The Marble Lawn

I was seven when my father left for Saudi Arabia. He came into my bedroom one night, the day after a trip to the Petrified Forest and two days before my birthday, to kiss me goodbye and ask me what I wanted from there. I said I wanted red rain boots. Not that I imagined he would find any such boots, red or otherwise, in Saudi Arabia (where it rains less than 16mm a year) but because he told me that night he was going to Germany. He frequently went to Germany on business, and on his previous trip my brother and I had asked for a dog. He came back with two, Festus Von Haus Neufken and Funny Von Haus Neufken. Brother and sister, like us. They were big, black dogs, pedigree German shepherds, which the immigration officers at Cairo International Airport mistook for lions (“These foreigners, their animals look different,” they insisted, trying to deny them entry.) My mother suggested that this time we should ask for smaller gifts. I don’t recall what my brother wanted, but rubber boots seemed reasonable to me.

It’s hard to imagine that my father wanted to go to Saudi Arabia. He was one of those large-spirited men who loved food, women, and parties. He loved alcohol, too, in that joie de vivre, larger-than-life type of way. He would wake up early every other Friday and spend the whole day barefooted and in Bermuda shorts in our oversize Cairo kitchen, marinating meats and fish, preparing vegetables and salads, and trying out cocktail recipes in preparation for his bimonthly Saturday barbecue dinner parties for fifty people plus. It should be said that his greatness as a cook was largely contingent on having a subservient other to do the peeling, chopping, and (many hours later) washing up; invariably, my brother or me.

My father had said he’d be gone for two weeks. Two weeks passed. Then four. Finally, my mother broke the news. Our father had gone to Jeddah, not Hamburg. She didn’t say how long she had known, or when he would be coming back. I’m not sure if she knew herself when he was returning. I don’t remember much of how I felt, except confused. There was a photo from a few years earlier of my father in Germany in a tan wool coat, standing in the snow, smiling, and in my mind he had been there all along, that happy person in the cold. It was hard to imagine him in the sand. I do recall asking if I would still get the boots.

I knew almost nothing about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia save that it was a desert. But every time I overheard my mother on the phone, sharing the news with friends and relatives, I would hear something else, some unease, in the spaces of silence that punctuated the side of the conversation I was privy to. I would often be close enough to hear the quick shift in intonation and pitch as the person on the other end of the line responded, “Saudiyya? Mamdouh?”

“What will he do there? How on earth will the poor man survive?”

My father was hardly the first Egyptian to decamp to the Kingdom. The first exodus left in the wake of the 1952 revolution, when the Free Officers — led by Mohamed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser — staged a military coup, ousting King Farouk and ending the British occupation. In 1954, a spectacularly failed assassination attempt by a Muslim Brother led to a political crackdown, and many Islamists took refuge in Saudi. (Over time they sent money back to Egypt, tempting others to join them.) Nasser became president in 1956, and his pan-Arab and socialist dream, while inspiring to millions at home and abroad, was not only unpopular with Islamists. My grandfather, a steel trader, once told me that Nasser “ruined the economy and business and wrecked our lives.” Certainly there was a steady drain of brainpower out of Egypt in the years that followed — most of it westward, but some of it east, across the Red Sea, into the Kingdom. Later, at the height of the Seventies oil boom, the development of Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure created an unyielding wave of opportunities, and Egyptians were flown in by the planeload.

But my father had done well for himself in Cairo. He worked for a foreign oil company before starting his own business importing spare parts for one particular part of one kind of machinery used to extract oil — and then started another, manufacturing prefab cabins for offshore oil rigs. Occasionally, in the context of his work, he would mention the oil in the Gulf, but for the most part El Khaleeg barely existed. At school, in fact, that vast expanse of desert that extends across one million square miles and includes Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Qatar was all just Saudi Arabia — and then, at some point, Kuwait, too. In our minds and imaginations, the Gulf was just those two states, and they were where you went only if you had neither the resources nor the degree to get a decent job. It was for the desperate. Not for us.

