The Road from Washington to Riyadh (Part One)

Oddly enough, it was in the Arab world, and Saudi Arabia, in particular, where my sense of community expanded and connections with my fellow human beings strengthened.

My Middle East adventure began in February of 2000, triggered by a restless heart and fascination with remote lands.  In the 17 preceding years, I lived in the Washington, D.C. area.  I was working for the U.S. government, and although I valued my job and accompanying prestige and responsibility, the rat race was taking its toll.  The last several years, especially, were eclipsed by a feeling that my life was rather uninspired.  The attainment of “the dream,” the great job, lovely home, and life in an exciting and privileged city, commanded me to work countless hours in a concrete box, commute for two hours a day, five days a week, in stymieing and hopeless gridlock, only to come home oftentimes deplete of energy.

Our home in northern Virgina.

When I arrived in Washington in 1983, I was filled with hope, promise, and viewed my new life as an unfurling adventure. After all, I was young and empowered and was living in the nation’s capital with its fierce political intensity and seemingly endless possibilities.  The Washington area had a lot to offer a spirited and open heart and my husband, Bishara, and I delighted in weekend strolls through the luscious foliage and vegetation of Rock Creek Park, sauntering through the Aerospace and Natural History museums on the Mall, and savoring romantic seafood dinners by candlelight alongside the Potomac River.

Bishara and I were married in 1993 in northern Virginia.  Bishara pursued me over the course of twelve and a half years, a charmingly tenacious chase that would have earned the begrudging respect of any bloodhound. I was just a blurred silhouette on a wide expanse of field at the University of Florida the balmy Sunday afternoon when Bishara and his friends were playing soccer. Much later, in thinking back to that day, the corners of Bishara’s benevolent eyes would turn up in merry crescents as he told me that the instant he saw the young girl in the blue sweatsuit, he knew he had found his “princess” and future bride. A Lebanese national, Bishara was born and raised in a small desert town in Jordan.  Bishara, the youngest of six siblings, emigrated to the United States at the age of 19 to study engineering, fleeing a terrifying civil war and leaving the security of his family in Lebanon behind.

I, on the other hand, purposefully crossing the field that day, propelling me closer to my hard earned advanced economics degree had little interest in any boys, let alone this young man in his oversized neon green shorts, with his bulky frame, strange accent, and scruffy hair stuck up thickly atop his head like the unruly spines of desert fauna. Little did I know of Bishara’s transformation, from that of a young boy experiencing chronic Middle East turmoil, who was no particular fan ofAmericans, to a twenty-something adult, ultimately destined to marry an American woman, becoming enamored of the U.S.

I had grown up, the eldest of four children, in another world. The San Francisco Bay Area was my home with its cookie cutter tract housing and rolling brown hills spotted with green brush and the occasional tree. My sun-filled summers were spent free of worry or adult concerns, frolicking at the pool with my loving and nurturing middle-class family, or playing foursquare at the end of our cul-de-sac. At the age of 13 my family moved to a university town in the southeast where my father took an appointment as a professor and my mother remained a homemaker. The move into a southern university town was mild culture shock. I had no idea that this was hardly the first time I would have my existence turned inside out and my worldview expanded. After all, when I first met Bishara I thought he was from a country in South America, a little geography fact he never tired of teasing me over.

Me ~ “California Dreamin'”

Bishara’s indomitable spirit and unmatched resolve eventually conquered my heart, and we exchanged nuptials on a breezy and nippy fall day in 1993. Within the span of a few years, two miniature apricot poodles became like family to us and we purchased our dream home just outside of Washington, DC complete with white picket fence. Our life was nearly idyllic. Our weekends were full of festive dinners with friends, overnight stays on the enchanting eastern shore of Virginia, and long drives in the bucolic Virginia countryside with our animated pups to share the ride. We were both living the life we had always dreamed of:  I was managing multi-billion dollar nationwide cost studies for a governmental organization and Bishara was alternately working at private engineering firms as well as with the Navy.

Our wedding day.

Eastern shore of Virginia.

Virginia countryside.

