I looked out the window as we sped down the freeway and back to the comfort of our compound home. Endless desert stretched out before us, camels dotted the landscape, interspersed with bedouin tents where men sat wrapped in blankets, stoking fires and sipping tea. My son leaned against my arm, rubbing the bump that remained on his head, where hours before he had been pushed into a cement wall and onto the floor. He laughed and played peek a boo with baby Soos who fussed and then giggled at his silliness. The stress of not eating our usual after school meal and sitting for hours in the hospital waiting room had taken it’s toll, leaving the children tired and impatient. We entered the compound and drove the loop finally arriving home. A quick snack, then brushing teeth and off to bed for the early morning wake up at 5 a.m. I got the little ones to sleep and then gingerly scooted next to my son on his single bed, watching the rise and fall of his chest and listening to his breathing. The doctor confirmed a concussion based on his symptoms, but said careful monitoring was all that was needed. I was relieved and spent the night next to him, waking him gently every hour until I was too tired to stay awake myself.

The next day brought more anxiety than usual as I woke the boys for school and made their lunches. I insisted on keeping my son home but the stress of not attending and the hours of work he would miss made him determined to go. It had been almost 24 hours and I could see it was a losing battle, so off with the driver they both went. As I waved goodbye   the same old worries set in, magnified by events of the day before. I felt a sudden rush of anger paired with realization. I hesitated for a moment trying to shake off the cloud that came over me and seemed to resurface every few months. I swept and mopped, scrubbed and vacuumed but it was all for nothing as tears streamed down my face and into an invisible pool. I thought terrible things inside my mind, he didn’t care, he was wrong and I wanted more.  Each time this frustration came, I carefully voiced my opinion and mentioned my inner most fears thinking this would some how soften his heart. The result was the same,  he would remind me that I was listening to the shaytan (devil) and needed to be thankful for all that I had. I neatly tucked these thoughts away, filed under disobedient and ungrateful, begging for forgiveness and praying I could fix whatever triggered my unhappiness.  I continued with my work, piles of laundry, cooking and baking, all the while wondering how my sons were doing at the Arabic school.  I thought of all the good that I had been blessed with, but the waves of anger could not be held back. I remembered my own childhood, attending University elementary, where children were sent to the school nurse if they fell and scraped a knee. Teachers were firm but did not yell or call names and some left a lasting impression that shaped a young child’s future.  I sat and furiously wrote a letter to the doctor, informing him that my sons were never to be turned away and in any event a call was always mandatory. I signed it and wrote the villa phone number at the bottom vowing to send it the next day. When I finished with my silent rant and calm had once again been restored, I approached him and gave him the letter. I asked him to deliver it to the doctor and explain that this was unacceptable and he was to call me if anything ever happened that lead my boys to his office. He agreed to do this and hugged me kindly, “Um Osama you worry too much, it’s not good and you are raising nervous children”.


Red haze

As we said our goodbyes and left Al-Khobar, the scrub brush and various greenery that comes with being close to the sea all faded away, the red and tan desert hues returned. It was all behind us now,we were going back to our usual routine. I looked out the window at camels and desert and more desert. People always told me that it was very beautiful the way the sand unfolded before you, never ending. But I still missed the pine trees and forest I grew up in, seeing the deer dart across the long windy road up to the house in the woods. The thought of living in Al-Khobar near water was some how comforting or maybe it was the idea of being near relatives. Either way we were now heading back to our life in Riyadh, a certain melancholy surrounded me. I sat in the car looking out at the desert that stretched before me, thoughts of my childhood and the beginning rushed through my mind. I felt a twinge of uncertainty but this could not be addressed, I had made my choices and I needed to now live with them, make the best.

As we returned to our apartment we set back into the daily routine.  He walked down the stairs and around the corner to drop the boys at the school. See See and Foof played with baby boy who was now 15 months old, watching him toddle around the house, pushing him in Grama’s perfume scented box. He giggled and crawled out of the box making his way to the kitchen holding onto my legs. I knew my job well and did my best to make things as they should be. When he entered there was to be no sign of anyone living in this place, no toys, no ladylike touches, neat and clean as if no one lived here and in many ways I felt as if we did not.

The idea of moving to Al-Khobar was a hopeful sign of improvement and so far we had only made progress in our new life in Riyadh. Each day he spoke of this job and the beautiful compound that we would move to and each day I followed his words as if they were reality waiting to be played out. There were many rules in the apartment and in order to keep things on an even keel for the children, they had to be followed to the letter. They were young and should not have such restraints, but I could follow and did. My window was still a place of solace and a reminder of those less fortunate.

