“The decorations are gorgeous!” someone I don’t know congratulates me.
“Shukran,” I flash the proud but modest smile I practiced in the mirror this morning.
Sunlight flashes off the shiny letters framing the window in the living room.
Happy Birthday Meshael.
Neat lines of gold and silver balloons stretch across the ceiling from the four corners, meeting in the middle. ‘I am for show, not play,’ they say.
Weeks ago I had an idea that I really liked.
“My Mum used to do it for me and my sisters,” I approached the subject boldly in our bedroom when the kids weren’t in earshot. “Meshael will really love it.”
Abdullah didn't look up from his newspaper.
I continued enthusiastically, talking too fast. “Crazy games, jelly and ice cream, marshmallows, we can invite her little friends from school.”
“Games?” he spoke the word slowly, cautiously.
“Yes,” I pushed away the disappointment. “There’s one where you have a big bar of chocolate in the middle and all the kids sit in a circle and if you throw a six you put on hat, scarf and gloves and pick up a knife and fork and try to eat as much of the…”
“My mother is coming, my aunts, my cousins,” he turned the page of his paper. “It can’t be noisy.”
I didn’t ask again and now we’re here, celebrating my daughter’s fifth birthday draped in gold and silver with a houseful of adults.
I try to avoid looking at the mountain of food on the table in the women’s sitting room, but it creeps into my vision regardless. Are we expecting half of Riyadh? The four tiered pink cake sits up high, regal.
Two days ago Gloria laid out the table, refusing to let me help her as she heaved the beast upside down and struggled to click the legs into place.
“Big table for many foods, Miss Josie,” she stepped back, panting slightly and dabbing her brow with her apron.
Late last night when I went to get some orange juice I found her flustered and red in the face, flour all over her clothes, frantically rolling out pastry.
“Why aren’t you in bed?” I asked, to which she let out a sort of humpf.
“For Mr’s mother, her favourite,” she declared.
I sighed. “Let me help.”
“No, no, no,” she slapped my hand away.
“You need a good sleep tonight,” I persuaded. “I need you tomorrow. Meshael needs you.”
Reluctantly Gloria moved over and I started cutting diamond shapes out of the pastry.
“Slowly, Miss Josie,” she chastised, showing me the correct way.
Then the footsteps on the stairs.
“I’m just helping Gloria finish things in the kitchen,” I called.
“We pay her for that, come to bed.”
“Give me ten minutes,” I carefully picked up a diamond shape and placed it neatly on the baking tray.
I looked at Gloria apologetically and shrugged as I moved to wash my hands.
“It OK, Miss Josie,” Gloria comforts. “I finish soon. Go to bed.”
Everyone is dressed as if for a ball, in sweeping designer gowns by names I don’t know. I mingle, blending in in my extravagant new Gucci dress costume. I try to join in with the small talk.
“You look wonderful,”
“I love your necklace,”
“Are those shoes Jimmy Choo?”
Meshael’s in the middle in her putrid pink glittering Cinderella dress. Someone puts music on.
“Dance baby, dance!”
Not needing to be asked twice she twirls. She twirls and twirls with that coy-but-not-really glint in her eye that says, “I know you all think I’m cute.”
She’s not wrong. The coo’s and exclamations and congratulations come flying my way as if her being cute is some sort of an achievement on my part.
“She’s so beautiful, Josie, walla!”
“Yes,” I sit heavily on the sofa.
I can’t deny my daughter is a sweetie. But what about clever? Or adventurous? Or possessing of an inquiring mind?
At the Disney shop she whined, pulling at my clothes when we threatened to leave.
“Please Ommi, please!” the whine turned to a wail.
I was happy to leave and deal with the bratty squeals when they came, but Abdullah swooped her up in his arms,
“For you, anything, princess!”
To which Meshael executed her best lady in training squeal.
When I was five I played in the garden. I climbed trees, I ripped my clothes, I didn’t care about my hair or if I scraped my knee.
I wanted to buy her a bike.
“Bikes are for boys,” Abdullah said.
“Show us your photos?” someone asks.
“What photos?” I play dumb.
“Yes, we want to see,” echoes around the room.