One year fell away into the next like receding landscape glimpsed from a car window. I turned 40 and found my enthusiasm for the fast paced and unyielding life in Washington beginning to wane.  As my work responsibilities deepened I began to wonder if I really needed the bigger house, the luxury car, another outfit.  Would these things cure me of the budding feelings of disconnectedness that were beginning to emerge?  Riding on Washington’s subway, the Metro, I found myself studying the bleak, implacable faces, day after day.  I silently dared them to break a smile or make eye contact, brokering some sign of human life and connection.  And like many of our friends and acquaintances, we found that the accessories of the American dream came with their own prices:  the cost of enjoying our weekends was becoming more exorbitant; a drive to the countryside meant neglecting our yard work, the hedges growing unevenly, our grass remaining wild and knotted with weeds, and routine household errands put off making the workweek that much more harried. For me, these things impacted me less than the increasing feelings I had of anonymity. In the nearly two decades Bishara and I lived in the DC area, I rarely encountered even a neighborhood friend at a local grocery store or out running errands. Like the protagonist of Poe’s story, I was truly just “a face in the crowd.” The multitude of people in the city, like myself and other urban dwellers, locked into their busy and self-important lives, muted the possibilities for real bonding with other souls. I realized that I would have to undergo an extreme transition.

“Vegging” moment in DC area.

At these critical junctures in life, I believe “going with your gut” is paramount. For me, it is more than trusting your instinct, but rather being a careful listener to the voice of a higher plane. My “gut feeling” was urging me to immerse myself in the mystery and intrigue of distant lands and cultures.  My spirit was thirsty for distinct change, and a broadening of my worldview.  Listening to my insistent inner voice, and responding in the only way I felt I could, I made initial attempts to seek employment with various international agencies in Europe and in several locations in the Middle East including Egypt and Jordan. None of these attempts yielded success, or so it seemed. Though with each new search, each fishing expedition, I kept coming back to one country in particular: Saudi Arabia.  Why Saudi Arabia?, my friends and family would ask. Why would a young, ambitious western woman want to venture into a world of other women, concealing their identities behind long black cloaks.  I would find out much later that even Bishara, normally both supportive and indulgent of my atypical yearnings, expressed his doubt and concern.

During this time of muffled agitation, my husband was in between jobs. A potential employer inquired as to how, if hired, Bishara might grow the company’s profit margins.  Acutely aware of my interest in journeying to Saudi Arabia, Bishara offered up the idea of considering joint venture activity with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The employer responded enthusiastically and hired my husband in January 2000. Bishara began contacting relevant organizations that might be interested in joint venture opportunities with Saudi Arabia. After exhausting nearly every contact and agency, Bishara connected with a representative from the U.S.-Saudi Business Council, whose organization, coincidentally, was arranging for a contingency of small Virginia companies to travel to Saudi Arabia for a week of high level meetings with Saudi government officials and businessmen in the next month.

Bishara was greatly encouraged and insisted on bringing me along on the trip. If it were entirely up to Bishara, he would have been content to remain in America, the land of promise and opportunity that had brought us together and allowed us both the opportunities for so much success and good fortune.  Bishara was no stranger to the snarling dogs of oppression, terror, hunger, and loss, escaping from the turbulence of the Lebanese civil war for a more peaceful and secure country.  Knowing how important accompanying him on the trip was to me, Bishara did everything he could to make my longing a reality.

The response from the U.S. Saudi Business Council, however, was less the loving, supportive mate and more the cautious, authoritative parent, staunchly refusing to grant me permission to travel with Bishara. Bishara persisted, exercising the tenacity that ultimately won my hand so many years ago. The leadership of the U.S.-Saudi Business Council eventually recanted. I was finally bound for a world I had only glimpsed between half-closed lids, dreaming it into my reality.

Our neighborhood in northern Virginia.

Our life retained its ordinary shape with work and household duties in the several weeks prior to departing overseas.  On the Saturday before our departure to Saudi Arabia, Bishara was in the kitchen artfully blending garbanzo beans as he had done countless times before to make fresh hummus, my favorite dish, and nudging the eggplant to life on the stove, making it tender for babaghanoush. Pausing from these delicious rituals, Bishara asked me whether I was absolutely certain about my decision to travel with him to Saudi Arabia; feeling out the tone of my voice, flicker of my eyes, or movement of my hands for any sign that would betray uncertainty. My tone firm and joyful, my demeanor unchanging; my answer was irrefutable.

