Without Chief or Tribe: An Expat’s Guide to Having a Baby in Saudi Arabia

Nathan Deuel | Friday Was the Bomb | May 2014 | 21 minutes (5,178 words)

 

For our latest Longreads Member Pick, we’re thrilled to share a full chapter from Friday Was the Bomb, the new book by Nathan Deuel about moving to the Middle East with his wife in 2008. Deuel has been featured on Longreads in the past, and we’d like to thank him and Dzanc Books for sharing this chapter with the Longreads community. 

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* * *

I was having lunch at the swan near Hyde Park and some son of a bitch took my bag with all my documents, the email began. It was June of 2009 and I was sitting at a desk in Riyadh. Assuming this was spam, I was about to press delete, when something made me reconsider.

Outside, it was summer in Saudi Arabia, where temperatures could exceed one hundred and thirty degrees. My wife Kelly and I had lived in the country for nearly a year. We’d spent much of our lives in foreign countries or in strange corners of North America. We’d met in Cambodia, spent years in Southeast Asia, got to know Russia and the former Soviet Union, and I proposed to her on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska. This time, however, the Middle East in general seemed a little beyond my talent set. Maybe it was the heat making me feel weak? By this time of year everyone was spending entire days indoors, emerging only to drive air-conditioned cars, in which metal could be so hot it might burn your skin. Streets buckled, the wind howled in from the desert, and meanwhile booze was still illegal, women were forbidden from consorting with men they weren’t related to, and it was hard to imagine why anyone would ever choose to settle here. Considering all this, we—the swashbuckling couple who had never shied away from doing something insane—were about to bring a new baby into the world.

Earlier that spring, my wife had consulted with our doctor, who was open to natural birth. Pressed, she admitted that even at this, the best hospital in the country, we couldn’t know in advance which doctor we might get for the actual event. Most doctors, we feared, would just wheel in the knives and proceed to surgery. In Saudi Arabia, women could have up to eight babies, and the rich ones understandably came to view childbirth with as much ceremony as a hair appointment and scheduled caesareans weeks in advance. After these procedures, the nurse would arrive, take the baby to the nursery, and when it was time to leave, a nanny fed the child and carried her to the car. Honestly, I didn’t think that sounded too bad. And Kelly might have agreed, too, had we not met that Swiss doula at a camel race outside town. While we watched the beasts galumph around a desert oval, the beatifically maternal Swiss woman advocated for a natural birth with as little to do with medicine or surgery as possible. Over the next few days, driving around Riyadh’s wind-blown terrain, we talked and I suppose both became convinced—enamored, really, by the challenge of it. After all, it seemed ironic—in an otherwise throwback culture, which was leery of modern progress, which loved all things pure and holy—that they might consider a natural birth odd and subversive. Kelly heard about a doctor who could help. We drove to his clinic with a stack of cash nearly half an inch thick. The money—five thousand dollars—was a guarantee he’d come any time, day or night, no matter what.

“Don’t worry,” he said after we’d paid the receptionist. “I’ll be there when you need me.”

Driving home, I remember thinking how easy that had been, but also what kind of freedom we’d lost in the transaction. Already, we were beginning to accumulate things that might slow us down. The rental car was about six hundred dollars a month. After we were kicked out of our first apartment, we took a risk and rented a roach-infested apartment in the middle of the city beside the Kuwaiti souk. Almost everyone in the building was a deeply religious Saudi family. But what could we do? We’d soon be parents and needed a place to stay. The landlord required all six months up front, an amount that would get you a month in a sprawling penthouse in Manhattan. We were paying all that in one of the harshest climates in the world, in the country perhaps more hostile to outsiders than any other, where Islam was practiced in its strictest form, where people were executed for witchcraft and adultery. We were incredibly alone and trying to have a baby in a country where family and religion was sacred, where the locals were intensely loyal to whatever group or ideas they considered theirs, and where rising oil prices meant everyone was getting rich. Meanwhile, we were living on the edge, without tribe or chief, attempting to ask questions of ourselves and others and be open to the world, making it as freelance journalists without health insurance or savings, no real safety net, and no formal support except for the distant and somewhat restrained awe and encouragement of friends and family back home. (“You live where? Why?”) Now we thought it’d be a good idea to become parents.

