Where’s My Home? ~ First Impressions of Saudi Arabia

Where did we live?  It was a simple enough question.  The taxi driver repeated the question with a hint of exasperation in his voice.  My husband, Bishara, and I had just been to the Faisaliyah, an impressive triangular tower in the heart of Riyadh that housed a luxury hotel and prominent shopping mall. The building, which rose nearly 900 feet, displayed a glass sphere balanced perilously on the summit that contained the hotel’s multi-leveled restaurant.  At the hotel, we had shared tea and Arabic pastries with a member of the American Businessmen’s Association, Riyadh chapter, a gentleman we had met on an earlier trip to the Kingdom in February 2000 in association with the U.S.-Saudi Business Council.  It was now early November 2000 and we had been in Saudi Arabia for three days, which had passed in a frenzy of activities: filing endless administrative forms, signing a final official employment contract with King Faisal Specialist Hospital, (KFSH), making multiple visits to the Family Medicine offices for vaccinations, signing more forms, and meeting my co-workers in the Finance department and orientation sessions.

King Faisal Specialist Hospital (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) ~ Where I worked.

Bishara and my eyes locked in desperation.  Where did we live?  We didn’t have a resident address.  Street addresses did not exist in Saudi Arabia.  Riyadh is a sprawling city more than half the size of Rhode Island and, to us, seemed like a confusing hodgepodge of contemporary skyscrapers, Arab sweet pastry shops, cozy outdoor cafes, luxurioushaute couture shops, the ever- present McDonalds, and traditional souks with intricate cobblestone alleyways.  Later, Bishara and I found out the expatriate population used landmarks to define quadrants of the massive city. The roundabout area near a billboard advertising Pepsi Cola was coined the Pepsi Cola Roundabout. The ghoulish and infamous Death Roundabout named after the excessive number of deadly accidents that took place within its curves.  Family and friends back home found it odd that our mailing address included a departmental code associated with the individual’s place of employment.  Bishara eventually recalled that there was a high-end shoe shop on the ground floor of our apartment building.  Shoe shop, shoe shop, what is shoe shop? asked our taxi driver, a middle aged man with a deeply wrinkled face, an off-white tunic and white embroidered skull cap.“Qaser Al-Ahtheiah.”  Bishara exclaimed!  “Ahh, Qaser Al-Ahtheiah,” the taxi driver proudly yelled back.  Bishara leaned over and translated, “Remember the Shoe Palace?”  Yes, this sounded vaguely familiar.  I remembered seeing the marquee through my peripheral vision as we sped away in a taxi we had caught around the corner from the shoe store earlier in the day.

Arab Sweet Pastry Shop in Riyadh

Only three days prior we were met at the Riyadh airport by an official from the KFSH, after a nearly 20 hour flight from Washington, D.C. We greeted our contact with our nine pieces of luggage and two adorable miniature poodles, Mish Mish and Callie, who had traveled with us in the plane’s cabin to join in our adventure, and piled into a van.  We started our journey at Dulles airport, outside Washington D.C., with 43 pieces of luggage including suitcases, trunks, and boxes with every assortment of household item and clothes for every season that we naively felt compelled to lug halfway around the world.  Although we had notified the airlines that we would have excess baggage, the airline representatives took one look at us with our mounds of luggage and two pooches, and said “No way.”  It was one more obstacle to be overcome.  We rummaged through several trunks and suitcases to determine what we really needed for the next couple of weeks, decided we’d need to send 34 pieces separately by cargo, and in the process missed our plane.  Crazy, was the consensus from our friends in the U.S. and from the compatriots we met later in the Kingdom.  In contrast, a Canadian family with two young children who became fast friends within a month of our arrival, and who lived in an expatriate compound in Riyadh, had brought only eight pieces of luggage for an indefinite stay.

