Viewed from the top of the minaret, the desert stretches for miles until it touches a brilliant cerulean sky. On the horizon a blazing sun moves toward its afternoon descent. Even now, all these years later, I can still feel the rays of that sun burning my scalp, still feel my parched lips sucked dry of moisture. The desert sand shimmers in the sun. As a child I would draw sand, coloring with a single crayon, each grain blended to create a vast yellow sea. In actuality desert sand is multihued, shades of brown and tan and gold, and even rose near the edge of its sweep, where land meets sky. On hot days like this one, mirages abound — a sparse clump of desert weed appears as an oasis of trees, a faint glimmer hinting of optical trickery.
My husband Dan and I came upon the abandoned village deep in the desert along a road no longer in use. I was immediately drawn to its center, where the town’s faithful had once gathered in a mosque to pray. Rising above the empty homes, the mosque’s minaret provided the first glimpse of the village from far off. Now the spire beckoned to me as forbidden fruit. Like the houses we passed on either side of the road bisecting the village, the entranceway to the mosque gaped open, its doors having been claimed by treasure hunters. Most buildings of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province were crudely constructed and architecturally unremarkable, but the old Arab homes had featured beautiful wooden doors carved with intricate patterns and embellished with hammered nails. Over the years scavenging Americans had recognized their value, repurposing the doors as dining room tabletops or unique artifacts to display along a bare wall.
I entered the circular building solemnly, aware that this place had once been sacred, forbidden to non-Muslims. Its concrete floor was dusty with sand swept in by the desert’s relentless wind. I imagined the mosque as it had once been, before the oil pipeline had been built and everyone was ordered to move out, with men dressed in their traditional white thobes and red-and-white checked gutras, pointed toward Mecca, that holiest site of Islam, as they kneeled in submission on individual prayer rugs, chanting in unison the Quranic verses memorized from childhood. I could almost hear their deep droning, and I felt oddly chagrined, knowing these men would have been scandalized by my presence, an infidel, and a woman, in their holy space.
“Come, let’s climb the minaret,” Dan whispered, touching my arm. He indicated a circular staircase that wound its way inside a turret. We ascended and stepped onto the outer platform to gaze at the houses and streets below and the vast empty desert beyond the village walls. The minaret was not very tall – it did not need to be for such a small town. Standing here, a muezzin would have called out the salát, the summons to prayer, five times a day, every day, “Allahu Akbar!” echoing around the village, inviting men to gather, remove their sandals and wash their feet at the fountain before entering the mosque. This mosque was too small to accommodate a separate space for the women, so they would spread their prayer mats at home, falling on their knees to pray.
The building was the center of the village, both physically and spiritually. All aspects of life here would have been directed by the imam charged with keeping his flock faithful to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
It was, in that way, reminiscent of my childhood, halfway across the globe and a world away in customs. I grew up in a northeastern city filled with immigrants from European countries, families who clung to their old-world beliefs and traditions even as they reached out for the opportunities that they hoped America would offer. While these immigrants were overwhelmingly Catholic, this commonality did not necessarily draw people together. Each ethnicity had its own favored parish, a church and often a school, which served as the center not only for religious worship and education, but also for social activities and community norms. The church was the cultural hub, where the Irish attended St. Mary’s, the Italians frequented St. Anthony’s, and the Polish preferred St. Genevieve’s. From my backyard I could hear church bells from numerous steeples ringing out on Sunday mornings and weekdays at six in the evening. The competing bells were a call to prayer, a reminder of duty, of obligation, and the tolling hymns were as familiar a sound to me as my mother’s voice calling me to the dinner table. The church was ubiquitous in my childhood, permeating my family’s traditions, our holidays, our celebrations, our daily activities. Its presence was constant and unquestioned.
My siblings and I attended the parish school, where we began each day pledging allegiance to the flag and praying to the Virgin Mary for guidance in our studies, and on the first Friday of every month we trekked two city blocks to the church for Mass. I studied the lives of the saints in a daily religion class, and during Lent, I offered up my milk money for the poor children of Africa and China, depositing a dime each day in the cardboard “rice bowl” taped to the corner of my desk. First Communions and Confirmations were celebrated as joyously as Christmas, and in my neighborhood dozens of children prepared each year for those sacramental milestones. I cherished being part of that “one holy and apostolic church.” I loved its dark mysteries, the pipe organ and the ornate pulpit, the embroidered lace surplice placed over black cassocks that my brothers, altar boys, wore to assist in the Mass. I trembled before the fear-inspiring righteousness of our aged Monseigneur as he intoned admonitions during his Sunday sermons. I sat up straighter when I saw the nuns who taught me glance my way. Sitting beside my parents in our usual pew, I would gaze around the familiar yet imposing structure: the vaulted ceiling held in place by Gothic arches, cream-colored with pastel accents, the cool dark marble floor, and the stained-glass windows depicting the Passion of Christ. My attention during services wandered and I was drawn to those windows, their images and colors, the way dust particles danced in the sun’s rays streaming through on Sunday mornings. During evening high mass on Holy Thursday, I lost track of time as the windows evoked a darker mood, lit from within by candles, the air scented with frankincense and myrrh.
