The trip from my home in Riyadh to my home in the United States lasted nearly twenty-four hours, provided that none of the flights were delayed. Over the years, the number of connections decreased from four to two, but the hours of travel time remained the same.
I never dreaded the trip, and I never minded traveling alone. The hours between worlds served to cushion the shock of transition.
Seeing my mother and father waiting for me as I glided stiff-legged into the gate obliterated the instant realization that I’d missed another entire year of family life. None of that mattered, since we were all still alive, still healthy, still a family, and still smiling.
That first night, all my siblings and their spouses would come to welcome me. I’d give gifts I’d brought from the Kingdom, and everyone would talk at once, and I’d fight to stay awake past six in the evening. By eight, I’d be sleeping, whether I wanted to or not.
Then, I’d pop up fully awake the next morning at three o’clock. Jet engines still roaring in my ears, I’d get up, sort through a year’s worth of mail, reaquaint myself with my library, wardrobe and cable TV, then make a cup of strong American coffee and sit outside on the patio, surrounded by trees, grass, flowers and the lemon sun of a Mid-Western morning.
Surely those days offered a taste of Paradise.
Jet lag isn’t bad from east to west. It’s the other way around that causes problems. After spending the month of July in the States, I’d board an evening flight back to Riyadh, a flight that would last approximately the same number of hours as the flight from Riyadh to the States. Even after I’d learned how to sleep on airplanes, I never felt refreshed or even light-hearted upon arrival in Riyadh. Landing always occurred late in the afternoon. By the time I’d get through customs, and travel from the airport to my apartment, the Isha prayer had come and gone.
Exhausted, but never able to sleep, I’d unpack. As the night became darker and more still, my lethargy crossed the midpoint, and began an ascent into energy. Fajr prayer would approach, and I’d make plans for the day. I always tried to overcome jet lag from the first day back, but never had much luck. After Fajr prayer, I’d make a cup of strong Turkish coffee, then sit in front of the east window and stare into the light of a lovely Riyadh morning. By eight a.m., I’d be deep in sleep.
The confusion between day, night, sleep and wakefulness turned into a confusion of identity. What was I doing in Riyadh, anyway? Oh, yes… Each day I’d reconnect with a bit more of the life I’d built for myself in the Kingdom, and I’d discover that my friends Sharon and Asma also suffered similar adjustment problems. They were married to Saudis, so I supposed that west-east jet lag was more physical than psychological. Going west, we’d gain time, but going east, we’d lose eight hours. Amazingly, we’d feel those lost hours as an organic part of ourselves, lost to oblivion, irrecoverable. Jet lag from west to east always resolved slowly, sometimes needing several months, not merely days or a few weeks.
Eventually, however, I’d become fully reintegrated into my life, and I’d recover my enthusiasm for the activities I’d grown to love— taking care of my home, studying Arabic and Tajweed, and later Italian, sewing, reading, writing, and connecting with other Western women who had built lives for themselves along a similar path.
I suppose I will return to Riyadh sooner or later, if not to the actual Riyadh, then surely the metaphorical city. My father will pass into what lies beyond bodily death, and I’ll have to learn how to reconnect with my own life, just as I had to reconnect with my life while overcoming jet lag from west to east. The lost part of myself will comprise more than just a chunk of hours from a day, but the same principle applies. I’ll have to remind myself why I’m alive, and remember what I’ve built, and work my way back into it.