I’ve been a student at this Islamic high school for nearly three years, during which time I have faithfully worn my uniform — a gray, colonial lady-nightie with a drool-bib collar — every day. When I go out in public, off school grounds, I shroud: a black abaya overtop, a black headscarf, a face cover made of some kind of cheese cloth material. I cover without objection, wear what the Saudis tell me to wear. There are strict laws here about clothes and bodies, about love and worship. God’s laws, they say, and who am I to argue with God?
In Riyadh, inside this school, hidden behind a 12-foot iron gate, I have not found God. Sometimes a wanting rattles, and curiosity stirs, and I open the Holy Book, follow the verses inside like a trail of food into the heart of a forest — searching, hopeful. In the days after my mother’s cancer diagnosis especially, I search this way. I search knowing I’m at the mercy of things I can’t control. I search knowing that, in some sense, all things are doomed to failure before they’ve even begun.
“Developing countries,” we’re encouraged to call them. Countries becoming something else, who knows what.
There are 26 girls in my class. We are from Turkey, from Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon: countries with rich histories and slipping prestige. “Developing countries,” we’re encouraged to call them. Countries becoming something else, who knows what. We don’t know and, despite all their pretending, our parents don’t really know either. They’re the ones who have brought us here, leaving everything behind, expatriating to this place of chrome skyscrapers and indentured servitude; of cheese cloth and endless red baked sand.