Whenever people ask me where I’m from, I always get a little frazzled, albeit just for a second. I lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia until the 9th grade, then in Qatar for a year, then Jeddah again. While my family remained behind in Jeddah, I moved to Kerala to complete my studies and then went to Mumbai for college. So while I’m ‘from’ Kerala and have been raised ‘very Kerala’, I still live in Jeddah as Mum and Dad continue to work there and I visit them almost every holiday I get.
But this slightly dizzying sequence of homes isn’t what throws me when I’m asked this. The problem is that people can be so bafflingly clueless and curious about Saudi Arabia, that at times it can almost be endearing. Almost being the key word in that sentence. Telling people that I live in Saudi Arabia is almost always like walking into a minefield of jokes and ignorance.
After three years of studying in India, I’ve heard an unbelievably wide range of jokes about Saudi Arabia. I’ve come to realise that there’s a very thin line between Saudi jokes and Muslim jokes. Just like the line between wit and mild racism. But that is a whole other, much more important issue that deserves better than this semi rant of mine. So without further ado, here are some of the things I’ve heard over the years:
1. Did you guys do sports in school wearing an abaya?
No. (Don’t encourage further conversation here, because we did have to do sports in our uniform which happened to be a salwar. Hide cringe somehow, quick, QUICK)
2. How do you guys recognise each other when y’all are ALL covered up?
Now, do I like you enough to explain that to you politely?
3. HAHAHAAHAHA- hold on- HAHAHAHA, your class photos must have been so epic, all of y’all covered in black!
Try not to roll eyes.
4. Will a camel bring you in at your wedding?
Well, haven’t been within 10 feet of a camel in the last 10 years, but okay, whatever makes you laugh.
On second thoughts, that would be quite the entrance really.
5. Wait, are you married already?
Wow, how did you guess?
6. Would you mind being second wife to someone if he were super rich?
It’s the dream actually.
7. Is it true about the camel fashion shows and designer abayas?
The world has stranger stories, you know. And if you could open your mind a little, it really wouldn’t seem that ridiculous.
8. Did you freak out the first time you went to a theatre?
Oh yes, refused to leave it for days, because I was so awestruck.
9. Didn’t you miss discos and shit?
Yes, seeing how often I’m partying it up in discos right now as a nineteen year old in Bombay.
10. No, but really, how many hummers and mercs do you own?
Oh, if only you could see how battered up the poor father’s Accord is.
While some of these have truly been quite amusing, there is a twinge of annoyance I can never seem to shrug off. Then there were also a few that I didn’t want to include here because they were downright offensive.
Recently a cousin suggested a particularly eloquent and mature way to deal with this inevitable nonsense:
“The abaya reveals nothing.”
I have to admit that I have been tempted to use that quite often. But I don’t want to end conversations like that and have people go on believing in these fairly outlandish misconceptions. This has resulted in several long discussions, with me sometimes coming perilously close to tears. Needless to say, the fact that I take this so seriously has been the cause of much laughter.
But then there are many darker rumours that are disbelievingly shared here. Stuff that I thought I had never heard of, and hence just couldn’t exist. Then vague memories surfaced. Whispers amongst the father and his friends, stories the servant told the mother and so on. Tendrils of suspicion curled through my mind. Could it be? Is it possible for happiness and absolute misery to exist simultaneously, going through the various motions of life somehow completely unaware of each other? Is it possible to so successfully draw a screen between placid normalcy and outright injustice? Is it possible that the thing you’ve held onto throughout your life, isn’t quite the simple thing of joy you always believed it to be?
It is. That and much more. It is a crazy, crazy world out there.
And so as MY perceptions and beliefs have been completely shaken, there’s a lot I’m unsure about right now. But that’s okay, I think. It’s going to take a while, and some thorough soul searching and following the various random, but incredibly enlightening journeys the internet can offer before all the uncertainty slows transforms into understanding and acceptance. All that, and long, frustrated conversations with my ever so patient father.
And while that happens, there’s one thing that I’m completely sure about. It’s that I did have an ordinary childhood made extraordinary by the happiness that by default arose from every event of it. We laughed over classroom antics and cried over lost stationery. We revelled in movies with their exuberant heart throbs and believed we would die during every exam we wrote. We went on roller coasters and baked terrible, burnt brownies. Yes, we did have to wear abayas from the seventh grade, yes, my poor dad had to drive me around a lot, yes, we never visited theatres, and yes, we never really had any guy friends. But we were still happy! This was Jeddah and this was home. We were never exposed to the negative aspects of living in this sort of ‘bubble’ . We never considered that we might have been living in one, to begin with! And so happiness reigned in our world of school and friends and games.
What I wish people would consider, is that others can have very different ideas of happiness and contentment. And that that’s completely alright. I’ve always firmly believed that differences make for a more interesting and colourful world.
And even if I’ve lived in Kerala and Bombay, and found happiness in both the places, I’ve come to realise that my vision of home just doesn’t seem complete without some babaghanoush in the fridge and without the weather being unreasonably warm. When I think of Jeddah, I still think of it as home, with childhood memories and old, warm acquaintances at every corner. While I now see that it is far, far from the perfection I so strongly associated with it, nothing can, and ever will take that away.