Out of the Camp Ch. 22 – Roger the Impresario?
Ten days later he was gone. Irina told us that he’d received a late-night phone call from the police in Genoa where there was a problem with the truck containing his equipment and that this had delayed the ship’s departure to Jeddah. I wasn’t aware that the vessel had scheduled stops on-route but, in any event, Dima had dropped everything, jumped into his car and took off for the 15-hour drive from Ealing, West London to the Italian port. It was a long story – for another time – involving the Carabinieri, drugs and a police dog who couldn’t find any drugs. Things went quiet again for two or three weeks and then I received another urgent phone call, this time from Jeddah. Dima told me that his American lawyer ‘friend’ from Nigeria was wanted for fraud by the Saudi authorities and had now disappeared leaving Dima’s equipment sitting in Jeddah Islamic Port running up storage fees that he couldn’t afford. The lawyer’s Saudi partner was also looking for him as he had been left with unpaid invoices and the firm had consequently been dissolved. Dima, of course, again wanted my help and I explained that I had no Saudi connections and that what he needed urgently was to find a new Saudi Partner that would advance him the money on condition that it be repaid from future earnings from performances. I don’t know if it’s still the case but back then any non-Saudi individual or foreign entity that wanted to conduct business in the Kingdom had to do it with a Saudi partner, and that partner was required by law to hold a minimum 51% stake in any Saudi registered business.
It didn’t take long to find a partner, establish the agreement, pay off the Port, get the equipment released and set up adjacent to the partners’ amusement park on the outskirts of the city. Dima wasted no time at all in getting the performances underway and, to the delight of his new partners, ‘packing the house’ every night with enthusiastic audiences who had never seen anything like ‘Wall of Death’ before. Within a week of starting his shows, Dima called me and told me I must come to Jeddah immediately and meet the Sheik. You can imagine my reaction and I told him he was nuts; Saudi wasn’t like a normal country and you couldn’t just buy a ticket and jump on a plane. The visa procedures were complicated to say the least and, first you had to have received an invitation from a Saudi business or citizen. But he was emphatic and said that the Sheik really, really wanted to me meet. I was not a little puzzled, even astonished at this, but he explained that the Sheik thinks I’m a really big-shot oil tycoon and also a music impresario, a specialist in mounting outdoor entertainment spectaculars in addition to having many other business interests. “He will pay for your visa, return flight and hotel accommodation for one week if you will come right away.”
I was stunned. In the silence that followed Dima hurriedly explained that they want to put on other entertainment on the site by the Wall and that I should start setting up acts to prepare for travel as soon as possible. I think I screamed at him something to the effect, “Are you nuts? First of all, I’m running a business here, I can’t just drop everything and come running because this Sheik snaps his fingers.” Although I must say I was really, really intrigued. “Anyway”, I continued, “where am I going to find these people? I know nothing about outdoor entertainment, I wouldn’t know where to start. Do you expect me to go and hang out at a circus? What were you thinking? Why did you tell them all this stuff?”
He adopted a calming tone. “Roger, Roger! It’s really not difficult, all you have to do is place wanted ads in ‘World’s Fair’, the showman’s paper.” This I learned was the trade publication for circus-type acts and other outdoor spectacular entertainers and was, and still is, published in Oldham, England, and today, now also online. He went on to describe the types of acts that they were interested in. Stunt drivers and motorcyclists, a motorcyclist who jumps through hoops of fire, a car that’s driven on two wheels, also kids on skateboards, BMX-ers, that kind of thing. He told me that there were always crowds of kids at his performances and to introduce their western contemporaries performing stunts on bikes and skateboards would be guaranteed to pull in huge crowds. At the time these things were relatively new in the west, but they were unheard of in the Middle East. Well, needless to say, I allowed myself to be talked into this madness and started running the wanted ads. Visas, permits and travel were all arranged by the Sheik’s staff and I was booked on a flight to Jedda within 10 days. Unfortunately for me and due to the short notice, all western airline flights were full, and I had no alternative but to travel on Saudia Airlines, so no adult refreshments for Roger on this flight.
