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First Person: An Arabian Woman

"Where do you get a drink? Do you have to wear a veil? How can you stand it there?" my old friends ask. Sometimes I wonder how they can stand it here.



Last summer I went swimming in the Persian Gulf. My husband and I drove down to Dammam from Riyadh, where we live and work (though it might be more accurate to say my husband chauffeured me--women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia). We blew three tires in the 120-degree heat. Looking back on it, it was a stupid thing to do, to drive for four hours in that kind of weather, even in an air-conditioned car. But there are not many amusements to choose from in Saudi, especially during Id al-Fitr, the days of celebration that come at the end of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. During the Id most stores and restaurants are closed and any expatriate worker with money and sense leaves the country.

We stayed at the villa of friends who live in a Bechtel compound called Monopoly Village. The compound has a pool, a recreation center, and a restaurant. But nobody felt like moving around much and it was too hot to eat, so we stayed inside, drinking homemade wine. There was nothing good on Saudi television. Channel One had on Woody Woodpecker cartoons, Channel Two an English-language program called Focus on Islam. Or was it Islam in Focus? We watched videos.

The next morning we drove down to Half-Moon Bay, a popular beach in Al-Khobar. The water was very clear and salty and almost too warm for comfort. As we bobbed up and down we talked about the new causeway to Bahrain, which had just been finished, wondering when it would finally be open. We raced to our towels on tiptoe. I pulled my wet "Cats" T-shirt as far down over my bathing suit as it would go and hoped that no Arabs would see my exposed legs. Near us a group of Filipino workers, all men, were eating sandwiches from the back of a van. Further down the beach, large black tents were set up one next to another, the tents of Saudi families who had come to spend this vacation near water, in a country where water is a rarity, a luxury, a miracle.

For the Saudis, of course, it's the Arabian Gulf. The word "Persian" has been deleted from books, blacked out of maps. It's a child's way of thinking, as if changing a name could bring about a corresponding change in reality.

That evening we walked around Dammam, a more liberal city than Riyadh, which is the capital. Some Western women were wearing pants. One had on a skirt that skimmed her knees. Since Dammam is by the gulf, it is much more humid than Riyadh, which sits right smack in the middle of the desert. We passed a store that advertised whirlpools and saunas.

"Who in the hell needs a sauna?" my husband asked. "Just stay outside for ten minutes."

When we got back to Riyadh, a girlfriend who has a radio show called Travel in the Kingdom asked my husband and me to be guests. "Are you that desperate?" I asked. "I mean, come on. Dammam?" She had done a show on Jeddah and one on Tabuk. She had done a segment called "Camping in the Desert." Mecca was out, since only Muslims can go there. We went on her show. We told her about the three tires and the 120-degree heat. We told her that Dammam reminded us of certain parts of LA--the wide streets, the palm trees. We told her how we went swimming in the gulf, but that section of it was censored, since I'm a woman and women are not supposed to go swimming in the presence of men not their fathers, husbands, or brothers. (They go swimming anyway, Western women do, secretly, discreetly.)

I think of this interview now as I sit on a beach towel at the Oak Street Beach, Coors in hand, watching women with bikinis the size of shoelaces flirt with men who are not their husbands. I think about the past weeks' headlines--"Fanaticism Engulfs Iran," "Allies Join Hunt for Gulf Mines." I think of my friend, who has long since run out of segments for her show. I think about the pilgrims killed in Mecca. I think of my husband, who is in Riyadh at this moment, helping the Saudis build their hospitals and pension fund buildings, my husband, who really likes living in Saudi Arabia, and who has convinced me to come back for another year. I fly in a week.

It has been two years since I have been back in the States. My last full day here was the Sunday after our wedding. My parents had a brunch for us. We watched a video of the ceremony and ate baumkuchen and drank champagne. I opened presents and then placed them carefully back in their tissued boxes, where they remain to this day, stacked away in a back porch. On Monday my husband took back his tux and we deposited our money in a Talman account. I had no time to think about where I was going or what it would be like. I didn't stop to think about what I would be doing for the next two years.

Two years. Nothing much seems to have changed in Chicago. A few new buildings grace the skyline. Harold Washington is still mayor. Ronald Reagan is still president.

"Aren't you happy to be back?" my friends ask me. "It must feel wonderful. It must be great."

It's great to see my friends again and great to eat deep-dish pizza and drink real beer. It's wonderful to go shopping and to actually try on the clothes before buying them. But if everything is so great, why do I feel so out of it? Why is it that when I walk down the street I feel that people are talking about me? "Alien Creature Lands in Chicago, Looks Human." Why is it that I have difficulty breathing? The tablets I bought over the counter haven't helped, have only made me irritable. Is it simply the polluted, unbearable Chicago air?

Friends who make a living out of living abroad told me that I would feel like this. The words "culture shock" are bandied about with great frequency by American expatriate workers in Saudi.

I knew what they meant when I landed at O'Hare and a woman with three-inch fingernails at customs asked me if I had any drugs. "Pardon?" I asked. "Do you have any fruits or vegetables or drugs?" she asked. I wanted to answer, but didn't, "Yes, a bushel of Red Delicious, five cobs of corn, and a kilo of cocaine." In Saudi, where you can get thrown in jail and whipped for possession of alcohol and get your head lopped off for selling drugs, nobody ever asks you "Do you have any drugs?"

