I originally published this article in Travelmag, February 2011.
In late 2000, my husband, Bishara, and I had the unique opportunity to relocate from Washington, DC, where we enjoyed a typical suburban life, to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It was an adventure inspired by my interest in embarking upon an exotic and cultural experience and made possible by a most supportive husband. After much leg work, we were both able to secure jobs at King Faisal Specialist Hospital (KFSH), a well-known and highly regarded medical complex in the Kingdom. The hours of communication I spent over negotiating work contract details, taking care of a myriad of medical exams, as well as filling out criminal history reports, family records, and visa forms swelled to months; but the most important and non-negotiable element of our deliberations with our prospective employer involved our dogs: our precious miniature Apricot poodles, Mish Mish and Callie, beloved members of our family, simply had to accompany us to Riyadh.
From the time we first brought Mish Mish home from the pet store on the outskirts of Washington, DC in January 1995, I was captivated by this little creature. Mish Mish provided us with endless hours of companionship, love, and entertainment. We were so enchanted we adopted another miniature Apricot poodle five years later. Callie, our new pup, had a personality distinctly different from our first. While Mish Mish was gentle and loved to cuddle; Callie could play fetch for hours, and was exceedingly smart and independent.
I was only too aware that bringing our pooches to the Middle East presented challenges. When we first discussed the possibility of moving to Riyadh, Bishara, a Lebanese national, cautioned me that Arab people were not familiar with dogs and might not take kindly to our pups. This notion was reinforced when we first contacted an administrator at KFSH about having our dogs accompany us to Saudi Arabia. “I don’t know about dogs,” came the clipped response from the other end of the line. “The only dogs allowed to come into Saudi Arabia are guard dogs or hunting dogs. I’ll check into it, but I don’t think we’re going to be able to do this.” My limbs tensed, and I could clearly see a glimmer of concern in Bishara’s eyes. “Don’t worry, Michele,” he assured me. “We’re going to make this work!” After a barrage of e-mails with KFSH over the next several months and nearly half a dozen phone calls, we were surprised and relieved when sincere efforts were made to honor our request.
The struggle to secure the paperwork for me and my husband to enter Saudi Arabia was almost matched by the battle for the documentation required for our two pups. We endured numerous visits to the vet for vaccinations and health certificates as well as trips to the Department of Agriculture Veterinary Service Office and the State Department’s Authentications Office to have the veterinary health records validated. Finally, we had to make a trip to the Saudi Embassy to have all the documents certified. Since we felt strongly about having “the girls” travel in the cabin of the plane with us, we would have to buy specially designed airline doggie carriers. Off we went to that pet lover’s haven, PetSmart, for soft-sided containers with ventilation strips along the sides, and plush cottony mats inside. We preferred to fly Saudia Airlines because they hosted more direct flights out of New York City. However, Saudia told us in no uncertain terms that flying with our pooches in the cabin was impossible. We put the needs of our girls first and booked travel through Paris with Air France, a more doggie-friendly airlines than most.
In the days and weeks leading up to our flight I was nothing short of a minor train wreck – excited, nervous, distracted by the mundane, yet daunting task of packing up our house. Our departure day finally arrived. After numerous farewell gatherings and the last of our belongings readied to take, or donate to the Salvation Army, our intrepid family headed to Dulles Airport in D.C. It took three oversized airport carts and three porters to convey our 42 pieces of luggage along with our two pups in their containers up to the ticketing counter. The man at the counter surveyed the piles of luggage with an expression that can only be interpreted as one of growing dread, “You can’t take all that luggage on the plane!” he groaned. Callie began yapping, “What is that?” He snapped. “You have two dogs?” he asked incredulously, catching sight of the second doggie carrier. I jumped in, “We already called the airlines to say that we would have extra luggage and two dogs, and they said it would be okay.” Bishara leaned in and reminded me softly, “Michele, we told the airlines we’d only have 15 pieces of luggage.” “Well,” I continued, feeling deflated yet determined, “We’re here with confirmed tickets, what are we supposed to do now?” The man at the ticket counter regained his authority: “You’re going to have to send most of this by cargo on a separate flight. There is no way you’re going to be able to board this flight with all of that luggage.”
