The last four years in Saudi were the worst. My two oldest sons were attending University in the United States and it seemed there was no barrier any more. The following incident took place when we were asked to visit my sister in Al-Khobar for the holiday of Eid. He dropped us off and was to pick us up after a week. My sister and the cousins had planned a fun filled 7 days.
I tucked the phone nervously under my abaya and tried to ignore the muffled ringing. Sweaty hands mixed with nerves would not allow me to mute the sound. The van whizzed past taxis, in and out of lanes, honking at cars that dared sneak in front of us, typical Saudi driving. The sights and sounds of this westernized town situated near the rolling sea were different than the brown/tan hues of Riyadh. People could be seen walking along the corniche (beach), standing on craggy mounds of rock, tossing fishing lines into the sea, foreign ladies wore long, colorful shirts instead of the traditional abaya. My sister looked back from the front seat, chatting with the kids about Khobar mall, the ice skating rink, food court and amusement rides, all to be her special treat. A buzz of excitement filled the car as anticipation for this Eid day were finally a reality. The little ones were tucked in the back, giggling with their older cousins, listening to them describe the fun that was awaiting at Khobar mall. I pushed buttons, covered the screen and held off thoughts of answering his calls, not knowing if it would bring relief or chaos. My stomach churned as I remembered the dreaded words I knew would inevitably be spoken, and as I realized this barrage of calls would not stop. I raised the phone to my ear and said hello, the voice on the other end was at first calm and direct, “No one will enjoy time with my kids except me, no one!” The words were familiar to my children and the sound of my skittish response alerted them that things had finally come to the usual head. I tried to smile and laugh, masking fear and embarrassment, hoping that this incident might pass and fade without involving anyone else. I cupped my hand over the phone thinking that somehow this would make my words imperceptible and thus non existent. I reassured him that yes he was indeed the ultimate authority and the father of these children. He hung up and called numerous times, putting everyone in the vehicle on notice as his voice could be heard above the engine and roar of traffic outside, “You take my children home right now and none of you are to leave that house or else!” His voice sputtered and stammered and became louder with each phrase making the words audible to everyone. I assured him that we would return home and would not leave the villa until he came to retrieve us the following week. As the van pulled up to the mall parking lot I sat in the middle seat, frozen. I had not encountered an incident that involved people outside of our family in such a direct way. He named my brother-in-law and sister as co conspirators in this plan and issued a warning, they were not to spend time with his offspring! The three smallest children hopped out of the van and skipped into the mall with their cousins leaving the older kids watching and waiting. My sister instructed them to go, she followed with the comment that no way would that man ruin this day, no way. I sat in the middle seat, sobbing uncontrollably, watching the phone as it lit up with calls and then died down. My brother in law argued fervently and said that he did not want to be involved in family problems and going back would be better. I answered one last call “Where are you, my children better be back at the house or I will come and get them!” We gathered the children together and piled back into the van, entering the busy freeway and silently making our way back to my sister’s expansive home.
I gathered clothing, chargers and secret treats that had been hurriedly purchased on walks to the neighborhood bukala ( mini mart). They were shoved into the tote bag, hidden among shoes and miscellaneous sundries. Deeja and Heme sat with their cousin Dana (nickname) as she played last minute games and promised them she would come to Riyadh very soon. I walked through the spacious Saudi home, a dining room table and couches from America reminded me of the house on the hill where we had grown up, light streamed through the windows and onto my face. A soft and soothing moment gave me courage to continue past my sister, trying to ignore the awkward humiliation that had followed us from Riyadh. She smiled and nodded as I rounded the corner into what had been my place of self confinement for the past week. Foof walked with her cousin down the corridor, soft voices echoed on the marble floor, disturbing pleas from Jasmine, to stay and never return home washed over me bringing nausea and panic. My brother in law popped his head in the doorway and spoke with an uncharacteristic and solemn tone. He recited his plan of action, he would go outside upon his arrival and speak to him normally, letting him know there were no hard feelings, thus helping him to save face, maybe that would smooth the way. I prepared myself for his arrival and the four hour trip home, reminding myself who I was and what my mission in life was, to raise the kids and keep them safe, serve God and my family. There was no room for foolish pride, no time to be angry or harsh, someone had to be strong and not give into this madness. I planted the customary smile upon my face and gathered the bags.