10 things people say upon learning i live in saudi arabia.

August 5, 2015

saudis and vintage cars.

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.

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July 29, 2015

Every year, around the end of July, I start to get really nostalgic. Back-to-school time is creeping up on us, and it always makes me miss being a student (not to mention a teacher). I was one of those kids who lived for back-to-school. The new always wore off within a month or so and I was sick of it again (because they made me do math), but I always loved going back to school in August. I would get really excited when school supply lists came out. Going school supply shopping was like Christmas. Those clean notebooks! Those sharp new pencils! Those fresh erasers! Joy!

And with college, it just got even better, because along with buying new school supplies, I also got to–nay, had to–buy new books. Well, some used, of course, because everyone knows that if you take the time to go through the used books, you can often find nearly new ones (i.e., ones that once belonged to slackers who basically never cracked them open and certainly never made any highlighting or anything) for the used price. But still…books! So many books! Every semester, a new set of books!

This year, as I started to wallow in my morose back-to-school nostalgia, I realized it has been ten years since I graduated from college. Ten. Years. I was already feeling old because, much to my irrepressible glee, overalls and Birkenstocks are everywhere again, which means I’m now old enough for my high school closet staples to have gone out of style and come back in again. But to realize that college was officially ten years ago…it was a bit jarring.

College–that is, my four years as an undergrad–is the one period of my life so far that I would totally relive if I could. I recall high school with much more lingering fondness than I would have expected, but I have no desire to relive those days. And it’s not that I would go back and change everything about my college days, mind you–I’m a firm believer in that cheesy platitude that everything happens for a reason, and if I had changed a whole lot about my life trajectory, I wouldn’t have met Mr. Mostafa, and I wouldn’t have Lavender. But I miss so much about college life at the University of Missouri.

I chose to go there because it was the biggest university in my state. Unsurprisingly, coming from a high school graduating class of 29 to an incoming freshman class of over 5,000, my first few semesters knocked me on my ass, academically and otherwise. Encouraged by my mom (who I’m pretty sure just wanted to make sure I was surrounded by people who were obligated to look out for me lest their membership numbers drop), I did sorority rush (or “recruitment,” as it must be called), and I joined a sorority, and I was immediately terrible at being a sorority girl (although, ironically enough, that is where I really picked up my cross-stitching habit as an adult–endless chapter meetings on Monday nights. Cross-stitching was the one part of being a sorority girl that I was good at). I lived in my sorority house for a year and a half. And then when I moved off campus as a junior, I quit the sorority because I didn’t see the point of paying to be a part of a group of girls with whom I had nearly no meaningful connections, anyway.

Needless to say, sorority life is not something I have ever missed about college. Nor have I ever missed the loneliness. Despite being surrounded by people all the time, college was pretty lonely for me, because even though I did have a few wonderful friends at Mizzou, my best friends were in the southern part of the state, at what is now Missouri State University (and where I would end up going for my master’s, and where I would meet Mr. Mostafa), and I didn’t fit in at all. It seemed like I was completely surrounded by affluent kids from St. Louis and Kansas City who all went to private schools (to this day, when I drive through St. Louis and see cars with Lou Fusz emblems on them, I think of all the shiny new cars lining the streets of Greek Town, which belonged to kids whose parents had bought them new cars for their 16th or 18th birthdays).

Add in the reality that I’m really socially awkward in any place I happen to be, and yeah…it’s safe to say that in many ways, I was a square peg in a round hole.

Because of that, I don’t miss football games or basketball games or any other such school spirity things. I hardly ever went to those things; in fact, on weekends when I didn’t head to another part of the state, I usually went grocery shopping and did my laundry during football game times because I knew places wouldn’t be busy then. I don’t miss partying, because I never felt any inclination to do so even when I had the chance. I don’t miss waiting for the weekends, because nearly every weekend, I was gone, either home with my parents (and sometimes my friends, when they were home, too) or in Springfield with my friends.

But looking back…I sure do miss a lot of other things. Some are silly, like York Peppermint Patty Bites, to which I’m pretty sure I would be addicted to this day had they not long since been discontinued, and which I always used to grab from the university bookstore while walking to or from class. And Shakespeare’s Pizza, which, in my mind, is still the greatest pizza in the history of ever (even Mr. Mostafa agrees). And other things, while small, seem more meaningful.

I miss walking around campus, whether to class or work, with my iPod earbuds in my ears, trying to imagine what my life would look like in five years, always envisioning those songs on the soundtrack of my life in that imagined future. I miss all the daydreaming that was involved in this ritual.

Like I said, I miss buying books. I miss registering for the next semester’s classes. Here’s where my nerdery is really going to be on display–I always got really excited on the day that the next semester’s class schedule got released, so I could settle in with hard copies of both the schedule and the university course catalog and plot out my courses for the next semester.

And as I mentioned a few posts ago, I really miss the darkroom.

mizzou columns.

I worked at the Current Periodicals desk in Ellis Library in my senior year, and I miss that a lot. I loved working in the library. It was a pretty simple job, but it gave me tons of time to…you know, read. Not only did I get to study when not helping people, but I also discovered some pretty great media that way, stuff that I probably never would have discovered otherwise.

