Those who have spent a lot of time in Saudi Arabia will tell you that it can be overwhelming and all consuming. I was blessed and lucky enough (or cursed) to have spent fifteen consecutive months in Saudi Arabia with only two days spent out of country (in Bahrain). This was simultaneously the longest time I had ever spent in Saudi Arabia (previously it had been 8 months) as well as the longest time I had ever spent away from my family. I would be fooling myself if I did not say that the experience did not change me. It carved rivers and pathways into my heart and soul and I have spent the last three weeks attempting to understand them. I have a little less than two weeks left until my return flight back to the Kingdom and I truly hope that by the time I have finished with my vacation I have rectified my feelings about the previous fifteen months, and my life since setting foot into the Kingdom. I have become a different person. Living abroad changes a person. Living in Saudi Arabia changes a person. Only time will tell whether it is for the better or for the worse.
salaam wa alaikum
I will remember the kisses
Our lips raw with love
And how you gave me
Everything you had
And how I offered you what was left of me.
I have to let this out, if only to attempt to vindicate myself of the stupidity, the blame, the unhappiness I have experienced and caused. I am in love with my driver. He is in love with me. We have shared four passionate encounters. I am married. He is not. We are lost; in each other, in the moment, in the love, in the greatness and smallness of it all.
The Third Time
Hamoodi slid the car into park and spun quickly around. He reached for me with an intensity and urgency that simultaneously startled and stirred me to my very core. Although he was still in the driver’s seat and I was in the backseat, it didn’t seem to matter. He pulled me close; expertly and effortlessly in only the way that two star-crossed lovers can manage. The wetness of his mouth was now familiar. His hands knew their way around my curves; the small of my back already tingling from his touch. He suddenly pulled back and grabbed my head with two hands. While staring at me with his eyes burning brightly, so green; he touched his forehead to mine and sighed. He pressed into me with a weight that let me know he was preparing himself to say something dually difficult and significant.
“Kate. I can’t do this. I’m tired. You’re married.”
I knew the unsaid words that were forming on his lips. We should stop. This is wrong. Why are we doing this? I reached up and joined my hand to his, leaning into his touch.
We stayed there in that moment; leaning into the pain of the situation, our decisions, and our beating hearts. My eyes began to water, betraying the romance of the moment and causing my mascara to run. I knew what had to be done, but I wasn’t sure if I had the strength to do it. I couldn’t bring myself to say it, so I remained silent. Hamoodi spoke first.
“You know I am a strong man, but I just…” his voice trailed off as he began to absentmindedly stroke my hair.
“You know that we should stop. I shouldn’t touch you or see you or speak with you. You married lady.”
“I know”. I replied, but remained motionless. I was now buried in the chest of a man who was not my husband. How did I get here? I had prayed. I gave to charity. I had fasted for Ramadan for crying out loud. I had chosen to be Muslim. I had committed myself to a life of submission. In my entire twenty-seven years, I had never felt so powerless…or alive.
I began to cycle the now common doubts through my exhausted brain.
Why did I feel like our love was catapulting me into a direction to which I have no control?
Why does it feel so natural to be here with him?
Why didn’t I feel guiltier?
I realized right then what I needed to say to him. The words were bubbling up from the bottom of my chest, spilling out of my mouth before I could stop them.
“Hamoodi. You make me feel like I am in the wrong house.”
He gently used his two fingers to tilt my chin up so that I could look into his eyes. The force of his stare was enough cause me to swallow my speech which would explain exactly what I had meant when I made my declaration. I could see he knew exactly what I had meant and how incomprehensibly stupid and in love that meant we both were. With one breath of a word and a smile that made my gut ache with want; he sealed our fates intertwined.
” عسل ”
Sorry I have not written in awhile. I have been completely overwhelmed with life :) Thank God I am now in the United States on a well deserved vacation! I am going to be using this trip to relax, refresh, and to reevaluate myself. Honestly, I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere and I’m not sure why. Ever since I became Muslim I have been struggling and floating around trying to attach to something, to land somewhere, to be found. I feel like there is nowhere on Earth I can just be anymore. If I am in Saudi I am adapting parts of myself to there, if I am in America I am adapting myself to certain things I don’t like there….when am I going to feel like I am home?
Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
After tearing the house apart while searching for my pink lighter, I found it on top of the refrigerator. I was actually not surprised my lighter had mysteriously appeared in the last place I would look. I giggled at the subtle attempt to assert disapproval in reference to my newly formed habit. I shook my head while I pushed open the door to the roof, unlit cigarette dangling from my mouth. The roof smelled like pigeon shit and earth. I imagined that at this point in time, my soul would probably smell the same. My joints ached with despair as I attempted to avoid rumination of any kind. I raised the lighter to my mouth and realized that the cigarette I so desperately craved had broken in half during my pillage of the house. I dissolved into maniacal laughter when I realized that my husband’s passive aggressive attempt to stop me from smoking had in its own blatant childishness actually been extremely effective. My laughter quickly converted into gasping sobs when I realized that somewhere out there buried deep within my husband’s chest was his unearthed love for me. It was my own fault it was not reaching me; I was too busy smearing myself with someone else’s affection. I stayed there for a few minutes, my body quaking as each sob escaped and floated out into the dry desert night. After a few minutes, they simply just stopped. I straightened myself, wiped my eyes and pushed myself through the heavy metal door. I turned back only long enough to notice the moon, burning brightly behind me in the darkness.
My husband had discovered my cigarettes one day while he was searching for scissors in my office. He had asked about them while we sat down in front of an episode of Elementary one evening.
Very casually turned towards me and asked “Whose cigarettes are those? I found them in your desk.”
He asked in a way which indicated to me that he couldn’t believe the only logical conclusion. Since we were the only occupants inside our home and he had found them in my desk; it was pretty obvious whose cigarettes they were. His hopeful eyes peered at me, practically begging for an alternative to the obvious. I considered lying to him for a millisecond and then confirmed his suspicions with a simple affirmation, “Mine.”
The micro-expressions in his face conveyed a hurt and disappointment that triggered a wave of shame. The first blow socked me right in the gut and rippled upwards. It reached right up into my chest cavity, clamping firmly down on the organ that had so desperately misled me. Quickly realizing he had betrayed his true feelings; he pasted on a smile right over the hurt. His face contorted back into something which he considered stoic; he turned back towards the television and started eating.
Just like that, he had vanished. My husband was always retreating back into some impenetrable shell that left me barking into thin air. I never learned to back away before he disappeared. I was always left alone to paw at the ground snarling. He finished his food quietly and withdrew into the majlis to mindlessly click buttons and inhale grape flavored smoke. I sat there on the floor with the remnants of dinner spread out in front of me; knowing that the phone call I was about to make was inescapable.
Later that Night…
We had retreated to our separate corners of the apartment. My husband was occupied with his nightly ritual of tobacco and too much audio-visual stimulation. I had purposefully taken up residence in the furthest room from the majlis, which was ironically our bedroom. I had fallen into a nightly routine of phoning Hamoodi while I nervously paced back and forth between the bedroom and the office. If I was not alone in the house, I was not able to completely give myself to the call. With one ear I absorbed Hamoodi’s improving English and desperate declarations of love. With the other ear, I carefully listened for any sounds indicating that my husband was approaching.
“I can live with you anywhere. I have two hands and two legs al hamdililah. I don’t have anything, but we will have a good life. We can start over, go anywhere. You don’t have to be an English teacher if you don’t want and I don’t have to be a driver. We can do anything.”
I heard him utter these beautiful and romantic words, but I wondered if they were true. Although I was desperate to believe him, would I really be able to start over? Did I deserve to start over after what I had done? Was this all just some phony codependent relationship, designed by circumstance and whipped into frenzy by need and the bitter dryness of a close minded city? Were we simply two satellites orbiting in the blackness, grasping onto each other to avoid going alone into the void?
All I knew was that when a present is opened; you can never re-wrap it the same way. I had opened this door to madness, so it might always remain slightly ajar and creaking. Our place was now beyond right or wrong, beyond reality and illusion; it was further than that. We were beyond each other, souls lying in the grass; speechless at the fullness of it all.
“They slipped briskly into an intimacy from which they never recovered.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise
True to form in Riyadh, things have a way of happening. Vacuums of absence open and lonely molecules attract each other in the most desperate of fashions. The glue that bonded us together was our completely miserable and ridiculous situations. Our problems were exclusively Saudi problems. In a country where a sponsor, or kafeel, owns a fellow human being; misery is inevitable. In any other country or any other place in the world, he and I could have coexisted without our courses colliding. However, in this vast desert with its twisted logic and nepotism; he and I ended up in the exact place at the exact same time. It is obvious that our meeting was written in the book of our lives, but it was unexpected that our meeting would obliterate life as we knew it. Our previous lives had ended the day we met.
