Life Happening, Part 1 (or, "Sleeping Man & Sleeping Cat")

I have lived in Saudi Arabia for nearly two years now. A mere eyeblink, really. An airplane will take me away in a few weeks. So I find myself pausing more often, looking closer, listening harder, talking less, trying to absorb as much as I can in the time I have left. The heat and the water vapor, the car horns and garish storefront lights, the harsh, pungent smells of gasoline and sewage and salt water and sweat. The everyday rhythm and motion of humanity. It's low and earthy and raw and human. It's ugly and beautiful -- and to me that's the best kind of beautiful. Because it's real.

Old City, Jeddah. 2014.
I've met a few princes and princesses and fabulously wealthy barons of industry during my time in Jeddah. I have shaken their bejeweled hands, visited their opulent palaces, lounged in their plush offices, dined at their sprawling seafront homes. Without exception, they are pleasant people. But they're not real, at least not to me. I cannot relate to the way the universe revolves around them, and they cannot relate to paying bills, shopping for groceries, or having others tell them no. So, to me, they are surreal, even unreal. They are caricatures. I can't siphon any meaning from that. There is no life in it.

It is in the unguarded, often unexpected, moments that life happens. I often miss them because I'm not paying attention. Too busy being busy. So I try to ease up, watch, hear, think.

African men with blank, bored expressions operate the mechanical barriers that control access to my housing compound. They typically slouch in white plastic chairs beside the button that raises the drop arm, absently seeing us approach in our large, expensive cars. Then they press the button, and the drop arm goes up, and we drive through and go home, and they stay there.

One day I slowly approached a barrier, checking my email on my phone, thinking of schedules and places besides where I was. I rolled to a stop in front of the drop arm, glanced up from my phone. The drop arm didn't rise. I looked around for the attendant. In the shade of his guard shack I spotted him, asleep in his plastic white chair, a stray kitten curled up in this lap. His dark hand rested on the kitten's dirty white fur. They were real. Unposed. Candid. Caught in the act of life. I paused and watched, content. And my car idled.

I Hate Myself For Loving Cookie (or, "Dude, Where's My Larynx?")

Yesterday, suddenly, we sort of had a cat. It started lounging around our doorstep. Like we'd been old friends since grade school or something. Just chilling in the shade, all, "Oh, hey bro, how's it? Haven't seen you since, you know, never. Love your digs."

The neighbors were out by the pool, celebrating Easter with chlorine and SPF 50. Me and Shannon walked over, and the cat followed. What's the deal with this cat, that's what we said. And the neighbors said, oh, that's Cookie. Turns out the French family that moved to Australia a month or two ago owns Cookie, and Australia disallows pets from entering the country until six months have elapsed since the owner's entry. So, you move to Australia, and your pet cools its heels in wherever you used to live for six months, then, no problem, c'mon over Cookie. I have never understood Australia, ever since the whole penal colony thing, because the word "penal" makes me uncomfortable. And now this cat thing. Thanks, Australia.
Cookie waiting for the situation on the ground to change.

The neighbors said the people who moved into French Family's old villa told French Family they'd take care of Cookie for six months, then ship her to Perth. Only when they said they would "take care" of Cookie, I think what they meant was "not let Cookie into our house but sometimes wave at her when we walk by."

It's no surprise then that Cookie has had enough. She is putting her paw down. So she ran away, like Joan Jett, except Cookie doesn't hate herself, for loving me or for any other reason. And now Cookie hangs around my porch.

I'd like to take Cookie in, you know, to be there for her since Australia is being all obstructionist. But I have kids that are allergic to cats. Also, Cookie sounds weird. She tries to meow, but I think maybe she had her larynx removed? Some families declaw, maybe French Family de-larynxes? Nothing really comes out when Cookie talks. And we're like, "What was that Cookie? Cat got your tongue?" And Cookie is like, "I am considering swimming to Australia rather than listen to this drivel."

But in spite of our best efforts to keep Cookie outside, Cookie has breached our fortifications on more than one occasion over the past couple days. This is because we have a weak link in our family -- a Benedict Arnold, if you will -- and the turncoat's name is Tess. She knows Cookie is on the porch, and she knows how to open the front door. So, sometimes Cookie gets inside. Savannah found Cookie patiently sitting outside the bathroom when she finished up and opened the door. There is something mildly creepy about that, even for cats. So Cookie got thrown out.

I have tried reasoning with Cookie, since I am the cat person in the family. "Cookie," I tell her, "you are not part of our family." "----," says Cookie unblinkingly, unable to actually make noise. I think maybe she doesn't understand, so I say, "Cookie you are nice, but it's just not working out. It's not you, it's us." Cookie just brushes up against my legs. Sigh. I guess we'll just have to tie up Tess and starting using the back door. I see no other viable alternatives that don't include artillery.

Becoming Bosom Friends with Your Vehicle (or, Secrets of a GMC)

By Shannon

Twelve days out makes our just-finished road trip the longest our family has ever taken. In that time we’ve driven the north-south length of Saudi Arabia and skirted the Persian Gulf through the United Arab Emirates and half of Oman. Long live our GMC Yukon!

It was the first time since we purchased the vehicle that it had returned to Riyadh, where it had lived before it was ours. It was only by chance that we came into possession of the Yukon—weeks after we first arrived in Jeddah I had mentioned to one of my neighbors that we were struggling to find a vehicle that would meet our needs. She had accompanied her husband on a trip to Riyadh later that week and saw a flier advertising the sale of our destined Yukon. She jotted down the info and passed it off to us when she returned to Jeddah, and the vehicle was ours within a week.

A schweet panorama from the coast of Oman. The gallant Yukon waits patiently for the kids to finish going potty (kids not pictured).
Our family has driven all over Saudi Arabia in this beast of a GMC. It has braved the bone-rattling non-Muslim detour around Mecca, spirited us across the Empty Quarter, tried not to look puny among the towering sandstone plateaus of the northwest of the Kingdom, and gripped the safe side of the suicidal switchback road that climbs into Al-Baha.

And all this time and all this distance, we didn’t even know that our Yukon is a Mormon lover. That revelation didn’t come until our recent trip when I reached into one of the passenger pockets to fish out a barf bag for one of the kids, and I retrieved a Young Women’s activity agenda from 2011.

Last week I pulled out that agenda again when we were sand-surfing with a group of LDS friends in Riyadh, just to prove that I was telling the truth. And wouldn’t you know it, that agenda found its way into the hands of the woman who had printed it three years earlier. “This activity took place in my house!” she laughed. 

The Yukon also laughed (inwardly, of course). We felt privileged that the Yukon saw fit to confide some of its history to us. That's a rare event. 

Dune Surfing in Saudi: How to Keep Sand Out of Your Car

I think my dad's least favorite thing when I was growing up was getting sand in his car. He also disliked Californians, which is ironic because he is one. It is also ironic that Dad had 10,000 spoons when all he needed was a knife. Who would've thought? It figures. But this is not a story about my dad disliking people from California. This is a story about sand. It will probably be as boring as it sounds.

