Welcome home

Riyadh 1993

Events of the night before slowly drifted back, the crunch of dead cockroaches under foot, leaving the airport and walking into a rush of hot blustery air and driving aimlessly through the same neighborhood numerous times.  Each and every street looked the same, an open garbage dumpster positioned in a vacant lot, empty pop cans, plastic bags and remnants of shwarma sandwiches all lay strewn in piles that scattered the street.  Ferule cats snuck in and out of the make shift landfill, eyes glowing in the dark, skulking stealthy, looking more like predators than harmless felines. Workers stood rag and bucket in hand, dressed in ratty pants and shirts, scarves draped around their nose and mouth to filter out the dust and sand that swirled endlessly. They waved, flagging down cars in hopes of making a few riyals. Saudi boys kicked footballs, stirring up dust, their thobes ( long garment worn by Saudi men) hiked up and tucked haphazardly into their surwals (pants underneath a thobe) making it easier to maneuver during a routine game.

It appeared that each and every block was interchangeable and he had no more knowledge of this area than we did. A long line of cement walls with metal gates that enclosed tan colored villas looked to be one unit. He swerved in and out of traffic, looping around and back again to the same neighborhoods, stopping to peer momentarily at the vehicles lined up near the curb. An exasperated look crossed his face and sighs of irritation gave way to words uttered under his breath. After several attempts he finally smiled and said “Abu Abudllah’s truck”(downstairs neighbor and owner of the villa).  He parked the vehicle and exited to open the large rusty gate that stood in front of yet another row of impenetrable walls enclosing block like cement homes.

The van that had been borrowed from a Saudi friend was fully equipped with a/c, luxury seats and a small television.  He pulled out into the street and then backed into the parking area. An empty carport stood before us, hundreds of dead cockroaches lay on their backs, evidence of a recent fumigation in preparation for our arrival. One lone palm tree waved in the intermittent breeze struggling to grow among the concrete of this enclosure. I smiled and sucked down a wave of panic, thinking to myself that surely this was not the place we would call home. After all, I had paid my dues, had been the perfect and dutiful wife for ten years, living with bits and pieces of old furniture that Saudis left behind when returning home, had converted to a new religion and followed it to the letter. I turned away from my old life, singing jazz, pictures and friends. I told my parents that no gifts were allowed for holidays and did not resist when he announced a chosen name for each and every newborn.  It was a slow current that drifted away from autonomy and veered toward total lack of control. But this move to Saudi was the ultimate sacrifice and I was sure this time things would be different.

How this blog saved my life

The last communication I had with him was a week or so after he left and returned to Saudi. Since that conversation there have been no emails, texts or phone calls. This lack of communication has helped me slowly look at what happened and to start  piecing things together but has also meant no financial support. I want to thank each and every one of you who have emailed, called and commented on my blog. You have made a huge difference and your love and encouragement have changed my life.


June 2015

Days had passed since his departure from our home and an eerie calm pervaded. No one spoke of the previous three weeks but the tension that had permeated every part of our life fell away leaving the usual fear and anxiety.  I spoke when inquiries were made about food and transportation but sat silently most days, a confused and lethargic form. It seemed as if I had come so far, walked the road of desperation and betrayal and yet a part of me was still intact until this last event. A new feeling of numb and vacant went unnoticed until it could no longer be denied and I was unable to put thoughts into words and actions.

The last communication had been brief but the usual words were spoken and I played the customary roll reminiscent of years in Saudi, agreeing to any conditions that he listed. He would not allow my parents entrance into his home, nor would my sister and her husband be authorized to enter the premises. He did not want those that were against him eating food that he provided, nor did he agree with anyone spending time with his children. These outside influences were not acceptable and if I agreed to his terms he would consider resuming financial support. I stood in the laundry room, door shut, muffling cries that were undoubtedly still audible. A new hysteria took hold and even with the undeniable reality that he had in fact attacked me, I once again complied. “Yes whatever you want, you are in charge, please send money for the kids” shame and humiliation flooded my system and the cycle had been restored.