Occasionally, thinking about the implications of becoming a dad, I wondered if I’d ever again do something like walk from New York to New Orleans, which I’d done in 2007. All of a sudden, I had a pregnant wife and drove through hellish traffic in a city of ten million people, in the middle of the desert, and I’d recall how it was only on the slimmest of pretexts—a new kind of journalist visa—that we’d even been admitted to Saudi Arabia in the first place. For decades prior, few western reporters had been allowed much more than a short visit, during which they would be clung to by a government minder. But when the Saudi ambassador in Washington, impressed as he was that she occasionally worked for NPR, offered Kelly a week’s visa—and later when he agreed to sponsor me, though not to work, just as a spouse—we jumped at the chance. Who could say no to the opportunity to access one of the most under-covered and misunderstood corners of the world? Well, perhaps a lot of people. But not us. We could not say no.

When our 747 landed in September 2008 and we cleared passport control, we couldn’t believe our luck that no minder appeared, that we could simply retrieve our bags, walk out into the fearsome heat, flag down a taxi, and do whatever and go wherever we chose. It felt like everything was snapping into place.

That first night we went to the cheapest hotel in town. Moving from crap-room to crap-room, we managed, with some haggling over money and rules, to replace our original weeklong visas with a month’s permission, later converted into a three-month permit. We felt cocky, I suppose. Then Kelly learned she was pregnant. We attended a party that week with a bunch of diplomats, and I sipped their illicit champagne as we talked feverishly about what to do next. For the first time we envied, rather than ridiculed, the various British accents and networks of support and jobs and health care everyone was plugged into. Untethered from a world of parents and friends—the people you might take for granted when you’re wild and young, but the community that feels so critical when you’re pregnant—we wondered: Should we go home? I downed another glass, and we decided, fuck it, let’s do this.

That winter we secured a pair of six-month permissions. Kelly was already four months pregnant. If everything went well, she’d give birth in June and we’d get out just before our visas expired. (If you overstayed your visa, you could be deported, imprisoned, or worse.)

Her belly got bigger, and I started writing more regularly, and she filed more reports for NPR. When she was at full term, our visas were set to expire, and the due date was just a few days before my thirtieth birthday. Both of our moms were flying in to help—mine first, to be replaced immediately thereafter by Claudia, Kelly’s mom. With all of this on my mind, I sat at my computer in what would eventually be our daughter’s room, preparing to work on a book I’d been attempting to write for several years, trying to cool off when I opened the email that would change the tenor of what was already a complicated couple of weeks.

I was having lunch at the swan near Hyde Park and some son of a bitch took my bag with all my documents. The email was riddled with bizarre but authentic-feeling typos. It is sunday—US consulate closed til tomorrow…there are copies of my visa and passport on the frig 9i cannot remember Al’s email address-phone is almost dead-i have nothing!!! what to do now…

Al: That was my father’s name. This wasn’t spam. My mom was stranded in London hours before I was to pick her up at the airport in Riyadh, days before my wife was to go into labor.

Working illegally, I’d recently been let go from one crappy media job, and inexplicably lucking lucked into a second crappy media job at the last minute. The boss at the new shop agreed it wouldn’t make sense for me to start working while my wife was in labor. I could start, we agreed, a day or two after my kid’s birth.

The whole situation was a bit overwhelming. I tried not to think about how badly we needed the money. Then there was or the fact that my mom was stranded in London. With a brain frying from the high heat of an Arabian summer, I couldn’t help thinking again of the several thousand dollars we might need if there were complications—plus enough to pay for rent, to and buy a bed before my mom arrived—if she ever did—and still more to host Kelly’s mom, Claudia, who would arrive as my mom departed. Could you put a C-section on a credit card? I hoped you could. I slapped myself. I stopped stressing and I started writing.

Dear Clive Ward, I began, responding to the unfamiliar email address. Are you my mom?

