“Do you want to hear a cockroach story?”
This is the way my friends and I would sometimes begin phone conversations. We were all Western women, stay-at-home moms married to Arabs. We were happy with our families and our status as expatriates in Saudi Arabia, with the exception of a certain issue —the country had a cockroach problem.
When I first arrived as a single woman, I had lived in a lovely Western compound. The only roaches I ever saw wiggled respectfully out of the way as I walked along the sidewalk. I didn’t even know how to say “cockroach” in Arabic.
Only after I “went native”, married an Arab and moved into the city, did I realize that cockroaches claimed carte blanche in Riyadh households. I carried a rolled up newspaper with me from room to room, ready to strike. My husband objected to this method because of its fallibility. Cockroach bodies are hard and elastic; they don’t squash easily.
“Here!” he said, “I’ll show you how to do it.” He grabbed a shoe which was parked next to the door, and brought it down with enough force to make pudding out of the roach and all its cousins.
“That’s disgusting!” I said. “How are you going to clean it?”
My new husband didn’t care. The roach was dead, and he was calm. He knew he wouldn’t have to clean it up; I would!
I continued to use my newspaper method, which didn’t always kill the wretched creatures, but at least didn’t leave roach pudding when it succeeded.
“See!” I said to my husband, “you can kill them without making a mess.” I slid the body on a torn piece of paper and dumped it in the garbage.
“It will come back to life,” he said, and sometimes it did.
We moved into a newer apartment, at my insistence. Our new home was clean, and I kept it even cleaner, yet roaches appeared as if by spontaneous generation. I wondered if some of them hadn’t crawled into the boxes we’d brought from the old apartment. Someone once told me cockroaches like cardboard boxes. I would not have seen so many had I not looked, and I blamed myself for psychically attracting them, so diligent was I in my campaign to eradicate them. Then one day, a new friend phoned me and said, “Would you like to hear a cockroach story?”
My goodness! I was not alone. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to hear a cockroach story. I had been so ashamed and so reluctant to talk about the problem because I thought it was my fault. Even though I saw many different brands of roach killer in the stores, which should have tipped me off, I felt somehow inferior because I did not have a maid to help me with housework. Now, my new friend, who lived in a squeaky clean villa, with a maid, not only admitted to having cockroaches, but wanted to talk about it!
She then told me that the previous day her toddler had been spending more time in the bathroom than necessary. When Asma investigated, she found the child chasing a huge roach all over the bathroom, laughing and trying to catch it. “My kid is going to grow up with roaches! I don’t believe it. This is definitely something I can’t write home about.”
Yes, indeed, one did not write home about roaches, but with each other, we spoke about them all the time. It wasn’t long before I felt comfortable enough to phone one of my friends and say, “Would you like to hear a cockroach story?”
“Yeah, I’m listening!”
“Well, this morning I was mopping up the bathroom floor, and I was slopping the water down the drain. I felt a tickle on my leg, but I ignored it, thinking it was a drop of sweat, but the tickle traveled upward instead of downward…”
“Eeeuuuuu!!! Grrrosssss! DisgusSSsting!” my friend replied indulgently, but I later learned that this particular story was not unique. Turns out that most women in the same circumstance experienced the same indignity when they first opened the circular drain covers on Riyadh bathroom floors. What seems at first like a wonderful way to mop up a floor turns out to be a wonderful way to let roaches into the house. From then on, I opened the drain cover with care, stiff broom at the ready. I learned how to slop them back down the drain as fast as they came up… Drain roaches were particularly large and active. In fact, bathroom roaches in general were the most aggressive.
Little roaches occasionally entered as passengers from the vegetable suq. The little, light brown ones had an affinity for green herbs. We, too, liked green herbs. Fat bundles of coriander, parsley, dill and mint made such a wonderful aroma in the kitchen, but I learned quickly to shake them out with care, in the sink, rolled newspaper at the ready.
“Do you want to hear a cockroach story?” It was a morning question, to be asked after the husbands had gone to work and the kids to school.
Asma: “I caught my daughter in the bathroom again, laughing and trying to catch a big roach. She cried when I pulled her out of there. My mother would roll over in her grave if she knew my kid was in the bathroom chasing cockroaches.”
Layla: “I’ve gotten used to them. They’re like relatives. You cannot escape from them, so you might as well embrace them.”
Sara: “I picked up a roll of toilet paper and felt something tickle the palm of my hand.”
Maryam: “Just as I turned out the lights, I caught a glimpse of a huge cockroach running across the floor. It escaped into my closet. I couldn’t catch it, so I tried to sleep with the light on but my husband got mad and turned it off.”
Sharon: “The cockroaches have already moved into our new villa. We met them last night at the construction site.”
Me: “My daughter and I were cleaning the bathroom when a huge cockroach flew directly at us. We backed up so fast we got stuck together in the door. We squeezed through just in time. I barely pulled the door shut, and it slammed into the other side.”
After several years of this, Asma and I decided to write a book entitled Cockroaches I Have Known —with chapters for The Albino Cockroach, The Hissing Cockroach, The Flying Cockroach, etc. Our favorite movie was Joe’s Apartment.
Those days are gone, and we never wrote the book, but I still watch Joe’s Apartment from time to time. I still laugh like crazy, remembering our efforts at eradicating the disgusting insects. My method worked best; I developed it myself, and it will be the subject of another post.