One day he arrived home with the news that he was offered a job,a new car and compound living. He would need to move to Al-Khobar right away and we would be left at the apartment for 3 months on our own. He would return on most weekends and we would move in the summer. It was a bit unsettling thinking of getting the boys to school and back with 3 small children to cart along, no apparent way of getting out for any necessity and a list of other concerns, but we would be moving to a compound! I was filled with a guarded optimism and started thinking of all that was to come! I stood at the window looking out at the sky, a red haze loomed covering everything in view. There was a sort of beauty to this, as if a red snow storm had engulfed the city. I thought of the cake that had splattered at my feet and tears came to my eyes, I brushed them back as unwelcome reminders. Munira, the older of the female cousins laughed with him about the cake, he laughed back, a laugh I had not heard for years. They joked and spoke in Arabic, I understood little. I saw Munira’s smile turn as she raised her voice and stood. She waved her arms at him and walked toward me as if to shield me from this obvious assault on her senses. She pointed to me and I understood the rest. “He had put his bare foot up to my face and told her with a sheepish grin, yes watch she will kiss my foot, watch!”

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.

Too Polite

We said goodbye to the villa, I kissed Um Abdullah 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. She announced her visit one morning by having her son inform him as he left for work. He made his way back up the stairs to tell me, “make sure to shut the doors, she cannot see we have no beds or furniture”  so being the dutiful woman I was, I did as I was told. Um Abdullah had to have noticed, no chairs, tables, pillows or anything that average people have in their homes, but she graciously said nothing.  I waved goodbye as the huge brightly colored truck drove off down the road ending that first chapter in our life in Saudi.

The apartment was large with 3 bedrooms, a family room and a living room. It was clean and fresh, clear  windows with a view to busy downtown Riyadh. This was enough, just to see the light of day, to feel like you were part of the universe once more. The bathroom in the villa had been a dirty tan, the tiles were broken, dirt stained grout held them together, the bathtub had patches of spackle or glue stuck on various spots, maybe covering holes. There wasn’t a shower curtain and cockroaches entered from the drain that’s only cover was a plastic like sieve. In the apartment things were different, one bathroom was grey with shiny tiling and a clean smooth tub. The other was pink with white tiling. A third half bath was just off the foyer. I felt a warm rush, a comfort I had not felt in years.

The summer was hot and temperatures steadily rose to 110 degrees. 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 building to share electricity. So after an hour of morning chores I could hear the thud and chug as the a/c abruptly shut down. 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 started the afternoon meal. It was a good day when I could accomplish all of these tasks before I heard the thud of the a/c.  On a not so good day, power was off and on all morning and returned for minutes only to turn back off. We were the only tenants who lived in the building at this time. Each day we waited for electricity and each day it did not come.  A bright point in our life was the fact that a phone was soon to arrive. We spent our days in the new apartment looking out the large windows to see taxis and cars speeding past, workers washing cars, stray cats walking to the garbage dumpster and people coming and going. Occasionally people would walk though the empty building, but just as quickly they would leave.

A cousin and his family lived in Riyadh. We had met them once and now they were coming to visit the new apartment. We had no real furniture but hospitality being what is is in the middle east, no one can be refused. This was a custom that was hard for me to accept because random visits at 11 p.m. on a school night must be accommodated with a smile and a cup of tea. This is one place I put my foot down or at least put up a fight, anything that effected my children would rile me enough to stand my ground. My children were in bed and could not be disturbed with the noise of visitors. 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. It was a steady heat in the apartment but the a/c offered relief and a stream of cool air. She sat on the pads removing her coat and scarf, she smiled and approved of the new apartment. We chatted a little but understood just as much, she had no English and I struggled with my kindergarten Arabic. I left to the kitchen to check on the food and of course she was soon to follow. She flung open the door and looked disturbed as she stood holding onto the counter, I could tell she wanted something but was not sure what that was. She ran to the family room adjusting the a/c to the coldest temperature and highest fan setting. I scrambled to the room and grappled with the controls telling her no, no!  I had been ordered to keep the kitchen door shut because it was a waste of cold air into the kitchen and not efficient. She lifted her arm and wildly switched the knob as if to tear it out of the wall! I shut the door to the kitchen, it was as if I was chasing a child who was out of control. First the air conditioner setting and now the door, I stood in panic not sure which way to move. She flung the door open and told me No Um Osama, you are too polite woman, NO!”


Cute 5th child eating a popsicle, cheery kitchen

cupboards in the new apartment.

