It is a photograph from a different time and era, conjuring up a young man’s predilection for the Middle East. Forty-two years ago, four of my seventh grade students can be seen squinting in the bright Arabian sunshine while clinging to their soft drinks.
“Cheese,” I must have blurted out as I snapped their photo between classes–four Saudi boys, three of them clad in white thobes–two of them princes and two the scion of prominent Saudi families.
From left to right they remain forever 12 year old boys–standing in the Riyadh Schools courtyard–Prince Sultan bin Turki, the grandson of King Abdulaziz, the founder of modern day Saudi Arabia, his cousin Prince Abdelaziz, Abdelatif with his easy smile and dark suit jacket and Adel a brooding but energetic youngster in gym clothes.
The photo is there to remind me of the joy I once had in teaching my favorite class. Many of the boys already spoke English, were well traveled and looked after in their palaces and villas by English speaking nannies and tutors. Of those in the photo, only the taller and diffident Abdelaziz struggled in the class but not for long. I made it a point to impart a healthy dose of self-effacing humor into my classroom which gave all students a chance to flourish at their own pace. Eventually, Abdelaziz emerged from his shell and began enjoying a second language.
I’ve never been one to play favorites but Prince Sultan gave me a run for the money. Even as a 12 year old, he exuded a regal confidence which, coupled with his deliberate cadence and imperial presence, proved disarmingly charming. He was polite to a fault, attentive, thoughtful. I can still hear his voice, his subdued English accent, “Mister Strange, can I get you anything? A Vimto perhaps? “
If I shared anything with these boys for the two years I was at the school it was the love of Vimto, a syrupy purple concoction and soft drink invented in Manchester, England in 1908. Made of grapes, raspberries, black currants, a few secret herbs and a copious amount of sugar it was and is, to this day, a wildly popular drink in the Middle East. For Prince Sultan it was his ‘go-to’ beverage. I gently poked fun of him calling him “the Vimto Prince.” He and his classmates reveled in the moniker.
Despite the nostalgic pleasure the photo had provided, I slept fitfully that evening. Day turned to night and amidst the shadows I saw myself aboard a midnight flight hurtling at breakneck speed toward its final destination. A rotund man sitting next to me in his Bisht cloak and ghutra headdress quietly held an alcoholic beverage. He looked oddly familiar.
“Excuse me, do we know each other?”
Instead it was the 12 year old prince who replied, “Yes Mr. Strange, it’s me Sultan…the Prince of Vimto.” In a blink of an eye the mute middle aged man had shape-shifted into a seventh grade student holding a can of Vimto.
The shadows hastened a return to the form of the adult Prince Sultan.
In the darkness of the plane’s fuselage, a foreign looking steward tapped me on the shoulder with an odd request, “You need to change your seat.”
Discomfited, I stubbornly countered, “Why?”
In the man’s right hand was a poorly concealed syringe. I expended every ounce of dreamlike energy to get to my feet and obstruct him.
“Are you going to drug the prince?”
“That is none of your business,” he shot back laying his hands on me.
Behind me, the boy prince uttered his final faint words, “Good-bye Mr. Strange.”
And with the gentle farewell, I awoke from the terrifying nightmare and was left to find solace in the photograph…in what was left of “The Vimto Prince.”
Newspaper reports indicate that, in early February 2016, Prince Sultan bin Turki II was drugged and abducted while on a flight from Paris to Cairo and the plane diverted to Riyadh. Previously, Prince Sultan had criticized the Crown Prince. The “Vimto Prince” has been missing ever since. These and other Arabian tales to appear in my forthcoming book “Land of Sand.”