She wakes every morning to Salat al-fajr, the pre-dawn call to prayer, as the Muezzin’s throaty voice echoes through the loud speaker; soft at first, then stretching to a crescendo, until a blanket of bass sound reverberates over the flat roofs of Riyadh. The streets begin to fill with men on their way to mosque, locals in Saudi thobes, foreign workers wearing Salwar Khameez, united by prayer but divided in life. It is that magical time foreigners call twilight. There is something about the darkness that brings God’s presence even closer to her, as if turning on a light will break the spell. Perhaps this is why it feels like the most important of the five daily prayers. Her mornings have started this way for most of her life, each with the faint hope of something new breaking through the clouds and bursting in. Anything that might intrude upon the crushing monotony of being a woman in Riyadh.
Now, finally, everything is different. Her life has changed, and she is now one of two. Yet there is a feeling of trepidation that keeps sleep far out of reach and her stomach twisted in dread. She looks over at her new husband lying asleep in their bed, seemingly undisturbed. With the lightest of touches, she places a hand on his shoulder. The words flowing out over the city through the loudspeakers convey her message to him;
Hurry to the prayer. Hurry to the prayer.
Hurry to Salvation. Hurry to Salvation.
There is no God except the One God.
God is Great! God is Great!
Prayer is better than sleep. Prayer is better than sleep.
His eyes open sleepily, and he seems momentarily surprised to see her. With a flicker of guilt, or defiance, he rolls over and goes back to sleep.
Her husband is an important man, well known in the city for being a loyal follower of Islam, a patriot, an obedient son. He is the full package; her mother had told her before the big day.
Yet the smell of alcohol lingers from his breath and his red and white chequered headdress, flung on to the bedroom chair, reeks of cigarette smoke. Neither of these issues bothers her particularly. She herself refrains from dipping into her brother’s whiskey supply only because of the taste – not because of any moral aversion, and there is a packet of menthol slims tucked into the inner fold of her pillow cover. But he would not approve if he saw them. He would think it a stain on her faith, and unbecoming of a Saudi woman.
She had heard him return to their new home only an hour before the prayer, having spent the earlier part of the night, probably, with another woman. It is rumoured that he has some female friends after all. She should be outraged, but there is only indifference. She had never met this man before their wedding three nights ago and had only spoken with him twice on the phone before that. He is a stranger.
She will pretend to love him, as she pretends to love their country, and she will conform to her duties as a wife. For now. Until she can be free from all of this. She sits there a few seconds longer, a new wife thinking about her future, summoning the strength needed each and every day not to scream.
He never wakes up for the first prayer. Ungodly hour of the day, he once joked to his friends, though nobody really laughed. But he always goes to mosque at lunch time. If he doesn’t, then people start to talk. To tell the truth, he has no time for religious practises. His relationship with God is just that, a relationship. And those are the most private of things in Saudi Arabia. Men aren’t supposed to hold their wives’ hands in public to prove their love, although he’d quite like it if they did, so why must he show such an outward display of faith? Men like the local pharmacist, with his long, unkempt beard and Quran perched beside the counter, a dark brown smudge on his forehead as evidence of unrelenting worship, refusing to give women medicine without their male guardians being present. He has no time for it.
He waits for his new wife, a total stranger to him, to move away from the bed. No doubt she is staring down at him with judgement and regret. It is time for her to do her ablutions and pray, but she is still sitting there. Why? Perhaps she’s wondering where he went last night and wants to ask. He was in the desert with his friends, smoking around the fire, talking about war and love and rules and the fucked up business of being a man in Saudi Arabia. There is nothing quite like that time of night, around three or four am, when yesterday is over but the city still isn’t quite ready to wake up, like transit at an airport. He has hope of what the next day will bring, perhaps some shake up to the monotony of his unpredictable. days.
His father once told him that this was a kingdom made by men, for men, and that Saudis were the luckiest guys alive. But he failed to see any proof of that. He feels men have sabotaged themselves in their subjugation of women, squandered their opportunity to have an equal partner, someone with whom to share life’s hurdles and enjoy its pleasures. Someone to teach and to learn from. Someone to challenge and be challenged by. He’d rather be with his friends than spend time with a subservient woman, and yet here he was having been forced to marry one.
Anxiety fills his head like an all-consuming mass. She will try to change him, turn him into the man he knows he can never be, or worse, she will accept him as he is and object to nothing, abide by everything, a passive and infuriating passenger. She is a true Saudi, a lover of the culture and the status quo, a devoted follower of all that the Kingdom requests of her. This is her reputation anyway. He is not meant for endless worship and obedience. He is curious, inquisitive, critical and passionate. And longing to be free.
But he will pretend to love this woman. Until the time is right.
Lunchtime. She smiles at him as he sits down to eat the food she has made. He returns her smile and greets her warmly. Nothing is said of his absence the night before, and they sit in awkward silence, focusing their attention on the food. The morning paper lies between them. Its headline screams the country’s rage at Ghada Al Rasheed, the women’s rights activist who has just fled across the border, accusing her of spying for Iran or Qatar. There are many theories. News of Ghada’s successful departure makes her heart sing, and she smiles inwardly.
He looks briefly at the paper and sees that Ghada Al Rasheed has made it safely out of the country. It is uplifting news, and he makes a note to read about it on a foreign website. He forgets himself, smiling and nodding as he reads, as if he is alone at the table.
When he looks up, he sees his new wife has caught him smiling.
Her inquisitive face gives way to a hesitant smile, and the two look at each other for a long while without uttering a word.
‘What are your thoughts on this?’ she asks him, tentatively.
‘What are yours?’ he responds.
Neither one answers, but both husband and wife smile as if this is their first sighting of one another.
The newlyweds talk until long after the sun goes back down.