Saudi is a brutal place mentally. You have so little control, so many restrictions and so much stress. Stress personally or the absorption of stress from a spouse pushed to the brink. There are no releases. You cannot grab coffee or go for a drive yelling at the top of your voice without wearing an abaya or terrifying your mandatory driver. One of my good friends was a trauma nurse for over 20 years and is now on anxiety meds. She has never touched them, she has lived here less than one year. So, we all try to find way to absorb the shock. Medications are the answer for some, exercise for others, and still others flounder. It is not the Middle East situation that drives this but rather the lack of control of any aspect of life. But the people you are randomly assigned to in your compound are your primary help strategy . It is amazing the strength a random collection of different individuals can provide. But, for those people used to protecting their solitary burdens reaching out to the petri-dish of a compound is not an advisable strategy. It is a broken road for everyone, at least we have company together.
Anyone that knows me knows that I am my own worst critic. I can’t help but focus on the flaws, the failures. It both keeps me awake at night and drives me. But, the universe has a way of reminding me that I don’t suck at life. In one week in June the year and a half of sometimes soul-crushing work I do was recognized. As someone who typically operates in the wings or shadows it was a odd moment of public accolades. I was recognized personally, professionally and as the leader of team. The most important piece, personally, of all of this was a line in an incredible letter from a colleague that is leaving, someone that was responsible for my current job. He said I was the most important person for the company in the Kingdom, the one that has made the most impact. It has taken weeks to truly digest this. Me, a stay at home momma, a volunteer turned employee. And, I smile when I think of all of the cards stacked in front of me when I landed here, and the improbable truth that this statement validates me not only overcoming it all but succeeding. It is a reminder that I needed. That what I do does matter, it does positively impact the world around me. The work is worth it.
The world works in strange and mysterious ways and every Tuesday I find myself embracing the weirdness that is my life. I serve on the task force assigned to fix my broken compound. So, every Tuesday morning I find myself seated at the table with 4 Saudis and 1 Egyptian, all men of course. The truly interesting part, and something that I would never anticipated in my previous life, is that I not only participate as an equal I am respected as one of leaders of this unlikely partnership. I am included in all communications with this group and my opinion and advice is not only welcome, it is solicited. And, it has made a difference. And I am proud. Slowly things are being fixed, in record speed frankly for this country, and my relationships with the members of this odd cohort deepen daily.
Everything about my experience in Saudi to date has been surprising. It has pushed me to my limit, and past it many times honestly. Looking back there are days I am not sure how I made it through. But still, I stand. I am more battered and bruised than when I arrived but I am also more self aware, deeply confident and accomplished than I ever thought possible. And, for that, I am weirdly thankful for this place.
The world is changing quickly. The sands we stand on here are ever shifting and feel more charged than before. I bought my first Niqab the other day with one of my best friends. She wore it after shopping and said the anonymity of the experience was liberating. It feels deliciously ironic to state that wearing a full face covering is liberating but after a year and a half living under the constant, sometimes penetrating glare of Saudi’s and expats alike it sounds beautiful to slip below the radar.
We were under lock-down for almost four weeks. The compound walls got very close and I was happy to escape for two weeks for spring break. You become so quickly accustomed to Saudi that leaving seems to be like opening the doors at the beach when you arrive. The sounds and the smells and the light are intoxicating. You unlearn some of the habits you have grown accustomed to here. And it is weird because you catch yourself unlearning at random moments; putting up 5 boxes of cheerios and leaving with only one, worrying about a male staring at you as an indication that your body is showing and then a lady in a bikini strolls by, and marveling at cars staying in their lanes.
In many ways it is getting harder and harder to return to KSA. The uncertainty of our predicament here, the willingness to leave the freedoms of the world behind for the confinement gifted to us by this country, and, in my case, shouldering the yoke of unquenchable responsibilities. I can fully understand why international relocators classify Saudi as an ‘expert’ level assignment. You can certainly survive it, and if you are in the right compound possibly thrive here, but you will certainly leave with more lines and cracks in your body and your mind. 67 days until summer break, counting down the days.
When I took the GMAT my goal was a piece of paper that said MBA. When I applied to schools I picked two safe paper options. But, I also allowed myself to dream a bit. I picked a dream program and two other, more practical options. I wrote a bazillion essays, did an interview and filled out tomes of online applications and waited.
As always, life took over. In normal land, you check your email, you watch your application accounts for any sign of decision, and you consider each program each other replete with conversations with advisors. But I don’t live in normal land. Instead my days were filled with transitioning to my new Dow role, wrapping up the school year, packing for the states, scheduling appointments and friend time here and the other side of the world.
And we flew, and we saw all, and did all, and loved all. In the midst of this I got one acceptance via email in the airport in Saudi, and another via email in Frankfurt after our flight was cancelled. Once I got home to Houston I had another in the mail. And then I started to dream a bit… I packed for the reunion and thought of the current options and left them there at the house, there was no room in the car. When I returned, there was another waiting for me in the mailbox. And then came an email. One I didn’t expect to receive. Requesting a phone call with the dean of a program.
I drove out to Dow for an employee medical and got a phone call on the way home from the the dean. And, she welcomed me to their October cohort. I hung up and clapped and finally looked in the mirror. I had done something that when I walked into the GMAT I doubted with every fiber of my being. And I did it despite all of this being an unfortunately necessary afterthought.
And then, I had to pack up again and travel through the states, and my quiet moments became brief, and practical logic trumped the dreaming moments, as brief time does not humor fluid thoughts. But, at night when the house was silent, sometimes practicality didn’t win out over dreaming. I made the choice that was planned.
