Here I am, resident of Saudi Arabia, and my government papers label me an infidel and a woman. But I don’t care — I love it here! I love the sun and the sand and the aridity. It’s so arid I have to sleep with bottles of moisturizer within reach and wake up in the wee hours to anoint my hands. The hot air instantly dries everything to the point of near sterilization; rot can’t occur here. Deep in the heart of this desert land, rising up out of nowhere amid the sea of sand, is the city: Riyadh! We can drive out of town a bit and see camels wandering about; their owners let them loose to wander for eleven months at a time! We can see glorious huge escarpments and not a tree, not a bush, no green anywhere, just the endless beige of the sand and, above, the invariably blue sky.
I love walking home by myself from my job at the women’s college. I love it that, one day, a car pulls up to me and an Arab leans out dangling a pair of white ballet slippers. Blinding white and pristine in the sunshine — spotless, virgin slippers. I see my hand reaching out, feel myself being pulled toward them. The slipper-waver says something to me in mellifluous Arabic, which of course I don’t understand. Is he selling the slippers, or trying to lure me into his car? I am blinded by the strange booty, but it is taboo for me, a Western woman, to approach him, a Saudi man, and so I remain frozen until he drives off, taking the slippers with him.
My husband and I and a circle of Western friends are here as teachers and building consultants. We get paid monthly, in cash, a satisfyingly hefty bundle of currency that takes time to count. Luckily, all the banks here have cash-counting machines out on the counters like pencil sharpeners in classrooms. We have signed contracts to work in Riyadh for a year. We wander around and gawk at everything and never bump into hordes of Japanese with cameras, for the Kingdom strictly prohibits the entry of casual tourists — and why not? Who needs them when black gold gushes up everywhere?
Riyadh! Where everyone wears flowing robes and the haunting call to prayer is broadcast live five times a day from mosque towers throughout the city. This is the capital of Saudi Arabia and the heart of Islamic conservatism. All the Saudi women in Riyadh veil completely, whereas over in Jidda the rules are slightly looser and women may show their faces. Because I’m not Muslim, I don’t have to cover my head, but I must wear floor-length skirts and tied-back hair, for flowing tresses are considered criminally provocative here. And it’s wise to wear an abeya, a gossamer black silk cape, in public. I’ve developed the habit of keeping an arm’s length or more away from any strange male, for if a woman walks too close many males here reach out a hand to brush, grope, pinch, press. Still, I can walk about on my own in the old town, weaving my way through the souqs, the old markets: the gold souq, the perfume souq, the pots-and-pans souq. Every so often I come upon a mutawa — an elderly man with a henna red beard and a stick, whose job it is to enforce religious mores. (No separation of church and state here!) When I see a mutawa, I spring away down an alley, for they’re apt, just on principle, to hit me gently on the arms or legs with the stick, because I’m a Western female who doesn’t belong in this country.
A Turkish engineer named Mustafa has become a friend of ours. He is big and bearlike and was educated in England. On a regular basis he proudly reminds us that his English is better than his Turkish, and that his Arabic consists of only six words. Mustafa has spent time in a Saudi jail for kicking the tire of a car that pulled too close to him as he waited to cross the street. The angry Saudi driver complained to the authorities, and, before he knew it, Mustafa was being booked. There was no “book,” really — just an antique jail and some scolding, laughing jailers who spoke not a word of English. “Telephone, telephone!” shouted Mustafa. “Telephone, telephone!” they repeated in their heavenly Arab accents. Then the jailers began repeating something else, which he finally realized was English: “One night, one night,” they kept saying. Good God, he thought, I’m going to be in here overnight for kicking a car tire!
“I felt like a wee babe,” he tells us. “I felt as helpless as a bowl of jelly.”
