Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — THE hem of my heavy Islamic cloak trailed over floors that glistened like ice. I walked faster, my eyes fixed on a familiar, green icon. I hadn’t seen a Starbucks in months, but there it was, tucked into a corner of a fancy shopping mall in the Saudi capital. After all those bitter little cups of sludgy Arabic coffee, here at last was an improbable snippet of home — caffeinated, comforting, American.
I wandered into the shop, filling my lungs with the rich wafts of coffee. The man behind the counter gave me a bemused look; his eyes flickered. I asked for a latte. He shrugged, the milk steamer whined, and he handed over the brimming paper cup. I turned my back on his uneasy face.
Crossing the cafe, I felt the hard stares of Saudi men. A few of them stopped talking as I walked by and watched me pass. Them, too, I ignored. Finally, coffee in hand, I sank into the sumptuous lap of an overstuffed armchair.
“Excuse me,” hissed the voice in my ear. “You can’t sit here.” The man from the counter had appeared at my elbow. He was glaring.
“Excuse me?” I blinked a few times.
“Emmm,” he drew his discomfort into a long syllable, his brows knitted. “You cannot stay here.”
“What? Uh why?”
Then he said it: “Men only.”
He didn’t tell me what I would learn later: Starbucks had another, unmarked door around back that led to a smaller espresso bar, and a handful of tables smothered by curtains. That was the “family” section. As a woman, that’s where I belonged. I had no right to mix with male customers or sit in plain view of passing shoppers. Like the segregated South of a bygone United States, today’s Saudi Arabia shunts half the population into separate, inferior and usually invisible spaces.
At that moment, there was only one thing to do. I stood up. From the depths of armchairs, men in their white robes and red-checked kaffiyehs stared impassively over their mugs. I felt blood rushing to my face. I dropped my eyes, and immediately wished I hadn’t. Snatching up the skirts of my robe to keep from stumbling, I walked out of the store and into the clatter of the shopping mall.
THAT was nearly four years ago, a lesson learned on one of my first trips to the kingdom. Until that day, I thought I knew what I was doing: I’d heard about Saudi Arabia, that the sexes are wholly segregated. From museums to university campuses to restaurants, the genders live corralled existences. One young, hip, U.S.-educated Saudi friend told me that he arranges to meet his female friends in other Arab cities. It’s easier to fly to Damascus or Dubai, he shrugged, than to chill out coeducationally at home.
I was ready to cope, or so I thought. I arrived with a protective smirk in tow, planning to thicken the walls around myself. I’d report a few stories, and go home. I had no inkling that Saudi Arabia, the experience of being a woman there, would stick to me, follow me home on the plane and shadow me through my days, tainting the way I perceived men and women everywhere.
I’m leaving the Middle East now, closing up years spent covering the fighting and fallout that have swept the region since Sept. 11. Of all the strange, scary and joyful experiences of the past years, my time covering Saudi Arabia remains among the most jarring.
I spent my days in Saudi Arabia struggling unhappily between a lifetime of being taught to respect foreign cultures and the realization that this culture judged me a lesser being. I tried to draw parallels: If I went to South Africa during apartheid, would I feel compelled to be polite?
I would find that I still saw scraps of Saudi Arabia everywhere I went. Back home in Cairo, the usual cacophony of whistles and lewd coos on the streets sent me into blind rage. I slammed doors in the faces of deliverymen; cursed at Egyptian soldiers in a language they didn’t speak; kept a resentful mental tally of the Western men, especially fellow reporters, who seemed to condone, even relish, the relegation of women in the Arab world.
In the West, there’s a tendency to treat Saudi Arabia as a remote land, utterly removed from our lives. But it’s not very far from us, nor are we as different as we might like to think. Saudi Arabia is a center of ideas and commerce, an important ally to the United States, the heartland of a major world religion. It is a highly industrialized, ultramodern home to expatriates from all over the world, including Americans who live in lush gated compounds with swimming pools, drink illegal glasses of bathtub gin and speak glowingly of the glorious desert and the famous hospitality of Saudis.
