Memories of Kawaggi, Saudi Arabia

Eighteen years ago my family and I moved to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where my husband, Nick, had been sent by his maritime law firm. [Names have been changed and, for the record, the marriage, ended.] With last year’s bombing of a compound like the one we lived on and with the probable inclusion of women in the Kingdom’s next municipal elections, it seems time to reflect on a lifestyle that’s gone the way of the ha-ha plant.

“A maritime law firm in the desert?” exclaimed the pianist Rosalyn Tureck when I told her where we were going.

But Jeddah is a port and anyway, Nick’s firm was expanding to include international law.

I didn’t want to move to Saudi Arabia. There’d just been a spate of hijackings and even if we got past the improbable hurdle of never arriving in the first place, I worried that a truck could barrel past the compound guard and blow the place up.

“Nothing like that has ever happened,” Nick assured. “Saudi Arabia isn’t like the rest of the Middle East. It’s a repressive regime; no one dares even steal your pocketbook; they’d get their hand cut off.”

Ah, the upside of repression… I called a former CIA agent who had written a book about the Kingdom.

“If you hear of any trouble, unrest among foreign workers, for instance, you should leave,” he advised. He knew that all was not well in the state of that Shangri-La we were moving to.

Then the hijackings stopped so I agreed to go.

I bought a book to learn Arabic. It was uphill work. For one letter of the alphabet the book recommended, “Approximate the sound one makes when blowing on one’s glasses.” Transliterations were crude; I showed a certain word, written in Roman letters but translated three unrelated ways on the same page, to an Egyptian friend. She frowned and said, “I do not know this word. Why are you studying Arabic? Everyone you’ll meet will speak English.”

“I figure if we get taken hostage they might look more kindly on the family of someone who knows a bit of the language.”

“They’ll think you’re a spy.” Jeddah airport: Gleamingly modern but for the black ghosts mingling with the bustling crowd. Dressed like medieval executioners, they were largely silent. So it was disconcerting when one of them yelled, gesticulating that I was standing on the wrong line.

We moved to a compound I shall call the Garden of Jeddah. Like an imaginary island I dreamed up when I was eleven, it had one of everything: One grocery store where if some esoteric product a resident desired was missing, the eager-to-please Philippino manager ordered it from the supermarket; one restaurant; one dry cleaner, one doctor. If the air conditioner acted up or failed to, if the sink got clogged, the compound sent over a Philippino worker to fix it, no charge. “Philippinos fix everything,” grinned a maintenance worker as he finished tinkering with the T.V. These days they probably fix computers too.

People ask if it took a long time to get used to life in Saudi Arabia. It took two days. After being shown around Jeddah by Laurie, the wife of the head partner at the firm, (shopping malls downtown; a lovely Old Section with delicately worked though not particularly sturdy wooden balconies) every day was the same: writing in the morning while our son was at preschool, childrearing for the rest of the day. Some women complained about not being allowed to drive. I wondered where they wanted to go. With its gardens and turquoise-tiled fountains, the oasis of the compound approached one’s deep-rooted notions of Paradise, lending plausibility to the local legend that Eve was buried nearby. The lifestyle of luxurious house arrest suited my introspective tendencies at the time.

Still, when I ventured outside preoccupations with my book or my husband or son and focussed on the world we lived in now, it presented a disheartening picture. Garden of Jeddah was Pleasantville, the women wafting inexorably toward Stepford wifehood.

The noticeboard at the compound’s Information Center was gaily bursting with announcements of classes in everything from quilting to crocheting; from flower arranging to cake-decorating. Enough activities to gain the place instant accreditation as a lunatic asylum. “It helps to have a hobby,” Laurie advised. One woman worked all winter on a really big jigsaw puzzle.

You might think that in such an environment, where we were thrown together as on an episode of Survivor, gossip and intrigue would flourish. No such luck. Conversation around the pool dwelt mainly on vacations and beauty aids. In the two years we were in Jeddah I heard of only one affair and of that, only that the new couple were unhappy. There were three pool drownings of children too, one of them on our compound: A five-year-old Sudanese boy, the son of one of the maids. “He used to chase the ball when we played tennis,” my friend Margaret reflected. The company that employed the maid paid for her to fly home to bury her son. A week later, she returned to work. No safety gates were put up around the pools. Life went on as though nothing had happened.

