing 2,400 years ago, estimated that 100,000 men labored for 20 years to complete the Great Pyramid. It is also estimated that 2.3 million stone blocks were used to build the pyramid. It was once thought that the blocks--weighing an average of 2 1/2 tons each--were floated on rafts down the Nile from quarries hundreds of miles away. A more recent theory holds that the blocks were cut from limestone quarries that have been found near the pyramids. Another theory suggests that the blocks were formed in wooden molds at the site. Many authorities believe that the blocks of stone were moved up a circular ramp constructed around the pyramid as it was built up. 4
A little history from the encyclopedia.
Imagine that the Great Pyramid covers the space needed for 60 or more American houses and yards. A neighborhood. It takes twenty minutes to ride around it on horseback.
All I know is that all of the explanations that I had ever heard about Pyramid construction hadn’t prepared me for anything like what I saw.
The US Army Corps of Engineers has said that they couldn’t duplicate one even with all of the modern tools like helicopters and such. Seriously!
These blocks weren’t formed from wooden molds. I’m a building contractor and I know!
Napoleon visited the Pyramids and declared that he thought that there was enough stone in the seven Pyramids to build a wall around the perimeter of France seven feet high.
I’m a self-taught engineer and I’m pretty good, but I decided that modern human beings couldn’t have built these incredible structures. I have no further explanation. Go look for yourself!
My guide and I spent about three hours going around all of the structures and then headed down hill toward the Nile River. Along the way, I dismounted to look at some of the tombs in the huge cemetery at the base of the Pyramids. There must be half a million graves there! (Maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but not a lot.) We then went to visit the Sphinx.
It’s not nearly as impressive as it looks in pictures and on TV. It’s not as big as I had thought. But it’s impressive, nonetheless.
We then went into a gift shop situated across the road from the Sphinx where I bought a beer and sat down on one of the seats provided in front of the glass at the front of the shop. I stared at the Sphinx for a while and then left.
I tipped my guide and walked back to the van for the ride back to Cairo, across the Nile.
We went back to the perfume shop where my host gave me another beer and we talked for a while. I thanked him and walked back to the hotel.
I found several messages there, about a dozen from Sally! The desk clerk said that she’d been calling every fifteen minutes wanting to know if I had a girl in my room and was I there. Sure enough, while I was standing there talking to him, the phone rang and it was her.
I took the call in my room and asked where the fire was? She didn’t have much of an answer, just her insecurity driving her crazy, I guess. I told her about the visit to Giza and the perfume guy and all, but I left out the American tourist women. No point in adding fuel to the fire.
I spent the next two days exploring Cairo on foot. I found a couple of little café’s that sold beer and sandwiches. But I really like to explore the older quarters, the ones with Moroccan architecture especially. I found some of this there. And met some wonderful people while exploring.
On Wednesday, at 4:00 exactly, Mohammed appeared in the lobby of the hotel. We went to a café to talk. I asked him why he had told me that he would pick me up from the airport and never showed. He gave me some kind of excuse, but told me that contrary to our conversations in Jeddah, that he couldn’t just strike out on his own, that he needed to keep his job at (guess where?) the airport.
That kind of blew my mind that I had waited for him all of that time in the terminal and he was there working. I asked why didn’t he come in to the terminal and explain? He said that he didn’t have permission to come inside.
We did, however, go to see some satellite dealers and ask if they needed a professional to assist them with their commercial installations and cable TV systems. There was some interest but by then I was no longer interested in staying in Cairo. I was even offered a job but I just decided to go to Chicago.
I called Sally again and asked again for my own money. She refused again.
I called an old family friend, Bob Kurle, outside of Chicago and asked if he could buy me a ticket to Chicago. He agreed and I flew home. Upon arrival, I went to the bank and withdrew the money and paid him back. For some reason, I couldn’t do that in Cairo. I tried, but no one seemed able to explain why I couldn’t. I just couldn’t!
My first flight took me to Frankfurt, Germany. When I arrived I called Sally and she promised that she would meet me in Chicago, but later. She never did.
The story of Don Pepe José Figueres is a study of the way the world should work.