In KSA 1986
Khaled and Nadia
I was very little when Baba and Mama decided to travel to KSA. In Egypt, we had a small flat in the public housing part of city comprising of one bed room and a wide hall. The floor was not a fancy one. By that time ceramic and porcelain were not common for poor people, so the floor was covered by rough tiles; supposedly white with black dots. But in my memory they show as grey with black dots. The walls were painted with a chalk-like painting. I remember when I sleeked my hands over them touching the tiny little goose pumps, they would get a bit dusty from the painting. The bed room of Baba and Mama was beige and simple. Mama never loved too much ornaments in wood (as was custom in Egyptians) or maybe its poverty that caused her not to. In the hall, Uncle Fouad, mama’s brother (my bestest uncle of all who was considered the richest), gave my parents the dining table and the golden salon as presents. Actually, I later on knew that baba didn’t have the money to buy mama ‘shabka’ (the wedding ring or wedding golden gift), so uncle Fouad was the one who helped him too. ‘Why the hell did mama marry baba?’ a frequent thought occurring to me during the years which made me set ‘good finances’ on top of characteristics for my new yet unknown husband.
I was still months when baba decided it’s about time to leave and build up a new financially good life. He accepted the contract to work in one of the governmental Saudi hospitals. Mama had her contract too to work in a private hospital. My memory about that period is quite like mush about that period.
Our house there was not a fancy one either. But it had two bedrooms; one for my brother and I and the other for my parents. There was a living room that had three flat sofas pushed against three walls and covered with dark beige sheets ornamented with big red flowers. Each sofa had two rectangular cushions set against the wall. Dad brought us a Japan-made Sony TV (when Japan made items were the most expensive and best made).
Because of mama’s work, she had to put me into a house that hosted children. Let me close my eyes for a second. I was quite young in age and little in size. I wanted to socialize with the other kids and I thought that people would take me for the good sense of humor I had. There was that boy wearing a black scarf around his neck. I wanted to play with him. He was laughing with me so I grabbed him by the scarf. He fell down. But I did not mean to. I was just playing with him. ‘Nadia’ a scream and a frowning face from the hostess followed. I shrank in my seat hunched my shoulders as if I wanted to disappear and refused to weep.
Because I was the fair sex in the house, Khaled took all the blame and beating from my father. And although he didn’t imply any hard feelings against me, he always put me on the frontline when a catastrophe took place. When we grew up and were telling stories of our childhood, I found him telling me that he was sorry, for once he dropped a glass and broke it and when baba came back home, he said that it had been me who broke the cup. Baba never liked to hit me so it had been over in 5 minutes. In another incident, Khaled declared he didn’t like baba putting eggs beside the beans (fool) in the same plate. Baba got so furious then I was told he yelled at him him ‘it is haram that you say this. You will burn in fire for that’.
Such attitude from baba made us avoid telling him any mistakes. Because he didn’t like us to watch TV for a long time, we played a trick to remove the evidence from the crime scene. The TV victim was hot so we used a wet towel to absorb the heat and cool it down. The trick worked well until I decided to try something else. That day, time passed by and we didn’t notice it was time baba came home. I wetted the towel and decided I am going to squeeze it this time at the back of the TV. ‘Teshshsh’ the sound raised as if I s sizzling something. I shivered. When I tried to switch it on, the screen didn’t light and a weird sound came out. My heart was pounding. When baba came, we had to confess our crime to him. Thank God it was fixed later on or else I wouldn’t be telling the story right now.
The first day in school was quite distinguished. Mama managed to get me in school very young at the age of 4 and half which was a privilege I was told. I would be the youngest amongst my peers and get the chance of entering college really young. The first class I joined when I was taken to school was the Quran class. I can’t remember why I hadn’t attended the morning assembly though. I just entered into the class. I walked embarrassed amongst the desks where the girls were neatly sitting all in their grey dresses with their hair tied in a white ribbon. I squeezed myself in between two girls whom I can’t remember their faces or names. The class was reciting after Abla Ne’ma. I just did the same like everyone else; paying no attention to what I am saying and eagerly looking around me. After the next verse, Miss Ne’ma said ‘Nadia’. The whole class recited the verse along with the ‘Nadia’ at the end. And again, and as if this was my reaction to all that have embarrassed or lacked respect to my emotions: I shrank in my seat hunched my shoulders and lowered my gaze.
