A Middle Eastern Road Trip
© Copyright 2022 by Elizabeth Wahba
Photo courtesy of Pexels.
For our first Eid, my parents decided to not only take us to Oman, but to drive there. The American spirit of the road trip apparently is unquenchable even in the Middle East. Leaving Bahrain, we’d have to skirt across Saudi Arabia, a fearful prospect; but knowing we’d pass right by the border of Yemen was another.
In America, road trips are the chosen form of travel. Rest stops, diners, gas stations, ‘World’s Largest [insert odd object here]’ and micro museums dot every major highway and route. It’s an activity for the whole family to enjoy. But in Saudi, there is no reason to drive through a flat, interminable desert – at least to natives. In fact, along the whole of the Arabian Gulf, one would just fly to their destination: there are airports for 25-minute flights throughout. Apparently, even gas stations along the roads between countries are viewed as an unnecessary installment. This proved ironic, as highways there are only used by oil profiteers to and from sites. Regardless, during an Eid they would be empty.
My adventurous parents felt otherwise about the purposes of these roads, and were merely thrilled at the prospect of an easy driving experience, sans traffic. As a result, we found ourselves not only without food or a rest stop for nine of the twelve hours the drive took, but without even a bathroom to use. This meant we had to stop in mosques, illegally, to use the hole-in-the-ground squatter toilets. For my mother and I, there were added stresses. Women were not provided with bathrooms at all, and all women must stay fully covered at all times in Saudi. So, it became a scout-and-guard system of my father and brothers watching the road (disturbingly silent and empty) for other cars, and the inside of the mosque (non-Muslims cannot enter.) Every stop we had I heard “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” in my head, as these abandoned mosques felt like the dusty churches of Westerns. The emptiness and expansiveness of the gray Saudi desert was unsettling in a very “quiet… too quiet” way. The tumbleweeds and shimmering mirages of water didn’t add comfort – but they did add to the atmosphere.
The landscape was mostly unvarying and flat. Desert dunes of unchanging cream sands rippled like a calm sea, speckled with colorful litter, almost charmingly. Every now and then on the drive, a Bedouin, a nomadic Arab, would pass, “tut tut”ing at his camels as he brazenly crossed a road without a speed limit. It kept things interesting.
Once we arrived in Oman, we aimed to head towards a summit waterfall before checking into our “hotel” - a rented bottom floor of an elderly Omani woman’s home. For reference, Oman is not your average Middle Eastern country. Notably, it’s where Aladdin is set, so if you’ve seen that classic film – or the one with Will Smith – you’ll have a good idea of its beauty. It’s only partially desert, and it’s very lush and green in many places. The waterfall would be the first greenery any of us had seen since leaving the Amish countryside of Pennsylvania five months prior. I couldn’t explain it then, and time has afforded me no vocabulary to articulate it now, how much your bones ache for greenery, soft sunshine, shady knolls, the feel of tree bark, the sound of wind and rain, the sight of fluffy cumulus clouds, the scurry of squirrels, the seasonal changes of lightning bugs to falling leaves… not to mention the changing of the leaves I missed, though that I couldn’t see that even in Oman. My fibrous being was not meant for heat and sweat, and the Middle East felt suffocating. Needless to say I couldn’t believe it was possible that we were driving to a waterfall.
But, when we got there… you couldn’t see it. You could hear it, but the crowds of people were so vast it wasn’t possible to get close to the water. I tried. Boisterously and teenagerly, I huffed and “excused me”-ed and rolled my eyes and tried, but the pilgrims were too tightly packed. The site was the only one of its kind, and everyone was on the same Eid holiday. Reservedly, we went back to the car to drive back down, this time going by way of the town.
It was then that the biggest shock of the trip came. We scaled down and up the hills, eventually leading to the valley of Muscat. Oman’s capital, Muscat is a beachfront, shades-of-white city where you can practically see Aladdin on his carpet weaving through the minarets.
As we slowed in a sort of traffic coming down around a bend in a village, I looked over the window’s edge and at the ground.
There was gushing blood running alongside our car.
As if from a medieval battle.
“There’s BLOOD! Dad, stop the car! Did you hit something?”
“No Lizzy. it’s Eid for all Muslims, and some Muslims sacrifice animals in honor of Ismael,” my dad replied nonchalantly. My brothers clamored over each other to see out the other window of our sedan. My mother blanched and was suddenly very interested in the maps.
I couldn’t tear my eyes apart from the scene – I saw an eyeball roll past, and fleshy clumps clotted in the drainage ditches.
It was a long drive down into the valley.
Lizzy Wahba lives in Athens, Greece. She is a third culture kid: a first generation Arab American, raised between Amish country Pennsylvania and Bahrain. This is her first published nonfiction story, although her poems and nonfiction articles have been published under her pseudonym, Elyse Welles, at Sunflower Journal, Yellow Arrow Journal and Aayo Magazine, among others.