I felt it the next day when, on a bus to Oak Park, I saw a little, greasy old man with ripped trousers talking loudly to himself. I turned around to see what the matter was, to see what was going on, what was wrong, but everybody just kept reading or talking to other passengers or looking at the signs that advertised smoked ham or perfect wedding pictures or that asked, "Have you seen this missing child?"

"You have these things in Saudi. You just don't see them," my mother told me. I know that I've probably been acting just a little bit superior since I've been back (acting superior is one of the great pleasures of my life), but the truth is that, no, they don't have these things in Saudi--missing children, unwashed little old mumbling men. You do see a lot of teenage boys helping their blind grandfathers across the street. At a dinner party at the home of one of the Syrian students I tutor in English, I was instructed by my student to go around the room and shake hands with every person. It was very important, she informed me as she led me up to a man with a face as wrinkled as dry desert earth, that I first shake hands with the oldest person there. Although they have been almost consistently portrayed by the media as violent and irrational, to me the Arabs, at least those I met in Riyadh, are among the most hospitable and friendly people anywhere. They are certainly the most family-oriented.

I am not naive enough to believe the Arab world is utopia and that we, the Western world, have missed out on it. For everything you have, you give something up. Another student--who has a maid, a driver, a cook, and a nanny; who goes abroad twice a year; who buys gold (18- and 21-karat are the only types you can get) with the frequency with which some women buy nylons--complained to me about her life: "My husband never takes me anywhere."

A student of mine at the university asked me to provide her with American videos. "You can get them in any video shop, Amal," I told her. "We get ours from the one on Siteen Street." "Quality no good," she said.

What she meant was that the good parts were cut. She had heard of a "special" place where expatriates get theirs uncensored. This is what she wanted.

There are other examples. A friend's sister, who teaches physics at a Saudi girls' high school and finished at the top of her university class, really wants to be a doctor. She wants to study medicine in the States. Since she is a woman, she has to have a man's permission. Her father said no. Her oldest brother also said no. When I talked to her, the frustration was evident even in her voice.

"Well, maybe if you marry, your husband will let you study," I said naively.

She laughed in my face.

"It's hard enough for me as it is to find a husband."

Though she has a handsome face and lovely black hair, she is more than a little overweight. She is also older than most Saudi girls are when they marry. But more important than any of that, she is educated.

"A lot of men don't want a wife who's finished university. How many will want one who wants to study abroad, who wants to become a doctor?" she asked.

But is the opposite situation any more attractive?

A few nights ago I went out for drinks with friends, a couple. She is a doctor in her last year of residency. He is a writer. When they have children he will stay home and take care of them and try to write. She will go on practicing medicine.

I savored every last drop of my margarita, licked the salt off the edge of my glass, and proceeded to order a double tropical rum punch. It was, after all, a Saturday night and I was, after all, flying in a week. She was drinking coffee.

"I have some reading to do," she said.

Though she looked tired and overworked, she was also obviously content with her life--with her choice of profession, with her husband. He looked pretty pleased too, having such a wife.

"Our biggest problem," he said, "is that we hardly ever get to see each other."

My friends here look at me curiously. They want to know about my life there. "Can you buy liquor? Do you have to wear a veil?"

"No, you can't buy liquor. But a lot of people make their own wine. No, I don't have to wear a veil, but when I go to the market I wear a dress down to my ankles. I don't let my elbows show. And during Ramadan I cover my hair."

"How can you stand it there? Being a woman there?"

"It's not so bad. I have a job I like a lot, teaching English to young Saudi women. The money's not bad, though most of what we make we seem to spend on traveling. We've been to Thailand and India. Last winter we went skiing in Austria. We spent last August in Greece."

I don't tell my friends about the first six months of my life there. I don't tell them that I slept until ten each morning; that I baked brownies and then proceeded to eat them all; that I went to Monday-morning coffees and Wednesday-afternoon teas where nobody talked about the theater because there is no theater, and nobody talked about work because there's not a lot you can do in Saudi if you're a woman.

It took me about six months to realize that I could sit home and scrub pots and let my brain turn to mush, or I could go out and explore what the country had to offer. I began taking on some private students. I went across the street to the Ministry of Information and got a free copy of the Koran in translation. I began going out by myself. Somewhere along the line, I don't really know when, at what moment, it clicked--I adjusted. Somewhere along the line Riyadh became home.

"Aren't you scared?" some people ask me.

"Scared of what?"

"Terrorists. Bombs. I dunno."

This angers me.

"Aren't you scared?" I feel like asking. "Of people who might blow you away because they don't like the look on your face? Of psychos who go around putting poison in aspirin bottles?" I want to add: "Can you go into a store and tell the man that you'd like the skirt but don't have the money with you? What are the odds that he'll answer 'Well, take the skirt with you and come back when you have the money?'"

I don't say these things. I've been in Chicago for more than a month and a half and I know that the longer I'm here the harder it's going to be to leave. I don't say anything because I know I'm going to miss the theater and the shopping and the double rum punches on Saturday nights. I'm going to miss being with women friends who have interesting, complicated lives. And I wish, naively, that I could somehow combine these two worlds--the order and quiet and tradition of Saudi Arabia, the freedom and choices of the United States.

"And you're really going back," my friends say, and shake their heads in amazement.

"Yeah, I'm really going back."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.

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