The best entertainment in Saudi Arabia at the time was the one hour childhood dedicated TV programs. The first half an hour was Hollywood cartoon and then an animated program. Khaled and I loved setting this one hour gazing at the TV and enjoying the figures flickering on screen. Baba always said TV was not the greatest invention. It was the West illusion to make the Arabs go numb and dumb. We never believed him and thought it was a matter of selfishness from his side to spoil our pleasure.
Actually, baba was such a terrible dad! He would spoil all the pleasures in the world. He would call those mouthful melting chocolates with crunchy nuts flavorful smell UNHEALTHY. He would call those crispy salty tomato flavored chips that reenergize the soul CRAP. He would give us a prize of green watery cucumber that tasted no better claiming that this was the healthier option. I never knew that later on I would be such a terrible mother too.
Besides our school, we had our household chores: vacuum the living, wash the dishes, tidy up the toilette, collect the toys into the big cardboard box and keep everything tidy. Khaled was still the mean boy while I was the innocent good girl. He would play a game with me to divide the rooms. The rooms to clean were the hall, the two bedrooms, and Khaled included the bathroom and kitchen for his mean trick. He would raise his five fingers and say ‘choose’, he had put a finger for each room and always kept the bathroom and kitchen, which mom used to clean thoroughly, for him no matter what my choices were. I trusted him the most though.
I remember one day, I was lying in my bed and found the dark room lit in blue and the blue was flickering and blinking on and off. I freaked out and knew some strange creature was in the house. I was so afraid that I hopped out of bed and went straight to Khaled’s and squeezed myself in between his tiny shoulders; for there I felt so safe.
‘Lady’ was my favorite animated cartoon series. ‘Lady’ was a girl who adored horses (just like me, or I grew up to like them after her, I don’t know). She had a stepsister who hated her so much at the beginning and then got to love her because of Lady’s beautiful soul. The first night after their re-conciliation, Lady slept beside Sarah holding her hand. And after that re-conciliation too, I slept beside Khaled sometimes holding his hand the same way. The stupid society made feelings of security sprung just beside him. For some reason, I was so insecure and afraid.
My body was a taboo and still is. I am a girl. I had to cover my breasts even when I didn’t actually have breasts. And I had to cover my virgin body although it was fresh and innocent and desire-free. But my father didn’t pay much attention to this. He once took us to a swimming pool. He asked me to take my shirt off. He smiled and said ‘come on Nadia, enjoy the water and take your shirt off’. I listened. I took it off. Dad seemed to forget we were in Saudi Arabia. Every man in the pool looked at the only single female embodied in that little girl on the stairs. I dared not go in the pool. I just sat their blushing. I shrank in that position, hunched my shoulders and lowered my gaze.
At the age of 8, I had to wear the abaya as well as cover my face whenever I go to school. At the same time, I wore miniskirts in outings with baba, mama and friends. My school was a girls only meanwhile I used to play with boys from our friends. I thought I should be sticking to one concept and whether to go with abaya or without it. But I learnt then that I had to conform and obey. I didn’t know that this was the start to teach me to hunch and bend with the waves.
One day, my best ever Arabic teacher miss Layla was sitting with us amongst friends. She suddenly looked at me and said ‘Nadia, yesterday I noticed you weren’t putting your face cover when you went out of the school’. I replied ‘I am just 8’. She said ‘which means you’re a big girl’. I had to put the face cover over whenever I am out from school and just pull it up in my dad’s car.
My result was out. I was the second in score. Dad or mom had to come to sign the certificate. But baba was too late this time. I just couldn’t wait and although women weren’t allowed to walk in the streets on their own at that time; let alone a child female. I rushed to the street where the hot breeze hit my face. When I was far by enough I pulled up my face cover. I knew mom’s hospital was just around the corner. I just couldn’t remember the directions very well. I took a turn with my heart thumping faster than usual. A beep beep sound. I swirled around fast and that’s baba there with his car astonished I was out! With a firm voice he said ‘never do this again.’
Mom was forced to put hijab on. Although she was coming from an Egyptian culture where women blew their heads up high, changed the color of their hairs very often and showed in timidity part of their legs, she knew that wasn’t acceptable in Saudi Arabia. And although inside her hospital walls she could take her abaya off and wander with her white gown, she still wasn’t allowed to wander in the streets with her long dresses. Just inside the walls.
We stayed in Najran at the farthest south of Saudi. They always said if we passed the big mountain at the end of the city, we would cross to Yemen. I bet it was a city actually. For me, it looked like a street, one long street in the sand where buildings made of debris scattered on both sides. The whole city had two main clothes shops besides minor shops for accessories and food. We knew around three to four families, who were comprised of my mom and dad physician friends and luckily they had girls my same age. But still it wasn’t live enough to me.