Monthly Archives: January 2009

Life in Riyadh


Saudi Arabia in the early 90s was an idyllic paradise for us expat kids. In the middle of dusty desert, behind bougainvillea-covered walls was our own lush oasis. Our house was right across the street from the compound swimming pool and each day after school we would drop our backpacks off at home, making sure to take the melted ice packs out of our lunchboxes and put them in the freezer, before changing into our swimsuits. Later, when the stifling sun began to set, the evening prayer call would coax us back to the house for homework and dinner. Days were long, hot and undistinguishable. Nothing of importance happened very often. The outside world was as alien to us as the dry, rocky terrain outside the compound gates. The harsh politics of the country we lived in were like mythology from a distant land, and the American soldiers who patrolled the outside of the school with their guns and their camouflage fatigues blended into the barren scenery outside. On November 13, 1995 we did not need to go to school. The school phoned in and said not to come. The same happened the next day, and the next, and so on for two or three weeks. The school had closed, but no one would tell us kids why. I remembered a story in the news about a Scottish man who had run into a school one day and shot a bunch of students and teachers, then killed himself. The story was fresh in my mind and I imagined a similar thing must have happened at our school. I was 9 years old and I did not ask big questions. We celebrated the unexpected holiday and had water balloon fights with the neighbour kids. It was years later that I found out six people had died and sixty were injured in a car bomb terrorist attack on a U.S. organisation that day. I did not know it then, but that day marked the beginning of my generation. Terrorism goes way back but I did not understand the full scope of it until 9/11. In Riyadh we had neighbours, the Pullen family, from Northern Ireland. I never liked them much. The mother smoked so much she had lost her voice and croaked when she talked, and the kids, Sean and Francesca, belonged to a different gang of kids in the compound. One day my mother told me that the Pullens had escaped terrible violence in their own country. She told me that bombs and strikes and killings happened almost every day there. I pictured a scene from a World War 2 book I had read, about air raids and bomb shelters and little girls in saddle shoes running for cover. I remember listening to my mother but disbelieving, because I thought bombs were a thing of the past.