28 September 2010
I strode to the front door of Salim’s luxury apartment, my rash, angry footsteps muffled by the carpeting, and pounded on the door demanding admittance. The door wasn’t opened, but I heard Salim’s cousin Saeed’s voice ask, “Who’s there?” When I responded with my name, Saeed said, “Go away, Salim doesn’t want to see you.”
Salim and I had been together for the better par of a school-year and I’d been spending every weekend and often weekdays as well with him when suddenly he’d just stopped calling and wouldn’t even take my calls, for no apparent reason. His cousin Saeed had answered the phone and bluntly replied, “He doesn’t want to talk to you,” when I asked for Salim. My inquiries as to a reason received the response that that he just didn’t want to, no further explanation.
Next, I’m ashamed to admit that I angrily pounded on the door, weeping hysterically the entire time, until it was opened… Saeed emerged from the doorway, impeccably dressed in a crisp white shirt and black slacks and expensive Rolex watch and gave me a pitying, derisive look. “He doesn’t want you, he’s marrying his cousin. Go away.” With curly blue-black locks, eyes so dark they appeared black, café au lait skin, high cheekbones, a thin mustache, chiseled angular features and perfectly even white teeth, Saeed was better looking than any man had a right to be. He was also the coldest human being I’ve ever known.
His words were like a knife through my heart. Incredulous and incensed, I responded with, “That can’t be true; Salim loves me.”
“Believe it,” Saeed said coldly, “Now stop disgracing yourself and just go home.”
“If that’s true, why can’t Salim tell me so himself?”
“He doesn’t want to talk to you,” he said without a touch of emotion. With that statement Saeed stepped back inside the apartment and slammed the door in my face underscoring the finality of his statement.
I felt as though a mountain had fallen on me and smothered me. I couldn’t catch my breath and my heart felt as though it would burst through my chest. In a few minutes, my entire world had collapsed in on me. Salim, my first love, was everything to me and I didn’t want to go on living without him.
I couldn’t breathe and needed to get outside into the fresh air. Once I got through the doorway, I took deep, gasping breaths attempting to draw oxygen into my starved lungs. The air tasted like acid and my heart was beating like a captured bird, about to expire. I took a couple of steps onto the sidewalk and fell to my knees sobbing, as I folded my arms protectively over my head. I wanted to sink into the earth and have it swallow me up. Several people passed me by, giving me curious looks, but none offering help.
Dismissed, I had no choice but to crawl back to my car on my hand and knees, since I couldn’t manage to stand on my own, pull myself up into the car seat, and drive back to the dorm. Choked with emotion, I was sobbing so hard that I could barely see the road through my tears.
The next weekend I went home for a change. My mother immediately knew something was wrong and kept pestering me until she’d dragged the whole humiliating story out of me.
“We suspected you were still seeing him when you never came home anymore,” she said, continuing, ”but believe me it’s for the best … we were so afraid he would marry you, take you back to Saudi Arabia and you’d be stuck there and we’d never see you again.”
That just made me cry again. “But I love him, Mom.”
I now had a lot of time to contemplate our relationship. In the 1980’s I was attending a medium-sized but well regarded Midwest American university in my home town. My parents were so over-protective they wouldn’t allow me to study at an out of town university. Since my Dad and I never agreed on anything and regularly butted heads, living with my parents was torture and I was desperate to escape. I was ecstatic when I managed to secure a student life scholarship that paid for my on campus living expenses.
It was a huge relief when I moved into my campus dormitory room. Although it lacked many of the amenities of home, including my mother’s home-cooked meals and laundry service, I finally felt a sense of peace and freedom I’d only experienced at my grandmother’s house in the past. For once, gone were the constant fights with my Dad and the resulting conflict between my parents.
I was giddy with my newfound freedom and went a bit wild for a short time. I’d never really been allowed to date before and since I was now finally out from under Dad’s thumb, I intended to make up for lost time. Born in Germany, and raised in a German-speaking home, I felt more German than American and often felt I had more in common with the foreign students rather than the American students. I participated in some of the foreign student associations’ functions and attended some events.
