Riyadh is a religious city, the strictest in all of Saudi Arabia. Some say this is because the King lives here, others say it is because Riyadh is the capital, but all agree that it wouldn’t be this way had it not said so in the Quran. I have read the Quran, and Riyadh is not in it. They tell me I’m reading it wrong.
The McDonald’s on Tahlia Street has been there for over twenty years. On any given Wednesday at around three in the afternoon, cars can be seen lined up around the block, trying to get to the drive-thru. Groups of teenage boys with fuzzy facial hair and stained thoubs stand around the entrance, waiting to get a glimpse of an escaped strand of hair from beneath a veil, a sliver of milky white skin under the long skirts of school uniforms. The Filipino drivers hold court with the Indian ones, sharing tales of their employers in broken, deeply accented Arabic.
That day the dust floated around, swirling, clinging to the air. The desert sun emanated a heat that left the people unfazed; they merely wiped their brows, held their clothes away from their bodies, and stayed in their air-conditioned cars as long as possible.
I sat in the back of the van, silent for the most part. It was as if I weren’t even there. My sister spoke to her friends with a freedom I had never seen. Her laugh seemed genuine and carefree, nothing like her laugh on Fridays when Auntie Shaheeda made fun of her dessert, or when Mama made her call someone to thank them for an invitation. No, this Alia had friends who understood her, this Alia had jokes I didn’t get, this Alia was cool. I wanted more than anything to stay in that car and just listen; I tried not to move so they wouldn’t suddenly remember I was there.
We drove up to the entrance of the “Family” section and waited in line as the cars before us stopped and unloaded a few girls at a time. Some wore the same uniform as ours; others wore uniforms in different colors, uniforms I didn’t recognize, from schools I didn’t know.
“Faten, look, it’s him!” one of Alia’s friends was saying.
They all leaned toward the right window, staring at a group of boys standing by the door to the “Singles” section. Shielded behind the tinted windows of our car, the girls studied the boys as they stood there, joking and looking around, probably conscious of the hidden eyes that followed them.
“He’s so handsome,” Faten breathed.
“Who are you talking about?” I said.
The spell was broken: I had made myself visible again. The girls, as if on cue, looked away from the window and the boys. They wound their veils tightly around their faces, fastened the buttons of their abayas, and emerged from the car. I trailed after them, forgotten, and it was only when I lagged behind, wide-eyed and curious about my surroundings, that Alia yanked me by the arm and pulled me inside.
It was mayhem from the minute we set foot inside, though we were protected by the frosted windows that surrounded us, shielding us from prying male eyes. Girls jumped between tables, their hair uncovered and flowing, their voices rising in giggles. This was the closest I had ever gotten to a party.
“Halla, Muneera, how are you?”
“I’m good, alhamdallah. I thought for sure you’d be missing for a few weeks, you know, after…”
“Muneera, this is my little sister, Najma,” Alia cut in.
I was introduced to many other girls, most of whom I had never seen and would never see again. I was seated at a table where I would remain for most of my time there, while my sister and her friends fled from one table to the next, chatting, greeting people, and laughing without me. I ate my Happy Meal in silence, occasionally looking around to locate my sister. But she was in a different world, a world I wouldn’t enter for another five years.
I didn’t see him come in; in fact it happened so fast that I wouldn’t have noticed had the room not gone silent all of a sudden. The loud chattering stopped, and a hush fell across the crowd; only scattered breathing could be heard, from those who dared. He strode in with confidence and walked right up to a table a few booths away. Of the three girls who sat at the table, two rose and moved to another beside it. It was only when I shifted in my seat to get a better view that I realized Faten was still sitting at the table, and the two girls who had left were Alia and Mona.
“Alia, what’s happening? Who is that boy?” I said, rushing over to where my sister sat.
“Najma, you wouldn’t understand. Just don’t say anything, okay?”
“Alia, why don’t you give Najma money to get an ice cream or something?” Mona said.
As I waited for my ice cream, I looked around at the other girls, some with darting eyes, others whispering amongst themselves, most watching breathlessly as the boy sat with Faten and shared her fries. I slowly crossed the restaurant back to my sister’s table, but no one was speaking. Alia and Mona both had their phones out and seemed preoccupied. Conversations gradually resumed, voices began to rise again, and cold burgers were eaten. No one seemed to be looking at Faten or the boy anymore, and occasionally Alia would look up from her phone and give me a small smile, one that only sisters give.