A sick feeling overtook me as I grappled with the idea that my refusals and standing tall had brought us to this point. It was the thing I had feared most, a lack of financial support and the idea that I had brought it on in one swift moment of stubborn indignation. I had never been allowed to work and in recent years when I showed interest the innuendo of cutting support always worked its way into our conversations. He reminded me of my honorable place as wife and mother and that scurrying around, acting as a maid was not becoming to my position in this life.

I frantically checked our joint account several times a day looking for that transfer of funds that were to provide food, clothing and medical care for the children. I soothed my injured brain and soul with the words he repeated when monthly money came late. “I will always provide for you no matter what” and so I sat waiting, on high alert, praying that he would make good on his word but acknowledging that the time had come for resumes and applications.

Each day crept past as I vacillated from fear and anxiety to stillness and inactivity. One month after he returned to Al-Khobar, an idea that had been tossed around for years was now put into motion. Saleeha set up a blog, insisting I pick a title. I reluctantly issued the letters that formed a name and remained unmoved by her excitement at the endless possibilities she saw in the future.

A vibrant yellow curry simmered on the stove, potatoes and chicken gently bubbled. A splash of color was needed for the square plate; a thin gold rim etched its way around the dish, adding flare to meringue shells. The sous chefs were summoned to roll pie crust, sauté onions and mix the filling for a broccoli carrot quiche. I fussed over the toppings for peanut butter pie as a decadent chocolate glace was poured over, cascading down the sides and into a glossy pool.  Ideas were tossed around regarding the finishing touches, peanut butter cups or tiny bits of cookies and finally whipped cream was piped along the sides. The kitchen clanked and buzzed and had come alive once again with the sounds of family cooking. Preparations for a blog post were underway and this meant that everyone would help, from the youngest to the oldest. Suggestions from the kids who no longer lived at home were received and discussed until a conclusion was made and the final product was presented. A non-stop wave had taken me from my bewildered and dormant position on the recliner to a whirl wind case of cooking and writing.  Little thought was given to the events that led up to this point and anything that remained was drowned out by the clinking of pans and the sweet smell of family cooking.


The brave

He stood in front of the mirror shaping his hair into the style he had become accustomed to. The blue backpack that had been purchased in fifth grade still looked almost new, he carefully placed a binder inside and stacked his lunch on top. “Goodbye mom, love you, keep your phone on high” and with that he walked down the steps and to the bus stop, leaving me with a warm feeling of affirmation.

His little hands clasped my purse and the standard words were spoken, “You won’t leave right mom, you will be right here, promise?” I smiled and hugged him issuing the words that had become well known to us both, nodding and motioning for him to join his class as they filed down the hall. He stood as he had each day, unable to leave my side until I spoke the words in exact order, with a resounding and unshakable tone “I will not leave this spot, I would never lie to you, I love you” and with that he reluctantly fell into line.

I took my place along the wall, each day inching further away, hoping that it would not prompt a negative response and push us back to where we had started. Progress was slow but at least he was sitting at a desk, only leaving class every hour to make sure I kept my solemn vow. The teacher peered out with a curious look as I took my seat, tucking my purse to the side.

In the four years since our arrival there had been several attempts made at getting him into school and each time the result had been the same. An overwhelming shame and guilt followed me and eroded an already shaky resolve that told me I was justified in moving back home.  I questioned my abilities as a mother as I watched my children struggle with things that seemed basic to other students. His words rang clearly in my ears and were a reminder of my failures, “Lynn, you don’t know how to raise a family”.

The principal walked past and nodded, stopping to make a few light hearted jokes about my daily presence and the incessant nature of my journey. I laughed awkwardly repositioning myself closer to the wall, trying to ignore the sound of scraping from the plastic chair. A dull silence fell around me as she swished away, stopping to instruct both students and aids. Her no nonsense demeanor unnerved me until she turned and offered a soft grin, a silent reminder of her commitment to our arrangement.

