My family had a great car in the early 90s. It was a 1970s Chevrolet Impala, known affectionately to us as “The Chevy”. It was a loud, gas-guzzling beast, long enough to make parallel parking a near impossibility. It was deep maroon in colour, with one long velvety front seat identical to the back seat. I remember wearing seatbelts in The Chevy because, in the 40 degree desert heat of Jeddah, the city we lived in, the metal buckle of the seatbelt would get so hot that you needed a barrier of clothing between you and the buckle, or it would singe your skin.
“Your Girl Scout uniform is on the backseat,” Dad called back to me from the front, as he focused on the road ahead. Dad had just picked me up from baseball practice in the dusty, sandy field at my school, the American International School, established in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1952. The school campus was a fifteen-minute drive away from Saudia City, the compound we lived on. A few thousand people lived on the compound, mostly Saudi Arabian Airline employees and their families. My dad took a sabbatical from his job as a secondary school English teacher in Monaghan Town in 1986 to teach English to Saudi employees of the airline, bringing my mum, my older sister and myself with him. My parents had planned to stay for two years, but they liked the multi-cultural expat lifestyle of Red Sea snorkelling and desert camping trips, and stayed for seventeen years. My twin brothers were born in Jeddah.
Our compound was a gated community near the sea. The Chevy had a sticker on its windscreen so that the security guards at one of the four gates knew we were residents. We could drive in and out as we wished. On the compound we had our own dusty baseball field, a small shopping centre with a grocery store, a donut shop and a dry-cleaners. Basketball courts and outdoor swimming pools were dotted around the expansive development that took me at least an hour to rollerblade across. The crumbling ruin of a closed-up cinema was a source of fascination for us kids. It had been shut down by the religious police, known as mutawa, before my family moved to Jeddah in 1986.
The government agency in charge of enforcing key aspects of Sharia Law in Saudi Arabia had the same name back then as they do today: the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Their mutawa mostly stayed out of our compound but they still asserted their authority within our gates in a number of key ways. Women couldn’t drive and alcohol was forbidden.
Back in The Chevy, and I was trying to figure out how I was going to change out of my dirty baseball uniform into my crisp, green Girl Scout uniform between Dad picking me up at school and dropping me off at the community centre on my compound where my Girl Scout troop met. I was just a month shy of my tenth birthday, feeling the pressures of the busy life of an active nine year old. It was February 8th 1992.
We were driving down one of the wide streets lined by dusty vacant plots, dotted with private flat-roofed villas, painted white. Suddenly, my eardrums were filled with the sickening sound of screeching metal. I was pulled violently forward. My head hit something, maybe The Chevy’s metal door handle, and soon there was sticky blood oozing down my face. I can’t remember feeling pain, just shock. We’d been in an accident. My twin brothers, also in the car, were crying but I think they were mostly just scared because of my bloody face. Dad was shaken but physically ok as he quickly got us out of the car. There was just one man in the other car, a tiny white Toyota dwarfed by The Chevy that had kept us safe. The Toyota was a write off. I remember that the man, with light brown hair and a moustache, looked small and frightened on the side of the road, as he stood looking upon the wreckage of his car and at us.
We were less than a mile away from our compound. A passing truck, most likely driven by one of the thousands of poor Bangladeshi migrant workers toiling away in Jeddah, picked up my Western dad with two crying baby boys and a stunned nine year old with blood on her face. They dropped us at one of our compound’s security gates; Dad used the telephone at the gate to call my mum at our house. She sped over on her bike to get us, so that Dad could get back to the crash scene. I was bleeding quite badly and Mum needed to get me to a doctor. But, of course, women are not allowed to drive so she had no car of her own, just her trusty bike that had gotten her to us, fast.
Before the security guards could suggest calling the compound’s taxi company, the Saudi man who owned the compound dry-cleaners happened to be driving in through that gate. He was a kind man. He piled us all into his car and drove us to the medical centre on our compound. Dr Medhat, the Egyptian doctor who had supported my family through twin pregnancy, asthma attacks and the other minor injuries that most families face, calmly stitched the deep slash in the centre of my forehead shut.
A few hours later, we were in one of the hotel-like hospitals in the city, where I was getting X-rayed to make sure that the only damage done was the cut on my forehead (it was.). The Filipino nurse found out we were from Saudia City and told us gently that there had been another accident that day. A boy had been hit by a car and killed on our compound, perhaps an hour before our accident. His name was Caleb Parsons, he was America - did we know him? Caleb was 13 when he died. His dad was my PE teacher and his mum was our school’s librarian. He had a younger brother in the grade below me. I had known Caleb a little. He was a lovely kid. He was so friendly, even to younger kids like me. I had had a bit of a crush on him.
Years later, my mum told me that there had been some confusion as news spread through the compound of the two accidents, with some people thinking that I had died and Caleb had survived, or another story where we had both died. In the years after the accident, I had a recurring image of death as a black cloud hovering over our compound, its cruel fingers reaching out over the sites of both accidents, deciding which one of us to take. I felt guilty that I had survived and that he hadn’t.
The day after the accident, Dad was forced to bring me to a police station. The driver of the white Toyota was a Turkish mechanic. He had come out of a side street and ploughed into us on the main road. He had fled from the scene immediately after the accident, while Dad was getting us back to our compound, but he was later apprehended by the police. There was no question of who was in the wrong, and he had been imprisoned overnight, because a child had been hurt in the accident. My dad had to bring me to the police station to prove that I was alive, and to work with the police in deciding what kind of punishment the man should face for hitting us. All aspects of public Saudi life was swayed by Wahhabism, the fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam founded on the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th Century, and it’s still a major influence in Saudi society today. Qisas is the Sharia Law term meaning retaliation in kind, otherwise known as an eye for an eye.
I remember the cool, marble floor of the police station, and the mustached men in their beige uniforms and black berets. These weren’t mutawa (religious police) or the mabahith (secret police), but the regular police force that handled everyday civic duties. There was a lot of shouting, as Dad pushed for the man’s immediate release. “But your daughter’s face!”, the policeman insisted angrily. “How will you marry her off in later life? Her face is destroyed. There has to be consequences.”
I stopped this heated back and forth by combusting into loud, scared tears. “Please let him go! Please!” I couldn’t bear to think of this man in a prison cell, because of me. The man was released, and Dad agreed with the police that the man’s punishment would be to fix up The Chevy, free of charge, in the garage that he worked at.
Dad still winces when he notices the scar on my forehead. Though these days it’s hidden under a fringe, I like my scar. It reminds me that I am alive.