Udhailiyah, Saudi Arabia.
As I write this, I am sitting on a sofa we've had for as long as I can remember. And, to me, that is a very, very significant thing. I am sitting in a living room that looks just like the one I would sit in when I was seven years old, plus or minus a few things. The television looks different. It's thin and wide, instead of narrow and fat. The backyard door is open. The house smells the same. I'm instantly thrown back to my childhood, and that is a dangerous feeling.
It's dangerous being thrown back into the "before". Before I moved multiple times, had hundreds of heart breaks because of it, loved and lost, saw the rawness, sadness, evil and pain of this world. It's dangerous because it is a fantasy; because back then, I lived in a fantasy. I just didn't know it.
Udhailiyah is the singular place I can truly call home with all of my heart and mean it, completely. But it's really much more complicated than that. To understand me, you must understand it.
Udhailiyah is a small... place. I rewrote this sentence 100 times, no joke. I don't even know what to call it, lol. A town? A compound? A camp? A community? A little utopia? Let's start again. It's just so damn complicated.
Udhailiyah is a company owned compound in the middle of the desert. Access to it is extremely limited, because of it's location (1. Saudi Arabia - it's very difficult to get into this country. 2. It's in the middle of the desert) and the fact that it is owned by a mega-rich oil company. The only people allowed to enter this "area" are individuals who work for said company, their dependents (spouse, children under 25) or individuals who have gone through a very long, tedious, expensive process of obtaining visitors access. Once the head individual who is allowing others (dependents) to be in the community retires, quits, is fired, or leaves the company for whatever reason, no one is allowed back into this "area". At all. Period.
It is one of four compounds, and the smallest, most secluded of all four. It is literally this tiny man-made oasis surrounded in all direction by desert for basically two hours.
It is not a public place. It is a very, very private place, and to enter it, you need to have permission or access. I'm not joking, guys. The whole area is fenced, and there are multiple security checkpoints and gates leading into the community, and without proper identification (such as an ID card showing you are a employee or dependent of an employee) you will absolutely be turned away. It's quite scary, too, given that there are military tanks guarding the security checkpoints....
To be raised in it, to learn to love it, to call it home even more-so than your own passport country, and then to learn you can never return is quite the heartbreaking experience. Anyways, that is where I'm from. And what I mean by that is, for the most part, that is where my personality, my language, my ideas, my heart has come from. It's home.
So, now that you have some kind of an understanding of what Udhailiyah is, let's move on to how it has played a role in my life.
I was born in another compound, called Dhahran (the main compound of the 4), and spent the first three years of my life in another, called Abqaiq. When we moved to Udhailiyah, I was just three years old, and my entire development came from family. There was little to no outside influence in who I was. For example, I spoke Urdu, for the most part, whereas now I speak English for the most part. My life was significantly changed by my experiences in Udhailiyah, in ways that I don't even know how to describe.
For example, my very first real friend was a Buddhist from Sri Lanka. I was about 4 years old. I saw her, noticed she was brown, and I was like oh... She must speak Urdu, and I clearly remember blabbing something in my language only to get a :l look back from her. She was 3, and must have thought I was crazy, hahahaha. But think about it. My very first friend was from another country and faith than my own. I don't know, the older I get, the more "rare" that sounds to me. After her, through school, I made friends from literally all around the world. Some from India, some from Pakistan, others from Sudan, Columbia, Thailand, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine, everywhere. I had friends from all different types of faiths. I ate home cooked foods from all these different nationalities that I still crave everyday. I learned beautiful words and curse words in languages that I don't speak. I think, from everything Udhailiyah has given me, the thing I am most grateful for is the friendships and the understandings from those friendships that I gained.