Before the evening light waned, one jailer brought Mustafa a can of warm Pepsi (I mean “Bebsi,” for there’s no p sound in Arabic), and Mustafa eagerly sucked it down. The jailer sat on the wooden plank next to Mustafa and waved toward the open door. “I can go?” asked Mustafa. The jailer laughed and waved again. “I can go?” repeated Mustafa, now edging out the door. The jailer remained seated on the bench, laughing. Mustafa walked down the hall to the outside office. The jailer there grinned and laughed, too, and shook a finger at Mustafa. “I can go?” Mustafa inquired of this one, who seemed to be the head guy and waved toward the open front door. “Go, go,” the head guy said, chewing on a teeth-cleaning stick, the kind that Mohammed instructed the faithful to use on a regular basis — and they work! Gulf Arabs have supremely lovely teeth.
We live deep in the heart of the old city, in a building filled with the faithful. We are the token infidels. My husband has never seen our female neighbor’s face; that’s Islam for you. I love our apartment, only I worry sporadically that some ultraobservant type will hear the bloop-bloop of our yeasty, sugary grape juice as it ferments inside huge water jugs into contraband wine. From my eleventh-floor balcony I can look upon the Red Palace, old and unused now, but the site where, less than a decade ago, King Faisal was assassinated by a crazed relative; this was unfortunate, for of all the Saudi royal-family members, Faisal was the wisest.
Apartments at the back of my building face south, and from their windows one can see almost all the way to “Chop-Chop Square” in the heart of the old town. Chop-Chop Square is where the heads of murderers roll on certain Friday mornings, where the hands of thieves are hacked off at the wrist. Mustafa lives on that side of the building, and tells me he has been approached by German businessmen who want to visit him on execution Friday, and bring binoculars. I try to ignore the whole business, although one night while watching the news I am horrified to hear that a man was punished that morning by having four fingers cut off at the palm on his left hand, and his right hand completely severed. I stare open-mouthed at the TV. Then the newscaster explains that the man’s crime was hacking his wife’s hands in this exact manner. My mouth closes, and I find myself nodding — in approval, I guess. Why do I hesitate to admit this?
Be comforted: assholes will burn in hell. That is a firmly held belief here. I walk home from Arabic lessons (free! a bonus of working for the Kingdom!) with a group of other Western women, the five of us making our way down the dusty road toward the bus stop. Suddenly, a car speeds toward us and barely swerves away in time. We jump to the side of the road and shriek. The driver was very young and, of course, male, for females aren’t permitted to drive here. I bet he’ll come back, I think to myself, and automatically pick up a rock with the idea of shattering his windshield. Then I think twice, and let the rock fall from my hand. But sure enough, there he is once more, coming right for us! We gasp and scream and jump to the side again, and he roars past, narrowly missing us, and is gone. We catch our breaths and try to regroup. Two uniformed guards are watching us and chuckling; they are standing in front of some sort of official building.
“Why are you laughing?” one of our group shrieks in their faces. It’s Kate, a sturdy woman of almost sixty who is filled with Minnesota horse sense. “What’s wrong with this country?” she roars at them, saliva spraying. The men step backward, their smiles dissolving into looks of fear and surprise. “Is she yelling at us?” their faces say. Of course, they don’t understand English. Kate hollers at them some more, and we cluster around her in solidarity. “This is a police station,” one of our group whispers. “Can you believe it?”
Arabs . . . grant full personhood and respect solely to Muslim males. Muslim females get exactly 25 percent of said personhood and respect; this is the law of the land. That Mohammed, what a genius he had for quantifying things!
“Who do you want to talk to?” a male voice thunders in English. We see a large Saudi coming out the front door.
“Did you see that young driver, that very bad driver?” yells Kate, her hands on her hips. “What’s wrong with people in this country? Why are men so cowardly that they have to scare women with their cars?” She walks up to the official-looking Saudi; we fill in behind her.
The Saudi, looking shocked, takes a threatening step toward Kate. “Why are you yelling at me?” he yells.
Kate steps even closer. “Are you going to hit me?” she demands, her voice full of incredulity. The two are very close now, their noses maybe ten inches apart.
“Why are you yelling at me?” the Saudi repeats. “I didn’t hurt you. What’s wrong with you?”
“You’re the one whose country produces such imbeciles!” Kate bellows, flinging her arms about. Our group begins to back away in confusion. Kate gives one last righteous snort and turns on her heel, and we follow. The Saudi actually runs after us a step or two, as if to apologize.