* * *

Clive Ward, it turned out, was my mom’s new friend and the manager of the Hyde Park Hotel. During a ten-hour layover, she’d left Heathrow and taken the Tube to into town. While she drank at a pub, her purse had been stolen along with her wallet, passport, and brand-new camera. When I finally talked to the woman who’d given birth to me, her voice was shaky, and she expressed a great deal of regret about the whole thing. I calmed her down as best as I could and walked her through what she’d do: Get an emergency AmEx card, withdraw a bunch of cash, go to the US embassy for a new passport, beg the Saudi consulate in London for a new visa. This kind of stuff was old hat for Kelly and I, but it felt like a lot to put my mom through, and I began to think that maybe we’d overextended ourselves.

Bright and early Monday morning, with a fistful of cash and a new credit card, my mom waited at the US Embassy only to have American officials cheerfully inform her that the passport photos she’d gotten were a tad too small. She’d need to go make new ones. In tears, she wandered nearby streets trying to find a place that could make photos the right size for America.

The next day, with a new U.S. passport in hand, she asked the Saudi Embassy if they’d reissue her lost visa, without which she’d be turned away at the airport in Riyadh. It seemed like a simple request—especially with the backing of the Ambassador in DC—but London officials said, with regret, that it was in fact only the Saudi Embassy in the U.S. that could reissue such permission. Kelly’s due date was Thursday.

* * *

 

Miraculously, my mom arrived before the baby. On the day Kelly was due, with no signs yet of labor, I took the ladies to an Indian restaurant in Riyadh, where modesty laws required that we all sit in a booth behind a curtain, so that no one could see my wife or my mom’s faces. To summon a waiter, there was a button in the middle of the table. Whenever he arrived to bring more naan or to refresh our water, the waiter avoided our gaze. We ordered the spiciest food on the menu, hoping it might induce Kelly’s labor. My mom tried to be of good cheer. She was totally exhausted. London had cost her at least a thousand dollars. She needed a drink, but with Saudi’s strict rules against alcohol, we’d be lucky to have even a small taste of booze while she was here.

After lunch, we went to the mall. Other than mosques and a handful of grim parks, it was the only place in the entire city we could relax outside the apartment. (Movie theaters were outlawed; public space in general was highly charged and patrolled by religious police, who carried clubs.) Under the fluorescent glow, Kelly drank from a quart bottle of pineapple juice—said also to help induce labor—and she rode the escalator down, then walked up the stairs, repeating this over and over in hopes of jostling our child into being.

Every time we left the house I braced myself for some strange experience: Religious police asking us for our marriage license, a car wreck in which I might have to pay blood money, or an eager proselytizer trying to convert my family to Islam. With my slow-moving wife an easy target, I expected we might be accosted by a crowd of horny teenagers. I scanned the area. One afternoon, in the same mall, I’d seen a boy on an ATV ride in through the glass doors, rev his engine around the glass-ceilinged courtyard, and blast back outside, gunning his machine into traffic. There wasn’t much to do here.

The next night, my thirtieth birthday, Kelly’s water broke. The contractions started rolling in, and we cracked a bottle of white wine a diplomat gave us. My mom and I sipped, taking turns napping. Eventually, Kelly began to moan from the pain, but still she was adamant about not going to the hospital before she was ready. For two hours, she sat in the bathroom, the only spot in the house she felt comfortable, all the while moaning and slumping over. When she finally agreed to go, it was four in the morning. She’d been in labor for seven hours, and she could barely talk, let alone walk.

It took us an hour to get her pants on, then my mom and I frog-marched her into the car, where she was laid out like some kind of injured mermaid, sprawling in pain across the front passenger seat, which I’d reclined to full capacity. By that time of the night, the desert air had cooled. A light breeze ruffled a few palms. No cars were out, and you could hear the click of the traffic lights as they changed colors. The baby seat we’d bought for the occasion was in the trunk, as were snacks and water and various bags of gear. The car roared to life and I started driving northeast, through the city’s sprawling outer developments. Billboards advertised imported soup, luxury cars, and washing machines. I floored it between speed bumps, which, when hit, caused Kelly to groan. The hospital was twenty minutes away. Could I deliver a baby by the side of the road, in Saudi Arabia? I drove as fast as I could.

