Saudi Arabia is an ancient culture as old as time itself, yet filled with all the modern conveniences that money provides. Restless and looking for something new and exciting, two nurses traveled to this ancient kingdom to ply their skills and practice close personal contact—along with modern medical care—with people for whom slavery, buying wives, and female subjugation is just a way of life.
Living in a culture far different from their own, they met many wonderful people, both locally and from several other countries, all the while walking on eggshells with the religious police of Saudi Arabia, lest they do something, that as females, was forbidden and could have gotten them deported—or worse, thrown in jail.
Join Ramona Forrest and Judith Corcoran as they explore life in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—from a woman’s point of view.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: Lifting the Veil by Ramona Forrest and Judith Corcoran is a non-fiction book that reads like a novel. It’s the story of two US nurses that go to Saudi Arabia to work in a hospital there, providing medical care to the people of a country where women are chattel and have absolutely no rights. Whatever possessed them to go to such a place, I have no idea, but I can’t only imagine how much courage it took. While there, they were in constant danger of being deported or arrested and jailed for things as minor as simply being in the company of a man who was not a relative. They were also at risk of being kidnapped by a Saudi man, should one have taken a sexual interest in them, and disappearing forever. Many foreign women fell prey to exactly that, and there was no one to come to their defense.
I don’t think I could stand to be in a place where women have so little value. But I was captivated, none the less, by chilling stories these two nurses told. The book is very well written and highly entertaining.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Lifting the Veil of Secrets in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by Ramona Forrest and Judith Corcoran is the non-fiction account to two RNs from the US who traveled to Saudi Arabia to serve as nurses at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh. The book gives an in-depth account of what it is really like for women in a country where being female means you are nothing more than a possession. Although the authors didn’t come right out and say it, I got the distinct impression that the men in Saudi Arabia saw women as evil, a necessary evil, but an evil just the same. Women are required to be fully covered at all times and are not allowed to so much as speak to a man not related to them. While men can have sex with as many women as they want—and whether or not the men are married seems to be irrelevant—women can be put to death for adultery on such flimsy evidence as a man’s accusations. Why bother with divorce when you can just make an unfounded accusation against a wife you no longer want and have her beheaded?
And while the authors were very careful not to judge or criticize the politics of their host country, they did not downplay the total disregard for the lives and rights of women. Even those women who were not slaves—and yes, slavery is still alive and well over there—were bought and sold on the whim of a male relative. If a woman was kidnapped, even a foreign woman, in most cases, no one would lift a finger to come to her rescue. And the women accepted this as just a part of life. I found the book to be honest, blunt, thought-provoking, and downright fascinating. It made me realize how very lucky I am to have been born in the US.
In the late 1980’s Judy and I worked as nurses at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Although it’s been a while since we walked those hospital halls, in that closed culture not much will have changed, especially for women. Join us in our memories of those years that we cared for the ills of the people of Saudi Arabia and those who came from nearby countries for treatment. We enjoyed the companionship of medical workers from many, many countries. Memories cling of the Saudi people who touched our lives in ways we will never forget, and we often wonder what became of those we knew.
During these years the United States of America enjoyed a high status in the Middle East and we benefited from it. The people in Saudi Arabia were grateful for our care and friendly wherever possible. The cultural things we saw and experienced during our time there will not have changed much in the ensuing years. Slavery is alive and well, and women, still heavily veiled, continue under male domination much the same as during our stay in the Kingdom.
We lived with paranoia, gossip, and innuendo in a country where all is hidden and what is seen and heard is likely a façade beneath which reality is concealed. Please forgive our lack of statistics and substantive facts, but enjoy what we ourselves did, saw, heard, or were told during those exciting years spent in a mysterious country with a hidden reality.
Ramona’s Arrival in the Kingdom
Along row of hooded men sat high above us, looking down upon our group of new arrivals. I found it a sight that caused a chilling sensation to settle in my bones. Those strangely dressed men renewed my sense of facing the unknown, as if my group or I needed more evidence. I’d already flown half-way around the world with no sleep. I was close enough to exhaustion that only fear of the unknown and a lot of excitement kept me going.
Our group of highly trained professionals had arrived to provide American expertise in modern medical care to the people of Saudi Arabia. Did they see us in that regard, or were we just a new influx of servants or slaves who had come to serve their needs?
I had no idea about the feelings of the others in my group, but their facial features hidden behind dark glasses and the unfamiliar mode of dress on these men appeared threatening. What thoughts lay in their minds? Why did they sit up so high to look down on us? If they did it for effect, they managed to create such an atmosphere of intimidation that I had to remind myself why we were there. I said nothing of my feelings nor did any of the others, but we stayed close to each other and that gave us some greatly needed comfort.
