No Country For Young Women

by Priyanka Mattoo

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My childhood was idyllic and suburban, All-American by every standard: trick-or-treating across manicured lawns, bready chicken fingers by the rec center pool at sunset, New Kids On The Block, and bleacher politics. But it all happened in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where I lived from age six to fourteen.

“Wasn’t that weird?” everyone asks. Well, it was a fantasy. Saudi Arabia imported a lot of its scientific and technical talent, including my Indian parents, and it knew how to keep them happy. I went to a vibrant American International School — my best friends were from Spain, Kenya, and Norway, and the teachers had the work ethic of untenured professors. All the expats lived in a simulacrum of an American neighborhood, complete with a library, olympic-size swimming pool, basketball court, grocery store, arcade, and restaurant. On this compound, we could wear and do whatever we wanted, and most kids at my school were free to travel for almost half the year, as long as we mailed in our homework.

But of course it was weird. Riyadh wasn’t an easy place to be a girl or a woman, so a girl becoming a woman had the worst of both worlds. Outside of the compound, I started wearing a burqa at the age of eleven, and if I forgot, there was no shortage of religious police with big sticks to find me and tell me to cover my head. The market where we bought our electronics during the week became “chop-chop square,” for public beheadings, over the weekend. Casualties, if there were any, were delivered in a monotone at the end of Friday’s newscast. These grisly bulletins were infrequent, as the threat of losing a head or a limb prevented most visible crime in the Kingdom.

Women weren’t allowed to drive or do anything fun other than shop for clothes, really, so imagine how long it took for me to convince and then radio-control my befuddled dad into buying my first CD (Pearl Jam, Ten) at a music store (men only) in 1991. But when it’s what you know, you don’t know that it’s weird. Once, a man walked up to me and my dad at the airport and offered him farm animals for my hand in marriage; I was thirteen. I remember Dad gaped at him, perplexed. We were disgusted, but I was also annoyed that the initial offer wasn’t higher.

What I didn’t register at the time was that I grew up in a political tinderbox. When a mosque was looted in India, some compound kids weren’t allowed to play with me, because it was the fault of my people, or something. After our home in Kashmir was set on fire by terrorists in 1989, my family fielded crank calls from kids telling us we deserved it. I’d ride the bus with those kids the very next day, with the expectation that I’d keep cool. Obviously no middle schoolers were coming up with these ideas themselves, but what was I going to do, argue with their parents? I just wanted friends.

When I was nine, we had just moved compounds within Riyadh for my dad’s new job, and I had my eye on the older girls in the back of the bus — they tittered at whispered jokes, they were friends with boys, they accessorized. Every day, I casually moved one seat back, first incorporating myself into their field of vision, and then conversations.

“What are you all laughing about?”

“You’re too young.”

“I know a lot of stuff.”

“Do you know what sex is?”

“Obviously.” It was when two people were naked together, which I knew from glimpses of Benny Hill credits.

“OK… Have your parents ever had it?”

“DON’T BE DISGUSTING.”

I looked up the S-word in the encyclopedia. Mystery solved, I couldn’t look my parents in the eye for a week. But the back-of-the-bus girls modulated their conversations to a solid PG-13 so I wouldn’t feel left out, and I knew I was almost in.

One of the girls, who I’ll call Sara, intrigued me more than the others. Every morning, she tore sheets out of a lined notebook and wrote erotic fiction notable for its precise timing (“After fifteen minutes of nude kissing, they made love for ten more”). She would then pass it around the back of the bus and at school until the paper fell apart, then start anew. Sara was usually buried in her writing, so I knew I’d need to jazz up my presentation to grab her attention.

My chance arrived in the form of a chain letter another girl handed to me in school. I had never seen one before, but immediately recognized it as an early networking opportunity. “Copy this letter and give it to ten people, or you’ll have ten years of bad luck,” it intoned. “If you share it with ten friends all of your dreams will come true.” I copied it out longhand over lunch, and marched one straight to Sara on the bus back home. She read it and stuffed it into her backpack, sizing me up.

That night, the phone rang in the middle of dinner, and Dad picked up. “Your daughter is spreading superstition, and she needs to stop,” Sara’s father told him. We should be reported to the religious authorities, he said. We were unwelcome guests in the Kingdom and should be ashamed of ourselves, he said. I got a reluctant talking-to from my parents, who reminded me to know my audience. The injustice! I wanted to snitch about Sara’s pervy stories, but that would risk exposing my own fascination, so I didn’t push back. I filed it under things I’d never understand about grownups, and moved back to the front of the bus, where life was less complicated.

Life is certainly even less complicated in America. As the immigrant daughter of scientist parents, I was welcomed here with open arms and warm smiles. We espouse American ideals like the most zealous converts. From a safe, democratic distance, it’s easiest to gloss over my childhood. I grew up to be a resilient and independent kid, but that independence was borne out of the sense that I might be abandoned by my peers at any time.

“Did you grow up in one house?” I always ask other people, followed by my real question, “…and are you close to your childhood friends?” I love hearing about people’s childhood friends because mine changed with the day’s headlines. I was a supplicant in a larger war foisted upon me by adults, with the end result that my best childhood friends were my brother and my parents.

Today, I have a two-year-old, and while I wish he had any interest in being friends with me, he’s too busy with his neighborhood buddies to even notice I exist. As an adult, I’ve overcompensated by obsessively collecting close friends, all of whom now have (or like) kids. We live in the kind of neighborhood where people stop by unannounced with extra tangerines or guacamole, where family meals are, more often than not, a last-minute potluck. The other day, we stopped by the playground and two other families ended up back at our house, eating our leftovers, smashing our play-doh, singing a wheels-on-the-bus fugue. I had engineered the warm, emotionally safe neighborhood I lacked as a kid. In the midst of the chaos, I looked at my tired son, who was quietly pretending to sweep everyone out of the house with his toy broom, and I knew what he needed: Alone time. I guess sometimes I still struggle to know my audience.

Priyanka Mattoo is a comedy producer and writer living in Venice, CA.

Photo: Flickr