by Sylvia Fowler
A great number of Western women—running into hidden hundreds if not thousands—live in Saudi Arabia, married to Saudi men. Every day they put on their black cloaks—called abayas – and their black scarves – called turhas – to go out in the cars they are not permitted to drive. They have gotten used to the poor drivers imported from Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka or Egypt who take them to their children’s schools, to shops, or to their friends’ homes. The less financially capable Western wives must depend on husbands or sons or hire freelance drivers who come to their houses by arrangement.
During the first Gulf War (1990-91) under Bush Senior, I went to the American Consulate in Jeddah and found myself amidst a crowd of other American ladies married to Saudis. I knew only a handful. We all waited, wrapped in our abayas and turhas, for the Consul General to address us. The meeting had to do with security precautions during the war and the infrastructure whereby volunteers would be assigned to call a list of four or five people whenever there was some news or recommendation to impart. The Consul General came into the room and blinked at us.
Yes, Sir, and those were the few who decided to show up! It’s easy to melt into an Arab country when you’re a Western female married to a Saudi citizen. Some women all but disappear from Western memory. They don’t obtain social security numbers for their children, nor do they in any other way register their offspring as American, British or so on. Some get around to it and some don’t. It all depends on the level of happiness the woman experiences with her husband, the amount of religious/cultural saturation she has undergone, and whether she has a mind of her own and any sense or not.
Inevitably there will come a time—after a few years or many—when each woman will be forced to contemplate her chances of emotional and physical survival if she goes back to her country of origin. For many women, going back to a Western culture where they are not used to surviving, where friends and family have grown away from them and where they have no practice in being financially independent can be too frightening a leap to risk.
For a few of us, luckier in terms of independent sources of wealth, an unusually generous or kind ex-spouse, and/or sheer determination to emigrate home again, the leap is made with trembling limbs, stomach aflutter, and eyes wide open. For many, long absence makes us feel as if we belong neither to one culture nor the other. We are changed forever by sympathy (and sometimes resentment) for a culture that frequently made us the reprobates. Some of the more fortunate of the convert wives manage eventually to see the blame that threatened to sweep us into an ocean of misery as meaningless foam. We have found the link between mystical Islam and the spirituality of all belief systems that reverence a Divine Power. It is a discovery that heals.
The purpose of this memoir is neither to hurt nor to erroneously portray the people who were closest to me during the seventeen years I lived in Saudi Arabia. My goal is to offer a window for humanists onto a world that is not only fascinating, but enlightening to those who believe in love and understanding. The Red Sea Bride is now available as an ebook on Amazon.
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