I miss listening to viewpoints I completely could not ever fathom agreeing with, but listening anyway. When I was at Mizzou, Jed Smock and his family lived in Columbia, which meant that we students were lucky enough to get a large amount of Bro Jed’s hellfire-and-brimstone preaching, because he would frequently set up his folding chair in Speaker’s Circle. Back then, I always enjoyed taking a seat around him on some sunny afternoon and listening to his sermons, even though I disagreed with basically every word he said.

Much more broadly, I miss learning all the time. Not that I’m not still always learning in a different way, but I miss structured book learning. I miss having the opportunity to study things all the time. The other day, a friend of mine on Facebook mentioned that she was going to buy some used textbooks when she was back in the States, so she could feel like she was learning something. I think I’ll put that on my to-do list, as well. I already Google for syllabi of classes that I would like to take, and I save the books in my Amazon cart. But you know what? I think the next time I’m home, I’m going to go to the university bookstore and just cruise through the textbook section and pick out some textbooks on the spot.

I like to live dangerously.

I may not get around to digging into random textbooks for awhile (after all, I am still embroiled in official academic pursuits of my own, like an ant mired in honey), but they’ll be ready for when I am. And that alone will be comforting, I think.

welcome to the internet.

July 22, 2015

I’m going to be perfectly honest here: I can be snarky as hell. I’m sarcastic sometimes. When I feel like it, I can be a bit of a you-know-what-stirrer. I enjoy a good debate. I like to have the last word, and I’ll defend my position ’til my voice goes hoarse (or my fingers cramp up). Still, when navigating Facebook, I’ve long since make it a point to not comment on my friends’ political posts that I disagree with, no matter how much I may be tempted, because even though I won’t call anyone names or anything, I tend to be terrible at disagreeing diplomatically.

But if you make a political post on the Facebook timeline of one of my best friends, knowing full well that the two of you are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and then you allow (and, by liking the comment, encourage) your friends to call her a four-letter word beginning with ‘c’ because (surprise, surprise!) she doesn’t agree with you, I’m probably going to say something.

That’s basically what happened a few days ago. A Facebook friend of one of my friends shared a political meme and tagged my friend (and only her) when he did so. This particular political meme espoused ideals that my friend did not share, and the person sharing the post knew this. Now, since this person tagged my friend, the post showed up on her timeline; it was visible to the friends of the person who shared it and the friends of the person (my friend) who was tagged in it.

Once it was shared, my friend, having dealt with this particular person’s harassment on her own posts for some time, succinctly informed the person that she was defriending him. And she did. And that was that. But the post remained on her timeline, because she was still tagged in it. And that’s how I saw when another person, someone my friend had blocked weeks ago because of his harassment, commented on the post and called my friend…you know…the c-word.

I probably should have stayed out of it, honestly. But this particular friend, a BFF of mine, has stood up for me in much less (openly) rude situations on Facebook, and I couldn’t bear to stay silent as she was, unbeknownst to her (because she couldn’t see the blocked person’s comment), publicly denigrated for all of her friends to see.

I said something about how the comment (not the person, mind you, just the comment) was vile and immature. It escalated from there, as I suppose I was immature enough to enjoy the silliness of the exchange (which, on my end, mostly consisted of me highlighting the terrible spelling that made up their vitriolic rants). I got called basic insults like “bitch,” “libtard,” and “liberal ho bag.” I got told that I wasn’t American because of part of my surname (obviously, the Mostafa part). I got told to shut up because they “have free speech” (oh, the delicious irony of not only the contradictory nature of this argument, but also the fact that people who wield it are so rarely aware of the contradiction). I got told to “stop breeding.” And I got told to stay out of “their” country.

Then it got a bit uglier with the addition of more blatant racism. “I feel like an American GI giving candy to half-witted tribals in Africa,” one comment read, in response to my apparent stupidity. “Nikki camel f*****,” another comment called me. “Shouldn’t you be hiding with a veil over your face somewhere while you watch your cousin sodomize a camel?” another comment read. I’ll note that when sharing these comments, I’m correcting all spelling and grammatical errors, of which, as I mentioned earlier, there were many. And another thing I find noteworthy–it’s interesting that so many American-thrown insults toward me and/or people from my husband’s area of the world seem to center around sexual encounters with camels. I think it says a lot more about what they think about than what I think about.

Anyway, all of that…blah blah blah. Sadly, it’s par for the course at this point. Nothing I haven’t seen before.

But then it got worse.

When at one point, after fielding most of the above insults, I jokingly said, “Wow! Suddenly I see the error of my liberal ways!”, the response was, “It’s okay, we don’t forgive you but we may yet let you live.”

I replied, “I’m sure you’ll let me live. You boys talk a mean game, but I’m pretty sure you’re not so heartless as to harm someone because they disagree with your politics.”

The response? “Lol, sure, whatever lets you sleep.”

Then I was instructed to drink a bottle of drain cleaner. Okay, whatever.

The encouragement to kill myself continued. Finally, one of the young men informed me, “You’ll see, we have ovens for Saudi Arabians.”

Excuse me, what?