No one talked about the news; there wasn’t any to talk about. The local papers had a couple of pages of international news; one page devoted to Saudi achievements including a Medical Column which might have been better described as the kidney transplant column. The most entertaining section of the paper contained reports from sources referred to only as “Agencies” of events such as the birth to a family in rural China of a twenty-third child; like all the other children, a girl.

The news wasn’t censored so long as reports covered approved topics and with an upbeat angle. “No news is bad news” seemed to be the motto, “unless it’s taking place somewhere else.” Emily, a journalist friend, said she was even told to write upbeat restaurant reviews.

The weather was censored too. Newspapers downplayed the temperature – as measured on several people’s home thermometers – when it went above fifty degrees Celsius since at that point a work stoppage would have to be declared for outdoor labor. Although when the temperature once hit 53 degrees Celsius (127 degrees Fahrenheit) no one bothered to conceal the truth; you knew it as soon as you touched the handle to the car door.

Foreign magazines which didn’t toe the line got the full treatment: References to pork, alcohol and nudity were censored with a scribble of black magic marker. The practice added a new dimension to crossword puzzles. Sometimes ads were ripped out entirely so that you also lost the news on the other side of the page.

One night we watched a movie in which several women sat around a pool in bathing suits. A black block covered each one like a literal body guard, bobbing along in front of her when she got up to stroll languidly to the house. Once the censor got distracted; the black block lagged behind the woman so we got a glimpse of the forbidden bod until the block caught up.

There was a wedding in that movie too but since it took place in a church, I don’t know what happened.

T.V. news consisted at times of graduations presented in toto. The high point of the news cycle was the Today Show which, because of the seventeen hour lag in airing overseas, was referred to by a visiting wit as the Yesterday show.

Any interesting local news travelled through the grapevine. This was how we learned of a change in the law that was to affect Nick’s client, Michael. The new law said that henceforth, imported barley was to be dyed red to distinguish it from the local variety and so protect the market. The authorities had released a recipe for dyeing the barley which Michael said resembled his grandmother’s method of dyeing Easter eggs. It involved boiling the grain, then dousing it until the water ran clear. The law was effective immediately. Michael had several tons of barley due to arrive in three days. Even the beauty itself of Garden of Jeddah was unnatural. Thanks to the regular ‘fogging’, in which a worker came by on a tractor from which billowed clouds of pesticide, we never had so much as a fly. The compound management downplayed any ill effects to humans of the pesticide but at a neighboring compound, the neurological symptoms of several residents led to the discovery of elevated arsenic in their blood.

But not even the fog that saved us from insects, vermin and birds could prevent a phenomenon during our second year: The sky grew yellow; the next morning, the trees were bare and locusts dotted the garden paths.

And what was it like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia?

A neighbor who ventured downtown during a religious holiday got hassled for not wearing a scarf. The mutawwa (religious policeman) was stunned when she turned around. For unlike her big blond hair, her face did not conceal her seventy years. When the mutawwa were in top form and they thought your skirt too short, she said, they hit your legs with a stick.

My own encounter with Arab antifeminism took place one afternoon when a teenager, rampaging through the garden paths of the compound on a motorcycle, came within a foot of my two-year-old son. The compound management refused to act; I called the police.

“Your husband has to make the report,” they said.

“He’s not here; he didn’t see the incident. He doesn’t know anything about it.”

“Your husband has to make the report.”

Then there was the quaint (and by now obsolete?) criterion for testifying in court, relayed to us by a reputed scholar of Shari’a law: Greater weight is given to the testimony of an adult male Muslim who has never urinated standing up; a criterion that would, of course, be easily satisfied by an adult female Muslim or male Muslim baby.

More insidious than the overt antifeminism of the Arabs was the patronizing attitude of our midWestern compatriots, asking Nick about his ‘better half’ and refusing to call me by my own last name. It was easier with Saudis according to whose custom, I was told, women are not considered worthy to take their husband’s name.

As for the attitude that women tempt men through their dress to commit rape, it wasn’t so different from the excuses one sometimes hears in this country.