As I grew into adulthood, I fell away from the church. I immersed myself in the diversity of a large public university and explored new ways to think about life, about my existence, my purpose. The Catholic faith’s demands for quiet acceptance and blind obedience to its patriarchy chafed against my hunger for independence and rational thought, and I lapsed with intention. This was not a linear progression, and it was not something I felt particularly good about. The church and its traditions, its rituals, and its beliefs were such an integral part of my family’s history that it felt wrong to reject them, as though I were rejecting part of my cultural heritage. I knew the church had shaped me, as much as my family, my education, my childhood experiences had. My moral center had been formed in the church. I missed the moments of welcome solitude I experienced in churches, moments when I would slip in to simply sit in a pew, to breathe in the silence, to be alone, without expectations, among marble statues and stained-glass visages.
But over time my resentment toward the outdated stance on women’s roles and my rejection of the impossibilities of some of the most basic tenets ultimately won over my desire for a stronger faith, for a sense of belonging. The answer to my growing question of outrage, “How can a benevolent God let these things happen?” was always, “It is not for us to know.” To a seeker of knowledge, this was intolerable. In time the church was embroiled in scandals and I felt justified in my rejection of it. Still, even now I sometimes enter an old cathedral during its quiet hours and slide into a pew to gaze at the windows, the gleaming altar with its crucified Christ, the figures of Mary and other saints watching compassionately from their pedestals. Then I can recall the glow of an unquestioning faith in a higher order, in an omnipotent yet loving creator mysteriously making sense of it all. I miss the peace that once brought.
Marriage and a new career as an international schoolteacher brought me, at twenty-eight, to a kingdom ruled by a family who had responsibility to safeguard the birthplace of Islam. The official title of the head of that family, the king, is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (located in the cities of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s most revered sites). The government of Saudi Arabia permits the practice of no other religion. Islam is inescapable, as much a part of daily life throughout the kingdom as Catholicism had been in my childhood neighborhood. People greet each other on the streets, in the shops, and in doctor’s waiting rooms with “salaam aleikhoum” (peace be upon you) more often than the secular “marhaba” (hello). All talk involving the future, whether it be tomorrow or two years on, are concluded with an intoning of “inshallah” (if God wills it), a phrase reminiscent of my Irish mother’s “God willing” tripping from her tongue whenever we discussed our plans.
In Arabia I heard the faithful summoned to prayer every day, as the mosques’ minarets are now equipped with speakers to ensure saturation throughout a city. Sometimes the calls soared, beautiful and lyrical, evoking wonder, but at other times they fell flat, guttural, unpleasantly insistent. The only times I didn’t hear the call were the days we adventured far out into the desert or along the Gulf coast, away from cities and villages, away from the reach of the muezzin. Even then, as we drove over long stretches of highway that crossed the desert, we would see drivers pull over to the side of the road, reach into their car trunks for a prayer mat, and kneel on the road’s shoulder, facing Mecca to pray. Even in solitude, when no one was watching, they honored their god at the appointed time. These people clearly cherished their faith with a single-minded devotion, their unquestioned belief evidenced by their rote memorization of Quranic verses and a determined assurance that this is the one true religion. Even the nation’s flag confirms it: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” They reminded me of the immigrant faithful in my neighborhood: those who made their way to church for daily mass, those who always kept a rosary in a pocket, those who wore as jewelry a gold crucifix or medal of a saint on a gold chain, and those whose response to all of life’s circumstances, whether good or bad, hopeful or resigned, was to bless themselves and whisper a quiet prayer.