"I don't have enough sand on my back. I can fix that."
So Dad has always hated getting sand in his car. When we would go to the beach, Dad wouldn't let me get in the car afterward unless I had been properly de-sanded. I remember him essentially giving me a spanking in the beach parking lots, trying to get all the loose sand off my pants. Once my butt was sufficiently de-sanded, I could sit on the bumper and he would remove my shoes and wipe off my feet. When my feet were de-sanded, I was no longer permitted to put them on the ground; I had to climb through the car to my seat. Dad would also scour each crevice of my face, scraping sand out of my nostrils, out from the folds in my ears, from around the hair roots in my eyebrows, and from the gooey corners of my eyes. I hated it. "DA-aaaaaddd!!" I would whine. If I whined too much, he would find a zit somewhere on my face and pop it to remind me who was boss.

I vowed that things would be different when I was a dad. I am a dad now. Things are not different.

Stop 1 on our trans-Arabian road trip was dune surfing near Riyadh. Dune surfing is where you basically just go to sand dunes and stuff sand down your pants and smear it around in your hair. Also, you eat mouthfuls of it and swish it over your tongue, then spit the product into your shoes and run around for several hours.

The kids had a lot of fun. After a couple hours of sand sledding (with this type of thing), the children were unhappy because some of their body crevices did not have sand in them, so they began burying each other in the sand. Grace said, "I want to get buried too!" I didn't say anything, because I didn't want to be Sand Nazi, Jr. Halen also wanted to be buried. I sort of whimpered a little. Then Savannah also thought having sand dumped all over one's body seemed delightful. And I was defeated. There was definitely going to be sand in my car.

When it was time to go, I essentially spanked each of my children, trying to get all the loose sand off their pants. Once their butts were sufficiently de-sanded, they could sit on the bumper and I would remove their shoes and wipe off their feet. When their feet were de-sanded, they were no longer permitted to put them on the ground; they had to climb through the car to their seats. I scoured each crevice of their faces, scraping sand out of their nostrils, out from the folds in their ears, from around the hair roots in their eyebrows, and from the gooey corners of their eyes. They hated it.

Thanks Dad. You could've just used baby powder to get the sand off. Duh.

Intro to "Trip in a Car Through the Desert" (or, "Driving Across the Arabian Peninsula Like a Merriwether")

When you are a diplomat and your are posted in "hard" countries (i.e. no Wal-Marts or JoAnne's Fabric stores), you are supposed to get "R&Rs," or "rest & relaxation/recooperation/Rummy." An R&R is a some-expenses-paid vacation to somewhere where they have JoAnne's Fabric stores, so that you can go inside and inhale the smell of old American ladies and cinnamon sticks. But you don't have to go somewhere nice and civilized. If you are so inclined, you may use the airfare to go somewhere with angry naked people with body piercings running around everywhere, like Paris.

2007: "Aw yeah, suckah. I'm gonna drive across Arabia in seven years."
As an aside, while I was making fun of JoAnne's Fabric, I was reminded of when I got my first job. I was 16, and I worked at Craft Warehouse. It was all a horrible misunderstanding. When I applied I believed it was Kraft Warehouse, and I pictured myself pushing swaying stacks of Kraft dinner boxes around and, oops, accidentally dropping and damaging some boxes and taking them home, or else, oops, just cutting to the chase and accidentally cooking me up a pot of macaroni right there on the warehouse floor. Instead, I worked at the counter beside Flo, this really wrinkly lady who must've used to eat cigarettes way back when she was in her 60s, because she rasped like Kim Carnes and sometimes when she was just talking a little smoke would waft out between her lips, and I was like, "Flo, I think your uvula might have somehow ignited." And she'd say something like, "Hon," (except not in a southern-type voice; it was more like how Catherine the Great would sound if you dug her up and she called you "Hon"), "don't you worry about my uvula." She also wore neon pink lipstick, which I frankly quite liked because it drew attention away from her smoldering uvula.

Back to R&Rs. We are preparing to use one of our R&Rs to drive across the Arabian Peninsula, because I like to transect things, and also because it's not very often that you're on the Arabian Peninsula, so you might as well scope it out while you're there, much like Lewis & Clark, who thought that if you live in North America you might as well scope it out, although they were weaker than I am, because they had to hire people to help them scope, while the only aid I need in my scoping is my phone -- just that and me monocular.

As I consider Lewis & Clark, I feel that if I could only have two more sons, I would name them Merriwether and Perriwinkle. They probably wouldn't be very popular in high school, but they would be good at drama.

All great voyages need a name, and this voyage -- 1,500 miles across sand and rock with four children and one wife (who hates to "just sit") in an aged Suburban with an iffy transmission -- is truly great, like a dane, but without those weird jowels. So I will call our voyage "Trip in a Car Through the Desert," and I will blog about it when we get back.

Commuting in Saudi Arabia (or, "No Time for Losers")

My commutes are usually pretty good. When I graduated from college and got my first job, I lived close enough to work that I could walk. I would walk through the verdant grounds of an apartment complex, then link up with a paved walking trail. Sometimes while I walked a cyclist would whir by and ring his sissy little bicycle bell all pansy-like, and I'd be like, "You're a girl!" Except without actually saying it, because I didn't want to get beat up.

Abu Halen has no time for losers who don't want peace. (2005)
Then, later, after I moved to the Middle East, I lived like a mile or two from work. I couldn't really walk, because maybe I would be mowed down by guys with machine guns in Nissan coups. I could've taken a taxi every day, but all the taxi drivers smoked all the time, and if I wanted to smell like smoke every day I'd start smoking, you know? But I didn't want to start smoking, because the Surgeon General and stuff, and I didn't want to take taxis, because then my wife would be like, "You smell like smoke. Did you stop listening to the Surgeon General?", and I couldn't walk, because machine guns, so I had to buy a car to drive the 1.5 miles to work. I actually tried to buy a moped, but I couldn't, because in Jordan no foreigners can ride mopeds, because of Mossad.

Now, here in Saudi Arabia, I have a real commute. It is both sucky and way cooler than yours, both at the same time. This is a streamlined account of my heckacool commute today. But first, here are the ground rules for commuting in Saudi Arabia:

1) You are the champion.
2) Everyone else are losers.
3) No time for losers, cuz you are the champion.

I ease out of the compound, past the Saudi dudes in pickup trucks with machine gun nests in the back. Usually the guys are sleeping, but still. I feel like driving past these guys always get my day off to a good start.

About a kilometer down the street, there's a gnarly traffic jam where the street funnels traffic down to one lane and shunts it into a 90 degree turn. I dart onto an empty side street to miss the backup, because I am very cunning, and also I am the champion. As soon as I turn the corner, there is a large van that is parked sideways across the narrow street, its front tires against one curb, its rear ones nearly touching the other. I do not know why this guy parked that way, but I know one thing: he is a loser. I lay on the horn, throw my driver's side tires on the sidewalk, and rumble -- mostly on the sidewalk -- past the loser in the van blocking the street. +1 for me. +0 for dumb losers.