See, right around here is where I get lost on this whole thing. Because no matter how annoying, rude, contradictory, or argumentative someone on the Internet is to me, it would never occur to me to respond to that person by threatening them, instructing them to commit suicide, or informing them that their family belongs in ovens. It just…baffles me. On some level, I can shake it off (my response to the directive to drink drain cleaner: “No thanks, I prefer Dr. Pepper”). But on the other hand, I’d be lying if I said none of it bothered me at all (obviously, because here I am, writing this post, although, granted, it took me awhile to write about it…because this certainly isn’t the first time I’ve encountered words like this). I just would never say things like that, and I don’t understand the mentality of anyone who does. I may disagree with you about a lot of things, but I will never say things like that to you. I will not threaten you or say that you deserve to be harmed. I will never try to intimidate you to shut you up. I will never wish death upon you. I will never try to make you afraid because you have thoughts, opinions, or beliefs.

And if you ever see me doing otherwise, please call me out on it.

I’ve never been threatened or insulted in Saudi Arabia for being the wife of a Saudi. Husband and I have been the recipient of a few snarky remarks (once, shortly after I arrived, a female cashier at a grocery store here in Riyadh asked my husband in Arabic why he couldn’t have married someone from his own country. He replied calmly to her. When I said goodbye to her in Arabic with a wide smile, she looked panicked upon realizing that I might have understood her. Then she wished us a long and happy life together), but we’ve never been threatened or insulted.

But I’ve been threatened and/or insulted numerous times by Americans (and like I mentioned earlier, the insults almost always seem to involve camels…so creative!), and all because I’m married to a Saudi and I don’t keep my mouth shut in public forums where everybody else is expressing their opinions, too. How is this okay? I don’t get it. Yes, I’m opinionated. Yes, I’m sarcastic. Yes, I enjoy a good debate. Yes, I like to have the last word. But I don’t wish (or threaten) violence upon anyone. (And another funny thing–I mean, funny if it weren’t so sad–is that frequently, insults center around how supposedly my savage Arab husband controls what I say…and people make this accusation at the exact same time they’re trying to, you know, control what I say.)

Folks have said that I “defend” life in Saudi Arabia, or that I “deflect” Saudi problems by focusing on American ones. But I have no doubt that if I had been interacting with Saudi men who disagreed with me, I could have faced the same sort of verbal abuse. Hatred exists everywhere, and it would be ludicrous to suggest that Saudi Arabia is in any way immune to that. Still, if there’s truth to the suggestion that I “deflect” from Saudi problems, then this is why. Unfortunately, for me, there are absolutely times when I feel much safer in Saudi Arabia than at home in America, which breaks my heart, because I’m American, my passport is American, my citizenship is American, my history is American, my family is American. And for me, as an American, this sort of thing is more scary to me than life in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia undeniably has huge, glaring, abhorrent human rights issues. But those issues, while obviously deserving of any and all attention they get, aren’t what made me feel the need to double-check my iPhone settings to ensure that my photos and social media posts were free of geotags, even though I was half a world away. This experience did.

Because that’s the thing–these people were not unidentifiable Internet randos. These were young men, now in their twenties, whom my friend had as students when she was teaching high school several years ago. These were people that she would stop and chat with if she ran into them in Walmart. These were people speaking behind their real names and actual photos of themselves. These were not anonymous Internet trolls, venting the worst inclinations of humanity in the anonymous underbelly of the Internet. These were people whose workplaces were available even for me, a non-Facebook friend, to see, people who obviously felt zero risk of any sort of societal condemnation or repercussion from anyone who saw their words.

Please note here that I am not suggesting that they should somehow face prosecution or any other harm for saying what they did. That truly is free speech. However, free speech does not mean that a person has the right of immunity from any sort of repercussions of their words–here is a good, succinct clarification of this concept. And in my limited view, there are few statements that warrant societal condemnation more than openly saying that a group of people belongs in ovens.

For the past few days, I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I should write this blog post. On one hand, it seemed really important to me to say some stuff, to get my thoughts about this out of my brain. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but feel that for some people who would read this, the reaction would be, “Well, you were egging them on, so you deserved what you got.”

But I don’t believe that. I think that falls into a really, really ugly line of slippery slope thinking in which any number of horrific actions are excusable simply because another person didn’t seek to make themselves as invisible as possible. That’s exactly the sort of mentality that can rule the ugliest parts of Saudi culture–women who don’t cover up must want the attention of being stared at, followed, and otherwise sexually harassed, right? Yeah, no. I don’t abide by that, and I don’t abide by any other sort of thinking that fits that mold.

I will always speak out against this sort of dehumanization, especially when it’s happening to people I love by people in my own country. I will always speak out against the perception of mere existence as a threat, and violence–or threat of violence–that stems from it. And maybe I’m wrong (in fact, I hope I am), but it feels like these beliefs are flourishing in America, growing like ivy choking the walls of a beautiful house. And many of us don’t want to see it. We want to believe that our country is so star-spangled awesome that these guys were just being stupid little shits on the Internet (until, you know, they go on shooting sprees and then we’re like, “Yeah, he said this stuff, but we never took him seriously!”) or that none of it would have happened if I’d just kept my mouth shut. Which, of course, is just wrong.


