I need to tell you about our visit to a Saudi home.
It took me a couple days *cough cough* er..over a week now… to decide to write this post because I’m a little uncomfortable about the whole thing. Writing it means telling the truth about our visit and it’s not all good. I would be mortified if our hosts ever happened to read this, though I think the chances of that are minute. But I have to tell you about it because I want to be honest about our experiences here.
Months ago I gave my number to two young ladies I met at McDonalds. Random. Didn’t hear anything for months. Whatever. Then I get some weird texts and phone calls last week. It’s the one girl, Hanan. She does not speak English well, so I end up talking to her dad to really understand what is going on. She wants to get together. They invite us to their home. How can I say no politely? Though I’m pretty uncomfortable about the whole thing, I say yes. I say we can come for a two hour window between the kids bedtime and dinner, so the time is limited (aka – know how long I have to stay). We tell people where we are going, our exact plans, and later call them when we are leaving.
We have to meet the father and follow him to the house because giving directions here is impossible even without a language barrier. We walk through the front gate into a courtyard which was fairly large but pretty empty. We go inside. My first problem. Do I talk my shoes off? Stephen says no, so I keep them on. Which is a good thing… Stephen leaves us and stays with the father in the front of the house where the men’s living room and a small library are located. He stays there the whole time. I go back to Hanan who I can see peeking out of the kitchen. She’s wearing pajama pants and a t-shirt, so she doesn’t want to be seen by a man who isn’t family.
The kitchen was….appalling, quite honestly. It was dirty. Very cluttered, but not just cluttered. Cluttered and not cleaned in a long time. I mentally put on blinders to get through the evening. Even with the blinders I saw a couple small, ant like bugs. To be blunt: I don’t understand having a kitchen that dirty. There are at least five or six adults living in the house. It was a cleanable space; it just needed to be done. Well, that was a lovely way to start my story! Yikes..
Most of my time was spent between the kitchen and a small living room space. There was also a women’s living room which was clean and had very bright colors. The small living space had a low couch on three sides facing a large television. She had brought some toys down for Myka and Emery. She has a son just a couple weeks older than Emery. We went upstairs to where she shares a room with her son. The carpet on the stairs was worn and dirty. Myka’s white socks were got dirtier and dirtier while we were there.
Hanan lives with her father and mother, at least two sisters, and a brother. There are ten siblings total, but most have moved out and live in other towns in Saudi. One or two are in the United States right now. Her sister is in school in the US, and I think there is a brother there too. It’s quite an achievement here to have that many kids! Hanan’s son also lives there. He was away with his uncle at the store when we got there, and the mother and two sisters were in Khobar (a city about an hour away) shopping because the one sister was getting married.
After about half an hour Hanan’s son, Majet (not sure how that is supposed to be spelled), came in. He is a couple weeks older than Emery, so he had just turned two. His nose was very runny, and he has no manners. He hit Myka and Emery with toys, grabbed at them, wanted anything they had, and even bit Myka’s hand right before we left. It is probably hard to maintain any kind of boundaries and rules when there is one small child and so many adults around. Everything usually is his. It was stressful trying to talk to broken English to Hanan and watch the kids who were running between the guys in the front of the house and the ladies in the back.
The worst part was when Myka had to use the bathroom. The only toilet was a “squatty potty.” The light didn’t work, so it was dark (that might have been a good thing…). The floor was very wet. Myka had taken her shoes off so she was in her socks; they got sopping wet and were thrown out when we got home. We had had some practice having Myka pee at squatty potties and along the road, so we are pretty good at the mechanics required to not pee on her legs or feet. Half an hour after this trip Myka had to poop. GREAT.
(Photo from travelblog.org)
Meanwhile, Stephen is up with Hanan’s father, Abdul, having a lovely time.
There were a couple really interesting things that Hanan said to me. One was that she made it clear that she was married when she became pregnant with Majet, and they then divorced. That is a big deal here, and I wonder how it affects her life. Another thing she said was that Americans are accepting of her home and its furnishings but other Saudis think it isn’t good enough. I’m not sure how many Americans have been in her home. This may have been based just on my reaction. I was certainly polite but, as you know from what I have said, not truly accepting. Not in my heart. And we Americans are pretty good and comparing ourselves with others and “keeping up with the Jones.'” It’s sad that around the world we judge each other. Still, I sat on the floor and talked with her, which may be more than she has gotten from Saudi friends.
I brought some gingerbread cookies for them, and Hanan served them to the men with their tea. She had cake and chips for us and the children. She poured chocolate syrup over the cake and sprinkled it with m&ms and malt balls. Diabetes is an issue in this country. My insides were a little wound up, and I couldn’t take a bite which was probably quite rude. She just served the kids, though, so maybe I’m ok. I did see her eat some cake when I took Myka to the bathroom.
When we were leaving she gave me about ten things. The hospitality is overwhelming here to the extent that I don’t know how I am expected to respond, but I love how they opened up their home to us. They were welcoming and giving. She gave me:
– a box of opened cereal. Emery ate some while we were where. She said a couple times “anything you like you can have.” Emery liked the cereal. It was chocolate.
– at least two small toys. I feel bad about this, but I threw them out. I felt so dirty by the time we got home I didn’t even want to think about cleaning or keeping them.
– a dress. It was brand new with the tags still on it and from the US. Her brother brought it back with him at some point. It’s cute, pink with brown polka dots. I’ll probably wear it as some point, but I haven’t even tried it on yet. I have washed it though.
– a little flower pot with fake grass in it from Ikea. My neighbor has one. Lola (our cat) is slowly eating the Plastic grass, and the container is adorable. I’ll use it for something.
That’s only five things. I’m not sure if I’m forgetting something or not, but either way it felt like way too much. Oh, I remembered one more…
– a container with “Saudi champagne” which is 7up poured over various fruits and some mint. You let it sit in the fridge for six days before drinking it. It has been twelve days and it’s still sitting in my fridge. Oops. But I don’t think I could have brought myself to drink out of the container knowing that it was in that kitchen. It’s one thing when you are sitting with someone and they offer you a drink, but another when you are on your own. The recipe sounds delicious!
When we planned the visit we said we could come from 5:00 until 7:00 because the kids needed to get to bed after that. We left around 7:15. Other than the cookies Stephen had, no one had eaten dinner, so we stopped at Burger King on the way home. I refused to let anyone touch any food until we got home, gave the kids a bath, and I showered.
So that’s the whole of the story. I feel mean and rude saying those things about someone’s home or children. Should I have stuck with “if you don’t have anything kind to say, don’t say anything at all”? I would get together with her again, but probably not at her house. I’m going to let her know that I’m going to a cafe on Sunday, and she will probably meet me there. I want to be friendly and kind. I don’t want my children (or myself for that matter) to get sick. And we will see how Majet behaves outside his home without toys to fight over or use as weapons. Also, I don’t know if I could handle that bathroom again. Eeek.