“Guess what!” announced a man at a cocktail party at the Consulate. “The X Company won their fight with the Saudis. Remember how they wanted to use female secretaries but the Saudis wouldn’t let them? Well, the Saudis backed down! The women secretaries can come over!”

“All right!” Everyone raised their glasses. “Yes!”

I exchanged glances with Emily. In their demand for female secretaries, was the X Company promoting the cause of women? It was sometimes hard in Saudi Arabia to know whose side to be on. The other thing people say when I tell them I used to live in Saudi Arabia is, “How exotic.” They assume that Westerners mingled freely with the Saudis so that it was possible to gain insight into the local way of life.

But Saudis and Westerners were mutually wary: The Saudis, afraid of becoming or even seeming corrupted by casual association with us; the Westerners afraid of violating some obscure tenet of Shari’a law and getting thrown in jail. However the two groups socialized for appearance’ sake, each taking pains to be sensitive to the other’s customs. (“In Arab culture it is considered rude to sit in such a way as to show the sole of the shoe,” advised one company brochure.)

So these gettogethers were dominated by awkward pleasantries, even as they waxed into the night – dinner in Saudi Arabia sometimes not being served until 11 p.m. – since no one was getting drunk. Whenever we went to the house of Nick’s boss, his wife (whose limited English worked to the advantage of maintaining distance) invariably said, “You like Jeddah? Jeddah very nice.” That was it for the rest of the evening.

But even the most banal conversation acquires panache when it’s conducted in a palace.

One night Michael invited us to dinner at the house of a Saudi. A few weeks earlier, he’d invited us to another dinner which had been a raucous family affair. So for this gathering I put on similar clothes, a cotton skirt and blouse.

To get to the L family compound we followed Michael’s directions which, since most streets didn’t have names, relied on landmarks: “Make a right at the Fallopian tubes;” (an abstract sculpture) “Another right at the car in the wall.” (Sculpture or accident? One couldn’t be sure).

A butler in a long white robe and turban led us inside where two groups sat in silence, the men in one part of the room, the women in the other.

Our hostess, dressed in an expensive silk suit, looked me up and down disapprovingly.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t realize this would be such an elegant party.”

“That’s all right,” she said stiffly. “Next time you will be elegant.”

Nick and I parted for our respective circles. I sat with a group of five women who introduced themselves grudgingly before falling back into silence.

I addressed one of the less forbidding ones. “What do you do?” I asked.

She shrugged. “And you?”

“I have a son and I’m trying to write a book. How about you?” I looked at the woman next to her.

“I visit my friends. Drink tea.” “Put that in your book,” said the third.

An overweight young girl shrugged and said, “I don’t do anything. I’m lazy.” There was no reason to doubt her.

A college-age girl came down the stairs in a yellow dress with black polka dots. She smiled in an open, friendly way.

“And I study computers,” she said. We talked for a bit but the silence of the others sent such strong vibes of disapproval that we stopped.

Nick came over and whispered in my ear. “You see that room over there?”

The small alcove held a low sofa covered in embroidered pillows. The walls were painted gold.

“It cost $200,000 to decorate.”

The servant passed around a contraption that hissed like an oxygen machine: The hookah, containing a brew made from rotting fruit. I was tempted to try it but shook my head.

The buffet spread – lamb, taboule, mezzah – was exquisite.

Our hostess approached again, still wearing an expression of disdain. After complimenting her on the dinner, I asked her about the boutique she ran.

“We have the latest fashions from Paris,” she said. I wondered what part she’d played in a fashion show in which an Australian friend of mine, Leslie, had modelled since Saudi women weren’t allowed to:

“We changed clothes really quickly,” Leslie had said, “so I didn’t realize til afterwards that I was wearing a huge purple bow on my bottom.”

“Where are your servants from?” I asked Mrs. L.. I’d counted four and that was without going into the kitchen.

“I don’t know,” she bristled. “From the Sudan,” said her husband. “What about you?”

Ah, someone to talk to!

As I answered his question, an odd object caught my eye: the chandelier. It was pastel colored and resembled a melting wedding cake.

“My wife did the decorating,” Mr. L.. interjected, wanting to disassociate himself from the eyesore.