This stuff is there, it is real, and it scares me. But this is why I keep writing, and sharing, and talking. Because I won’t be threatened into silence…especially when those threats are coming from my own country…from my own region of my own country, from people who grew up driving on the same state highways and back roads that I did.

So, yeah. I’ll be honest and say that this whole situation, which transpired over maybe an hour or so a few days ago, has bummed me out–not because someone doesn’t like me, my ideals, or my beliefs (because hey, they can get in line for that), but because the hate is so strong, and so violent, and so close to the surface. And someone might say, “Well, you obviously knew they were nasty people, because they called your friend the c-word, and yet you engaged them anyway!” Or, “You could have distanced yourself from the conversation once it was obvious that it wasn’t going to be at all productive!” And I guess all that’s true. That’s part of why I wasn’t sure if I should write this post–if I really had something to say or if it was just me whining about my butthurt fee-fees. But after a lot of thought, I still think there’s something important to be said about this. Because the hate still would have been there, even if it wasn’t expressed at that particular moment. It always makes its way out somehow. And whether it’s out in the open or held in the heart, hate is always ugly. Not to mention unproductive.

So I’m gonna write this blog post, I’m going to continue to talk, and I’m going to throw my support behind the blossoming awesomeness that is NotmyOzarks. Because I adore the Ozarks, and for better or worse, I will always come back. And I expect more from the Ozarks. I expect more from my home.

ozarks wildflowers.

meet my sister-in-law.

July 15, 2015

When I posted my interview with Mr. Mostafa a few months ago, I got several messages indicating interest in more interviews from the people in my Saudi family. And to be honest, I had a really fun time conducting the interview, so it’s something that I was interested in continuing, as well. My lovely sister-in-law, Mr. Mostafa’s younger sister, graciously agreed to be my second interview subject. I asked her a few basic interview questions, and then I moved on to interview questions submitted by readers, the answers to which constitute the bulk of the interview. So, without further ado…meet Ms. Mostafa!

Okay, here we go! Introduce yourself.

Um…my name is Wala’a Mostafa. I’m your sister-in-law. I am Saudi, and I studied preschool education in college. I’ve been teaching for five years; this will be my sixth, and I love it. I’m single. I’m 27. And…that’s all.

Okay, so…what do you think about my blog? Do you even read the blog at all?

I do sometimes! I mean, it’s interesting to me as a reader, not as your sister-in-law. It’s interesting to me because it showed these, you know, exciting stages of your life where you left your country and you married a Saudi guy. It was exciting because…like, okay, you had met us before, but you didn’t know how we lived. We didn’t know how we lived! (Laughs) Because, you know, my parents bought the house right before you came here, so we were still adjusting even before you came. So that’s what’s interesting to me about the blog, and you know, you make it seem so cute! When you talk about your daughter and you talk about your in-laws…it makes me feel special!

Well, you are special! Have you ever had a blog or have you ever considered starting one?

No. And no.

If you could meet any famous person, who would you choose?

Adam Rodriguez…but he’s married! So…Adam Rodriguez. It’s still Adam Rodriguez. (Laughs)

Where is your favorite place that you’ve traveled so far?


And why?

Because…I don’t…I don’t know, wallah. I don’t know. Florida was more exciting, and it was so much fun. You know, Disney World…maybe I should have said that! But Chicago is my favorite. It’s really my favorite city.

Where do you want to travel someday that you haven’t traveled so far?

A lot of places! Mostly Asia. Like, Tokyo, Hong Kong, the Philippines…Tokyo is the place I most want to go, I think.


Alright, reader questions!

(Gasps. Deep breaths.)

Are you ready?


Okay. You already answered this a little bit, but I’m going to ask it anyway: what’s your educational background?

We all studied in private schools, my brothers and me. Mine wasn’t fancy, but alhamdulillah, I graduated from it and went to college. I still don’t know why I chose preschool education, but I did, and I’m glad I did, because I’ve been working with kids ever since and I love it.

And you went to a university here in Riyadh.

Yes. King Saud.

Again, you already answered this, but what do you do for a living?

I work in a Montessori school.

Okay. Next question: Saudi women can be very successful in many aspects. Could you mention some of your female friends who have found success?

All my friends.


I would say all my friends. Well, there’s one I know of…she isn’t working. But my cousins especially, I’m proud of them. Not only my cousins here in Riyadh, who work and have their businesses, but also my cousin Shatha, from Jeddah, she’s a jeweler now. Although she studied French translation in college, but…you know…those women do stuff. So I would say, all of my friends.

Who inspires you?

My mom! Wallah, my mom…and…I’d say my best friend, Sara. Because she helped me through a lot of things in my life…you know, like, problems, girl stuff…and I love the way she thinks. I love the way she solves problems.

Okay. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I have no idea! (Laughs) Can I say that?

Of course you can!

I don’t know. I want to be healthy, happy, still enjoying my job, and enjoying my life, day in and day out.

Can’t ask for more than that! Okay, so what do you think of intercultural marriages? And did your views about intercultural marriages change since Saleh married Nicole?