“We went down the water slides,” pitches in Meshael. “It was funny. Weee!” she re-enacts flying down a slide, to everyone’s great amusement.
“You’ve all been there before,” I say.
Eyes watch me as I slowly cross the room to the cabinet. I wonder if anyone will comment when they see.
“Oh look!” squeals of delight at a picture of Meshael posing in her rubber ring. “So cute!”
Of the boys having a water fight. “Mashallah, they’re getting so big Josie!”
“Strong like their father,” my mother in law sits to my left, scrutinizing the pictures over the top of her spectacles.
A picture of me, or is it me? I recognise my stance. Am I smiling under there? I wait for someone to say something. They don't and we move on.
The children had never been before and we were all excited. Wild Wadi Waterpark- a metropolis of slides, wave machines and whirlpools. It didn’t cross my mind that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it. I’d been to a swimming pool with Abdullah at home, it was never a problem.
I found a decent enough burqini in a sports shop in Dubai Mall. Long sleeves, long legs, black, conservative, a compromise. I showed him.
“No?” my mouth hung open.
“You can’t wear that,” his formal tone was unfamiliar.
He walked off. I looked at the burqini, did I imagine his words?
“Ommi we’re leaving!” my eldest son called.
The four of them were at the door of the shop, bags in hands, Abdullah’s expression hard.
I put the burqini back.
The next day was hot. I dipped my toes in the pool and tried not to cry as I watched my children. I stole glances at Abdullah having fun.
At the hotdog stand another lady in full burqa. I couldn’t look into her eyes. Would I see my sadness reflected or worse, contentment?
I sat down with a coke, lifting my niqab with each sip.
A western man in Hawaiian shorts came over and asked politely, “Can I sit here?” pointing at the chair on the other side of the table. “It’s quite crowded today, isn't it?”
“Sure,” I replied.
“You’re English too!” surprise in his voice.
From behind me, “What’re you doing?”
Jumping, I blurted, “Nothing.”
Abdullah grabbed me by the arm and pulled me away. I didn’t look back: I didn’t want the friendly man to see my embarrassment.
We saw a friend of my husband’s from work. The two men chatted in Arabic, mainly a show of bravado and money, of who’s doing and buying the most extravagant things. I stood there picking a patch of dry skin on my lip with my teeth while the man's wife stood opposite me covered, too. I wondered what she was thinking, if she was wishing for another life.
The doorbell rings and a few moments later my best friend Anna walks into the room. Taking off her headscarf and abaya, she reveals a refreshingly simple trouser and t-shirt combo. We meet with a hug in the middle of the room.
“Everything looks lovely,” she says.
We sit down and Gloria brings us both a cup of Arabic coffee.
“No,” I wave my hand.
“Try,” Gloria insists as always.
I take the cup and put it to the side.
Meshael bounds over, accepting her present from Anna with more grabbiness than I’d like.
“Sorry,” I whisper.
“She’s just excited,” Anna says kindly.
Meshael rips the paper off to reveal Ali Baba’s Bucking Camel- a game Anna and I have talked about as being our mutual childhood favourite. A delightful change from all the dollies, dresses and fake make up bestowed upon my child.
“You have to put the things on the camel without making him stand up,” Anna explains to an enchanted Meshael. “Wanna play?”
Meshael nods eagerly and the two of them settle at my feet on the floor, Anna winking a twinkly eye at me on the way.
It was about four months ago when she arrived unannounced on my doorstep—an occurrence unheard of in Riyadh. Her eyes red raw, she lunged forward and clung to me. I held her there as she cried, waiting to find out if I was right about the reason for her upset.
“I shouldn’t have been snooping around, but I just had this feeling,” she told me as she cradled the cup of tea I’d made, calmer now.
“You’re not the only one who’s ever looked at a husband’s emails,” I said.
She didn’t seem reassured. “I keep thinking that if I hadn’t then I’d still be happy.” “Wouldn’t you rather know the truth?” I asked.
Anna sat silent for a moment. “I can’t change the fact that Abdul Rahman has another wife. I can’t change it so I’d rather not know. I’d choose blissful ignorance.”
“Really?” my voice came out loud.
“Did you confront him?”