Saudi Marriage Permission
A Saudi national is required to obtain permission from the Saudi government in order to marry a foreigner. This paperwork process is long, boring, soul-sucking, and humiliating. After two years of desperate romance and living apart, my husband and I had finally completed the steps to obtain our marriage certificate in Saudi Arabia. Exhausted after two years of struggling for the relationship to survive, I left my job in Dammam to join my husband in Riyadh.
That is where our trouble began.
I moved to Riyadh in the middle of December and was immediately shocked. The cold was unlike anything I had ever experienced. It shocks you right to your bones. Nobody tells you how harsh the desert is; they just let you find out for yourself.
One thing that we had overlooked in the move was the fact that my sponsorship was still under my previous employer and that this would need to be corrected. True to Saudi form, my husband showed little worry or excitement regarding the situation and simply shrugged when I asked him about it. After several months of remaining a house wife, I was beginning to get anxious. That is when the fights began. Every time I asked my husband to update me on the status of the paperwork, he would either withdraw or scold me for complaining.
Complaints began to roll in about my housework, cooking, or my “attitude”. He began to ask for me not to speak to him until he had been home for an hour. Eventually, he asked me not to speak to him about anything “serious”. Finally, I just stop speaking.
After nine months of scratching the surface of insanity, a friend sent me a WhatsUp message asking if I wanted to work. Reminding them of my situation, I was assured that it was not an issue. Since I had been tutoring and free-lance writing to stay busy and productive, I was desperate for any opportunity to get out of the house. The loneliness had carved into my bones. I was a watermelon rind of a person; I had only my inedible and flavorless bits left.
After sharing this opportunity with my husband, he presented his opinion: “You are stupid, if you don’t take it.”
He had already been clear about what a burden I had become by not working. Despite the fact that it was not my choice to abstain from employment, he still always recounted all of the things we couldn’t do because he was “the only one working”. Since no one else would hire me because of my iqama issue and I was desperate for human interaction, sunlight, and some independence; I wholeheartedly agreed. I started the day before my twenty-seventh birthday.
Part of the package that I had negotiated was transportation. Transportation in Saudi Arabia can make or break a person. In Riyadh in particular, taxi fares for women are exploitive and very expensive. I told the company if they provided me transportation, I would start immediately. They quickly agreed and let me know that Hamza would pick me up in the morning.
At 7:00 AM sharp, a hatchback Mazda was parked in front of our villa, waiting to sweep me to freedom. After entering the car and saying my salaams, I was greeted by a serious Egyptian man with a very long, muttawa-esque beard and dress. He was very surprised to see me with my face covered and commented accordingly.
We went through the usual, “American, huh?”, “Muslim, huh?”, “Married?” line of questioning.
During the short ride to school he joyfully told me about his wife and children. He also informed me that another man would be picking me up from school.
After arriving at work, I had forgotten all about the other driver and passed the day in a cloud of elation.
I was free!
I was outside my house!
I was around people!
My first day back in the classroom after two years went as smooth as I ever could have dreamed.
After finishing my work, I dialed the number of the second driver that Hamza had scribbled on a piece of notebook paper. After a few rings, I heard a man’s throat clear and a timid voice asked, “Hello?”.
“Hello, this is Teacher Kate. Please come to the college at two o’clock.”
After a few unintelligible words, he spoke something I did understand, “two clock?”
After repeating the word, “two” about a hundred times, we awkwardly hung up. Both of us had dissolved into giggles at least three times before we were able to understand each other. Although I had experienced frustrating calls like this before in Saudi Arabia, there was something about this phone call that left me smiling and giddy.
At 1:58, I received a call. “Teacher, am here.” Being well-versed in “Saudi time” or “Arab time” I was truly shocked at the driver’s promptness. I quickly wrapped myself in my abaya and ran towards the elevators. I gave him another call when I reached outside so he could come inside the gate.
As soon as I exited the building, I saw a gold colored sedan creeping forward. I hit redial to see if the man inside answered. As the driver peered at the screen of his phone and answered, I began to head straight for the car. “I see you, I see you” I sang into my cell and hung up.