I blow down the main highway toward work until like a thousand losers in their cars make another big traffic jam. There's no time for losers, so I bail down another side street like a champion. I buzz down this smaller road, swerving to avoid loser taxis that stop and throw it in reverse in the middle of the road, then I turn right at the Corner-That-Always-And-Inexplicably-Smells-Of-Poo. I expertly negotiate two roundabouts without slowing -- slowing down is a sign of weakness that other drivers will ruthlessly exploit -- and I find myself approaching the Awkward-Intersection-Where-If-You-Use-the-Right-Lane-Maybe-You-Will-Be-Stuck-Forever-Behind-Cars-Backed-Up-To-Use-the-Gas-Station (I am working on a shorter name for this intersection, but nothing else is quite as catchy). So I use the second-to-the-right-lane, but -- bad luck -- no one in the unbroken line of cars in the right lane is turning into the gas station, so I'm stuck approaching the intersection, needing to turn right, but being in the wrong lane to do so and being unable to merge into the correct lane. But I'm the champion, and everyone else are losers, so at the intersection, I turn right anyway, even though I'm in the wrong lane. The loser in the wimpy old Chevy Caprice that I totally cut off lays on his horn like he's all indignant or something. He may be indignant, but he's behind me. +1 for me. +0 for girly losers.

I'm steaking down a new street. Homeboy in front of me unexpectedly turns left, and I bob right onto the shoulder without slowing. Bust past him in a cloud of dust. I'm Muhammad Ali. He's Sonny Liston. I'm almost to work. It's just a few blocks south. Then, CONSTRUCTION! Bogus. I detour east, looking for a way to turn back south. There's a tiny street hidden in a clump of leafy trees. There's a "Do Not Enter -- One Way" sign at the entrance. I almost turn away. But no. I am the champion. There's no time for loser signs. So I throw my Yukon XL the wrong way down the one way street like a total bro. An insignificant Japanese car is coming my direction. I flash my brights, the international signal for "Regardless of what is lawful and what is not at this juncture in time, my vehicle will annihalate yours if it comes to a head-on, so be a chap and get out of my way." Insignificant Japanese Car moves over and I fly by like a glorious bald eagle soaring past a wet rat. +1 for me. + 0 for weak cheese losers.

I burst out of the alleyway onto the east-west main thoroughfare that leads straight to the Consulate, and an oncoming car swerves a little in surprise at my ostentatious and bodacious entry, probably because the driver is so moved by my audacious driving tactics that he simply has to let go of his steering wheel to clap loudly for me. +1 for me. +0 for outclassed, humbled losers.

I zoom past the Hospital-Where-People-Stand-And-Smoke-Outside. A couple of nurses are walking across the street like they own it. But they don't. I do. I lay on my horn and they glance up at the huge "GMC" grill bearing down on them and they contemplate death, and they fear it, so they get out of the way and I'm past them in a blur. +1 for me. +0 for intimidated pedestrian losers. And then I'm suddenly cruising through security at the Consulate and all the guards are cheering for me, throwing their hats in the air, along with fistfuls of confetti. I open the sunroof and emerge from it with my arms raised in a "V" for Victory.

And that's how I commuted to work today. It's all true, up until the part where the guards cheered for me. Everything after that is a lie. Really all the guards did was not close my rear driver's side door all the way after they checked the inside of my car, so all the way to my parking spot the "Door is Ajar" warning sound was beeping, and it was super annoying. But I'm still the champion.

Abu Halen Don't Play That (or "The System is the System")

I'd been waiting for several minutes at the counter while a flock of shoppers jostled and elbowed for position. I angled my cart toward the counter so the Yemeni guy could weigh my vegetables. A big lady in a black shroud edged the corner of her cart in front of mine. I could only see her eyes behind her hood and mask. She began plopping her bags of vegetables on the counter.

Dried onions and lamplight. Abu Halen plays that.
This used to bother me. I would silently command the uncivilized masses around me: Queue, people! Line up! Order! But it doesn't bother me anymore. The slapdash rush, the blocking out the competition, the avoiding eye contact while you totally blitz in front of everyone who has been waiting in line, it's the order of things. This is the system.

We were passing through a little stain of a town in the desert several months ago, hours from any real population center, me and a couple friends. The low concrete buildings were old and sad and dusty and the road was pocked and the air smelled like diesel. It was breakfast time. We pulled up to a gritty little corner shop and tromped inside. "Sorry, no women allowed," said the guy behind the counter, pointing at Rebecca, who, despite being appropriately cloaked to the point of being invisible, was nonetheless still guilty of being female. Lee pleasantly asked why not, even though he knew why, just to see what the guy would say. "Is it against the law?" Lee wondered. The guy behind the counter wasn't sure. Finally, he shrugged. "It's just the system. The system is the system," he said.

I have lived in Saudi Arabia for a mere blink of an eye. I understand the system at only the most superficial level. But what was shocking and fascinating 18 months ago is now commonplace, normal, the way of things. It's just the system.

I'm not proud of my vagabond impulse. About the time I become familiar with my surroundings to the point that life settles into a ho-hum routine, I'm ready to move on. It would be nice if I were different, because there is much of virtue and value in routines and putting down roots, in familiarity. But vagrancy, transience, they are my order of things. This is my system.

I didn't bat an eyelash when the lady in a shroud cut in front of me at the vegetable counter. I punched the corner of my cart in front of hers, body bumped a bald guy in a thobe out of my way, and hoisted my bag of bananas onto the counter, followed by my bag of lettuce, my tomatoes. I brushed Shroud Lady's stuff out of the way. Yemeni Vegetable Weigher Guy glanced at me and then started dropping my vegetables on the scale. In his glance, I thought maybe I detected just a hint of respect. I bet he was thinking, "Homeboy foreigner knows the system, man. And, also, sweet beard." Shroud Lady had thought Abu Halen was a rookie. She'd thought Abu Halen didn't know the system. She'd thought she could take advantage of Abu Halen's western politeness. Nuh-uh. Abu Halen don't play that.

Dads Can Solve Anything (or "Roadtrippin' to Mada'in Saleh")

By Abu Halen

Sometimes when you're a stranger in a foreign land, you experience curious, surreal moments of the outlandish. Here's one: Grace's six year old eyes are wide in alarm, and she's crouched behind a fire engine in a fleck of a town somewhere in the Arabian desert. Her dad is engaged in a shouting match in Arabic with a young firefighter. Dad pauses, turns to Grace in the shadows behind the truck, and yells, "Go ahead! Just pee! It's fine!" She starts to unbutton her pants. Then the firefighter yells something in Arabic at her, clearly intended to dissuade her from peeing, so she buttons her pants back up. Dad turns back to the firefighter and resumes yelling in Arabic, gesturing wildly, and the fireman yells back, and while he's yelling, Dad jerks his head back to Grace, "I said pee! Just do it!" So she nervously starts to unbutton her pants again, but then the fireman points and fires off another menacing Arabic tirade in her direction, so she buttons her pants back up. Dad furiously takes up again with the fireman in Arabic. Grace walks back toward the car, calling back over her shoulder to the two fighting men, "I don't have to go potty anymore." See? Dads can solve anything.