Is it possible to lose something you never had? Because I was about to write that I also lost something: my sense of national identity, but honestly, that's something I never had. I was always a Pakistani - always - but I was also born in Saudi Arabia; by the time I moved to Udhailiyah, I had only visited Pakistan for a few months, and to be completely honest, I don't have a single memory of it (which makes sense; I was 3...). Most of my memories of Pakistan came after I moved to Udhailiyah. When we were in school, and people would ask us where we were from, I would always say Pakistan. I represented Pakistan at every cultural fair. I wore salwar kameez and traditional wear to almost every Eid party. We had a little Pakistani community within our diverse little population, but being a part of that is certainly very different than living in actual Pakistan. Just to clarify, I am not saying I am proud of my lack of Pakistani-ness, because I'm not. In fact, I often wish that I had a normal childhood, and a normal sense of identity. I often wish I grew up like my cousins - with a sense of family, home, cultural and national identity, in the same city their entire lives. It's just simply not the case for me. My life is different, and why can't that be explored or celebrated without it seeming like I am not proud of where I come from? Anyways, as I stated a bit earlier, I think before I moved to Udhailiyah, even though I was just a little babe, I had more of a Pakistani identity than after I moved to Udhailiyah. After moving there, I became a Udhailiyan first, a Pakistani second. To clarify, I knew where I was from, I made it clear to others I was from there, I was proud of it, but in my heart if you asked me at that time (and probably even now) where home was, the answer was simple: Udhailiyah.
The first major move in my life was from Udhailiyah to England. I had no idea what to expect. I knew London was supposed to be glamorous, and I remember the most popular girl in our class telling me to "shop until I drop", but other than that, I didn't know anything. I was certainly excited, though, but at the same time, I was very naive and sheltered (in some ways, but unfortunately not in others). Once I started school, I was miserable. Everyone was the same; I was so different. No one understood me. I stopped understanding myself. I didn't know how to explain where I was from, or who I was. It was like my entire identity was taken and I had to redefine myself for the world, while I was still trying to figure it out myself. I was just 11 years old, and probably the most homesick 11 year old in the entire universe. I couldn't wait to go home.
Two years later, we moved back to Udhailiyah. My heart exploded with excitement. I couldn't wait. I had, for the most part, managed to keep in touch over MSN with all of my friends and I couldn't wait to be back with them. As shocking as it was for me to move to England, moving back to Udhailiyah was equally so. People changed.... (obviously). There were different friend groups and cliques than when I was there before. Everyone was suddenly into doing "cool" things like dating, smoking, playing pool, and sneaking out in the middle of the night. I felt like everyone kind of grew up, and grew closer, without me. I didn't know where I fit into the equation anymore. Not at first, at least. The only way I can possibly explain this is imagine that you love to go swimming in the pool. One day, you climb to the highest diving board, and do a bellyflop on the surface of the water. It's still the same pool that you know and love; it's still the same water, same temperature, same everything, but at the same time it's completely different, and it's painful AF. There's just that awkward moment where you're like "Owe, owe, owe" before you sink back into the water and everything is normal again. That's basically what it felt like trying to reintegrate into Udhailiyah after being away two years. After a few months, I felt right at home, but I remember my first few days and weeks: I was so confused at how different everyone and everything was. The funny thing is, I probably didn't realize how different I was.
Throughout all of that adjustment trauma, some things stayed the same. We had the same dining table. We had the same couches. We had the same majlis or floor cushions. The house looked basically the same, even though it was a different house on the other side of the compound. I don't know who to thank for that, but dear God, I'm so grateful to this day for that. It was very hard to come back home only to realize it had changed so much; to see my actual "home" (house) look exactly the same definitely in some ways made the transition easier.
After I got over the adjustment problems, I had two of the very best years of my life. I absolutely LOVED 2007-2009. They shaped me into who I am today in many ways, and also in different ways than my early childhood years. I wouldn't be who I am without those two years, and the friendships from them.
I'm smiling now, because even after spending hours (weeks, honestly - I keep saving the draft and coming back to it) writing this, I know that it still doesn't do justice to Udhailiyah and how that little community in the middle of the Arabian Desert shaped me into who I am today. :) And maybe that's a beautiful thing; Udhailiyah is a mysterious little place. Maybe I should leave some mystery here too. The truth is, even I don't understand that mystery and I'm constantly realizing how Udhailiyah is made me who I am, and why I call it home.
Oh sandy roads, take me home, to the place I belong.... An ode to my home, to the beautiful little... place... called Udhailiyah. <3