She nodded again. “I don’t know what I was expecting. A hint of remorse…Something. He didn’t apologise, he said I’d chosen to accept his culture and so I should accept this.”
“What?” Loud again.
She shrugged. “What can I do?”
“Leave him.” I answered. “You shouldn’t have to share him.”
“Yes,” Anna blew her nose. “Yes. I didn’t sign up for this.”
“No, you didn’t. I wouldn’t stand for it.” For all I knew, Abdullah was doing the same thing.
We went to the ladies Mall together the next week, taking off our headscarves on entry. When our hands were full with shopping bags we stopped for coffee at Starbucks.
“So how’re things?” I asked the leading question.
“Fine,” Anna replied. “We’ve been really busy planning our trip to Sri Lanka for the holidays.”
“And Abdul Rahman?”
“He wasn’t keen on going but I showed him pictures on the internet of the beautiful beaches and fancy hotels there and managed to convince him,” she spoke as if I were someone who didn’t know her secrets.
“O…K,” I said.
A few weeks later we were in her kitchen and Anna was stirring a big pot of kapsa. Even from the air conditioned room I could feel the heat of the August summer creeping in under the door.
“I wish we didn’t have to wear those things in this,” I said.
“What things?” Anna’s forehead creased.
“Our abayas?” it was obvious to me. “Or at least not wear the headscarf. Or a different colour, anything. It’s so damn hot.”
She stopped stirring and faced me. “No one forced you to live here.”
“I know,” I huffed.
“These are the customs here.”
“We have to accept the fate we’ve chosen, Josie.”
“Well, I hate it,” I grumbled like a teenager. “And I remember when you did as well.”
She looked away, the corners of her mouth pointing down. “I know.”
At my feet Anna and Meshael are still playing, Meshael’s tongue sticks out as she concentrates on hanging a satchel on the camel’s back. The noise of chatter and intermittent sharp squeals fade into the background as I watch. This is what I want for her.
“Meshael. Meshael!” the commanding voice of my mother-in-law from across the room.
With a slip of the hand Meshael knocks the camel and it stands abruptly, throwing its burdens to the floor. Meshael looks disappointed but Anna strokes her affectionately under the chin.
“Next time habibi.”
My mother-in-law holds Meshael at arms-length for inspection, running her hands roughly through her hair with a tut that's audible from across the room.
“A nest for the rats.”
Way too early that morning she called to remind me to straighten Meshael’s hair.
“To make beautiful for her party Josie,”
“She’s five,” I replied, tired.
“Never too young to make effort.”
“Yes,” I put the phone down.
“She just wants everything to be perfect,” my husband justified. “She knows what the expectation is.”
I’m ashamed to say I did what she asked.
If my Mum were here she'd take Meshael and the boys outside to play. If Meshael fell over she’d make her feel better, she wouldn’t chastise over dirty clothes. After playing she would read to my children, animated expressions lighting up stories of pirates and adventure.
She wouldn’t understand all this. “Unnecessary for a child’s birthday, honestly,” I can hear her now. My whole life she always held experience in higher regard than possessions.
She was worried when I announced I was moving here.
“But you said the two of you would stay in London,” concern shone from her face.
I thought she was being paranoid. Abdullah and I had discussed in depth the option of moving. Saudi meant some restrictions for me in return for much more money for us. At our leaving party she gave me the book.
Etiquette for ladies and gentlemen.
“You’re going to be a lady now,” she kissed my cheek.
Back then I didn’t know why she’d given it to me, why it was funny-but-not. I found it recently in a forgotten drawer. I held it close, taking in the musty old-book smell and thinking of how far away I am. I sat on my bed and read the section for ladies regarding marriage.
Women have the choice of accepting or rejecting offers, but after marriage it is their duty to be the one to adapt.
Divorce is an act against the ties God has declared should never be broken.
A wife should submit to her husband.
A wife should submit.
Old fashioned concepts still at large in the 21st century. And I took them on as my own. I feel hot as I think back to the words. The women’s liberation thing has been done, hasn’t it?
My subconscious tried to warn me way back then.
“He’s a Saudi.”
“But I love him.”
“But I love him.”
“I don’t care.”
“Josie?” Abdullah calls from the hallway.