One day, a casual female acquaintance invited me to a party at the home of one of her boyfriend’s friends. Her boyfriend was a Saudi foreign student, so of course his friends were also Saudi Arabian nationals. I was medium height with short, layered dark brown hair and green eyes. I was plump in all the right places as well as a couple of the wrong ones. I wore one of my favorite dresses, a lightweight gauzy knee-length dress with swirls of muted shades of purple, plum, lilac and dusty rose and a gold metallic thread running through the fabric. It also had high walking slits up both sides of the dress.
I was a little hesitant at first, but my acquaintance said, Come on . . . it’ll be fun,” and convinced me to go with her. The party was at an apartment complex that was unusually luxurious for students, complete with impressive landscaping, gated access, and a private clubhouse. The apartment itself was sparsely but expensively furnished and cleaner than I expected for a bachelor residence. After my friend introduced me to several of the men (for they were all men) except for us two American women, dinner was served. The men all had dark hair and eyes. They wore the typical long, loose Arab robes, but no headdress of any kind. I was rather surprised when the men spread a large tablecloth out in the middle of the living room floor and placed plates on it, but no silverware. Next, two of the men placed a large platter of a lamb and rice dish cooked in tomato sauce with some sort of fragrant spice mixture in the center of the tablecloth, along with a large serving spoon. Large loaves of pita bread topped the plates and the guests took their seats along the outer perimeter of the table cloth. This is interesting, I thought. Always interested in other cultures, I thought, “What happens next?” It was a bit like being in a National Geographic special; “Dinner with the Bedouins,” or something like that. I lowered myself to the ground, folding my legs under my skirt in as ladylike a fashion as possible.
One of the men to whom I’d been introduced sat down next to me. He had curly blue-black hair, high cheekbones, and a short mustache and skin the color of cafe au lait, with eyes so dark they looked completely black. He was cute and had a friendly smile, although his English was heavily accented. He told me his name was Salim and for some reason, he seemed to take an instant liking to me. He served me from the platter, showed me how to eat Saudi style, and selected the choicest bits of meat, which he fed to me. Since there were no utensils, there were two methods of eating. The first method was as follows: the rice and meat mixture was scooped into the right hand and compressed slightly, then popped into the mouth. The second method consisted of tearing off a small piece of pita bread and using it to scoop up the food and feed it into the mouth. I found the second method preferable because it seemed less messy. When the meal had been eaten, our hosts cleared away the remnants and the guests washed up.
Next came the entertainment phase of the party. Although they had a nice stereo, there was to be no “canned” music at this party. It was to be live. The men seated themselves in a circle and instruments were brought out. They included a couple of Ouds (predecessors of the western lute), several doumbek style hand drums, and a pair of maracas, I think. The music was interesting and enjoyable, if a bit primitive. I especially enjoyed the extremely complex, intricate rhythms the drummers were able to produce. Salim played the drums and was very accomplished at them, I thought. I confess I liked the instrumental pieces better than the ones that included singing, since none of the men had particularly good voices, but that didn’t seem to dampen their enjoyment.
I was a little surprised when alcoholic beverages were brought out and nearly all the men partook of them. I’d thought Muslims were not allowed to drink alcohol. Song after song was played and things began to get a big raucous. At one point, a group of the men rose to stand in a line, clasped their hands around each other’s shoulders and performed a dance that vaguely reminded me of the Radio City Rockettes, although there was no high-kicking. It was all quite entertaining. Around one in the morning, the party broke up and people started to go home. The acquaintance who had brought me indicated she was going to her boyfriend’s second floor apartment and gave me the number in case I needed her. I was asked to stay a while longer with Salim and his cousin Saeed. Salim said he’d take me home later. Saeed soon retired to his bedroom.
Salim and I talked and listened to some music for a while. He told me of his life in Saudi Arabia and that he’d only been here about six months. He liked America very much, he said. He said that, contrary to tradition, his father had only one wife rather than the up to four wives allowed by Sharia (Muslim religious law). According to Salim, the reason Muslim men were allowed four wives was so they could have more children than a single wife could produce. If a man decided to take a second wife, the first wife had to agree, but if she didn’t he was fully within his rights to divorce her. Not much of a choice, I thought. In cases of divorce, the children always stayed with their father, not their mother. Salim explained that a few years ago his father had considered taking a second wife and his mother hadn’t been pleased about it. He had three older brothers and two younger sisters. The male children subsequently approached their father and told him that if he took a second wife, they’d never speak to him again. This was an extremely unusual occurrence in Saudi culture and regarded as a case of outright insubordination. Nevertheless, his Dad eventually decided a second wife wasn’t worth all the turmoil and discord that would result.
