I grew up in Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia in the 90s. It’s a tiny town, a compound, built for employees of the Saudi Arabian oil company. My friends were from Pakistan, Jordan, India, America, Scotland, and Canada. We drove golf carts around town and hung out on the sand by the Persian Gulf.
To go in and out of the compound, you had to be accompanied by a man, pass an innocuous security gate and present your company ID card. In the nearby Arab town people would try and touch my blonde hair and shopkeepers would let us relax inside their shops when they were required to close for the five daily prayers.
The year after Justin and I married, my parents flew us to Saudi Arabia to spend Christmas with them. It felt important, to show him the Middle East – a part of myself.
It was 2004. Three years after 9/11. The security gates were now manned with machine guns and when we went into town, I wore the traditional black robe that covered me from my neck, to my wrists, to my ankles. No one commented on my hair. The year before, a different compound had been attacked.
One day, we joined several families in the desert to sand sled. Justin had never had the experience of sliding down a dune the size of a small mountain, or jumped off the edge, flying for several seconds before connecting with the soft sand several feet down the dune.
At that time, in Saudi Arabia, only men were allowed to drive. So it was the men that jumped in the suburbans and drove over the dunes, exploring farther than we could on foot. Some of them attached sleds to the back of their cars and pulled kids along behind them, leaving most of the women behind, circled around the fire.
It was the women and Justin who saw the white pick up truck appear over the edge of the dunes and raced toward us. I reached for my husband’s hand.
Arab teenagers in traditional dress hung out the windows, their red and white checked gutras blowing in the wind.
We froze, our eyes shifting from each other to the truck and back again. One lady wondered aloud, in her pronounced southern accent, if they had guns. No one answered.
When they stopped at the edge of our camp, they got out of the truck, forming a staggered line. We stood up, and shoved Justin to the front to talk to them, like an offered sacrifice.
He attempted to smile.
“We love Americans.” The teenagers said in broken English. “Have you been to L.A.?”
The tension started to unwind, but didn’t release completely.
The Arab teens laughed, tried to ask questions, and invited us back to their tent for tea.
But, we declined.
Disappointed, they drove away. Cries of, “We love Americans!” Drifted back on the wind. A gift we weren’t sure what to do with.