Then someone yelled, “Haya’a!” The religious police were here.
I had heard stories of the haya’a, stories that never seemed real to me, whispered on the school playground at recess or behind closed doors when the world was asleep. I had seen the small bearded men with their short thoubs and prayer-bruised foreheads a few times, but that was only until the malls were designated for “Families” only. Before that young men had gotten into the habit of spending their weekends prowling the malls for women to “number”—dropping a small piece of paper with a phone number on it into a purse or reciting the number loudly as they walked by. It didn’t matter what the women looked like under the veils that covered their faces, or if the women were mothers or even grandmothers. What mattered was the thrill when he slowly walked past her, delivering the number, and when she secretly saved it to her phone, and when, later that night, she called him under the shroud of darkness, her voice a whisper between the sheets.
The haya’a had tried to put an end to this when they banned single men from going into malls on the weekends, but the decision had only increased the number of men who would follow women home, surrounding them in their cars until the driver inevitably got furious and attempted to lose the pursuers. At ten, I had never heard an explanation of these things, nor did I ask. Instead, I listened when my mother told me to cover my hair, and when she adjusted the veil on her face, and later when she asked my father to tint the car windows “to protect his daughters.” My father had obliged, and so, as in most families, the view for us women was forever dimmed, daylight always muted, the sun’s brightness always interrupted.
The chaos only added to my excitement on that Wednesday in McDonald’s. My life’s adventures had begun, away from the Friday family gatherings and my mother’s watchful eye. I would now have a secret of my own.
The instant the warning call was heard, a frenzy began. Girls wrapped their exposed hair in their veils, tucking stray strands beneath their abayas, and the boys ran into the kitchen, climbing out of the drive-thru window while the workers watched in silence and fear, scared for the jobs they had illegally obtained and imagining the police’s wrath that would surely descend on them. Alia quickly pulled the partition of our booth closed, sectioning us off from the rest of the restaurant. Faten hurried over to our table and slipped into the booth next to Mona. The noise died down as our anticipation rose. While Alia adjusted my veil I held my breath, bracing for whatever would come.
Nothing did come. We waited there for what seemed like hours. The minutes ticked by in a slow ache, the one you can only feel in your compressed heart, the ache that comes with fear.
“Najma, go check if it’s safe,” Faten said.
I looked at Alia, and when she gave me a small nod I slowly rose and slipped out from behind the partition. The restaurant was silent. I felt the eyes of scared girls follow me as I walked to the exit. I pulled my abaya close around me and went out. All the boys who had gathered outside when we came in were now gone, and only the drivers remained, sitting off to one side, huddled in solidarity. They looked up as I walked out, and I caught the eye of our driver, Mumtaz. As he rose, I frantically looked around for the police, craning my neck to check the sides of cars, searching for the tell-tale sticker announcing their power. But they were gone.
“They left,” I said when I was back inside.
Alia grabbed my arm and hurried us outside and into the car. Almost every other girl did the same. And as we drove away from that McDonald’s on Tahlia Street, everyone sat in silence, even Mumtaz.
Before I go any further, I must return to the beginning, in order for you to understand how I came to be where I am at this moment, a six-by-eight-foot jail cell.
I first heard the story of Layla many years ago. It lives in my mind so vividly that sometimes I feel as if it happened to someone I knew, like the lie you tell so many times that after a while you begin to believe in its truth. The story was told to me as a warning of what could happen, a situation I should want to avoid. The moral of which I would misunderstand for years, until I found myself in Layla’s shoes. The very shoes my mother had wanted me to shun were suddenly on my feet, walking me to a car shrouded in the darkness of a parking lot, to meet a boy.
The story came to me in parts. The threads slowly intertwined over time, weaving together an elaborate fabric. Eventually it would become the only thing I could never forget, no matter how much I tried.
I was ten years old when the only man in my life at the time, my father, knocked on my bedroom door. The absurdity of his knocking didn’t occur to me till years later, when he burst into the same room only to find his seventeen-year-old daughter clutching a phone in the darkness.