Although Saudi was also where our relatives would go for hajj, my only real notion of the place, all of it, were the beautiful Chinese-made embroidered pajamas that my great-aunt would bring back when she went to visit her son and his wife in the Gulf. I loved those pajamas. You couldn’t get Chinese-made things in Cairo back then. I am pretty sure that when my mother mentioned Saudi Arabia, I immediately thought of pajamas.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned that my father had been desperate. His businesses had unraveled, leaving him in debt, and he had found himself in some kind of trouble. But he had connections. By way of an old rich-royal Saudi schoolmate, one of many rich-royal or well-to-do Arabs who had attended his particular private boys’ boarding school, Victoria College, my father had gotten a job in Jeddah overseeing one subsidiary in a large family-owned Saudi conglomerate.

Memory somewhat fails me about those first months of my father’s absence, but I do recall that the atmosphere was tense back then — the conversations I overheard, the heaviness in the house, and the reactions of my friends and their parents when I mentioned Saudi and that my father had moved. Some days I would come home from school to find my mother crying to herself, alone, or with my great-aunt. But there were also phone calls from my father. At some point, after a morbid start, they became exuberant calls, filled with laughter and stories and promises of what he would do and buy for us when we met again. There was talk of houses — the big marble one with a pool and a floor for each of us; the one near the palace of the King; the one with seven bedrooms. There was talk of the Red Sea coast and friends’ beach houses and snorkeling and a boat. He promised dogs — you could get any kind of dog in Saudi Arabia, they imported them from all over the world. There was an American school that had huge grounds and tennis courts and things that our small school in Cairo didn’t have.

And there were shopping malls. There was this big, American-style shopping mall, he told my mother. He said it was the first shopping mall in the Arab world. You could buy anything in Saudi Arabia, he said. Things we didn’t even know about in Cairo.

He was selling us on the idea of the place, and he was a pretty good salesman. For my brother it was the imported chocolates. (My brother loved Cadbury Eggs.) My mother loved the thought of the malls. I was tempted by the house with a pool, but perhaps not completely sold. It was hot, though, my father warned. Forbiddingly so. So hot you could even fry an egg on the ground outside. I wanted to know if we could make melted-cheese sandwiches outside instead. My father promised that we could.

We finally visited him in his big marble house with five bedrooms and a marble lawn sometime late that first year after he left. We decided on cocker spaniels and a Ping-Pong table, and every day we would be dropped off at the mall. It had been agreed that my mother would prepare for the move, and my father would give my mother a few hundred Saudi riyals to shop for our new and future life there. There were dozens of shops in that mall, plus a food court and a supermarket. We would try to time our daily shopping trips so that we would complete the first round of eighteen shops and end up at the supermarket door exactly at noon, when it was time for midday prayer. All the other shops kicked you out during prayer time, but the supermarket was willing to just lock you in for those twenty minutes and you could browse. We did, every single day for the three weeks we were there. In the evenings, my father would take us to the gold and perfume souks (which happened to also sell clothes and where I once found a purple ski suit with pink snow boots for an upcoming school ski trip to Switzerland), and on the weekends we would drive around the city looking at the public art that filled the city’s roundabouts. There were works by Alexander Calder, Joan Miró, and the French sculptor César; a giant geometry set, a huge block of marble with several cars protruding from it, a mammoth bicycle, and a mounted defunct propeller plane; hanging lanterns, world maps, coffeepots, incense burners, palm trees. But often, we would stay at home in our marble house watching old sitcoms on Saudi Arabian TV. Channel 2 had foreign programs we couldn’t get in Cairo — Alf, Out of This World, The Cosby Show.

Some mornings, I melted cheese on the front lawn.

We were back and forth to Saudi several times over the following year, and my brother and I grew to love our visits to Jeddah. We did little in the way of meeting people or making friends in that big house, but our time there was filled with goodies, and we were happy to be with our beloved dad. I also marveled at the fact that I could go out in my bathing suit. “You just slip this black thing over it, and you can go anywhere,” I would tell people back home, of the compulsory abaya. Our friends back in Cairo learned to love our visits to Jeddah, too — we always came back with presents, like crystallized sugar in pocket-size packets, or fake Reebok pumps. Once I came back with a plastic gadget for your hair that could turn a ponytail into a twist. It bought me popularity. My father did everything he could to make Saudi life enticing, and my brother and I were psyched for the move. One day, during an Easter visit to Saudi, the four of us went to the mall together. As we made our way past a store that sold Indian fabrics and Chinese vases and cloisonné wares, my father was pulled aside.

