The Inner Side


I watch as the camera pans the awesome landscape of Arabia. I listen as correspondents surmise this and that about the Saudi culture. I see the inevitable overhead shot of an Arab city, the most holy call to prayer resonating in the background. And I am transported back to my first year in Arabia, back to the spring of 1980, to the Arab family that so graciously accepted the American wife of their prodigal son, back to a time . . .

Whahad, thelatha, ithnain, I learn to count again. They are arbitrary sounds that do not connect with anything else in my experience. The girls laugh. Not meanly, they laugh because it is strange to hear an adult try to count and not do very well at it. It is strange to hear someone say ''one, three, two,'' and mean one, two, three. I am frustrated because it is so hard to remember which sounds come first and which second. I start over again.

I am immersed in this language of the Arabs. I have left everything in America. I have left my American independent spirit in America. We Americans glorify self, independence, creativity. I have left all that behind. I am in the midst of a culture where independence is aberrant behavior.

I know so very little of this culture. I made it a point to read nothing and hear as little as possible about Saudi Arabia before I came. I wanted no preconceived notions shaping my experience. I am glad of this. It is hard because there are no directional signals, no clues to warn me. But I am glad because it has given me a clean slate.

Sometimes I feel walled in. The walls loom into the air, whitewashed, stark. They protect us from harsh north winds and hold us in. Behind them, we live and laugh and cry.

We sit on the step in front of the majalis (sitting room), outside, but within the outer wall. We sit in the shade. Always we seek the shade. Someone flips the switch on the water pump. It whines, catches and then settles down to a steady rhythm. We have no piped-in water supply. A truck comes by and fills the tank outside the front wall. From there, water is pumped to a reservoir on top of the house. We gain water pressure through gravity. There is a small water heater but in the summer months we don't need it. The water boils in the mid-day sun. No showers at noon.

The houses have flat roofs enclosed by walls. Inside these walls, the steady whitewashed monotony is broken only at street side by cinder bricks with geometric designs that allow me to peek through. From here I can look down on the street. It is not paved and is dusty in the dry weather and a swamp when it rains. Every day goats graze the garbage cans, which are 50-gallon oil drums with no lids. The garbage men come twice a day, and in between the goats rummage around. Sometimes I see people, mostly men but now and again a woman scurries here or there, her black abaya (cape) billowing out behind her. Sometimes I build a ladder with old cast-off wooden fruit boxes and climb up and look over the wall to the east. From here I can see the gulf, pristine, shimmering against the sun . . . beckoning.

The roof is a playground for me. I like to come here in the early hours of the morning and watch the day come up. The light trips up as if regulated by some universal switch. I can feel the heat waiting. Now and again there is a rush of wind ricocheting off the walls stirring up little cyclones of dust. The sounds of the day begin slowly. I hear a rooster off in the distance. The street lights have dimmed and an earwig tries to hide under my skirts. Someone turns on the water pump. Invisible birds chirp.

The roof is a playground for me. We hang our clothes here to dry. We have coffee and dates here in the late afternoon when the sun has dipped below the wall and a shadow is cast for us to sit in. Sometimes we drag our sleeping mats up and sleep away the night under the stars.

From the roof I can peer down to the lower level of the house. It is also enclosed by a 10-foot wall but from there, there are no bricks that allow me to see the outside. There are many doors in the lower wall. Double doors made of solid black iron, heavy and hard to open or close, strategically place around the perimeter. The wall makes a breezeway between it and the house.

We bring out a straw mat and lay it down in the breezeway on the side of the house that has no sun at the moment. We always seek the cool shelter of the shade. We have a pot of coffee that smells like camphor and is the color of liquid gold with a tinge of green. I am trying to count. It is a long process and my mind and body are assaulted with the newness and strangeness of it all.

I point to this object and that. Somehow we have agreed that this means I need the sounds associated with each object. Strange guttural sounds at which my throat rebels. I try to see how their tongues move and how they hold their lips. It seems to me that if I mimic these movements I will be able to form the words. If I can only remember the sounds associated with the words.

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