8- A Crease

I had delivered this perfect little baby boy, he was amazing and precious! I 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 release and said I was to stay 3 days, that was standard. When I refused, the first order of business was to get his permission. I would not be able to check out or take my baby without his approval. After they got his o.k. they gave me a stack of paper work to sign stating that I was leaving against the advice of the doctor. I happily signed and left. I was not excited to return to the villa but it was looking better than the hospital at this point. It was a case of everything being relative, and the villa was looking pretty good at that time.

It was a relief to be past the worry of delivery and to be home or at the villa again. In the bedroom we laid the three pads together to make one large bed. We had our blankets and pillows and the weather had cooled down nicely. We all snuggled up as we would for years to come. He slept on his own pad in another bedroom, he could not be bothered with the sound of fussing or crying babies. I was happy to just be there at that moment in time holding my children close.


My first child born in Saudi

After things returned to our old routine, boredom and reality set in quickly. I looked around me, no more jet lag, no more excuses. A bare room, no furniture, no way to call anyone and no one to call. The boys were not happy in this neighborhood school, they were of course the only Americans at the school. 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 no good. Other students threw rocks at them and called them names. 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. In the villa there were no pans except for a frying pan with a broken handle and a medium size pot. The stove barely functioned and there were no cupboards to put any grocery items in.  I was not allowed to purchase Western products but expected to make large, elaborate meals. I tired my best to be happy and look at the bright side, as I had been told many times I was privileged and lucky.  But clearly things were starting to fall apart for me and the kids. My mother taught me over the years to strive for my personal best no matter what others were doing. Looking back I guess this was my motto and what I tried to live by.

We had been told we would have full medical coverage with his job, but upon arrival found we had access to a doctor who had a tiny office in an old run down apartment building. We were allowed to have 3 people seen by him, so I took the baby for a check up. On the way out I saw a tiny bukala (neighborhood store) nearby. I asked him to stop to get milk and I quickly ran in. I saw shelves lined with chips, candy bars, pop and Western goodies. I took my chance and grabbed a handful of snacks along with a container of milk.  I looked out the window to see if he was looking, but he was occupied by the chatter and commotion of my two little girls who were playing and jabbering and being typical children. I pushed the snacks up first and waited for the cashier to ring them up and bag them. I shoved them haphazardly into my diaper bag under an array of motherly items. I grabbed the milk, slung my diaper bag over my shoulder and readjusted tired arms that were holding my baby. I was delighted with my purchases and knew this would give the kids a little taste of home!


This is an average Saudi street with mini markets (bukala) and many other shops

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 came as a huge beacon of light! My sister had met and married a man from Saudi Arabia while she was at University, during my summer break I went to visit her in the small University town of Pullman, Washington, and this is where I met him. So it was really just a matter of coincidence that a family with only 2 daughters, both married middle eastern men and moved to Saudi Arabia! I  was an impressionable 20 year old whose only life dream was to sing Jazz and go on the road with a band,  he was a 25 year old man from Damascus who was studying Engineering. So, that is where it all began.

My heart had been lifted and I felt the relief that comes with seeing a light in sheer darkness. I had no suitcase but set to packing and planning. She had a large Saudi house that they rented, it had a yard with a place to run and play, air conditioners, beds, a t.v. and all of the things that normal houses have. I was elated and started day dreaming and telling the kids they would soon see their cousins. At that point she had three children and they were the ages of my children.The cousins were close, like siblings and when my sister made her annual visit to the states, before our move to Saudi, we saw each other often. This upcoming event made the days bearable and gave hope that things would surely change.

A week later when he came home for the noon time lunch and nap, he flippantly threw out the words,” Oh we cant 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 now. I stammered and asked what, why? His response was that they might be out of town that week, ” maybe some other time.” Tears welled up and crashed down my face in uncontrollable splashes. But I gathered myself together and served the lunch.

After he left I felt a little twinge that would later become a large crack until it broke through to my brain and I could see my way out! But at this time it was a tiny little crease, a start. I huffed and puffed and cried and let out 4 months of sadness and frustration. My hair was now long and fell onto my face and shoulders constantly wet from the heat and sweat in the villa. I found some scissors and went to the bathroom, I locked the door and stood looking in the mirror, who was this person, who? I chopped my hair wildly as if I were a toddler who found scissors on the top shelf of a forbidden cupboard. I randomly cut chunks,chopping every where until the feeling of tears mixed with wet hair stuck to my lips and tongue.  I sat on the toilet and sobbed, wiping away the fallen hair from my face and mouth. After 5 minutes I stood and looked, horrified! I was the rock, the stable person who could absorb all things. I had learned early on that I was not and never would be a beauty queen, but I was funny, helpful and stable. Now, what had become of me,  what a bad woman, willful and defiant, not God fearing at all!  I shuttered at this thought, quickly cleaning the floor with a wet tissue. I rinsed my head under the shower and composed myself. What was I thinking, this could never happen again, I needed to be more patient and try harder. There were people who had nothing, no water or electricity, no access to any medical care. I was lucky!  I felt a sick reality rush over me, was he right, was I really just a spoiled, entitled woman?

