Yes, Saudi life can be depressing. It’s depressing that I’m stuck in my house most of the time. This is not because my husband has locked me up and taken away my passport, but because I have to line up the driver any time I want to go out during the day. Which means Mr. Mostafa has to call my mother-in-law to make sure the driver is free, and then either he or my mother-in-law has to call the driver to arrange for him to be outside at the appointed time and to make sure that he knows how to get where I want to go, because, while he is a nice guy, his English is limited and so is my Arabic, so we don’t communicate very efficiently.
Frankly, most of the time it’s not worth the hassle. If I need or want to go somewhere at a nonspecific time, Mr. Mostafa will take me on the weekend. Technically, the driver is not our driver (i.e., he is paid by my father-in-law, not my husband)–he is the family driver, and so I feel bad about constantly asking to take him, because what if he’s out taking me places and my mother-in-law or my sister-in-law decides she wants to go somewhere? I hate feeling like I’m being a bother. And usually, when I take the driver, I end up feeling that way, even though my wonderful in-laws repeatedly insist that I shouldn’t, that their house is my house and their driver is my driver.
Come on, King Abdullah. You’re participating in selfies–you’re a modern guy. Just let women drive, already.
But honestly, not being able to drive is not the most depressing thing about life nowadays. No, the most depressing thing is people. And not Saudis, either. Seems like I can’t spend any time on social media without coming across endless articles about Muslims, Arabs, the Middle East…even from sources that have nothing really to do with these topics. Especially from sources that have nothing to do with these topics.
When I come across such articles, I try to live by the rule of don’t read the comments. Because I know what’s coming. But sometimes, I can’t resist. And when I cave, my faith in humanity always suffers.
People are awful. And ignorant. So painfully ignorant. Most recently, there was the woman who wrote in to one of my favorite online advice columns (Dear Prudence, on Slate, in case you were wondering) to say that her Middle Eastern husband wanted to visit his Middle Eastern home country with her and their daughter, and she refused to go. Prudence intelligently advised her that it sounded like there were some trust issues in her marriage if her husband’s proposal that they visit his family had her scared that she was going to live out the plot line of Not Without My Daughter.
But wherever the article was shared, the comments section was blown up with people decrying Prudie’s “terrible” advice. Of course the woman should never go to a Middle Eastern country! Of course she should never set foot in a place where women have no more rights than sheep! Hasn’t the woman seen Not Without My Daughter? The woman in Not Without My Daughter thought she was just going for a visit, too! Not Without My Daughter was based on a true story!
I’m seriously going to write Sally Field a strongly worded letter one of these days.
So, anyway, this woman wanted to refuse to go visit her in-laws, and she didn’t want to let her husband go visit alone with their daughter, either. I couldn’t help but wonder how the commenters would have reacted if she had written in a letter like this:
I am married to a wonderful Middle Eastern man, and we have been living in his home country for several years. Lately I have been wanting to go home and visit my parents, along with my husband and my daughter. However, my husband refuses to go visit the United States. He says that because there is no universal healthcare and medical care is so very expensive there, we could end up in a medical emergency that bankrupts us for life. He also refuses to allow me to go visit with my daughter, for fear that we won’t come back. What do I do?
I’m going to guess that the popular sentiment in the comment section would have looked something like this: “Your husband is oppressive and controlling. But what can you expect from an Arab who has been raised to view women as livestock? Escape as soon as you can.” Even though, you know, the husband’s concerns would be legit, if farfetched, and certainly not something that should preclude him from visiting his wife’s family.
But when the tables are turned, the woman is absolutely right to refuse to go visit her husband’s family, no matter how happy their marriage is, no matter how long they have been married, no matter how thoroughly each spouse has earned the other’s trust. Stay away from those scary Arabs at all cost. The Middle East is bad.
But the truth is, I have never felt unsafe here in this Middle Eastern country. Ever. That is not to say that I will never feel unsafe here (I’ve only lived here for two years), or that no one ever has. There are creeps and scary people here, just like in anywhere else in the world. Still, I’ve been scared in China. I’ve been scared in my home country. I have never been scared in Saudi Arabia.
