A Walk on the Wild Side

 Before I went to Saudi Arabia in 1986 to work at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital, I bought a small book of Arabic phrases. The language, with its strange guttural sounds not made in English, and its curvy script read from right to left, fascinated me. I memorized the usual first phrases: min fadlak, shukran, marhabah, and ma’asalama— please, thank you, hello, and good bye.  Easy enough.  I would be ready.  I would know something about this exotic language.

Six weeks after my arrival in Riyadh, I got the courage to walk out of the housing compound to the neighborhood grocery store. I covered myself properly with my new black abaya, and threw a scarf across my shoulders.  As a Westerner, I was not obligated to cover my hair, but my bare head marked me as a foreign woman, and we all know what some Arabs think of foreign females. 

Halfway to the store, in the middle of a long block of residential villas, with walls surrounding them to hide the women, a small pick- up truck pulled up beside me. I noticed a bale of hay in back, half covered with canvas, but no animals.  The driver, an Arab dressed in a white thobe and checkered headdress, rolled down the window and said, “Marhabah.” 

I returned his greeting, “Marhabah!”  That was my first mistake.  I knew he’d ask me to get in, and sure enough, the next word– in English– was, “Ride? Ride?”  As I wanted to show off my acquisition of Arabic phrases, and be polite at the same time, I said, “La, shukran.” No thank you, with a smile. That was my second mistake. 

Suddenly, the truck pulled in close to the curb. I noticed no other person walking. In that neighborhood, only crazy foreigners walk in the broad daylight of desert heat.  No other car passed in either direction. I secured the flaps of my abaya across my body, and set my gaze straight ahead.  He jumped out, and rushed up in front of me, tripping and holding his manhood through the skirt of his thobe. His eyes narrowed, marbles embedded in the leathered creases of an old desert dweller. He smiled across a stubbly beard, unashamed of the gaps between his teeth, or what he was doing, and made grunting noises much like the noises made by the goats and lambs that he surely carried in his pick-up truck from time to time. 

I shrieked, and ran across the street.  He ran after me, hiking up his thobe to get a better grip and show me what he thought I wanted.  I shrieked again, picked up the bottom of my abaya, and ran fast in the heat until my lungs burned and I reached the main street, where six lanes of traffic whizzed back and forth, and he couldn’t possibly keep hanging on. 

The next day, I was told by my laughing Arab colleague that my polite American response had been more of an invitation than a refusal!


About Marahm

At first glance, I may appear to be a middle-aged American woman with kids, grandkids, retired from a job in a hospital, gratefully relieved from the responsibilities that come with all of that. Behind the image, which is true enough, I am fairly unhinged from much of American mainstream living, having spent twelve years in Saudi Arabia, years that sprung me from societal and familial impositions, and narrow bands of truth. I have learned to embrace my identity as a seeker, an artist, and a writer. I study Arabic and Italian language, because I love them, and I love their people. I still dream of spending more time in the Middle East and Italy, though the dreaming now seems more real than the possibilities. I am a photographer. I write, and sometimes publish, flash memoir, and now a blog or two.
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11 Responses to A Walk on the Wild Side

  1. Umm Ibrahim says:

    (Just testing in the above comment because it seemed that there was a problem with commenting just now. 😕 )

    😯 You really had some colourful experiences during your time in Riyadh didn’t you?! ALHAMDU LILLAH I haven’t had any experiences that even compare to this!

    I’m curious… was it whilst you were in Riyadh that you converted to Islam? How? Maybe this could be a future post. 😛 Umm Ibrahim

  2. Marahm says:

    Yes, UmIbrahim, I did convert to Islam during my third year in Riyadh, so I had a good taste of the typical Western expat experience there. In fact, that experience helped me realize that superficial socializing, non-committed relationships, and clandestine drinking had no part in my value system. I remember being at a party one evening, irritated at the obnoxious behavior of several guests, and asking myself, “I came halfway across the world for this?”