“Najma,” he said that first time, “I need to talk to you.”
My father wasn’t a talker. I was still discovering new dimensions to his voice, still trying to gauge his tone, lamely attempting to guess his next words, yet never succeeding. It was one of the only times that he would initiate a conversation with his youngest child, and I think even then I knew he had only come because my mother asked him to. I watched him cross the room in his ankle-grazing thoub, its undone buttons revealing his undershirt, the day’s work showing in his slumped posture. I sat on the edge of the bed, wide-eyed and waiting, trying to remember if I had misbehaved that day. Nothing came to mind. He sat down next to me, but he stayed at arm’s length, looking at the far wall, which was covered in cartoon stickers and the large Saudi flag I had begged Alia to give me.
“Your mother tells me you went shopping with her today,” he said, after what seemed like an eternity.
I nodded shyly, looking down at my lap.
“You know, Najma, you’re a big girl now. What are you? Fifteen, sixteen?”
“No! Daddy, I’m ten!” I giggled.
It was a joke we shared often. He would pretend to forget my age, prompting me to correct him, and then he would feign surprise and reply, “Oh, you’re so old!”
This time there was no surprise in his voice. He smoothed down his beard in thought, a habit he would take to the grave. I waited patiently, trying to swallow the lump forming at the back of my throat.
“You know what big girls do? They listen to their mother,” he said, answering his own question.
He looked at me for the first time since he sat down, and my eyes began to well up. Finally I knew what this was about.
“You need to start wearing your abaya, Najma. Big girls wear abayas, and no girl of mine will be talked about.”
The day a young Saudi girl wears an abaya for the first time depends on several factors. For me it came down to my parents, my appearance, and maintaining a reputable family name. For a ten-year-old I was tall for my age and therefore in danger of attracting male attention, something I had been taught to avoid since birth. I barely remembered my older sister going through the same stage, and so I was unprepared for the emotions I began to feel. I was no longer just a child; I was now strictly a girl, one with a reputation to protect, rules I had to follow, and situations to be avoided at all costs.
It wasn’t uncommon for someone my age to begin covering her body and hair, although it set me apart at school. Like my first period, my first bra, and the first marriage proposal I received, that day would stay with me forever, and I would remember it as the day I started to become a woman.
Later that week, Mama took me to a store to pick out my first abaya. As I stood on the platform behind the partition at the back of the store, Mama took my measurements, and later I leafed through swatches, trying to pick a color of thread and a type of embroidery that would encircle the cuffs of my sleeves. The Egyptian salesman wrote down the specifics excitedly, telling me how thrilled I must be to finally be a woman. I said nothing, and he told us to pick it up in three days. My first abaya had emerald-green braiding on the sleeves and running down the length of the back, with six front clasps that ended at my knees. The veil matched exactly.
Najma is a coming-of-age story with a murder-mystery element, set in Saudi Arabia. It spans two decades and weaves together the stories of Najma and Layla, two girls born fifteen years apart. The novel explores what it means to be a woman in an oppressive country, in 1998 and in 2008 alternately; it speaks to how nothing has changed and yet everything has. The story brings to life a world rarely explored in fiction. Saudi Arabia is a mysterious place, and this novel sheds light where the darkness has lingered.
Najma learns of Layla’s story slowly and over the years becomes obsessed with finding out the truth of what happened to her. She knows only two things for sure: Layla is dead, and no one will tell her why. Thus she embarks on a journey of discovery, all while growing up herself and trying to make sense of who she is and who she wants to become.
As Najma begins to uncover the truth of what happened to Layla, startling connections appear between her family and the death she is consumed with. As the years go by, Najma starts to question everything she knows and everything she has been told by her parents, her sister, and even herself. When Najma falls in love for the first time, parallels are drawn between her experience and Layla’s years earlier. Will Najma pay for her love as Layla surely did?
Once Najma finally discovers the gut-wrenching truth, she must decide how to live with it. Can she forgive her family and her country, or will she have to escape them for a chance to survive?
Johara Alrasheed is a Saudi Arabian writer. She has earned a Master’s in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles. She shares a birthday with the Queen of England and is a proud aunt to her first and only niece, Bean (real name: Loulouwa).
Embark, Issue 12, April 2020