At last, I could see the emblem of the hospital—the outline of a palm beside a crescent moon—and at sixty miles per hour I barreled into the parking lot. A male attendant watched with wide eyes as Kelly limped in the door. Nurses examined her. She was already dilated eight centimeters.
***

 

The team that morning included women from Jordan and Tunisia. I’d met the Jordanian earlier in the week, when we’d dropped off a box of sweets along with the latest copy of our birth plan. I’d felt foolish then, but seeing familiar faces, I was glad we’d taken the time. My mom unpacked our bags, and I thought someone might object when she set up speakers that quietly played hippie flute music. Then she hung some eagle feathers on a wall, and our room began to feel like some sort of Ashram—illegal in a country that banned all religion but Islam—and for second I thought about what might go wrong.

Soon, we were hurtling toward the final push. I checked my watch. The doctor we’d paid all that money to still wasn’t here. I asked one of the nurses, and she shrugged. That’s when I noticed the appearance of another doctor, covered head to toe in a fearsome, strangely form-fitting Islamic robe, which revealed only her eyes—she was even wearing black gloves—making her look like a severe little ninja. Behind her came an orderly, who was wheeling in a cart of gleaming surgical equipment. This was exactly what we didn’t want to happen.

The tiny doctor lifted up Kelly’s robe, and her hand disappeared under the fabric. My wife began to bellow. She’d hunted for pirates in Indonesia, nearly had her arm torn off when we worked on a fishing boat in Alaska, and a few years from this moment, she’d embed with Syrian rebels. In this hospital on this day, her face was ashen and furious. I worried she might kill this tiny doctor. Taking care not to touch the black-robed woman, I ushered the doctor out of the room, explaining that we’d already paid for a specialist to be in attendance, that he was in fact en route (I hoped), that our birth plan requested no drugs or any major intervention unless absolutely necessary, that this plan was posted to the wall in the nurse’s station, that under no circumstances was she to come back into our room for any reason. She clicked her tongue at me and walked away. Kelly, grunting, took refuge in the bathroom.

I stood outside the door, listening. There was a low moan. I went in.

“Just give me some gas,” she pleaded. “Just a little? Pleeeeeeease. I need it.”

We’d practiced this. Kelly wanted to do the birth without drugs. In the moment, we were told it was all but certain she’d want them. Yet she’d ordered me not to listen to her begging or reasoning. I was to do whatever it took not to let her have what she wanted.

“They don’t have any,” I said, hoping she’d forgive me. “They’re all out.”

So fragile was Kelly—who normally took no shit—that she simply looked at me sadly, eyes wide, believing me completely. It was hard to imagine any other situation in which she’d take no for an answer.

My mom edged into the bathroom with a cup of Gatorade. The doctor had finally arrived. I poured some of the red stuff into Kelly’s mouth, as if she were a bird, taking care not to bump her nose. She hung her head, having neither eaten nor consumed liquid in twelve hours. As I hugged her shoulders, I felt her muscles liven, fortified perhaps by the salts and sugar. With a sigh, she let me help lift her off the toilet. Her head fell on my shoulder. She wore a loose gown and her skin was warm. I held her arm and walked her slowly through the door. She looked at me, climbed slowly up onto the bed. Then she got into position.

For that last hour—or was it five minutes?—I sat on the bed behind her, my legs out, steadying her, sometimes rubbing her back. My thighs cramped up so badly they’d felt like they might explode. Solidarity, I thought. But whatever I felt was nothing. I listened to all kinds of strange noises, and all I could see was the face of the Jordanian nurse, who smelled like cigarettes.

Y’allah,” she said to Kelly, speaking in Arabic. “Let’s go, honey. Let’s go, let’s go.”

Just after eight AM, I scrambled off the bed, putting my hand to our baby’s chest, saying, “Hello, baby, it’s so nice to meet you,” keeping contact as the doctor moved the two of us across the room to a small theater—me chanting, “Hey, baby. I’m here. Honey, I’m here”—when the doctor proceeded to look for signs of life. Seeing the little swollen bits between a tiny set of legs, my mom screamed, “It’s a boy!”

