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Pursuing happiness behind the veil

To be the American wife of a Saudi is to forsake familiar freedoms -- or enjoy them secretly -- in exchange for a secure, family-centered life.

January 14, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — Teresa Malof knew she wasn't in Kentucky anymore when a cleric issued a fatwa against her secret Santa gift exchange.

Malof proposed the idea at the King Fahad National Guard Hospital, where she has worked for more than a decade. It was supposed to be discreet, but rumors were whispered amid veils and hijabs that the lithe, blond nurse, raised on farmland at the edge of Appalachia, was planning to celebrate a Christian tradition in an Islamic kingdom that forbids the practicing of other religions.

"Even though I'm a Muslim too, I like to celebrate the holidays and have gift exchanges," said Malof, a convert to Islam who is married to the son of a former Saudi ambassador. "But word got out and the religious people came with a fatwa [or edict] against the Santa party. My husband was having a heart attack. He was worried I'd be in a lot of trouble."

For American women married to Saudi men, such is life in this exotic, repressive and often beguiling society where tribal customs and religious fervor rub against oil wealth and the tinted-glass skyscrapers that rise Oz-like in the blurry desert heat. This is not a land of the 1st Amendment and voting rights; it is a kingdom run by the strict interpretation of Wahhabi Islam, where abayas hang in foyers, servants linger like ghosts, minarets glow in green neon and, as a recent court case showed, a woman who is raped can also be sentenced to 200 lashes for un-Islamic behavior.

"Haram, haram" (forbidden, forbidden). American wives know the phrase well. It is learned over years of peeking through veils at supermarkets or sitting in the back of SUVs while Filipinos behind the wheel glide through traffic. Their adopted Arab home is a traditionally close U.S. ally. But like much of the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia's relations with Washington have been strained since the rise of global jihad. Terrorist bombings, which have killed nearly 150 people here in recent years, have kept many American families in gated communities that have the aura of golf courses protected by small armies.

Most non-Muslim women convert to Islam as a prerequisite for marrying a Saudi and living in the kingdom. Many American women, including those who converted before they arrived, have embraced the Koran; for others, the adoption of Islam is a pantomime act, the disguise of a second self to hold them over until they peel off their head scarves and travel to the U.S. for summer vacations.

For both kinds of women, it is a life of sacrifices and measured victories: Women can't drive or vote in Saudi Arabia, but their children are largely safe from street crime and drugs; a wife can't leave the country without her husband's written permission, but tribal and religious codes instill a strong sense of family.

Freedom lies behind courtyard walls, where private swimming pools glimmer and the eyes of the religious police, known as the mutaween, do not venture. Rock 'n' roll (haram) is played, smuggled whiskey (haram) is sipped, and Christianity (haram) sometimes is practiced. This sequestered, contradictory experience, a number of American wives noted, can turn an expat into an alcoholic or a born-again Christian, and sometimes both.

"American women get together and we talk," said Lori Baker, a mother of two who met her Saudi husband at Ohio State University in 1982. "We ask one another, 'Where are you on your curve now? Have you hit bottom yet?' We all go through the highs and lows when it comes to moods and tolerance. . . . When I first got here, I felt naked without my head scarf.

"Then after the terrorist bombings in 2003, I even covered my face. Foreigners were a target then. I became very comfortable with my face covered. I felt safe. Nobody knows me. They can't see me, and if you're covered, they respect you. Sometimes without a covered face it's like walking down Main Street wearing a bikini."

Baker's husband holds three master's degrees, including one in architecture. Like many Saudi men of his generation, he left the kingdom to learn English and study in America. Baker converted to Islam in Ohio and moved with her husband to Saudi Arabia in 1992; both of her sons were born here.

As the wife of a Saudi living off a busy Riyadh street, she said she's not completely embraced by Americans living in gated communities, but she also feels estranged within Saudi society.

"My mother and father were just devastated at my conversion," said Baker, whose house was damaged in a 1995 bombing that targeted a U.S.-Saudi military office compound. "Neither family was receptive about our marriage. He was the oldest son, and after living for many years in America, it was time for him to come back. And the feeling was, 'If you have to bring her with you, go ahead.' . . . With Saudi women there's a politeness, an acceptance and a curiosity about American wives . . . but there's never long-lasting friendship."

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