Without Chief or Tribe: An Excerpt from 'Friday Was the Bomb'
<i>I was having lunch at the swan near Hyde Park and some son of a bitch took my bag with all my documents</i>, the email began. It was June of 2009 and I was sitting at a desk in Riyadh. Assuming this was spam, I was about to press delete, when...
I was having lunch at the swan near Hyde Park and some son of a bitch took my bag with all my documents, the email began. It was June of 2009 and I was sitting at a desk in Riyadh. Assuming this was spam, I was about to press delete, when something made me reconsider.
Outside, it was summer in Saudi Arabia, where temperatures could exceed one hundred and thirty degrees. My wife Kelly and I had lived in the country for nearly a year. We’d spent much of our lives in foreign countries or in strange corners of North America. We’d met in Cambodia, spent years in Southeast Asia, got to know Russia and the former Soviet Union, and I proposed to her on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska. This time, however, the Middle East in general seemed a little beyond my talent set. Maybe it was the heat making me feel weak? By this time of year everyone was spending entire days indoors, emerging only to drive air-conditioned cars, in which metal could be so hot it might burn your skin. Streets buckled, the wind howled in from the desert, and meanwhile booze was still illegal, women were forbidden from consorting with men they weren’t related to, and it was hard to imagine why anyone would ever choose to settle here. Considering all this, we—the swashbuckling couple who had never shied away from doing something insane—were about to bring a new baby into the world.
Earlier that spring, my wife had consulted with our doctor, who was open to natural birth. Pressed, she admitted that even at this, the best hospital in the country, we couldn’t know in advance which doctor we might get for the actual event. Most doctors, we feared, would just wheel in the knives and proceed to surgery. In Saudi Arabia, women could have up to eight babies, and the rich ones understandably came to view childbirth with as much ceremony as a hair appointment and scheduled caesareans weeks in advance. After these procedures, the nurse would arrive, take the baby to the nursery, and when it was time to leave, a nanny fed the child and carried her to the car. Honestly, I didn’t think that sounded too bad. And Kelly might have agreed, too, had we not met that Swiss doula at a camel race outside town. While we watched the beasts galumph around a desert oval, the beatifically maternal Swiss woman advocated for a natural birth with as little to do with medicine or surgery as possible. Over the next few days, driving around Riyadh’s wind-blown terrain, we talked and I suppose both became convinced—enamored, really, by the challenge of it. After all, it seemed ironic—in an otherwise throwback culture, which was leery of modern progress, which loved all things pure and holy—that they might consider a natural birth odd and subversive. Kelly heard about a doctor who could help. We drove to his clinic with a stack of cash nearly half an inch thick. The money—five thousand dollars—was a guarantee he’d come any time, day or night, no matter what.
“Don’t worry,” he said after we’d paid. “I’ll be there when you need me.”
Driving home, I remember thinking how easy that had been, but also what kind of freedom we’d lost in the transaction. Already, we were beginning to accumulate things that might slow us down. The rental car was about six hundred dollars a month. After we were kicked out of our first apartment, we took a risk and rented a roach-infested place in the middle of the city beside the Kuwaiti souk. Almost everyone in the building was a deeply religious Saudi family. But what could we do? We’d soon be parents and needed a place to stay. The landlord required all six months up front, an amount that would get you a month in a sprawling penthouse in Manhattan. We were paying all that in one of the harshest climates in the world, in the country perhaps more hostile to outsiders than any other, where Islam was practiced in its strictest form, where people were executed for witchcraft and adultery. We were incredibly alone and trying to have a baby in a country where family and religion was sacred, where the locals were intensely loyal to whatever group or ideas they considered theirs, and where rising oil prices meant everyone was getting rich. Meanwhile, we were living on the edge, without tribe or chief, attempting to ask questions of ourselves and others and be open to the world, making it as freelance journalists without health insurance or much money in savings, with no real safety net, and no formal support except for the distant and somewhat restrained awe and encouragement of friends and family back home. (“You live where? Why?”) Now we thought it’d be a good idea to become parents.
It was only on the slimmest of pretexts—a new kind of journalist visa—that we’d even been admitted to Saudi Arabia in the first place. For decades prior, few western reporters had been allowed much more than a short visit, during which they would be clung to by a government minder. But when the Saudi ambassador in Washington, impressed as he was that she occasionally worked for NPR, offered Kelly a week’s visa—and later when he agreed to sponsor me, though not to work, just as a spouse—we jumped at the chance. Who could say no to the opportunity to access one of the most under-covered and misunderstood corners of the world? Well, perhaps a lot of people. But not us. We could not say no.
When our 747 landed in September 2008 and we cleared passport control, we couldn’t believe our luck that no minder appeared, that we could simply retrieve our bags, walk out into the fearsome heat, flag down a taxi, and do whatever and go wherever we chose. It felt like everything was snapping into place.
That first night we went to the cheapest hotel in town. Moving from crap-room to crap-room, we managed, with some haggling over money and rules, to replace our original weeklong visas with a month’s permission, later converted into a three-month permit. We felt cocky, I suppose. Then Kelly learned she was pregnant. We attended a party that week with a bunch of diplomats, and I sipped their illicit champagne as we talked feverishly about what to do next. For the first time we envied, rather than ridiculed, the various British accents and networks of support and jobs and health care everyone was plugged into. Untethered from a world of parents and friends—the people you might take for granted when you’re wild and young, but the community that feels so critical when you’re pregnant—we wondered: Should we go home? I downed another glass, and we decided, fuck it, let’s do this.
That winter we secured a pair of six-month permissions. Kelly was already four months pregnant. If everything went well, she’d give birth in June and we’d get out just before our visas expired. (If you overstayed your visa, you could be deported, imprisoned, or worse.)
Her belly got bigger, and I started writing more regularly, and she filed more reports for NPR. When she was at full term, our visas were set to expire, and the due date was just a few days before my thirtieth birthday. Both of our moms were flying in to help—mine first, to be replaced immediately thereafter by Claudia, Kelly’s mom. With all of this on my mind, I sat at my computer in what would eventually be our daughter’s room, preparing to work on a book I’d been attempting to write for several years, trying to cool off when I opened the email that would change the tenor of what was already a complicated couple of weeks.
I was having lunch at the swan near Hyde Park and some son of a bitch took my bag with all my documents. The email was riddled with bizarre but authentic-feeling typos. It is sunday—US consulate closed til tomorrow...there are copies of my visa and passport on the frig \9\i cannot remember Al’s email address-phone is almost dead-\i have nothing!!! what to do now...
Al: That was my father’s name. This wasn’t spam. My mom was stranded in London hours before I was to pick her up at the airport in Riyadh, days before my wife was to go into labor.
To read the rest of this essay, buy Nathan Deuel's book, Friday Was the Bomb, which he wrote during a five-year stay in the Middle East and will be published by Dzanc this week. It can be purchased through their webstore. Nathan lives in Los Angeles.
Photo via Flickr user Peter Baker.