We have just a few more days here in the States, and I’m getting mad. Every time I have to leave the States to go back to Riyadh, I get mad.
Every single time.
Of course, I get mad about having to leave things that I miss on a regular basis while in Riyadh. Like driving. And my family, of course. Hugs and kisses from my mom and dad. Hearing my nephew yell, “Aunt Nikki!” as he runs to me and leaps up into my arms. Sitting in the park with my best friend as we sip Sonic slushes and talk about life as our children run around, play, and get dirty. Throwing a tennis ball for Parker in my parents’ backyard. Falling asleep with Andy in bed next to me, snuggled into my side. Smelling freshly cut grass (although truth be told, all of the greenery and pollen make me sneeze a lot. Crazily enough, despite the dust, Riyadh is miraculous for me when it comes to my allergies and asthma). Watching my mom chase after Lavender. Watching my dad teach Lavender dance moves. Watching Lavender create works of art on the bathtub walls with her trusty set of tub crayons.
Speaking of which, I also miss baths. As I’ve mentioned before, there are no bathtubs in our apartment in Riyadh (or the rest of the house, for that matter), and I am a girl who lives for time in a bubble bath with a book and a snack. I’ve been taking two baths a day since Mr. Mostafa arrived in Missouri a few weeks ago. One of his Mother’s Day presents to me was a big tub of fancy-shmancy bubble bath from The Body Shop that makes my skin super soft and flowery-smelling. I’m no bubble bath connoisseur, but it sure beats Mr. Bubble.
I miss going to the movies. I miss the crunch and distinctive taste of movie popcorn covered in salt. I miss watching cheesy commercials on the movie screen before the previews start. I miss the previews.
But there are other little things I don’t want to give up, things whose absence I always fail to notice until suddenly, I land back in the States and I have them back again. Like music in restaurants. Music in airports. Music in grocery stores. Music everywhere. The other day, I was in the produce section and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” came on, and I just started dancing right there in front of the packaged salads, with Lavender laughing as she bounced in the carrier strapped to my front.
And then there is getting little random gestures of affection from my husband. Here in the States, while we’re out and about, he’ll sometimes grab me and give me a quick kiss, or come up behind me and snuggle me in a hug. He would never do that in Riyadh; no one does that in Riyadh. Sometimes we’ll hold hands in Riyadh; that’s becoming more common. But no kisses in public between spouses, even on the cheek. Ever.
All of these things serve to make me angry, mostly at Mr. Mostafa. Actually, I can’t tell if I’m really angry at him, or if he just bears the brunt of my anger. But what I do know is that when I’m like this, every single thing he does is tremendously annoying to me. I can’t stand him. I just want him to shut up and leave me alone…even though, despite the shock it may be to some people, I love my life, whether it plays out in Riyadh or Missouri.
When I feel this way, I constantly remind myself of the Riyadh-based parts of my life that I am grateful for. I am grateful that when we are there, we never have to worry about how much a doctor’s visit costs. A few days ago, Lavender became sick and vomited three times because something she ate (spinach artichoke dip from Ruby Tuesday…damn you, Ruby Tuesday) unsettled her stomach. As she vomited the third time, I began to get concerned about food poisoning and dehydration, and we started to discuss whether or not we should go to the hospital. Alhamdulillah, we are not poor, but we are not so financially secure that we can just hop in the car and make an uninsured visit to an American emergency room without knowing if what’s happening is really an emergency. Such discussions aren’t an issue in Riyadh. (And thank God, Lavender is fine now, without needing a visit to the emergency room.)
I am grateful that in Riyadh, I am, essentially, a stay-at-home mom. That doesn’t mean that I don’t work at all (thank God for the internet), that am not making progress on professional goals, or that I don’t have any aspirations beyond being Lavender’s mom. But I’m not nearly as bothered by being a stay-at-home mom as I thought I would be. I’m grateful that I don’t have to struggle to find quality childcare. I’m grateful that when Lavender is sick, I don’t have to scramble to be at home with her. If we were living in the States full-time, this life would not be possible for us. Salaries in Riyadh are just so much higher. There are no jobs for Mr. Mostafa in the area where I come from, and in any other place in the States where Mr. Mostafa would have lots of good opportunities, the cost of living is such that two full-time incomes would most likely be necessary, at least in the beginning. And we’re just not willing to sacrifice me being able to stay home as Lavender’s primary caregiver.
I am grateful that we have our own little house in Missouri, where Lavender and I will spend summers (and Mr. Mostafa will visit for a few weeks every year), so she will have plenty of opportunities to play with her American family. She will get to play T-ball, and maybe soccer, too, with other kids her age, boys and girls. She will get to play in creeks and catch fish with a Hello Kitty fishing pole and learn to drive on a John Deere lawn mower before she graduates to a farm truck. She will run around barefoot everywhere and learn to pick off ticks. She will get the best of both worlds.
I am grateful for my wonderful in-laws, who actually welcome me and miss me when I’m gone and treat me like I have been a part of their family since the day I was born.
I am grateful for these huge, important blessings in my life. And besides being grateful for them, I genuinely enjoy life in Riyadh most days. To be truthful, I know I would be miserable if I lived here in the Ozarks full-time. I would always be thinking ahead to when I could leave…to when I could get out, see different people, different places, new cultures, new experiences. It’s a strange kind of torture to be so deeply connected to where you come from and yet unable to imagine staying there.