Taking in our perplexed looks for a moment, the representative relented slightly and added sympathetically, “If we checked in all of this luggage it could create a weight imbalance in the plane, which could be dangerous.” Dejected, with all our respective tails between our legs, we lugged our 42 pieces down the corridor to the cargo office. We spent the next several hours sorting through our suitcases, collecting our toiletries and other essentials to include in our checked luggage. The remaining 34 pieces would travel separately by cargo.
Our flights the next day from Washington, DC to Riyadh were mostly uneventful. Having flown several times domestically with our pooches joining us in the cabin, we knew that it was like the spin of a roulette wheel as to whether the airline crew would be good natured about bending the rules and letting us take our pups out of their bags while in the cabin or if they would sternly adhere to protocol. After take-off from Washington Dulles to Paris, I tested the waters by opening Mish Mish’s carrier. Out popped her furry little head. In a flash she was in my lap, but not before I threw one of those blue airline blankets over her. She threw off the blanket with a jerk of her head and started planting sloppy kisses all over my face. A heavily made-up stewardess wearing a grimace as severe as her rouge, rushed over, screeching, “Put that dog back into its container!” Red-faced from this brush with the airline police, I quickly put Mish Mish into her carrier and pushed the bundle under the seat in front of me. There would be no more puppy kisses for the rest of the trip.
Another challenge awaited us when we arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport. Released from their containers and on leashes, Mish Mish and Callie jogged alongside us to keep up as we rushed to catch our connecting flight. Suddenly, Mish Mish let out a shriek of pain; her right front paw had become stuck in the tread at the end of the moving walkway. I pulled on Mish Mish’s leash with all my might, but needed Bishara’s extra strength to yank her free. Despite the deep cut, we managed to rinse her injured appendage in the restroom and made a bandage of sorts out of paper towels that we wrapped around her battered paw. Mish Mish was quite the trooper and barely even whimpered during the remainder of the trip. I did start to wonder, though, if I was receiving an assortment of signs that we had made the wrong decision about both our Middle East adventure and bringing the dogs.
As we neared the Riyadh airport, I fumbled through my purse making sure our pups’ paperwork was in order. My concern with getting our pooches processed through immigration overshadowed my excitement with beginning our new pursuits in this uncommon land. As we learned from our prior inquiries, Arabs rarely keep dogs as pets. Their primary exposure to “man’s best friend” tended to be on the movie screen or in American sitcoms. As we began moving towards immigration, I sent out a special plea to the universe to keep our Callie, who is particularly inquisitive and playful, from barking and drawing attention to herself. Women, heavily perfumed, enveloped in black with raucous kids in tow, caught Callie’s attention before we neared immigration. A low level grumble from Callie grew and spilled out into a series of healthy yelps, drawing uneasy stares and double-takes from those nearby. Young children wanted to take a closer look, while parents swooshed their tikes away, observing from a more comfortable distance. Bishara and I smiled at each other, and I just knew our pups were going to add another layer of drama and intrigue to our new adventure.
We had barely stepped up to the immigration officer when Callie began yapping in full force. Catching sight of the carrier case slung over Bishara’s shoulder the tall, stern officer yelled, “In God’s name, what is that? “What is that?” starting to sound much like Callie herself. “It’s a dog,” Bishara said, sheepishly. “And that?” the officer asked, his probing gaze sweeping over to the carrier slung over my shoulder. Mish Mish had joined her sister in a chorus of ferocious howls. “Also a dog,” I replied, a bloom of heat rising in my face.