Me, Bishara, and the pups with our luggage. (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

Prior to moving to Saudi Arabia, we had exchanged innumerable e-mail messages and phone calls with administrators and the Finance department at KFSH, where I would be working, to beseech them to sidestep the regulations that dogs would not be allowed in official KFSH residences.  We explained that our pooches were good natured and just like family to us.  There was much back and forth, and considerable resistance initially, however, it became increasingly clear that with continued persistence we just might be able to prevail.  To complicate matters we had been going through an exhaustive process of filling out paperwork that needed signatures and official stamps from the U.S. department of the Interior, Agriculture, and our vet.  With each successive e-mail we could feel the resolve of the KFSH administrator on the other end of the transmission softening.  An absolute “no,” became “let me check further into it,” later becoming “maybe we could house you in temporary quarters initially,” and finally becoming “okay bring your dogs and we’ll work something out.”

It was becoming increasingly clear that there were definite shades of gray in the Kingdom and that although there were rules and regulations there were many cases where the edges could be bent with sufficient determination.  Such was the case with our fixation on bringing our pooches with us to Riyadh.  We were willing to hold our breath for longer than the other side.  An hour before landing at Riyadh airport, I pondered all that could go wrong once we landed and began moving through immigration, a sense of apprehension rising within me.  After all, we had not one dog but two, and we knew that the Kingdom was not a particularly dog-friendly place.  In addition to gathering all of the immigration paperwork for me and my husband, I checked to make sure that Mish Mish and Callies’s documents were in order.  As we moved through immigration our youngest, Callie, slung over Bishara’s shoulder in a doggie carrier, let out a small yelp. The tall and officious looking immigration officer turned toward us, “For God’s sake, what was that?!?,” he screeched. Bishara replied sheepishly, “That’s just our dog.”  “How many dogs,” the official retorted with a menacing grimace as he eyed the dog carrier hanging off my shoulder.  Bishara answered even more sheepishly, “two.”  “Haraam, haraam, (forbidden, forbidden), we cannot touch them, let them go through,” was the officer’s clipped response.  With a fling of the official’s arm we were through immigration without so much as a peek at the carefully prepared paperwork for our cherished pups.

Hurtling along the modern causeway with its pristine medians cradling palm trees and colorful flowers, I was reminded of the unusual driving habits of our Saudi hosts, which I had experienced during our trip to the Kingdom nine months earlier. Many cars rode two abreast in a single lane. Others cruised along the white line of the lane divider itself, which we came to find out was a frequent occurrence. Even more alarming was the practice of cars switching lanes from far right to far lift to make a left-hand turn or vice versa, in one swift maneuver, a compulsion that we would find happened far too regularly.  The car horn surpassed all other signals as the driving sound of choice. It was not unusual to be stopped at a red light and hear car horns start to chorus from all sides. Saudi drivers made New York motorists seem sleepy in comparison.  Of course, I could snicker; women were prohibited from driving in the Kingdom.

We finally arrived at our new place of residence, Olaya 8, in the heart of the city and right across the street from the soon to be completed Kingdom Center with its nearly limitless haute couture shops.  As we approached a security guard near the entrance of our apartment building both pooches began whooping and hollering, as if they knew we were nearing the end of our journey.  The guard, a formidable looking man with furrowed brow and of stocky stature, practically fell off his feet with surprise. “What is that?” he asked in limited English.  “These are our dogs,” Bishara said, trying to remain calm and keep his voice friendly. “We are KFSH employees, and we have been approved to have the dogs live with us.”  “What are you saying?” the guard shot back.  Bishara repeated, “These are our dogs, and they have been approved to live with us.”  The guard looked skeptical. His face continued to cloud.  “Oh, no, no, no!!” he shouted, his voice rising with each syllable. “No dogs, no dogs!”  “Look, we have a document showing that we have been approved,” Bishara said.  Scowling, the guard grabbed the document out of Bishara’s hands. He stared so hard at the paper I expected a burnt hole to appear at any second. It was obvious he still did not understand.  “No dogs!” was the insistent reply.  It was time for Bishara to use his powers of persuasion.  Calmly, yet with conviction, Bishara began in Arabic, “We have just flown half around the world from America, and right now we are exhausted.”  Bishara continued, “I do think that this is something we can settle tomorrow.”  The guard’s shoulders relaxed; and he pointed us to the double glass doors of the building’s entrance.

Bishara and pups outside front door of Olaya 8 apartment.