I’m 100% for it, for so many reasons. But the one reason that I really believe in is…even Prophet Muhammad said to go further than your region to find your partner. And I believe it makes your kids smarter because the genes are totally different. And there is a history of…studies and facts that kids whose parents are married from the same family have disorders and genetic problems. So the closer, the more chances it is for you to get diseases. And what do I think about it after you guys got married? Mashallah, I want to get married the way you guys got married. And that’s all I’m going to say. (Laughs)

Would you consider an intercultural marriage yourself?


Okay, if yes, would you prefer to marry someone whose culture is very different from yours, like American or French or Korean, or would you prefer someone with a culture that’s a bit closer to yours, like Moroccan or Omani or Somali?

It would be easier for me to get married to a person within my same culture…you know, because of the background, and the way we think. But I know that it’s possible for me to find a person in other regions, like the ones you mentioned before, American and such, that I could click with and I can understand, because of the language we have in common. And because I am open-minded. (Laughs)

Okay, this next one is kind of a big question, so get ready.


I mean, it’s kind of a broad question. What do you think about Saudi men? Culturally, as husbands/brothers/citizens, etc.

I have the perfect answer to that! (Laughs) All men around the world are raised in a certain way. But Saudis are raised more into this way, which is the guy is the very important person in the family, and you know, he inherits the family name, and he makes money, and he will get you a house, and whatever…so they worship the guy, until he becomes so spoiled, and then when he gets married, the girl has to deal with all of this BS. Does that make sense? (Laughs)

It makes perfect sense!

I’m not getting married to a Saudi after this interview. (Laughs.)

Okay, next question. Saudis are very different from family to family, and depending on the area as well.

That’s true! I was going to say that I wasn’t raised in a family that’s like this…but I am. Saleh is still special to them, Suleiman is still their baby, and I’m still the middle child who happens to be a girl; that’s why I’m spoiled. (Laughs) Wallah!

Okay, so what kind of differences do you see from family to family?

Some families are so strict. Some families, they try hard not to differentiate between their kids, but they can’t, because again, it’s a natural thing, I guess not only for Saudis. But you know, it depends on the family. Some families are really strict and they worship the boys, and some families are fine. Some families, they care about their daughters more than their boys.

What things do you wish people from outside Saudi Arabia understood about Saudi Arabia and Saudi life?

A lot! So many, I can’t think of one. (Laughs) First of all, we’re not terrorists. And we’re not as closed as they think we are. And we are not as rich as they think we are. And I mean, yes, women can’t drive, but women can do so many things. Oooh, add this! Me, as a Saudi girl…I don’t know why I’m saying this; it doesn’t really have to do with the question, but…even the stuff that I can’t do, I see many of those things as a benefit. Because I don’t want to look for a parking space, and I don’t want to deal with accidents, and I don’t want to deal with a broken car. So to me, this makes me feel…good, that I can sit back, you know, play with my phone, and a driver does all the work. So, even that…I want them to know this. I want them to see that many of us, we don’t feel like that we don’t have rights. As women and as Saudis.

Okay, but what about, like, traveling outside of the country?

What do you mean?

I mean, like, I remember one time, your mom went to get her passport renewed and they told her to come back with her mahram. And she was really angry about it. I would have been angry, too.

That made me feel even more relieved, because I didn’t have to deal with that mess and paperwork! (Laughs) No, seriously, alhamdulillah, my dad is still alive, so he deals with that stuff for me. When I needed a passport, I woke up the next day with a ready passport. I didn’t have to do anything. But I mean, I’m lucky, because I have such a family. But some ladies, they don’t have a loving dad, or a loving husband, or a caring brother, or a helpful guy in the family, you know? So living in Saudi isn’t fair to everyone. It really isn’t fair to everyone, and I know that. But it’s working fine for me. (Laughs) No, what I mean is, it’s working for many of us. There are things we want to change, we know that, but we are okay. That’s what I want people to know…we are living normally like everyone else. Yes, we don’t have cinema theaters, yes, we can’t drive…but I’m fine with that. We still download movies, we still listen to music…you know, even people download P-O-R-N here. (Laughs)

Okay, what do you like the most about life in Saudi Arabia?

I’m safe. Safety, and living here is so easy and cheap. We don’t have to pay taxes, and food is cheap…I’m not sure about water and electricity, but I think it’s reasonable. Like not crazy expensive. So, living here is easy and safe. You can save a lot of money if you work here. Which, I haven’t…(Laughs) But you can if you want to. I should.

What do you like least about life in Saudi Arabia?

I think the fact that we don’t have movie theaters, wallah. Because everything else, we have. But housing costs…buying a house or renting a house here is crazy expensive.

Yeah, it’s hard because you have to have this huge chunk of money up front, whether you want to rent or buy.

Yes, exactly…I know I sound very dumb when I said movie theaters…

No, not at all! To me, it’s something important, too…I really miss movies. Silly, but…it’s true.

Okay, yes. So, movie theaters…and the fact that houses are more expensive here than what they should be, because, I mean…it’s a desert. (Laughs) Wallah!

Yeah, and you have to have a 30% down payment to get a mortgage on a house, no matter what. Like, that’s huge.

