I have been back home for five months now and life has settled into a pleasant enough routine. What I don’t take for granted is the freedom I enjoy here. I grieve for the people of Bahrain whose freedom is currently being squelched and the turmoil across Libya means I won’t be travelling there anytime soon. To all my Saudi friends, I miss your smiling faces and hope you are keeping safe. Bill and I haven’t given up the thought of working overseas totally but I know we will never return to Riyadh. As with most things in my life, I am grateful for having had the ‘Saudi experience’ and I will cry with joy the day I hear the news that women are driving there and have the kind of freedom I cherish here in Australia. xxx
On the 5th September we left Riyadh not realising we would never be going back.
We are now safely back in Melbourne – relishing in the beauty of a Spring day and overwhelmed by our sense of freedom!
Within 24 hours of being notified that Wallace ”was not required to return to work” in Riyadh, we received the devastating news that his Dad had incurable cancer. Our minds quickly focused on forgetting the dismissal and making plans to visit our Dad.
God is gracious and tenderhearted: He made it possible for us to not only travel unencumbered by work obligations but provided a slice of His best creation by giving us a week in the Royal Terranora Resort, nestled within the hinterlands of NSW – and all for only $240 for a week’s stay.
Each morning as I drank my coffee overlooking the vast and verdant view, I could feel myself being healed and restored and made confident to face any further trials that came my way. You see, it is nearly a year since my lovely mother died and two and half years since my own Dad passed on. Grief for my dear father-in-law could easily eclipse me but my faith in God and the beauty of His awesome creation has renewed my strength.
Just to be able to express this faith that I have frees me.
When I first began writing this blog in Riyadh, I choked on each word- so cautious not to offend, not to be discovered by the authorities and held indiscriminately for proselytising or speaking out against Islam. I hid behind a veil within this blog and out in Riyadh’s streets and as each day passed I grew more neurotic about either being discovered or becoming a victim of terrorism. Currently, there is a high terrorism alert for Saudi Arabia: you can only pass so many checkpoints armed with tanks and automatic weapons before you start to feel vulnerable and shaky at the knees.
To have to live in that kind of fragility, day in day out is tiring at best; to have to go to work and be harassed and undermined is despicable and no salary package is worth an iota if you lose your dignity.
Wallace recently sat down and thought through all the times he had been ‘dicked’ at work and every time happened to involve an overseas posting.
There are no unfair dismissal tribunals you can attend in places like Arabia, India or Indonesia – unless you possibly want to sit it out for ten years and spend gazillions of dollars in legal fees. You do not have the rights that a western legal system provides and you expose yourself to being thrown in jail guilty until proven innocent. Take the case of a French gentleman who went to Dubai to take over the project director’s role on a large construction site. He had only been in the job eight weeks when the project went belly up and he was imprisoned and held responsible for the project’s demise. Last I heard, he was under house arrest in the French Embassy- where he sleeps- his passport confiscated and his family missing him back home.
No wonder then that when the global financial crisis hit the Arab world, hundreds of thousands of retrenched expats literally left their leased vehicles – keys in the ignition- scattered throughout airport car parks. Many not wanting to raise suspicion left all their possessions behind and checked in only a suitcase to make it look like they were going on a holiday!
For Wallace and I, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day and living life to the full does not mean living dangerously.
Don’t get me wrong, life in the Arab states is not dangerous for all and there are many western expats there who have survived decades with little inconvenience and a truck load of money. Several do nothing more than work a little and drink a lot. Quality of life means something different to every body and I am nothing without the freedom to be and to say what I think. Sure, I can get mugged in a Melbourne street but I will sooner hear a cheery ”Good Morning!” from a passing neighbour then “Cover your hair!!” from a zealot.
So, Wallace and I are rethinking expat life and relishing the thought of a huge family Christmas!
I love surprises and surprised myself by booking an impromptu flight home to attend my son’s 30th birthday.
My taxi pulled up to Riyadh Airport right on 6.30pm and I noticed there were no porters ready to pounce on my suitcase.
Inside long queues snaked down to the x-ray machine but the conveyor belt was not moving. Further ahead I noticed there were no ground crew in the check out area. My plane was departing at 7.45 and I wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry:
I was in the Iftar zone.
While hundreds of passengers milled around the airport, the staff were enjoying breaking their fast. I overheard that they would be returning at 7pm.
Hello? This is an international airport and my gate closes at 7.15. Does anybody care?
Lined up at the end of the queue (where one needs a pair of binoculars to see the x-ray machine) I thought to myself, these people don’t let anything get in their way, not even international carriers waiting for their passengers to board.
A family man next to me saw my mouth agape and thought I must be thirsty so he put a can of drink in my hand and offered me a date (no, not that kind of date). Normally I’d huff ‘n’ puff and ask, ‘who’s in charge around here but hey, this is Riyadh, shut up and eat your date, they’ll get to you in their time, don’t make waves.
