I left Saudi Arabia when I was fifteen years old with hundreds of happy memories. That was twenty years ago. I suppose if it were a country like most others, open to tourists, the impact of being back on Arabian soil would not be so monumental. As it stands, it is a closed country, and to not only have returned to the land of my childhood, but to have brought this land into my kids’ childhood, is positively momentous for me. For Josh to put people and places together with long-told stories of mine is to gain a more complete picture of who I am.
We decided to come for our spring break, obtaining a one-time entry visa; we hope to get a multiple-entry visa so that we can visit my dad on weekends. We had not seen him in over two months as the bridge between Saudi and Bahrain is not allowing Lebanese citizens to cross. The process coming over was extensive, including seven checkpoints and getting fingerprinted, but all was uneventful and we crossed without a hitch; we drove one hour across the causeway over the Arabian Gulf to Saudi’s border and my hometown of Al-Khobar.
It wasn’t until today, five days into our time here, that I have found my bearings. It took visiting my old neighborhood and the lot our house used to stand on to gain perspective on this much-developed city of Al-Khobar. It was sad news the day my dad let us know almost a year ago that the house we all have such fond memories of was demolished. Nonetheless, driving down our old street, where the Video Club and Marvels of the Sea Aquarium we used to buy baby turtles from still stand was enough for me. I chuckled as I stood facing what used to be our house, remembering when Karen, my twin sister, threw dirty underwear over the wall into the neighboring apartment complex in retaliation of their careless and constant discard of fishheads and scraps into our garden. I marveled as I recalled the night we had a fire in our house and we all climbed down the rope my brother had hung from the second story balcony to swing on – little did he know it would save our lives. And I shuddered, remembering the one too many times we thought we were being followed and told our driver, “Don’t go to the house”; he knew what this meant and made every effort to lose the person, weaving in and out of streets, keeping a close eye in the rearview mirror.
The mind is an amazing thing – one sight or smell can conjure up memories that have lain dormant for years and years. In my case, memories by the hundreds rubbed their sleepy eyes and emerged from hibernation.
Saudi feels much more a true Arab culture and experience in comparison with Bahrain. Bahrain houses a very high percentage of expats or foreigners; most signs are written in both Arabic and English. In Saudi, the number of foreigners has decreased significantly since I lived there; in one of the malls we visited, we were the only Westerners in the sea of people – you can imagine the extent to which we attempted to keep our kids quiet and ruly. However, we were not uncomfortable. In fact, two young Saudi women approached me and asked where we were from. When I told her California, she proceeded to ask me what Americans think of how women are treated in the Middle East and what I believed where the positives and negatives. Even now, it is a complicated question, and I believe one that begs more time and thought; I wish I could have had coffee with her and fleshed out this stimulating conversation.
In Saudi Arabia, most of the women are either completely covered or just their eyes show. People have asked me if I minded wearing the abaya; before our trip, I would have said yes at the thought of it. I was fifteen when I left and never had to wear one. Actually, I didn’t mind it at all. Little to no thought went into what I would wear each day; some days, I even wore a tank top and workout pants for comfort. No one would know if your shirt was stained or your outfit was outdated or your pants were getting snugger. I daresay I miss wearing an abaya!
We went on a lot of great outings with my dad: we had fun climbing the jabals or rocky mountains I climbed as a kid in Aramco. We enjoyed watching the kids huff and puff up striking sandunes only to turn right around and bound down in half the time; we used to take our friends there for birthday parties and slide down on cookie sheets and garbage bags. We took cake pans but they didn’t work quite as well. We went out late for shawarma sandwiches and gelato, ate donuts at a shop my mother used to take us to for glazed French twists, and enjoyed Lebanese sweets at a friend’s house. We played arcades, swam, and played indoor soccer all at my dad’s compound. And we rode a camel and Shetland pony on the beach. We were even amused when we walked into a grocery store to shop and the lights went dim signaling prayer time and hence, the inability to proceed with our shopping. Needless to say, this happened on more than one occasion.
More than anything, though, was the joy of being with my dad, who still lives and works in Saudi as a doctor. I can’t express the pleasure of watching Cayden and Anya finally get to know Jiddou, their grandfather, at an age where they will always remember him…..and his affinity for ice cream!
I have always known that my father is well-loved and highly respected as a person and a doctor, but witnessing it first-hand is a true gift. We were able to visit the British School my dad started back in 1977 for my brother, because at that time there were no good schools to send him to. It is the same school all my siblings and I went to up through fifth grade, and the reason for our thorough British accents at the time! It has now grown to 600 students, and a few years ago, my dad was awarded by the Queen of England the title of OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his dedication and service to education. As a child, I did not understand the broader and far-reaching ramifications of my father’s commitment to both his patients and his school; as an adult, and back in the environment of my childhood, I can truly appreciate his steadfastness and devotion. And I am grateful that my kids have been given the opportunity to know that man.
Undoubtedly, it was a spring break to to remember, and one we will cherish always.
More pictures to come but I love this one of my dad with Cayden and Anya.