I was named after my grandfather, who used to work as a carpenter in our hometown of Hofuf, eastern Saudi Arabia. At the time, Saudis did not look down to manual labor the way they do today.
When he married my grandmother, Salameh al-Haddad, in the early 1950’s, they both have been already widowed once. He had two daughters from his first marriage; she had a son from hers. They had three children together: Ali, my father, was the eldest; Badriyah, my aunt, was the middle child; and Abbas, my uncle, was the youngest. Shortly after his firstborn son started school, my grandfather passed away. Salameh has become a widow for the second time. She was barely twenty years old.
Salameh decided not to marry again. That meant that she had to work to support her little family when very few women worked, and even fewer supported their families alone. She made some money by teaching young children how to read (many people still refused to send their children to government schools then), but it was barely enough to get by.
They lived in poverty. They did not have a fridge to keep the food because they could not afford electricity. When Ali needed to study at night, he had to use a kerosene lamp.
And when he became a teenager, he told his mother that he wanted to drop out of school to work. But Salameh firmly refused. She told him that he must finish his education first before he can even begin to think about work. That emphasis on education remains a strong tradition in the family. Ali continued his studies, went to Teachers College in neighboring Dammam and became a teacher. His younger brother Abbas also went to college, at King Saud University in Riyadh, and became a dentist.
In 1983, Ali married his cousin Bebi, and they went to Cairo for their honeymoon. I was born on May 30, 1984, at King Fahad Hospital in Hofuf. When I was little and I used to ask my father to buy me stuff that he deemed unnecessary, like toys and video games, he sometimes justified his refusal to buy that stuff by asking: “Why do you need this? I have grown up and lived my whole life without it. Why is it so necessary to you?” I did not understand what he meant because he never told me about his childhood. I knew that they were not well-off, but I did not know the extent of poverty they lived in.
I was a rebellious teenager. I did not do many crazy things, but I had a difficult relationship with my father. There were some extended periods of time when we barely spoke to each other, and my mother had to mediate between us. During high school, I have gradually come to realize that he was not going to change and I was the one who had to do more effort to try to understand him. After finishing high school he encouraged me to move to Riyadh for college. He thought it would be a good experience for me to learn how to be on my own (he was right).
The physical distance meant that there were fewer chances for confrontation, which was good for both of us. We became closer. Then during my first year in college I underwent an open-heart surgery to treat a birth defect, and my father was with me throughout my surgery and recovery. He was very worried about me, and that brought us even closer. Few months later he was diagnosed with hypertension and it was my turn to try to take care of him, even if he would not let me.
We became closer, but the fact that I was going to college in a different city meant that we had very little time to bond. I used to visit Hofuf on weekends, but, like any teenager, I preferred to spend time with my friends over my family. One weekend in October 2004, I took the train from Riyadh to Hofuf. As I arrived to the station that afternoon, my father called to ask if I wanted him to pick me up from there. No, I said, a friend of mine was going to drop me home.
I entered the house and found my father lying motionless on the ground. My mom and brothers sat around him and tried “to wake him up,” but he did not respond. We called 999 but because streets were not named and houses had no numbers, it was almost impossible for the ambulance to find us. We called my cousin, we carried my father and took him to the nearest clinic. He was already gone. He passed away.
It was a shock. My father was 48 years old. He had hypertension and peptic ulcer, but he was being treated and these conditions were not life-threatening. It was also shocking because his older half-brother Khalifah, Salameh’s son from her first marriage, has passed away a month earlier. Salameh was widowed twice before she was 20, and now she has lost two sons in the matter of few weeks. We were afraid she would not be able to take it, but she remained very composed and calm. “This is God’s will,” she said. “May they rest in peace.”
Salameh refuses to be called “grandma,” despite the fact that she has grand-grandchildren now. We all call her “mother.” She is our family’s rock, and she is my role model.