We were on a roadtrip to Mada'in Saleh, one of only two UNESCO world heritage sites in Saudi Arabia, which we've visited before and which I wrote about here and Shannon wrote about here. Read Shannon's version if you want to actually learn about Mada'in Saleh. Read mine if you love Cheap Trick and Uno.

I (heart) acacia trees.
Also on this trip, the kids had their first exposure to Janis Joplin. "Who is this screaming lady?" Savannah called from the back seat. "Janis Joplin," I said. "Planet Chocolate?" she said. "I like this song."

Since we scoured Mada'in Saleh pretty thoroughly last time we visited, this time we focused on other sites in the area. There's an old mud city a half hour south, which was built back to the 13th century and occupied up until the 1980s. The kids enjoyed exploring the labyrinthian hallways and former homes of the city. Halen discovered that the roofs made of flimsy palm fronds can support a small eight-year old boy, which is good because if they didn't, he would've discovered that gravity supports no one, and also that there are no decent hospitals in this desolate corner of the Saudi Kingdom.

Elephant Rock is a hulking monolith in the desert southeast of Mada'in Saleh. I snapped photos of the boulder for awhile. Grace made mounds of sand in the dust. After twenty minutes, I went to collect Savannah and Halen. They were just pinpricks of color climbing a distant mountain of sandstone. I trudged across the dirt and rock, the cold wind snapping at my jeans, the weak sun gamely shining but warming little. The only sound was the wind and my crunchy footfalls, and I gazed around myself at the harsh, dazzling expanse of dust, rock, and blazing blue sky. Saudi Arabia. Curious and surreal. 

Saudi Arabia Travel Log: Al Tayibat Museum (Jeddah)

By Shannon

Abu Halen took me to a museum today, which is a big thing because it doesn’t happen very often. He’s not a fan of museums, but as he ages he seems to have become more persuadable about things like this. Museums, and onions. Frankly, the onions are a bigger victory than the museum visits, because I use them constantly, and they make food so much tastier.

This museum we visited is called Al Tayibat. I’d say it’s housed in a mansion, but I think it’s too big for that descriptor. So instead I’ll say it’s housed in a really fancy, old-fashioned Arab complex. Only part of the complex belongs to the museum. The other part is for a Koranic school. Al Tayibat’s exterior woodwork is impressive and deserves a decent half hour of admiration. The interior is divided into about 300 rooms that are crammed with stuff, in a way that makes you wonder whether the curator is one of those people who has lots of wildly creative and sometimes promising ideas but lacks follow-through. So walls are covered in anachronistic collages of modern art mixed with traditional art mixed with bright flower wall stencils mixed with photos from the early 20th century. The old Bedouin attire—even men’s clothing—is displayed on headless female mannequin bodies (sometimes with scant wigs sticking out from under the head coverings).

This museum is not just a glimpse into the past, it’s a glimpse into someone’s really eclectic mind. So it’s fascinating on a few levels. Some of the rooms, like the Koran room, are well designed. So is the room that displays embroidered textiles that once adorned the Kaaba. The hall of ancient vessels is also remarkable, with pieces from across the Middle East that range in age from the 800s AD to the 1950s (and those two pieces, of course, are displayed next to each other, at the shadowy bottom of a display case).

My favorite floor groups artifacts by region—there’s a room for Riyadh, where you feel like you’re walking into a tent where a bunch of headless and lethargic Beduin are having tea. The Jeddah room is laid out like a simple mud home, with one side for the headless men and another for the headless women. (Honestly, I preferred headlessness: tooling around the simulated homes would have been much creepier if mannequins had been staring me down.) The best rooms are those for the southern Hijaz, around Abha. This is the most colorful region in Saudi Arabia. For that reason, it’s perhaps the most attractive to Westerners. The homes are colorful too, their interiors painted in bright and intricate designs. It was in the Abha rooms that Abu Halen snapped a shot of garlic and onion braids in the light. . . . Which brings us back to our oniony beginning to close this blog post with a bit of random poetics.

Compound Life: Expat Housing in Saudi Arabia

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always associated the word “compound” with religious fundamentalists, prison-type edifices surrounded by razor wire, and floor-length skirts. That and fly eyes. Ick. So when I learned that we’d be living in a compound in Saudi Arabia, I was a bit nervous.

It turned out that some of my preconceived notions were correct: the compound that I live on is heavily guarded, and its walls are rimmed with razor wire. Polygamists are occasionally seen here. And when women wear their floor-length overclothing, they make bonnet-wearing Christians look like brazen hussies.

Living on a compound in Saudi Arabia is rather like living in a cultural bubble. But not the kind of cultural bubble that ultra-right-wingers would favor: instead of guarding against the evils of worldliness, our compound guards the freedom to be worldly. The most visible evidence of this is that women here dress however they please. So, for example, I don’t have to bother donning an abaya to fetch my kids from school. I can walk from my front door to the school without leaving the compound. The convenience store is an easy walk from home, as are several playgrounds and outdoor pools.

Thanks to a small army of foreign workers from the Philippines, India, and Bangladesh, our compound is clean and beautiful. It’s an expanded embodiment of the traditional Arab garden: crusty on the outside and lush on the inside. The pools sparkle. Flowering shrubs and trees line sidewalks that are constantly swept of pebbles and fallen leaves. The workers do their darndest to keep tropical plants alive in weather that’s miserably hot and humid for most of the year.

Although the surroundings are pleasant, driving is still off limits to me as a woman. Even if the compound were large enough to bother jumping in the car to go from one edge of it to the other, I would risk losing the privilege to park our vehicle inside the compound if I were caught driving. Only men are allowed that privilege in this kingdom, even on a Western compound.

When first I pictured myself living here more than a year ago, I was sure it would be a “make the most of it” kind of experience. To be sure, for many women, that’s exactly what it is—they feel repressed, restricted, and often resentful. But for a variety of reasons, I find it pretty much ideal. My kids have loads of friends from numerous countries. Between the pools, playgrounds, and recreation center, they have plenty to keep them occupied (as long as the weather’s not sweltering). And I do too: lots of diverse people to meet, a good gym, great workout classes, tennis, occasional live bands, holiday celebrations, a good restaurant, a childcare center, internet access. I honestly don’t know how you could get bored here.

But that’s a downside in its own way. This cultural bubble is so efficient that it reduces my incentive to explore the country and work to get to know the locals (and it really does take work to get to know them if you don’t happen to be related). This bubble is a barrier between me and a more authentic Saudi Arabia experience. I tell myself that’s okay, because we all have to specialize in life, and right now this little compound-bubble is in line with my needs and my priorities—the greatest of which is my family. Deeper cultural experiences will have to wait until I have a little more time and flexibility.