The white marble floors of the apartment building sparkled, specks of brown and gray reflecting off the long fluorescent lamps strewn along the ceilings.  We crawled into a cramped elevator, one of those smallish European type elevators, to the seventh floor.  The KFSH representative led the way into our apartment. Piling our luggage in a corner and setting our pooches free, we began surveying our new home away from home.  The apartment was a cavernous place, nearly the size of our 3,000 square foot home outside of Washington, DC, and fully furnished. Colorful reds and greens threaded through the material on a supple couch, love seat, and two chairs in a very long and narrow living room.  A large dining room contained a hardwood table with chairs to seat eight and a matching armoire stocked with plates and glasses. The kitchen was ample, yet somewhat dated, but contained all the necessary utensils pots and pans, cooking sundries such as a microwave, blender and knife block, and even dry goods such as bread, peanut butter, granola bars, and cereal.  A washer and dryer occupied a side room off the kitchen.  A protracted hallway led to three expansive bedrooms with more than sufficient closet and cupboard space.  Two and a half bathrooms were strategically located in the apartment, with the half bath in the foyer looking like something out of “Homes and Gardens;” with finely curved golden fixtures.

View from our Olaya apartment of Kingdom Center construction. (November 2000)

As we approached our apartment building in the KFSH van, we had been happy to spy large balconies running the length and breadth of the imposing edifice; Bishara and I had lived in an apartment building in northern Virginia when we first married, and unlike many of our neighbors made very good use of our spacious balcony, barbecuing regularly and relishing weekend breakfasts in the early morning sun.  My heart skipped a beat as I tugged at the balcony door, and was unable to budge it open.  Even Bishara’s brute force was ineffective.  Peering behind the curtains of the pane glass window, I found a thick chain lock threaded through the door handle and another protruding piece of metal clamped to the outside wall.  I asked the KFSH official, who was about to depart for Riyadh airport to assist another group of incoming KFSH employees, about the lock.  “All of the balcony doors of the building are locked,” he said, matter-of-factly.  Bishara whispered in my ear, “That’s weird.”  My spine stiffened ever so slightly.

Although we had been pleasantly surprised with the quality of food on our Saudia airlines flights, by the early evening the effects of jet lag dictated that we brave the streets of downtown Riyadh on foot to pick up some more substantive nourishment.  Given the dubious driving conditions, we were certain this would be a daunting task. Our notions were confirmed when we tried to cross the street. Flagging down a policeman standing near the intersection outside our building, we expressed our concern with crossing the boulevard.  “If God wills, you will make it across.” The policeman deadpanned. “Good luck to you.”  On top of it all, I was still unaccustomed to my abaya, which I was regularly tripping over.  Bishara and I decided that we would hail a cab to cross the street.

Grocery store around the corner from our Olaya 8 apartment. (Riyadh, KSA)

We finally settled on a grocery shop around the corner where we encountered a wonder of freshly cut lamb and the freshest of vegetables. We found it a bit easier to communicate with the Pakistani and Nepali shopkeepers. After losing ourselves in the honeycombed aisles of the shop, Bishara reappeared with a broad smile, “They’ve got Budweiser. I can’t believe it, they’ve got Budweiser!”  “It’s non-alcoholic,” came a voice just over Bishara’s shoulder.  The curves of Bishara’s mouth straightened, a baffled look replaced the sparkle in his face.  The shop vendor continued, “There is no alcohol in Saudi.  Only non-alcoholic drinks.”  We had read about this in our information packets regarding Saudi culture and general “do’s and don’ts.” The promise of a tasty beer snatched from Bishara’s palate still left him nonplused.

As we left the store, the bag boy followed us out with our full cart.  We stepped out onto the sidewalk and Bishara turned to take hold of the shopping cart for the trip home.  The young man, with a slight build and mussed, thick dark hair hanging over his forehead, pulled the cart away and continued forward with an expression of steadfast purpose.  Bishara politely announced, “It’s okay, we’ll take it from here.”  Expressionless, the bag boy continued marching forward along the sidewalk.  Bishara repeated, “Thank you, you can give me the cart now.”  The bag boy appeared to not have heard or was ignoring us completely.  We gave up. We neared the corner and Bishara pointed the young man the way home.  Down the street of our apartment building, up the elevator, and into our apartment, the bag boy remained with us the entire way.  As we stepped through the doorway, our girls immediately began their ritual of zealously welcoming our visitor with leaps to the buttocks, nibbles to the hands, not to mention pitiful crying, garnering the first emotion from this goodhearted young man; sheer terror.  Cornering our pups, coaxing them out of the room and into a bedroom, we shut the door.  Returning to the front door, we told the panic-stricken young man that all was safe and under control.  His composure slowlyreturning, our compassionate attendant pulled the shopping cart into the kitchen and proceeded to empty the bags placing the items on the counters.  Bishara slipped our friend a hefty tip, and he evaporated into the night air.

