In an Ocean of Darkness

Updated: Jun 24, 2020


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| This is the 494th story of Our Life Logs |

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A bird loves to feel the wind in his wings and the clouds brushing his feathers as he flies. It is exhilarating. It is his life. But, when that bird’s wing breaks and he can never fly again, what defines his life vanishes before his eyes. Can such a broken spirit ever soar again? I found the answer to be “yes.” A “yes” in the most unbelievable way.

Section Break-Mountains

My life began in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah in 1962, a unique place nestled between the Red Sea and an expanse of desert. My hometown was a place where I spent a great deal of my childhood, but I also spent a few years in St. Louis, Missouri, as my father had to study abroad. Since those early years, it was my dream to leave the ground behind and work in an airplane. That dream surrounded me from all sides. My father was one of the first employees in Saudi Airlines. The house I grew up in was practically facing Jeddah’s old airport. Hearing the sounds of planes and seeing them flying high in the sky was as common to me as the constant flow of traffic to those growing up in big cities.

As I grew older, I saw my dream trickle into reality. In 1980, I found myself a crew member on Saudi Airlines. In my first four years working for Saudi Airlines, I was a flight attendant. Every day, I worked through a sea of people and faces, thousands of feet in the air.

Despite my childhood aspiration being fulfilled, things got even better a few years later when I became the first Saudi in-flight chef, or “Sky Chef” ― a job I had to fight to get. Saudis were not being hired at the time since we had no background in catering. However, motivated by the promise of frequent travel to New York City (one of my favorite cities in the world), I pushed until I was accepted in the training program. Soon, I found myself working as a Sky Chef for first class, where I exclusively went on flights going to and from New York.

Me (center, with the chef’s hat) with the crew of Saudi Airlines, 1987.
Me (center, with the chef’s hat) with the crew of Saudi Airlines, 1987.

During this time, my experience was enriched by the opportunities only that kind of job could offer. I was able to meet celebrities―actors, musicians, artists, and even an inventor of barbecue sauce, Ken Davis. And most amazingly, through a friend I met on a flight, I met my future wife from the state of Maine, US. We got married in 1986.

Flying to New York two times a month also allowed me to pursue my hobbies: mixing music, dancing, and photography. In fact, in some record stores, I was such a regular customer that the staff couldn’t believe I lived in Jeddah! My work in food preparation even became a new passion. I loved every moment cruising among the clouds and exploring New York on my downtime. Life was as beautiful as I had ever imagined.

Two of the hobbies I pursued in New York, photography (left) and music mixing (right).
Two of the hobbies I pursued in New York, photography (left) and music mixing (right).
Section Break-Mountains

After about three years as a Sky Chef, I noticed some issues in my vision, especially in the dark. After a visit to the eye doctor, I was diagnosed with shortsightedness, and something known as retinitis pigmentosa, or RP. Still, the condition was not such a big problem at the time. I was given a pair of glasses, and that was all. I could see, drive, and, most importantly, fly.

However, as my vision continued to worsen, I sensed my problem was not to stop there, and that realization tailed me like a storm cloud. I knew one day I would be grounded, never to work in the skies again. The only question was, “When?”

A few months later, my difficulties seeing in the dark developed into night blindness. It caused problems in my job with passengers and crew members alike, especially since the lights in the plane were dimmed, and we often flew at night. My doctor informed me that the RP was now affecting my retina more.

Four short years after the initial onset of the RP symptoms, I was grounded, just as I had feared. Despite the embarrassment and trials brought on by my deteriorating vision, the reality of being grounded was the most painful. The wonderful sensation of soaring in the sky, the dazzle of New York City, and the joy I got from my job of delivering the best first-class service to my passengers all disappeared in a moment. I was completely unprepared for this decision. I had no plan and no example to follow; after all, my situation was perhaps one of the first of its kind in the history of the airline.

Section Break-Mountains

Still, I stayed involved in food preparation, as Saudi Airlines gave me the position of a training instructor for in-flight chefs, a job I held for the next four years. During those four years, however, more darkness worked its way into my eyes, and more of the things I was working hard to hold onto slipped away. The steering wheel disappeared from under my fingers. Driving was gone. The pages of books could no longer be flipped through. Reading had vanished. The pen that was once gripped in my hand clattered soundlessly to the floor. Writing was taken away. The glasses I wore grew thicker and thicker until they were too uncomfortable to wear.

It was becoming hard to remain an instructor, not only from my fading vision but from the people I dealt with. To some, my condition was pitiful, while to others, it was even funny. I was a productive member of the training center, yet now I was becoming an inconvenience. My days were consumed by stress and, sometimes, anger, as my sight grew weaker.

To keep my job, I strove to prove myself as a model employee. One of the ways I did this was by helping develop “Meals for the Blind.” This was a service offered to visually-impaired passengers, which provided a menu and safety card in Braille, as well as special meals prepared so they could eat as independently as possible. Some foods, such as steak, were cut up before being served. I also developed a food service training program for the Saudi Navy, and trained 66 soldiers in two weeks’ time.

Reading the “Meals for the Blind” menu.
Reading the “Meals for the Blind” menu.

Despite all my efforts, the severity of my condition forced me into early medical retirement on October 15, 1992―which, coincidentally, was White Cane Safety Day.

Section Break-Mountains

Why does a bird have wings, a horse have legs, or a fish have fins? Because it is not only their dream to do what they do―fly, run, or swim―it is their life, their destiny, their purpose. If those appendages are removed, it is like taking away everything from them. That is h