At 11 years of age, I was finally going to be in a war and I couldn’t wait. It was late 1990 and another scorching summer in Saudi Arabia had exhaled its last oven-hot breath before the cooler dry months brought some relief. In the capital, Riyadh, sweaty expats were lounging by pools tucked discretely inside gated and guarded compounds. In the shops downtown, faceless women hidden behind swathes of black cloth bargained for pungent spices, gold jewellery and bloody cuts of meat. In summer, someone would occasionally faint from the heat radiating through her floor-length abaya and niqab.
When I went shopping with Mum, we would also wear abayas, with black headscarves wrapped around our hair. I remember choosing my abaya as carefully as I’d chosen the dress for my First Holy Communion, the year we moved to Riyadh. My Holy Communion dress was of course virginal white with tulle under the skirt that made it flare out from my bony knees. I wore stockings for the first time and Mum rolled my hair in plastic curlers the night before. In the morning, my straight hair had become bouncy ringlets, held in place for the ceremony with burgundy felt ribbons.
But that wasn’t half as much fun as dressing up like those Saudi women who had intricate henna etchings on their hands, wafted strange musk scents and seemed to live their lives imprisoned in exotic cages. I chose my abaya from a shop with the billowing pieces hanging from the walls. The shop owner in his floor-length white thobe, reached up with a pole to hook under various coat hangers and lift the abayas down for me to try. At first glance, they seemed identical but when you looked closely, each piece was stitched with gold thread or beads in unique swirling patterns, adding a flash of allure to the front or down the back, on the shoulders, or around the cuffs. Mine had gold stitching in two long, thin blocks running on either side of my body down to my feet.
My younger sisters, by then aged eight and six, also sometimes wore head scarves and abayas, but I had to be covered most often, because at 11 years I was nearing marriageable age. A tall English redhead in my class named Katie had already attracted a number of marriage proposals while out in Riyadh with her parents. I found this fact a bit shocking but mostly I was intrigued. What would it be like to marry a Saudi man? How would they treat you? What if, one day, Katie’s parents said, “Yes”?
How Riyadh happened
For two years I’d lived an interesting but – in my opinion – mostly unremarkable life in Riyadh with my parents, younger brother, then nine-years-old, and sisters. Dad was an electrical engineer with the Australian telecommunications provider, known then as Telecom. The company had won a contract to help the Saudis set up modern phone systems. Before he signed on, Dad had pulled out the family atlas, showing us the mysterious landmass known as Saudi Arabia. He and Mum explained there were camels and vast, sandy deserts. They asked if we wanted to live there for a couple of years. I don’t remember exactly what any of us said. But I’m sure I didn’t hesitate.
Months later, we joined planeloads of Australian families touching down at King Khalid International Airport and stepped, blinking and overtired into the blazing Riyadh sun. Most of my major life events have been punctuated by flights but that was the one that changed everything else. It altered me so profoundly that I don’t remember much that came before – only a few snatches of earlier experiences remain. My memory mostly starts in Saudi.
It was there that I first felt that adrenaline rush of the unfamiliar. Hearing the piercing Islamic prayer call, tasting the crushed spices of a felafel ball and holding tiny cups of hot, sweet tea until it was cool enough to drink. Learning about different ways of life and other political and social systems. It was my first drug: the thrill of being a foreigner. I think I’ve been chasing the high of that first hit ever since.
By the time 1990 was cooling off, we were happy and settled in Riyadh, that ultra-modern city of wide highways lined with palm trees and enormous air-conditioned shopping malls, where crowds sometimes turned out for weeknight beheadings instead of football games.
I’d watched Mum bargain for handwoven rugs at the souks and walked past rows of shops draped with glistening necklaces and showy watches. I’d driven with my family into the desert to drink tea in the tents of Bedouins. I’d spent holidays marvelling at the ancient stone monuments of Petra, in Jordan; walking barefoot under the soaring dome of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul; riding donkeys up winding stone paths on the Greek island of Rhodes; and driving in a camper van through the green fields of England which looked so lush to our thirsty eyes, we couldn’t stop staring at them.
At the British International School, I learned Arabic and French and had friends from around the world. Our bus driver, an Eritrean, still had bullet marks from the civil war there. “Here, people from Eritrea don’t get the same rights as Saudis but they come to earn money to send back to their families,” Mum explained.
We’d stop by the ‘Yemeni chicken man’ once a week to buy aromatic yellow rice and watch him carve meat off the rotisserie to wrap in bread, making a warm shawarma. I still feel sentimental eating rice cooked that same way. During Ramadan, we’d join other expats hidden behind curtains in restaurants, eating out of sight while the country fasted.