The reality of that answer shot through me the way a rush of frigid air seems to shock all your nerve endings at once. Sitting on the plane in New York City that would pilot us across so many acres of ocean on that cold February night in 2000, I watched new passengers, primarily Saudi’s, board the plane. The women working their way down the aisle were enveloped in black with only a pair of deep, hollow, brown saucers peering through the head covering’s two slits. I was dumbfounded; each woman looked exactly like the next, featureless and bereft of personality.  The icy knot in the pit of my stomach tightened. Moments later, a throng of women entered the cabin dressed in western attire, some with form fitting jeans and others with leather jackets.  Several of the men wore white thobes without headscarves; others were dressed in slacks and all walked with their women following, managing the children who dangled precariously in their arms.  As the families pressed past us, the piercing scent of men’s cologne burned our nostrils, augmented by the smoky and poignantly sweet and mystic scent of incense (bakhour), attached to the soft, black fabric of the women’s abayes. At times young children broke free of their mother’s hand. In a moment of abandon, they would streak down the aisle shrieking and squealing, inspiring other youngsters to join in the mayhem. Hapless stewardesses chased behind them, calling to passengers “Take your seats, please! I beg you, take your seats!”

Shortly before arriving at the Riyadh airport, the Saudi women who boarded the plane in their western garments made their way to the restroom to return to their seats shrouded in black.  I thought back several months ago to a co-worker Bishara introduced me to named Susan. Married to a Pakistani, Susan generously offered to provide me with “appropriate clothing” for the trip. I tried on my loaned garments, my new skin.  My heart wilted at seeing my reflection for the first time; I looked menacing, a void.  My misgivings escalated when Bishara quipped that I looked perfect for a funeral.  (I had already determined, though, that I would not be deterred from embarking on my cultural adventure.  I had to listen to my heart and gut directing me to carry on.)

Twenty minutes before landing in Riyadh, I unenthusiastically reached around in my carry-on luggage for my abaye, pulling it unceremoniously over my head. I did not bother to go to the restroom, feeling myself resistant to obediently complying with the Saudi women’s ritual, desperate to maintain some sense of my own power. At the moment of touchdown, metal clattered against metal as seatbelts were unbuckled, and Saudi men arose from their seats straining to extricate carry-on luggage from the bulkhead compartments. Heedless of injuring themselves or others, the Saudi men scrambled down the aisle while the plane raced and skidded down the runway to its assigned gate. In the melee, flight attendants attempted vainly to cull passengers to their seats.

Upon our arrival at Riyadh airport, our delegation was hustled through special channels, without subject to searches or questioning. Surveying the landscape, I drank in the opulence: a prodigious and exquisite chandelier complete with rows of tiered golden cubes sparkled in the reflection of artificial light, an exotic fountain, droplets spewing from a bed of white and beige stones splashed against abundant green leafy vegetation. As we scampered past the immigration counters, I caught sight of a considerable congregation of young Asian women, primarily Malaysian and Indonesian. They conversed in placid tones, clad in colorful ankle-length, formless dresses with headscarves in a corner of the great hall waiting to be processed through a specially designated area. I later learned that these fledgling young women, demure and with slight features, were housemaids in the employ of Saudi families. Alongside these neophytes were queues for single men and separate queues for families which counted single females in their ranks. The Saudi culture was quite ardent about segregating women and men outside of the home. Mixing between unmarried men and women who were not relatives was “haraam,” forbidden.

Our delegation was herded into a room with colorful, sumptuous furniture, overstuffed sofas and chairs with intricate designs carved into golden legs. We were served mint tea in miniature glasses and local dates of every variety: plain, pitted, chocolate or pistachio-covered.  Bone-weary after 18 hours of flying, we waited for our luggage. A flurry of activity filled the room as a group of women in black and men wearing long white thobes and ghutras, red and white checkered, or white, headscarves entered. I watched the scene unfold in fascination. It was peculiar and unfamiliar to see Saudi men greet each other with a kiss to each cheek. Some lightly touched the tips of their noses together. Many pairs walked away, hand in hand, gleefully swinging their arms in the air like schoolyard chums. The Saudi women seemed less emotional in their interactions. The room vibrated with the women’s constant chatter and the incessant motion of children, countless children like frenetic ants, always in motion. A long awaited sense of anticipation and exhilaration arose within me. I was ready to probe this enigmatic and extraordinary place.

On a camel in Saudi Arabia! (Notice the ubiquitous MacDonalds in the background.)

. . . To be continued!

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4 comments on “The Road from Washington to Riyadh (Part One)

  1. Love the way you’ve captured this journey, Michele! Really spirited and very thoughtful, thanks for sharing. And I LOVE these photographs! Awesome! They must bring you back as well! Keep up the fine work!

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