“Your iqama,” the man demanded, referring to the tiny passport-like residency booklet that visitors to the Kingdom were issued.

The man had an unruly beard and wore a traditional robe that sat uncomfortably on his belly and fell short of a desirable length. He held a dirty bamboo stick.

“He’s the moral police!” my brother whispered, as we lurked, trying to catch bits of the conversation.

My father took out his dark olive-green iqama, and the man’s face softened. (Muslims were given green iqamas, Christians red.) They exchanged words for a few minutes and when my father came back, he whispered half-jokingly to my mother and me that maybe our hair should be covered.

Not long afterward my mother seemed to have decided that we would not be moving to Jeddah after all. In the middle of one of our weekly phone calls, she told him, and us.

“I’m sorry, Mamdouh, but it’s just not a life.”

They argued, but she insisted.

They fought, but she was adamant.

This went on for weeks. Then at some point, the conversation just seemed to end. It was decided that we would only spend holidays in the Kingdom. Two months in summer, two weeks each at Christmas and Easter.

It took a while for it to sink in that my mother would never be persuaded, but eventually, my father moved from the marble house to a compound, and slowly built a new life for himself. Behind the walls of the gated community, he and his neighbors — some eight hundred other expatriate contractors — lived like bachelors. There was a makeshift disco and a bar with real whiskey (the chief of police of Mecca was a regular); there was a clubhouse and a pool; there were tennis courts and parties and women who walked around in shorts and bathing suits and summer dresses. My father took up cooking again, and competed in “cook-offs” with other chefs — mostly women. He won prize after prize. His house was smaller, wooden, one floor with three bedrooms, a little bit like the prefab cabins he once used to make for oil-field workers. He seemed happier. There are faded Kodak pictures of costume parties and belly dancers, poolside lunches and sunbathing. In all of the pictures he is tanned, smiling, surrounded by frolicking people, and always in his Bermuda shorts.

The photos from the Nineties include uniformed US Soldiers. My father had moved to the Eastern Province just as the first Gulf War began, in 1991, and his social circle expanded again. Besides soldiers, the Eastern Province was also where the American employees of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, lived. The American compound was a sprawling village by the sea, with its own town center, a theater complex, a supermarket, and shops. On my few visits there, I saw many bikinis. For my father, the move had been a multifaceted step up. His company would service the Americans — and the hotels that were changing the skyline to host them — and it would also cater to Bahrain, just forty-five minutes away over “the causeway,” where Saudis would flock on Thursday nights. In Bahrain, there were nightclubs and alcohol, and men and women could go out freely in public. In Saudi Arabia even Starbucks was segregated into sections to separate women and families from men.

My father had a corner villa on the east coast, a real brick villa with a real garden and real grass. Water was more expensive than oil in Saudi Arabia, and his grass was expensive to maintain. But he insisted, and he convinced the company to pay.

He must have found his way over the causeway, too, but most of the photo albums he has from that time are of his compound life. The last picture in a series from 1991 features female soldiers in running shorts and gray T-shirts with the words US ARMY splayed across surprisingly full bosoms. A group has formed a semicircle around them, clapping. One of the soldiers has a scarf around her waist and her head is back, frozen in laughter. I recognize our family pictures in the background. I also recognize General Norman Schwarzkopf in full uniform.

My father called more often those days. He was full of stories. It seemed like he had met everyone you ever saw on CNN. A picture of him with Christianne Amanpour excited me the most. I wanted to go visit him right away.