My legs get me up and I go to see what my duty is. I vaguely register his light grey Calvin Klein suit and grasp at a memory, recalling the word ‘handsome.’
“Do the ladies have enough cakes?” he plays the caring, doting husband.
“I think so,”
“And the drinks?”
“I don’t know. Let me go and see.”
“Gloria can do that,” he looks around. “Where is she?”
“It’s not a problem,” I move toward the women’s room. “Let me check.”
His fingers grip around my upper arm. “You’re the lady of the house.” He glances around, “Gloria!”
“Well that’s classy,” I whisper, daring myself to say it loud enough for him to hear.
He turns a stare on me and opens his mouth wide as if to shout, stopping as our maid appears down the stairs.
“What are you doing up there?” He accuses. “Our guests don’t have drinks.”
“We don’t know that,” I interject, but am ignored.
Pointing his finger at her, he says, “We don’t pay you to sit around upstairs.”
“Abdullah…” A hand goes up to silence me.
“She knows I’m right. Go and serve the drinks before everyone dies of thirst.”
Gloria hurries past and I try to catch her eye but she doesn’t look. I’m tarred with that same brush that sends out the message to our Asian workers, ‘I think I’m better than you.’
With a tut learnt from his dear mother Abdullah strides back towards the men’s sitting room.
I once read that you should judge a man not by how he treats his equals, but how he treats his inferiors.
It must’ve been our fourth or fifth date. A French restaurant in Kilburn: candles, music and red wine.
“Thank you,” Abdullah said, smiling each time the nervous waiter came over to place something on our table.
I noticed the waiter’s hands were shaking and I worried for him as he topped up our drinks. A few pours in he missed the glass, spilling water onto the table and into Abdullah’s lap.
“Sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry,” he blurted, trying to mop everything up with a napkin.
Abdullah smiled his shiny smile again and said, “Don’t worry, it was an accident.”
The water dried, we chatted and laughed our way through the meal and at the end—after insisting I couldn’t possibly pay a penny—Abdullah left a generous tip.
“Everyone’s been in that position at some time in their life,” he told me as he held my hand, walking me towards my house. "A little kindness goes a long way.”
Only weeks later we were in another candle-lit restaurant waiting for dessert and talking about what we were going to do afterwards. All of a sudden, in slow motion before me, Abdullah reached into his pocket and then got down on one knee.
“Josie, you are my everything. I love you more than life itself,” I can still remember the tone of voice, the tempo, the volume of the words. “Will you marry me?”
“Yes!” I choked back tears whilst laughing, not caring that I was one of ‘those people’ I used to scorn.
My mother-in-law calls me over. I go and sit down.
“I tell my good friend Noora here about diamond necklace Abdullah give to you.”
She moves in closer, along with the keen to see Noora, whom I don’t recall ever having met.
“It’s beautiful,” my mother-in-law confirms. “My boy is good husband, wallah.”
Noora nods her head emphatically, as I try not to roll my eyes.
It was an anniversary present, right before we moved to Saudi.
“It’s what all the women wear,” Abdullah told me after I opened the box to reveal the shimmering diamond.
“Wow,” I breathed, admiring the first piece of jewellery I’d ever really been interested in.
“I love you,” he put the necklace around my neck, carefully doing up the clasp.
Stupid me didn’t realise it was part of my costume for the Saudi show.
My hand goes up, fingers enclosing around the pendant. I pull it and feel the chain strain on the back of my neck. I want to pull harder, pull it off.
I had a dream recently that I ran away and I was on the London Eye with the kids. We were looking at the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben and then the glass around us disappeared and we jumped out onto a huge trampoline on the Thames. The four of us bounced effortlessly higher and higher. Looking down at my shorts and t-shirt I knew my children and I were free, that I’d created a better life for them.
The good dreams are always the worst because of the loss instead of relief you feel when you wake up. I looked over at the snoring Abdullah and that’s when I knew I had to try.
I got up and went to the computer, looking up ridiculous things like, “Is it possible to leave your Saudi husband and escape back to England with your children?”
I didn’t like the answers.
You’re in Saudi Arabia, you idiot.
Your children have a Saudi father.