    You’ve given me an idea for a new post! Actually, there are hundreds of subjects one could explore on a blog– that’s part of its allure, no?

  3. Mahshallah!!! I can see that I have a LOT to learn. How can what you said to this uncontrolled pervert in any way be misconstrued to be an open invitation? I don’t get stuff like this. Allah, help me!!!

  4. Marahm says:

    Well, Susie, I learned that lesson fast and hard.

    From our Western viewpoint, propriety requires pleasant exchanges with strangers who greet you or offer you a ride on a hot day.

    From the Saudi viewpoint (and to some extent that of other Arab countries) anything other than indifference or downright rejection can be interpreted as interest.

    I think this is why newly arrived single Western ladies get a lot of attention from men. The men regard our friendliness as inviting, just as we regard their aggression offensive.

  5. Aafke says:

    Insane story! Really! he could have opened the door and imvited you in!

    But funny too, at least you escaped. I had no idea KSA was such an adventurous place! And it is clear from your accounts you need an excellent condition.
    I’s suggest a thorough training in sprint and running for future ex-pats 😀

  6. Aysha says:

    OMG Marahm, though I knew you were narrating an incident that took place in the past my heart got stuck in my throat!
    My mom told me once, that while she was in the old Sooq with three other ladies awaiting prayers to be over, a non-Saudi worker came up to them with his thoab pulled up, he was holding up his thing with his hand just like the guy in your story. Gosh, that story sounds so faded besides the one you have here. Thank goodness you survived, but I can only imagine that it scarred you emotionally for a bit. Especially happening in the early outings you had in a foreign land.
    The weirdest thing that has ever happened to me in SA is, while my husband went into Safeway to pick up something, a fat pimply guy entered to his car which was parked right next to ours. It was the yukiest thing I’ve seen. He closed the door, pulled down his window, and started mas******g while looking at me. I was literaly frozen in place, but my stomach was …….

  7. Marahm says:

    Aafke, Saudi Arabia really is an adventurous place, even if you don’t do stupid things like smile at perverted strangers. I was indeed traumatized. That was the last time I went walking outside the compound. Six years later, having recovered my courage, and knowing much more, I again walked outside and had another unpleasant experience, which I’ll post sometime.

    Aysha, how awful an experience that must have been! I’ll bet you couldn’t even tell your husband. Why do you suppose incidents such as these occur in the Kingdom? Granted, they do not occur frequently, but I have never in my life seen anything like this in another country.

    The obvious response is to cite the Kingdom’s strict segregation practices, but I’m not sure that is entirely correct, because anyone can do anything in the Kingdom as long as it is behind closed doors. Why do these few guys do it in public? Could it be that these guys are not simply interested in sex, but in terrorizing women? Could it be they are psychopaths, or simple misfits even within their own family circle? What is your opinion?

  8. delhi4cats says:

    Hi Marahm,

    I truly believe the incident you experienced is yet one aspect on the effects of segregation creating a repressed and socially backward society (at least in some factions).

    I have also written a number of posts on the very important cultural nuances and interpretations. As much as we may like to think so, East and West do not think alike nor process information in the same manner. What we as westerners view as politeness is interpreted in the East as an open invitation. I have found myself having to be much more careful and reserved living in this region as a result.

    However one can indeed say that there is rarely a dull moment in the Kingdom and ya never know what to expect next!

  9. Marahm says:

    You are right– on all counts! I once read that information processing depends as much on one’s mother tongue as on one’s mother culture, and in fact, that the language structure dictates the observable cultural mind set. Certain concepts are more or less developed in various languages, therefore the character of a people is reflected in the structure of their language, and vice versa.

    So is this a chicken-and-egg phenomenon? In any event, Middle Eastern culture does reflect the structure of Arabic language, in that it is multi-dimentsional and complex, more so than native English speaking cultures. What do you think?

  10. Hebah says:

    I think that guy probably would have reacted the same no matter what you did. he’s the time of guy who thinks if a lady is out alone, she must be looking for man.

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