Category Archives: From the Sandbox

Real Fear in the Middle East

Camel Spider MawThe most popular question I get asked about living in the Middle East is: Aren’t you afraid being over there?! Well, yes, I’m afraid! But it isn’t because there are lunatics in the country next door committing barbaric crimes of inhumanity. I mean, yes, that’s terrifying regardless of where you live, but that isn’t what scares the bajeebers out of me here. I have more immediate terrors.

Living where I do, I’m afraid of things like scorpions and camel spiders. I think they’re called camel spiders because they’re so big, they actually hunt and eat camels. Whole. Without chewing. If you think I’m exaggerating, Google them. In my opinion, spiders should never be larger than the shoe that squashes them. They should not be able to put on four pairs of your husband’s shoes and wear them out.

I’m afraid of driving. Not that I can drive, so let me clarify: I’m afraid to be in a car on the roads here. I’m more likely to be killed by some maniac driver behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia than I am by a member of ISIS or ISIL or ISwhatever. These are people who take the term “freeway” literally, as in “free to drive in whatever ridiculously unsafe, unpredictable, unharnessed way I want.” I had never considered the dashboard when looking for places to set down my newborn while driving 100+ mph on the left shoulder, but okay. Maybe there’s not a word for “projectile” in the Arabic language.

I’m probably more afraid of heat stroke than I am of terrorists. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to find my favorite cereal at the grocery store, even if it’s $8.37 and expiring in two months. I’m afraid of the five pounds I put on every single time I go back to the US because I’ve been deprived of those chocolate chip cookies at Chick-fil-A for so long that I lose my ability to reason and start justifying buying them by the dozen. I’m afraid they’ll close the gym where I live and I’ll be stuck with those five pounds forever.

Otherwise, I’m pretty safe where I am. Watching the news, sometimes I think I’m actually safer here. The world can be a scary place anymore. And camel spiders certainly aren’t making it any easier to sleep at night!


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Driving Out Evil

Push the seven deadly sins aside! Forget about unspeakable crimes against mankind! Iran, Iraq and North Korea are no longer the Axis of Evil! The true source of evil among us has officially been declared … women drivers. According to the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, the matter of women driving cars must be “considered from the perspective of protecting society from evil.” HA! I knew it!

It’s not just annoying to have some woman in front of you at the intersection putting on mascara long after the light has turned green, it’s a portal for pestilence. Giggly girls gabbing on the cell phone instead of paying attention to traffic is eroding the moral fiber of humanity. And don’t even get me started on the eternal damnation we are all being condemned to because women don’t know how to change the oil, check the tire pressure or use a turn signal! All of which is easily avoided by simply prohibiting women from driving. Can I get a kumbaya and an amen from the balcony?

You may recall that our friend, Mr. Abdullah al-Sheikh is the same guy who pointed out that driving would damage women’s ovaries as an argument about allowing them to drive earlier this year. I’m barely coping with the shock and dismay of the reproductive ramifications I’ve inflicted upon myself from years of Toyota time and now I have to accept that my car keys have unlocked uncounted evil into the world. It’s almost too much to bear.

I’m not completely sure that the most senior cleric’s words are getting past the veils of the Saudi women and soaking into their heads, because the push for the right to put the pedal to the metal continues. It obviously wasn’t enough for them this past spring that they were finally given the right to ride a bicycle in public. As long as it was only for entertainment. In a park. If they’re accompanied by a male relative. And dressed in the full abaya and veil. Okay, a burkha on a bike is going to be entertainment no matter which way you look at it, but a burkha in a BMW is a whole new kettle of fish.

saudi bikeIf the protests continue and the issue is pressed, I can only expect the Sheikh to tack on another terror. Global warming, the failure of ObamaCare, Honey BooBoo … yup, all because somewhere there are women driving!

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Behind the Veil/Behind the Wheel

Saudi-women-driving-e1306394424637Stand back, my ovaries could explode. Okay, maybe not right this second because I’m safely sitting in my office chair. However, should I get into the driver’s seat of any car and actually operate a moving vehicle, I could be seriously damaging my ovaries. And it’s not just me, this applies to every woman who drives. You think I’m kidding, but this is the gospel truth because Shaikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan, one of Saudi Arabia’s top conservative clerics said so. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know for sure, but I think he said it in total seriousness and without laughing. So it’s has to be true.

