8-Al-Khobar or bust

Hair fell to the bathroom floor, sticking in the cracks where unsealed grout had been stained from white to black.  Cries and sobs were muffled as the scissors chopped raggedly, leaving strands that had now become a nuisance, a reminder of hot rollers, hair spray and hours of preparation and a life that was left behind.  Emotions had been bottled up since arriving to this place, no pots or pans, no phone, no beds. A sudden urge to have control over one small thing, anything, emerged and could no longer be avoided. All hair cuts were given in his chair, where he decided how a perfect wife and mother should look, even, short and plain, no frills or color. But now in this moment hair was flying, it stuck to eyes and lips, mixed with the moisture of tears that had finally forced their way out, long over due.

I had delivered this precious baby boy, bundled him up and held him close as we made our way home in the tiny old car that his company had loaned him. Leaving the hospital was like everything else I had experienced so far, more negotiating and questioning. They objected to my early release and said I was to stay 3 days, that was standard. When I refused, the first order of business was to get his written permission. I would not be able to check out or take my baby without his approval. I was not excited to return to the villa but it was looking better than the hospital at that point. In the bedroom we laid three pads together to make one large bed. The kids laughed and played and made their own space, arguing over who would be closest to little Abude. He slept on his own pad in the room directly adjacent, he could not be bothered with the sound of fussing and crying babies.

After things returned to routine, boredom and reality set in quickly. I looked around, no more jet lag, no more anxiety over delivery and no more excuses. A bare room, no furniture, no way to call anyone and no one to call. One large pot, a small frying pan with a handle that was broken, a stove that shocked me and no cupboards to store food in. As soon as we had arrived I was told that purchasing Western products was prohibited and that meant little comfort food for the children. I had been in a constant state of angst, a singular focus, get the boys into school, deliver this baby and survive. All of the glaring hardships didn’t quite register until this time. The boys were not happy in the neighborhood school, they were of course the only Americans there and learned the word “Amreke” very quickly. At night they had hours of penmanship, writing pages of Arabic letters and numbers. I had insisted on several occasions that he go in and speak to the teachers, but this did little good. Other students threw rocks at them and called them Amreke, Amreke (American).  When they asked the teachers for help the response was, “Go throw rocks back”. The numerous trips into the school were forced on my part and resulted in resolving a current issue (such as the rocks) only to face something else soon after.

My sister lived in Al-Khobar (four hours from Riyadh) but I had yet to see her, so a call from her husband (to his work place) inviting us for semester break became a focal point and something to look forward to. I spent the next few weeks planning our trip to Al-Khobar where we would stay with my sister and her family. She had a large villa, television, a phone and a house full of furniture. Her children played in their yard where she had made several attempts at planting grass and where she had carefully placed playground equipment.

As the days drew nearer, the intensity of our need to leave this place grew stronger, until one day when he announced casually, ” Oh, by the way, we can’t go to Al-Khobar!” I felt a sick rush of heat lather my face and body, it started at my head and seemed to rush like waves down to my feet. I had not realized the effect of this living situation in its totality until that moment. I stammered and asked what, why? His response was that they might be out of town that week, ” maybe some other time”. I gathered my self together and served the lunch time meal, all the while holding back waves of frustration and tears. I calmed myself with the constant reminder that I was “lucky and privileged”, repeating the words I heard so often. He ate his lunch, said his goodbyes and made his way back to work.  I stood looking at the brown doors leading to the stairs and  thought of the coming break and the days that would be spent sitting on the floor staring at the walls, serving up smiles and ideas to pass countless hours. Like a child who reached the top shelf of a forbidden cupboard, I grabbed the scissors and decided to cut my unruly, straggly hair, now matted with sweat and tears.