As the seconds ticked by, I grew more anxious, wondering what the officer might decide to do with all of us. A brief look from Bishara cautioned me to hold my tongue and play out the rest of this waiting game. Bishara had warned me that Arabs’ unfamiliarity and discomfort with dogs could extend to an aversion to touching them due to cultural/religious customs that require strict cleanliness around prayer time. Finally, the officer seemed to settle his mental stalemate. “Let them through! Let them through!” he ordered. We gratefully scurried through the immigration gates, our precious cargo safe from prying eyes for the time being.
We arrived in the KFSH van at our accommodation, an eight story apartment building, without incident. I turned to Bishara and said, “We should be alright with the doggies at this point. I have all the copies of the e-mails from our KFSH contact person saying that the dogs have been approved to live with us in the apartment.” However, when we exited the van, Mish Mish and Callie began causing another commotion, launching into another round of yelping. The security man stationed outside the lobby of the building reared back, his eyes blazing. He screamed, “Shu haida? Shu haida?” (What is that? What is that?) Bishara retorted, “Haida kalbteen. (These are two dogs.) Bishara continued, “Malej, malej. Mustashfa Malk Faisal wafakoo ala klaab.” (It’s okay, okay, King Faisal Hospital agreed to the dogs.) The guard’s lips pursed, his right index finger extended toward the girls, he hollered back, “La, mamnooh!” (No, it’s forbidden.) My spine stiffened. Bishara calmly replied, trying again, “Don’t worry, we have some papers from KFSH saying that it’s fine to have the dogs with us. Look, the papers are right here.” He took the papers from my limp hand and passed them over. A blank look was the only reply. Bishara half whispered to me, “I don’t think this man speaks English!” Lurching forward, Bishara whisked us past the stone-faced guard, smiling and saying hurriedly, “It’s okay, sir, we’ll talk more about this tomorrow.” Pushing open the heavy glass door to the lobby, I turned back towards Bishara, “Whew, that was close!” Bishara simply smiled.
We soon found out that traveling with our dear pups was the easiest part of relocating our family; nothing could quite prepare us, or our new Saudi friends, for the experience of owning dogs in the Kingdom. Our next adventure hurdle was a rather pressing and surprising one: finding a place for our pups to “do their thing.” As we found out only too soon – Riyadh has very little grass. We had let Mish Mish and Callie outside the Riyadh airport in a small patch of grass near a parking area, but it was obvious they were anxious to go out again. We scoured our little neighborhood, and finally had to make do with a vacant lot filled with piles of sand and the odd chipped cement block. Our girls were so ready to relieve themselves that they barely seemed to mind.
We spent the next couple of weeks searching for the uncommon blade of grass. Two spots turned up; a park in the city, and the Diplomatic Quarter, where many of the embassies were located. Our first stop was the park, which we visited in mid-November, nearly a week after arriving, on one of the Kingdom’s customary crystal clear days. Women cloaked in ebony seemed to wash over the sidewalks in elegant, black waves, with their husbands and children. The grey concrete snaked around the park, edged in luxurious green grass. It was the first time we glimpsed grass in the city. Palm trees, brightly colored flowering bushes, and blossoms in hues of reds, oranges, and blue dotted the landscape. Children fluttered about everywhere. There was something about the novelty of the abayes, perhaps their foreboding color or the concealing fabric, that set off both dogs, especially Mish Mish; and there was something about noisy, fluffy little creatures that set off these Saudi women. The minute we entered this oasis, Mish Mish started the woofing chorus soon joined by Callie, always the curious one. Agitated looks and sideways glances appeared from the black-clad figures. Moms, dads, and their wide-eyed children all showed more than a tinge of interest. “Is that a sheep?” said a rather tall, slim charcoal figure. Another woman spoke in hushed tones to one of her youngsters who started approaching Callie, “Don’t touch it, it’s not clean,” she cautioned in Arabic. Bishara retorted back indignantly in Arabic, “It is clean. This is our doggie!” The woman, suddenly changing her mind, jolted forward, picked up Callie, and said, “Oh, this is a sweet doggie,” kissing Callie on the head. Callie replied by happily covering her nose and cheeks with wet smooches.
