Homesickness Nightmare in Arabia

In a three-part series, The Times takes a look at the problems of high mobility and its effect on the individual. Today's theme: Homesickness.


SAN DIEGO — Harriet Fetzer never thought that being a woman would guarantee misery. She was wrong.

Fetzer spent five years in Saudi Arabia (1978-82) in what she now calls a nightmare. She defines homesickness as "a real pain in the heart." She endured it at the cost of marital separation. She tolerated it mostly at the price of her own dignity.

Saudi Arabia, she said, is no place for a woman.

"A woman couldn't drive outside the camp," she said, referring to the fenced-in compound where her husband's American oil company was located. "If a woman went into Arab towns to shop, she had to be accompanied by a man. You had to be carefully dressed, with your arms and legs covered. When it's 115 degrees, that's not very comfortable."

Fetzer endured homesickness almost every day for five years running. A maniacal Chargers fan, she had to endure the football team's best-ever seasons by watching only selected games--and then after a five-month delay. The compound received one television station, which aired truncated (and censored) programming from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.

"I'm the sort of person who likes to pick up and drive to San Francisco," she said. "Over there, you needed a passport to drive from province to province. For a woman, it was hell--the constant feeling of always being trapped, contained, spat upon. If not literally, then figuratively. It makes a person homesick awful fast."

Fetzer sees her current marital separation (her husband remains in Saudi Arabia, even after the five-year limit he promised) as a casualty of modern times--high technology and mobility, combined with ambition, to change a marriage and a life. Perhaps irrevocably.

The positive aspects of the "Saudi Arabian wilderness" are a deeper appreciation of San Diego (Fetzer defends it to the "finest-city" hilt) and of the limits of her own tolerance.

"Home is a lot more important than people realize," she said. "Even to a supposed adventurer like me."

Fetzer, 47, will "never again" be critical of San Diego's hang-loose life style. She missed the beaches, which she now visits for a full day, at least once a week, and the feeling of manana that Saudi Arabians "would never understand, except as mythology."

Fetzer knew a lot of marriages that dissolved under the strain of Arabian nights. She knew others that survived, but only with the crutch of alcohol. Her days were limited to bowling and a women's group. She read and re-read and read again.

"Everything from P.D. James to Allen Drury," she said.

She learned: "Never take lightly the mail." Mail to a woman in Saudia Arabia is, she said, "rich manna from heaven." She felt like a soldier in Vietnam when she opened the mail from her children, ages 26 and 24.

A word of advice to other wives: "Think twice about your role in corporate ladder-climbing. If you don't, it might be a recipe for homesickness, and regret. Why have that when you can have Charger games and the beach? I mean, who has to wear a veil to a Charger game?"

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