Elsa Franco Al Ghaslan
Published — Friday 5 April 2013
Last update 5 April 2013 4:31 am
I remember my first day in Saudi Arabia as if it happened yesterday. My Saudi husband, Saud, and I arrived in Dammam — in the middle of the night — straight from our honeymoon in my country. It was winter time, so I was wearing a coat, stockings and gloves. My husband had previously told me that women here cover their heads, therefore I had tied a lovely silk scarf around mine, just before getting out of the plane.
The plane landed and passengers started to proceed through the exit. It was almost my turn. I was excited, I wanted to see everything right away. It was dark outside. There were only the airport lights which blinded me the minute I stepped out of the plane. I started to descend the steps. The heat was unbearable, the hot humid air was like a steam bath. With my coat, stockings, gloves and scarf I felt I was walking into a huge oven. We entered the airport building, a plain crowded room. It was nothing to compare with the beautiful airports which were built years later throughout the country. I looked around and all I could see was a mass of white, walking clothes. What a strange sight this was for me! There were men everywhere and all of them were wearing the traditional Saudi dress, the “thobe,” a long white ankle length garment and the “ghotra,” a large white headdress. The men walked in all directions around me. I felt lost in a strange world where I must have looked like a freak. I walked as if in a dream. I kept close to Saud, I was afraid he might disappear, swallowed up by the white crowd. He was one of the few men wearing Western clothes. I did not know it at the time, but this was the last time I would see him in pants and a shirt. From now on he would only ever wear a thobe and a ghotra or a “shmagh” (a checkered red and white head cover).
I walked straight ahead. I was feeling a little scared and intimidated. I was holding my beauty case when I suddenly felt someone snatch it from my hand. I froze in astonishment and fear. I whispered to Saud, “Someone took my beauty case!” I honestly thought it had been stolen. What a surprise I had when my husband simply answered, “Oh, it’s my brother!” I didn’t understand right away, and asked myself, “What does he mean, his brother? I have neither seen nor talked to anybody. I haven’t been introduced to anyone.” This was my first encounter with the Saudi way of handling any relationship between a man and a woman. No greetings were exchanged, no words were spoken, not even a glance because we were in a public place. I tried to hide my bewilderment and I must confess, my embarrassment. Right away, I found myself so different, so ignorant about the traditional ways. I was a true fish out of water. Soon after did I realize that I was also something like a zoo animal in display when conservative women (relatives and neighbors) started coming to see, visit, observe me as a strange never-seen-before “object” of curiosity. In those days a Western woman in a Saudi household was as rare as a black pearl.