I kept looking.
My mother-in-law is still rabbiting on at the ever attentive Noor. Something about the importance of a husband who can provide for his wife.
When I first arrived I hung gratefully on her every word.
“Tuck the headscarf in here.”
“Say hello kiss woman three times on cheek, but in air.”
“Not walk next to Abdullah outside.”
Without even making an excuse now I get up and walk away. I find Anna, who’s with three women she hardly knows.
“You married a long time and no children?” one says, as if this is normal conversation.
“Why?” adds another.
“Yes, you don’t want?” the third one questions. “And your husband?”
I shake my head and mutter an insincere, “Excuse me,” at the interrogators as I pull Anna up off the sofa.
We edge towards the sanctuary of the hallway.
“Sorry,” I say and our eyes meet, speaking wordlessly about her miscarriages.
“I’m used to it,” Anna replies. "All part and parcel of this married to a Saudi malarkey, isn’t it?”
I don’t know what to say.
“Are you over your cold now?” she looks at me with concern. “It was a shame you couldn’t come round the other day.”
“Yes, much better,” I join her in indulging each other’s lies.
“Hopefully next time?” she says. “It was surprisingly fun, as ladies coffee mornings go.”
We settle back in a corner of the living room close to the safety of the door. Anna praises Meshael.
“She’s so clever Josie, and so sweet. Earlier she went to get me some cake because she said I should rest my old legs.”
“Oh…” we both laugh.
“She’s growing into an amazing little lady, Josie. You should be so proud.”
A pang of pain hits me in the heart for the friend who deserves to be a mother more than most.
Anna leaves the party and I look down at my lap, hoping the empty seat next to me will remain unoccupied.
We’d had the coffee morning planned for weeks. I was excited to get out of the house and see Anna, to spend time with some of her friends.
The night before, he came home from work with that dark shadow on his face. It was the first thing he said.
“I don’t want you to go to this thing tomorrow,” he sipped his coffee slowly, not looking at me.
“What’re you talking about?”
“You’re not going.”
“You can’t tell me what to do!” my voice cracked.
“Some of those women are not good,” he said. “Bad husbands. People at the office talk.”
“It affects me and my work. I can’t allow it, I won’t.” He took his coffee and left the room.
I nearly threw a plate at the doorway.
The next day I called the embassy.
“We can’t help you with this,” the overly formal British female voice told me down the phone. “I’m sorry.”
“Do you have children?” I asked.
A pause. “We can’t override the Saudi Arabian rules. You can’t leave with your children unless you have your husband’s permission.”
A pause from my end so long that she ended up filling it.
“Would you like us to try and help you with an exit visa for yourself?”
I put the phone down.
I look round the room, everything still in full swing. My teeth clench. In my hand I’ve squished the tiny triangle-with-no-crusts sandwich into a soggy ball.
I wish they would all go home.
Meshael runs back into the room.
“Ommi come and see. Come!” she pulls on my hand.
Lethargically I get up, allowing her energy to drag me through the hall and out onto the front patio.
“See!” she points, jumping up and down.
There, with ribbons on the handlebars and stabilizers holding it up, is a brand new, shiny, pink bike.
“For my Princess,” Abdullah is there next to me.
He kneels down to Meshael’s height and she wraps her arms around his neck, kissing his cheek over and over.
“Shukran Baba, Shukran!”
She skips closer to the bike, then stops a couple of feet away, apprehensive.
Abdullah stands close enough to me to hold hands. We watch our daughter.
“Go on,” he encourages.
Meshael goes closer and hesitantly holds one of the handlebars. She rings the bell, its shrillness cutting through the air. She sends a belly laugh in our direction.
Abdullah smiles at me and I smile back.
Gloria comes with a tray, offering the contents out to us. I take a cup of Arabic coffee and hold it in both hands, blowing the steam to cool it. Meshael is now sitting on the seat, stroking the long ribbons.
Abdullah goes over, “Put your feet on the pedals, here, see.”
She does as instructed and slowly begins to move forwards, giggling. Abdullah stays with her as she wobbles along.
I watch them and breathe deeply from the bottom of my lungs. I drink the coffee down, the sickly, flowery taste not so bad after all.