But that’s not to say my family doesn’t have cultural experiences. On the contrary, most days are a cultural experience—just not an Arab one. Our neighbors are from Spain, France, Lebanon, Morocco, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Singapore, The Netherlands, Ukraine, Italy, Greece, and dozens of other countries.

At first I was really excited for my kids to associate with peers from so many other countries. I’ve been a little surprised that although they’ve built a lot of bridges, they’ve also formulated some racial stereotyping on their own. It turns out that diversity can actually increase stereotyping because cultural differences are so evident and impossible to overlook. The kids’ conclusions about other cultures aren’t always bad, but they’re something to keep on the rotation of dinner conversations.

Aside from the social aspects, there are other downsides to living in a compound. Infectious disease is one of them. In the last month, almost everyone I know has contracted a wicked, energy-sapping cold. I’m still getting over mine.

And then there are the threats of terrorism here in the lion’s maw of Islam—or maybe it would be more sensitive to say the crescent’s cradle of Islam. On one hand, living behind razor wire and having guards posted at the compound’s entrance are reassuring. On the other hand, all the security is a reminder that Westerners are at risk in Saudi Arabia. Compounds such as this make a lovely target for a terrorist. I try to keep my faith in statistical probability, reassuring myself that death by a traffic accident is vastly more likely than death by terrorism.

No matter where we live in the world, whether inside a compound or outside one, we find dangers . . . and protections. We find beauty, ugliness, advantages, and disadvantages. We find cultural bubbles, diversity, and stereotyping. So really, living on a compound isn’t really that much different from living in any other community. Its just a new spin—one that I really like!

Zoom Out (or "A Zen Lozenge") (or "That is a Lot of Zeds")

I'm down at Shahada Circle late on a muggy afternoon. I call it Shahada Circle because in the middle is a mildly tacky statue of the Islamic shahada in blocky Arabic calligraphy, surrounded by half-hearted little fountains that gurgle the scummy water more than they spit it.

There's a guy on the sidewalk that rings the circle. He's wearing a thobe and a skullcap and sitting on a folding stool, staring at the sea while the breeze fills up the loose fabric at the bottom of his thobe like it's a windsock. He looks like he's sucking on a zen lozenge, all at one with the motion of the ocean and the drone of the traffic and the creeping shadows.

I want a zen lozenge too. They taste like a childhood-and-retirement swirly cone, or maybe a Hakuna Matata shake, minus the meerkat hair.

A long time ago me and Thomas sat on a bridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the dying sunlight of a breezy evening in May. The air was salty and the waves were reaching up the beach with their foamy fingers and we were spitting sunflower seeds and watching them flutter off the bridge to land somewhere we couldn't see. I don't remember what we talked about while we hunched in our hoodies in the burnt yellow hue of a dwindling day. We were 16 and we were sucking on zen lozenges, and it tasted like possibility and big blue sky and open highways.

I guess I photographed the guy in the skullcap on the stool because, just by sitting there and watching the sun skate across the sky, he made me feel a little younger and a little freer, or maybe a little older and a little more content. I'm not sure which. My camera zoomed in and I zoomed out, sort of pulling away from the moment and glimpsing for a second or two the panorama of existence from a height where the cares that consume us from one day to the next just look like tiny sunflower seed shells flitting on the wind way up above the big, broad, sparkling sea.

What Expat First Graders Think about America; or, Drove the Chevy to the Levee but the Levee Was Dry

Four faces of G.

Over lunch this afternoon we were discussing what we were grateful for about America. When it was time for my six-year-old to respond, she remarked that she is grateful that there are no bad guys in America. S was quick to shoot down that answer, explaining that there are indeed plenty of bad guys in America.

“Okay then,” G replied, “I’m grateful that there are only nice people in America.”

“Weeeelll,” I intoned, “it’s true that there are a lot of nice people in America. But not everyone there is nice, unfortunately. Try again, G.”

“Hmmm. Then I guess that I’m grateful that in American movies, everybody dresses modestly.”

I’m grateful that G has such high perceptions of her home country. Perhaps we’ll just live the rest of our lives abroad so as not to spoil her paradigms.

Stupid Gibbous Moon (or "Decomposing Sheep Make It Hard to Sleep")

I thought only full moons were bright, but it turns out waxing gibbous moons are really bright too. We've pulled off a lonely ribbon of highway and followed a track of packed sand into the desert, where we pitched our tent in the shade of a wiry acacia tree. We're 55 miles east of Jeddah in the dark, rocky hills -- me and Savannah and Halen and Grace. We came to see the stars splashed across the navy sky, but the stupid gibbous moon is afire with pale, ghostly light that drowns out the soft glow of far off suns and brown dwarves and supernovas and planets and comets.

Our campsite. Good riddance, sun.
I'm staring out the screened tent window at the rocks and the acacia trees, at the surprisingly hard shadows they're throwing against the sallow sand in the fierce moonlight. Three little bodies are slumped around me. Their breathing is even. They're sleeping like babies -- like slightly elongated babies that can talk and frequently exhibit reasoning skills superior to my own.

We told each other scary stories an hour ago. Grace's was probably the worst ghost story I've ever heard. Something about these two brothers making a scarecrow named Gerald and smearing food all over its face (to repel crows?), and then they throw Gerald on the roof but later Gerald jumps off the roof (I guess Gerald came to life?) and kills one of the brothers. I guess that was supposed to be the scary part, but I laughed when I pictured a limp, stuffed scarecrow with yogurt all over its face, falling off a roof and smothering an unsuspecting guy who happened to be walking by. Grace indignantly demanded what was so funny about her scary story, and I lied that I had rolled over onto the flashlight and it had tickled me. My scary story about skinwalkers didn't really phase the kids, who fell asleep as I told it, but I kind of scared myself and that's probably why I'm sitting, hugging my knees, staring off at the Saudi Arabian desert, making sure no native American warlocks come and eat my children. What can I say. I'm a good dad.

The day was scorching and the darkness is slow to bring relief. We spent a few hours in the shade of the tent, just talking, waiting for the sun to go away behind the curve of the earth. I had hoped that the conversation would turn to the spiritual, that something about the silence would awaken within my children their sense of the profound. But all we got was yogurt-faced Gerald and an argument over pretzels and a monologue from Halen about monster trucks.

I listen to their breathing and I wonder what they'll remember about their youth. And I wonder if the small sacrifices that dads make -- like sleeping on a weird Coleman sleeping pad that blows up like a huge tube of toothpaste instead of a soft, sleek, oversized stick of gum (no, seriously, imagine trying to sleep on top of a big, rolley-poley tube of Aquafresh and then tell me with a straight face I'm not hecka-rad) -- mean anything thirty years later.