All the men wearing dark glasses at nearly midnight had the effect of hiding the little that was visible of their heads not already covered by either a red patterned or snowy white gutra. They all wore a black egal encircling it to hold it in place. Many sported heavy beards or mustaches, further covering their faces. Gold-threaded robes covered everything else.
Those hooded, mysterious men, a daunting sight, created a strange welcome to travel-weary newcomers into this ancient Kingdom. We never learned why those men sat there or who they were.
We huddled a bit closer together as they herded us through their archaic-appearing and nondescript air terminal and through the immigration process. Little of the paperwork and shuffling about lingers in my memory, except for armed guards holding rifles at the ready. Who did they see as a threat, American medical people? Or did they see us as a new influx of slaves to be used for their comfort?
As time wore on, we came to believe that was exactly what most Saudis thought about us. Servitude as well as slavery were very much alive and well in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and we were to see it in many forms.
Forgotten for the moment were our flights to Rome and the first sight of the Alps with their mantles of glistening snow in mid-August. Also forgotten was our time in Rome where we heard the startling thwack of the Imam’s knees hitting the floor of the Saudia airplane we had boarded en route to Jeddah. He had called the faithful to pray for the safety of the flight ahead.
Startling though it was, it helped me realize we’d entered a totally foreign world. We learned it was the time of the yearly Hajj, and many on the plane were making their pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, the holiest of cities in all of Islam.
Arriving in Jeddah from Rome, those worshippers who were making the pilgrimage then disembarked to journey on to those holy cities previously mentioned. We continued on to Riyadh, the capital city which was located near the center of the country.
In Riyadh, the immigration process which consisted of holding out our passports for inspection. Then we made our way through to a mini-bus with about twenty seats or so. Our luggage was piled onto a flat-rack truck that followed us as we hurtled through the night-darkened streets of the city, hither and yon.
Riyadh appeared to be a large, sleeping city scented with a lingering drift of spices and wood-fueled cooking fires, as we headed to our new lodgings. Earlier, descending from the night sky, I had noticed Riyadh, from the air, looked much like Phoenix, my home town. They both sprawled over the desert with lines of lights delineating streets laid out below us. But Riyadh streets seemed to be laid out in irregular, rather than straight rows. At two in the morning, this city of high walls lay in partial darkness except for street lights placed incidentally here and there.
Married families were dropped off first, at Sulimeniya. Single men went to another compound. When my turn came, the bus wheeled to a stop and the hooded Arab driver came to the open door and announced in an accented, sonorous voice, “Ramona Forrest, C-23.” His eyes were very black, and unbelievably dead somehow. But I didn’t know about that then.
His skin appeared much darker than I’d expected, and his voice was very deep and heavily accented as he read my name from a sheet of paper. It sounded rather ominous, but I recognized my name and that my lurching night-ride was through.
Did he help with my luggage? No. All four pieces lay tossed haphazardly on that flat rack truck and I had no aid in getting it off. I learned later on that a Saudi man would not assist a female, unless she was a close family member.
Tessa, another nurse from Phoenix, shared the same quadrangle, but her apartment lay across from mine. We took comfort from that small bit of closeness. Taking in the scent of smoky, incense-tinged air, we went in search of our beds. A key in the envelope of instructions became my access into dark and unfamiliar surroundings. After snapping on a light, I found a clean, neat, little kitchen; a large box of food supplies; a shiny tea kettle; and enough linens to get settled.
My new home consisted of a small kitchen, a half bath, a narrow laundry room with a stacked washer and dryer, a living room-dining room combination, all nicely furnished with Thomasville furniture, which proved to be solid and contemporary in style.
I climbed the stairway to find a full bathroom, and one unused bedroom. I took that one for mine, made my bed, and flopped down on a very firm mattress to contemplate my future in this strange country. So ended the first part of the long arduous process of uprooting my entire life. I had left all I had ever known, to ply my profession in a foreign land.
I lay there wondering. How did I end up here? In later years I realized much of it related to what nurses like to call, “burn out.” This is a situation that occurs when things are done over and over–endless charting, lectures, diseases, complaints, settling into a daily grind. Patients are always different, but nursing retains certain similarities day in and day out that can finally cause a sense of “burn-out.”
For those of us who are restless by nature, this was a well-paid chance to look over the fence and experience some exotic land far from home. To see and experience new places, and learn new things beckoned us, and I had the comfort of association with others like myself who were drawn into this adventure to experience a foreign culture.
I was awakened to the multiple cries of the muezzin calling the faithful to the first prayers of the day. I heard–in full force–wailing sounds all across the sleeping city. The first occurred at sun-up or the first discernible light. There were five salat (prayer times) each day in mosques situated every three to four blocks about the sprawling city. Each mosque had a loud speaker on a tower of sorts to broadcast the prayers.
