Return to Riyadh?

My American friend Sharon, married to a Saudi man for at least thirty years, has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. This came as a big shock more to me than to her. She’d suspected it, but hadn’t been honest with me regarding her symptoms in the months prior to the diagnosis.

Sharon and I became friends in 1992 when we met in Riyadh, at the women’s community college where we studied Arabic. Apart from class time, we rarely saw each other– in those days, women weren’t allowed to drive in the Kingdom. She had a driver, and would send him to pick me up from time to time so we could cruise around Riyadh and visit our favorite bookstores, Jareer and Al Obeikan. We spoke on the telephone every day, sometimes several times a day.

Then we drifted apart for several years, until we both repatriated. She and her husband live between Tacoma, WA (USA) and Riyadh, and I live in Wisconsin. We resumed our frequent phone conversations when our families were occupied, so we could talk about them and reminisce about our days in Riyadh. We often immagined me going to Riyadh with her for a long visit.

The trip remained a dream, as neither one of us took steps to make it reality. My four young grandchildren started arriving in 2007, and I didn’t want to miss even one month of their childhoods. Besides, I had developed osteoarthritis in both shoulders and knees, making movement slow and painful before I succumbed to inevitable joint replacements. Those long, international flights had been difficult even when I was young and healthy, so now they would take an even bigger toll on my body. Besides, my life in Riyadh was over. Even a visit there would not restore what could never be restored. Would I really want to go back and reignite, re-experience not only the joy of my life in that culture but the grief at having to leave it yet again?

I hesitated too long. Now, with her diagnosis, even Sharon cannot go back to Riyadh due to the stress of air travel. She doesn’t want to go even with someone to help her. Her balance and movement grow more compromised by the month, and soon she will need full-time assisted living, either at home or in a facility.

When first diagnosed, she fell into a predictable depression, and couldn’t even talk for several months. I would call her and text her daily, then several times weekly, but she’d rarely answer, and when she did, her words limped out slowly. I feared I’d lost my friend forever.

Last month, her voice had recovered its characteristic inflection and speed. She finally poured out her process of accepting the diagnosis and beginning measures to accommodate it. I offered again to accompany her to Riyadh, but she is too afraid of the difficulties of travel upon her compromised body and mind.

I will not be returning to Riyadh, at least not bodily, but the metaphorical Riyadh still buzzes and beckons. I have started to bring it into my daily life right here in the United States, by returning to my study of Arabic, both formally and informally. Arabic study is the best, easiest and most accessible tool for me to actualize the metaphorical Riyadh. Other measures include going to the mosque, sometimes, and surrounding myself with visual reminders of Arabic and Islam.

I’ve hung three Arabic numeral wall clocks around my rooms. I still intend to buy some lovely Islamic calligraphic art to hang on my walls, as well. I’ve listened to more Qur’an, and prayed again, in my inconsistent way, when convenient, but better than nothing, no?

I’ve started to write again, on this blog and elsewhere. In writing, I can be free of social or familial constraints upon my thought process and engagement with my own ideas. These measures have filled my with happiness, and I will continue them, add to them, and look for other ways to bring a metaphorical Riyadh into my life.

As for the actual Riyadh, I’ve looked at photos of its new architecture, its innovative social developments like theaters and concerts and mega-malls. I don’t like any of it because it contradicts my romanticized memories. I’m OK with not going back for a visit, but if Sharon improves, gets stabilized on new meds and decides to venture out, I will consider going with her. It will be the last chance, if it materializes at all, and if it does not, that’s OK, too.

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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