One thing about Saudi culture that is tremendously, unavoidably different from American culture is that in a marriage, there is often, if not usually, no such thing as a mutual friend group. The husband will have his group of (male) friends, and the wife will have her group of (female) friends, and rarely do the groups interact. Like, most of the time, the wife of a Saudi guy is not going to sit around with her husband and his friends while they watch a soccer game, and and a wife is highly unlikely to sit her husband down with her friends and have them evaluate him (as is, of course, practically a rite of passage in the States. If you like a guy, you have to run him by your friends and get their opinion).
Like most Saudi husbands, mine doesn’t know most of my friends well, especially the friends I have here in Riyadh. He knows of them, because I tell him about them (not like, incredibly detailed life stories, but general facts). And he does personally know several of them, because, unlike many Saudi men, he is usually (albeit grudgingly) willing to do group dates and things like that (like, every once in awhile he will go out for dinner with me and my friends and their husbands). But there are quite a few of my friends whom he has never met at all.
I don’t know his friends, either—we’ve been together for seven years and married for almost four, and in that time, I have met precisely one of his friends. I met that friend when Mr. Mostafa and I were on our first trip to New York together—the friend was also in New York, on a business trip. Saleh said that he could trust this friend to meet me; he’d known him since kindergarten.
On one hand, I was excited to finally meet a friend of Saleh’s. On the other, having learned a little bit about Saudi culture, I was worried; if he was really serious about me, why was he letting his friend meet me at all? At that point, I knew a bit about the Saudi belief in the ayn, the evil eye; I found myself thinking, “Does he not think I’m pretty/smart/funny enough for his friend to envy him? What does this mean for us?” Still, I reasoned that he knew what he was doing, and he did seem at least somewhat nervous about letting his friend meet me—he seemed to regard it as a necessary down side to the otherwise awesome experience of taking a trip to New York with me.
(Side note: this photo, and a few others, including a couple selfies we took in this same time and place–dusk in Central Park, if you’re wondering–are the only photos I have of this trip. I have no clue why I didn’t take more. But I do know that I regret it, because that was a nice little trip.)
We had a bit of trouble finding the guy where we were supposed to meet him; New York is a busy place (duh), and the crowds were huge. But finally, at one point, as we were crossing a street at a bustling intersection, I realized I was walking alone. I turned around to see Saleh and his friend shaking hands and hugging and cheek kissing in the typical Saudi greeting routine, all while they both jabbered in Arabic, and all in the middle of the intersection.
I hurried back to them and placed my hand on Saleh’s arm. “Um, you guys…?” I said, pointing to the traffic signal, which was now on a solid “Don’t Walk.”
So I got them out of the intersection before they got run over by a herd of taxis, and then I was introduced to the friend. We went to dinner at a little Turkish restaurant on the Upper East Side. The guys talked about business and financial things, and Saleh was interested in hearing about the training sessions on Wall Street that his friend’s company had sent him to attend. After that, we walked around Times Square a bit, as is pretty much a legal obligation when visiting New York. (Yes, even for super cool anti-tourists…even though we are neither super cool nor anti-tourists.)
When Saleh and I were ready to go back to our hotel, we went with his friend back to his hotel room for a few minutes, because he was going to give Saleh some of the materials that he’d received at his training. Once we stepped into the hotel room, the friend grabbed some papers and booklets and handed them over to Saleh, and then he motioned toward the minibar and said, “Are you thirsty? Hungry?”
Mr. Mostafa politely declined, but the friend grabbed a bottle of Volvic water and a Swiss chocolate bar and shoved them into my hands. I was impressed and horrified; I was raised with the understanding that hotel minibars are equipped with NASA-developed motion sensors and thus your hands must not come within two feet of any item in a minibar or you will be required to sign over the rights to your firstborn child before you are permitted to check out. In other words, in my world, hotel minibar items were not to be touched. For any reason.
Old habits die hard; I still feel that way about hotel minibars, although when we travel, Mr. Mostafa will partake in the very occasional minibar splurge. But grabbing random treats from the minibar to give our friends, as a gesture of goodwill? Nope. Neither of us are on board with that. Sorry, friends. If you ever happen to visit us in a hotel room, help yourself to the miniature toiletries, but we’re not about to defy space technology for the honor of giving up our firstborn for you. (We kinda like her.)
Anyway, Saleh and I thanked him. They shook hands and said goodbye. The next day, Saleh and I flew back to Missouri. On the drive home from Kansas City, I happened to glance over at his left hand on the steering wheel. In those days, we both wore rings on our left ring fingers, which represented our commitment, even though we weren’t married yet. I know engagement rings for men aren’t the cool thing, but God love Mr. Mostafa, he willingly wore his everywhere. It wasn’t expensive; just a simple titanium band with our initials engraved on the inside. But it was important to both of us.
And that’s why when I looked over and saw no ring on his hand, I gasped, “Where’s your ring?”
“Holy shit,” Saleh said. He pulled the car over and began to search underneath the seats. As he did so, he growled, “I knew it was a mistake. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. I knew I shouldn’t have let him meet you. He envied me. I knew something like this was going to happen. That bastard gave me the ayn.”
In the end, we tracked down the ring at a Backyard Burgers just outside of Kansas City, where we had stopped to grab something to eat on our way home. It was found there and turned in, and we were able to get it back. But since then, I haven’t met any more of Mr. Mostafa’s friends.
I’m cool with that. It’s a cultural thing. He prefers not to meet my friends, either, but like I said, he’ll occasionally agree to go out for dinner with me, a friend of mine, and her husband. It tends to make him uncomfortable, and it’s not his favorite thing to do (at least, not here in Saudi Arabia. In the States, it’s different; outings consist of my very closest friends and family members, people who have been a major part my life for years, if not decades. He knows those occasions are part of the deal, for better or worse, and that by extension, those people are part of his life now, too). But he’ll do it because he gets that for me, it’s also a cultural thing. I need that bit of what I intrinsically regard as normalcy. And luckily, most of the time, he actually ends up enjoying himself.