Outside temperatures in Riyadh dipped down, making life inside the villa bearable. The door stood ajar and the brown plastic window remained cracked, both bringing a much needed breeze but also giving another point of entry for lizards and cockroaches. After six weeks in Saudi, life had improved dramatically but it still seemed we were living a make shift existence, one that I assumed had been left behind in Seattle. See See and Foof ran around the villa playing made up games, bed pads were stacked to make forts and reinforced with pillows and blankets. The older boys attended Arabic school, struggling with the language and behavior of both students and teachers. I walked down the street to pick them up at the end of each day, listening to stories that fueled my frustration and posed the question, “why had we come to this place?” Contractions came and went as I tried to make sense of cooking, cleaning and living this new life. My belly, feet and legs ached and the only relief to be found was while sitting on the blue plastic chair that stood in the corner of the empty room. No phone numbers were available in Riyadh and no mail came in or out. I had spoken to my folks one time at a local call cabin, standing among the drivers, maids and workers who waited to have contact with their loved ones. A visit to the doctor had not given answers and only pushed me further into a state of panic.
I put both hands in front of me on the floor, steadying myself as I struggled to stand. A steady stream of warmth could be felt trickling down my leg and onto the rough black carpet. As I stood, a stabbing panic came over both my mind and body. I made my way to the bathroom and stood before the mirror not believing that this must be it. Contractions came and went as they had for weeks but this time accompanied by other signs that signaled labor. The children had fallen asleep after school and still remained sprawled out on the floor of the villa. I had already given birth 4 times and knew that I should be careful and delivery could not be delayed too long after this point. I woke him and we headed to the hospital where he would drop me off and take the kids to stay with friends.
As I approached the OB ward I was greeted by nurses who inquired about my personal details. Their tone changed from harsh and impersonal to soft and compassionate when I could not answer them in Arabic. The nurse asked me gingerly where I was from and when I said “America” she held my hand and accompanied me to a room. Within the hour, the doctor I had seen weeks before entered the room. She checked my dilation and spoke directly to the nurse telling her to start an enema, IV and medication. I understood most of what she said as she reeled these terms off in English. A new panic set in as I tried to discern what would be happening to me and most importantly the health of my baby. I called her by name “Excuse me Doctor”, she stopped and looked back as she headed for the door. I asked her about my dilation, the baby’s safety and my water leakage. At first her face clouded over and she seemed shocked that I dared to ask about my condition. She stood looking blankly at me and said “You need medication to start your labor”. I told her I would like to wait a couple of hours to see if my labor progressed and that I had never been given an enema and did not want one. She looked highly agitated with me for questioning her orders and continued on her way, making herself unavailable for hours to come.
He arrived to the hospital and assured me that the children were settled in with an old friend who I had known in Seattle. He was not allowed on the women only OB floor, but after much debate and a threat to move to a different facility, the nurses broke the rules and allowed him into my room. I spent that night from 5 p.m. on, waiting for the doctor to return and assess my situation. An answer by each nurse who entered my room of “just wait mama” was given as the hours ticked past. I thought of my children and how they must be feeling in a strange country and now sleeping away from me. I missed my mother and the safety of her medical advice and the sweet smell of the house on the hill. He sat in a chair watching t.v. falling in and out of sleep, and peeking from the door to see if the doctor had arrived.
Shortly after noon the next day, the doctor returned to my room. She spoke to him, looking past me as if I were insignificant in these circumstances, a mere woman who had brought this on herself according to my gender and selfish whims. She addressed him angrily and discussed my failure to follow her orders, stating that medication was needed. After almost 24 hours of waiting I agreed to whatever she prescribed and waited for labor to pick up where it had stopped when I entered the hospital. She administered medication and left to make her rounds and attend to her patients. Contractions took hold once again and although they lacked intensity it seemed things were back on track.
Several hours later she reappeared, once again informing me that I had delayed this birth and should have listened to her. She injected something into the IV and with the swishing sound of her lab coat against the door she made her exit. My body immediately changed, a pain and urgency I had never felt before in childbirth had begun and was unstoppable. The nurse came and held my hand but warned me not to push. It was as if my whole body was under attack and pushing became involuntary. My body heaved and shifted, coursing in agony as the bed was quickly wheeled through the hall. The nurse called out for the doctor and pushed us on into the delivery room. As I struggled to regain my composure the doctor stood over me, berating and yelling, “If you had taken medication this would not have happened “She continued with her tirade throughout the next few minutes until my son was born. I ignored her and did not speak a word, gathering him up and holding him close, vowing to never let him go.
I sat in the hospital room, waiting for him to return with the children. I had not seen them for 30 hours which was the longest separation we had ever been through. When we left the villa I had neglected to bring any clothing and now struggled to pull myself together before they arrived. I made my way to the bathroom holding the hospital gown together while navigating to the toilet. Each time I stood or moved, blood seemed to run at an alarming rate, as if a faucet had been turned on. I limped back to the bed quickly returning to a position that would alleviate this problem and tried to assemble myself. Behind me little drops of blood dried on the floor, leaving a trail and reminding me of the events that had passed. Moments later he arrived with the children who sat next to me, in between and at the foot of the bed, chatting and admiring little Abude, snuggling up as we always did on our make shift beds in the villa. I turned to him, hoping for some sign of love and approval, but noticed he was glancing at the floor. He edged closer to the bed and angrily whispered in my ear, “You left drops of blood!”
