Sisters picnic in park, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia 2008. I am sitting on the right.
Sisters picnic in park. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 2008. I am sitting on the right.

The Whole World Became Saudi Arabia

Along with COVID-19

We need a word that describes that feeling of mind-quake, a panic and inescapable stuckness when we wake up and suddenly find the world has completely changed. It’s a feeling of waking up in the wrong reality, like in your other dream. I swear I went to sleep in my bed, in my room, in my reality, and yet I woke up to find myself in a different universe.

The 2016 United States presidential election was one such experience of waking up in the wrong universe moment for me. I could’ve sworn, Mr. Donald J. Trump was a phantomlike TV character, a mask that American capitalism had carved and was capitalizing from through media revenue. I could’ve sworn he lived in the TV world and I in the reality. But the morning of November 9, 2016, that switched and I opened my eyes inside the TV, in a universe where this character became real and super powerful to lead the very laws of my public space, economy, rights, and the future of the United States and of our home planet Earth. I wanted to escape but had nowhere to escape to. I was stuck inside the TV reality show.

I felt a similar feeling of waking up in the wrong reality as the declaration of an invisible virus-led global pandemic shook our worlds and our minds, as the world and person that I once was, totally crumbled. While feeling the same feelings of panic and stuckness, I also felt a very strange familiarity arise within my body and behavior. The best way to describe the familiarity was that the entire world had suddenly changed into what was once a very familiar way of life — my second childhood home, Saudi Arabia. Here I attempt to describe what feels familiar.

  1. Faces covered. For most of the world, we now cover half of our faces with masks whenever we walk out the door into public. Our facial recognition has become more challenging as our face is hidden. In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, we women always had to cover our faces in public spaces. I heard that this law is not as strictly enforced nowadays. Because we had to cover our face and hair in public, getting ready to go out was very simple. I didn’t care to put on much makeup, bad hair-day didn’t matter one bit. I just wrapped myself up and walked out the door. I remember as a sensitive child noticing many people didn’t even brush their teeth because there was an illusion of a shield with a thin black fabric from being revealed in the public eye, or the public nose.
  2. Spaces shielded. When we enter restaurants and cafes now, we tend to keep our interaction strictly within our own bubbly tribe and often our seats are covered with see-thru plastic shields. Our spaces are covered. In Saudi Arabia, when we entered a restaurant, we were guided to our table and room dividers or curtains covered us so that we had our private tribal space to take off our veils and relax, free from unwanted eyes and close encounters with other customers in the restaurant.
  3. Energy of separation. I love to people watch and my gaze often freely wanders to people who catch my attention. I am not saying all people are like this, but I noticed a few more people with deep anger and fear behind a random eye-contact. It seems as if they believe even a passing eye contact could transmit the coronavirus that they are deeply afraid of getting. Also, I noticed so many people avoiding eye-contact, acting as if they don’t see me, as if we are invisible to each other, and that feels so strangely familiar to how I felt growing up in Saudi Arabia, covered.

Saudi Arabia is a tribe-centered society with an unspoken yet deeply ingrained social norms of separation between one tribe to the next, except on occasional mutual agreement to mix. Therefore, your universe within your tribe stays very much intact between private and public spaces and there is rarely a chance of each tribal norm getting disrupted by an outsider. Introduction of cable TV, internet and social media has surely disrupted the neat tribal bubbles in Saudi Arabia, but that is the virtual reality, a different dimension than the physical reality I am referring to here. But perhaps, now you can have a deeper appreciation of why social media, created by Americans, was much more quickly and widely adopted in such closed and highly controlled societies like Saudi Arabia.

Our world has become closed and tightly controlled and it strangely feels familiar, reminding me of my second childhood home that I wanted to escape, that I did once escape.

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