“I want to live in Walmart,” I confessed to my husband, Bishara. We had recently returned to the U.S. after a 17-year escapade in the Middle East prompted by my hankering for a cultural getaway. Our former long term residence in Washington DC, had evolved from a rewarding life in the nation’s capital to a tedious and staid existence in a congested urban center. In early November 2000, Bishara, our two pups, and I, along with 42 pieces of luggage found ourselves on a 20-hour voyage from Dulles Airport to Saudi Arabia. Sand, sparkly skyscrapers, white thobes, black abayes, and burgeoning friendships awaited us as we descended onto the landing strip of Riyadh airport.
Our life before, and just after, arriving in Riyadh was fraught with irritating bureaucratic entanglements; filling out countless forms, medical testing, ensuring our pups had proper documentation, and such. And my new boss, Abdullah, at distinguished King Faisal Specialist Hospital where I had been hired as a Financial Planning Specialist was none too fond of my presence in his finance group. “I never wanted you here. When they asked me I told them you were all wrong for the job,” were some of the first words tumbling out of Abdullah’s mouth.
My dream of an exotic undertaking in an enigmatic land was abruptly fading along with my formidable resolve. I wondered if listening to my heart had led us astray. My waning enthusiasm was eventually replaced, though, with the rhythm of everyday life in the Kingdom; part cultural education and part mundane routine, welded with unique expatriate “happenings,” and a transformational working relationship with my boss. A typical workweek was infused with a frenzied schedule to complete a particular financial report and regular pauses centering around offerings of cardamom coffee, mint tea and genial banter with female colleagues. These obligatory respites, common across the Arab world, disrupted my professional sensibilities, but informed me of the significance and effectiveness of “people time” fostering a spirit of teamwork and camaraderie in the office.
An emphasis on “people time” extended to our private lives, as well. Many weekends were filled with forays into the desert with our pups, a tablah (Arabic drum), a yen for belly dancing and good food, and new friends of all nationalities. Other weekends and weeknights found us communing with our western friends over grilled fresh fish and travel stories poolside, or our Saudi chums in a palatial, yet warm, home listening and dancing to popular Arabic music, and deliberating over regional politics. Our ample “people time” away from home was sustained, in large part, by economical housekeeping services, typically provided by hardworking Southeast Asian workers.
And while our pups created administrative challenges before entering the country, and upset some societal norms once in the country, they provided both perilous and magical elements to our interactions with fellow expatriates and nationals, and our varied Mid-East exploits. Everything from possible jail-time for Bishara for allowing our Callie pup to “talk to” Saudi girls during a stroll through a park to our sweet Callie tearing off the headscarf of a distressed 16 year-old girl at Kendi Square in Riyadh, only to develop a close familial relationship with the engaging teenager and her family.
We were relieved and delighted to have our pup, Sara with us, when we arrived back in the U.S., however, we did experience “reentry syndrome” and a bit of “reverse culture shock.” We missed the souks – the crush of white, black and color, kind and wrinkled men pushing wheelbarrows filled with patron’s purchases, and the sweet and fruity aroma of sheesha floating overhead. We reminisced about our friendships with Saudis, Qataris and well-travelled expatriates, attendants filling our gas tank, amiable housecleaners attending to our home. Our discretionary time while in Riyadh and Doha was truly our own; I was thankful to forgo tedious housekeeping chores and for having time to romp on the “doggie beach” with our pup and other dog-lovers outside of Doha, travel to uncommon destinations, and savor remarkable Arab hospitality.
Warm welcomes from family and friends, flowering of old and new friendships, and unsolicited waves from kindhearted strangers on the pastoral Eastern Shore muzzled some of our wistful remembrances, as did the startling abundance of activities and cultural events in the small town where we resettled. Back alignment yoga, meditation, local theatre productions, pickle ball, and a Persian cultural event left us scrambling to pace ourselves in a new chapter of supposed retirement.
Small town life in America unveiled a new and natural mechanism for developing more intimate relationships and a comfortable and vital sense of community, and stateside life, in general, re-introduced us to the ubiquitous superstores – Lowe’s, Sam’s Club, Walmart. Roaming the aisles of our nearby Walmart left me awestruck at the breadth and depth of product lines, particularly in contrast to the more commonplace neighborhood stores and souks in the Arab Peninsula where bargaining, bantering, and understocked items replace unadulterated consumerism. Turning to Bishara on a recent trip to Walmart, momentarily conquered by the boundless shopping possibilities, I blurted, “I want to live in Walmart. I could pitch a tent, cook food on a portable stove, play board games, and do all kinds of DIY projects.”
Excepting the mega stores in the U.S., life outside the chaos of urban metropolises is much like life in the Arab world with a focus on close-knit human connections and the promise of creating a rich tapestry of friendships, life lessons, and unfolding adventure.