Back at the bus stop, someone says, “The worst of it is there’s no gin and tonic at the end of this,” and we laugh grimly. Suddenly, a police car pulls up; the official-looking Saudi sticks his head out. “I’m sorry,” he says to Kate. “Please, I’m sorry.”
“All right,” she replies shortly.
The Saudi gets out of the car. “Forget about that bad driver,” he tells us. “He will go to hell. He’s nothing.” He waves his hand dismissively. “God will send him to hell. No need to worry.”
Then, unbelievably, the crazy driver returns, swerving maniacally down the block. But when he sees the police car, he makes a quick U-turn.
“That’s him!” we scream.
The Saudi leaps back into his car, reverses wildly, and takes off in hot pursuit of the hell-bound youth.
The bus never arrives and we have to slink our separate ways home, taking shelter behind telephone poles, concrete barriers, and plantings of garish bougainvillea, wary that the car might reappear. “Be comforted,” Kate reminds us before we separate: “Assholes will burn in hell.” We’re not comforted enough, however, and we soon quit the free Arabic lessons, for it becomes clear that they don’t intend to teach us market-bartering talk or useful phrases; no, the government mandates that we learn to read and write Koran verses.
Many men here are assholes, we Western women conclude. One hot afternoon, I leave the college with Kate, who’s become a great friend; we’ve even smoked hashish together in my living room. As we head for the bus stop, a Saudi in a white Mercedes pulls up to us and opens his window. “Is it hot?” he calls out. We stare at him. “Is it hot?” he repeats, clearly taunting us. He drives off.
“I wish I had a water gun,” Kate says. She, at least, retains her sense of humor. I am choked with rage and looking around for a rock in case he returns. He doesn’t.
The children here are dark haired and barefoot and generally grimy from playing in the dust and dirt. They look happy and healthy, and their teeth gleam like pearls. The boys wear child-sized thobes, the full-length robes worn by males, and the little girls wear lacy white confections that somehow don’t prevent them from joining in the rough-and-tumble. When we Westerners walk the streets, the children run up to us, chanting, “Welcome, welcome, welcome.” It’s one of their few English words. “Salaam,” we say to them, and they chortle in delight. In a dusty little food shop, a tiny boy of about five creeps up behind me and plucks at my skirt. “Na-za-ree-ah,” he sings softly. “Na-za-ree-ah,” follower of the Nazarene, Christian. He doesn’t see too many of my kind, and he wants to touch and confirm my existence. I’ve also been spat upon by some of these male urchins, and have wanted to run after them and deliver some hard slaps. Too dangerous, however. Such action could result in a quick police escort to the airport and a swift push onto the next flight out, my passport firmly stamped NO RE-ENTRY.
On the whole, I love these children. One very slight boy of ten or so runs up to me in a market and sticks out his hand firmly. “Hello,” he says in a loud, brave voice. I take his wee hand and shake it vigorously, and he smiles and runs off. He could be one of the scores of boys who jockey camels in the royal camel races. Children sometimes fall off and are crushed to death in this annual event. The little jockeys are just this boy’s size, thirty or forty kilos. I worry for a second; has my strong handshake crushed his birdlike bones?
Kate and I visit a travel agent because she is planning a holiday trip out of the Kingdom. We approach the desk and Kate asks about the air fare between Riyadh and Cairo.
The agent looks up at her darkly. “Your husband took care of this already,” he says, and without another word moves away.
Kate and I look at each other; we’ve heard this line before. Dealing with men in public is problematic, since good Muslim women are always hidden away at home or inside a waiting Mercedes while the men tend to business. Most men in shops and agencies ignore us Western women and hope we will just go away.
“What husband?” Kate says in a loud voice, willing to create a commotion. “I have no husband.”
“The man, the man came and took care of it,” the agent says over his shoulder, looking a little worried now.
“There is no man,” booms Kate. “I’m a widow. And I’m old enough to be your mother. Do I have to call for the supervisor?” She throws in a few melodramatic waves of her arms.
