Letters: Marooned in America

In 1999, Mary Gravitt took a job as an English instructor in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. — photo by Andrew Shenouda

By Mary Gravitt

Perhaps like me, Trayvon Martin never felt like an American. Even though I was born in Philadelphia and lived the better part of my life there, I have always felt like a voyeur. This feeling of anomie persists in spite of the fact that my maternal grandfather was born a slave on a South Carolina plantation.

In August 1999, it seemed impossible to shake off my alienation, so I took a job as an English instructor in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This trip revealed to me a reality that most American Negroes face when they leave the United States and place themselves in the hands of a remote alien culture: All that I am, and all that I can ever be, is an American. As a black person, and as a female, my trip to Riyadh was like a trip into an Octavia Butler science fiction novel: It took me back into American cultural history involving coextensive binary and parallel time frames. This doppelganger of anachronisms was New Orleans, La. from 1896, when Plessey vs. Ferguson codified racial segregation, to 1953, the year before Brown vs. the Board that struck it down, and 1999, the year I arrived in Riyadh.

Sentimental Journeying

Saudi Arabia hasn’t yet reached its metaphorical 1954—there they have segregation, but it’s sexual rather than racial. Women—much like American Negroes of 1953—no matter their class or social status, be it princess or housemaid, are still forced to enter public places through back entrances where they are seated in inferior, curtained-off areas that have blacked-out windows. At some fast food restaurants like Dunkin’ Donuts, women are allowed walk-up service only. I had faced de facto segregation in Philadelphia, but never de jure.

In Riyadh, the religious police, mutaween, accompanied by the municipal police, prowl the malls and restaurants monitoring women. They visit pharmacies—scribbling out faces on Clairol boxes. At private businesses and in public they intimidate, harass and humiliate Islamic women.

Witnessing this misogyny, I remained in a constant state of verisimilitude—free floating like the protagonist in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, my feet planted in two cultures, one Western and the other Middle Eastern—existing in and out of time, simultaneously in the 15th and 20th centuries in tandem with the Islamic anachronistic calendar still reading A.H. 1422. I will not belabor my lifestyle in Riyadh as a mature single woman who left America with Malcolm X eyes and returned blinded by the racism, sexism and discrimination I faced as a black person in the land of The Arabian Nights where Black is definitely not beautiful: Once more, my anomie was reinforced, and I sought refuge in the familiar.

Sojourning into Truth

Prior to leaving Iowa City (where I lived after earning my master’s degree) for Riyadh, I had always been a fan of National Public Radio (NPR), especially WSUI (Iowa City’s local affiliate) and the BBC. When I settled in Riyadh, I purchased a radio equipped with two short wave bands—standard in the Middle East. I received Public Radio International (PRI) via Armed Forces Radio, the BBC via the short wave and then I discovered Radio Riyadh (RR), the government-sponsored radio station. RR broadcasts in three languages—Arabic, English and French—using an American format, supplemented by BBC-type programming of plays and short stories, West Side Story and Tess of the d’Urbervilles being perennial favorites.

Even though RR is used mostly for propaganda purposes, the male and female talk shows hosts and DJs are quite entertaining in their sampling of American popular culture, with a broadcast music format that includes rap, blues, R&B, jazz and both American and Filipino pop-rock music. The most popular pop singers were the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. Even the “news” broadcasting—a linguistic feat in itself, with the announcer prefacing each person on his long list of Saudi royals with “his royal highness,” all within his allotted two minutes—is both breathtaking and entertaining.

RR jams for hours between the mandatory daily prayers, Koranic lessons (which constantly reinforces whiteness in preference to darkness) and the Friday broadcast from the mosque in Mecca in both Arabic and transliterated English. In short, radio became my lifeline between two cultures because most public entertainment, public libraries (with the exception of a few limited hours), open public forums and uncensored domestic news are unlawful spaces for females in Saudi Arabia.

From my sojourn into Saudi culture via limited access to media outlets and constraints on personal mobility, I found that things are seldom what they seem. In Riyadh, every business, regardless of its location, has at least two locks and a heavy-gauged chain with a Master padlock on its doors, and those located on street-level often have security gates as well. My apartment, which was located on the sixth floor, was the only one in the entire gated compound without two jailhouse locks on its front and balcony doors. I wondered: In a society where people pray five times a day, why are such stringent security measures necessary? I soon developed conflicting ideas, because even in my alienated state I felt physically safe there.

My mental condition was another story. I felt only fear, especially when I became unwittingly embroiled in a crime punishable by death (which I vowed never to discuss), and that I was only involved in as a result of my own American naivete. I learned that in Saudi Arabia, women disappear daily. Female indentured servants from poorer Muslim countries (Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh) who come to the country as contracted labor (similar to Antebellum females slaves in New Orleans) are often raped, and many are forced to work 24 hours, seven days a week—without a day off and for very little pay.

Still, not all was bad in the Desert Kingdom. I have never observed a society where children and motherhood are so valued: The spirit of Calvinistic social welfare systems in the United States seem to have killed this instinct in Americans. In Saudi Arabia, children rule the society, and it is through procreation that self-hood, manhood and womanhood are established.

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Riyadh also offers quality if not quantity of social life. Shopping is one of the few lawful activities where the sexes can mingle freely without being arrested in Saudi Arabia, and, like the radio, it has its own take on American culture. American stores like J.C. Penny, Victoria’s Secret, Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks are located on every major thoroughfare, as well as in Western-style shopping malls in central Riyadh. There are Pizza Huts, McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises located throughout the city. Items available for purchase include busts of Elvis, full-sized replicas of jukeboxes designed to look like 1950s originals and the latest American videos and CDs (rap and otherwise).

Home Again

When I returned to America in early August 2001, I continued my radio listening habits. The shows remained interesting if mundane on NPR and programming covering international news on the BBC continued to be intellectually stimulating. But things changed on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

What Bush named the War on Terror involved the original Euro-centric colonizers—America, Britain, Spain and Italy, France absented itself—who wanted to precipitate a reshaping of the spheres of strategic influence (especially those containing large oil and gas reserves) in the Middle East and Central Asia, all in the name of ‘freedom and democracy’ and ‘peace and security.’

In response, NPR began programming like the BBC: Its intellectual content and devotion to international news and events broadened. This programming change continues today—reflected in the public discourse by middle-class American callers, the meta-ethical comments given and the questions asked by hosts to guests on NPR talk shows.

I, like many others, once lived in a dream world where I thought my life would be better some place else, Africa for instance. There in Riyadh, I discovered what Henry James also exposes in his novels: Americans are indeed innocents abroad, and that running away from home solves nothing.

Originally from Philadelphia, Mary Gravitt has lived in Iowa City since 1989. She loves politics and is interested in Civic Studies, a subject no longer taught in the public schools.