The process of registering with the practical choice has been more challenging than I anticipated. It seems I am a bit more of a round peg than I thought. Coupled with a bonus career in a role I’m actually quite brilliant at and enjoy, respect and admiration from saudi businessmen, and a strange ability to navigate this culture, my professional path home has now changed from a single exit to a major highway interchange. Along the way that piece of paper has morphed from a set of three letters to finding a program I love.
So, I sit at a crossroads between the practical and the passionately illogical.
There is a certain charm to Saudi Arabia. Don’t get me wrong, there are many things about the people, the processes and the customs of this country that make daily life uncomfortable and at times unbearable. But, if you commit to finding this country’s charm you will.
For every story you hear about a negative interaction here there are usually untold stories of saudi kindness and generosity. There is a small subset of the population here that is intent on bridging the gap between a closed society and the transient experience of an expat. In this group, there is a general desire to help us decipher their society and its rules, and to welcome us, as visitors, to it. I appreciate these people immensely as they make me feel more at ease here. There is so much daily judgement and critical observation of my personal existence in this country but these kind souls help me lift the veil just enough to understand we are not altogether different after all.
I have spent many moments, sometimes in the same second, wondering if this was the bravest or dumbest thing we have ever done. And honestly, I can probably argue both points with equal enthusiasm. But then, I have moments of lucidity. So many people dream of testing their personal limits, of not having a shred of security blanket to rely on. To break free of mediocrity and expectations. To travel the world, to be present int the world, to see and experience the world with your own eyes and ears and mouth and feet. And we get this opportunity. We chose this opportunity. And while I sometimes feel like the biggest idiot by leaving our world behind I also feel deeply grateful that we made this choice. Saudi would never have been my preferred destination but I know we will all emerge from this experience better citizens of the world and stronger people. The list of places we want to experience can be crossed off and added to fluidly here. And for that, I am deeply grateful.
Sometimes I think I bungle this whole parenthood thing up. If I only had more patience, if only I relaxed more, if only I could be one of those zen like moms. I love my kiddos with all of my heart but mornings have become challenging. I pack bags and lunches the night before, arrange coats and shoes, everything possible to try and make the day go smoother, but the point remains that we have to be walking out the door a full hour before we did in Houston. And it is rough. It means that everyone is up around the time Hans leaves at 6:00 am, exactly 1 hour before we walk out the door. Sometimes they are happy to be awake, sometimes not. Sometimes breakfast and the walk to the bus is joyous and other times it is closer to stubbing your toe slowly and purposefully.
I wish I had a magic wand to make it all better. I wish I had a deeper feed sack of patience. I wish we had a little longer in the mornings so breakfast was not so rushed, but waking up earlier is not an option. I wish every morning at the table was spent discussing our hopes for the day. I wish there was a little less sass and a little more twinkle from the kiddos in the morning, but at the same time I know I need to do a little less nagging and a little more silliness to solve it. I wonder if other moms feel this way.
I would love to just take them to the zoo and play hooky for a day to break out of this rut but this is not Houston. At this point we cannot even leave the country until the end of this month since we do not have our multi entry/exit visas. So, I am forced to continue to reach further into myself to try to find even more strength and even more patience to turn this cart around. I just pray I can bring more joy to all of us in the morning. It would make a world of difference!
So remember when you got your first apartment in college and you were soooo excited to go to ikea? I remember pouring over the catalogue, dog earring pages and wandering through the store and leaving with my plunder. Well, after almost a decade of home ownership and more years than that since I stepped inside of an ikea I find myself once again overly excited about my ikea shopping cart.
IKEA is a rite of passage here given the lack of storage and lamps and desks and many other things. So, we arranged a car for the hour long drive to Dharan for our first trip to ikea (yes, there will be more). The boy loved the drive down and spent the entire time describing every.single.truck we saw on the road in a not so inside voice, which was amusing in its own rite. For the record, there are a lot of trucks.
To compete my adult regression, we saw camels roaming on the side of the road. There is nothing that will release my inner three year old faster than a herd of camels. Well, maybe a particular pelican on a specific road trip, but I digress. So there was much rejoicing in the vehicle. After the camel distraction we made it to the largest mall I have ever seen, ate accidental breakfast for lunch and tackled Ikea. While the husband may not have enjoyed being reacquainted with the Allen wrench, I deem the trip and bounty a success.
We have this beautiful sandy field behind our unit (and the concrete/barbed wire fence of course). I wake up every morning to the lovely sound of birds, not unlike our home in Houston. It is a nice taste of home but also serves as a stark reminder of the lack of freedom I have here. The last few days have been hard, the kids are bored, the husband is busy with work and nothing is really available on the compound for entertainment purposes.
Normally, I would take the kids to the park or let them run in the sandy field behind the unit but the field is off limits and the park involves a driver and is easier to do with a man than without. It is hard to describe the mental and physical adjustment required to exist in this country. You have to suspend your individual freedom of free movement and plan for every movement you will need to make, hours or days before you need to make them.
The trips we take off compound are exciting, not because of the destination – grocery stores, panda, etc, but because we are not confined by these small concrete walls. The irony that grocery shopping with two kids represents a relative taste of freedom here is not lost on me. I have tried to explain the internal turmoil to the husband but my words fall short. The only imaginary I have available that comes close is a birdcage. I can only hope that as time marches on I find ways to see past the bars. Today is not one of those days though.