Waking to what sounded like a barnyard in
the middle of a speedway, I gathered my thoughts and tried to remember where I was.
I opened my eyes and turned my head on the pillow taking in my surroundings. My husband, Bill, was no longer sleeping beside
me and I didn't hear him moving about.
I sat up and scooted to the end of the bed to check out the rest of the room. Bright sunlight filtered through the ill-fitting
curtain at the single window set high in the wall above the bed. Judging by the amount of grit that had settled in the crevices
of the dangling curtain and on the windowsill, neither had been disturbed in a long time.
A sudden blasting of an automobile horn and the squealing of tires, the sounds that had originally disturbed me, this time
brought me fully awake. Outside a donkey brayed, and at regular intervals a rooster crowed, rounding out the cacophony. I
swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood on the grit covered marble floor.
So began my first morning in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Just a few hours before, Frank, an American with whom my husband would be working, had picked us up at the airport and
driven us to Al Attar apartment building. He’d left us at our third floor apartment saying he’d be back in time
to drive Bill to the offices of the Saudi Arabian Department of Civil Aviation. I assumed that’s where my husband had
I padded out of the bedroom and made my way down a marble-floored hall leading directly to the kitchen. Sun blazed through
the solitary window and without a shade or curtain, the glass was too hot to touch. It was October and still only 9 o'clock
in the morning. Everything outside was dun colored. Even the sky appeared murky-tan.
My view was of a multi-storied, marble clad apartment building separated from Al Attar by a paved two-lane street. To the
right squatted a small mud-brick hut with a skinny donkey standing beside it. Splay-legged with his head thrown back exposing
large yellow teeth, he noisily sucked in air and emitted it in a horrendous braying. For all his noise he couldn't block out
the intermittent crowing of a solitary brown cockerel that shared his arid pen.
A crumbling mud wall separated the animal enclosure from a busy intersection — the source of the “speedway.”
A constant flow of vehicles, each with the horn blaring, roared up to a four-way intersection. The closest the drivers came
to heeding the stop sign was to swerve their vehicle out of each other’s way. In the minutes I stood mesmerized by this
display of “chicken,” I saw several near misses. Speeding cars and trucks with horns blasting and tires squealing,
came within inches of each other, as they bullied their way through the crossroads and accelerated away as if nothing had
Three floors below my window, a small bus pulled into the curb and several Western women in long, loose, colorful dresses
emerged from my building. These, I thought, must be my neighbors. I could tell it was very hot outside just by the way one
lifted damp hair off her neck, and another fanned her face with her hand, as they filed onto the bus.
I left the window, turning my attention to the kitchen and thoughts of breakfast. Our American benefactor had stocked the
refrigerator with bread, butter, eggs, milk and orange juice. A jar of instant coffee and a packet of sugar sat on the counter.
He’d even thought to provide a bottle of dishwashing liquid and a roll of paper towels.
Every newcomer was loaned a ‘survival kit’ to tide them over the several weeks until their household goods
arrived from their home country. A pair of sheets, pillows, a well-used blanket and a couple of threadbare towels were piled
on the bed when we’d arrived in the early hours of the morning.
Bill had obviously found the wobbly frying pan. It sat on the electric stovetop with the remnants of his breakfast egg.
He’d also used one of the two plates, a chipped cup and one set of the “silverware.” A round-bottomed saucepan,
a spatula with a broken handle and a dull paring knife rounded out our kit.
After I’d eaten a scrambled egg with bread and butter washed down with orange juice, I checked out the rest of the
Counting the maid’s room and washroom with a hole-in-the-floor toilet, the place had thirteen rooms. A couple of
the bedrooms were bare, the rest of the rooms were sparsely equipped with cheap, gaudy furniture. The whole apartment, including
a very large entryway had marble floors. A single bug encrusted bare light bulb, dangling precariously from the ceiling of
each room, provided the only source of light. One look told me it would cost a fortune to make the apartment livable and that
would be impractical since we only planned to stay in Saudi Arabia for one year. Had I known we’d end up staying for
four years I would still not have opted to completely furnish the place.
It was obvious from the droppings and the dried body shells that the cockroaches called the apartments home. I was just
getting used to the speedway and the farmyard sounds, when I was startled by what I first thought was someone yelling. I then
realized the voice came from not just one, but dozens of loudspeakers. Although the voices chanted the same way, they were
not in unison but echoed like a roundelay all over the city. I was hearing my first live Islamic prayer-call. Little did I
realize we would learn to schedule our lives around the call to prayers five times every day.
Not long after I’d heard the midday prayer call, Bill arrived back at the apartment, hot and crumpled. His glazed
eyes held an expression of stunned terror, "Crazy bastards," he mumbled. He’d just survived his first driving experience
on the streets of Jeddah.