The agent slinks off, giving us very dirty looks, but presto, the well-groomed, plump supervisor appears. He takes care of Kate’s business and treats her with great courtesy, even sending someone to get us cold cans of Bebsi.
“I’m an honorary male here,” Kate says to me as she walks out, tickets in hand. “I can be an asshole with the best of them. You just wait,” she tells me. “It’s great being an old crone.”
Mustafa tells us of being approached by a Saudi in Batha, the grittiest market area of Riyadh. Women avoid Batha like the plague, but droves of males walk hand in hand there. Since straight men often hold hands in Saudi Arabia, it’s difficult to judge whether these couples are friends or lovers, but it doesn’t matter anyway — the prophet Mohammed says that male-female sex is better than male-male; but male-male is OK, although somewhat juvenile. The men’s flowing robes caress their bodies; this is a sensual land.
“So there I was in Batha,” Mustafa says. “ ‘Speak English? Speak English?’ a Saudi kept asking me. He looked rich. I could see his Lucien Piccard watch. Or was it a Patek Philippe?” Mustafa’s eyes twinkle. He, Kate, my husband, and I are sitting in my apartment drinking our homemade wine, which has turned out to be sparkling; by God, it’s champagne, thanks to Allah, the gracious, the merciful.
“ ‘Uh, yes,’ I told the Saudi,” Mustafa continues. “He asked me if I’d go with him for five minutes. ‘Go where?’ I asked him, thinking maybe he wanted English lessons. ‘Will you go with me to my car for five minutes? I have big problem,’ he said, pointing downward. And then I got it. ‘Get a woman!’ I told him. ‘Man, woman,’ said the Saudi, ‘I don’t care. I take anything. Please, big problem.’ He kept pointing at his crotch. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Absolutely not.’ ”
We all laugh and sip our Riyadh bubbly. Bloop-bloop, it went for weeks and weeks. The yeast is from Boots, the English chemist shop. Thank you, Boots! Thank you for making wine yeast in tiny aluminum packets that are easily smuggled into the Kingdom, the fairy-tale Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where there are princes and princesses, and royal palaces, and beheadings by huge sword.
In Riyadh, Israel is referred to as “the Israeli entity” or “occupied Palestine.” The Arabs are thorough about this; book-and-stationery stores sell maps upon which Israel as such doesn’t exist. (The maps, I note, are made in Scotland.)
But Arab solidarity is limited, for many Arabs complain about the Palestinians more readily than about the Jews. “They sold their land to the Jews after World War II,” a Saudi teacher at the women’s college tells me. “They sold their motherland for a quick profit. Can you trust or respect people who would do such a thing?”
One evening, my husband brings home a Syrian acquaintance, who hands me a box of dates. “My gift to you, my lady,” he says to me. “The best dates in all Riyadh, in all the Gulf.” Kate is visiting, and the four of us sit in the living room eating the plump, luscious fruit, a local delicacy far superior to the California variety. My husband asks his guest about Damascus.
“Damascus most beautiful place in the world — oldest, most wonderful,” the Syrian tells us. “Big problem there is too many Palestinians. I’d happily machine-gun all of them personally,” he tells us, “or throw them in the sea,” he says, giving a cheerful little wave.
Kate puts down the date she’s just picked up, and I raise my eyebrows at my husband.
“You don’t really mean that,” my husband says. “You wouldn’t really do that.”
“I would,” the Syrian says, eyes wide and clear. “I would love to.”
Kate clears her throat and says in a loud voice, “There are folks in the States who feel the same way about blacks. We call them racists.”
The Syrian blinks and stares at her for a moment. “Yes,” he says. “I know that history: Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Pretty soon the Syrian leaves. We don’t mention him again.
Nor is there much love lost between Egyptians and Saudis. “Saudis kill each other on the roads,” an Egyptian tells us during a discussion of the hazardous driving conditions in Riyadh. “And that’s good for us,” he says, grinning. “A dead Saudi is a good Saudi.”
No one seems to like anyone here. An Iraqi friend gives me a ride home from the women’s college and takes me on a brief tour of the local palaces. One is an exact copy of the White House, except that it’s yellow. The Iraqi stops so I can gaze at it for a while. “Weird, really weird,” I say.
