A Saudi lost in translation

Layal Niazy | Saudi Arabia | 15.11.2017

I enter the crowded room of people and, almost immediately, I am overwhelmed with the myriad of bodies I sense around me. I inhale deeply as I take in my surroundings: bright, fluorescent lighting, bodies wandering around and all within close proximity to one another, the high-pitch sound of laughter that makes its way into awkward conversations; the forced fake laugh to ease conversation flow, the murmuring of excited voices unwilling to settle down.

 

I shuffle my feet nervously as I remind myself that I should step further into the room, instead of blocking the doorway selfishly. I suddenly hear my baba’s tender voice, and I envision the gentle features on his face as he explains, to a much younger version of myself, the importance of being mindful of others. I guess there is some truth in saying that we can leave home, but home will never leave us. I am momentarily distracted by my thoughts and do not notice that I am now in the centre of the large room. I feel people enclose around me.

 

Calm. I am calm. I feel the anxiety in my nerves and will push it back to where it belongs: far, far away. I believe in the art of positive thinking. If I believe I am calm, then so I am. Why am I so nervous, anyways? Perhaps it’s them – the people, the strangers. What could I possibly have in common with any of them? We share neither the same mother tongue nor the same upbringing. My favourite breakfast is most definitely not their favourite, unless they miraculously share the same weakness as I for fool, tamees and shakshooka. On a more blatant note, we most definitely do not look like each other. In this sea of people with fair skin and light coloured hair, my dark facial features and light brown skin tone stand out like a gazelle in a lion’s den. Of course, there are people with darker skin; however, I do not blend in. Isn’t it funny? I bite my lower lip, trying to muffle a giggle. I have faced scarier things before, and yet I still feel so afraid – so exposed – in this new environment with all of these new people. We are a mixture of different upbringings, cultures and identities; yet, we are the same, me and them. We are really all just flesh and bone – fine examples of the human race (and I mean very fine, noting the handsome boy with the honey-coloured skin in the corner of the room).

 

Finally, after what feels like an eternity, but what is actually a total of about forty-five seconds, I take gradual steps towards the crowd of people nearest to me. I wipe my sweaty palms on the hem of my grey sweatshirt. I imagine them sizing me up: taking in all 5ft 4in of me. I feel their eyes race over me from the tip of my olive green trainers to my skintight white jeans, to my cropped sweatshirt and finally to my face, where their eyes linger on my light brown wavy hair tied in a half updo. Is this my imagination, or are they actually studying me like I am some foreign specimen under a microscope?

 

One of the faces – a boy’s – is the first to smile. That one simple curve of his lips gave me the extra shove I needed to introduce myself. Soon enough, they are all smiling at me. I tell them my name and wonder whether I should reveal where I come from. One of them, a kind-looking girl with emerald green eyes and golden blonde, straight hair doesn’t give me the chance to think it through. “Where are you from?” she asks so daringly, so directly. Once I answer this question, I will never have the chance to be one of them. Once I answer this question, I will no longer be viewed as myself, but rather as someone belonging to a faraway land of mystery. Once I answer this question, I will have to brace myself for all of the questions I will have to answer. With a sigh, I whisper: Saudi Arabia.

 

I receive all the reactions I anticipate: widened eyes and dropped jaws. I feel myself shrink, and I want to make myself even smaller so that I can escape the room unnoticed. “Come on, come on, you can do this. Just focus, breathe in and disappear,” I think urgently to myself. Unfortunately, positive thinking doesn’t always work when I want it to, and so I refrain from mentally shrinking in size; I know that if I try to shrink, instead of appearing any smaller, I’ll probably just look like I’m having a seizure – or worse, they’ll think I’m constipated. Goddamn it, this vicious cycle of introductions never gets any easier. I take another glance at the curious faces around me, and I prepare myself for the questions that tend to follow dropping such a sizeable a bomb – and no, not a literal one.

 

 The first one, asked by the boy in a polo shirt, pastel shorts and loafers, is among the most common I face: “Why aren’t you covering your hair?” I want to reply, “Go away,” but I don’t think that would be culturally acceptable. Instead, I opt for a more articulate answer. I carefully explain that yes, I am a Muslim woman, but no, I deliberately choose to not cover my hair, but yes, I do respect all the women who choose to do so.

 

The next question isn’t any more stimulating than the first, and I pause for a second to think of how to answer “Did you ride a camel to school back at home?” Before I get the chance to consider all of my options, I am cornered with another one: “Were you even allowed to go to school?” I amuse myself with every possible response, and I really want to tell them: “Yes! I have a pet camel named Jameel, and he used to take me to school every morning back in Jeddah.” Scratch that – I want to tell them that I rode my magic carpet to and from school every day. Instead, I shift uncomfortably and carefully explain that Jeddah isn’t that underdeveloped and that we use cars over there too.

 

This summons the next question from the girl with the curly brown hair: “Are you even allowed to drive in Arabic?” I assume she means Saudi Arabia, and I decide not to correct her and tell her that “Arabic” is a language, not a country; however, I am slightly impressed that this person has some knowledge about the Kingdom’s customs. This question, though, always trumps me. It is not easy to explain to them that yes, we are not currently allowed to drive, but that we will soon acquire that right - June, 2018 to be exact! It’s even more difficult to explain how although we cannot drive right now, not all Saudi women are helpless either, as they may assume. 

 

I yawn, and I realize that I do not have enough patience to continue answering all of their pestering questions. By telling them where I come from, I have given up part of my own security – my shield of anonymity. I could have been treated like any other student instead of being labelled the Arab. Instead of discussing majors and study abroad opportunities, I am asked whether my parents had an arranged marriage. Instead of debating which professors are the best, I am explaining how we do not starve to death during Ramadan, and that yes, fasting from sunrise to sunset for a month is doable. Instead of bonding over decorating dorm rooms with other students, I am explaining how I feel very safe back at home, and that in fact, it’s where I feel safest.

 

A few jerky movements later, I break away from my daze. I look down and see my green trainers shifting nervously back and forth. I am blocking the entrance to the large common room. “What an idiot,” I think to myself, realizing I still have not stepped into the room. With a deep breath, I enter the room – for real this time – and remind myself that I am no better than they are if I jump to conclusions and make assumptions. These strangers could turn into friends, and I will not drown out that possibility before it has even occurred. Who knew a college orientation could be so difficult. I take one last confident glance at my lanyard and remind myself: my name is Layal, I am an international student from Saudi Arabia, and I shouldn’t feel obligated to conceal that part of myself from anyone or anything.

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