We were getting along great which was no doubt why after ten minutes he turned on his heels and never spoke to me again. Conversation is for form only; it must never become animated or gain substance. The stiff atmosphere even in informal gatherings might have driven Westerners underground for real R&R but for the godsend of diplomatic immunity. Oases of Western law, Consulates became the Studio 54 of Jeddah, the place everyone clamored to get in since there you could drink with impunity so long as you didn’t “act drunk” once you left.

The Y Consulate held an Open House every Monday night. The bar was a bare room, possibly a converted garage, furnished with a few wooden counters on which woe-begone or furtive-looking loners perched their beers. The place had the air of the final outpost of the frontier, its habitues mostly single men in their forties escaping failure back home or, courtesy of a liberal policy towards overseas earnings, working their way out of tax debt. The rest of the guests were career expatriot couples, hardy souls who’d been making a home away from home their entire adult lives.

Even here conversation followed familiar lines: How long have you been in Jeddah? How long are you planning to stay?

But one night after a couple of drinks Emily told of an unusual encounter: Her radio station had held a competition for Saudi students to write an essay in English. One entrant’s family name was Amin. Emily surmised the boy might be the son of Idi Amin, former Ugandan President, known for cannibalism and siccing rats onto the open entrails of his enemies. Once he was ousted from power, Saudi Arabia was the only country that would have him and then, only on condition that he lie low and not make trouble.

“I couldn’t resist,” Emily said. “I gave the kid a prize.+He showed up with his father who was huge; he blocked the doorway. No one recognized him but me. ‘I said, ‘Well! Your son certainly speaks wonderful English!’ ‘You will give him certificate,’ he said.” Emily imitated his ominous voice.

“‘Of course!’I looked in the drawers for any official stamp I could find. Stamp, stamp, stamp.”

She replayed the frenzy with which she had gussied up a certificate for Amin’s son. Amin and son left satisfied.

It was at the Y Consulate that I met Margaret, a British woman married to a salesman. James had been a gifted artist but the Gardners had spent their married life in what Somerset Maugham would have called the “colonies.” I once asked James what was the strangest thing he’d ever witnessed during those years. (I, too, couldn’t shake the sense that living abroad was exotic.) After thinking for a moment, he answered, “A witch doctor making rain. I suppose he must have had some knowledge of meteorology.”

Margaret and I went to the souk (market) a few times together. “I like haggling,” she confessed in the back seat of the car as we were driven there by James’ company driver.

But as we spent more time together, she said things that rankled. Speaking of riots in the London neighborhood of Brixton she said, “They make their own ghettoes, don’t they?”

I was too taken aback to say anything at that moment but after we parted I mulled over a response.

The opportunity to voice it came soon enough. I asked her about a course she had taken in teaching English as a Second Language.

“Not very good,” she said. “But the teacher’s name was Hannah Solomon so what do you expect?” She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together.

“I have to ask you to stop making these comments,” I said.

“Why?” She didn’t feign innocence. “Everyone talks like this, or at least the honest ones do.”

“No they don’t although maybe they do in the circles you’re used to.”

“I’m not talking about you.”

“I can’t keep going places with you if you talk this way with me.”

“I have to be able to speak the way I want in my own house. If this affects you personally, tell me and I’ll stop. Otherwise not.”

“It does affect me personally.”


“They’re offensive comments. Lots of people in my generation would feel that way.” (Margaret was almost thirty years older than I.)

“Look, if this is about you, that’s one thing. Otherwise I’ll speak the way I like.”

We weren’t getting anywhere. But a few weeks before, Nick had learned that his boss had been secretly negotiating with another firm; we were going home in three months. I hadn’t been allowed to tell anyone but this change in our plans affected my willingness to say what I said next:

“All right. My father was Jewish.”

This was a fact I kept close to the vest in Saudi Arabia, since Jews were not allowed in the country. “You could get deported,” Nick had said when we first went over and I stoutly said I wasn’t going to hide anything. Deported? I thought. Great! He read my mind: “Or thrown in jail.” That had done it. Cowardice prevailed.

“I’m so sorry,” Margaret said now, by which she didn’t mean, “I’m sorry you’re half-Jewish,” but, “I’m sorry I said anti-Semitic and other offensive things to you.”

In the silence that followed I could see her replaying our conversations, looking at my responses in a new light.

