Woman on a Bicycle


Excerpted from the opening chapter of Abaya

In the Saudi Arabian desert it takes time for your eyes to adjust to the light. Slowly you see through the haze: A hill here, a camel there, a thorn bush. A line of sea on the horizon. Meanwhile, in the car the speedometer reads 150 an hour and the scene out the corner of your eyes is a blur. There are three lanes, but the dividing lines seem arbitrary. Traffic weaves its own patterns, back and forth, left to right. A flash of car on the verge to our left. Ferrari, Mercedes, Audi, Porsche — I can’t tell the difference yet. Then a second. A teenager at the wheel. Mad boys tearing at the dirt. They must be going 200 an hour, lost ahead in the dust. My driver doesn’t flinch. His thick hands hang like a pair of gloves over the steering wheel, his gaze on the road, his mouth in a steady line. He seems half asleep.

Out the window on the other side, only dust; dust and the sky. Blink. Look harder: through the dust, an outline of hills, and beyond those, fainter still, mountains. At the foot of the hills, the smudged edges of houses; red, orange, yellow; parched squares and rectangles wavering in the sand. The green light of a mosque humming in the heat. Closer still, thorn bushes, a tree, men on the side of the road, kneeling to pray. Then, bizarrely, a blaring theme-park. Bright lights, the circle of a ferris wheel, swinging chairs, though they’re all empty: there are no cars in the lot. A short way down the road, a second of these parks, and then a third.

‘From where are you?’ The driver raises his eyebrows in the rear-view mirror. ‘From England you are coming Heat-row. Heat-row. English, nah?’

I’m not listening. I’m looking back to where I thought I saw a woman under a tree.

‘Mam? Where you from?’

‘New Zealand,’ I answer, then turn back again to look for the black shape.

‘Nahhh! Newseelan! Clicket, clicket, very good! You know Steven Fleming?’

‘Yes. I think so…’ I lie.

There is a second flash of black in the dust, and then a flash of white. A woman and a man sitting under a scrap of a tree in a field of dirt and rocks.

‘Very good. Newseelan. But you are coming from England, no? Heat-row. You English, nah?’

The figures beside the trees fade away. They must have been picnicking. Picnicking! Further down the road more figures are crossing the red-lit landscape. Walking, bending, standing. They are gathering something amongst the rocks and scraggly bushes. ‘Desert herbs,’ the driver informs me. The women’s black abayas lift and billow and dance in the wind.

I spent four years living in Saudi Arabia, and could now tell you where to find the greatest restaurant in Jeddah, how to access the best diving spots, when you’re being tailed by army security (for your own good), how to navigate a public restroom, and what to wear to a Saudi wedding, but my understanding of the country on arrival was minimal; oil, desert, money, dates, women in black. Like many Western women, this last was something I felt especially passionate about. To me, before moving to Saudi, the abaya was a symbol of repression. I would have to wear it, of course, but I intended to do so defiantly. Like many well-meaning, liberal-minded people moving to the Middle East I had a vague idea that while living in Saudi I would take a stand to defend ‘freedom’; I would be an evangelist for better ways.

On the flight to Jeddah, however, this resolve began to fall apart at its shoddily-sewn seams. Flying into Saudi airspace a prayer sounded over the speakers and the women began to move toward the bathrooms. I watched them disappear into the tiny cubicles wearing their suits, jeans, dresses, sports wear, and then emerge a few minutes later covered in black. But it wasn’t the black I had expected. The abayas were all different, in cut, fabric, embellishment, and design. There were leopard prints, adidas stripes, lace, tulle, psychedelic under layers — even a skull-and-crossbones cuff with matching headscarf. I was surprised. I had assumed that all abayas looked more or less the same. I had my own in my handbag, ready to put on. It was a light-weight item made of cheap black fabric, peppered with sequins which clung on precariously. My husband had sent it to me in the UK where I was living at the time. I was angry when I tried it on. I couldn’t name my anger, or locate it. It was a general rage against the injustices in life I suppose, at being a woman in a man’s world, at what I saw as the blatant sexism of the ‘black sack’. I imagined Saudi women’s lives as restricted, repressed and unhappy. But when I saw these women in the flesh — or lack thereof — swishing, pacing, striding down the narrow aisles, I began to think that to make such assumptions, and to carry such an anger on their behalf without having ever met any Saudi women was foolish at best, and at worst — outright prejudice. Over the next four years the experiences I had and the people I met would turn me from a confident critic of the abaya and all I imagined it represented about Saudi and Islam, to a wannabe abaya fashionista with a thousand questions about the hijab, its place in history and now, how the West interprets it, the political and social consequences of that interpretation, and what Saudi women make of Westerners interpreting the abaya at all (short answer: not much).