Many years ago when I was newly married and lived in a suburb of Seattle, I met a lovely family. They were Indian but had settled generations before in Guyana. I was a young and naive girl who knew nothing of the world and was enamored with their traditions and cooking. These two kind ladies invited me over numerous times and made an attempt at teaching me various dishes from their corner of the world. On one occasion they made Yellow chicken curry with potatoes and Roti. I remember standing in the kitchen as bags of potatoes were peeled, onions and garlic were chopped and my eyes watered uncontrollably. They opened their hearts to me and I have never forgotten their kindness!
The ladies I cooked with used dark meat chicken with bones, but I use chicken breast as it is easier for me. I have made a few changes over the years to suit our tastes.
4 chicken breasts deboned, no skin, cut into chunks
1 large onion chopped
7 garlic cloves chopped
5 cups cubed potatoes
2 tsp. ground turmeric
1 spoon salt or to taste
1/8 cayenne pepper or to taste
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground corriander
Olive oil for sauteing
3 cups of water
Fry onions and garlic in 3 Tbs. olive oil until soft, add spices and keep stirring. Add chicken and continue to cook. Add 3 cups of water and bring to a boil. Cover, turn down to low boil and let this cook until chicken is done. When chicken is cooked add cubed potatoes and bring to a boil again, turn down heat and cover. Cook for 15 minutes or until potatoes are cooked but not mushy.
Check once the curry is done to see how much liquid remains, if it is very watery add some cornstarch, but just a little to make the sauce have some thickness. Use 1 Tbs. of cornstarch and mix it in a little water until well dissolved. Add this to the curry and gently stir it in. Turn the heat up, letting it lightly boil and thicken.We eat this with white rice and Roti.
It had been a week since my parents packed their bags and left for the airport. Life returned to normal in our household and the compound. The holiday season had passed and people who made visits home for Christmas were now trickling back. I woke most mornings at 4 a.m. carting baby Soos down the stairs, gently plopping her on the floor to play, while I made the school lunches of arabic bread and cream cheese. Secret treats of cupcakes and cookies, holiday candy and juice were packed in lunches to brighten an otherwise stressful day for the boys. See See and Foof still attended American school riding the big bumpy bus each morning, oblivious to the outside world and all that was to come when they too would attend Arabic school. He became more restless with his job and constantly pushed for a transfer making accusations of prejudice and unfair treatment. Compound residents walked the loop, played tennis and swam at the pool resuming their daily routine that had been forgotten during compound festivities. Although dust, wind and sand storms were relentless, the dipping temperatures made weather in Riyadh a treat during winter months.
Each morning the boys would trudge down the stairs at 5 a.m.in their thobes and lay on the couch waiting for the driver to arrive and take them on the 30 minute trek to the large private school. I offered them eggs, pancakes and french toast but nothing seemed to set well at that hour and so the tradition of freezing bags of peanut butter chocolate chip cookie dough for baking morning cookies, began. I sat on the couch as they laid their heads on my lap, we talked and joked about little things that made them smile while baby Soos pulled their hair and dug in their backpacks. The usual complaints about being awake so early and their dislike for wearing the mandatory thobe, were met with a mother’s sympathy and advice to see the positive when possible. I asked them what they wanted for dinner and a menu took shape. I would then spend the day making sauces, peeling potatoes and whipping up favorite meals.
I didn’t know what really went on at school as they had become skillful at hiding their bad days with adolescent silence, but after three years of living in Saudi I had formulated a rough idea. I surmised that attending Arabic school meant three things, very little supervision from teachers and staff, a gross lack of respect between teachers and students and a constant fear of making mistakes. Students learned no compassion or integrity from teachers as they witnessed scenarios where students who did not do their work or made trouble in class, were randomly and violently punched and hit, chairs being yanked from beneath them while the class sat helplessly looking on. On these days the boys stepped out of the van and drug their things behind them, walking into the house and straight to their rooms. No amount of good intentions to find out what had happened would bring results and only seemed to make the boys more nervous, issuing warnings to- “never talk to the school or complain” which were generally observed. Good days witnessed them walk through the door laughing and discussing the antics of friends during foos ha (recess) and stories of the blatant lack of respect for school property. They recounted fights between students and the craziness that went unnoticed by adults within the school. I always asked them about their day, acting as if they had returned from the American school of Riyadh with their sisters. If the day had gone smoothly they would be so engrossed in their stories that a quick reply of, “fine” was all I heard. They would then continue to discuss the possible repercussions for those students who had misbehaved and caused mischief. These were usually comical ideas from cartoon characters that were not a reflection of what really went on inside the walls of the school.While it was comforting to know my boys were not being hit it was also sickening to know others were and that everyone sat watching in silence, doomed to repeat this cycle if any of them became educators. I spoke to him and insisted that he go into the school but he said there was no point and any insistence on my part brought days of anxiety and stress.
It was not until the day that my sons stumbled in the door an hour late from school, that I wrote my first letter and nothing would deter me in this course of action. I called transportation, their father and the school, gaining little insight as to where they were. I convinced myself not to panic in order to make a plan of action and find my sons. Finally the van drove up and the boys piled out and into the house. The driver had forgotten the school trip and upon my calls to transportation he made his way to the school while the boys waited outside.
My oldest son then informed me that during the first foos ha (recess) a student had pushed his younger brother to the floor resulting in a hard hit to his head. He stood, dizzy and dazed, unable to see things in front of him. With no apparent supervision or concern by school officials, he made his way to the school doctor on his own. He asked to call his mother and informed the doctor of the events that had occurred. The doctor assured him that all was well and sent him back to class to continue his day and the next 5 hours. While I listened to his story and questioned him, looking for signs of a concussion he fell to the floor throwing up and eventually falling asleep. I called his father and despite his irritation that I “overused” the doctor for silly things, I insisted that he come and take us to the hospital.