I was shocked about some of the things he told me about life in Saudi Arabia. For example, he said that all marriages were arranged and that the groom was not even allowed to see the bride’s face before the wedding. Betrothed couples were allowed a few closely supervised visits in the presence of a chaperon. Often, the groom’s sister would be asked to meet a prospective bride and report back to the prospective groom about her appearance. While a man usually had at least some choice in matters of marriage, a woman had absolutely none. A girl was obligated to marry whomever her father selected for her. If she refused, her father was legally within his rights to kill her for her disobedience. Girls were considered “marriageable” as soon as they had their first period and girls of 13 or so were often married to men old enough to be their fathers or even grandfathers. Women were not allowed to drive, or even to leave the house without the permission of the senior male in the family. Although while in public, women were completely veiled in black robes and head coverings with only a small eye slit to see out of, in private they wore makeup and donned clothing and jewelry as fashionable and provocative as western women. Salim told me he’d always accepted the role of women in Saudi Arabia as normal since that was what he’d grown up with, but now that he’d experienced life in the U.S., he thought women were treated more fairly here, although he believed the U.S. went too far with women’s rights in some respects. He seemed to be a rather progressive-thinking Saudi, and told me he was very close to his mother and sisters. All at once, the reasons for his change of heart began to be clear to me. No doubt voicing such opinions in his country would not be wise, as it would draw tremendous criticism.
We talked until late and ended up enjoying each other until just before dawn. I was probably not difficult to seduce since I had experienced little kindness from men in the past and was easily charmed. He was very tender, gentle and affectionate.
When I returned to my dorm room, I learned from my roommate that my mother had paid an early surprise visit and was disappointed to find me gone. My roommate had attempted to cover for me by telling her I was at the library studying. She’d returned an hour later to find me still absent. About a half hour after I’d returned, my mother knocked at the door. I answered and she discovered me rather disheveled and worn out looking. It was fairly obvious, I thought, that the only thing I’d been studying was the male anatomy. I lied in keeping with my roommate’s story, but I don’t think she was convinced. I’d been busted. She recommended that I spend the following weekend at home and I didn’t feel like I could decline, yet I desperately wanted to see Salim again. In a quandary, I finally decided to phone Salim and tell him that if he wanted to see me that weekend, he’d need to retrieve me from my parents’ house and return me there the same evening.
The next weekend, Salim arrived at my parents’ house to collect me for our date. By some fortunate coincidence, my father wasn’t at home and he only met my mother. It was obvious that he was foreign, and when my mother asked about his nationality, he answered “Saudi Arabia.” I knew my ship had just been torpedoed, but although Mother gave me a strange look, to her credit, she didn’t actually prevent me from going out with him. I knew immediately that my father would be hearing about this when he returned. We went to a seafood restaurant for dinner.
He returned me to my parents’ house a little before midnight. My mother and father were waiting up for me, and I braced myself for the inevitable fireworks. My mother started. She said he seemed like a very nice young man, but then she and my father launched into a dual tirade about the evils of Arabs. My father made it clear that I was not to see him again. Since Dad and I had always butted heads, his prohibition only served to increase Salim’s attractiveness, and thus had the opposite of its intended effect. My parents weren’t telling me anything I didn’t already know, but their remarks were racially biased. I was angry and called them racists. In my father’s case, at least, I knew this was true. He had a blue-collar mentality and didn’t hesitate to use the “N” word in conversation. He seemed to look down on anyone who wasn’t a white male; his blatant racism and misogyny were the source of many of our arguments. His role model was Archie Bunker of the “All in the Family” TV series. I knew my mother didn’t share many of his views, but she generally supported his decisions. While I was silent on the subject of not seeing Salim, I thought to myself, what you don’t know won’t hurt you.
