Residing on the Riyadh compound was a real life, not a life without lights or power, no furniture, no beds, not enough and always making do. Returning gifts to buy groceries and making the necessary excuses to avoid invitations. This was a real home, furniture, appliances, a dining room set complete with a hutch full of china. Soft, fluffy blankets were placed on the beds, enough pillows and sheets and a place for each child to lay their head. End tables, lamps, curtains and throw pillows, it all seemed permanent and lasting, for the first time. Neighbors walked past giving a wave, nod or smile which meant contact with other people. No way to escape or hide a life that had been monitored and measured in every way. Marriage so far had been full of “temporary” living. The idea that tomorrow would be the day when we would finally settle, have friends, be happy and content. This lack of stability continued well through this ten year mark and showed no sign of changing. Being a busy mom I neglected to sort out when this magical event would occur and it seemed unimportant at that time. My one concern was trying to raise the beautiful children I had been blessed with.
The kids spent the rest of their summer sleeping in, watching cartoons, lazy day breakfasts of pancakes and cream cheese sandwiches, walks to the park and swimming at the pool. The boys now 9 and 10 were old enough to walk around the compound and to the recreation center to play basketball. For the first time in their lives they made friends, real friends. See See and Foof sat on the porch playing tea time with the British neighbors, giggling, sharing imaginary sweets, and then walking to the park across the street. Ladies speed walked past the porch waving and giving a hearty greeting. Coffee mornings were held weekly and residents met at the clubhouse to chat and get to know one another. The shopping bus left each day at two appointed times, people were shuttled to a variety of destinations throughout Riyadh. A thriving community was taking shape inside of the compound walls, people bonded through the commonality of expat life. While existence on the inside of the compound was full of privilege it was also clouded by the fear of possible attacks and security was always a looming reality. No one entered the compound in a vehicle except residents who were carefully checked upon each and every arrival. Guests had to stop at the gate, sign in, have their ID approved, their visit confirmed and only then could they proceed on foot.
My routine remained unchanged as I navigated through the life of being a stay at home mom to 6 children. I woke each day at 4 to nurse my baby and then to make the sunrise prayer (Fajr). I headed down stairs to start cleaning and making breakfast. I had yet to make any friends on the compound but it had only been a few weeks and I was a busy mom. The previous compound was beautiful and upscale but also had an unwelcoming vibe with it’s white carpeting and glass wall in the family room. This new home was warm and comforting, soft green carpet lined the rooms, a far cry from the rough chipped tiling in the first villa. Life seemed surreal, a dream that had been whirling around my mind for 10 long years. Finally I would not feel that shame when mother felt the necessity to bring basic housewares to an empty home.
Allowance, toys and gifts were not allowed in our household and until this time things had gone according to his plan. The children and I wore approved clothing, spoke no words that offended his senses, and ultimately kept unwanted thoughts to ourselves. When I stepped out of line the result was not good for anyone in the household and could produce hours of screaming and days of anger. His explanation was that every few months I had some “strange” issue that resulted in unflattering behavior and thus a problem ensued. This logic is what I grew to accept and believe and so I tried my best to keep this unwanted trait under control. But now in this open environment interacting with people who seemed to walk about freely, who lived a rather normal life, things rapidly changed. It was the first step to thinking different thoughts and breaking outside of our unreal world and isolation. My oldest son had always opposed his father’s rules and now more than ever it was hard for him to understand our “tightrope” life. It seemed impossible to stop this wave that had now started. At first he questioned simple rules and then it grew to include allowance, gifts and toys. I stood holding my breath as this progression unfolded each day and although it was unnerving, I supported my son. His first new friends were American, Australian and Pakistani expats. They had the latest electronic games, trendy gadgets and also basic things such as bikes. One of the biggest past times for children on the compound was riding bikes. They could safely make the half mile loop around the houses, up to the mini market and recreation center. Days wore on and my son continued to jog next to his friends on their bikes, cut through the park to meet them at the “Rec” and answer the unending questions from friends as to why he didn’t just, “get a bike”. He repeatedly asked his father if he could some how earn money to purchase a bike, help mama around the house, do chores and any bike would do. His requests were all met with the usual response, stories of his brothers/uncles who had to work all year in a laundry shop and still could not afford a simple luxury like a bike. While I felt the pain that my in-laws faced I also watched as kids on the compound sported their scooters, pogo sticks and play stations. Once again I did what I had grown accustomed to and approached him about the bike. Hours of negotiations and the numerous trade offs were made in order to finally secure a simple, green bike! Each time a little piece of dignity was traded and each time the cutting words I had heard many times rang in my ears, “You are only good for one thing Lynn.”