But I don’t think I ever met any foreign correspondents in Saudi Arabia. Nor any soldiers, although my father had saved us some of the packaged food that had been dropped out of planes and into the desert for the ones who were deployed in combat. I do recall meeting the four women, expat oil wives who had dressed up in combat gear and driven their husbands’ Jeeps through the streets of Dhahran. (Outside of the compound, of course, women were not allowed to drive.) I can’t remember what my father thought of them, but my mother thought they were crazy. My father had taken us to Chop Chop Square a few years earlier, the place in downtown Jeddah where public executions are held, and in my mother’s mind it was foolish to antagonize the authorities — chop chop might have been the end result. (The women hadn’t been caught, in any case, though as western expats they would have probably have been deported.) All I really remember of those last few visits in the years after the Gulf War is barbecues, tennis, a badly sprained ankle, shrimp with garlic and white wine, and aura-cleansing sessions that my father’s best friend, Robbie, hosted at our house and hers. The spiritual component was new to my father’s Saudi life.

He began to call home less.

My father came home to Egypt on a summer night in 1996, twelve years after he left. He had called from the airport and asked my mother to open the main gate to the garden. For a summer night in Cairo I remember it being particularly cool, though perhaps it was just excitement that he was coming home again. He had only been back once in all those years — a two-week trip in 1995. This time, he said, he would stay for two months. He had promised we would play tennis every day, and that he would cook; we would have a barbecue and invite all our friends.

It was around midnight when he finally arrived. I had been waiting for him at the window for two hours when the black-and-white taxi finally pulled up. Behind it, a truck, loaded like a city skyline with large boxes and crates. He said that he had brought us things that he thought might fit nicely into our Cairo home. I could see my mother tense up at the sight of that truck, and I thought it must be a question of space. My mother didn’t like clutter.

My parents argued for days.

Once again I didn’t realize what was happening until it was over. My mother had known from that first night — my father was never going back. His surprise return took its toll. He opened bedroom doors without knocking, monopolized the sofa and TV. His hearing had deteriorated and no one else was interested in the football matches that began to blast through the house. He stayed home much of the time, and did little in the way of making conversation. He seemed like a shadow of his former self, and the house felt heavy with him.

Cairo was a different city than the one my father had left in the Eighties. His uniform Bermuda shorts and flip-flops seemed inappropriate. I had worn shorts myself when I first started college, catching the 48 bus from outside my house and jumping out on a corner by the Main Campus a few minutes from Tahrir Square. Occasionally someone would stare or harass me, but for the most part, no one batted a lid. That was 1993. By the time I graduated in 1997, I wore jeans or long, loose skirts. There was a rising trend of Islamism, and several deadly attacks on tourists that had shaken us all. One bomb went off at the Egyptian Museum, minutes from my university, the American one, which had also received threats. I acquired a collection of long shirts and cotton cardigans that I wore over everything now.

There were no such cosmetic options available for my father. The kind of life he had enjoyed in Cairo before he left — let alone the kind of communal lifestyle he had found in Saudi — was nowhere to be found. People weren’t so willing to party all the time. Business, too, was bad. Over time I watched him develop a facial twitch that I imagined grew from sadness, and he fell into what must have been depression. Eventually, my parents got divorced. After he moved out of the house, I would go and meet him at the local sporting club. We would sit around the swimming pool and he would tell stories of his Saudi days to friends and business associates and listless retirees.

“Unbelievable,” the mostly old men would say.

“One never would have thought.”

“Maybe we should all move there and get lives!” they would say, throwing back their heads in husky laughs.

I went back to the Gulf more recently, as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. My map of the Arabian Peninsula had filled out: as oil prices soared and business boomed, Dubai, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi came into their own. For a new generation of Arabs, the excesses and calculated modernity of the Emirates had developed an appeal, and prestige, of their own. El Khaleeg was no longer a last resort. Dubai was being marketed as the Manhattan of the Middle East, and when I was posted there, I was delighted. From my sleek and modern apartment in a gleaming skyscraper overlooking the coast, I traveled all over the region. Including back to Saudi.