The taxi passes under a giant archway with large letters in Arabic on the right, English on the left, meeting in the middle. ‘جامعة الملك عبد الله للعلوم و التقنية; Welcome to King Abdullah University of Science and Technology’. Palm trees rustle against the sky. We pass a jeep mounted with machine guns. At the end of the avenue, at the top of a small hill, sits the campus proper, the two cooling towers blipping like sonar. Surges of coloured light run along the edges of the buildings in the distance, shifting and resolving from red to green to blue to pink to yellow, outlining the campus with futuristic promise in the dark.

At the first security gate the driver greets the guard: ‘Salam alakum.’ The guard nods. ‘Aiwa, salam alakum.’ ID cards, papers, my passport are handed over. The guard walks away, assault rifle swinging like a ruck-sack off his shoulder, to confer with his colleagues. Looking around at the barriers, the barbed wire, the bollards designed to stop an explosives-laden truck, I should feel reassured, but the shiny newness of everything, the somehow cobbled-together feel of it, leaves me skeptical. The guard returns, hands back our documents and grins. He is thin and strong with small dark eyes. ‘Mafi mushkala,’ he says. ‘Welcome, welcome. Go passport ID visitor centre now. Go. Yala. Okay!’ He slaps the roof of the car and we drive on to the Visitor’s Centre, a small bean-shaped building on the edge of a forlornly empty parking lot. ‘I wait here,’ the driver tells me.

Inside, behind glass and wire, a woman looks up. She is in hijab, about my age or a little younger. She is all business and asks for my passport immediately. ‘You will leave here your passport with us and take in exchange a visitor pass,’ she explains. She folds her neatly manicured nails under her chin. ‘When you leave the campus, come, collect your passport, every time.’ The lacquer is a brilliant, shiny red. Reluctantly, I hand her my passport and leave the building with a plastic pouch hanging from a cord around my neck, decorated with the misspelt words: ‘Security is Everyone’s Reponsibility’.

When my husband and I were approached to move to Saudi Arabia as founding members of a new university called KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) it was the risk and grandeur of the project which pulled us in. It was 2008 and the dream university was still more of a promise than a reality — a multi-billion dollar post-graduate campus founded by King Abdullah in a bid to prepare his country for a future without oil. It was to be a colossal social, educational and economic experiment. In a nation where even pre-school children did not mix with the opposite sex, teenage and young adult Saudi males and females would live and study and work alongside each other (in separate and guarded dormitories to appease fears of parents and young Saudis alike). The enormous campus would be completed in three years and feature state-of-the-art labs and architecture including green buildings, recycled waste water and a renewable energy cooling system using the two ionic solar towers. Staff were being recruited from the world’s leading institutions, including Harvard, MIT, and Cambridge. Research was to be fully funded, without ‘financial barriers’, and would therefore be some of the most cutting edge and risky outside of the military. The head of the university was a Singapore native, Professor Chi, of neutral religious affiliation. Where else in the world was such a venture happening, or even possible? No multi-billion dollar research institutions were being established in the US or Europe, or would be in years to come. Perhaps most significant for me was the fact that in the face of so much criticism from so many quarters, this highly conservative Islamic nation was braving multi-culturalism in an entirely new way and on an unprecedented scale. Seventy-three nationalities were to be represented at KAUST initially (there are now over 100) in a country where outsiders were regarded as highly suspicious and there was no such thing as a tourist visa. KAUST was evidence that tolerance and international cooperation were as possible and as valuable in the Middle East as in the West; a notion which intrigued me as much as it perturbed others.

