There’s No Place Like Home

As you may have noticed, summer is winding down.

Riyadh forecast (farenheit)In Celsius, that’s 44, 44, 44, 44, 45, 44.., and that little nip in the air means it’s expat migration season. Time to pack the bags full of all the loot/necessities/contraband you’ve picked up in the home country, squeeze in a last dinner at your favorite restaurant, kiss the relatives, and take off for home-away-from-home.

The typical pattern is for Westerners living on the Arabian peninsula is to take a long break during the Arabian summer, much of which is often spent at home. Non-working spouses and children leave early in the summer, visiting friends and relatives for a few or many weeks. The working spouses join for some feasible amount of vacation, and by the end of the summer most people are back to work, school, and routine Saudi life.

Obviously, I’m not making the trip this year. Our current stint in Saudi Arabia is over, but this summer has still felt very much the same as the last two to me. I left Riyadh at the end of May, at the same time a lot of my friends were, then lived in my daughter’s basement as I have during all my home visits because renters were still in our house, and I’m only just now back in my actual home and watching my Riyadh friends return without me. (And getting back to paying attention to the blog. I know.)

By the luck of overlapping schedules and geography, I was even able to get together with a number of my friends at a Riyadh reunion in the U.S. Some were on summer holidays and would be returning. Others were going on to other assignments elsewhere in the world. Some had even lived in Saudi years before and I got to meet them through friends in common. The children and teenagers might have had the best time of all because, quite frankly, laughing and running free in a park was something they’d never been able to do in Riyadh.

Riyadh kids enjoying an American park

Riyadh kids enjoying an American park

In Saudi Arabia, you can’t go where you want. You can’t eat what you want. You can’t say what you want, read what you want, worship what you want, live where you want, associate with whomever you want, travel when or where you want, love or marry as you would want. And as the children chatted and played, the adults talked about the way you feel a weight lift when you leave Saudi Arabia. When we’re there, we slip easily enough into character, roll our eyes over daily inconveniences—or perhaps not, when we’re so used to them they don’t even merit a comment. We enjoy our lives, love our friends, call ourselves blessed for the adventure we get to have. The weight is so normal that we don’t feel it when we’re there. That’s the way effective oppression works, I guess.

I cried leaving Saudi Arabia, but lo and behold, now that I’m home, I’m suddenly sleeping better. The light during the day is brighter. (Not a metaphor. In Saudi the sky is brassy and dusty during the summer.) I caught myself running up the stairs yesterday. This time, I’m staying, but I know that going back, after being free, can be hard. And it gets harder the longer you live in Saudi Arabia. Eventually the things to do have all been done. The novelty wears off. And repeated trips home only reinforce how much EASIER life is there. Just today I was texting with a friend—a Westerner married to a Saudi—who had just returned and was saying that the reentry gets more difficult every year.

True. But it would be super-narrow (and whiny) of me to end the discussion there. For every Westerner grinding his teeth down to rubble there’s a Saudi who likes his country exactly as it is, thinks it’s the best place on earth, and wouldn’t want to trade places with anybody. (And who contributes to a lot of newspaper comment sections telling complainers that if they don’t like it, go home.) It’s a matter of what you’re used to. If you find it hard to bend your mind around that idea, allow me to torture a metaphor for a minute:

I have a friend who grew up here in Colorado, where the sky looks like this:

Colorado sky, Castle Rock

Colorado sky, on my way to Castle Rock

(Full disclosure: I’ve been taking a lot of sky pictures since I’ve been home.) My friend lived for a period after college in Indiana and Ohio, where the sky looks like this:

sky thru trees

Sky through trees, Indianapolis. Photo:

Beautiful, eh? Well, not to everyone, it seems, because she couldn’t stand it. She was used to being able to see the sky from horizon to horizon, and in Indiana she felt suffocated.

Metaphorically speaking, Westerners are big-sky people. In Saudi Arabia, we feel hemmed in by all those Wahhabi trees. (Wahhab = the father of the Saudi interpretation of Sunni Islam, and its strict Shariah law that regulates Saudi life, not wasabi, which is a root, not a tree, and I have just learned is delicious in a potato chip.)

Lay's Wasabi Ginger potato chips

Lay’s Wasabi Ginger potato chips. Better living through chemistry, people. Please help me keep these on the shelf.

For a Saudi, accustomed to having teachers, neighbors, imams, employers, religious police, family, tribe, and culture all united in keeping you standing still and straight, Western culture can seem to have clear-cut the entire forest, leaving individuals horribly exposed to dangerous, offensive, and false ideas. How on earth are you supposed to observe a halal diet if ANYTHING might have happened in that restaurant kitchen? It’s much easier to live in a place where you know that your government has already ensured that no alcohol or pork products ever enter the supply chain. How are you supposed to maintain your faith and stay right with Allah if a coworker is vocally irreligious? Much easier to just make it illegal for anyone to speak against what you believe.

I understand the appeal of trees to those who are used to them. Living in the open makes both trees and people stronger, but if you take a tree that’s been sheltered by others its whole life and then strip away all the protection and leave it alone in the open, it’ll blow over as soon as the first storm comes up. Conversely, a tree that belongs in the open will die if it’s overshadowed and crowded. So we Westerners leave Saudi Arabia regularly to keep our roots alive. And inhale the free air as soon as we step off the plane.

I’m a big sky girl. I’d rather understand right and wrong and make my own choices than have a hundred barriers set up to keep me from making the wrong ones. I won’t be sorry if I never see this screen again:

Saudi you've-been-blocked green screen

The dreaded Saudi “green screen.” I think I was trying to get to a tart recipe on The Guardian.

Yes, I edited myself a great deal when I wrote from inside Saudi Arabia. I do look forward to addressing a few things in a less oblique fashion now that I no longer have to be so cautious. (And addressing a few others at all.) But I hate whiners and critics, and don’t plan to be one. I loved my life in Saudi Arabia—the experiences, the friends, the good, the crazy, the maddening, the moving. I learned more in my first week on the ground in Riyadh than years of Middle Eastern studies could have given me. I may no longer be a foreign girl living on Saudi soil, but the experience of living there has given me foreign eyes to see my own world differently. And it’s a crazy good view.

Sunset, Denver, Colorado

Sunset, Denver, Colorado

(One of these days, The Beloved is going to stop waiting while I take pictures of the sky.)

8 thoughts on “There’s No Place Like Home

  1. vinneve says:

    Hi glad to see another post from you! we’ve been to JED 2 weeks ago (business and not sure if leisure) and yes comparing UAE to KSA makes me want to stay here in UAE instead. But I think it is inevitable one day we will go once th project here is done and over with. 😦 I do understand what you say here… but to be fair in JED it is less strict than Riyadh… expats no need to wear the head scarf, I actually talked to other men If I need some help about location etc. got some choices for the housing but yes I’d rather stay here in UAE as it is a much open Country for expats. Why don’t you and your beloved come here instead? Try if you will like it here.


    • margocatts says:

      Yes, Jeddah is definitely different! I certainly enjoy the UAE and I know we’d be happy there as well, but for better or worse the work opportunities presenting themselves right now are in the U.S. I’m already itching to get traveling again, though…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Omar Hasan Khan says:

    Have read your work after a while 🙂 Enjoyed it as usual. The Wahhabi/Wasabi line cracked me up! Anyway, valid points and much needed perspective on what is the norm for some may not be for others and vice-versa.


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