Only recently did I realize that it’s a country I love to hate. I have a lot of baggage with Saudi Arabia and I so wanted to remain angry at it. But even as I got on my first flight back to the country in around 15 years, I found myself unable to quell the little bit of mounting excitement that I felt about going back.
I first went to Saudi Arabia in the 70s. I went to the 7th and 8th grades there. Before that we lived in the US. We returned afterwards to the States but went back to Saudi Arabia, where I spent my last year of schooling (11th grade) before I went off to university in Cairo, Egypt. My father remained for most of the rest of his life. He only left when his health no longer allowed him to continue teaching at university, many years after the typical retirement age.
My story with Saudi Arabia is complicated. I think I actually liked it as a young girl. During my younger years, I thrived on change. I’ve never been able to relate to children or their parents who worry about changing schools and leaving friends behind. My way of thinking was that my friends would remain my friends for life, no matter where I ended up in the world. Moving somewhere else only meant that I got to make even more friends.
Saudi Arabia was so different from anything I ever knew. But it was an adventure. When we landed at Jeddah’s airport in the 70s, it was a tiny, dusty, backwards little place with old, sand-covered airplanes scattered about in the surrounding desert fields. It was so strange to see the women, including my mother, covering themselves up and wearing things some of them had never worn before. I didn’t understand it. But it just was. I didn’t overthink things back then especially as they didn’t really affect me.
During those first two years, I didn’t feel like my life was any different than my brothers’, beyond the fact that I wore the flowing black abaya and a black headscarf on my way to school and back. As far as I can remember, I was still young enough for it to be culturally acceptable for me to get away with not wearing anything special during other outings.
I had a good social life there. I made great long-lasting friendships. School was a bit different since the learning was in Arabic, but I settled in just fine. On the individual level, I can’t remember having any specific qualms about life in Saudi Arabia.
But I have vivid memories of my mother being extremely unhappy there. Back then I couldn’t understand why she was so unhappy. I was much too young. Those two years in Saudi Arabia appeared to me in hindsight to be the beginning of the end of my parents’ marriage, although as an adult I’m certain their difficulties began much earlier. Still, the child in me has never managed to forgive Saudi Arabia’s alleged role (the one I gave it) in the events that happened later.
As a child, I thrived on the adventure of change. But my mother of four young children seemed to be at the end of her rope because she had to deal with too much change. She had to dress differently. Freedom of movement was completely taken away from her. She couldn’t go anywhere on her own. And although at the time she had already been a housewife for years, that role became even more domesticated. She barely knew the language and was left out of many a conversation when we socialized with my father’s mainly Egyptian friends.
As a child, I never felt “stuck” in Saudi Arabia as I’m certain many women will feel. I always knew my stay there was temporary. Even when I was older and had to wear a face veil as I entered school to attend the 11th grade, I didn’t feel it was an issue. It was just for school. I only did it when the teachers were watching. I knew that next year I’d be in Cairo. And I was becoming more religiously conservative anyways. It was all just what it was.
I didn’t even mind the fact that I couldn’t just turn up in Saudi Arabia as I grew older. Every time my sister and I passed through passport control, they needed to make sure that a male relative (our father) was actually waiting to receive us. Back then, females were rarely allowed to travel to the country on their own (exceptions were made for foreign teachers and doctors who would be chaperoned wherever they went). That rule had very little impact on me. I was only going to Saudi Arabia to visit my father during my university years anyways. But as the months and years went by and I made more friends at university in Egypt and had more activities to be involved in, my visits to Saudi Arabia became a hindrance. Again, nothing to do with the country as much as it did with the life phase I was in.
But even as I grew more conservative in my university years, I began to realize how overly and ridiculously limiting Saudi Arabia was for women. As a conservative Muslim who wore the face veil out of her own personal choice in Egypt, I was still completely free to do whatever I pleased. I drove. I stayed out with friends to the wee hours of the morning. I travelled to other parts of the country on my own and with friends. I went to university and mixed freely with other male colleagues and professors. My lifestyle was one of choice rather than one that was imposed by a culture or a government. The more and more I visited Saudi Arabia during my university years the more and more limited I felt.
The last time I visited the country was when my father underwent an open-heart operation to replace a heart valve. He received the best care possible there. But as a woman who wanted to be there to support her father, I hated it. I couldn’t easily and simply take myself to the hospital and back. When my sister and I once decided to flag down a taxi to go visit him at the hospital rather than call one of his friends to take us, men on the street looked at us as if we were whoring ourselves out (or so was my perception of the situation). The hospital had special waiting rooms for women where we had absolutely no way of interacting with doctors who went nowhere near those rooms. The rebellious person inside me decided to stop using those rooms and to sit with the men. Truth be told, the Saudi men had absolutely no issue with me sitting with them. We even had conversations. But the mere fact that a hospital might expect me to sit in a curtained-off room on my own seemed utterly ridiculous to me. I wonder, though, all these years later if that wasn’t as much an expectation as it was an option for the women who didn’t want to mix with men.
