It means welcome in Arabic, and Dee Mathison heard it often in the service of the princess, the prince and their five lively children.
Mathison worked in a palace, had servants and was whisked off to France, Italy and the great cities of the world. Everywhere she went she was driven and doors opened for her.
No, this isn’t a Disney story. Mathison, a Columbia College communication instructor, was an English tutor to the children of a Saudi princess and prince for 10 years, and wrote about it in “Shifting Sands: Life in Arabia with a Saudi Princess” under the pen name T.L. McCown. It’s her story of what it’s like to walk with royalty in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
She’s also written a follow-up, “Creating Shamsiyah: Empowering the Saudi Feminist Movement,” which “chronicles the personal growth and deep friendship between her and Princess Madawi and the birth of the first educational learning center for women in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.” The books are available in hard copy and Kindle ebook from Amazon.
Mathison, who grew up in Georgia and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in communication studies from Auburn (Ala.) University, thought she had a darn good idea what she was walking into when her husband was offered a job in Saudi Arabia with aircraft maker McDonnell Douglas. After all, her parents had spent 20 years there — her father worked for the Department of Defense — and had insightful stories galore. She had also attended McDonnell Douglas workshops and information sessions.
Nothing could prepare her for the reality of the kingdom.
“The night I landed, the smells, the sounds, the language, it was all completely foreign,” Mathison says. “I was scared to death! I thought, I have jumped into the deep end of the pool without checking … I knew that as an independent American woman, I wouldn’t be able to do many things I was used to doing.”
While her husband worked, she drank coffee and lay around the pool. She had cleaning people and a driver (“What I wouldn’t do to have one now!”) In short — a life of luxury.
She hated it.
“You get depressed and you don’t know why … there are people cleaning the house, you have a great driver, you can lie by the pool all day, so you ask yourself, why am I so depressed?”
The solution was work. Mathison couldn’t legally advertise for a job, but one day a tutor suggested she tutor Saudi children in English.
“And I thought, by golly I can do that. That’s my field. I can teach them to speak English.” Her plan was simple: Tutor one child each day for five days.
Her husband handed her resumé out among his Saudi coworkers, and — nothing. Weeks passed. Mathison became even more depressed.
Then one day her husband called and said there was an American man representing a Saudi family in his office. Would she tutor one family with five kids? Sure she would!
“Well, pretty soon afterward, that man picked me up. He wouldn’t say where he was taking me. If we had been pulled over, we would have been arrested for adultery.” Under Saudi law, a woman cannot be in the company of any man who is not her husband or a family member.
They drove to a palatial mansion in a compound, but that didn’t mean anything. Many Saudis were wealthy and could afford all the trappings of privilege. The two Americans entered the mansion and Mathison was introduced to a normally dressed woman, in jeans and a tunic, for the interview. Women only wear the abaya, the head to toe cloak, in public.
“And it was like we knew each other. We just clicked. She would start talking, I’d finish her sentence.” By evening’s end, Mathison had an offer to tutor the children 20 hours a week, leaving her adequate time to spend with her own two kids.
Mathison had just been accepted into the palace household of a member of Al Saud, the House of Saud, the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia and perhaps the wealthiest and most powerful family in the world.
Mathison loved tutoring the kids, putting her degrees to practical use, the summers in France and jaunts to Italy and New York. But it was the deepening friendship and cultural insights from Princess Madawi that was perhaps most rewarding.
One evening about three years later, she, the princess and prince — “the Colonel,” she called him, not “Your Highness;” he was a colonel in the Royal Saudi Air Force — were sitting in the palace’s salon and Mathison finally came out with it: You oppress your women. They can’t vote, they can’t drive, they have to wear the abaya and the niqāb, a face veil.
“He said, ‘You are confused. You Westerners see the abaya as putting women down. We see it as elevating her.’“
In much of Islamic culture, the colonel explained, a woman’s body is sacred, private and personal. Islam believes that only family members should see a woman’s body. Mathison reflected and realized it wasn’t so different from the culture of her youth. She clearly remembers women wearing veils and covering their hair in Catholic church.
Not to mention Saudi women considered the abaya the perfect remedy for a bad hair day.
To the Midwest
When her husband left his McDonnell Douglas job in the summer of 2001, the family settled in a city in the Midwest, where Mathison’s sister lives. The area had everything they needed: four seasons, good suburban public schools and a large and diversified employment base.
On a lovely September morning two months later their world was turned upside down. Fifteen of the 19 known hijackers from 9/11 were citizens of Saudi Arabia, and Mathison saw the people she had learned to love characterized as bloodthirsty demons. She had to speak out, and the book began to took shape.
She knew she had to tell her story to emphasize the similarities, not the differences, between cultures.
“When you cut them (Saudis) they bleed. They get stressed out if their kids are not doing well in school. One or two things are different between us, but that’s nothing to the many that should unite us … When I go to speak (Mathison is in nationwide demand as a speaker), I try to emphasize where we are the same, then suggest a respectful understanding of each other.”