The rules are different here. The same U.S. government that heightened public outrage against the Taliban by decrying the mistreatment of Afghan women prizes the oil-slicked Saudi friendship and even offers wan praise for Saudi elections in which women are banned from voting. All U.S. fast-food franchises operating here, not just Starbucks, make women stand in separate lines. U.S.-owned hotels don’t let women check in without a letter from a company vouching for her ability to pay; women checking into hotels alone have long been regarded as prostitutes.
As I roamed in and out of Saudi Arabia, the abaya, or Islamic robe, eventually became the symbol of those shifting rules.
I always delayed until the last minute. When I felt the plane dip low over Riyadh, I’d reach furtively into my computer bag to fish out the black robe and scarf crumpled inside. I’d slip my arms into the sleeves without standing up. If I caught the eyes of any male passengers as my fingers fumbled with the snaps, I’d glare. Was I imagining the smug looks on their faces?
The sleeves, the length of it, always felt foreign, at first. But it never took long to work its alchemy, to plant the insecurity. After a day or two, the notion of appearing without the robe felt shocking. Stripped of the layers of curve-smothering cloth, my ordinary clothes suddenly felt revealing, even garish. To me, the abaya implied that a woman’s body is a distraction and an interruption, a thing that must be hidden from view lest it haul the society into vice and disarray. The simple act of wearing the robe implanted that self-consciousness by osmosis.
In the depths of the robe, my posture suffered. I’d draw myself in and bumble along like those adolescent girls who seem to think they can roll their breasts back into their bodies if they curve their spines far enough. That was why, it hit me one day, I always seemed to come back from Saudi Arabia with a backache.
The kingdom made me slouch.
SAUDI men often raised the question of women with me; they seemed to hope that I would tell them, either out of courtesy or conviction, that I endorsed their way of life. Some blamed all manner of Western ills, from gun violence to alcoholism, on women’s liberation. “Do you think you could ever live here?” many of them asked. It sounded absurd every time, and every time I would repeat the obvious: No.
Early in 2005, I covered the kingdom’s much-touted municipal elections, which excluded women not only from running for office, but also from voting. True to their tribal roots, candidates pitched tents in vacant lots and played host to voters for long nights of coffee, bull sessions and poetry recitations. I accepted an invitation to visit one of the tents, but the sight of a woman in their midst so badly ruffled the would-be voters that the campaign manager hustled over and asked me, with lavish apologies, to make myself scarce before I cost his man the election.
A few days later, a female U.S. official, visiting from Washington, gave a press appearance in a hotel lobby in Riyadh. Sporting pearls, a business suit and a bare, blond head, she praised the Saudi elections.
The election “is a departure from their culture and their history,” she said. “It offers to the citizens of Saudi Arabia hope . It’s modest, but it’s dramatic.”
The American ambassador, a bespectacled Texan named James C. Oberwetter, also praised the voting from his nearby seat.
“When I got here a year ago, there were no political tents,” he said. “It’s like a backyard political barbecue in the U.S.”
One afternoon, a candidate invited me to meet his daughter. She spoke fluent English and was not much younger than me. I cannot remember whether she was wearing hijab, the Islamic head scarf, inside her home, but I have a memory of pink. I asked her about the elections.
“Very good,” she said.
So you really think so, I said gently, even though you can’t vote?
“Of course,” she said. “Why do I need to vote?”
Her father chimed in. He urged her, speaking English for my benefit, to speak candidly. But she insisted: What good was voting? She looked at me as if she felt sorry for me, a woman cast adrift on the rough seas of the world, no male protector in sight.
“Maybe you don’t want to vote,” I said. “But wouldn’t you like to make that choice yourself?”
“I don’t need to,” she said calmly, blinking slowly and deliberately. “If I have a father or a husband, why do I need to vote? Why should I need to work? They will take care of everything.”