Our orientation process began that day to these mournful sounds from every minaret in the city. We were to hear this every day during our time in the Kingdom, and there was no other sound in the world to equal it. In a way, it must have sounded like air-raid sirens in London during the Blitz. It had a loudness about it, but with so many voices raised on loudspeakers all across a huge wide-spread city, a kind of softness, too.
I heard the distant wailing of Muslim prayers as I dressed. I then began my second introduction to the Middle East. A mini-bus came to take us to breakfast, and we hung on as the driver drove rapidly over speed bumps which he appeared to ignore completely.
In the hospital cafeteria, we saw the liberal use of gold leaf used on predominantly Middle Eastern paintings scattered about the walls. Gold flatware, once used in the cafeteria prior to our arrival, no longer existed. Pilfering finally put a stop to it. Yes, the authorities still cut off the hand for theft, but apparently they hadn’t done it for missing flatware. I did find a gold plated spoon in the sugar canister at our apartment.
We found many choices of Middle Eastern food along with Western fare. Our group hung together, like the family we’d become. We tried the delicious looking and unfamiliar dishes, while observing the personnel presently dining. We were told that about fifty-seven countries were represented at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre.
We saw dark-skinned Africans with bluish tribal marks tattooed into their cheeks and chins. British accents abounded. We noted they had their own particular style of eating. They held their forks and knives, one in each hand, and never transferred the forks before putting them into their mouths. It looked strange to me, but it was normal for them. Female workers from Muslim countries other than Saudi, covered their heads in Muslim fashion, but not their faces. We noticed most of them ate the British way as well.
A cacophony of voices, languages, and accents met our unaccustomed ears. I feasted my eyes on the people, modes of dress, and even the way they used their cutlery–British style for the most part. We females were properly attired in long dresses, carefully crafted at home as required. Mine was not nearly as fine or graceful as what we were seeing.
Required to apply for local identification papers, we were escorted to another office where we filled out papers for the Igama, our Saudi passport for identification. The male members of our group enjoyed this part immensely, since they were required to sign our applications for us. As females, we weren’t allowed to do that. With a wry smile and good graces, we accepted it as a part of where we were.
A twelve-year old boy, a son of a department head, signed some of them and got a big kick out of it. His name was Ronnie and he came to love his life in Riyadh. When he had to leave the Kingdom for his education, he returned as often as possible. He left Saudi Arabia for the upper grades, as they were not given in Riyadh. His were taken in Georgia in ensuing years. I had asked his mother where he would attend school when he reached high school age.
She replied in her deep Southern accent, “Oh, in Rome.”
I thought to myself, How international she’s become. But I was deflated to learn, she meant Rome, Georgia.
We tolerated everything good naturedly since that was the spirit of things in our new life in Saudi Arabia. Lessens in behavior, protocol, and mode of dress were enhanced by warnings against fraternization with the Saudis in anything other than a professional nature. We were firmly told not to date any Saudi men.
The Saudis took our passports from us and replaced them with a brown booklet, called the Igama. They warned us sternly, we must not lose this identification. This new form of ID would be required to regain our passports and receive an exit/re-entry visa, when leaving the country. I felt a reluctant chill when I handed over my American passport. A thing like that is a heavily emotional experience in a strange country, but we had to do it, and we did. It helps emotionally if everyone else is required to do it, too.
After lunch, we boarded a small bus for a tour of Riyadh. Our guide was Ingrid, a woman from Germany. She pointed out the steps of the city hall. “Dot iss vere dey cut off de heads on Friday morninks.” Enjoying the shock value of her speech, a sly chuckle escaped her lips. The streets, clean and free of debris, had foreign workers picking up trash and sweeping sidewalks.
Men and women walked together. The men wore traditional Arab dress. The women appeared as a black triangle of femininity from head to toe, their faces covered by several layers of black veiling. Someone remarked that the women wouldn’t be able to carry much since they had to hold their abaya (a cloak-like cover) together with at least one hand. We occasionally saw a woman wearing a Bedouin mask with open slits for her eyes. Most eyes were strikingly beautiful, shining black, and slightly almond-shaped.
Our guide also made sure we saw a few of the many, many, gold and silver shops, known as souks, in downtown Riyadh. Gold of every imaginable sort lay before our eyes. There were chains, medallions, rings, bangles and bracelets. All the gold was 18-karat or above. A fabulous assortment of wonderful earrings lay before us, displayed on bright red velvet walls or in trays. In the silver souks, silver ornaments lay against soft, deep blue velvet, the better to display it.
All in all, we oohed and aahed sufficiently to satisfy any guide. In truth, I believed we were overwhelmed by what we’d seen, tired as we were. We would become well acquainted with these unbelievably opulent shops during our stay in the Kingdom.
© 2013 by Ramona Forrest and Judith Corcoran