Shortly after my family moved to Riyadh in the early 1980s, we were having tea with our Pakistani neighbours when another guest arrived. After my father was introduced to the visitor, one Muhammad Schulz, my mother made to shake the hand of this burly, red-bearded American convert. “I’m sorry,” he replied evenly, “I can’t shake your hand, because I would burn in hell for a thousand years if I did.”
As we returned to our cockroach-infested apartment, my parents had good cause to reflect on the wisdom of bringing their young family to this strange country. Around the same time, we had been wandering round one of the souks when my father felt a heavy blow on his shoulder. “Our sister is not properly dressed,” said the mutawa (religious policeman) who had whacked my father with his stick, pointing to my mother’s partly bare arms. Next stop: a shop selling the long black cloaks, abayas.
Living in Saudi was a matter of rules. Always carry cash in the car: if you were in a collision with a Saudi, he (women couldn’t drive) would automatically be in the right. If you couldn’t pay compensation on the spot, you’d be put in jail until you could. And the Saudis were terrible drivers. (Licences meant nothing: one of Idi Amin’s sons often used to pull up in his Pontiac to take another neighbour’s son for a spin. The boy couldn’t have been more than 13.) At illicit Catholic services we were told to say, if asked, that we were part of a film club. The Italian priest, Father Eugene, eventually had to flee the kingdom after police stormed a nurses’ compound where he was saying Mass.
Alcohol was a prime instance of the rule “Do as I say, not as I do”. Expats brewed their own at home, a common concoction being “Jeddah gin”, a rough, fortified wine that fermented in 14 days (several litres
of which we once had to flush down the loo when we were warned of an imminent police raid). It was foolhardy to offer this to a Saudi. The other way round, however, was fine. A next-door villa caught fire
when we lived in Jeddah, and after the blaze was doused my father took a tray of fresh cakes to the owner, a wealthy Saudi. From the charred remains of his house, he immediately brought forth a bottle of Johnny Walker whisky. This, of course, was totally haram. But perhaps the Saudi thought it permissible under the circumstances – the fire meant he had rushed back from performing hajj in Mecca.
Poolside afternoons with my mother and little brother at the Marriott came to an end after there were complaints. Mixed swimming was not allowed, and a guest declared I looked “too adult” (I was ten). Obtaining my exit-re-entry visas (I boarded in England during term time) took for ever. “The visa must be stamped by Ahmed.” “Where is Ahmed?” “He is not here.” “When will he be back?” “Ah, bukhra ba bukhra, inshallah” – tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, God willing . . .
But once you accepted the terms of your presence – you were there to work; tourist visas have only been issued since 2004 – there was much to marvel at in this harsh, fascinating land. At weekends we’d camp in the desert, watching camel spiders scuttling by a late-night brushwood fire, after a day exploring the old ruined capital of Dirriyah. Or we’d drive up the Red Sea coast and snorkel over pristine reefs, alone on the beach apart from the odd 4x4 crawling along the shore, packed with young Saudis keen to ogle bikini-clad western women.
In Riyadh I’d walk to buy shwarmas in a long, white Saudi thobe, occasionally being addressed in Arabic by vendors who took me for one of those blue-eyed, fair-skinned Syrians. In between prayer times, when everything shut, we’d hang out at the new malls, freezing from the air-conditioning, whose shiny ostentation seemed joyous compared to the grim shopping arcades in Britain. I used to envy friends who lived in villas or compounds, instead of the basic blocks of flats in which teachers like my parents were housed. Actually, we were fortunate. We weren’t cocooned, as so many expats were. Our lifestyle was frugal, but we socialised with Saudis, Turks, Egyptians, Palestinians, Pakistanis and Indians. We went to their homes and were received with a warmth and grace that visitors to England – especially those of a different colour and creed – would have been lucky to encounter. So it was in this most extreme of countries that I learned from an early age that “home” can be found wherever strangers are greeted with hospitality. And, for that reason, I will always think of Saudi with an enormous affection that must baffle those who see only hypocrisy, cruelty and corruption behind the strict Islamic façade.