But she wasn’t. This was Loretta, who with one final thwack against her chest cried. I lifted her up, placed her on Kelly’s chest, and nearly fell to the ground in triumph. My birthday was over.

* * *

 

A day later, I sat in the hushed office of my new employer, a Lebanese-Syrian publishing company, which had postponed my start date until Loretta was born. The boss was agreeable enough—offering a congratulatory slice of his pizza and a few bites of his salad—but I’d soon learn that he was always too busy, preoccupied with making another deal. He had no time to oversee any of the projects he’d already agreed to. Plus, it was so difficult to recruit and train anyone to work in Saudi Arabia. His crew was a mix of weirdoes—the desperate, the incompetent, and the insane. In the sleepless haze of post-birth, I fit in just fine.

Most of my colleagues hunched unhappily behind ancient computers, tapping away at whatever it was I could never figure out, biding time before the next trip home. One guy was completely cross-eyed. Another seemed to speak no recognizable language.

But they all presumably had families they loved as much as I loved my own. However alienating Riyadh was for all of us, each of us had a connection as strong as the one I felt to two people back at an apartment across town. The only woman on staff was pregnant. There wasn’t much else to do in this country.

Unlike in less-wealthy Oman or Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s staggering oil profits were distributed in such a way that few nationals did much work. Foreign workers were imported to staff restaurants and shops, to build roads and fix and install technology, to manage and grow the thriving commercial sector. It wasn’t easy to get someone to come here from abroad. Whether they sought a janitor or a graphic designer or a writer, companies had to pay for annual flights back, and most firms even supplied housing.

A majority of those Saudis who did work had cushy jobs in state agencies paid for by oil profits where they were reported to drink lots of tea. But a new law on the books required private enterprise to employ at least one local. Our token local was a handsome dude in his early twenties who arrived at ten AM in his red sports car. Most days, he’d glide into the office, take off his sunglasses, listen to a little music, surf the web, make some tea, then go home. One day I asked him to translate some stuff for an article I was writing about Japan. He looked at me quizzically then wandered off to the bathroom.

We met regularly with clients, piling into the CEO’s luxury sport utility vehicle, plowing down kilometers of new asphalt, where we’d arrive at the gleaming headquarters of some massive state-run medical cooperative or an oil conglomerations. Our sales pitch was to produce a variety of unreadable magazines and in-house circulars or occasionally a glossy brochure for a company who sold specialty drill bits or plastic sacks for transporting salt. I wore rumpled dress shirts and tried to smile. My role was to be the marginally enthusiastic American, trotted out to speak perfect English and say a few words of encouragement, such as, “We care about your company’s success” or “I love health care and corporate social responsibility in equal measure,” justifying, I suppose, whatever huge fees we were charging. The whole thing was demoralizing at times but always fascinating and occasionally hilarious. When we met up with friends—many of them diplomats or journalists—I never told anyone where I worked, because it was all technically illegal, seeing as how I was in the country as the spouse of a journalist. And I was also embarrassed. On my worst days, I told myself this: enjoy the money and think of the whole thing as a crazy experiment.

More importantly, there was the matter of an exit visa for Loretta. Until she had some kind of Saudi paperwork, we learned, there’d be no attempting to leave the country. In essence, according to local jurisprudence, Loretta wasn’t even ours. My mom was long gone and Claudia had only stayed for two weeks. We spent much of their visits lying around in a giant bed, watching baby TV. Since Loretta’s birth, Kelly had stayed home, breast-feeding and cooing. And though she had done all the work to put things in motion, it was I who chipped away at the mountain of paperwork required to get us out of the country. On short lunch breaks, when I wasn’t cutting out of work early to go to some obscure office to get a new stamp or form, I would cross an eight-lane highway thick with Suburbans driven by crazed teenagers in order to pace the halls of a mostly moribund mall near my office. I’d smoke cigarettes and make calls and drink Diet Pepsi, and in a way that was becoming all too familiar, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things that could go wrong.