It seemed as if nothing had changed and each small step forward was met with resistance and complications. The house had fallen into chaos or at least it seemed that way as I sat for hours thinking of all the things that had to be done.

Days became weeks, well-meaning suggestions and advice were offered. I was told to just leave, he would get over it, to take a stand and make my move. I knew a shaky trust was on the line and so my position remained immovable. I was asked to help out in various classrooms, to serve lunch and sharpen pencils. A steady trickle of hope eeked its way out with any small but significant advance until I found myself outside on a bench, and then in the car.

Almost three months had passed when he suggested that I go home and make lunch, maybe I could return at recess. I held my breath and tried not to look back.


Review and edit of beginning 1994–Too polite

Each week I post old stories for those who have not read them, also editing them as I go- Last week- At the end of our tour he mentioned a tiny detail, as he always did, to make sure I understood and accepted, no electricity. The building was finished but waiting for a simple hook up which would be coming any day. Until that time, it was rent free and electricity was supplied from the building next door. The atmosphere and ability to view the outside world precluded logic and in reality the decision had already been made. I had no idea that days would turn into months, enduring temperatures as high as 115 degrees, struggling with hours of no a/c, no lights and no way to cook on the swap meet stove.



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 days 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 once again 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 as the huge brightly colored truck drove off down the road ending that first chapter of our life in Saudi.

Summer temperatures steadily rose to 115 degrees, opening the large picture windows in hopes of a breeze, only brought dust and sand and 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 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 of the cheery white cupboards with bright red trim, but just as quickly she seemed to search for something. 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 back to the appropriate settings,  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 door 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,you, too polite, he will come to this Mutbukh (kitchen) and cook instead of you”???


The hardest life

Life continued to move along and things stayed pretty much the same in the new compound. It was October and I was now 4 months pregnant with my 6th child, temperatures were dipping down to the mid 90’s but humidity was still high. Morning sickness was starting to wane and the second trimester was getting easier, not yet a heavy belly to weigh me down. The boys had been in school for a month and things seemed to be going along well without any of the issues we had faced in Riyadh.  It was time to send See See to first grade, she was 6. I started searching for a school, but after what we had faced at the previous schools I was guarded. My daily routine stayed the same as it had for years, cleaning, cooking and child care. The “dream” life I had imagined was now unfolding before me. My children were in a good school, having fun as children should, we lived in a home that I would never have imagined possible and I was expecting my 6th child.

I met two very lovely ladies who I became close to during the Al-Khobar chapter of our lives. One lady, Guadalupe, she was originally from Mexico but had married a man from the Netherlands. We spent hours at the little park watching our children play while we exchanged stories of our lives back home and marrying into a culture that was foreign to us. She was warm and generous with her friendship. The other lady is someone I would be friends with for the years to come. Her name was Gloria, she was ten years my senior and we connected automatically. She had children who had moved away from home many years before and was now a proud grandmother.  After the first experience with delivery I was in somewhat of a pleasant denial about going to the doctor until my dear friend Gloria actually intervened and made a birth plan during my 8th month. There was a nurse from Canada who lived on the compound and another older lady Virginia, from the U.S. These beautiful  ladies approached me and finally insisted on an answer about my doctor, how I would get to the hospital and who would watch the kids. I had no answer and stared blankly as they then talked with each other and worked on the details of my upcoming birth. They were good friends who knew nothing of our life before the compound or the realities of  living “outside”.  Although I had been raised in a nice home with everything I wanted, some how now I did not fit into compound life. I tried to be friendly and go along but complaints about the normal yet trivial things in life, seemed ridiculous and frivolous.