At 6.55, I saw a Filipino with an I.D. badge walking hurriedly alongside my queue, his head bobbing up and down, looking for someone or something.
Our eyes met and he ran towards me. You are Mrs Wallace? Yes, I replied. Come with me. People murmured and shuffled as I took my place at the front of their queue. My back felt like it was being stabbed by a thousand indignant daggers as I was clearly being assisted by someone who doesn’t do Iftar. I handed over my travel documents and he zoomed off to process them.
Fortunately I was wearing my abaya without a head scarf which made it easier to identify me as an expat, otherwise I look like every one else here. My Greek features blend in well and I’ve also been mistaken for a Rajasthani and Spaniard. Unfortunately I’ve never been mistaken for Angelina Jolie or Raquel Welch.
By 7.10 my documents and I joined the immigration queue. This one I figured was about as long as the line for admission to the Louvre on a sunny Sunday, or Adventure Mountain at Disneyland. The Filipino had disappeared and no one came to my rescue. As the guard opened the entry leading to the exit booths, I forgot my manners and jumped the queue and got to the immigration officer in time for him to answer his mobile. 7.18 and chat chat chat, he was clearly in no hurry to get back to work. I closed my eyes and practised meditation until I heard him thumping my passport. Next stop was another security pass, one for my bag and the other a body search behind closed curtains.
As my hand bag bobbed to the end of the conveyor belt I entered the search cubicle where two women were chatting. I was close to boiling point. Asked to extend my hands out to the side I almost landed a punch to the face of one of them. Oh dear, so close and yet so far, I thought. Ana asfa! – I’m sorry! She was fully veiled so I couldn’t see her response but she waved me through with her beeping rod. Grabbing my bag I had about 60 seconds to walk the few metres left between Riyadh and the Rest of the World Out There. You know the way you walk when a teacher says, walk don’t run! That’s what I did, a rapid shuffle to Gate 15. As I successfully entered the tube towards my plane I flung off my abaya and skipped to the door where I was greeted by a Singapore girl.
I was Alice jumping through the Looking Glass and (on my way) home.
Oh, what a feeling!
This is the time of year when I need an extra bit of patience and a game plan to get me through each day here.
I’ve gotten into the routine of wearing an abaya, not being able to drive and at the mercy of some scary taxi drivers. I’m used to not being understood, constantly repeating myself and speaking in three languages just to find a spray bottle in the supermarket.
´Spry? Ah, you wanting Sprite?´
´No, I don’t want a drink, I want a plastic, you know, um, Choof! Choof!Choof!´ (as I pull an invisible trigger and make a fool of myself in aisle 3 ).
After three months I also got into rhythm with prayer time and kind of knew how things worked around here until Ramadan came along.
My choppy sea existence turned into a tsunami.
Everything around here opens and closes at will.
If you’re like Jarir Bookstore (the local haven for expats needing a good read and more art supplies) you have a website with Ramadan timings posted.
If you’re a small business, the corner shop, pharmacy, mall, I may not know when you open because there are no White Pages and if I do have your number, you can’t see my sign language when I try to explain what I want.
It’s easier for me to just sit at home and wait until 7pm when Riyadh comes back to life but by then Wallace is home, he’s hungry and just wants to settle down for the evening. In my other life I’d just hop in my car and go where I want when I wanted to but here I’m not going out on my own after dark.
This is also the time of year when expat clubs close down over summer and any friends you have made are on vacation. I’d go on vacation too but Wallace doesn’t get any leave before September (Greece, here we come!)
You get to feeling lonely and out of place while everyone around you is having a good time.
So I’m hibernating.
Meanwhile the locals are having a ball!
It’s like Christmas for 30 days around here for them.
There’s food to prepare for Iftar, houses buzz with family and friends and after dinner many gather for an evening stroll through a park or down the shopping mall. The shops stay open till 1am and cars toot and children play below while Wallace tries to sleep.
Many restaurants, local businesses and all the malls put up beautiful decorations and hang fannous (brightly coloured lanterns).
Everywhere you see the sign Ramadan Kareem ( I’m guessing it translates to ”Happy Ramadan”), the prayer calls last longer and the locals become more devout.
Wallace has to hide to eat or drink while at the office and his fasting work associates get extra snappy and moody from low blood sugar, no doubt. They’ve most probably been up half the night, have indigestion and need a good sleep. It’s hard for him to satisfy all their work requirements as it is, he can do without the extra aggro.
I’m stuck in the middle of Ramadan and I’ve got Steeler Wheel’s song going around my head..
”Stuck in the middle with you and I don’t know what it is I can do……..”
Maybe I’ll just download the song and dance around my hotel room till this blows over.