Tiny drops of blood

It was now December, 6 weeks after we arrived to this place. The boys were in school and still not liking it, but it was going along as smoothly as it could for two American boys, who didn’t know a word of Arabic but were put into a traditional Saudi school. My two little girls both under the age of 4 were playing around the villa and we passed the time cooking and baking the best we could. I didn’t dare return to the doctor but instead thought of finding a different doctor, but wasn’t sure how to do that. Sitting in the villa with no phone (no cell phones back then) and no way to communicate with anyone made it an impossible task.  The doctor ordered many tests and of course I complied and completed these to ensure a safe delivery.  I had not produced my investigations or files and that is a basic requirement. This had slipped my mind when preparing for Saudi. He had gone to Saudi 2 months ahead of us to  “get things ready” and I stayed behind with 4 children under the age of 6. I was to sell the house, pack everything up and prepare to leave all in 8 weeks time and all alone. So, I had not remembered to get a copy of my files.

My estimated due date was in mid December but according to this new ultrasound it was mid January. This threw me off and I was not sure what to believe. I had kept all of my appointments with my OB in Seattle and had taken all of the required tests but some how my due date was wrong. This seemed overwhelming but there were so many other issues at hand that it all blended together and I just simply lived, cooked and took care of my children.

I had spoken to my parents from a local call cabin once since arriving in Saudi.  Before cell phones the call cabin center was flooded with workers (maids and drivers) who, like me, had no other way to contact loved ones. I remember lining up to wait for a tiny booth, sitting on a chair behind a faded curtain, and waiting for my parents to answer. Saudi Arabia is 10 -11 hours ahead in time so the one time I would make it out, there was no answer. While this sounds dramatic, it was my “one phone call” and no one was there. Tears were seen as weak and manipulative so I held them back as I gathered my kids and went to the car. So, finding a new doctor was not even in the picture at that point.

One afternoon after getting the kids from school and eating, we all laid down on our pads and fell asleep. I awoke to the feeling of wet! I stood up and walked to the brown tiled bathroom. I assured myself that this was nothing and I had a month to go according to this new doctor. Although she was unfriendly and aloof I was hoping at this point that she was right in her estimation. I went to the bathroom and a steady but light stream of water continued off and on. I felt panicked and sick at the prospect of going back to this doctor and this hospital. I once again composed myself and held back tears to go and tell him that I needed to go to the hospital! I had one friend from Seattle who had a Saudi husband. She had moved to Saudi shortly before me and we had visited her once in her apartment. I had no phone but knew she would look after my children so I was dropped off at the hospital and the kids were taken to her apartment. This was difficult for me as well as the kids, who had never been away from my side except when I delivered a baby.  The thought of leaving them any where gave me great distress but there was no alternative.

I went to the OB floor and checked in and was informed that no men were allowed on this floor. There were, of course women every where and so no men could be roaming around the halls. I told them that he would stay in the room and I needed him with me! They, surprisingly agreed to my request. I was ushered to a room and told to put on the standard hospital gown which I did. I sat on the bed and waited for a nurse or doctor to arrive. The nurse and doctor entered the room, again the doctor did not acknowledge me but checked my cervix and asked me a few questions. She told the nurse several things in Arabic and headed for the door. I understood IV and some type of medication. So, I spoke up as politely as I could and asked “oh excuse me what did you say.” She stopped cold in her tracks and looked shocked that I dared to question her or speak. She turned partially and looked as if she was in a state of confusion. She reeled off her orders to the nurse again and kept going.  I tried to get her attention one last time and called to her.  She turned and looked at me as if I were a speck of dust or a fly on her arm that she wanted to brush off. She spoke in a harsh condescending tone directly to me, for the first time, “I said we will give you an IV, an enema and medication” She turned to leave just as quickly as she had arrived.  “Doctor excuse me!! I do not want an IV or an enema and what is the medication for?”  She stopped momentarily as if she would just keep going but after careful thought turned around, “We will give you these things” I told her I had never had an enema and did not want one and wanted to see if I would go into labor before taking medication, I was already having contractions. She simply said FINE and left.

