Cabin Fever in Riyadh

Cabin Fever in Riyadh


Living in Riyadh Before the Internet

My daughters have near-native fluency in English, but sometimes they ask me about phrases they’ve never heard, like “cabin fever”.  Last week, one of them asked me about this phrase; all I had to do was remind her of how we lived in Riyadh, how we used to wait for her father to come home from work, and beg him to take us out. We didn’t care where, we just wanted to get out of the house.

Here in the States, during a particularly snowy winter, we might be afflicted with a touch of cabin fever, but in Riyadh we suffered from it year round.

The high point of certain Riyadh days occurred when my husband walked in, and decided to take us out. From the degree of our excitement we showed, one would think we were headed for a wonderful place, full of stimulation  and activity. No. We would go to the post office, and sit in the car while my husband went inside to retrieve the mail. That was a lovely outing for us, occurring with  the satisfying frequency of once a week!

After the post office, and if my husband felt energetic, we’d get shawarmas. All of us had a say in where we would get these shawarmas, but it didn’t matter as much as we pretended it did; shawarmas are like hamburgers– they all taste good, but slightly different from shop to shop. Our favorite shawarma shop was Yelah Al Sham (spelling?) because of its creamy, rich garlic sauce over fat portions of meat.

Two or three times a month we’d go  grocery shopping. All of us would walk up and down all the isles, examining labels and prices, comparing deals, choosing, rejecting, and tossing into the cart, sometimes when one of us was not looking, or returning something to shelf, also when one of us wasn’t looking.

Once a month, if we were lucky, we could persuade the man of the house to take us to Shoala shopping mall, or Al-Akkaria. Those were the only two malls in Riyadh at the time. Even my husband enjoyed going to the mall, not to buy things, but to sit and watch people, read the newspaper, and daydream. The mall provided much entertainment in that form, especially during hot summers when the HVAC in the apartment made us either too cold or too hot.

After Asr, on nice weekends– that means not too hot, and you know how many days like that come around in Riyadh!– we’d go to one of several public gardens in Riyadh. First, though, my husband would buy kofta, mango juice, taboulah, and/or whatever else smelled fresh in the restaurant. We’d spread a blanket under an inviting palm tree, and remain there until Isha or later, or until the kids got bored with the playground or the other kids. I’d write letters, read and study Arabic, while my husband read the Arabic newspapers cover to cover.

I have to admit, my husband was good at taking us with him to mosques that offered areas for ladies. We prayed in large mosques, small mosques, popular ones, clean ones, shabby ones, elegant ones and simple ones. I miss all those mosques. Here in America, we have only two mosques, both twenty minutes away by car, which seems unnatural.

Several times a month, on a weekend morning after Fajr, my husband and I would leave the girls in bed and go to the Oteyga fruit and vegetable suq. That experience always thrilled me. I loved seeing hundreds upon hundreds of boxes of fruits and vegetables. I loved that the suq was so large we had to drive from the fruit side to the vegetable side. I loved the aromas of the green herbs, mountains of onions, boxes of ripening mangoes. We would fill the car with produce, and I’d spend days, literally, cooking, freezing, sharing, and, of course, eating.

During the week, I rarely felt the desire or need to go out, but when I did, I’d walk two blocks to the pharmacy or the small grocery store, more for a walk than for need of a purchase.  That little habit came to an abrupt end one morning when I was followed by a man who wouldn’t give up, but that is another post.

Two of my friends had drivers. Occasionally, one of them would send her driver for me, and we’d spend time together at our favorite bookstore, Obeikan. The other friend would send her driver for me, too, and we’d spend time at her house, or we’d visit other friends, or go to the zoo, or go to the DQ  (that’s the Diplomatic Quarter, not Dairy Queen) or go to a women’s Islamic study circle.

At home, while my husband was at work and the girls were at school, I stayed happy drinking Turkish coffee, studying Arabic and Qur’an, and later Italian language, and cooking and doing housework. Every morning, I would spend several hours on the telephone talking to friends. No one had cell phones, of course. No one needed them. The housewife connection thrived from house to house on nothing but a single land line. Our husbands never knew how much time we spent gabbing on the phone, but those talks sufficed us and lessened the occasions on which we’d beg our husbands to take us out.

I loved being a housewife. Those were the happiest years of my life, and I must confess that I did not suffer from “cabin fever” as much as my daughters, who, in their youth, were hungry for new experiences. What bothered me was having to wait for my husband to feel like taking me out, or wait for a driver, or wait for a taxi, and then wait for the destination to be open, or ready to receive me.

None of us had computers, let alone the Internet. Eventually, one of my technologically advanced friends got connected, and became enamored of e-mail. She tried to tell me about it, how she could write to her family in the States every day, and they would receive the letter within hours, if not minutes. That concept was far over my head at the time, too good to be true, so I continued to write my letters in long hand, mail them a week later, and wait not only two weeks for them to reach my family in the States, but wait another two weeks for someone to reply.

I did miss television, I mean Western style television, with its high quality production and abundance of channel choices. In Riyadh, we had two stations, One and Two, for Arabic and English. They began their daily broadcasting after Asr and signed off close to midnight, except on the weekends, when a movie might last until one o’clock AM. Most of the programs bored me, in both languages, but I enjoyed watching the prayers from Mecca, especially during Ramadan, and I enjoyed the rare American serial, like Law and Order, or the British game show where the contestants accumulated points by entering the pyramid and grasping at flying bits of paper. I forget its name, maybe it was called Crystal Maze. The other show I liked was also British; people would have to perform certain difficult tasks in a short period of time. I forget its name, also. There was a hilarious Japanese game show, in which people would also perform silly tasks; most contestants got an unexpected dunking, or falling, or rolling as they failed the task.

