The Best of Both Worlds

I lived in Riyadh for twelve years, from 1986 through 1998— the first six in the King Faisal Hospital women’s housing compound on campus (men lived off campus), and the second six in the city, amongst working class expatriate Arabs. Both ways of life offered me thrill and glamor, punctuated by stress and drudgery– long before Saudi Arabia initiated the reforms and developments that now include amusement parks, concerts, mega-malls, women driving, etc.

During the seventies and eighties, Saudi Arabia’s premiere developments included the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, where state of the art technology promised excellent medical care first to the royal family and gradually to most all other citizens who needed its sophisticated services. I got a job there in 1986, a month before Ramadan.

I’d been working in the States for five years after college. I liked my job as a Clinical Laboratory Scientist (formerly Medical Technologist). My colleagues and I used to see the ads for jobs in Saudi Arabia in our professional journals. I answered one of these ads. My reasons warrant a separate post, and maybe an entire book, but for now, let’s say I was hungry for a big life change. Those ads promised high salaries, excellent working conditions, lavish vacations and expense-free apartments built for the comfort of international professionals. All of that was supposed to compensate for the social restrictions, gender segregation and cultural adjustments that prevailed in the most conservative country of the world. It did, for many of us, for awhile.

I was hired for the Hematology Section of the Laboratory at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center. When I started working there, the hospital had maybe four hundred beds; I don’t remember exactly, but I do remember that over the six years of my employment, the number of beds doubled, as did the services and clinics. My job morphed from manageable set of analytical procedures into an assembly line churning out results without pause. The length of the workday turned everything into drudgery. I began at seven AM and finished at 5PM.

In the beginning, I had enough energy after work to take the hospital bus to the shopping areas, or to hang out with friends, or swim. By the end of those first six years, my stress level had increased to the extent that I walked home after work and collapsed, not wanting to see anyone or do anything, except a rare swim in one of the wonderful pools.

The pools were the just a few of the perks of living and working at King Faisal, however. My salary was more than I could have earned in the States, and I lived in high-end, expense-free apartments, comfortable and attractively furnished, that I wouldn’t be able to afford in the United States. I was entitled to nearly seven weeks of yearly vacation, four of which included a paid round trip ticket to the United States, and the other three divided into two vacations to nearby countries. I visited Cyprus, Greece, Egypt (four times), Jordan, Turkey, India (twice), Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. The memories of those trips still give me smiles of romance, fun, thrill, excitement, and beauty.

During the months between vacations, I went to the suqs (market places), many of which throbbed with activity and all manner of merchandise, especially traditional offerings such as gold, Oriental rugs, brass coffee pots, camel saddles, fabrics, clothing, spices, and cheap housewares. These markets attracted mostly Saudi families and expats from Arab and Asian countries. I could walk through the maze of alleys and shop for hours without seeing another Western person. I adored those suqs, especially when I learned a few words of Arabic, started covering my head and passing for an Arab.

I frequently joined some of the hospital women for dinners at area hotels. The major hotels featured rotating cuisines, all sumptuous and expensive, but we could afford it because our salaries were generous and our living expenses were carried by the hospital. Later on, when I started making friends with Muslim ladies outside the hospital, I would go to their homes, or meet them at one of the shopping malls, or join an Islamic “halaqah”— gathering for learning about religion from women scholars.

As the years passed, however, the stress of the job increased, as did my desire to get married before I got too old to enjoy married life. The heavy workload plus long workday drained me physically and psychologically. Even though I loved the hospital milieu, I was burned out. During my fifth year I thought about not renewing my contract. I hated to give up my extracurricular benefits, but my job had become so demanding and enervating that I looked for an escape, which meant I had to either get a husband or return to the States. That second option filled me with dread, as I wanted to remain in the Kingdom. In those days, expats were not allowed to live in the Kingdom without an employer or a spouse, so… I had to have one or the other.

I got a husband, an Egyptian electrical engineer who I met through the husband of an American Muslima who also worked in the hospital. Suffice it to say that I exchanged my job for a husband, and moved with him and his two girls (from his first marriage) into a city apartment, several notches below the standard to which I’d become accustomed, but clean enough and large.

I saved my final month’s salary and severance pay, locking it in my trunk for use during my marriage when my husband didn’t want to finance whatever I wanted to buy for myself. He provided the basics– food, clothing, shelter, and annual plane tickets, and I had no complaint– but he was not eager to buy my little luxuries like books or jewelry. Travel, too, had to be curtailed. From several international trips each year, I had to cut back to a single month-long vacation to the United States, and we had to pay for it.

The people around me no longer represented medical professionals from America, Canada, Europe, Arab and Asian countries, but working class expats from Arab countries only. I expected I’d finally get the chance to become fluent in Arabic, but no, and that’s another story.

For the first time in my life, I was a housewife, relieved of the monkey-on-my-back necessity of working outside the home. Some people thrived in the workforce; I never did. I’d always envied those who didn’t have to work.

Learning to cook, keep house, and look after my new family offered me a way of life that felt like the lap of luxury. I had traded the fatigue, the psychological and physical strain of the workplace for the peace and comfort of my own home in Riyadh from which I was not required to venture at all. Finally I had freed myself to explore the activities that brought me joy– learning languages, sewing, cooking, reading and writing, and exploring chances to interact with people I’d never have met while cushioned within the hospital setting.

I also traded the sophistication of professional expat hospital life for the restrictions of not being able to move about freely, not to travel to countries other than the USA, not to spend easily on elegant meals or clothes, and not to mingle with people from all over the world. However, the trade-off brought me exactly what I needed.

My life as a Muslim blossomed during those next six years. I met and grew friendships with a core of wonderful Muslim women whose Arab husbands, like mine, worked in the Kingdom. I was able to walk to neighborhood schools for Arabic language classes and Tajweed. I was blessed to make Umrah several times with my husband, and even Haj the year before we left the Kingdom. To this day, I thank Allah for those experiences, and I know how generously He blessed me.

In fact, the whole twelve years constitutes the most amazing and valuable phase of my life. I acquired two daughters who’ve enriched my life maybe more than I’ve enriched theirs, now with their own children– my grandchildren– who I love as dearly as I love their mothers.

I’ve only highlighted the surface of the ways in which I found fulfillment in the Kingdom. Did I have sadness, personal failures and stress apart from my job? For sure, I had plenty of it, the worst in my life. I haven’t even hinted at those shipwrecks of major depression. Maybe I will write about some of it, but the other side of my Riyadh years– the fulfillment, the happiness, the learning, the excitement, the opportunities to immerse myself in a religion and culture I never knew existed prior to 1986–overrides all of the troubles and heartache that afflicted me simultaneously– and that is what I’ve chosen to write about here.

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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