Yes, Not Without My Daughter scenarios do happen. Kidnappings do happen–see Jessica Socling’s sons. I can’t imagine what Jessica Socling is going through. (Although to some, you’d be hard-pressed to consider what happens in these kidnapping cases to be actual kidnappings–because the person taking the child/ren is a parent, too. I’m certainly not arguing that, though. I can’t imagine that if Lavender were taken from me, regardless of who did it, that it would feel like anything less than a kidnapping.) Some women are stuck here. Some women do want to leave for good and take their children with them, and they can’t, because their husbands won’t let them and/or the children leave. These scenarios do exist.
But medical emergencies that bankrupt people for life also happen in the United States, and people from around the world are still going to Disney World.
Also, I think it’s important to consider that in such scenarios, we only get one side of the story. When Mr. Mostafa first approached his mom about the idea of marrying me, she was, of course, skeptical. And one of her concerns was, “There are so many stories about Saudi men marrying American women, and then the women run back to their country and the men never see their kids again.”
Yes, men who refuse to allow their wives to leave with the children may very well be abusive, controlling assholes who don’t deserve to have a wife or children at all, and I’m disgusted by the fact that utterly inadequate recourse currently exists for women in such situations in this country. But such men also may be just, you know, fathers who don’t want to be exiled from their children’s lives. If an American woman refuses to let her child leave her country with the child’s Middle Eastern father, she’s obviously smart. If a Middle Eastern man refuses to let his child leave his country with the child’s American mother, he’s obviously evil.
Because in the West, all Arabs are evil. Trash. Expendable. With Arabs, it’s totally acceptable to assume evil intent first and ask questions later. If Hamas is accused of using women and children as human shields, people–correctly–vilify Hamas for doing that while totally absolving Israeli Defense Forces of any blame for going right ahead and killing the women and children put in front of their strategic targets. But I’m sure that if an American villain had admitted to a plan to use women as human shields and then the American government had fired on them anyway, then it would have been atrocity, right? We wouldn’t do that because we’re “civilized,” and American lives are sacred.
But, you know, those Palestinians…they’re just Arabs.
The more I write this blog, the more I feel like I come across as some sort of apologist for this country and/or region. But that is not my intention, and I don’t see myself that way. I abhor that Saudi women cannot travel internationally without “permission” from a mahram. I despise that Waleed Abu Al-Khair is currently languishing in prison for daring to criticize the Saudi government. I loathe the many miscarriages of justice that take place in Saudi courtrooms around the country. And obviously, I really, really hate that women cannot drive here. If you’re looking for political and religious ridiculousness, Saudi Arabia is a great place to find it, and I defend none of the human rights abuses that take place here or anywhere else in the Middle East, just as I defend none of the human rights abuses that take place in the name of my home country, which, despite its many problems, I love dearly.
But, I mean…Jesus Christ on a cracker, this place is not Mordor (thanks, by the way, to futuremutarjama, a commenter on this post, who gave me this comparison and in the process, pretty much defined the goal of my blog for me). Nor is any other place in the Middle East–I mean, I obviously wouldn’t advise anyone to travel to Syria or Iraq or Palestine right now. What’s going on in those places is just insane. But any other place in the Middle East? The chances are overwhelming that you’ll be fine. Really. You might even–gasp–enjoy yourself. Heck, Mr. Mostafa and I have even been tossing around the idea of going on a vacation in Sharm El-Sheikh, in Egypt. There are also some beautiful resorts in Kuwait. You know, those places that the news will make you scared to set foot in.
So, let me sum up here by saying that watching Not Without My Daughter does not make you an expert on the Middle East. For that matter, neither does watching the news. Talk to a Muslim, someone who actually believes in the religion you’re so terrified of. (And despite what professional Islamophobes will have you believe, Muslims are not required to lie to non-Muslims. Although I realize that if you take such folks seriously, you won’t believe me. But it wouldn’t be the first time I’d wasted my finger strength on a keyboard.) Talk to an Arab, someone from one of those countries you’re so terrified of. Yes, you will probably disagree on some ideological convictions, but overall, I think you’ll find that Arabs, Muslims, Middle Eastern people, etc. are mostly people just like you.
I know, it’s scary. But dare to imagine that.