His job was in Dharahan one of three cities that make up this part of the Eastern province. The first month went well as he reaped the benefits of his U.S. passport and had better pay than any of his relatives would ever imagine. In Saudi Arabia people are paid based on the passport they hold. Being from a Western country means having the highest pay scale, your qualifications are of little importance if you are not holding this type of passport.  After a month I saw a pattern I had tried to deny for many years, it started with mild observations about other people’s jobs and their preferential treatment in regards to benefits, hours and of course, salary. It then turned to a conversation about his supervisor and how he constantly gave him projects that no one else would take. This then lead into the insinuation that some how I could help but was not willing to. I had spent years correcting his memos, editing reports and making my weekly sweet trays for each office he worked in. I had done what I could while juggling family responsibilities but some how I was told  there was something I was selfishly holding back.  He offered suggestions regarding my usefulness in regards to his job, If only I would network with these women whose husbands had high positions surely this would help. If I could speak to my friend Gloria, her husband was a manager and had worked for this company for many years. I valued our friendship, a real friend who truly cared about me, I smiled at him and nodded and then put it out of my mind.

He came home from work one day excited with the news of his new position within the company. He would be moving back to Riyadh after only a few months of living in Al-Khobar. The job would not pay more but he would be leaving the current supervisor who he was having trouble with.  He had once again returned to being optimistic and happy and the move was set. I looked at my children and thought of the horrible conditions we had faced in the schools in Riyadh, and decided we would stay put until school was finished for the year.This made little sense to him and he repeated the words I had heard so many times before, “I want you to have the hardest life so you will appreciate anything you are lucky enough to get.”

The outside world

Average Saudi neighborhood

As the long, hot summer drug on, the kids continued playing, making houses out of the couch pads. This is a tradition they would pass on to each younger sibling and continue until we left Saudi. The brown rough blanket we brought with us to the villa became a curtain, walls, maybe even a river. The cardboard box that Grama lovingly packed and sent, still sat in the corner. I guess it was a reminder that we were not alone and someone was thinking of us. My thoughts were focused on the year to come, in particular, school. I felt a sick pit in my stomach when my mind wandered to the previous year. I felt that it must have been the worst school in all of Riyadh, a school with inexperienced  teachers and administration. Surely any other school in Riyadh would be much different, this is what I told myself.

The weather continued to be hot, 115 degrees, but it felt much hotter. The heat increased with each passing day and was unrelenting.  Unlike the heat I had experienced as a child when hot summer days faded into cool evenings and we all sat on the lawn swing in the back yard.  The heat was bearable as we ran through the sprinkler and swam at the neighborhood pool. But this was a different kind of heat and sitting in the apartment day after day made it feel stagnant and dry.  It was irritating not having regular electricity and the comfort of air conditioning, boredom started to wear on me. The English channel turned on at 4 p.m. but had a limited selection of shows, many were older programs and all were heavily censored, often times only a few minutes remained for viewing. My attitude started slipping and I felt a twinge of despair until I started spending many hours looking out of the large windows. I noticed workers who walked with their buckets and rags, hailing people as they passed to offer them a quick car wash,  this put things into perspective. They usually had a two year contract to work in Saudi, they left behind family, possibly a wife and children. They were the backbone of Saudi society, maids and drivers, and other “workers” who held the fabric of life together. In later years they became true friends who helped me on many occasions, shuttling me around to look at housing and carrying my newborn babies through the grocery insisting that I should be at home in bed. My thoughts drifted back to school although I tried to push this away until it actually arrived and there was no more room for denial.

I was sure that things would continually improve for our family and he would indeed find his “dream” job, In the mean time I offered my support and encouragement. He brought home requests from new friends for books that needed editing, desserts for office functions as well as reports for odd jobs he had managed to land. I spent hours working on these tasks although I had no expertise in these fields as well as no desk or table, no proper stove or utensils. I did this in the hopes that the man I once knew who had entranced me with his kindly manner, and promises of abiding love, would come back if only for a fleeting moment.This would be enough to carry me through the passing days and nights.  I nursed the baby on my lap, held my little Foof and hugged See See as I wrote pages of reports, edited books and whipped up batches of hundreds of pastries. I felt I could not do much for him but offer my support. I comforted myself with thoughts of how it all began and where it would inevitably once begin again.