Then again, it was Saudi Arabia we were thinking about. We were happily settled in Northern Europe, enjoying a life of dark, cold winters and short, breezy summers; Helsinki’s late-night bars; reasonable working hours and great friends. Why would we move to a desert where women covered themselves in black robes and possession of alcohol was an imprisonable offence? Everything I had ever read, heard about or picked up on with regards to Saudi suggested that for me, as a woman, life would be very hard. I would be regarded as a second-class citizen. I would be restricted in my movements. Cloaked in black from head to foot, fearful of insult and even abuse — was living in Saudi as a woman a risk I was willing to take and a sacrifice I was willing to make?

The week the job offer came through we went out for pizza with friends. While we were dining a couple entered the restaurant; a short, fat, bald man with a sour expression and a woman behind him, covered head to toe in black, her heavy skirts dragging on the ground. Even her eyes were shrouded behind a pair of narrow, dark glasses. I thought of a cartoon I had loved as a child: Garfield, draped in a cloth, faces a hamburger. Amoeba man spies food, reads the thought bubble. Amoeba man has no mouth. Then amoeba man moves over the hamburger. The hamburger disappears. I thought — she is amoeba woman. She was a large woman; twice the size of her squat companion. When their food came, the pizza disappeared into her black and was gone. I probably imagined it was her only source of comfort in a cruel world in which she was forced to wear repressive garments and follow her husband around like a beaten dog. Could I really move to a country where I would look like her? Eating my pizza under a curtain of black?

Ultimately, I was too curious to turn the opportunity down.

I never did eat pizza under a curtain of black; I never even had to cover my head. The expectations I had held of the country were wildly misleading, and the reality on the ground far more interesting. If I went back to Saudi now I would likely be free to wear Western clothing not just on the campus where I lived but wherever I went, as is the case in most of the Middle East. Since I left Saudi, many things have changed: Women now work in retail, removing that awkward exchange with a strange man when buying your intimates; women are beginning to drive in public; women may no longer be compelled to wear the abaya (though large numbers will still chose to); the country is on the verge of offering a tourist visa. These changes generate a thrill in the Western media, and for some a sense of satisfaction or even celebration that a ‘backward’ country is joining the fold of the rest of the progressive world. But anyone who has lived in Saudi knows that such a narrative is simplistic — as simplistic as looking at the abaya and seeing repression.

My first morning in Saudi I had three significant encounters that stayed with me. The first was with a large group of men, the second with a woman on a bicycle and the third with — or rather, not with — a man called Abdullah.

I left the house mid-morning. During the day, most people kept inside out of the sun and I had the place largely to myself, or so I thought. Waves of heat rose from the asphalt of the empty parking lot, like steam from a bath. I didn’t mind. I let my bones drink it in, thawing out from their damp English winter. On the ten-minute walk to the campus I passed a single Pakistani man in a green overall with the word ’refuse’ printed in large letters on the back. He was clicking a wheelie-bin along the spotless pavement, pausing now and then to pincer a leaf or send a text on his Nokia. It was so quiet I could hear the sticky punch of the number pads under his thumbs.

Arriving on the campus I left the heat and sun behind to enter a cool, outdoor corridor full of blue-green light. I thought I was still alone, but after a minute of walking I began to feel self-conscious, as if I were being watched. My eyes adjusted to the dim and I realised that half-way up the scaffolding which still lined the walls, several men were staring down at me. They were thin, with hands too big for their bodies. Then I saw more silent men in the shadows on the ground. They had all stopped what they were doing to stare, holding hammers and brushes and tools. I looked down and walked on. When I looked up again they were still following me with their eyes. An intense mix of anger, shame and pity as well as a kind of shock went through me. I was suddenly acutely aware of the thinness of my clothes, my white knees prodding out from under my skirt, the curve of my low-cut shirt. I continued stiffly down the corridor past more men who stopped and stared, then drew an invisible bubble around myself and focused on the details of the buildings as a way to get through. High ceilings and thick glass walls — everything transparent — lined the corridor, with various spaces behind for yet-to-happen meetings, classes and cafes. All empty. Then the corridor opened out to an intersection. Looking right, down more steps, was the aqua blanket of the Red sea, and to the left the base of one of the cooling towers.

Suddenly, a woman on a bike swerved in front of me, her abaya flying out like a cloak. I thought of my own abaya, hanging up in our hallway, and found myself momentarily long for it. Then she disappeared down toward the sea, and the corridor closed in again. More men, more staring; like a bad dream that would not end.

