When you tell someone you live in Saudi Arabia, their reactions tend to be very different than if you say you live in, like, Nebraska or something. And of course, that’s understandable, especially if you pay any attention to the news. But still, the reactions can sometimes be…well, irritating.
Not always, though. There are times when I really don’t mind these phrases, especially when they come from certain people. Like you, lovely blog readers…I have no problem with you commenting and saying something like, “You must be so happy to be home!” The same goes for people I know in real life, who know me well either through social media or in-person interaction. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.
No, these are things that random people I’ve just met often say to my face when they find out where I live.
To be clear, while partaking in a conversation, I don’t just offer up this information out of nowhere, like I’m tossing out candy from a parade float. It’s not like I stroll on up to folks, clap ’em on the back, and say, “Hey, how are ya? I live in Saudi Arabia!” But in the course of small talk, it tends to come up. Like the time I was back in Missouri earlier this year and had this exchange with a cashier at Walmart:
Her: “She’s so cute. What’s her name?”
Her: “That’s an odd name.”
Me: “Hmmm, maybe. But I like it!”
Her: “How old is she?”
Me: “She’ll be two next month.”
Her: “My daughter’ll be two next month, too! Did you have her here?”
Me: “Not here, no.”
Her: “In Mountain Home?”
Me: “No, not Mountain Home. I actually had her in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.”
Her: “Really? Well, that’s crazy. So she’s just a little immigrant, ain’t she?”
Me: “Well, not exactly. I mean, her dad is Saudi, so she has the Saudi citizenship, but I’m American, so she has the American citizenship, too.”
Her: “So, her dad…is he, like, white?”
Me: “Yeah, he’s pretty white…i mean, he’s Arab, but he’s white.”
Her: “Hmmmm…i’m still gonna call her a little alien.”
Me: “Well, she’s my little alien!”
Her: “That’s crazy.”
So sometimes, the topic is just there. And when it is, I can guarantee you that at least one of these things, if not more of them, will be said.
1. “Oh, I could never live there!”
In the moment when this happens, I’m never quite sure how I should respond to it, or even how people want me to respond to it. “Okay”? “Thanks”? “Congratulations”? I mean, how would you respond if, in the course of an otherwise average small-talk session, you told someone where you lived and their eyes immediately grew to the size of saucers as they replied, “Oh, my God, I could never live there!”? If this has happened to you enough times that you’ve formulated a witty response that puts people at ease without reinforcing their prejudices, please share it with me, because I’m seriously at a loss with this one.
But here’s what I want to say.
Yes, you could live in Saudi Arabia. Really, you could. Especially if you could see very clear advantages to doing so, and thus the choice was the right thing for your family. People live here every day, even people who don’t particularly like it. People all over the world, people who are much more wild/loud/subversive/smart/crazy/fun than you, live in places that you think you are too wild/loud/subversive/smart/crazy/fun to ever live in.
And if, by chance, you did live here and life in Saudi Arabia made you absolutely miserable, it doesn’t mean that it’s because you’re so Manic Pixie Dream Girl, too impetuous and free-spirited and independent and strong and ethereal, that it would be impossible for you to ever survive in Saudi Arabia. Nor does it mean that anyone who does live here voluntarily must have some sort of incurable personality flaw that makes us mute, subservient wifebots who are obviously completely chill with being restricted within the limits of how our husbands decide to wield the controls.
Yeah. I guess that’s what I really want to say.
2. “Are you…okay?”
This happens a lot. And in theory, I appreciate it. Really, I do. I mean, who wants to be the person who complains about being asked if she’s okay? But I have to admit that in practice, it gets annoying. If you’re a person who knows me well enough to be able to tell when I’m not okay even when I’m saying otherwise, then by all means, ask away. I love that and I love you. But if the only reason you’re asking is because you just found out I live in Saudi Arabia and am married to a Saudi, it’s much, much less endearing.