But memories are funny things, they way we remember the smallest gestures. Once my dad took me camping at Lost Lake. He wasn't much of a camper, and he wasn't a big talker either -- I think Mom made him take me. I was 11 or 12 and she probably thought if I didn't get some good male role-modeling I was going to start listening to Motley Crue and snorting Pixie Stix like the other boys at school. I remember rolling away in Dad's Dodge Omni, Mom on the curb smiling broadly and waving, and I looked over at Dad and he had this painted on grin, like he was driving somewhere to have his fingernails peeled off but Mom told him he better have fun or else. And I don't blame him -- now that I'm a grownup the thought of spending 24 hours alone with an 11 year-old kid sounds really, really bad. But I didn't comprehend his pained smile back then. All I knew was me and Dad were going camping, and it was this high point of my pre-adolescence for me, along with those torchy ballads Michael Bolton used to bust out.

So I lay back on my giant tube of toothpaste and I try to keep from rolling off, and the moonlight burns through the nylon above and it bathes me and my sleeping kids in pallid halos. And I hope the children won't remember setting up the tent in triple-digit temperatures, and I hope they won't remember that when they excitedly asked "So can we roast hot dogs?"that I answered, "No, I don't know how to start a fire. But here is an apple and a juice box and that's all you're getting till we get home tomorrow." And I hope they won't remember that we pitched our tent downwind of an animal carcass dump full of dead goats in various stages of decomposition. I hope their little brains only remember the silent night and the cool breeze and Dad's undivided -- if slightly reluctant -- attention. And my big muscles.

Saudi Arabia Travel Log: Squatty Potties

“The only bad thing about road trips,” S declared from the backseat of the car, “is the squatty potties.”

After shouting out an amen, I turned to Abu Halen to muse on how remarkable it was that S had nothing bad to say about the incessant heat, the greasy food, the dull scenery, or the mothball-stinking hotel rooms. I do believe that S is becoming an optimist!

Pyramid perchers.
You can’t blame the child for dreading urination on road trips. We had just taken a late lunch, and the girls had done all they could to delay a bathroom trip. When it became apparent that delay was no longer feasible, I asked the waiter where we could find a bathroom. Gesturing apologetically at his sweltering cafe, he said there was no place for women here, but I could find a bathroom in the mosque.

The mosque was a long, hot walk from the restaurant. At the back was a sign that indicated the women’s entrance. Here we found the bathrooms. Although I took it as a good sign that a woman was just finishing cleaning the stalls when we arrived, my girls thought otherwise. Suddenly the two older ones insisted that they miraculously had no need to pee. Although she couldn’t actually articulate as much, T was doubtlessly saying a silent prayer of gratitude for her diaper.

Peeing in a hole is a daunting task for girls. That is, it’s daunting for girls who have spent a charmed life on a pedestal toilet. For them, a squatty potty is little more than a crapshoot. Their protests were to be expected.

Not in the mood for resistance, however, I snarled, “We are not leaving this bathroom until you have both peed!” G, predictably, was the first to bend to my will. The two of us squeezed into a stall, and after several awkward minutes of verbal coaching, threatening, and maneuvering, she ultimately succeeded in peeing in the hole without peeing on herself. But although I used the same strategy for S, holding her hands as she leaned back over the hole, her pants ended up soaked.

I was just about to put on my “well, life sometimes sucks” expression and hustle S out of the stall when her face crumbled in shame. Compassion got the best of me and I agreed to get her a change of clothes. Wet pants could be gotten away with when she was five, but at age ten the game was different. So I left my youngest three kids in the care of a cat sleeping in the doorway with her sickly kittens.

Striding across the parking lot, I struggled to keep my abaya from unsnapping at my knees. It whipped at
my ankles angrily, and sweat trickled between my shoulder blades. Avoiding the gazes of men who were no doubt wondering where my guardian was, I pressed on to the car.

Climbing inelegantly into the back of the Suburban and not caring much about displaying my bum to bystanders, I rifled through the luggage until I located S’s bag. Predictably, it was at the very bottom of the trunk. But it contained what I was looking for: a blessed change of clothes.

I would not have gone through all that trouble for anyone I didn’t love. But I also wouldn’t have wanted to be S at that moment, waiting patiently in a strange, hot, smelly bathroom in wet pants. The fact that she waited patiently is one of the reasons I love her. And when I handed her the dry change of clothes, she knew that I love her.

Half an hour later, we reemerged into the cafe where Abu Halen was (still) chatting up the waiter. After gulping down a bottle of water, I announced, “You have to do all of the hard stuff for the rest of the day, honey. I am on vacation now.”

Vacations got a lot easier for us girls as soon as I spotted (and snapped up) one of these babies at our local grocery store. Except, ours doesn't have a bag underneath it. Sand is a much better receptacle. :)

Saudi Arabia Travel Log: Dhee Ein or Thee Ain or The Ayn

Last weekend's trip took us several hours’ drive south of Jeddah, to some hot springs near Al Leeth, on to Dhee Ayn and Al Baha, and then back through Ta’if on the return trip. Dhee Ayn was the star of the trip. Set in the mountains, this village is about 400 years old, was built on a marble escarpment, and was abandoned only about 40 years ago.

Dhee Ein, 2013
The village’s setting is dramatic. With forbidding mountains all around, this cluster of houses towers above an oasis that owes its surprising greenness to a spring at the base of the escarpment. The spring supplies water for carefully tended fields of palm trees, banana trees, and herbs. The fields would have been the source of the village’s wealth as well as the bait for raiders in the region.

The ancients would have chosen this particular location not only for the oasis but also for the escarpment’s view of the surrounding countryside. From the rooftops of the ruins, we could hear the raucous screams of baboons and see them fighting near the spring below. From this view, the people would also have been able to spot enemies and sound the alarm for workers to hurry in from the fields. I’ve read that mountaintop villages such as this are evidence of societies with weak or nonexistent central governments and a high degree of fragmentation and lawlessness: although living on the plains would be much more convenient for agricultural populations, height provides a critical defensive advantage.

The village’s multistory houses are marvelous. Apparently constructed with little or no mortar or mud, they are simply slate stones laid one atop another. Roughly hewn timbers run crossways to form floor beams and lend some stability to the stone structures. On these the ancient builders laid floors of flagstone. The houses often have three such levels as well as a serviceable rooftop.

To the modern eye the village looks thrillingly precarious, which makes it all the more amazing that these houses have survived so many centuries. Even more marvelous for a site this old is that many of the wooden doors and shutters are still intact—not yet carried away by archaeological poachers or museums. Much of the wood is carved, but very little of the stone is engraved, evidencing the unsophisticated (but no less fascinating!) nature of this village’s culture.

Dhee Ein, 2013
Despite temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, numerous Saudi tourists were exploring Dhee Ayn on the afternoon we visited. I had to continually warn the kids, however, to watch their step, to stay away from the precipices, and to keep out of the bat-infested houses. Although the government has obviously invested a great deal to renovate the ruins, they’re still very dangerous for the unwary. Tourism is still a fledgling industry in Saudi Arabia.

The kids loved exploring the place as much as I did. They’re starting to get really good at noticing exciting little details about ruins that tell us about the people who lived there. S pointed out a painted carving in some floor beams. H called out the things he could see from progressively higher levels of the village.