But none of that changes the fact that every time I leave, I have to say goodbye to my parents. I have to watch my mom cry and know she cries after I’m gone. I have to get a bear hug from my dad that will last me until next summer. I have to worry that they are getting older, and I’m not here enough. Thank God, they are fine, not near the age where they can’t live independently. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need me in other ways. I hope they know I’m always there, even when I’m not there.
A few days ago, as I was about to leave to a picnic with other moms and kids, I buckled Lavender into her car seat, slid into the driver’s seat, leaned my head on the steering wheel, and started to cry uncontrollably.
I don’t know if Mr. Mostafa heard me upstairs, or if he just realized that he hadn’t heard the garage door opening or the car backing out of the garage. But he came downstairs to the garage to find me sobbing in the car.
“Hey, hey, what’s wrong?” he inquired as he opened the driver’s side door.
“I’m so mad at you,” I said.
“Why, babe? What did I do?”
I couldn’t really answer. He hadn’t done anything. So I said, “Everything you do pisses me off.”
He was quiet for awhile. Then he sighed and said, “Honey, I’ve been thinking about this, and I think that next year, when you come for the summer, I shouldn’t be with you when you come back to Riyadh.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I will come during the middle of the summer. Or at the beginning. But this happens every time when we go back. I understand. I think it’s a psychological thing. You see me as the person who is taking you away from your parents. You see me as the person who is taking you away from everyone that you love. You are feeling the loss of all of this and you are wondering if I am worth it. I don’t blame you. I would be mad at me, too.” He paused. “But you know you can come back whenever you need to, right? You know that, right?”
“Yes, I know that.”
“I don’t want you to hate me.”
“I don’t hate you,” I said. “It’s not about you, and it’s not about Riyadh. It’s about my people.”
“I know. I understand. And I don’t want to be here when you leave to go back to Riyadh because I don’t want you to feel like you’re being taken away. It has to be your choice.”
Of course, it always is my choice. In the words of Charlotte York, I choose my choice.
But that doesn’t mean it’s always an easy choice.
And it’s made more difficult by the world. As I work through these emotions, which I’m pretty sure I would face even if I were living somewhere not quite so scary to my countrymen (I mean, my move to college in Columbia, Missouri, only three and a half hours away from my hometown, was a special breed of traumatic for both me and my mom), it seems like social media is hell-bent on convincing me that my life is actually terrible, and that my husband is actually a monster. It’s hard enough without all that noise. Yesterday, as I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed, an article from NPR popped up, a piece about Saudi women and how many of them are using social media to start home-based businesses. Something bothered me about this piece…maybe it was the way it was news that Saudi women can be proactive and resourceful and make strides toward their dreams through work they do at home. I mean, American women have been doing this for years…that’s basically why Etsy exists. Many American women want to use their own talents to build home-based businesses that allow them to provide for their family while being able to stay at home with them. This is not a surprise. But when Saudi women do it, the comment section is all like, “Oh, look at these poor, desperate women who have no other opportunities! They want to work but they are locked up at home, and they are reaching out to work however they can, even if it means baking cupcakes. How tragic! Way to go, Saudi women! Bake those cupcakes! Defy those savages that you call husbands, sons, fathers, brothers!” It bothers me.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that I think that life for Saudi women is just peachy keen all around. It doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s fantastic that women are making their own opportunities and reaching out to develop skills needed to succeed in a workplace. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t think Saudi women face challenges when it comes to employment that women elsewhere in the world have never had to fathom. I can’t speak for Saudi women, but in my view, a lot of things obviously need to change in Saudi Arabia. But what bothers me is the way so much of the rest of the world speaks about Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern places. It’s the tone that I perceive, one that carries so much postcolonial condescension, one that doesn’t dare to consider the possibility that the reasons why Saudi women are jumping on social media to create home-based businesses might actually be shared by many of the Western women who sell homemade cloth diapers on Etsy. It’s this idea that there must be a tremendous, impassable gulf between the lives of Saudi women and the lives of women elsewhere, when I think in reality, we’re a lot more alike than it seems a lot of people want to acknowledge. And I can’t help but feel that this, the drive to pretend we are so very different that it’s an exercise in futility to attempt to put oneself in other people’s shoes, is an underlying source of a whole lot of problems in the world.
And of course, along with all of the speculation about what Saudi women’s lives must be like comes the blanket, generalizing condemnations of Saudi men. “Saudi men are savages.” “So sad that this is what these women must turn to in the face of the barbaric men that rule their lives.” “Saudi is a giant hellhole.”
When this particular NPR piece popped up in my newsfeed, I didn’t comment, even though my fingers were itching. Instead, before I let my emotions fly on the internet (as if I don’t do that enough right here in this space), I told Mr. Mostafa about how I was feeling.
“Honey, you need to stop worrying about what the world thinks of me,” he said with a smile. “In case you haven’t noticed, Americans aren’t popular around the world, either. Lots of people say that all Americans are greedy murderers who want to invade countries for oil. I know that isn’t true. But if I listened to what other people said about Americans all the time, especially about American women, I would go crazy. Listen, all that matters is me and you. I love you. You love me. We are a family. That’s all that matters. That’s all there is.”
Oh, the weight of those last two sentences. They aren’t true, but at the same time, they absolutely are. I guess that’s probably yet another source of the world’s endless problems–the reality that one statement can simultaneously be an unyielding truth and a complete lie.