I think that the infamous Not Without My Daughter question, which is actually listed in the FAQ section because I get it so often from both people I know and from well-meaning strangers, falls under this heading. (When I read this list out loud to Mr. Mostafa as I was writing this post, he said, “But honey, you forgot one! Not Without My Daughter!”) But I didn’t mention it specifically on this list because…see, in Not Without My Daughter, there are only two types of American women married to Iranians (no, my husband isn’t Iranian, but in American pop culture, a Saudi is an Iranian is an Afghani). There is our heroine, the woman who is actively trying to escape, and the woman our heroine befriends (and is ultimately betrayed by), who is in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage but always returns to her horrible situation. So I think that usually, that question is meant to ascertain which team I’m on–whether I’m one of the trapped women or one of the women brainwashed into consenting to abuse. Because there’s no other option when you’re a woman married to a man from the Middle East. So either people have to ask if I’ve seen Not Without My Daughter, or, more directly (or for those who are somehow unaware of this fine piece of American cinema), people have to ask if I’m okay.
So…yes. I’m okay.
3. “You must be so happy to be home.”
Yes, when I’m back in the Ozarks, I am so happy. Absolutely. You can take that to the bank. The same way I was so happy to be home every time I drove from northern Kansas to southern Missouri when I was studying at Kansas State. The same way I was so happy to be home when I came back from China during grad school. The same way I was so happy to be home when I came back from studying photography during a summer study abroad semester in Italy. Italy. And not just Italy, Florence. I lived in a huge, bright apartment in Florence that overlooked the freaking Duomo. And I was still happy to be home. Because home is…you know. Home. But no one ever observed how happy I must have been during those times. Weird.
4. “Does your husband have a green card?”
This is one of those perceptions that we’ve been dealing with ever since word got out that I’d gone off the deep end and taken up with a Saudi guy. Before marrying Mr. Mostafa, I was told more than once (sometimes in a polite, indirect way, sometimes not so much) that obviously, the only reason he was marrying me was for a green card. You can imagine how that felt, for both of us. And I guess that perception has never really gone away, because once people find out the nationality of my husband, it’s common for people to ask this, albeit always in a really cheerful, nonchalant voice, as though they’re just making observations about the weather, the better to throw me off the scent of their suspicion.
And I’m really baffled as to why people think that the answer to this question is any of their business. Like, do these people ask random strangers whether they rent or own their home? Or whether they itemized or took the standard deduction on their taxes? Or if their adult children are still on their insurance?
But for the record, no, Mr. Mostafa does not have a green card, and four years into our marriage, he continues to insist that he doesn’t want one. I actually wish he would get one, so that we didn’t have to worry about him not being able to enter the States at some point. I hate that he has to keep renewing a tourist visa in order to get into my country when he visits every year. But we’re okay with it. It works for us right now. And anyway, last time we checked into it, you have to be physically living in the country for at least six months in order to get a green card. So it’s currently a non-issue for us.
5. “I bet it really makes you grateful to be American.”
Yes, sometimes it does. There are a lot of things that America does a whole lot better than Saudi Arabia. There are a lot of ways that Saudi Arabia greatly frustrates me where America doesn’t. But part of that is because America is just what I’m used to. America, as mentioned earlier, is my home. And leaving your comfort bubble always makes you feel grateful that you have a home to go back to. Even for people whose home isn’t America.
6. “Does your daughter have to wear…the thing?”
No, my 2-year-old does not have a dress code in Saudi Arabia (or anywhere else, for that matter). Women in Saudi Arabia do have to wear an abaya in public, but girls usually don’t put on the abaya until around the time puberty hits (or when it looks like it’s about to). So when she reaches that age, she’ll probably have to wear an abaya in Saudi Arabia, unless Saudi culture undergoes a dramatic transformation in the next decade. When she’s outside of Saudi Arabia, just as inside it, she’ll have to wear clothing that covers the parts of her body as appropriate for the culture and social situation she’s in. Covering her head, whether in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, will be a choice left up to her.
Like mothers all around the world, I dress my kid primarily in accordance with the weather. If it’s chilly, she’ll wear jeans and a long-sleeved tee. If it’s hot, she’ll wear something lighter and looser, with short sleeves. So if you see my child wearing clothes that are too warm for the weather, rest assured I’m not concerned about her modesty. I just overdressed her because I didn’t want her to get cold. You know…like moms do.
7. “Do you feel safe there?”
Yes, I do. I’ve honestly never felt unsafe here. Saudi Arabia’s intentional homicide rate is actually below that of the United States. Sure, as in any other city in the world, there are parts of Riyadh that I wouldn’t want to be out alone in at night. Burglaries and thefts are a common problem here. And I follow basic safety precautions, especially when I go out by myself. But in general, I’m no more scared here than I am in the States.