I passed my days taking care of the children and making friends with a few new ladies who had moved into the building. Electricity was to come any day and this time it was really going to happen. It had been 4 months without real electricity which had been a test but many people in this world live with much less. We also received a phone which opened up a whole new world. I met many American, British and Canadian ladies married to Arab men. They were living in Riyadh and coping with the school system and life in a foreign country. Potlucks and picnics were held at a school parking lot where we all sat on blankets, laughing as we watched the children run and play. The phone meant I had regular contact with my parents and sister as well as these new friends. They called to invite me to meetings, luncheons and coffee mornings but it was difficult to attend any of these events when there was no way to drive. Taxis were off limits until years later when my daughter, a grown up See See, and I  snuck  to get essentials while he worked away all week at a camp. These ladies were a life line for me and literally meant hope in the darkness. I invited them for a coffee at the apartment where we spent hours talking and listening to tips about living in the Kingdom.  As I cleaned up and straightened the apartment he arrived home. He asked about my day and offered what appeared to be enthusiasm for this day off from tedious chores. He told me that I should most definitely get out of the apartment more often and relax. He went to his room and changed into his pajamas as is customary in the Arab world. When he returned he sat with me just like old times, he joked and spoke warmly, asking me about the ladies and their visit.  I eagerly told him about the stories, ideas and tips that were shared. Again another glimpse into the past and the man I had once known.

The next Thursday (beginning of the weekend)  night rolled around, we packed the cookies we had made, the old brown blanket, diaper bag, and juice. The kids were excited to see the children from the week before. In Arabic school they had not been accepted but at this parking lot there were children much like them. American mothers and Arab fathers, it was a place to belong. This week my spirits were lifted in anticipation of seeing these ladies who were much like me and who faced the same struggles. We sat waiting for several hours bags by the door until it seemed evident he was not coming home and we were not going. We all fell asleep on our cozy pad beds watching tiny censored snippets of old sitcom reruns. When he arrived there were no words, or any apologies but this was the way our life would play out for years to come.

An offering from the box

The apartment brought with it many benefits, but like most things in life, also negatives. Not having access to regular electricity was quite a draw back. You don’t think about things until they are no longer available and of course electricity is a basic necessity and something we were used to.  I always made a mental list of the benefits that we had and in this case it was location near the school, clear windows to the outside and a clean, new place to stay. So, I kept my daily routine and tried to have fun with the kids. We laughed and joked and made forts out of the pads that were used for couches. The kids spent hours playing and for years to come, made their own games and entertainment out of little to nothing.

I received weekly letters from my parents that were a blessing, in addition to the call cabin conversations here and there. One day, like any other day he went out in hopes of finding his dream job, visited friends until the wee hours and then returned home, but also returned with a gift!  On this special day he brought with him a surprise, a box. A box with packing tape carefully wrapped around each corner, familiar letters that made my heart race. The kids gathered around and we all stood quite amazed at this new addition to the apartment. During the long, hot summer we rarely went out except for the occasional  quick trip to the mini market or a drop off at a park during prayer time, so anything new brought a great deal of excitement to our lives. It was neatly wrapped up, a brown, ordinary box, taped and sealed with a precision that could only mean one thing, Grama! Although the girls could not read they loudly and in unison shouted, GRAMA!

I told my children as they stood gazing at this treasure, let’s open it. As children do, they started tearing tape, opening flaps and quickly it stood offering up new possibilities for hours of fun during a long and hot summer. My mother as always, took care to find personal items for each child, a baby doll for Foof who was now 2  years old, a craft set for See See who had just turned 4, complete with beads and sequins and all of the glimmering things little girls love. For the baby, several outfits, toys and a baby book to record memorable milestones.The boys were thrilled to have games, books and action figures. My parents had been the sole providers of clothing for the past 5 years and so of course several outfits for each child. A pink journal, lightly scented lotions, soaps, pajamas and candy for all of us. She always thought of him and sent him nice work pants, a dress shirt and tie. This box although an ordinary cardboard box, held with it much more for all of us.