According to Mr. Saad al-Lohaidan, women who drive are posing a serious risk to damaging their ovaries and bearing children with “clinical problems.” I’ve been driving for the past 35 years. Considering you can’t get anywhere in Texas without driving a long way, that’s a whole lot of driving. My ovaries probably look like a 10-car Katy Freeway pile-up on Monday morning. However, it does explain a lot of things about my kids, like why my 14-year old can’t put his dishes in the dishwasher or take out the trash. Obviously, I drove him to these shortcomings! I can now only blame myself. And Toyota.

Truth be told (although why start now?), this statement was made in an effort to keep the status quo here in the Kingdom that women are not allowed by law to drive. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world with that law. Women are legally permitted to own the car, but just not drive it. Don’t get too upset, now: They can pilot an airplane. They just need someone to give them a ride to the airport.

Come October 26th, though, there may be a few more pink Cadillac’s cruising the highways and camel trails of the desert, because the word on the streets is that the girls are grabbing the keys and protesting the ban. The idea is to drive the men crazy until they let the women drive cars. Makes sense, but it could mean a hefty fine and even jail time, so they’ve been told by the Sheikh to put “reason ahead of their hearts, emotions and passions.”

And really! Think of your ovaries and your unborn children, ladies! Womb before Wheels! Kiddies before Keys! It makes perfect sense. At least I guess it must make sense to Shaikh Saleh bin Saad al-Lohaidan. But lets see what he thinks after October 26th!


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Lizard Invasion

My office has been invaded by lizards. I’m not talking about those cute little chameleon lizards that drop their tails off or turn brown to avoid discovery. I’m talking more about the Gila monster type of lizard. Think Godzilla. Living in my office. It’s not okay.
My office here in Saudi Arabia is a small room off the back of the garden that was probably used by a previous owner to ferment grapes. Now, it’s used to ferment this column. Or it was until the invasion of the giant reptiles. I think they get in using the gap at the bottom of the door. My explanation for the gap is that the lizards rented a chain saw and created it. When I went back in there after being gone for several weeks, I found one sitting in my chair and another on my computer monitor. It’s like they’d been having parties in there, lizard beer cans and half eaten flies all over the place. They didn’t run away, either. They asked me where the fermented grapes went and if I could turn the AC back up.
If you could get a rope around the neck of one of these fat boys, you could ride him to the river then use him for bait to catch Shamu or Jaws or Moby Dick. What’s worse, I think they’re in cahoots with a black widow spider that’s set up her den of doom under the desk. She may actually be the mastermind of the whole operation. You can’t trust spiders.
You can, however, go forward in the confidence that I am not going in there to serve the eviction notice. I have married one man and birthed two more for the very reason that I would never have to clean up vomit or deal with spiders, lizards, snakes, roaches, or rodents. I sent them in armed with a broom, a shoe box holding cell for transport during deportation and, just in case things got out ugly, the vacuum cleaner.
Thankfully, the lizards seem to surrender peaceably. Although, that kind of makes me nervous. It was almost too easy. It’s 112 degrees outside, and I’m the only thing standing between them and air conditioning. Sure, they’re reptiles, but it wouldn’t take long outside for them to be fried reptile taco filling. Why do I suddenly feel like the hapless blonde in a drunken zombie lizard apocalypse movie? You know, now that I think about it, maybe I can work in the house.

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How to Say “Idiot” in Arabic

I took four semesters of Spanish in college because I had to in order to graduate. I spent a lot of my pizza-and-beer money on tutors to get through those classes, and only passed that final semester because I brought donuts to the early morning final. That’s the truth. Donuts. For the whole class. It was worth it for the college diploma and the knowledge that I’d never have to face down another foreign language again. Until now.

Because I’ve moved to the Middle East, I’m expected to “hablo Arabico.” Okay, can we just stop right there? If I’m a complete wash out in Spanish, a language that is tied to really good food and is practically the second language of the State of Texas, how am I expected to learn Arabic? I’d have better luck opening a snow cone stand over here!

Every week our Arabic tutor, an extremely tolerant man from Egypt who couldn’t possibly be paid enough to take on this Herculean task, comes to our house to try and teach us a language that is just a smidgeon less difficult than Mandarin Chinese. After two full years, all I got out of Spanish was the ability to order a couple of beers and find the bathroom. Usually in that order. But they don’t have beer over here, so I’m trying to just learn other basic survival phrases, like “Help me!” “Do you speak English?” and “Hey, does your camel bite?”