Over the next several months, I avoided weekend visits home as much as possible and continued to see Salim while at university. We spent nearly all of every weekend together. Salim was extremely easy-going and affectionate as well as devoted and protective; we almost never argued. I soon found myself head over heels in love for the first time in my life. I was sure he loved me too; at least he said so. I got to know his group of Saudi friends and grew genuinely fond of most of them. They were a generally carefree and friendly group of party boys. Everyone seemed to like me with the exception of Salim’s cousin, Saeed, who was often stand-offish and occasionally downright rude. I became fast friends with Kathy, the female acquaintance who had originally introduced me to Saudi group, since she was usually the only other female around.
The Saudis I knew had an interesting selective approach to following Muslim laws. They strictly adhered to the daily prayer requirements, the prohibition against pork and religious fasting during the month of Ramadan. Other laws were more loosely interpreted. For example with reference to the alcohol prohibition, while they would readily drink beer and wine, they usually did not consume hard liquor. Since a Muslim isn’t supposed to touch a woman not his wife, they wouldn’t shake hands, hold hands or otherwise touch a woman in public, yet they had no reservations about s*x with a woman not their wife. I found this more than a little hypocritical; I think it was a question of appearances and what was done in public versus what was done in private.
One day, I learned that Salim’s father was to come for a visit. I was rather nervous about meeting him. We were introduced and he seemed quite affable and presented me with a gift of a small pair of pretty 18kt gold earrings, for which I thanked him. I thought the meeting had gone well.
The summer months were now here and college had ended until the fall. I was fortunate because I was so distraught over being cast aside that I would probably have failed all of my courses if college had been in session. For the next month, I cried myself to sleep every night. During the day I moped around the house and had little interest in anything including food or my friends. My eyes were continually red and swollen from all the crying. I phoned my friend Kathy and told her my tale of heartbreak.
“You’re not going to like this, but there’s not much you can do. He’s under intense pressure to conform to his family’s wishes. He’s on a government scholarship, but his family pays for living expenses. If he doesn’t return to Saudi Arabia, his Dad has to repay his entire scholarship. He has a student visa and can’t work or stay here. If his family cuts him off financially, he has to go home. They don’t want him to marry an American and stay here. I know he loves you, but he doesn’t have much of a choice.”
Approximately six weeks after the debacle, I received a late-night phone call at my parents’ house. I was surprised that it was Salim. It was obvious that he’d been drinking heavily and he was weeping so hard that between the alcohol and his sobbing, it was difficult to make out his words. From what I could make out, he said, “I love you and I miss you. I don’t want to live anymore.” There was no goodbye or anything, but a click in the line as if someone else had disconnected the phone and he was suddenly gone. For a moment, I was tempted to go to him, regardless of the hour.
Alarmed that Salim sounded suicidal, I phoned his friend Omar, told him what happened and asked him to please check on Salim and phone me back. After about an hour, Omar phoned me back and said, “There’s nothing wrong with him except for too much alcohol. He’s in bed now sleeping it off. No doubt he’ll wish he were dead tomorrow.”
Damn it all, I thought, why did this have to happen just when I was starting to get over him? I was now convinced that he’d been coerced and either prevented from speaking with me or too cowardly to speak with me earlier. Still, no matter how he and I felt, there was no hope for us. His parents were determined to return him to Saudi Arabia, and mine were determined to keep me here, not that I would have gone to Saudi Arabia anyway.
I learned a painful lesson from this experience. Contrary to all of my romantic ideas, love did not “conquer all.” There are some cultural and societal pressures too difficult to overcome. Saudi men can be very attractive. They are generally well educated, wealthy, good looking and want to “let loose” while in the United States. I’m not discouraging anyone from dating a Saudi, but if you do, by all means guard your heart and don’t make the mistake of falling in love. You will be pulverized when he leaves you.
I never saw or heard from Salim again, and about six months later I met my husband, a Lebanese Christian.
Clarification by Brokenwing taken from the comment section: Thanks to all who read and commented. I am well aware of how women were/are treated in Saudi Arabia and would never have gone there with him. I did, however, entertain hopes of convincing him to stay in the US, even if he had to work to repay his entire scholarship. I would have helped. In all honesty, he did at one point mention being betrothed to his cousin nearly from birth, but he also emphasized that he DID NOT want to marry her. He had made no promises to me, however.
Photo Credit: Elfwood