As night fell and the lights went out I promised the kids we would return to the box  in the light of day. It was hard to get them settled in for sleep because the thought of toys, games and the grandparents they had left behind were the topic of chatter for an hour or more. I gathered up the laundry for the early morning routine and placed it in the kitchen near the washer, I did dishes and anything I could before total darkness set in. I sat on the couch pad and rested in the glimmer of the light from the street lamps. I sat thinking of my mother and father and the box. Memories drifted back to summers I spent walking through our neighborhood to the community pool, riding my bike with friends and rolling down the big green summer hills in the backyard. We camped in our tent and then they bought a trailer, we made campfires, hiked to the swimming area, roasted marshmallows and then as teenagers angrily objected to these trips! It was all a blur now and he snapped me back into reality when he entered the dimly lit room. He commented on the box and how nice it was of them to send it. What a nice idea, although his pants were too long and his tie too brightly colored, but all the same, a nice thought and well received.  He sat next to me in the dark and asked me what I had received from the box, my heart sank as I knew what was next. He spoke for 10 minutes or more about the lovely gifts of perfumed lotions, soap and candy that he knew I didn’t like and never used, about a book that was over priced and a waste of time.  In the end the same result was coming, I must give up my treasures, maybe holding on to one small item if I wanted to keep my children’s gifts.  I knew the small price that had to be paid and although it was unspoken, as many things it was well known to us both.  He spoke of the children’s gifts and how impractical and expensive they were. Children in other countries were lucky to go to school, did not have clean drinking water and definitely did not have luxuries. I knew all of these things were very true and they ran through my mind daily!  When we lived in the States he would push and prod until some of these unnecessary items disappeared and were returned for grocery money. My mother’s new tactic was to be practical and patient, as she took him to the store and asked what we be good gifts for the household, of course she noticed with each visit the items she had purchased were not visible. He told me that of course these were my gifts from my parents and I should enjoy them, they were for me. But I knew from past experience this was the cue for me to say I did not care for such things and yes they were frivolous. The next day feeling secure that my children had their things and no store to return them to, I held the pink bottle, jasmine, I smelled the lotion and then quickly set it down, it was indeed a luxury, something a plain woman like myself did not need to worry about. I picked up the other gifts and put them in his room, my offering from the box and my heart.


Three oldest kids in new apartment


hall way to master bedroom and bathroom in the apartment

10- In exchange for…..

Life in the villa was back to normal, our little trip had given us the break we needed. School was the same with big ups and downs. The teachers didn’t seem to understand or care that the boys did not know Arabic. They kept complaining about their penmanship, so the nightly lessons in their duftars (notebooks) continued no matter what I said.

Cooking was still a huge challenge with little to work with and limited ingredients. One day he came home with pads that he had ordered from a local store. You pick the material and they cover them like a set of couches. This was a huge improvement to our living space. Dust swirled around and the sky turned a red and orange as winter in Saudi continued, men walked with their scarves wrapped over their faces and children wore wool coats and ear muffs. There were no big seasonal changes except for a cooling temperature and more dust drifting through the air. The walk to the school became routine but was a daily effort to make it past the street by the school. Each day at the school pick up I inquired about their day and each time they told me of their daily challenges. All in all things were going fairly well for the circumstances that we faced.