“Ever notice how much it stinks in this area?” he asks me.
“No,” I say. “What is it, a sewer problem?”
“The royal family lives here,” he says acidly.
I search my memory for times when I’ve heard Arabs say nice things about each other. All that really binds them together is the bedrock fact that they grant full personhood and respect solely to Muslim males. Muslim females get exactly 25 percent of said personhood and respect; this is the law of the land. That Mohammed, what a genius he had for quantifying things! Dogs, for example, he disliked with a passion. If you touch a dog, you must wash your hands seven times, he instructed; if you are not near water, you must rub your hands through the sand seven times. The Gulf Arabs have taken this to heart. They are horrified to discuss dogs, and, when they do, their voices drip with disgust. “In America you keep dogs in your houses?” they ask, their eyes wide. We Western dog-keeping fiends!
Yes, our culture, too, is problematic. Look at our chief religious icon — a man nailed to a cross! I ask you! Farther east — maybe that’s where I need to go. Off to the home of the fat, happy Buddha. But, but, but: before I know it I’ll be in the land where they used to bind women’s feet. Keep traveling, keep traveling.
But no, we are in Riyadh. King Abdulaziz, the first king, and father of all kings since, ordered his people to keep Arabia inhospitable so that foreigners would make their visits brief, but one day my husband and I are invited to dine with one of my Saudi students and her husband. Once there, I am relegated to the kitchen with my student, while my husband spends the entire evening in the living room with her spouse. The Saudi husband can, of course, come into the kitchen, and I can go out to the living room, but the Western male and the Arab female must remain confined to their spaces. The food is good. I especially admire the way my Saudi student prepares the meal while squatting on the floor; her gleaming marble counter tops go unused.
The food, as I said, is good — kubsa, a traditional mutton-on-rice dish — but the evening drags on and the only beverage is Saudi “champagne”: apple juice mixed with sparkling water. My student tells me she lived in the States for a while, and shows me pictures of herself in tight jeans and a T-shirt at a university in Iowa. “But now, if I go back, I cover; I wear long dress,” she tells me. “I was bad follower of Islam then, but now I am good.”
Later, my husband tells me the woman’s spouse complained about the Saudi women’s mania to keep up the old traditions and conservative practices; they are the religious fanatics, he said.
“Hmm,” I say. “Maybe.”
“Hey, I’m just repeating what the guy said,” my husband tells me.
That fabled and ferocious King Abdulaziz — he united all the desert tribes! He took control and made a kingdom and plop! thrust a crown upon his own head. Now he is long buried, and the present ruler is Fahd, who has health and weight problems. He drinks forty cups of sugary tea a day, we are told. We Westerners love sharing these bits of gossip, for there’s not much else to do but drive around the desert, shop at the gold souq, drink homemade potato vodka, and, of course, keep on amassing those fat monthly bundles of cash. Some Westerners go so far as converting to Islam, for it brings a bonus in the range of ten thousand dollars. But then one must begin conforming to the Islamic norms, and that can be tricky.
The weekly English-language paper, the Arab News, prints religious advice. For example: The faithful must wash before each of the five daily prayers, and farting invalidates the washing. Mohammed said that one must not fart in a mosque. So if a fart comes, leave the mosque immediately, the Arab News advises. (I read this paper avidly.) If one is in doubt as to whether or not one has farted, there is no need to exit the mosque until one is certain of a sound or odor. Also, one must wash after a deep sleep, for a fart might have escaped the sleeper. If, however, one sleeps seated firmly upright, so that no fart could possibly escape, then one need not wash.
No, I am not making this up, not a speck of it. I keep clippings from the Arab News amid my important documents. When I am an old crone I will pull them out and tell tales.
Why do I love this land so much? Why do I love those medieval old men hitting me with their sticks? Why do I want to return for a year when I’m sixty and can throw my weight around and give the locals a little Western what for? Why am I so charmed by the belief that assholes will burn in hell? (Newt Gingrich, for example! Rupert Murdoch, you! You! You’ll burn in hell!) How can I resist the dusty gold everywhere?