Saudi Arabian Observer, July 2012
Lingerie Shops to Replace All Foreign Workers with Saudi Women by Ramadan:
King’s Bold New Labour Reform Decree Sparks Controversy, Unrest
King Abdullah’s latest push toward “Saudization” moves the Kingdom away from its costly dependence on foreign labor and ushers Saudi’s women into the public workforce at long last… but at what cost?
It’s twilight in the parking lot of the Al-Ghosaibi Mall, and in the back of her father’s car, my cousin is making me a woman. Tonight is our last training with you.
Nada has begged me for years to let her do this, especially now that she’s leaving in the fall. A Saudi girl, nearly twenty, she’d scold, who doesn’t know her Lancôme from her L’Oreal? Fatimah Al-Baiyat, what are we gonna do with you? What she’d like to do—stuff me in her Louis Vuitton trunk and spirit me away to America for a semester—is not possible. Getting us hired at Woman Wear For Love, selling lingerie, was her next best thing. One last summer together, she’d laughed, delighted; why not spend it in scandal?
“Adil! The light!” she says to her driver now, and she’s so excited I think for a moment she won’t make us switch to English. But Adil has wide cheekbones and skin as dark as a ripe date, and North Africans understand so much more than they let on. He flicks on the interior light and settles deep into the leather.
Our shift begins in ten minutes. Your plane leaves for Delhi at dawn.
“Fati.” Nada waves at my niqāb with a makeup brush, “You have to take it off.” I hesitate. She sighs, voice gentle. “It’s in the way, habibi.” My cousin hasn’t worn full hijab in years. Her headscarf always looks about to slide off.
Now we are face to face under the wide circle of yellow light. Nada frowns. Her eyes sweep over my shadowed skin, pause at the downy line of fuzz along my jaw. I have the hooded eyes of a Bedouin. I hold my breath, and imagine you this close to my naked face.
“Make me pretty,” I whisper.
Two weeks ago I was a child, trailing my cousin past the racks of satin and lace on our way to meeting you. Greeting us, your palm brushed some bras on its way to your chest, and my own Sala’am alaikum snagged in my throat. Your eyes flicked up and caught mine, then fell away. My mouth was dry before my cheeks had even reached full heat.
I was not prepared for you. I was not prepared for your sharp-pressed slacks and your honey-colored hands and all the melancholy one man can tuck into a soft smile.
When my mother learned Nada and I would be trained by a man—a mere Indian, no less—she’d scolded my father for letting me take the job. “A strange man!” she’d cried. “Your daughter, exposed to a foreigner!”
My father laughed. Sri Lankan tailors, Ethiopian maids, Bangladeshi drivers. Hadn’t Nada and I—and our mothers and aunties and grandmothers—been served by ferengi our whole lives? They are like the pipes of oil snaking across the sand, he’d said: a part of our landscape.
This is true. Your eyes are the color of cardamom tea, my sister’s suede slippers, the red ochre ruins of Mada’in Saleh. My father is right; nothing about you feels strange to me.
But my mother is right, too. I have never been so exposed.
“So… who is he?” Nada’s voice is as light as the heel of her hand on my cheek. Her strokes are quick and sure, tickling powder along my nose. I smile, but keep my eyes and lips closed.
“Fine.” She clicks the compact shut. “Don’t tell me. I’m sure I’ll be able to guess anyway, after tonight.”
She opens a velvet case of eye shadows, with names like “Virgin” and “Buck” and “Sin,” and wants me to choose. I point to a neutral gunmetal grey. “‘Sophisticate?’ Hardly, Fati.” Nada rolls her eyes, but I know she’s hurt. My cousin wants to believe we still tell each other everything.
Her brush hovers along the palette, then plunges into a deep, iridescent green. The pigment buckles like the skin of a tropical snake. It is the secret, oily glint of a dragonfly, a gold-green sari shimmering under dappled forest light. A color from your continent… is it a sign?
My cousin soon leans back and grins, all pique forgotten. “Habibi,” she breathes. “You won’t believe. So beautiful!” In clipped Arabic, she instructs Adil.
I startle at the creak of his seat, how close it is; his skin has merged with the night. I see the dingy glow of fingernails on the rearview mirror—then the bright, spectral whites of his eyes reflected back at me. But Adil is a good Muslim, an upright man; he drops his gaze before I can read it.
Blinking back at me now in the rearview mirror is no child, no schoolgirl. Her kohl-lined eyes are luminous in the dark. Her lips, two swathes of Red Carpet No. 9, are half-parted in surprise. She’s a glamorous stranger. I can’t turn away.
My ears, like traitors, strain into the silence. For what? The cluck of my mother’s tongue? The hiss of my grandmother’s whore, her only English word? You, whose fingers brushed mine in the stockroom once? You’ve never seen my face.
You are as silent as Adil.
And Nada and I are late.
My hand snakes behind me, sweeps across the leather. Surely my niqāb is there somewhere, crumpled but serviceable. If my fingers don’t close on fabric soon, I’ll turn and look for it… just, maybe, not yet. One minute more.
But Nada is electric, triumphant. “Fati, don’t worry! He’ll love it. You look”—and she winks in the mirror, as if she’s known about you all along—“like a Bollywood star.”
Now she’s grabbing my hand and we’re stumbling into the night together. She’s laughing and whooping up at the stars, tugging me toward the mall, and I can tell already: she will not let me go. I have exactly sixty seconds before we hit the harsh fluorescent light.
Ava Norling lives in Saudi Arabia and writes in airports, undergrounds, and tuktuks. With roots in northern Canada and a heart wedged in the Colorado Mountains, she’s learning to embrace the gorgeous chaos of an expat life. Currently an MFA candidate in fiction at Lesley University, Ava spends most days wrestling her hydra of a thesis novel to the sand. You can visit her site at www.AvaNorling.com.