In time, we found it necessary to leave our apartment accommodations in the city for another apartment in the Diplomatic Quarter. While there were families with children who delighted in visiting our first apartment and playing with our pups, there were others who did not particularly appreciate our doggies in the building. It was also not so easy for us, or entirely comfortable for our pooches, to do their business in the empty lot in our neighborhood. The Diplomatic Quarter, we soon learned, is approximately three square miles and is laden with beautiful, GRASSY gardens. It has ample fountains and a lovely walking trail that encircles the expansive area. When we first visited the Diplomatic Quarter shortly after we arrived in Riyadh, our doggies went wild – snouts went into the air, their little legs could barely keep up with all they wanted to see. It was a major improvement for all concerned; I never thought that I would feel it a true luxury to have a lush, grassy area near our home.
The Diplomatic Quarter also provided the opportunity for some superb long walks with our girls. Invariably we encountered clusters of young Saudi women on circuitous pathways who paused to “Ooohhhh,” “Awwww,” and fawn over our fur babies. More often than not, this resulted in a good heap of trouble for us. On one such outing, three young, attractive Saudi girls, ensconced in abayes, with headscarves but no face coverings, eagerly came over to us and our doggies. “Is it okay if I pet them?” One of the girls asked. “Yes, of course!” Bishara said enthusiastically. Another of the girls chimed in, “Where did you get them?” Her friend added, excitedly, “Is it possible for us to buy them from you?” We laughed, disregarding these last queries, and gingerly placed Mish Mish in a set of outstretched arms and Callie in another. Mish Mish and Callie, always grateful for any and all recognition, reciprocated the girl’s attention with a flurry of soft licks to the faces and necks of the startled young women.
We were enjoying this moment of mutual affection and friendliness when a police truck sped towards us, and an officer jumped out of the vehicle yelling, “Please get those dogs away from our girls!” “The girls came up to us and wanted to pet the dogs.” I insisted. “We don’t want your dogs talking to our girls!” the officer shot back. Bishara countered, “What do you mean you don’t want our dogs talking to your girls? They cannot even talk!” All of a sudden, five more police trucks appeared, and as we tried to defuse the situation by retorting we were headed to the U.S. Embassy, Bishara whispered, “Let’s go home!” We did, with six police cars following slowly behind. We were stopped again in front of the UAE Embassy. Fortunately, the UAE Ambassador to Qatar was taking an evening stroll and encountered our predicament. “What’s going on? Why are you bothering these people about their dogs?” challenged the Ambassador. “Their dogs were all over our women,” came the reply from the short and stout officer. “Please, this is silly,” exclaimed the Ambassador. As the verbal tussle ensued for what seemed an interminable period of time, I turned to Bishara and said, “Do you think we can make a break for it?” And with that, we quietly turned and continued towards home with the pups. Thankfully, no one seemed to notice.
The pooches served as an impressive tool for breaking the ice with new people, usually without the threat of jail time. One weekend morning we decided to explore the Al-Kindi Plaza in the center of the Diplomatic Quarter, less than a mile from our apartment. The Al-Kindi Plaza, a favorite of Saudi families on the weekends, was a large public square with small grocery stores, restaurants, ice cream parlors, and other retail outlets around the perimeter of the plaza. When we reached the square, there was nary a soul other than a lone teenage Saudi girl roller-blading with a ball in her hands. The flowing black robe was too much for Callie to bear, and she broke free from Bishara, holding firmly on her leash, to streak towards this young girl. In a split second, Callie had tugged the girl’s scarf off her head. The girl turned in horror, exclaiming, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” Bishara rushed forward to help the girl, another major mistake, as she recoiled in embarrassment. “Oh, we are so sorry,” was all I could muster. “Our Callie just really loves people and always wants to play,” Bishara added. This seemed to calm the girl a bit. “Where are you from?” the young girl asked. “From America,” I responded. “Oh, really?” she said, a broad smile forming across her face. “My name is Laila. I would really love to go to America sometime.” In very short order, Callie and I (a tomboy at heart) were playing ball with Laila. In a matter of weeks we were invited to the home, or rather mansion, of Laila and her family, including six sisters and two brothers, for a barbecue.