Jeddah was nothing like I remembered it. I was forced to cover my hair, and in the downtime between interviews and meetings I was cooped up in dank hotel rooms that were said to be five-star. (One time I found a giant-size scarab beetle in my bed and sat up all night at the desk, petrified that there might be more.) At an economic conference, a wooden wall divided the conference hall, segregating the women from the men, though we all sat before the same panels of mixed-sex speakers. In the streets I noticed garbage and poverty — young children begging, scores of East Asian and Afghan and maybe even Egyptian laborers, standing on street corners in the sweltering heat, waiting for the bus. There seemed to be less marble.

But I received my greatest shock at the mall where we had spent enough hours to fill months of our lives. It was like entering a time warp. Everything seemed exactly the same, like it was still 1986. Except for the paint on the walls, which was peeling, and the marble floors, which were veiny and gray. And the shopkeepers, who seemed dejected. In one shop window was a cloisonné vase that I was certain had been there all those years back. I used to walk past it every day.

Now, I couldn’t wait to get out.

My father now lives in a two-bedroom penthouse with a sweeping terrace in central Cairo. He has a large marble dining table and the many pictures of us in Saudi Arabia are framed and scattered around various ledges throughout the house. The Weber Smoker and Grill that he had shipped home from Saudi and that had stood untouched in my mother’s basement for years is back in action. On a recent evening, he smoked salmon steaks and grilled vegetables for a gathering of thirty-six.

Like the rest of us, my father has rediscovered a passion for politics this past year. Every time I see him, it’s the only thing we discuss — the state of the nation, our interim government, the military, and who our next president might be. More and more, Egyptians are concerned about what will become of the country. When the revolution first happened, we had visions of utopia. Men and women were sleeping side by side in Tahrir Square. People seemed to wear what they wanted, they were generous, food was shared, everyone was courteous — no harassment, no discrimination, no didactic sermons on marriage or religion or the veil. But one year later, we have a parliament that looks like it might be a Saudi one, and the general sentiment is that the country is going to hell. (Or Iran or Saudi, for that matter.) An Islamist Speaker of Parliament has been voted in, with an ultra-orthodox Salafi MP heading the education committee. People say his funding comes from the Kingdom — from religious radicals seeking to subvert the revolution and turn Egypt into a colony. There is talk of compulsory headscarves and alcohol bans and the specter of morality police. At every gathering I go to, the tone is alarmist. I did not think it possible for people to smoke more cigarettes than they already did, but they do.

People talk about emigrating. But to where?

My father, on the other hand, is cheerful. He still brims with nostalgia for his Saudi experience, and he enjoys his role as contrarian. At dinner the other evening, he was in his element: on his terrace and in his Bermuda shorts with a Campari in his hand, making wildcat interjections as the conversation turned dour.

It will never happen.
Come on.
I don’t believe it.
Don’t you remember? We had a great life in Saudi.
I’ll never change my lifestyle, no matter who says what.
Ha! Nev-ar!

My cousin and his wife, who had once lived in Saudi on the same compound as my father in the Eastern Province, were at the dinner. They had moved back more recently, in 2009.

“Do you remember when I first arrived in Saudi, Mamdouh?” My cousin could barely contain her smile. “On Fridays at the supermarkets there would be lines of blond-headed people, their shopping carts stuffed with crates of grape juice and large boxes of sugar. I couldn’t understand — weren’t foreigners meant to be healthy? Was there a sugar shortage expected?”

“Ah, Saudiyya,” my cousin’s husband said, shaking his head. “Those were such days.”

“I can have my assembly line going again in a second, when the time comes,” my cousin said, slyly.

“We’ll make a killing,” her husband laughed.

Their teenage daughter did not get the joke. “What are you guys even talking about, ya Mamy?”

“Wine, ya Jouji, wine.”

“Come on,” Jouji said. “I don’t even believe you. It’s against the law there!”

“Wine, ya Jouji, wine. It’s true, ya Jouji, it’s true.”

Cigarette puffs.

“And I can charge admission to the parties,” my father said.

“Like at the compound on cook-off night!”

“I used to make this one shrimp dish with white wine…”

“You had women knocking on your door. For recipes!”

Awkward laughter.

My young cousin was unconvinced. The rest of the guests laughed uneasily, their own drinks in hand.

The three Saudi returnees sighed as one. “Ah, Saudiyya.”