Then finally, I was out in the wide open space of the main quad, blinking with relief at the expanse of blue sky and white stone, the men in the shadows behind me. I found myself shaking. I was freezing cold. I stood for a moment in the heat to warm up. I could see the library on the far edge of the quad and headed for it.

It was impossible not to think of the men as I walked; how visible yet invisible they were. Tens of thousands of men like those I had just walked past had built this incredible campus, yet until now I had not spared them a thought. They intimidated me, yet had no real power over me. Who were they? Where had they come from? What were their stories? It was easy, then, to assume their circumstances were worse than bad. Over time though, I understood things differently.

The woman on the bicycle turned out to be Russian, not Saudi, but the image of her swerving through the campus corridor remained in powerful opposition to the symbol of repression I had until then associated with the abaya. Instead of being a heavy, hot, cumbersome, shapeless sack designed to repress the female body and sexuality, and to symbolically repress expression, will and personality, it became something light and playful and liberating — and completely fine to wear on a bike.

In less than an hour in my new home, several assumptions I had made about men, women and power in Saudi were already being called into question. A third assumption — that the Saudi patriarchal system was deeply offensive to my liberal outlook — was also about to take a hit.

The library was a cavern of light. Strangely, there were no books, only grey shelves waiting to be filled. Instead of the concrete and steel predominant throughout the rest of the campus was real wood; a dark, square heart filled the centre of the building. The walls were like giant waxed pages; paper-thin sheets of marble stretched over glass. Going further into the library, down a small set of steps I came, quite suddenly, out into the enormous apse of the sanctum — a giant pane of glass stretched up from the ground to the ceiling over twelve meters above. Through the glass the salty haze of the Red Sea glistened, just there, as if I could step into it.

I left the library in search of the diner where I was meeting my husband for lunch. I’d been told to look for a box with coloured lights. The description was very literal; across the quad, like a small spaceship just landed, was a grey box with glowing coloured lights surging around its walls. Inside, a group waited for one of two elevators. It was like something out of a sci-fi novel: An Asian woman in a blue and gold sari with a Bindi on her forehead; a short, sharp looking Western woman in heels and a business suit cut unfashionably high above the knee, another Asian woman also in a suit; a cluster of young Arab women in black abayas of various shapes and cuts — one loosely worn so the girl’s pencil legs in jeans and stiletto heels struck out; a woman in hijab. Then four men: a middle-aged Westerner in trousers and check shirt, sweating under the armpits; an Arab man in a white thobe; another in jeans and t-shirt; and a student in slacks and shirt, with headphones on. When the doors to the space-craft opened I lingered to see what the etiquette would be; so many books and websites had warned that in Saudi women and men could not get in an elevator together. Would the men wait? They didn’t. Would the women go in too? They did. I squeezed in last. The conversations continued at full throttle in several languages as the lift descended. One of the girls removed her headscarf and retied it. Nobody gave her a second glance. At the bottom, the thobed man held his hand in front of the door, letting everyone out before it enthusiastically closed.

There were hundreds of people in the diner. Though the elevator seemed to go under the earth, we were at ground level again, in a huge glass-walled space. My husband was waiting for me. While we stood in the queue, a tall, elegant man in a white thobe approached and lead him aside. I watched their exchange from a distance. They shook hands and talked for a while. Then they looked over to me. I waved. The Saudi man nodded his head, then turned and put his hands on my husband’s shoulders. Looking down at him, he appeared to say something very serious. They looked at me again and the man gestured, one hand still on my husband’s shoulder.

‘That was Abdullah,’ he explained when he rejoined me in the queue. ‘He wanted to have lunch with me, but when I told him you had just arrived in the country he declined — very politely. He’s quite traditional. He doesn’t eat with women not from his family.’

I felt slightly put out, and defensive. Did he think I should be wearing an abaya? Was he reprimanding me through my husband?

‘What were you talking about? When you pointed at me?’ I asked.

He seemed embarrassed and wouldn’t say but I pushed him until he confessed. ‘He said you are a flower.’

‘What?’

‘He said — “That is not a woman, that is a flower. Fully blooming. You make sure to tell your wife I think she is very beautiful.”’

Somehow, to my confusion, when I scrambled to be insulted or offended or threatened or judged I found that in fact I was simply pleased.