“I think you think that everyone’s secretly racist except for maybe a few idealists like me,” I said.

“I do think that, yes.”

She also understood that by letting her in on what needed to be kept secret in Saudi Arabia, I’d placed more trust in her than she’d earned.

“Well, it’s very brave of you, being here, isn’t it?”

What she also meant was, it’s brave of you to have told me. Then, to ‘repay’ me in the currency of confidences she continued:

“I have a black niece. I don’t tell many people that. My brother and his wife adopted her to keep the marriage together.”

“Did it work?”

“More or less but it’s a terrible reason to have a child, a terrible thing to do to the child.”

She sounded more angry than was warranted by any moves her brother and sister-in-law might have made to keep their marriage together.

She showed me pictures of her family including her niece as a little girl.

“Do you make racist remarks in front of your niece?”

“Of course not. It would hurt her. But I’m not a racist. I don’t do anything to black people or Jews.”

The confidences continued. About her own son she said, “He’s a bit of a pyromaniac. Whenever we have a dinner party, it’s always, ‘Robert, would you like to light the candles?'”

“I have the feeling I’m waiting for something,” she said one day. “You’re the only person I’ve told that to.”

“Maybe you’re waiting for a grandchild.”


But I also had the feeling in Saudi Arabia of the suspension of reality, an interruption in my real life.

Another time she reported that the wife of the Y Consul had said, “Jenna looks like Anne Frank.” (No one’s ever said that before but in Saudi Arabia any expat who wasn’t blond looked like Anne Frank.) “Do you think she might be Jewish?”

“Oh, I shouldn’t think so,” Margaret had said.

Still, when Margaret and I went back to the souk together, I refrained from bargaining. Didn’t want to feed any stereotype notions she might still be harboring.

One day she gave a lunch at which the subject of anti-Jewish sentiment in Saudi Arabia came up.

“They’re anti-Zionist, not anti-Jewish,” said Emily.

“They don’t let Jews in the country,” I reminded her.

“Oh well, that, yes. But they have a Jewish finance adviser.”

She was not being ironic.

For the rest of our time in Saudi Arabia Margaret tried to make up for having behaved like a colonial boor. After a dinner party she said, “I wish you could have been a fly on the wall and heard all the anti-Semitic comments people were making.” (“You see, it IS everywhere; it’s not just me.”)

And when Nick and I went to India she visited our son every day. He remembers the M&Ms that she kept in an Easter egg for him.

Nick had won the India trip in a raffle; in Saudi Arabia, whenever anyone wanted to offer a reward or incentive, it took the form of a ticket out of the country. Thus we also earned a trip to Bangkok over Eid, the holiday following the abstinence month of Ramadan.

The plane was filled with young Saudi men in Spring Break mode. One let his pet falcon out of its cage; another set up a barbecue in the aisle; a third tried to get into the cockpit. This was pre 9/11 and there was no thought of malice. The exasperated stewardesses simply scolded the men like children.

Bangkok: gold pagoda towers against a blue sky; an illustration out of Scheherazade. In the window of a tiny shop six people sat in two rows on the floor watching T.V; at least until we came along at which point they watched us instead.

From Bangkok to Hong Kong which felt like New York only more so. Laundry lines hung out the windows of forty storey skyscrapers.

We took one trip within the Kingdom. As nonMuslims, we weren’t allowed in Mecca so we went south to Najran. Since our group of fifteen were the only guests at the hotel, we made friends with the staff who wound up telling us how much they got paid. Philippinos earned the most; Sri Lankans, the least.

I took our son to the playground until a band of baboons descended like a gang from neighboring turf.

At the end of the return flight the familiar dry, cracked dirt of the desert lay beneath us, dotted with scrawny camels. My heart sank with the descending plane.

When we moved back to New York, I overheard a conversation on the subway:

“They tried to find a way to keep the raccoons out of the garbage,” a young woman said. “But when they came up with a different lock on the lid that stumped the raccoons, it also stumped the tenants.”

A far cry from “Jeddah very nice.”

I was home.

JENNA ORKIN is one of twelve original plaintiffs in a potential class action lawsuit against the EPA. She is a member of the World Trade Center Environmental Organization and can be reached at:


Jenna Orkin is the author of Writer Wannabe Seeks Brush With Death.