He came home from work one day explaining that his job just wasn’t working out and he needed to quit and find something else.  This would mean the beginning of a year with no income and even tighter monetary restrictions. We had a life in Seattle but followed him and now it seemed it was all for nothing. In Seattle we lived a modest life, he took the bus each day to his job downtown with the county, we had insurance and benefits that came with a good job. We lived in a small home but it had a nice backyard and ample space for a family of our size.  The house didn’t have much furniture but at least there were couches and some beds that people left behind when they returned to their home country.  I had many friends, Americans as well as people from all over the middle east. We had our daily routine which included home schooling, playing in the backyard,cooking and baking.  My parents lived 5 hours away and I saw them every month. My mother came for business and would call me to get her from the airport for a quick meet up before her day began. Our life was far from fancy but it was comfortable, full of freedom,  happiness and adventures. We went to farms to pick fruit, petting zoos, the science center and vacationed with my Mom and Dad at the beach. My parents bought land and started building a family lake home to spend the summers watching the grand kids play and grow.  All of these things were distant memories like the smell of warm apple pie and Grama Elva’s cinnamon rolls. Now this all seemed like a vacant exchange that meant nothing. I had traded this life to regain the person, the father for my children that I once knew. His easy going temperment and kindly manner had changed after five years of our relationship. I still remember my shock as he walked in the door from work, he asked me why two dish soap bottles sat on the counter and I replied  a typical, hmm,  “don’t know”. What happened next both shocked me and changed my life forever. Words flew loudly crashing every where and brought with them a strange and undermining trend that would increase in intensity and duration through the next 30 years. His family was unhappy that he was living in the United States, he needed to move closer, he needed a better job and things would improve, maybe he would be happy. And so the trade was made, the exchange had been set.

His job ended and he stayed home which was a blessing and a hardship at the same time. More monitoring but also some freedom. He went in to the boys school to sort out problems, took me to the store when needed and looked for a new apartment downtown. We spent hours looking through villas and apartments dreaming of what might be. This was the first of hundreds of efforts to look for new housing that would come and go over 16 years. We looked at expensive apartments on the top floor of upscale buildings, new villas with gardens and pools, but alas none of these would do. At that point I still believed in the fairy tale ending that was dangled in front of me, yet an offer that was never truly meant to be taken seriously.

One day he came home and told me he found an apartment next to a boys school, a wonderful school. It was right downtown in a beautiful building. My heart raced as I envisioned this place and at that point I could not stand the confines of the villa any more. When the children finished school we would move.  He took the children and I to see it, a new building with marble floors, a kitchen full of cheery white cupboards and a large clear window in each room. I stood looking out at the street, the cars, people walking and the loud sounds of the city. I felt a joy I had not felt for many years, alive and hopeful. The children ran and jumped and seemed so happy, it was a done deal, we would move.

It was June and Riyadh was 105 degrees or more most days. It is the kind of heat that is dull and draining, never ending. He found some workers out on the street and asked how much to put our belongings onto a truck. We were to move after a week. We didn’t have much to move or pack so we just did what we could to be ready. I thought of all of the things we would do and see and it was uplifting to just be able to see out the window. He said the rent was free until they brought electricity which would most likely take a few days. I agreed in my desperation to leave this villa and the school, to have light and a view of the world and in reality the decision had already been made. I had no idea that these days would turn into months struggling with hours of no a/c, no lights and no way to cook on the swap meet stove.

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new apartment building                                           Pads (couches) and end table