Even before arriving home from our grocery shopping jaunt, we could hear our pooches’ high pitched yapping intruding upon the stillness of the night.  We had let our pups relieve themselves in enormous potted plants in a corner of Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris and in the parking lot just outside the Riyadh airport terminal upon our arrival in the Kingdom.  It was apparent that nature was calling, once again, after a long night and day in the confined space of a doggie carrier.  This presented an unforeseen predicament.  We were in an apartment building in the middle of the capital city, and our query about grassy spots around town had been met with bewilderment and shoulder shrugs.  The only grass to be found in Riyadh was a park that was miles away, and the Diplomatic Quarter a three square mile quadrant of the city that housed many of the countries embassies, was even further away.

“Walk time” for the pups. (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

We needed to explore our neighborhood and determine what makeshift arrangements we could organize for “our girls.” It was time to don my abaya, once again.  Near the end of our previous stint in Saudi Arabia earlier in the year, I had begun to accept the abaya as a second skin.  Before coming to the Kingdom, I had several friends try to dissuade me from this crazy thinking about wanting to go to Saudi Arabia, and one of the dubious, and I would later find, flawed, arguments used was, “You’re going to have to wear one of those long black robes, and if you show your ankles the religious police are going to whack your leg with a stick.”  These types ofaccounts only served to make me more determined to follow through with my adventure, even more curious about what this unconventional place would be like.

One great thing about the abaya is that you can wear anything underneath it.  If you’re having a bad hair day, you can even wrap a scarf around your head, and still fit in perfectly.  Pajamas typically became my attire of choice under my abaya when Bishara and I walked the dogs before going to bed and first thing in the morning before breakfast.  On the first sojourn through our neighborhood, we wandered down through the ample streets with their stand-alone concrete homes and stone wall perimeters looking for a suitable place for the girls. We spotted an empty lot with beige sand and chunks of concrete with jagged edges.  It wasn’t the green grass of home, but seemed like our only alternative.  Mish Mish and Callie weren’t entirely receptive to squatting amongst twigs and an assortment of scattered brush and the occasional empty soda can, however, they soon realized that this was as good as it was going to get.  A middle aged Saudi gentleman with bright white thobe, carefully positioned ghuttra, and gracious heart who lived across the street from the empty lot spied us on this first night and asked if the dogs would like to come into his courtyard to consume some grass.  Evidently he thought our fluffy and curly haired companions were sheep.  Our girls are “people pooches” and were only too happy to pounce all over and apply licks to the tip of the nose of this unsuspecting benefactor, very un-sheep-like behavior, putting this kind man in a bit of a tizzy.  “Uh, oh,” Bishara exclaimed as our pups began eyeing the lush green grass just inside the courtyard, and not as an appetizer; with a yank on their leashes we were out of there, the kind gentleman waving us off with a crooked smiled plastered on his face muttering something unintelligible under his breath as we scampered off.

On that first night in Riyadh, Bishara and the pooches ensconced comfortably in bed, belying the fact that we were on the precipice of beginning our unusual new adventure, I wandered in the darkness to the bathroom, switched on the light and stared at my weary face.  “What have I done?  How could we have left two good jobs, our family and friends for this strange place?”  This was the first and last time that I would seriously question the judgment of my decision to live and work in the Kingdom.

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11 comments on “Where’s My Home? ~ First Impressions of Saudi Arabia

  1. Wonderful as always Michele! Lively and utterly engaging! Your words bring your experiences to life and then the amazing photos you’ve included bring your readers in deeper, which is fantastic!! Keep up the great, great work! Next installment please!!! 🙂 xoxoxo

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