I opened the door and sat inside. Immediately, I noticed the tidiness of the car and the man inside it. He turned towards me, lowered his sunglasses, and peered at me with bright green eyes. My mouth fell open a bit as I took in his neatly trimmed beard, dark hair, broad shoulders, and those eyes. “I’m Hamoodi, teacher”. He turned back around, shifted gears, and propelled the car forward. Although he would pick me up hundreds of times after that, we would never return to quite the same place again.
It will always be, before and after.
I’m not sure where I am going with this…but I know that this comes from a place where all expats can relate. Relationships change and are tested by living abroad. I hope you enjoy.
I’m in Love with the Driver: Part 4
As I opened the bedroom door to wake my husband, I realized I hadn’t touched him in well over a week. Besides our routine morning peck on the cheek, we had zero physical contact to speak of within recent memory. Peering into the darkness at the form of the familiar, I felt a moment of tenderness. Despite our tumultuous recent arguments, I felt drawn to the warm place under the covers; the location of so many past loving experiences. I quietly crept across the thick, padded carpet and dirty laundry.
Crawling into bed, I whispered as I nudged him gently.
He answered with a groan and rolled over to tuck me into his arms. A pinprick of sorrow appeared in my chest and was gone just as quickly. I let him hold me despite my brain’s screams for release. I stayed there in the cavity of our previous relationship, the one that we had before all of the fights, the misunderstandings, and the absences; all of the happenings that had so expertly crafted a hole in my heart just big enough for an unwelcome stranger to enter.
For just a moment, it was as if nothing had changed. I listened to the rise and fall of my husband’s chest and the quiet. Just as fleeting as all moments, our peace finished and my rage quickly replaced the tenderness that had enveloped my heart just seconds earlier.
Today was just like any other Saturday in Saudi Arabia, where I was left to my own devices while my husband slept the day away. My husband’s best friend had first dibs on his time Friday nights, which typically kept him out of the house until breakfast on Saturday. If I was awake when he return home, I would dine with him on the floor; aluminum trays spread out on the plastic sufrah*, consuming shakshuka* and khubs* with our hands in silence. After the meal, he would retire to the majlis* to smoke one last round of shisha*. Sometime around nine o’clock, he would render the bedroom occupied and spend the rest of the day in a sedative- induced coma.
Week after week of solitude in a strange land had left little joy in my heart. I had committed the floor plan of every mall in Riyadh to memory, visited compounds, joined committees, studied, taken part-time work and free-lance jobs, but none of it ever quenched my desire for a deeper connection to the man I shared my home with. We simply lived separate lives.
A pain ripped through my chest this time, a real one. I had spent seven years cultivating something that had taken only a few seconds to dissipate into thin air. With one disarming look from a pair of green eyes, everything we ever had was shattered into a million pieces. For a second, I formulated an opening line, but instead I tucked my rage deeper into my chest, shrugged off his arm and propelled myself towards the door.
Sufrah* similar to a disposable table cloth (although there are also ones that are not disposable), these are typically used to cover the floor or table during a meal
Shakshuka* famous egg dish served in Saudi for breakfast
Khubs * Arabic word for bread
Why am I writing this? Because it happens…and nobody wants to acknowledge it. People fall in love and into illicit situations with each other all the time…especially with the social dynamics that Saudi Arabia has to offer….this place breeds cases of hopeless love. This is just one example of that. I hope you enjoy.
I paused our kissing enough to straighten out my clothes and ask him, “Do you really love me?”
The slap came sharp and unexpected. He immediately leaned into bite my neck. Slightly shocked, I gave a little yelp and shoved him away
. “Nobody has ever slapped me before”. I reached out and slapped him back.
He looked even more shocked than I did. He shoved me down into the back seat by my shoulders and raised his hand, his fingers now wrapped around my neck. It did not hurt, but I knew he wanted me to pay attention.
The spark in his eyes was in full blaze. “No man would ever get away with that….”
He paused to plant a gentle kiss on my lips as his look softened.
“…but I do love you.”
We then descended into our own place, filling the vacuum with only us. The place we filled was where dually no man or woman has been, but have been in a place just like it. These spacious vacuums can be found continually opening and closing, sprinkled far and wide in the lonely desert.
I know that I have successfully achieved the next level of insanity when I purchase a pack of Dunhill Blondes so I can taste him again. I need to keep my hands and mouth busy and since cigarettes tingle and are bad for me; it was an equivalent substitute. My husband is sleeping in the bedroom, despite the fact that daylight arrived hours ago. I am here at twenty-seven years young, anxiously waiting his call and smoking like the amateur I am. I’m quite out of practice, in fact, before this week, I hadn’t even held a cigarette for eight years.