oldest son doing his homework

Purple Blossom


You look longingly at the courtyard full of lush green grass, you can feel it tickle between your toes, the sunshine washes over your face warm and alive. You move back and forth to catch the light, like a cat sprawled out on the living room floor, it turns to catch the rays when they disappear beneath the shade of the sofa. Its pink padded paws playfully touch the fading sun.
You would not dare to actually run, even if you could, but just walking is enough for your weakened limbs. 20 years of not walking has made you weak and numb. But once you make your escape who knows what awaits you. You stand in the grass, a tiny weed blossoms with colors of purple and yellow. You fixate on its delicate purple blossom. So perfect and tiny, how can it hold such beauty and intricate details in its tiny being. You marvel and want to bring it nearer to smell it. It must be full of a fragrant fruity splendor. You do not pick it because you know it would soon wilt and die and everything deserves the chance to live and to grow. You could not bare to spoil its perfection. You look beyond the grass to see the hills and you prepare to don your boots. You will walk thru the fields of wildflowers making a yellow endless blanket before you. You will walk, climb and run getting muddy, wet and tired. You will be …….free.
When you reach the summit out of breathe, muscles aching, you will witness glory. When you look to the right no metal screws, only the vast horizon. You can see the colors you’ve seen so many times, although it was years ago, you remember. The orange, purple, yellow and even blue, all mixed but perfectly layered. You will smell the pine trees and maybe even spot a dear leaping and free. It will awaken your soul, you are free, just 3 small steps to freedom. You will call to the dear “Yes you are free and so am I”  you will warn it to never stray beyond the hills to be trapped forever. As you breathe the free, clean air, not stagnant like your box, you feel a sharp pain run through your lungs, you cough and choke. You cannot breathe the clean, crisp air, you gulp and sputter. Years of not breathing this pure air of freedom is too much to take. Maybe you are breathing too fast, too much. You take a slow deep breathe in, then out, but still you feel the sharp pain invade your body. Your legs seize up, you try to move but you cannot.

You envisioned this escape for hours, days and months….. you day dreamed about the sun, its sensations, the mountains,the mud! How can your legs fail you as you stand poised and ready, waiting. How can your lungs not allow this sweet strong air to replenish you and carry you away. You put one foot out to start your way to freedom, your arms and legs are limp, lifeless. You start to roll down the grass picking up speed as you go, your body bumps, rocks lodge in your forehead, the beautiful blossoms are far behind you, you grab at trees, gravel and dirt to stop this procession. If you could you would tear a thousand blossoms from their roots, their life seems worthless and small compared to the freedom you crave. You look up to a blazing sun and you cannot see anything but fury. You realize your shirt is torn and your body is exposed. Your hair a matted muddy wig stuck to your bleeding head. You wanted to run but now you cannot crawl. The only smell is dust and dirt swirling around you.
Then a hand soft and familiar gingerly touches your broken body. It pulls you up gently, it encloses you, somehow a feeling of safety. It leads you back bringing you to your comfortable, secure place. It covers your body with a warm soft blanket of familiarity. No longer exposed, You feel relief, even joy . You can’t believe you dared to leave the safety of your box. Your arm is bruised, your face sun burnt. The sting of rocks and gravel lodged in your soul, peeling skin exposing everything, as you pull the pieces from your face, you think….. maybe the majesty of mountains is over rated after all.



The photo above is outside in the street near a typical neighborhood

After living for almost a year in Riyadh, we moved to an apartment. It was located downtown right next door to a boy’s school. Unlike the villa which had only one, small, brown plastic window high in the left hand corner of each room, this had huge clear windows. Living without a window to look out of might sound like a silly problem, but it is really a huge issue. Not being able to look outside at plants, animals or just a street, can be very depressing. The windows in the old villa were obviously not see thru but when they were opened were too high up anyway to see anything. So these clear windows with a view of busy downtown life were a welcome change for sure. Also not being able to drive or get out is a challenge so having a school next door for my two older sons was a huge benefit.

We didn’ t have much in the way of furniture so having it loaded onto a truck and carted over a few miles away was simple. The apartment was larger and new which was important because workmanship wasn’t always the best back then.

There was one huge catch, no official electricity! Rent was free until electricity was brought to this building which was supposed to come in a couple days but ultimately took 6 months. Now this is not to say we had no electricity, it was just fleeting. It was off and on which made cooking and food preparation tricky. Each day we were told “tomorrow, tomorrow” but each day no progress.

The boys attended the school next door so I could watch them walk there and back. There were huge improvements in this new chapter in Riyadh. I also met an Egyptian neighbor who was married to an American man. It was great to finally have windows and a friend.