It is customary for social gatherings in Saudi Arabia to start late and last all night, oftentimes with popular Arabic music played in the background, and plates holding mounds of rice and lamb constantly replenished. At 1:00 AM, shortly after several of the house staff began to fire up the barbecue positioned next to the pool, my heart stopped as I noticed Callie had gone missing. I asked each of the sisters, their children, their mother – no one knew where Callie was. After nearly two hours, a young child of one of the older sisters whom I had missed said, “I know where Callie is. She went off with Uncle Ahmad.” Panic gripped me. “What! Where are they?” Just then, Ahmad walked through the gates of the courtyard. Callie lay comfortably in his arms, with her tongue dangling, tail wagging, and looking smug and simply blissful. Bishara leaned over to tell me, “Michele, this is the Arab way. What’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine. You don’t have to ask permission for this kind of thing.” Trying to remain calm, I asked, “Where did you all go?” “Oh, I took Callie through the MacDonald’s drive-thru to get a Big Mac,” Ahmed replied. “We shared it, and then I took her to all of my friends’ houses. They’ve never seen a dog like this!” I chuckled, my extremities finally relaxing. And the fun didn’t end there that night for our pooches – they each received healthy portions of lamb kabobs and rice on the same fine china dined on by the rest of the guests. Two months later, our Saudi friends had their own dog, a Labrador mix.
Despite some of the concern over our pooches, I found it curious that there were no real rules with regards to dogs in Riyadh. We brazenly took our pups, our furry daughters, everywhere – even grocery stores and restaurants where they were usually accepted without question. We even took them to the Shamsa restaurant, in a quaint-looking, modest hotel, outside Riyadh. We were out for a drive with our girls when we decided to stop at the hotel for lunch. We walked in with Mish Mish and Callie in our arms and headed for the lobby level restaurant, not daring to ask if this was alright, to take a table near the window with a view of the pool. The waiter asked us what we wanted for lunch. After we gave our orders, he inquired, “What would the dogs like?” I casually responded, “A cup of mushroom soup would be nice!” Moments later, the dogs were sitting in their very own seats alongside us with a steaming bowl of mushroom soup before them.
Our escapades as international dog owners did not end in Saudi Arabia. In September 2004, we moved to Doha, Qatar, an emirate that borders Saudi Arabia. In Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, the dogs were more of an acquired taste. For western expatriates accustomed to furry friends, and to well-traveled Qataris and other Arabs, our doggies were an instant fascination; to our other Arab friends not so accustomed to pooches, it was simply a matter of time before they became smitten. From Mish Mish’s unrelenting wish to be in someone’s arms, or lap, at all times, to Callie’s merciless and unforgiving attempts to play fetch for hours on end, our friends didn’t have a chance. For others, our girls remained strangers in a strange land. On a lovely afternoon, we took Mish Mish and Callie with us to Souk Al-Waqif where we enjoyed a relaxed and delicious Moroccan meal. The waitress treated our pooches like the princesses they were bringing them colorful ceramic bowls of water. During the meal, Qatari children scampered over to pet the dogs and run away. Without warning, Callie suddenly broke loose of Bishara’s grip on her leash. “What’s going on?” I bellowed. Before we knew it, or could even react, Callie was bolting down an artery of the souk in pursuit of a street cat. Jumping over tables with stunned diners seated for lunch, Callie’s leash rippled behind her like a jet’s contrails. An old, wrinkled Qatari man yelled, “The sheep is chasing the cat! The sheep is going to kill the cat!” Bishara and I were speechless and couldn’t help but grin; we collected our belongings and joined in the chase.
In loving memory of Mish Mish (11/19/94 – 05/03/10)
- Desert Trips, Bedouins, and Barbecues (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)