Through the years I have met many Saudi women. Some are rebels; some are proudly defensive of Saudi ways, convinced that any discussion of women’s rights is a disguised attack on Islam from a hostile Westerner. There was the young dental student who came home from the university and sat up half the night, writing a groundbreaking novel exploring the internal lives and romances of young Saudi women. The oil expert who scolded me for asking about female drivers, pointing out the pitfalls of divorce and custody laws and snapping: “Driving is the least of our problems.” I have met women who work as doctors and business consultants. Many of them seem content.
Whatever their thoughts on the matter, they have been assigned a central, symbolic role in what seems to be one of the greatest existential questions in contemporary Saudi Arabia: Can the country opt to develop in some ways and stay frozen in others? Can the kingdom evolve economically and technologically in a global society without relinquishing its particular culture of extreme religious piety and ancient tribal code?
The men are stuck, too. Over coffee one afternoon, an economist told me wistfully of the days when he and his wife had studied overseas, how she’d hopped behind the wheel and did her own thing. She’s an independent, outspoken woman, he said. Coming back home to Riyadh had depressed both of them.
“Here, I got another dependent: my wife,” he said. He found himself driving her around, chaperoning her as if she were a child. “When they see a woman walking alone here, it’s like a wolf watching a sheep. ‘Let me take what’s unattended.’ ” He told me that both he and his wife hoped, desperately, that social and political reform would finally dawn in the kingdom. He thought foreign academics were too easy on Saudi Arabia, that they urged only minor changes instead of all-out democracy because they secretly regarded Saudis as “savages” incapable of handling too much freedom.
“I call them propaganda papers,” he said of the foreign analysis. “They come up with all these lame excuses.” He and his wife had already lost hope for themselves, he said.
“For ourselves, the train has left the station. We are trapped,” he said. “I think about my kids. At least when I look at myself in the mirror I’ll say: ‘At least I said this. At least I wrote this.’ ”
WHEN Saudi officials chat with an American reporter, they go to great lengths to depict a moderate, misunderstood kingdom. They complain about stereotypes in the Western press: Women banned from driving? Well, they don’t want to drive anyway. They all have drivers, and why would a lady want to mess with parking?
The religious police who stalk the streets and shopping centers, forcing “Islamic values” onto the populace? Oh, Saudi officials say, they really aren’t important, or strict, or powerful. You hear stories to the contrary? Mere exaggerations, perpetuated by people who don’t understand Saudi Arabia.
I had an interview one afternoon with a relatively high-ranking Saudi official. Since I can’t drive anywhere or meet a man in a cafe, I usually end up inviting sources for coffee in the lobby of my hotel, where the staff turns a blind eye to whether those in the “family section” are really family.
As the elevator touched down and the shiny doors swung open onto the lobby, the official rushed toward me.
“Do you think we could talk in your room?” he blurted out.
I stepped back. What was this, some crazy come-on?
“No, why?” I stammered, stepping wide around him. “We can sit right over here.” I wanted to get to the coffee shop — no dice. He swung himself around, blocking my path and my view.
“It’s not a good idea,” he said. “Let’s just go to your room.”
“I really don’t think I mean,” I said, stuttering in embarrassment.
Then, peering over his shoulder, I saw them: two beefy men in robes. Great bushes of beards sprang from their chins, they swung canes in their hands and scanned the hotel lobby through squinted eyes.
“Is that the religious police?” I said. “It is!” I was a little mesmerized. I’d always wanted to see them in action.
The ministry official seemed to shrink a little, his shoulders slumped in defeat.
“They’re not supposed to be here,” he muttered despondently. “What are they doing here?”
“Well, why don’t we go to the mall next door?” I said, eyes fixed on the menacing men. “There’s a coffee shop there, we could try that.”
“No, they will go there next.” While he wrung his hands nervously, I stepped back a little and considered the irony of our predicament. To avoid running afoul of what may be the world’s most stringent public moral code, I was being asked to entertain a strange, older man in my hotel room, something I would never agree to back home.