I felt sick and worried and had no way to call my mother who was an RN.  I missed my children and worried about them being away and lonely for me. The contractions kept coming and got closer together and then after a couple of hours just stopped! I walked around the OB floor and tried to get the contractions to start up again but nothing happened. After 4-5 hours he went to the nurse’s station and asked about the doctor. They told him she would be coming just wait, wait and wait some more. I spent the night sleeping off and on, waiting for the doctor, but she never came.

Morning arrived and still no sign of the doctor. I spent the morning calling my friend every few hours to check on the kids. They were fine but wondering when I would be coming to get them. I asked the nurses off and on when the doctor would arrive. They were very kind and reassuring and told me not to worry. I had entered the hospital at 4 p.m. the day before, now it was 2 p.m. the next day. I felt a panic and doom as I waited, having no power to do anything. Finally after 22 hours the Doctor came and gave me medication to soften my cervix. She was rough in her exam and in her application of the medicine, “you know you could have had this baby by now if you had listened to me” she said sharply as she finished up and walked away. I felt like crying but did not, I also felt blank and helpless and defeated. After an hour contractions started again and got stronger. The doctor entered the room and put something into the IV and at this point I knew not to question.  It had been almost 24 hours since my water started leaking and I knew I must have the baby soon. After a few minutes my body was wracking with pain, not the usual pain I had felt in previous labors, but a piercing, all consuming pain that I could not gain control over. I asked the nurse to check me as I felt the sudden urge to push. “No mama no, not time the nursed warned gently.” But at this time an overwhelming urge to push led to a type of convulsing I had never experienced before. I could not hold back pushing it was like holding back the ocean as my body heaved in pain. The nurse cautioned me that my cervix might rip it was not time, but there was nothing to be done it was not in my control. The nurse looked and must have seen the baby’s head because she yelled for the doctor and they wheeled my bed into the delivery room. The doctor stood over me as I writhed in pain, I TOLD YOU TO LISTEN TO ME YOU WOULD NOW HAVE THIS BABY! As she said these words my beautiful son was born! I lay in a heap of jumbled relief and agony. The doctor tired to continue her tirade but to my surprise I said YES OK in a raised voice! She stopped talking, finished up and left. I was then wheeled into another room for recovery where the kindly Filipino nurse gently cleaned me off. She was comforting and spoke softly as she washed me. She then left for a few minutes and brought someone with her, an American lady! She greeted me and sat beside me, she told me she was in charge of the nurses on this floor and regretted not being informed of my arrival. She explained that us Western women asked questions and wanted to be involved in our healthcare and that was seen as an annoyance and disrespectful. She had tried to change this perception and involve patients but it did not go far.

I was taken to my room and he went to bring my children. They had taken my baby to the nursery soon after he was born which worried me after my delivery experience. I called to the nursery and asked for my son, they said no they could not bring him. My reply was that I would walk in my little gown down the hall to get him myself and didn’t care who was there or who would see me! They brought him straight away. This delivery was different, each time I tried to stand blood flowed as if a faucet had been turned on. I ran to the bathroom, if you can run after delivery, and made an attempt at emptying my bladder.  I made my way back to the bed and tried to stop the bleeding, I looked to the floor where a spotted trail of blood was left behind. I could do nothing but lay back and try to control this bleeding which did subside when I was not walking. After a few minutes my children came running to the bed, hugging and kissing and sitting with me! It was a relief to have them back with me. He looked angrily at the floor and a sharp reprimand followed regarding the tiny spots of blood from the bathroom to my bed.  I explained that I could not control it and could not move to clean it up, I  then realized these were usually taken as excuses so I apologized and he called a maid to mop up. I didn’t let this bother me because this chapter was done, I had my children back and my baby was healthy and safe.

Walking a tightrope

We had been in the villa for three weeks and had settled into a routine. We had some basic appliances which didn’t work well but served their purpose at that time. A used washer was finally purchased which was a relief because with a family of 6 comes a stack of laundry. Washing laundry in the bathtub, ringing it out and climbing the stairs with a wet, heavy basket of clothes to be hung on the roof, was not working for me!  The boys had been in school for a week and although they didn’t like it, things seemed to be going o.k. It was like walking a tightrope, trying to live in this new place with no comforts from home, keeping two toddlers occupied with nothing much to do, cooking on a limited stove, while helping the boys with hours of penmanship lessons. In the back of my mind still looming was the fact that I was 8 months pregnant and needed to find a doctor and hospital for delivery!