I really am making an honest effort to learn, so I make flashcards with everything written the way it sounds. Then when I want to ask the man at the fish market, “How much is the squid?” I can just pull out the flashcard and mangle the pronunciation to the point that I say who knows what and the fishmonger just gives me whatever I point at to make me go away.

In all fairness, I have learned the word for “yes,” which is pronounced “nom.” Like the noise the PacMan makes: nom nom nom nom. And no is simply, “la.” Lalalalalala is not just for those times when you don’t know the words to the song, it’s now great for the times you don’t know the words to anything! Now how do you say, “Where can I find a good burrito in this country?”

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Saudi Shopping

I’ve moved to Saudi Arabia, a country boasting a wealthy population and one of the lowest percentages of women in the workforce. You don’t have to master Chinese Algebra to add up a lot of women with money plus free time to come up with some pretty amazing malls. Now before you shopaholics run out to buy a plane ticket over, there are some things you should know.

Traditionally, you see Arab women out in public covered head to toe in black. I’m not saying they’re wearing a cute black top and black pants with the idea that dressing monochromatically is slimming. The traditional attire is a loose-fitting abaya dress that covers from the neck to the wrist and down to the floor. While Western women typically don’t, Saudi women also wear a hijab to cover her head and many wear the niqab face veil revealing only their eyes. Now I’m not judging! I come from a culture that dresses its little girls in booty shorts and Victoria Secret underwear for their first day of Kindergarten. We’re hardly the ones to point fashion fingers.

But what an Arab woman wears to the mall isn’t necessarily what she wears behind closed doors. So let the shopping begin! These massive malls display clothing from some of the finest designer names. It’s easy to get lost in the choices… until you want to try something on. All those clothes and no dressing rooms!

If you find something you like, you purchase it first. Then take it home or hunt down a bathroom in the mall that might have a changing room, take off your abaya, hijab and niqab plus whatever you’re wearing underneath like shirt, jeans, shoes and try on, say, one pair of pants. Then put it all back on. You have 3 days to return the pair of pants for a cash refund or 7 days for a different size.

I think it’d take me 3 days just to get undressed and redressed with all that! It could potentially take a month, working through this back and forth and trying it on somewhere else stuff, to find the right size of pants. Factor another couple of months for a top to match. By then, forget about shopping! No outfit is that cute! Suddenly, I’m more than happy to go to the closet, pull out the black abaya and be done with it!

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Berka in the Bathroom

I come from the land of Buc-cee’s, that magical place of pristine, spacious bathrooms. So wonderful are the Buc-cee bathrooms that their virtues are touted on billboards, and travelers go miles out of their way just to pop in to pee. Unfortunately, I’m not currently living in that world. I actually think I may have been condemned to bathroom hell. And trust me, that is no place for a woman.

I’m in Saudi Arabia, where a lot of things are strange to me, bathrooms being pretty high on that list. I can’t speak for the men’s bathrooms, but in the ladies “hammam,” it’s odd.

First of all, stalls are very tiny. You almost have to climb on top of the toilet to get the door shut, which is a feat considering all the women wear long, black abaya dresses. Okay, so you get the door shut, and then you have to deal with that dress. I’m not sure if the protocol is to take it off and hang it on the door hook or flip it up over your head or just wad it up under your arms. So take note: dress up, pants down. Practice at home.

To complicate the juggling act, the floors are always really wet. Typically, stalls are equipped with this spray nozzle thing. Back home, I had one on the kitchen sink to spray dishes. We had one in the bathtub to wash the dog. I’m hesitant to wonder why it’s in the bathroom stall, but from the amount of water on the floor, it obviously gets used. I’ve tried to think through in my head how one would go about taking a tiny, area-specific mini-shower in this cramped space without drowning completely, all the while managing the dress up-pants down balancing thing. Some bathrooms are serious about it, too, because toilet paper is available only at the door when you walk in, so think ahead or be ready to spritz. Or maybe you could drip dry while you struggle over what to do.

Through all that, though, you have to be grateful if there’s actually a toilet in your stall. There are bathrooms where target shooting isn’t just for boys. In which case, maybe you flip your pants over your head with the dress and the sprayer is to wash off your shoes. Or maybe you just learn to hold it until you get home. To the States!

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