Note: In today’s post, you’ll get to meet Ziad al-Kazim, the main character in Exiled Heart. Hopefully his words will give you insight into his life before the start of the novel.
In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which is where I live, friendship means much to me. In my country, friendships run mainly along family lines. This is because many families include the parents, the children, grandparents, first cousins, second cousins, even third cousins and beyond.
I cannot say that about my family. Many years ago, the al-Kazim clan was betrayed by another clan. Save for my grandfather and great-aunt, everyone was wiped out. Now, my family consists of my wife, Sabirah, my four sons, and my parents. Sabirah’s family, had taken my grandfather and great-aunt in when they were orphaned. My grandfather married into one branch of the al-Talils, as did Papa. I did as well when I married Sabirah. Though I find myself surrounded by her extended family, they are not my closest friends.
Perhaps part of that comes from when I was at University. I lived in the dormitories with other men. Several joined the Saudi Arabian National Guard along with me. Many of those boys—now men—also did not have extended family. In a way, we became our own family during those years in school and have continued those friendships.
I must say my closest friend has come from an unlikely source. You see, the SANG has been charged to protect the king of Saudi Arabia and his interests because he never fully trusts the army. As a colonel in the Military Police, I investigate crimes committed either by soldiers within the SANG or against the crown. I am often called to liaise with those nations that have consulates in Jeddah.
I still remember that day when I met my best friend, Ben Evans. It was spring, just when the heat begins returning to Jeddah. A young American man had been caught selling home-brewed alcohol to a SANG soldier. Ben called me to assist him in keeping the young man out of jail. His message on my voice mail startled me. Would I be willing to meet him at a coffee shop at the edge of one of the old souks? Of course! He surprised me when we met. No suit and tie for him, just khakis and a shirt with the tails out. We talked for an hour before he discussed the business at hand. So unlike his predecessor. We bonded over coffee, what you call soccer (I call it football), and work. He knew how to put me at ease, how to make me laugh when what I wanted to do was tear into someone.
Then came the incident that bonded as best friends. Ever since 2002, the king had tasked the SANG to hunt down and arrest radical Islamic terrorists who had found shelter in Saudi Arabia. Periodically, the Americans would help us, which drew the ire of the Islamists. So great was the threat that the king finally granted permission for American consulate personnel to carry guns when off consulate grounds. Ben did. It saved our lives one night.
You see, we had hunted down an Islamist cell to a bad part of Jeddah near the port. The squad who had come with us got into a shootout with the cell. One man escaped. I pursued him. He jumped me. We fought, and suddenly, he had his arm around my neck with a gun at my head. Ben shouted at the man to lower the gun. He refused. Ben put a shot in the man’s head. I still shiver as I remember the snap of the bullet as it whizzed past my ear.
Only later, after the shakes from adrenaline had passed, did I ask Ben about it. Why did he take such a risky shot? He only said God had steadied his aim at the moment he most needed it.
Ben and I rely on each other for many things. He is my confidant. I can count on him in a pinch. How does he say it? Ah, yes. He watches my back. I know one thing. Were it not for the differences in our faiths, I would call him Brother.
Now, sometimes I worry, especially when I cannot sleep at night. What would happen if someone betrayed me? Let’s hope I never find out.