First we needed a Saudi birth certificate, which required U.S. Embassy-approved translations and notarizations. With those in hand, plus several forms printed out and filled out in triplicate, plus a bunch of photos of Loretta, who when taken to a photo studio was two days old and asleep, only then could I get in line at the U.S. embassy to get her a passport, which had to be manufactured in the United States and sent back to Saudi. Disclaimers in all caps from the State Department warned us that they couldn’t help us if we overstayed our visa, that jail time was possible, that heads of families had indeed been forced to send their children home while they battled some immigration case. Waiting in line to pick up the passport one afternoon, I watched as a woman sobbed, “I want my husband. Where is my husband? Can’t someone help me!” With time running out, I drove to the dreaded immigration headquarters in south Riyadh, where I would submit the U.S. documents along with several inscrutable Arabic papers I could not even begin to decipher. It was a mind-meltingly sunny day in July, and I was waiting in an epic line when a man slithered up beside me like an eel. His teeth were bad and he seemed drunk.

“I can help you fill out your forms,” he said.

A roomful of men turned to look at us.

Years before, I might have figured out how to enjoy this, or at least see it as a bit of an adventure. But with the stakes so high—Loretta was so small!—I couldn’t help jumping to conclusions. What if they tried to take her away from us? She was born on their soil, and we were at their mercy. The consequences of failure were of a magnitude so vast and incomprehensible that I couldn’t stomach any kind of problem. When I was twenty-four and living in Indonesia, for instance, the prospect of going to jail was kind of hilarious. But as a father, there was nothing to laugh at, just the little girl who needed me to complete her paperwork.

Through the window I saw a line of what looked like Afghan guest workers outside. Their legs were chained to a long iron rod, and they shuffled in the sun across a sandy lot. My shirt was soaked through and I imagined my own legs in chains and then my ladies in limbo and I couldn’t take it anymore and—I’m not proud of this—I skipped ahead of all the men from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and India and walked right to the front desk.

“You have to help me,” I said, pleading, staring into the eyes of a very thin Saudi army colonel in epaulets who was smoking a cigarette. He took a long drag. “My daughter,” I said, showing him a picture. “We need to get her home in time for an important religious ceremony.”

This was our trump card: baptism. I hadn’t been to church voluntarily in my entire life, but Kelly’s grandmother had long worked in a convent, where Kelly’s aunt was still a nun. My grandmother on my dad’s side prayed for us all the time. For all of them, we’d decided to give the little girl her dunk in the holy water.

The man put down his cigarette. Religion meant something here, even if wasn’t Islam; faith commanded respect, and more importantly, action. He walked to a shelf filled with thick leather binders. Paging through the yellowing paper of one, he found an open space and took out an ink pen. Peering closely at my shaky handwriting and the picture of our newborn daughter, he slowly began to write. Then he stopped, inspected my forms again. I held my breath. I said a little prayer. Was something wrong? Then with a sigh, he resumed scratching, producing line after line of flowing Arabic. Finally, he took out a stamp, moistened it with a small sponge, affixed it to little Loretta’s passport page, signed, and with that, we could leave.

* * *

 

Back in America, Loretta was baptized, and we began a sort of victory tour up and down the East Coast. In New York, we grilled pork sausages and clinked cold beers. On a sunny day in Miami, where my parents lived, I watched my dad hold his squirming grandchild. It felt like nothing could go wrong.

Then, NPR, which had been flirting with giving Kelly a better gig, issued fresh signals that a full-time correspondent job might be in the cards. With more to prove—to ourselves and others—we went back to Saudi Arabia.

We were on a short assignment in Yemen months later when we learned my dad was sick. By the time I got to the hospital in Florida, where he died, I realized how tired I was. A few weeks later, after another lunch in DC, NPR made Kelly an offer she couldn’t refuse.

Sitting on a lawn in suburban Virginia, my dad dead and buried, I talked to my wife on the phone minutes after she’d accepted the job. My daughter picked at pieces of tender grass. In some ways, we would finally have the stability a new child seemed to demand. The problem was that Kelly’s new job was in Baghdad.

* * *

From Friday Was the Bomb, copyright 2014 Nathan Deuel and Dzanc Books.

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Illustration by Kjell Reigstad