My kids, indefatigable, wanted to go to the very top. We were among the few tourists who ventured that high, and everyone stared at me when I passed them—perhaps because my “guardian” was not with me (he had taken one of our girls back to the car to rest) or because I was a woman who appeared to be enjoying physical exertion or because I was wearing both a camera and a babycarrier with a 2-year-old in it or because I was looked a little scandalous for wearing only an abaya and a headscarf but no face covering. By the time we all arrived at the top of the mountain, the kids and I had the view to ourselves, and I was completely soaked in sweat. . . . So I guess I can cross that off my bucket list.

Best Saudi Wedding Ever (Shannon's Take)

A few nights before Grace’s birthday party (to which I had invited six families), I had a nightmare. Elbow-deep in a bowl of something-or-other that I was preparing, I realized that my guests were already arriving. In formal attire. To my horror, there was no way I’d be able to serve them anything anytime soon, and I wasn’t even sure I had everything I needed. For that matter, I couldn’t remember what I had planned to make. I woke up in a cold sweat.

It’s a good thing I’m not Arab; I don’t think I have the mental constitution to throw big parties like the wedding we attended recently. The first Arab wedding I attended was in Syria in 2004. I was new to the Middle East back then, fresh out of Utah, where wedding receptions are held in church gyms that have bouquets stuffed into basketball hoops and where the catering is done by burnt-out extended relatives who wish they had smaller families on occasions like this. So I showed up to this Syrian wedding in a denim skirt and t-shirt.

Wedding drums. Not as cool as Zeppelin, but decent.
I’m sure my appearance tested the boundless graciousness of my Syrian hosts, although they never gave any sign of noticing. They wore tailor-made sequined gowns, in colors so bright that I had never thought I’d see them draped over a human being. It was like a ballroom dance convention with quite a few women who were not exactly light of foot anymore . . . and without any men to serve as dancing partners, because mingling of the sexes is against the rules.

So now this little account has gone from my dreams to Syria, and I’m bringing you back to Saudi Arabia, and once again in the middle of the night. This time I’m the one in the sparkling dress, in the car, wondering if we’re ever going to find this promised wedding hall, willing myself not to nod off, trying to decide if it would be rude to give up and go home, thinking it a little strange that we’re going to such lengths to please a host we met casually at a carwash, reminding myself that I’ll probably never get another chance to see what a Saudi wedding is like. 

Abu Halen dropped me off at the women’s party, which was on the opposite side of the building from the men’s party. The women’s doors stood behind a stained-glass privacy wall. When I entered, I removed my veil and abaya, handing it to a Filipina woman behind a counter who guessed that I was American. She whispered it to one of the servers, who then sized me up with an expression that was either awe or pity—I’m still not sure which it was.

I knew no one at the party, but Abu Halen had assured me that these were wealthy Saudis—there were likely to be numerous English speakers in the crowd. There probably were. But I didn’t feel comfortable trying to introduce myself to strangers who might or might not speak English. What would they even do if I approached them? Saudi culture is very closed—in the year that I’ve lived here, this was the first time I had ever seen a Saudi woman without a veil and abaya. Given the warm hospitality I have experienced in other Arab countries, I have found it strange that I don’t know a single Saudi personally here. At least among Saudi women, friendships and kinships allow very little room for inclusion of foreigners.

The women and girls all wore elaborate ball gowns. Even babies sported fancy dresses, like these. Women who sat in the chairs and couches that lined the entrance to the ballroom wore their hair in painstakingly sculpted confections. I slipped through the group quietly as they busied themselves greeting others who were entering the room. They smiled and exchanged cheek kisses, which for an American are a social conundrum, especially when you realize that the number and location of expected kisses differs from country to country—I always fear that I’ll mess it up and accidentally end up kissing someone’s mouth. Gross. Here the women exchanged a time-consuming (but most probably sincere) five kisses on a single cheek! Occasionally I saw them throw in a bonus kiss for the neglected cheek.

I made my way to the back of the ballroom and located a table that was mostly unpopulated. Making a gesture at an empty chair, I asked the women (or perhaps girls—everyone was wearing so much makeup that age was hard to estimate) if I could join them. They kindly obliged but seemed a little confused since they didn’t know me. But they offered me a small glass of coffee, which I accepted and set amicably on the table before me. It took only a couple of exchanges before the women and I realized that communication was just not going to work for us—they spoke no English, and I spoke only a smidgen of rusty Arabic (and nothing of the Saudi dialect).

Although I felt badly that I was probably making them uncomfortable because I had no friends, I truly was happy just to be able to sit quietly and observe the crowd of women interacting. There was a lot of kissing, ululating, and dancing. All but the oldest women were unveiled. The aged women wore transparent lace veils in black or white.

A Filipina servant wandered among the tables carrying a brazier of smoking incense, and soon I was immersed in the scent. The female singer at the front of the room sang traditional Saudi melodies to recorded music dominated by drums and stringed instruments. In the middle of the room was a platform that extended from the stage to the center of the ballroom. Here women—mostly young women—danced to celebrate the day’s wedding, their arms suspended delicately below shoulder level, their hands gesturing or holding delicate poses, their hips swaying and dipping gently when the heaviest drum beat fell in the musical rhythm.

Servants distributed fruit juices while Saudi young women carried around trays of sweet-meat pastries and chocolates. Abu Halen texted me on his phone at this point, saying they had already finished a meal and the men were leaving. Amazed at our good fortune at being able to leave less than an hour after we had arrived, I made my way out of the ballroom, exchanged my wardrobe ticket for my abaya, covered myself again in modest black, and stepped out into the night. It was as perfect a wedding as I’ve ever been to in the Middle East. 

Chimps and Bare-handed Gluttony (or "Best Wedding Ever")

We were late for the Saudi wedding. Reeeeeeeally late. Festivities started at 9:00. I thought we'd be fashionably late, maybe saunter in at 10. I hate being the stupid, prompt American who shows up right on time and sits around for an hour until someone comes to turn the lights on. So instead we were the ultra cool Americans who sauntered in a half hour before everyone went home, about three hours late. What can I say -- this is how we roll at our house. Things don't start hopping for Abu Halen until around midnight. And by "hopping," I mean "entering REM sleep."

We probably would've been on time if my friend -- the host -- had given us decent directions. Or, alternatively, we probably would've been on time if Abu Halen understood Arabic better. It turns out that driving directions are quite challenging to follow in a foreign language, particularly when you don't know the foreign language.

But... ma'alish (rough translation: "nyeh"). We arrived when we arrived. I dropped Shannon off at the ladies entrance. A screen blocked the door, and a guy in a sweaty polo shirt sat on a stool just in front of the screen, ensuring no men entered, or perhaps ensuring no women exited, or perhaps he was just an enterprising passerby dude who had pulled up a chair and just sat there scoping the ladies as they came and went, or, more accurately, scoping lumps of black polyester as they came and went, imagining that somewhere in the folds was a female, maybe. Could be a chimp. Tough to tell for sure.