Before I knew it, I was in the departure lounge at Heathrow waiting for the flight to be called. It seemed that the flight was going to be pretty full, so I guess I was fortunate to get a seat. People were mostly dressed in business attire and I noticed that there were very few children amongst the passengers. With precious little delay the flight was called, and shortly thereafter we were taxiing, preparing for takeoff, which proved to be uneventful until we had reached cruising height and the pilot had switched off the “fasten seatbelt” sign. At this there was an immediate flurry of activity and it seemed as if almost everyone was on their feet and lining up for the restrooms. It was so extraordinary that I thought something terrifying was about to happen. Immediately the flight attendants sprang into action appealing for many to go back to their seats and wait for the lines to disperse. I managed to catch the attention of an attendant and asked if all was well. She assured me that everything was fine and said something about weight distribution on the flight which I didn’t quite catch but soon thereafter I was aware that people were emerging from the restrooms wearing traditional Saudi apparel; men in dishdashas and the like, and women wearing abayas, jilbabs or similar robes. As the lines for the restrooms moved along the cabin, others, still in western dress and representing a rapidly diminishing minority, stood up and joined the end of the queue. This process carried on for several minutes and, as I was becoming used to the new reality with probably 90% of the passengers now in traditional Saudi dress, things were settling down. This calm, however, didn’t last as I was suddenly aware of a new wave of activity on the plane. All over the cabin people were, it seemed, throwing themselves on the floor but as the reality became clearer, I realized that they were actually crouched down on their foreheads, forearms and knees praying to Allah because we were at the start of Ramadan which I’d completely forgotten about.
As we made our final approach everyone took their seats, there were no more interesting or curious developments, and we landed safely at King Abdulaziz International Airport. As I left the plane, I followed the stream of passengers through the airport to the baggage hall and as soon as I entered, I saw Dima waiting and he started yelling and directing me to one spot by the belt which had just started disgorging baggage onto the turntable. When I pointed out my suitcase, Dima grabbed it and directed me to follow him. We walked through the customs hall and, as an official called us over, Dima shouted at him, “This is very important businessman, friend of Sheik Abdul Aziz from Luna Park, here on absolute serious business, cannot be delayed.” The customs officer continued to beckon us over and so I changed direction and headed towards him with Dima protesting behind me. I handed over my passport which the officer examined briefly, and another official took the case from Dima and started to open it. Dima tried to stop him while protesting and grinning from ear to ear, telling them that they’ll be flogged in the town square when the Sheik finds out. By this time another three officials had approached us by which time every one of them was laughing and the senior officer said something to the official searching my case at which point he stopped and, still laughing, pushed it back towards Dima, who closed it up. As we left, he was shouting over his shoulder at them, that they were very lucky and only just avoided a public flogging. As I looked around in total bewilderment, it seemed as if the entire customs hall was in on the joke. At the time I had no idea how we were able to walk out of there without being arrested. I had become accustomed to Dima’s antics in London but was unable to fathom how he could get away with this behavior in the Kingdom.
He drove me to the Albilad Hotel, where a reservation had been made for me for the next week courtesy of the Sheik, who I was yet to meet. As I checked-in I realized that Dima was entertaining a group of the hotel staff at the concierge desk. I think I omitted to mention that, as a Russian in Saudi Arabia in the 80s, Dima was already on thin ice, as the Saudis didn’t recognize Russia and so I would have thought he’d want to keep a low profile. Not a bit of it! Actually, he told them he was Norwegian although he’d been issued a British passport following a period residing in the UK under the protection of political asylum. However, in his British passport his place of birth was listed as Himki, which is a small town 13 miles from Moscow. His explanation for this was that “the MI5 or MI6 guy got mixed up”. Are you following this so far? Anyway, and inevitably, this yarn had caused him some difficulty at passport control on his initial entry into Saudi Arabia. Somehow, and I’ll never understand quite how, he talked his way out of this and was permitted to enter the Kingdom. Actually, and on reflection, this may provide some illumination on my earlier confusion over our surprising escape from the authorities in the airport baggage hall. They very probably remembered him and his theatrics from his earlier appearance when he first arrived in the country.
He insisted on carrying my case up to the room where, on entry, the phone began ringing. I picked it up and it was the front desk calling to advise me that a car would be picking me up at 9am in the morning and that I would be given a tour of the Sheik’s company’s businesses and construction projects in and around Jeddah. When I hung up and told Dima this, he burst out laughing, saying, “See? See? I told you! He thinks you are big shot business guy, and you get special VIP treatment.” We left the hotel laughing and went out to get something to eat.
(1) The entrance to the Albilad Hotel, Jeddah. (2) Albilad Reception. (3) On the beach by the Red Sea. (4) Fooling around on one of the Corniche roundabouts. (5) By a mosque near the ocean. (6) Wanter Ad we had published in the World’s Fair Newspaper in the mid-80s. (7) Another of the art works on a Corniche roundabout.