I bought my first cassette tapes – Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack – and listened to them endlessly on my Walkman. As the battery ran flat, their voices would grow deeper and slower. On the cassette covers, government censors had blacked out the singers’ exposed skin with thick pen.
Inside the compound, we made our own fun. We’d have ‘Nights of Light Entertainment’ with short skits – singing, dancing, comedy. We’d have swimming carnivals, with kids from British or American companies. After months of pestering, I got a pair of roller skates to ride on the paths that ran between apartments, clacking like a train over the gaps between the pavers. Once, the wheels rolled out from under me and I fell backwards, breaking my left forearm; in my last class photo I’m nursing a white cast.
The shadow of war
In August 1990, we flew back into Riyadh after a month travelling through Turkey, Greece and Austria. Dad heard Iraq had invaded Kuwait but dismissed it initially as a local palace coup that wouldn’t affect Saudi Arabia.
But the tension and rumours kept building. I’d catch snatches of conversation, the adults passing around tiny updates like plates of cut sandwiches at a party. “They’re saying the Iraqi Army is now about 500,000 strong,” someone would say. “Hell, if they come down on the Saudi peninsula, there’s nowhere for us to go.” We were glued to the BBC, trying to glean information. Each family kept a full tank of petrol in their car, in case they had to get away by land.
As America rallied its allies and prepared to launch the First Gulf War, Riyadh held its breath. After decades of dizzying growth funded by the oil reserves buried under the sand, and boundless spending on Western luxuries, the city was potentially about to be in a war zone.
While my mother became increasingly stressed, I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d always wanted to know what it was like to be in a war. To my naïve mind, that would be interesting. And I didn’t want the adventure to be over; Sydney was home but I was in no rush to return.
I listened, enthralled, to the radio reports describing the build-up of international troops and weapons along the northern Saudi border with Kuwait. The Iraqi army drew close to the six-lane highway that could have taken them straight into Riyadh. I wanted more than anything to stay, while it all unfolded. I wanted to know what it would be like.
Mum didn’t share my enthusiasm. She was frantically working with the other Telecom parents to get our passports back from the company in Riyadh, where they were kept in safe boxes. Plans were made to evacuate the women and children. The men, however, were still under contract and the company didn’t feel the situation was critical enough to release them immediately.
Mum and Dad packed us small backpacks – all anyone was permitted to take, to save time – and said we had to be ready to leave at short notice. Everything else would follow later with Dad. I dressed my favourite childhood doll in several of her outfits, one on top of the other, to save space.
Then it was time. We joined a convoy of cars with numbers printed on paper and placed on the dashboards, driving in sequence to the airport. There was a slight delay when Telecom was told to pay the airport fees in cash before they’d refuel the plane; suitcases full of bills were rushed to the airport.
Finally we hugged our dads goodbye and walked with our mums onto the plane – a rented Liberian aircraft flown by a freelance pilot. His wife was the air ‘crew’. The aisle was too narrow for a trolley, so we left our food trays on empty seats around us. I remember some Australians cheering when the pilot announced we’d left Saudi airspace, and the media scrum when we flew into London for a stop-over. A photo of my brother, clutching his teddy bear, was splashed on the front page of a newspaper back home, in a report about Australian evacuees from the Gulf War.
It was another five months before dad could pack up everything we’d left behind and join us in Sydney. Then, it was all over. We were back to the same Sydney and the same life, but we were forever different.
Of course, as an adult, my reaction to this experience would be different. Through my work, I understand better than most the disgusting reality of war.
And I now see what a privilege it was to have those sheltered, blissful childhood years in Sydney – the life to which I didn’t want to return. Those years of building cubby houses and swimming in the neighbour’s pool or at the beach, when my biggest worry was finishing my piano practice so I could run outside again.
But when I trace back through the experiences that shaped me – or that showed me who I’ve always been – this, of course, is one of the most formative. Those Saudi years are in my DNA; that 11-year-old girl is a part of how I define myself today.
I also appreciate just how extraordinary my parents were for taking four young children on such an adventure, so far out of their own comfort zones. Many of their friends thought they were crazy. Some told them so, to their faces.
But, alhamdullilah, they decided to go. Years later, as I try to understand why I’ve been compelled to live and work in such unconventional places, I’m continually drawn back to those childhood years in Saudi.
I’ll be reflecting on the effect of those years, with gratitude and wonder, for the rest of my life.
Postscript: This is about a foreign country seen through the eyes of a child. I wanted to describe how an early life experience blew the walls of my world wide open. While it spurred a lifelong obsession with the Middle East, as an adult I know that, beyond the romance of the region, the reality can be far darker and more complex. A month after their father’s death, Jamal Khashoggi’s sons described how much he loved Saudi, how he “believed so much in it and its potential”. I still do, too.