Yet, even in this theocracy there must have been doubters. In fact, I sometimes saw the mutawa, technically “men of god,” but we expatriates called them the religious police, patrolling city streets, especially popular shopping centers, looking for offenders of Islam. The mutawa – identifiable by their shorter-than-average thobes, which fell to mid-calf revealing hairy ankles above their sandaled feet and their ungroomed bushy beards – carried switches, like small brooms, to poke women whose skirts revealed too much leg or who wore too much makeup. I suppose they would also reprimand men, perhaps teens enjoying each other’s company too boisterously, but we heard mainly about encounters between mutawa and women. An American friend was shopping with her preteen daughter when an Arab woman, completely covered in black abaya and veil, advised my friend to insist her daughter wear an abaya. American women were not required to wear abayas, though it was wise to dress conservatively, and many chose to simply don the black synthetic robe over their clothes to deter attention. The Arab woman hastened to add that her advice to my friend was not for her own sake. “I don’t wish this,” she said. “It is for the girl’s safety.”
I imagine there were those who resented the mutawas’ interference, their intolerance. I wonder how many questioned their religious leaders, who bristled at medieval strictures in a modern society. I think of my own persistent questions about faith and religious laws, about men’s interpretations of their holy books. Surely a young Arab girl occasionally took a moment to gaze around from her spot at the back of the mosque, from behind a screen so that males would not see her and be distracted from their prayer, and wonder about a God who considered her less equal? Did she, like my younger self, chafe against the teachings, yearn for greater freedom, independence, choice, if nowhere else but in her beliefs? It was hard to guess what went on behind the veils that revealed only dark eyes lined with kohl. As a non-Muslim, an infidel, I was denied entry into not only mosques but also Saudi society. Though Americans have lived in the Kingdom since the early days of the discovery of oil, the natives are scrupulous at maintaining their distance, keeping us within the confines of our housing compounds as they stayed behind the tall walls surrounding their homes, physical barriers communicating an official desire to stay apart. I could only glimpse from afar the adherence of Islam’s followers.
Once, while driving along a highway toward a desert camping destination, Dan and I came close to Mecca. It is in Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammad and of Islam itself, that one finds the Kaaba, the structure said to have been built by Abraham, the place where all Muslims are required to visit, to perform hajj at least once in their lives. Each year, visitors from around the globe stream into this closed country, eager to meet their obligation. As we drew nearer, the highway split, and nonbelievers were directed to a route that averted the holy city. We were not permitted even to drive through it.
This is not to say the locals were unwelcoming. Hospitality to travelers is an ancient tradition in the Arab world, dating back to a time when the Bedouin people crossed hostile deserts and relied on such care for their very existence. Modern hospitality is evidenced in polite cordiality in public dealings, in offers of tea everywhere, from an Arab’s home to a carpet shop to the mechanic’s garage. In particular, friendly attention to children, even overindulgence, is common. But the underlying message to foreigners was unmistakable: This is not your home. Your stay here is temporary. And as a foreign woman in a male-dominated society, my outsider position was very clear. My husband might be hosted in the home of a Saudi man he had business dealings with, but in thirteen years in the kingdom, I was invited into a Saudi home only once.
It was possible, though, to escape the restrictions in this harsh place, the constant reminders that we were foreigners, that we were always being watched. Because so much of the country was uninhabited, it was easy to camp off-road, wherever our 4-wheel SUV could take us. With friends and colleagues, and eventually our two boys who were raised in Saudi Arabia, we pitched tents and kindled campfires along the beaches of the Persian Gulf or sometimes inland, nestled beneath the craggy cliffs of an escarpment that crossed the desert. Occasionally, we saw Arab families doing the same, perhaps for the same reasons. Out there, far from all of man’s constructs – his mosques and prayer calls, the mutawas’ suspicious eyes – in the desert, where life is almost unsustainable, all is silent, save for the occasional bleat of a distant goat or the call of a bird. And the insistent susurration of sand pushing sand, shifting subtly but surely, a whispering prayer marking the passage of time, reminding us that nothing is constant. It is possible there to find in the silence a peace, a sense of spiritual connection to one’s place on the planet beyond ancient texts and scriptures. To sit by a glowing fire and gaze up at the night sky, and to wonder at the thousands who have done this, too, over thousands of years, in this vast desert. It is a little like sitting in a darkened church watching the light stream in through stained-glass windows.
We poked around that empty village along the abandoned road for about an hour. It was small; most of the homes were identical. All were empty, their inhabitants having packed their belongings into trucks and minivans for their move to the coastal metropolis. Our curiosity satisfied, Dan and I retraced our steps down the main road toward the gate through which we’d entered, past the yawning doorway of the mosque where no faithful would gather this evening.
“Kinda sad,” I mused as we walked. “To think of what it was once like, when it was a lively community.”
“It’s like the ghost towns of the American West,” Dan responded softly.
The sun was moving westward with speed, as it always did this close to the equator. It was time to set up camp away from this once-thriving ghost town, somewhere in the desert, out there beneath an impossibly open sky which would darken, then fill with stars.