I squinted at white marble walls everywhere, as they reflected the brilliance of a Riyadh morning sun. Set at various angles, they somehow joined five separate buildings together in one geometrically shaped compound. Each building gave access to its tenants by marble steps, cleverly constructed so that no entrance could be seen from its neighbor. I would have loved to photograph those angles, but photography in public was socially taboo in Riyadh, except for civic purposes such as newscasts or education.In the lobby, protected from the intensity of the sun, I found relief. My husband knocked on the door of the ground floor apartment. The door opened just wide enough to let us in.
Stepping across the threshold was like stepping into the bottom of a swimming pool. Glossy, turquoise walls enveloped me and floated me down the hall, like the cushion of water that suspends one at the bottom of a dive into the deep end. I stared at those walls as I drifted inside, fascinated. I would have never dared to paint walls the color of a nine foot surge of water, and I had never seen such a color in other Riyadh apartments.
We rented it on the spot. My husband did not object to the walls or the royal blue carpet that joined each other at the floor.
Most interior walls in Riyadh apartments are painted white, as were the other four rooms in our apartment. The previous tenants must have had turquoise paint left over, because the fifth room had two turquoise walls that glowed when the morning sunlight fell upon them. That room had been a child’s room. Crayon marks remained, and I tried to remove them from the glossy surface, but ordinary soap and water did not do the job. As a temporary measure that lasted the entire six years of our tenancy, I placed two beds and dressers to block the sight of the previous tenant’s excesses.
Riyadh walls are made of thick concrete, rendering them cold in winter and hot in summer, but wonderfully soundproof. I never hung anything on ours, unfortunately, because I didn’t know how to pound nails into concrete. Sending my husband out for a concrete drill was too much trouble in a city that didn’t have yellow pages or numerical addresses on buildings. At first, I tried to find other ways to hang things on walls, but gave up. Our walls, like the sands of the deep desert, remained unmarked except for the shadows that fell on them as afternoon sunk into evening.
One wall of each room, including kitchen and bathroom, gave to the outside. This architectural device allowed for two important elements to be built into the larger rooms—a small window for light, and a rectangular opening into which tenants installed combination air conditioners/ heaters– – industrial strength. These dark rectangles dotted the sides of all walls in all apartments of all residential buildings in Riyadh. I never learned why central air hadn’t caught on except in hospitals and shopping malls.
Our kitchen window faced our bathroom window, because the apartment wrapped around an open space, and enclosure extending three stories up to the roof, allowing for natural light and air to permeate the rooms while protecting tenants from street intrusions. The second and third floor kitchen windows above ours also faced the bathroom windows above ours. During the change of seasons, when the air neither scorched nor froze the skin of anyone in those rooms, all tenants opened their windows. The odors and noises generated in those rooms—heard by all— wafted up and down the enclosure, but the rare luxury of gentle breezes, enjoyed just several weeks a year, inspired us all to tolerance.
This is what I remember about that apartment– its luminous exterior walls, its cool blue interior walls, and the lovely breezes carrying testimony to all our lives, the breezes that knocked down the other kinds of walls so firmly erected in Saudi Arabia–the walls of privacy and insularity by now well known, ironically, throughout the world. These walls are more difficult to penetrate than the concrete walls of the apartment buildings. The windows through which a foreigner can understand the life of a Saudi in Saudi Arabia are narrow, few, and far between.
There are walls keeping men away from women, Saudis away from foreigners, and Muslims away from non-Muslims. These walls are visible in the black drapes of the women and the white caftans of the men, in the gated compounds housing foreigners and the fortressed villas housing Saudi families.
These walls started to crumble under the influx of foreign workers, satellite media, war, and the inundation of everything Western and anathema to half the Saudi population. By the time I arrived in 1986, the walls of Saudi seclusion had already started to erode, but the erosion revealed a framework of steel. Who was it that said, “East is East, and West is West, and ne’er the twain shall meet.”?
The twain has met, but East is still East, and West is still West. It’s a matter of identity.