Well, I don’t know about that, because alhamdulillah, I’ve never had to buy a house…see, I’m telling you, I’m spoiled. I sound like a spoiled brat! Forget it, it’s just movie theaters. (Laughs)

Okay, you’ve already kind of answered these things, but maybe you have something different to say. So, what do you like and not like about Saudi culture?

A lot of things! I like the…conservativity? Is that a word? (Laughs) But I don’t like the strictness.

Could you explain a little bit more? Because I think, to Americans, if you say conservative/strict, they kind of sound like the same thing. Like, what do you mean by “conservative,” and what do you mean by “strict”?

Conservative, you know, that….hmmm…I have no idea how to explain this. But I’m living it! (Laughs) How can I put that in words? Let’s see…you know the stupid mentality that still exists about people marrying the same tribe? This is what I don’t like about the Saudi culture. That they still believe this…I don’t know how to say it in nice words. These stupid, old ways that make us still think that we have to marry a person within the same tribe, and we can’t just marry anyone. Some guys, even if they’re in love with the girl, they won’t marry her because she’s not from their tribe. And because of the fact that she was talking to them before marrying them. That means, “Oooh, she might do that after I get married to her!” Or, “Who else has she been talking to?” And that’s horrible. But by conservative, I mean, the way I’m living. Because, you know, my parents, they have so many rules that we can’t even break because we don’t want to break them. You know? They gave me their trust, and I don’t want to break it. And this is how people should raise their kids. Show them what’s right and what’s wrong, set some rules and boundaries, and then let them live. Don’t smother them.

Okay, as a teacher, could you describe your school day and the curriculum you teach?

Awwww! Okay, as I told you before, I’ve been teaching for six years, but for the last year I’ve been teaching a Montessori curriculum, and it’s the curriculum I love the most. I work from seven in the morning to two in the afternoon. The kids leave at one-thirty, and they start at eight. I spend four hours with my kids, full-on, and then I have a hour and a half on my own. I teach them English, and I love how Montessori exposes them to every single subject area, in a way that’s not controlling…it’s not, you know, “You have to do this and you have to learn this.” So it’s easy for me and for them. It’s easy for me to teach, and it’s easy for them to learn. And they learn a lot. And I love it. I love the school I work in.

Awesome. Okay, would you ever move to a non-Muslim country?

Yes. But…if I had the choice between a Muslim country and a non-Muslim country to move to, I would choose the Muslim country. Not because I’m, like, closed-minded or anything, but because it would be easier for me to live as a single Muslim girl. And by that, I mean I would love to move to Istanbul. Basically, I just want to move to Istanbul. (Laughs)

As an Arab, do you understand the Qur’an directly, or do you sometimes need to turn to other sources for meaning of words, etc.?

No! I mean, yes, yes, the second one! ‘Cause it’s super fancy words that no one on earth could write or come up with them. But at the same time, they’re easy to be understood. I don’t know how to explain that…because some surahs were sent to Prophet Muhammad when he was in Medina, and some were sent when he was in Mecca. And the people in Mecca were very strict and closed-minded, and were like, “No, we don’t want this religion!” So Allah sent the surahs that are short, you know, with short ayahs and very simple words. And the Medina surahs were more, you know, like Al Baqara, they were these long surahs with a lot of fancy words that you really have to read about to understand them. Plus, in Qur’an, as the way it is with other books, Allah mentioned a lot of stories and miracles that you know, that we should learn from. So yes, I read them from Qur’an, but those specific stories, I try to read them from tafseer or from other explanations. Sometimes I even use Wikipedia to see, you know, how this story was mentioned in Qur’an and the Bible, and other places.

Do you want to get married?

Yeeeee–I don’t know! (Laughs) No, wallah, I don’t know. For this question, you can write yes, no, and I don’t know. (Laughs)

When are you going to get married?

When it’s meant to be.

Good answer. What qualities will you look for in a future husband?

The number one quality is me clicking with him.

Define “click.”

Understanding each other, and…you know sometimes, you don’t click with people. And sometimes you just click with them. You can have love and respect and whatever, but clicking with them is an entirely different thing. I don’t know how to explain “click.” (Laughs)

Define what Lavender means to you.

(Gasps) The biggest love of my life. I love her more than anyone on earth, more than my little brother, who I love more than anyone in this house. Wallah, Suleiman is my favorite…and Mama, too, of course. I can’t live without her. But Lavender…I would take a bullet for her. I would push her out of the way and be hit by a car for her, I would let a lion kill me…(Laughs) Wallah, this is how much I love her. I would die for this girl. Not drama…I love her more than anything in life. I would give up my life for her. I wouldn’t give up my life for you, I’m sorry. (Laughs)

It’s okay! (Laughs)

Or for Suleiman, who I love more than anyone in this house. But your daughter…to me, she is the biggest love story in my life so far. Wallah, and not just because you’re her mom. If this interview was with some random Saudi girl that Saleh married instead, I would say the same. And can you please write that I love that someone asked that because I’m sure the person who asked that question knows that the answer would be that she is so special to me.

Okay, so your answer to the last question is going to make this next question kind of awkward, but here it is. (Laughs) What makes your relationship with Nicole so special?