Well, there was this one time when I was going home from Gymboree class, and I walking to the car in the parking lot while carrying Lavender, and I heard footsteps speeding up behind me, like someone was chasing me. I got scared, and I turned around to see a Saudi guy in thobe and shmagh sprinting toward me. He scared me, but before I could take off running, he held out his hand, and I saw that he was holding my house keys. He was catching me to give them back, as they’d fallen out of my bag when I was walking. I thanked him. He just nodded, smiled, and walked away.
8. “Have you ever been to a beheading?”
Um…that’s a no.
Yes, Saudi Arabia beheads people. Yes, Saudi Arabia publicly beheads people. But I’ve never sought out a beheading to watch. I’ve never seen one. And as far as I’m aware (because beheading isn’t a frequent topic of the conversations that I have here), I don’t know anyone who has.
Funnily enough, I’ve had several Americans tell me that public beheading is one thing that Saudi Arabia actually does right. But these folks don’t think that way on days when they want to reinforce the prevailing Middle Eastern narrative; on those days, they’ll go with the more liberal stance, which is that public beheadings are barbaric and savage.
For the record, I stand with the latter opinion. Every day of the week. Especially considering that certain “crimes” (i.e., homosexuality, witchcraft) are capital offenses here. But I’m one of those people who thinks that the death penalty is always barbaric and savage, even though I try to stay out of discussions about the death penalty because there is no way I can be objective. If someone harmed one of my loved ones, even if that harm was traumatizing but non-lethal (such as rape, which is also a capital offense in Saudi Arabia), I know I’d be like, “Hand me the sword! Let’s do this thing! We’ll make it a picnic. Bring your own sandwiches; I’ll provide the Dr. Pepper.” So, yeah. I’m not the best person to debate the death penalty in general. Point is, no, I have never been to a beheading.
And anyway, beheading is not the sole form of public entertainment in Saudi Arabia. True, there are no movie theaters or nightclubs here, but we have bowling. And really big malls. And lots of restaurants. There’s the desert, where you can rent a campsite (complete with a permanent tent) and camp out and grill and ride four-wheelers (which I’ve since learned are known to folks outside the Ozarks as quad bikes); even women drive four-wheelers in the desert. There are beaches on the coasts (women drive four-wheelers here, too). It ain’t the French Riviera, that’s for sure, but folks still manage to find things to do that don’t involve watching beheadings. We even have Chuck E. Cheese.
9. “Thank you for your service.”…”Oh.”
People say this to me quite frequently, especially when I’m talking to customer service reps over the phone. When they hear Saudi Arabia, I guess they think Operation Desert Storm is still happening. Like, one time, before I even moved, I called AT&T to switch my cell phone plan to a cheaper one, and when the rep suggested I get rid of my unlimited data plan, I replied that no, I needed that because I used BlackBerry Messenger a lot with my husband overseas. She asked where; I said Saudi Arabia. She was like, “Oh, okay then, I’ll add the military discount to your plan! You tell him that we thank you both for his service.” A sweet sentiment, to be sure, but when I hastily informed her that no, no, he’s not in the military, he’s Saudi, she was frosty for the remainder of the conversation. Even after I gave my standard joking response: “But it’s okay, my husband sure thanks me for my service!”
Ba dum bum tshing.
No one ever seems to think this is as funny or clever as I do. But it’s okay. I understand. It’s always disappointing when you find out that someone is where they are not because they’re a hero, but because they’re just stupid.
10. “I can’t even imagine.”
You can’t even imagine what, exactly? Well, here. Let me try to help you. People in Saudi Arabia hang out with their families. They eat dinner. They give presents to each other. They get married. They make babies. They piss each other off. They fight with each other. They cry. They hug. They laugh. They gossip. They watch TV. They tell jokes. They kiss (a lot). They eat (a lot). They take naps (a lot). They do the best they can with what they’ve got.
Surely you can imagine all that, right? I mean, yeah, there are a lot of cultural differences, and certainly not all good ones. But just imagine the basics, and then go from there. When you see things that way, the world seems a lot smaller. And you can imagine a whole lot more.