My own marriage was desperately on the rocks when my ex-husband decided to leave Egypt and work in Saudi Arabia. I know he had little choice in the matter. Egypt’s economy was weak. He wasn’t making enough money to support a family of six. But Saudi Arabia again became associated in my mind with broken marriages. My ex-husband decided it would be best for us to stay in Egypt because life there was cheaper and he would be able to save up more money to support us. I was on my own with four young children in a difficult country to be a parent in let alone a single parent. While my children did travel to visit their father in Saudi Arabia during those years, I refused. I would not go to a country where I would be completely dependent on someone else, especially as the marriage was nearing its end-stages.
As life went on and as I began changing as a woman, Saudi Arabia began to represent a kind of Islam I had difficulty reconciling with. The Islamic discourse I heard at school and on TV in Saudi Arabia started to become more common in Egypt. The same words, the same mindset, the same misogyny. Egypt will never be Saudi Arabia. But many Egyptians were proselytizing its interpretation of religion.
I didn’t ever want to go back.
Then I had to for work. I didn’t believe them when I was told matter-of-factly that I could travel to the country on my own as a woman. Surely a man would have to wait for me at the airport otherwise I wouldn’t be let through passport control? I had been hearing in the last two years that women could stay in hotels on their own now. But I didn’t believe it. I went through the motions of getting the Saudi visa never expecting that the trip would work out.
But I got the visa. At the airport, I was warmly welcomed at passport control by a bearded man. He asked me if I had been to Saudi Arabia before. I told him I used to live in Saudi Arabia and my father worked in the country for more than 30 years, but that I hadn’t been back in some 15. He almost seemed happy that his long-lost sister was back. I didn’t get all the questions I get while traveling through Europe or returning to the UK: Why are you here? How long will you stay? Where are you staying? I got none of that. The man looked through my passport, saw my visa, and stamped me in.
As I went through customs, I was certain I’d have my bags manually searched as was always the case before. Back in the day, we couldn’t bring printed material, CDs/cassette tapes, or videocassettes into the country without having them confiscated. Everything had to be approved first. The familiar customs’ men were not there. Bags went through a machine while an airport security person lazily looked at the screen.
I was in shock.
My next challenge was getting to the hotel at 5AM. I changed money, and while doing that asked the man if it was safe for me to get a taxi. He looked at me oddly, not really understanding my question. “Have you never been to Saudi Arabia?” he asked kindly. I replied as I did at passport control. “Were things safe back then?” he said. I gave it a thought and hesitantly said, “Yes.” He said, however safe things were back then they’re even better now. “Are you sure? I can just get into a taxi on my own?” He smiled. “Yes.”
And so I did, just as I do at any European airport. I had a nice conversation on the way to the hotel with the taxi driver. We got to the hotel. I had an abaya on, knowing there was no way that will have changed, but the headscarf I had lightly thrown on my head had fallen off and I left it that way, testing the waters. No one blinked. How was it that my hair was showing in a hotel in Riyadh? Riyadh used to be the city that women hated having to go to because the religious police would slap them with a stick if their faces weren’t covered.
The next morning I wore the abaya over my clothes but didn’t wear a headscarf to breakfast. I saw other women doing the same thing. I saw women get into a car without headscarves. So when I ordered a car to pick me up, I did the same. When I got to the conference hall, it was full of men and women freely mixing and talking. Some women didn’t wear headscarves. The conference was organized in a university. Most of the staff, including the men, were wearing white lab coats. Many of the women had trousers underneath instead of black, flowing abayas or dresses. Some of the women weren’t covering their hair. I was shell-shocked.
I spoke with and sat next to many Saudi men during the two days I was there. They were all extremely courteous. As I delved back into my memories, they always had been, I realized. Saudis are great world travelers. Most of the Saudis I have ever met and dealt with personally have been normal men and women, just like you and me.
I was only in Riyadh for two days. My time there was limited as were the circumstances in which I found myself. I was there as a guest and I was treated kindly and generously as one. In the grand scheme of things, the changes that have so shocked me are only very small ones. I didn’t even try, for example, to ask at the reception if I could use the beautiful swimming pool at the hotel or if I could use the fitness center along with the men. Still, in the relative sense of what Saudi Arabia has been for so long, I felt the significance of the small changes. So much more change is needed. But for the first time ever I felt that change in Saudi Arabia is possible. I don’t care what individuals choose for themselves as long as it comes from a place of freedom and as long as those choices are not imposed on others.
I’m acutely aware of the many issues that remain in the country. But those small changes I experienced allowed many of the fond childhood memories I have of the country, that have been repressed for so long, to return.
I left Saudi Arabia with less baggage than I had when I arrived two days earlier. For that, I am grateful.
Disclaimer: I completely acknowledge that these experiences, past and present, are my own and that others who have lived in the country may have had very different ones, also past and present.