I have no idea! (Laughs) See, this is the click thing I was talking about! It’s the click! Subhanallah, we think the same, and alhamdulillah, even though I don’t have a sister, Allah sent you to me. I tell you stuff that other people in the house don’t know. The fact that we both are interested in and love the same stuff, such as education, makes it more special, but that doesn’t affect the click. The click is there. It’s the click. And when Saleh told me, “I want to marry Nicole. What do you think of her?”, I said two things. I said, “Nobody can stand you the way she does,” and I said, “That will make it easy for you, Saleh, because your sister and your wife are best friends.”

Awww, I love that. So, on a related note, the next question is, were you the first one in your family to support your brother when he mentioned getting married to Nicole?

Yes, yes, yes! I was, wallah! I was the first one in the family that he told! So yes, a very big yes! He asked me what I thought about marrying you before he even asked our parents. And I told him, “You know what, I’m sure they’re gonna say no, but I’m gonna fight for you, I will help you, because I know her,” and I knew something huge was about to happen. You know, I stepped back a little bit when it was really intense, when they said no at first, but I was there, and I hugged him, and when he cried I was there for him and I told him, “It will happen.”  I didn’t know when, but then one day Mama came into my room and told me, “Tomorrow we’re going to buy Nicole a ring.” I said, “What?” She said, “Your dad said yes.” And I was like, “Alhamdulillah!”

What’s it like having a sister-in-law from a completely different culture?

That’s a very good question. Again, it makes me feel special, and lucky. Because this goes back to the fact that people getting married from different countries is important, because this…I mean, having you as a sister-in-law made me more open, made me proud, and made me believe that…that the good in heart exists in every single country in the world, not just the one I was raised in. Wallah.

You’re gonna make me cry! Okay, well, here’s a chance to rag on me a little bit: what does your sister-in-law do that you sometimes don’t understand because of the cultural differences?



Wallah, nothing. I consider myself open-minded, but I mean, you are more open-minded than me. But I wouldn’t say that I don’t understand this. You know, like the other day when we were talking about the gay marriage thing, and you were like, “No, it’s okay,” and I was like, “No, it’s against God’s laws!” So I guess maybe there’s that, that you’re more open-minded than me, but it’s not a bad thing. I understand that.

What things would you change about those cultural differences if you could?



Really! Every culture has its differences, and beliefs, and I think that everyone should live together happily, respecting and accepting other cultures.

Maybe you should be President of the United States! (Laughs)

No, no no! It wouldn’t work. The first thing I would do is say no to gay marriage. They can keep marijuana! (Laughs) No, I’m joking. But I wouldn’t be a good president.

Last question: what is a beauty secret that you have?

It would be cheesy if I said, “This yogurt mask I use,” or something like that. (Laughs) Well, I’m in this phase of losing weight, and I feel like I’m failing because I’m trying to focus on so many things at the same time. So…just be easy on yourself. Know your limits. Because I put too much pressure on myself, and I failed. I mean, I succeeded, but then I failed. I tried to fix my skin, my hair, lose weight, and build my career, and all of that all at the same time, and I feel like I failed. So…don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Take one thing at a time. That’s my beauty secret. I’m sure people won’t like that, but you know, that advice is so much more than just, like, “Find your angle,” or “Use this mask,” or whatever…this is lifelong beauty. Set high standards for yourself, but don’t put too much pressure. Wait…you know what? I want to change my beauty secret answer. I want to say, love yourself before anyone else. That’s my answer. Love yourself before anyone else.

Thank you for letting me interview you!

No problem. It was so much fun!



July 9, 2015

Everyone has fears. Broad, enveloping, all-encompassing fears. Things we don’t like to think about. Grown-up fears that permeate our existence, which we try to handle in a way that’s as minimally neurotic as possible. I’m scared my child will fall down the stairs. I’m scared my husband will get in a car wreck on his way home from work. I’m scared I will get a call that something has happened to one of my parents. As the wife of a Saudi, I’m constantly bombarded by reminders from others that if I were a smart woman, I would have other fears, too: your husband could get another wife. Your husband could kidnap your children. Your husband could transform into a brutal, terrifying, heartless Arab who makes every day of your life a living hell. For better or worse, we all have rational worries and fears that we deal with in varying degrees to the best of our ability.

But then there are the weird, irrational fears. I have them. You have them. They’re the fears that we’ve had since our childhood, fears that we know–know–are ridiculous, but we can’t stop ourselves from engaging them, anyway. Sometimes these fears don’t really manifest themselves in any sort of detrimental way. They’re just there, and we don’t even really notice them until there’s a glitch in our time-honored process of observing them.