I had to do something. He was about to walk away and cancel the meeting, and I couldn’t afford to lose it. Then I remembered a couple of armchairs near the elevator, up on my floor. We rode up and ordered room-service coffee. We talked as the elevators chimed up and down the spine of the skyscraper and the roar of vacuum cleaners echoed in the hallway.
ONE glaring spring day, when the hot winds raced in off the plains and the sun blotted everything to white, I stood outside a Riyadh bank, sweating in my black cloak while I waited for a friend. The sidewalk was simmering, but I had nowhere else to go. As a woman, I was forbidden to enter the men’s half of the bank to fetch him. Traffic screamed past on a nearby highway. The winds tugged at the layers of black polyester. My sunglasses began to slip down my glistening nose.
The door clattered open, and I looked up hopefully. But no, it was a security guard. And he was stomping straight at me, yelling in Arabic. I knew enough vocabulary to glean his message: He didn’t want me standing there. I took off my shades, fixed my blue eyes on him blankly and finally turned away as if puzzled. I think of this as playing possum.
He disappeared again, only to reemerge with another security guard. This man was of indistinct South Asian origin and had an English vocabulary. He looked like a pit bull — short, stocky and teeth flashing as he barked: “Go! Go! You can’t stand here! The men can SEE! The men can SEE!”
I looked down at him and sighed. I was tired. “Where do you want me to go? I have to wait for my friend. He’s inside.” But he was still snarling and flashing those teeth, arms akimbo. He wasn’t interested in discussions.
“Not here. NOT HERE! The men can SEE you!” He flailed one arm toward the bank.
I lost my temper.
“I’m just standing here!” I snapped. “Leave me alone!” This was a slip. I had already learned that if you’re a woman in a sexist country, yelling at a man only makes a crisis worse.
The pit bull advanced toward me, making little shooing motions with his hands, lips curled back. Involuntarily, I stepped back a few paces and found myself in the shrubbery. I guess that, from the bushes, I was hidden from the view of the window, thereby protecting the virtue of all those innocent male bankers. At any rate, it satisfied the pit bull, who climbed back onto the sidewalk and stood guard over me. I glared at him. He showed his teeth. The minutes passed. Finally, my friend reemerged.
A liberal, U.S.-educated professor at King Saud University, he was sure to share my outrage, I thought. Maybe he’d even call up the bank — his friend was the manager — and get the pit bull in trouble. I told him my story, words hot as the pavement.
He hardly blinked. “Yes,” he said. “Oh.” He put the car in reverse, and off we drove.
DRIVING to the airport, I felt the kingdom slipping off behind me, the flat emptiness of its deserts, the buildings that rear toward the sky, encased in mirrored glass, blank under a blaring sun. All the hints of a private life I have never seen. Saudis are bred from the desert; they find life in what looks empty to me.
Even if I were Saudi, would I understand it? I remember the government spokesman, Mansour Turki, who said to me: “Being a Saudi doesn’t mean you see every face of Saudi society. Saudi men don’t understand how Saudi women think. They have no idea, actually. Even my own family, my own mother or sister, she won’t talk to me honestly.”
I slipped my iPod headphones into my ears. I wanted to hear something thumping and American. It began the way it always does: an itch, an impatience, like a wrinkle in the sock, something that is felt, but not yet registered. The discomfort always starts when I leave.
By the time I boarded the plane, I was in a temper. I yanked at the clasps, shrugged off the abaya like a rejected embrace. I crumpled it up and tossed it childishly into the airplane seat.
Then I was just standing there, feeling stripped in my jeans and blouse. My limbs felt light, and modesty flashed through me. I was aware of the skin of my wrists and forearms, the triangle of naked neck. I scanned the eyes behind me, looking for a challenge. But none came. The Saudi passengers had watched my tantrum impassively.
I sat down, leaned back and breathed. This moment, it seems, is always the same. I take the abaya off, expecting to feel liberated. But somehow, it always feels like defeat.
Stack reported in Saudi Arabia repeatedly during her tenure as The Times’ Cairo Bureau chief from September 2003 until last month.