An American lady, who later became a close friend, came to visit me. She had one daughter and was pregnant. Her husband was from Syria and she also lived outside in a villa. She was a breath of fresh air and a comfort in my solitude. We laughed and joked and talked about home as we sat on the blue plastic chairs. She told me things would get better and also told me there was a Safeway in Riyadh, with peanut butter, loaf bread, cheese and most Western products.  I knew that this would be off limits to me as he had told me in the beginning, we were living in Saudi and must adapt and live accordingly. But it was nice to know this was a possibility! She also told me where to go to see a doctor and invited me to come and see her some day. This visit gave me a ray of hope and helped me to recharge.

I finally had to address the issue of finding a doctor. Before I had moved to this place I had high hopes for my delivery in Saudi. My mother begged me to stay and deliver my baby in the States, not in a foreign country away from family, but I thought she was just worrying over nothing. I can still see her face in the NY airport, crying and looking older than her years! She was a hospital administrator well ahead of her time as a woman in the business world, beautiful and vibrant, but at that moment in anticipation of the goodbyes she looked old,fragile and scared! My mother had been my role model and best friend before I entered into this relationship. We shared most things and laughed and joked! Remembering her at that time not wanting to let go, her face an ashen grey, tears streaming, I had never seen her this way!

One day soon after my friend’s visit I gathered the girls and headed downstairs to Um Abdullah’s house. As always, she graciously welcomed me and lead me to the sitting room where she offered me tea and fruit. She brought her phone and handed it to me with a smile on her face. I held the tattered piece of paper with the hospital number scratched on it. I dialed the phone and waited for someone to answer. A male voice answered the phone saying something in Arabic and when I asked for the OBGYN department he hung up. I called repeatedly and each time I was transferred or I heard a dial tone. Um Abdullah looked at me with questioning eyes, but I could not explain something so difficult with my kindergarten Arabic. So, I gave her my greetings and headed back upstairs.

A few days later I went to the hospital. I had never been to a doctor’s office in a hospital so it was new to me. I stood at the counter as people walked past and were checked in for their appointments. Again it was as if I were invisible to all those around me. I finally said “hello yes, can you help me, can I see Dr. Laila?” The lady at the counter didn’t look up but finally acknowledged me,  She told me simply, “NO”  I didn’t understand this system or what I was doing wrong. Every where I went I felt quite invisible and out of place. He stepped up and spoke to the woman behind the counter in Arabic and she then made some type of appointment. I sat in the waiting room for women while he sat in the men’s room. An hour later the nurse came out,Madam Leen? 

I followed the nurse down the hall and into a room where she weighed me, took my blood pressure and chatted briefly. She was a pleasant Filipino lady who asked me if I was American. And that was the glimmer of hope that would stay with me through all medical encounters the rest of my time in Saudi! She touched my hand, smiled and looked into my eyes. She told me her brother lived in California and  asked about my family.  After a few minutes a lady in a white lab coat entered the room. She looked sharply at the nurse and said something in Arabic which sent her off down the hall. I assumed this was the doctor although she did not introduce herself or inquire about my name. She sat behind a standard, brown desk and opened my file.Investigations?? she said abruptly! I tried to place a smile on my face and asked her what she wanted. She didn’t even glance at me but repeated in a dull monotone voice,“your investigations!” I was tired, nervous and could not imagine what that meant. I looked at her trying to grasp at any small grain of compassion in her face, she repeated again,“I need your medical investigations!”   It then occurred to me that she needed my files from my OB in the states. I told her I did not have them with me. She stood up and left the room and that is the last time I saw her until my water started leaking and I entered the hospital 3 weeks later.

Saudi 6

Average street in Saudi Arabia

5–Amu hit me with a stick?

The words my son spoke could not penetrate through to my brain, not really to my real thinking brain. I was now amidst trucks, cars, bikes and hundreds of students, drivers and fathers. My first thought was to get my children safely home. This new and strange environment seemed suddenly hostile and distant, no longer interesting and colorful!  I grabbed my son’s hand and held it tightly, pushing the stroller with his hand attached to mine. I was no longer a timid foreigner but an angry mother marching out into the street, navigating through the cars and trucks. Vehicles lined the streets stopping in the middle and side of the road, blocking other traffic. Horns honking, cars screeching to a stop, children laughing and the sounds of a busy school letting out. I couldn’t be bothered by anything except the words my son had uttered.