For example, I’m scared of tornadoes. That doesn’t seem like an irrational fear, actually, and I suppose it isn’t. Tornadoes are scary stuff. They really can kill you if you ignore (or chase) them. But it’s a residual fear left over from my fear of storms. I’ve always been scared of storms, for as long as I can remember, which sucks if you’re a kid growing up in Tornado Alley, as I was. I used to have panic attacks when I heard thunder and saw lightning. As a kid, I could rattle off all of the necessary safety precautions to follow during a storm or tornado–don’t make phone calls (lightning can strike you through land lines). Don’t take a shower or bath. Don’t be outdoors at all; even though sitting on the front porch to watch a storm pass is a time-honored Ozarks tradition, I knew very well that if you are outdoors and can hear thunder, you are at risk of a lightning strike . If you are indoors, move to the most central room (i.e., a room without windows) in the lowest level of the building (preferably a basement). Lightning strikes the highest thing it can find, so if you are outdoors in a storm, your goal is to make yourself as flat as possible; stay away from the tall things that you would normally gravitate toward to seek some sort of shelter, like trees. Trees are bad news in a storm; not only can the branches break and fall on your head, but if you are sitting next to a tree when lightning strikes it, you’re dead, too. (Cows would tell you a lot about this, if they could. Or maybe they wouldn’t, because as a species, they obviously haven’t figured out to stay away from trees during a storm.) So, if you are outdoors during a storm and can’t get indoors or in a car (a car is a bad place to be during a tornado, but it’s fine for your average storm; if lightning strikes a car, you will be safe as long as it’s a fully enclosed vehicle and you don’t touch any exposed metal in the interior–i.e., no convertibles), the best thing to do is to find an open area, like a field, and lay down flat on your stomach, with your hands over your head. If you are outdoors in a tornado, you need to be looking for a ditch to lie in, again, on your stomach with your hands over your head (although this always struck me as silly, fake advice, like telling kids to duck and cover under their desks in case of a nuclear strike…basically just something to comfort children like me who were terrified of tornadoes and needed a contingency plan for all situations involving them, children who, for obvious reasons, really didn’t need to hear, “Well, I don’t know what to tell you, kid. If you’re outside and a tornado is heading right for you and you can’t get indoors at all, you’re basically screwed, because you can’t outrun the thing…and you, Nicole, have asthma, so you really can’t outrun the thing”).

I could tell you all of this by the time I was in second grade.

Now that I live in Riyadh, storms are a rarity, so much that I tend to actually enjoy them because they bring blessed, blessed rain. But I still find myself edging away from windows when a storm comes, even though I know that no tornadoes are going to get me in Saudi Arabia.

I’m also scared of snakes. This in itself is also not an entirely irrational fear. Snakes are creepy to a lot of people. The way they move, the way they swallow things whole, their venom, their teeth. They’re scary creatures. But my fear of them has always manifested itself in a weird way, well beyond not wanting to touch one at the zoo.

See, from the time I was a kid, I was scared of a snake winding its way up the toilet while I was sitting on it. The thought of that has always freaked me out (um, understandably), and for that reason, I’ve never been one to spend a second longer on the toilet than is biologically necessary. I had it in my head that this had happened to my mom once, that I had heard her tell a story like this. And it’s true; she does have a story that goes something like this, although I must have misunderstood it the first time I heard it as a little kid.

“It was in one of the first old houses we rented when we first moved to the Ozarks,” she told me when I asked her about it. “The house was real old and it had a storm cellar and the tub was one of those old claw-legged tubs. And the pipes that attached to the tub came up from the floor. I was sitting on the pot and I was minding my own business when I looked in the direction of the tub and saw a big black snake curling and winding its way up the pipe in the floor. Needless to say, I screamed and ran out of the bathroom with my pants around my legs. The bathroom was right next to the kitchen, and your dad was standing next to the sink. He turned around and saw a pretty picture of his half-naked wife tripping and screaming.”

The real story is scary enough, and certainly didn’t do anything to assuage my fearful reluctance to spend any extra time on the toilet. Now I can’t guarantee that I won’t be scared of any bathroom that doesn’t have bars fixed over all of its drains. But I can guarantee that if that had happened to me right after I moved to Saudi Arabia, I would have been on the first flight home.

Yet another completely irrational fear that I have, and have had for well over twenty years, is the fear of Bloody Mary. Everyone knows the story of Bloody Mary, right? Well, if you don’t, let me enlighten you. There’s a scary story, commonly told among kids, that if you stand in front of a mirror in a completely dark room, and you say, “I do believe in Bloody Mary, I do believe in Bloody Mary, I do believe in Bloody Mary” (three times, just like that), then Bloody Mary will come out of the mirror and strangle you. (It’s supposedly based on the legend of Queen Mary I of England, who was called Bloody Mary because she ruthlessly executed Protestants). Reasonable thing to be scared of when you’re eight years old (even if you’re not Protestant)? Sure. But what about when you’re nearing 32, and you still figure that as long as there’s at least some light in the room, you’re protected from Bloody Mary, so as you’re attempting to climb into bed in a dark room that has very little space for maneuvering, you whack your foot on the side of the bed and make your toe bleed because instead of paying attention to where you’re going in the dark, you’re frantically looking around to make sure that there’s a tiny light on somewhere in the room (the red light on the power strip on the floor next to my nightstand? The power button on the printer?), so Bloody Mary can’t sneak out of the mirrors in the room?

That’s me.

I know we all have weird fears. Still, I worry that mine are weirder than most. But who knows? I’m very aware that the only normal people in the world are the people I don’t know well. I’m just not as good as others at hiding my weirdness.

bloody mary's mirror.