Thursday, July 2, 2009


I’m not a very patriotic person. I think nationalism represents a limited worldview. However, spending four years in the Middle East as a kid cemented my appreciation for this country.

My fifth grade teacher in Saudi Arabia had us write essays comparing life there to life here. I wrote something like you couldn’t just walk down to the corner in your shorts to buy a Coke at McDonald’s in Jeddah, but I liked that my friends were from Ethiopia, Thailand, Jordan, the Philippines and Texas (Texas seemed exotic to a kid from California).

If I was to write that essay today, I would focus more on the lack of basic freedoms. My mom couldn’t drive. It was a crime punishable by death to practice Christianity (so my parents took us to a secret born-again Christian church . . . why be boring?). The weekends there were Thursday and Friday, and on one of those days, “justice” was violently meted out in public squares. There were stonings of “unfaithful” women and hands were lopped off of thieves. There were also beheadings. One of the adults that my parents knew had gone to watch, and the crowd excitedly pushed the Westerner to the front so he could get a good look. I once saw one of the long jagged justice saws with an old man sitting regally next to it. I swear I could see blood on the blade.

There were police who patrolled public places, enforcing the laws of Sharia with their clubs. We heard rumors of bare arms and legs being hit by the clubs, but I never saw it happen. When outside the compound, we wore long-sleeved dresses down to our feet but were allowed to leave our heads uncovered. The Saudi women were shrouded in black from head to toe. (I was always curious about the Saudi women. What did they look like? What were they wearing under there? I liked to watch them take off their abayas in the airplane after landing in Europe. They were often beautiful with sophisticated make-up and designer jeans.)

But what I focused on in my fifth grade essay was the lack of Coca Cola and McDonald’s. There was no Coke because the bottling plant was in Israel, so it wasn’t allowed in the country. Indeed, people of the Jewish faith were not allowed in the country, and I don’t think that’s changed. There was one McDonald’s but it was in Riyadh, the capital.

Coming back to California each summer was like heaven. I can’t really pinpoint it, but there are certain smells unique to each country and the SMELL of the U.S. would relax me, as would the sight and sound of language that I could understand. The casual feeling, even the abrupt rudeness of the people working at LAX, made me happy.

But here’s the thing that gets me. I also gained an appreciation for Saudi Arabia. I would go as far as to say I have a feeling not unlike being homesick when I think of it. There are things we used to eat such as schwarma and Vimto soda that I would pay good money to taste again. I didn’t even like schwarma that much when we lived there . . . you know, that roasted meat on a stick surrounded by flies, which is sliced into fresh pitas with pickles and parsley. I would often opt for the weird tasting hamburger, which I miss as well. I’ve yet to find anything exactly like either back home.

There was also the Red Sea . . . the sticky feeling of the saltwater drying on my skin in the hot, humid air. The translucent purple jellyfish resembling UFOs that my friends and I would throw at each other like frisbees. There were the shopping trips to the suk where we haggled in tiny stores filled with 18 and 24-carat gold jewelry or pirated tapes and other unauthorized merchandise. The shiny solid brass teapots and decorative camels for sale, displayed on the ground at the side of the road. How everything shut down several times a day for prayer, which you would hear from the towers throughout the city.

So it makes me think . . . if I could become partial to certain aspects of life in an oppressive monarchy in just four years, how brainwashed are we by the random circumstance of where we happen to be born and raised? I love my country, but so do most people in the world, which is why we should be as wary of patriotism as we are proud.


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