As I stand here leaning against the wall of my rooftop, I stare down at my feet and ponder my situation. My shoes are quite worn out, pink, and brightly colored. My shoes look so innocent, hardly appropriate footwear for an adulteress.
I take another drag and I am reminded of my early teenage years, when sneaking a cigarette meant you were oh-so-adult. Even then I would just hold my lit cigarette quietly and look around at my peers, head buzzing from the explicit conversation of experienced youths that surrounded me. I take a minute for all of those memories to wash over me. They are slightly comforting in their familiarity, but also dig up the hard pressing anxiety of those confusing times. The taste of tobacco and the seductive illicitness of it all is enough to make me slightly nauseated.
Perhaps my smoking could be my alibi or my saving grace. Maybe it would be an excuse for people to write off my actions, because they came from a soiled soul. My secret moments with him would have a partner in crime. I can tell my husband I fell in love with a filtered stick instead of an actual human being.
I let myself daydream about divorce due to my newfound habit. People would say, “See, I knew she was a bad woman. You wouldn’t have wanted to keep her anyway. What kind of woman smokes?” Maybe, they would all stop there instead of investigating why the driver and I disappeared from the desert at exactly the same time.
It is puzzling to me why I feel guiltier about hiding the cigarettes from my spouse, especially considering the amount of shisha he consumes daily. When he isn’t home, I lay down in his majlis, prop my feet up on the wall and speak with my hidden lover. That room already feels so soiled: the sickly sweet smell of hookah tobacco, the stale remnants of his friends’ cigarettes, the thick layers of dust and haphazardly strewn candy wrappers. A few more sins piled up in the corners of the room won’t matter…right?
Since today is a weekend, my husband is here, but unconscious so I decide to take my quarter life crisis on the roof where it belongs. After I take a final puff and crunch it into the ground, my phone starts to vibrate. My heartbeat quickens a little as I raise the phone to my ear.
“Habibti” he whispers.
My head swims and I feel dizzy.
“Yes?” I answer.
“I need see you tomorrow.”
My answer isn’t really an answer. I don’t tell him whether or not I can. I just sit there breathing and listening to the sounds of his chest rising and falling, my heart beating, and the dust blowing across the roof.
His statement was stuck somewhere in between a question and platitude.
Just like us.
To be continued…
*Work of Fiction*
I know it has been awhile, but I have been a busy girl :) This is one of my first fictional posts here, I am attempting to address the issue with the driver and passenger dynamic. Consider this my contribution to the Saudi Women Driving Campaign!
I’m in Love with the Driver
car backseat of your car I am free. I am not supposed to be. I am supposed to sit in the back my mouth locked up in black. One word answers should make up our language. It started slowly, a few kind words here and a giggle here. Eventually, I began to line my eyes to beautify the only part of me you could see. We are the same age and your energy is infectious; in sharp contrast to my older husband. He takes me for granted and barely looks at me. You notice my new abaya, my swapped handbag, the sadness in my eyes.
You know me, but you haven’t seen me, so you ask.
At first, I am startled because it has been so long since a man other than my husband has gazed at me, but then I remember that I am American.
Don’t I show my face in America?
I have been here too long; I justify away this act of intimacy in my head until it lies down flat. I show you a part of me and it shocks you. I realized you had been imagining my face for some time. A flush crept across your bearded face as you realize we both are in trouble. We have made a mistake and crossed some invisible line that can no longer be. I am no longer “teacher”.
I am Kate*.
With that obstacle out of the way, our conversations proceed to more intimate details. Although we are still scratching the surface of what we want to say; we are growing. My Arabic reaches your English in a compromise of the most basic; that of need. We form our own language, one that only is decipherable to our longing ears.
That is how I ended up here, my back pressed up against the backseat of your car with your weight on top of me. It was only for a second, but it felt like a year that your lips brushed mine. You had spun around in your seat and set me down, forcefully but gently taking what you thought to be yours.
I let you for a moment; head still spinning from the sudden change of position. We both realized the car was still moving too late; several seconds later a loud CRUNCH forced our bodies to separate. Still shaking, from the crash and the kiss; you examined the damage while I buried my face in my hands. We had crashed into the guardrail slowly enough to damage the car, but we had been stopped from going over the edge. If only, this was the last time.
To be continued…
*This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to a person living or dead is purely coincidental*