No one had DVDs or even video players. I suppose I belonged to the sector of population that found no need or imperative to become sophisticated in methods of mass media. Our home was both a sanctuary and a prison, as it shielded us from all activity outside of it.  I did not suffer from “cabin fever” nearly as much as my girls. My husband did not suffer from it at all, but  from the opposite condition– having to take us out when he wanted nothing more than to sit on the sofa and vegetate after a long workday.

I’d be happier today if I didn’t have to work, if I could pass my days the same way I passed them in Riyadh. In fact, my having to return to the workforce after we came to the States contributed to my divorce. I would love to “have my cake and eat it.” I would love to be able to stay home, not worry about work or money, not have to parcel myself out to various family members, and yet have my car at the ready, and be able to go to any store, day or night, whenever I felt like it or needed something.

I guess that condition is called “retirement”, and I won’t be able to reach it for more years than I’d like to remember. Maybe at that time, I’ll be able to return to Riyadh, at least for a visit, and marvel at all the changes that continue to take place as I write. However, I would not like to see Riyadh, or Jeddah, or any city of Saudi Arabia, become a carbon copy of all other big cities in the world. The charms and curses of life in the Kingdom can be perceived clearly  in juxtaposition, and appreciated best from a distance, perhaps after the fact. 

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.
This entry was posted in Family, Home Life, Islam, Life, Memoir, Saudi Arabia and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Cabin Fever in Riyadh

  1. iMuslim says:

    Crystal Maze and Krypton Factor?

    Life before the internet… it’s becoming harder to remember, with each passing day!

  2. coolred38 says:

    OMG!! So many things here bring back memories.

    Just think of my situation…not only was I stuck in the house with the kids much of the time (here in Bahrain) but for a few years (5) we lived in a new housing development created by the govt…we did not have a car…no phone…basic tv…and no neighbors that I could really speak with as they were Syrians, Jordanians, Africans etc…not a Bahraini or American/British in sight.

    So my cabin fever extended into weeks, sometimes months. About the only thing I could do was walk outside with my then small children…and I use to walk everywhere. There was no where to walk gardens…no parks…no cold stores…just more housing…but it was the only thing that kept me from losing my mind to complete and utter loneliness.

    The one good thing about that whole experience was that the inlaws were not with us during that time. They stayed awhile but found it too boring and went back to Muharraq…happiest day of my life. If I had suffered that 5 year span while having them add to it…I dont think I would have made it…no lie.

    Nice post…despite my bitter tone…I do remember some of it with a smile.

  3. Aafke says:

    hmmm…. already getting cabinfever just reading this!
    going out to walk the dog now!!!!!

  4. Marahm says:

    coolred, you had it much worse than me! I’m glad you “remember some of it with a smile,” despite your bitter tone. To tell you the truth, I remember some of it with bitterness, despite my affectionate tone.

    imuslim, Crystal Maze, yes, the more I think about it the more I remember, but Krypton Factor does not sound familiar. Life before the internet was not so bad, even though now I cannot imagine ever living without it again.

    Aafke, you would probably do very well in a restricted environment because of your artistic and immaginative nature. Dogs, however, are all but forbidden in Saudi Arabia, so I think being without your dog would be the greater deprivation!

  5. susanne430 says:

    I enjoyed reading your reflections. Very nice post!

  6. Saha says:

    I enjoy being at home a lot, but I find that having small children is what makes me need to get out, alone, i can become absorbed in my own worlds, draw, read etc. But with small kids, this becomes difficult and you start to feel trapped. Add to this, being in a place where you need a mahram to go out and it’s too much for me! I resent the fact that women are not allowed out so much that it would just drive me utterly crazy, and I would probably end up streaking in the town square…being a reactionary kind of being!

  7. Sumera says:

    I got cabinfever reading this and realised its what I suffer from every so often :-/ ! Though my cabin fever is self-induced. Grrr. Life before the Net involved alot of reading. Now reading is a luxury

  8. Marahm says:

    Welcome, Saha! You’ve raised a good point, one that I did not have to face. Small kids underfoot increase cabin fever exponentially. Here in the US, with all the freedom to move about as I please, I get claustrophobic after one day of babysitting the grandkids, despite the fact that I love and enjoy them immensely.

    Sumera, yes, I agree; reading is now a luxury. Let’s acknowledge, though, that we might read even more, now that we’re on the Net at every opportunity. The reading is different, however.

    I miss the depth and focus of the reading I did before the Net took over my life.

  9. Before I forget to mention it – I love your new header graphic, Marahm! It’s beautiful!!!
    Somehow I missed this post when you published it. I enjoyed reading about how it used to be here, but honestly, I don’t think I could have survived or been happy here without the internet and email and blogging!!! It is such a big part of my life here and it helps me not think about having cabin fever all the time. And when I have internet problems, ARGGGGHHH!!!
    I hate having to depend on my hubby to take me places. I hate feeling that going grocery shopping is a special outing, but that’s how I feel here, just happy to get out of the house. I shudder to imagine how my hubby would freak out if I ventured out for a short walk on my own! And I am thankful that there are now enough English program channels on TV usually to keep me satisfied when I want to watch, although there are still times when nothing interests me.
    The only cabin fever I ever experienced prior to moving here was a few days every few years during hurricane season in Florida. It’s frustrating living in a place where cabin fever is just normal life for women.

  10. Hala says:

    I loved this post, details are similar to some time in my life too, only I had it in Jeddah

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