We reached the outside of the villa, it was hard to know which one it was. I stopped and looked, there was Abu Abdullah’s little pick up truck. When I started out for the school to get my son I had counted the streets and tried to notice other details along the way so that I could find my way back, white pick up, grey car, beige house, stray cats, garbage dumpster, and again the same line up along the way.  Every villa and neighborhood looked the same to me, beige or tan, the color of sand, huge walls surrounded each home making the whole block look as if it were one big wall. We approached the large rusted metal gate and walked through the empty courtyard, up the stairs to the dull brown doors that had once appeared mysterious and full of possibilities. I sat down tired, weary and hot! I took off my abaya (long black coat) and rested for a moment.  I asked my son, What happened what do you mean someone hit you on the head?  I held his hand in mine and tried to make eye contact with him. I don’t know mom!  He was tired and overwhelmed and didn’t even understand what people were saying at this school. He said that the teacher had a long wooden stick and for some reason he tapped him on the head! I didn’t know what to say or to ask but I tried to be calm. “Was he joking or was he mad, did he hit you hard or a tap”  as  the words came out of my mouth I realized how ridiculous this sounded. What did it matter if he was mad, happy or sad? He hit my son and nothing could change that. A dread came over me and I felt helpless and confused.

That night we had a make shift soccer game in the mejalis (men’s sitting room). I always tried to think of the benefits that came with not having furniture, indoor soccer games, pillow fights and no mess to pick up! After the kids were in bed, I sat in the plastic blue chair he had bought at the plastic souk (store carrying all things plastic!) it was hard on my body at this point to sit on the floor. Contractions came and went along with back pain, heart burn, hemorrhoids and all of the  things pregnancy brings with it.  I sat and waited,  I looked at the clock, 8:10, then 9, and finally 10.  He left for work each day around 8 a.m. and arrived back home at noon. If you work for a company keeping this schedule you work two shifts. You work from morning until noon, you come home, eat and possibly nap, returning to work at around 4 p.m. and working until 9 p.m. This schedule might have carried with it a benefit except that all stores and offices were then closed. So, a time when you would have potential transportation, there was no place to go.  With each minute my anxiety grew!  When he walked in I smiled and tried to be the cheerful, dutiful wife. I remembered that he was tired, busy and did not like his new job.  I  learned  to never bother him with my trivial troubles, personal feelings or struggles because a reply about me thanking God for my blessings instead of complaining and a lecture would ensue. But, with my kids it was different, there were no boundaries and no reason to ever give up or stop fighting!  I carefully approached the subject and told him what my son had said. He ignored my comment and continued eating. I repeated my statement and he glanced at me stating that he was sure no one would ever hit the boys, it was not possible! I questioned him further and could see the veins in his forehead start to bulge!  There was no way for me to comprehend this and it could not stand. I would not be sending my children to an unsafe environment where they would be hit! No response was given but my point was made and he was a man of his word and would not allow this!

The next day my two sons went off to school and I made sure that they knew things would be different! That night when he arrived home after work he told me that he had gone to the school to see the teacher. The teachers all loved my son and said no one would ever hit a child, it was against Saudi law! I knew my son would not make this up and so began 12 years of muddling through the Saudi school system.  This meant changing schools each year in some cases, lodging complaints, and trying to unravel the complicated unwritten rules.Years later I took my kids out of the school system and went back to home schooling. That was one of several choices that  afforded more freedom but pushed things to the limit and brought me to where I am today!

Make do

Things slowly improved in the villa, we had some cups, a few plates and a couple of pans handed down from people who wanted to help.  Three pads were purchased for the four kids and myself to sleep on.They were thin, made of some type of foam with a cover of material sewn on them. Again, we made do and snuggled up in our mommy and baby world. There were no phones available, no p.o.boxes, so no real communication with the outside world.

The Saudi family that lived downstairs owned the villa. Um Abdullah (mother of Abdullah) her husband, Abu Abdullah (father of Abdullah)  and their four children. She came up one day to give me some tea and cake. I didn’t speak much Arabic but she welcomed me to this place and gave me a kiss on each cheek, some things transcend language and culture. I was told I could go down to her villa any time to use her phone. But, it occurred to me, who would I call? I didn’t know anyone and could not call my parents long distance, but all the same the offer felt good and was a nice gesture on her part.

She looked at my stomach and asked me if I was pregnant or that is what I surmised from her face and gestures. I shook my head yes and then a twinge of nerves washed over me making me feel sick. I was, as always, very excited for this new baby, but after arriving to this place and these circumstances, I felt unsure and quite ridiculous for leaving the comfort of my home and family. In Seattle I had a wonderful OB who had delivered my 4 babies and who had inquired about religion, culture and anything that might effect me or my birth experience. I thought it would be easy in Saudi and quite similar, maybe even better! Now I had no idea where to find a qualified doctor or a hospital or how I would be able to deliver. All of my idealistic dreams were now blown away in a bubble out in space. But there was no way to turn back after selling the house, saying our goodbyes and agreeing to “give it a try”.