I entered the men's side at about midnight, right when the meal was starting. In the large dining hall most tables were already filled with chattering men in white thobes. I didn't know anybody, and I realized that this was like 8th grade lunches all over again -- I was going to have to just find a table and sit down and hope that nobody punched me or called me inappropriate names, like "stupid head."

That was when I saw it. A table at the far end of the room with two dudes sitting across from each other, elbows on the table, silently and aggressively digging into the common platter of rice and chicken with their bare hands. I wanted to sit there. No stupid chit chat. No utensils. No nonsense. Just chicken. And rice. So I pulled up a chair and as I rolled up my sleeves one of the dudes grunted at me and nodded toward an unopened can of Pepsi. I nodded back, popped the top, and slammed me some cola to, you know, whet my palette. Then I grabbed a handful of rice and slurped it and sucked it and swallowed it and slopped it all over the table. Then, after twenty minutes of vigorous gluttony, we just kind of got up and quietly went home. Chimps and bare-handed gluttony. Best wedding ever. 

"What an Adventure!" and Other Euphemisms

Happy Bangladeshi guy

When we first announced that we would be serving our first Foreign Service tour in Saudi Arabia, people would invariably respond, “What an adventure!” That, of course was a euphemism for “Wow, that’s really going to suck!” Most people don’t want to tell you that the next couple of years life are going to be crappy; they want to spare your feelings. And bless their hearts for that.

I do the same. Just before we last left the States, I met a couple that was bound for Abuja, Nigeria. Abuja had also been on our bid list, so Joey and I had researched it extensively. And you know I responded, “Wow, what an adventure, huh?”

That “huh?” was strategic. Unless you’re talking to someone who has Asperger’s, a “huh?” turns the conversation back over to the other person so that you have time to gather some positive thoughts that will temporarily allay their misgivings about their bad luck.

Euphemisms are important social tools. We hear them all the time, although I find that they differ somewhat by region and culture.

Old City, Jeddah
For example, when we moved from Utah to Virginia, every time I went out in public with my four children, complete strangers would say (with this exact phrasing!): “You have your hands full, don’t you?” And that of course meant, “You have reproduced more times than our society deems is normal. It’s only fair that you’re being publicly humiliated and/or exasperated by your children right now.”

But I knew they meant well, of course, because they tagged that “don’t you?” to the end of their question so that I would nod and we’d both feel solidarity in our mutual agreement. Then I’d at least have that cheery feeling of camaraderie to get me through the next few minutes of hell with my kids. . . . And that’s thoughtful in it’s own way, you know?

In all honesty, I’m not offended by any of these euphemisms. Yes, they’re easily deconstructed in an “I’m Eeyore the Postmodernist” kind of way, but they reveal a good heart.

Eeyore was not a healthy donkey although he was surrounded with wonderful friends (one of whom showed commendable resilience despite being named “Pooh”). It’s much better—and much healthier for everyone—to laugh than to take offense. One of the really wonderful things about human existence is that we get to choose our responses to life, wherever it happens to take us.

Road Trips, in Disguise

When we take road trips, Joey and I go in our traveling disguises—he in his thobe and I in my abaya. It’s not that we’re bashful about being Americans on an adventure in Saudi Arabia. . . . Well, maybe it is, actually.

When we’re out, we’re happy to be mistaken for Jordanians, Syrians, Turks, or (as a last resort) Canadians—because everybody likes Canadians. So I suffer my abaya to slap my ankles while I wander. I bear the desert heat in my black polyester. I swap my bad hair days for bad headscarf days—windy days are the worst, in case you were wondering.

Last week we explored the hill country around Ta’if, a nearby fertile area with ancient agricultural roots. Ta’if is home to a population of indigenous baboons. We met a group of them when we came to a roadblock on the way to Ta’if and had to stop to figure out an alternate route.

We watched the baboons from the car, because you never know when one of those guys is going to realize you’re not a baboon and rip your face off or steal your baby or something. And when you’re a mom, you think about things like this.

The kids were alternately fascinated and repulsed by the baboons. They liked watching the mothers with their young but were disturbed by all of the bare red behinds.

We wanted some pictures, so we threw some banana peels to the baboons. Joey expected the baboons to turn up their noses at our garbage, but the peels turned out to be food worth arguing over. The winner, predictably, was the baboon sheikh. He was the biggest and meanest of the group, swatting away the young ones when they came to beg for scraps.

Harsh as their environment was, I don’t think the females in the group minded the ill temper of their leader. His ill temper is likely part of what makes him a good protector for them and their babies. Gentle, peace-loving males aren't so prised in their culture as they are in mine. 

As the sun began to sink into the west, we decided to stop at a park of sorts, where the locals were paying to ride 4-wheelers and ponies and camels. Events like this are still to be found in countries where parents don’t sue people every time their 4-year-old has a head-on collision with a 16-year-old on a 4-wheeler.

Halen was super excited to join the mayhem. But he was definitely the white boy on the playing field, making conservative turns while the boys and girls around him sped and spun and swerved with abandon.

Marveling at how the girls managed to keep their veils on and dared to show their ankles on the 4-wheelers, I pulled out my paper sack of coal-roasted corn on the cob. It tasted kind of like chewey, dry, ash-covered corn (because that’s precisely what it was), but it didn’t matter because I was being Zen with the moment. And the black ash flakes from the corn were being Zen with my teeth.

A guy came by with a horse and some ponies, and I smiled, but he didn’t smile back. Maybe because he felt bad about abusing his animals, in the name of entertaining children, in the name of making a buck to feed his family. Or maybe because I had black stuff in my teeth. I stopped smiling, to make him feel better, and then I paid him to take my girls for a ride.

The pony guy introduced us to the camel guy, who also abused his animal, in the name of entertaining children, in the name of making a buck to feed his family. He got a buck out of us too, and then he introduced us to the carriage guy. And the whole evening went on and on like this until finally we were exhausted enough to take our leave of the locals we had become one with and then head back to the hotel.

There, as I took off my abaya and head scarf that had undoubtedly convinced the locals that I was indigenous, I realized that my son had been walking around all day in a red T-shirt that sported a big Mickey Mouse and the words “All American.” I was disturbed. You would think that as a mom, I would notice things like what radical nationalism my kids are advertising on their clothing. You would also think that as a mom, I would double-check that my son had packed a change of clothes for our over-night trip.

You would think. But you know what, although clothing can disguise us, it can’t black out our differences. Far though we might wander into the wilderness, we are still Americans, looking out at the world from within our safe(ish) and shiny(ish) car. We’re both fascinated and disturbed by what we see—partly because it’s different and partly because it’s eerily similar. And I suppose that the locals are both disturbed and fascinated by us.

Many might disagree, but I think differences are okay. God created the world by setting up differences between earth and sea, between light and darkness, between sun and stars and moon. The whole world needs differences. Really, they’re what makes the world beautiful. Ignoring or trying to break down our differences is in some sense a transgression against nature. I’m content to wear disguises when necessary, but they don't stop me from looking on with wonder at the world I see.