1-Too Polite

We said goodbye to the villa, I kissed Um Abdullah (Saudi neighbor living downstairs) on each cheek and gave her my regards. We barely understood each other but she was a light for me in what had become a dark abyss. She offered her home, her phone and brought me tea and sweets on her visits. Looking back I can imagine it pained her to see nothing on top of nothing. For Arabs this would be considered a shame, something I didn’t know until years later when I watched young brides move into fully furnished apartments, new wardrobes filled with dresses, shoes and gold sets. One evening before we moved, Um Abdullah sent her son to tell him(husband) that she would make a visit to see me. He (husband) rushed up the stairs and whispered to me, “make sure to shut the doors, she cannot see that we have no beds”  so being the dutiful wife that I had become, I did as I was told. Even with the bedroom doors secured, Um Abdullah had to have noticed, the lack of typical adornments, pictures and doodads that Arab ladies place proudly around their residence. Instead a single large cloth was haphazardly tacked to the plywood that had been nailed up where an a/c should have been. We sat chatting, eating  biscuits and drinking the mint tea she carried on the ornate gold tray.  A kiss, kiss and words of God’s protection were exchanged until her black coat disappeared down the stairs and into her villa. I waved goodbye to her and to the villa and the huge brightly colored truck drove off down the road ending that first chapter of our life in Saudi. There were no lights in the apartment, but the two workers he had hired from the street,  carted boxes, refrigerator and stove up the three flights of stairs and into the hallway. Unpacking would have to wait until morning when the sun shone through the large picture windows. Once again we laid out the three pads and put blankets and pillows on them to make our sleeping area. The next day brought hours of no power, unrelenting heat and the reality that electricity really was a big deal.

Summer temperatures steadily rose to 115 degrees and opening the large picture windows brought dust and sand but little relief.  Days wore on as we waited for electricity to come, but days turned into weeks and eventually months. Our building was hooked up to a neighboring complex and took whatever power was left over. So after an hour of morning chores I could hear the dreaded thud and chug as the a/c abruptly shut down, signaling the end to electricity for an undetermined amount of time.  An air conditioner was purchased before we moved to the apartment under the proviso that it be used only on low and intermittent.  In order to obtain this much needed item I agreed and followed the terms for usage. This is how our life progressed, a measured step forward with many stipulations. My baby was 6 months old and woke frequently at night so at 5 a.m. I took the opportunity to start my morning routine.  I vacuumed and started a wash, hung it on the drying rack and prepared the afternoon meal. A good day meant finishing morning chores and getting a meal started for the day. An average day was met with power being spotty and nothing much being accomplished before the discontinuation of electricity.  We were the only tenants who lived in the building and an eeery feeling fell over the apartment when lights had gone and clicking could be heard in the hallways just outside the door. Prospective renters walked the halls, looking at various units and then just as they had entered, they exited. The children entertained themselves, running and playing tag through the empty apartment, carting each other on the back of a tricycle their aunt had purchased and making forts out of the bed pads. I passed time, looking out the large, clear windows, taxis sped past, workers washed cars with a rag and bucket in hand and feral cats rummaged through the garbage dumpsters.

A few weeks after moving in, a cousin who lived in Riyadh, came and brought his family for dinner. In Arab society it is obligatory to visit and congratulate when people when any significant life event occurs.We had no real furniture, but hospitality being what is is in the middle east, no one can be refused. I was to cook a large dinner for them and started on it as early as possible. With no electricity and a stove that barely functioned, this was a difficult task that I spread out over several days time. When they arrived, the woman, Um Tarik (mother of Tarik) came into the family room with her four children. She greeted me, removed her scarf and coat and sat, positioning herself directly in front of the a/c.  We chatted back and forth in bits and pieces of English and Arabic. She fanned herself and tended to her younger ones, pushing them to join my kids, riding the rickety blue trike. After the initial niceties, awkward silence set in and the language barrier once again became evident.  I told her I had to check on dinner and left, shutting the kitchen door behind me. Minutes later the door flew open and Um Tarik entered, she looked around and smiled in approval at the cheery white cupboards with bright red trim, but just as quickly she seemed to search for something else. Her eyes darted towards the a/c in the living room and  she moved swiftly, twisting knobs, shifting the vents and putting this machine into high mode. I stood watching her feeling the wave of cool air as it dried the sweat that had pooled under my eyes. I felt a twinge of worry and walked to meet her, cautiously and politely explaining the rules for proper usage, which were my job to enforce.  Turning the a/c to high and opening the door was a waste of cool air, it would be automatically sucked into the kitchen and wasted on cooling.  I adjusted the knobs, shut the door and returned to my work. Um Tarik repeated her previous actions and ended her movements by flinging the door open once more and tying the knob to the kitchen counters with a string she removed from the onion bag. She ended her tirade but stood firmly in her place, “Um Osama, too polite, he will come to this Mutbukh (kitchen) and cook? “