Life drug on for a few days, the heat and jet lag lulled us to sleep and we had nothing in particular to keep us awake.  I pushed to get a stove, a refrigerator, any small improvement would do. I tried to be patient and not arrogant, after all patience is a virtue, right?  I missed my mother and my father and my friends. Each night when he arrived home he brought with him a large brown paper bag, inside was a plastic bag, this was filled with rice and chicken or Mendi.  This is a common rice dish served in various Middle Eastern countries. I inquired about loaf bread, peanut butter, cheese and juice. I was told that now we lived here, in Saudi and we were to forget that old life and eat like the locals. Those other products were more costly and we needed to adjust to life in Saudi Arabia.

Finally a huge addition to the house was added, it was not the stove I had imagined but it was a stove. At that point anything to cook on besides a camp fire would be fine! The stove was yellow and it was electric not gas. This was a plus because I was not used to cooking on a gas stove. It had been purchased at a place that would best be described as a flea market. I tried to whip up some cookie dough with a bowl and spoon even though I did not have the complete list of ingredients I thought, why not try? It was lumpy and dry but I still felt I could make something of it. I turned the oven on 350 and went about my daily chores. Smoke billowed out of the kitchen from the inside of the stove.  I ran to turn it off and decided that baking was out of the question for now. At least it was a stove and surely something could be made on this appliance that would be edible and possibly comforting. I set to making noodles, just plain noodles would be fine.  The kids were tired of eating rice and chicken and wanted something else, something that reminded them of home, Grama and Grampa, their backyard. I had a pan that someone had given to me and that would do nicely. I put the water in it and started it to boiling, I realized at that point that only two burners were operable, again make do with what you are given. I drained the noodles and stirred in some butter and salt. I felt a tiny buzz when I stirred, I moved my hand quickly and pondered this strange sensation. Hmmm again stirring and a slight zap. I got the noodles off the stove and continued with my preparation.

That night I was told with great irritation that, I was not acting like a woman who loved to create pastries and homemade dishes, what was wrong with me, noodles with salt and butter? Why, no one would imagine I was a lady who loved to experiment with baking and cooking, host dinner parties and prepare special dishes for ailing friends. I explained that the inside of the stove did not work properly and when I stirred food on the stove top it seemed something was shocking me. This was met with a long hard look and a pause, I  then heard the words which would prove to epitomize my life from that point forward, “Well, USE a wooden spoon then!”


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pad for sleeping minus the material covering as it was being washed!

Nothing on top of nothing

As we walked up the stairs the sensation of dead insects crunched underfoot. The odor of pif paf, ( bug spray) rancid heat and crumbling tile permeated my senses and would remain as a permanent trigger for years to come.  

Foof wiggled out of my arms and walked up the last few stairs, gingerly stepping around remnants of cockroaches that lay by the hundreds in the car port area. 

After 25 hours the journey wore on my sagging belly. My body ached and contractions pounded in waves from abdomen to lower back. The unrelenting heat soaked my scarf and undergarments as drops of sweat made a constant pattern down my nose and lips. My mother had warned me about taking such a grueling trip while 8 months pregnant.  I had already delivered 4 babies successfully and needed to make this trip. A job was waiting and it was my duty as wife and mother to follow.  

For the previous 7 years we had lived in a modest home just an hour South of Seattle. Odds and ends of used furniture left behind by friends who returned to their home countries served as a reminder that we were merely temporary.  A tan couch sectional with bits of knobby fibers, 1 queen bed and some pads for the floor were our furnishings until we found a permanent home. 

As we made our way to the top of the stairs a large brown door stood before us. It was clear it had been painted a dull brown in a hurry, most likely hours before we arrived. The two doors met in the middle and overlapped. There were cracks and holes in between the sections. This would later prove to be an entrance for lizards and cockroaches.

The doors opened and inside exposed a hall, indoor outdoor black carpet, walls that were a tan color with specks of white and brown. Lines traced a previous life, t.v., cupboards and a bookshelf, an ominous sign of years to come. 

The living room was empty with the exception of one brown, plastic window placed strategically near a large piece of plywood that was haphazardly nailed over a gaping hole. 

There were two bedrooms, each room was well duplicated and interchangeable with the next, black indoor outdoor carpeting, and a hole covered by plywood. I looked around the room, exhausted from the 25 hours of flights and layovers. Any where would be fine, a bed, a mat, a pillow a blanket. But none of those were present in any room, a house full of nothing. 

The last room was larger than the rest but stood apart as pink cracked tiling replaced rough black carpeting. A lone sink held up by a single counter implied that this was the kitchen.