Back in the late 80’s, my dad took a tremendous risk and moved my entire family to Saudi Arabia.Can you imagine being six years old, arriving in the middle of the night at one of the most ornate airports in the entire world, being smacked in the face by +45-degree weather at 3am, and having no worldly concept beyond your own small community of people who bundled up to the point where you could barely tell one friend from another for 7 months of the year? It was surreal, and to this day, over three decades later, I can still vividly picture the drive from the airport to our new compound, palm trees standing sentient along the highways. At the time, it was all so overwhelming, I barely remember understanding the sheer impact of what this move had just done to our family – we left everything we knew and loved back in Edmonton and were embarking on what would ultimately become The Greatest Adventure of All Times.
We settled in quickly, and though afflicted with some of the worst jetlag I have ever experienced, we began our new life on the King Faisal Specialist Hospital grounds in Riyadh. Our compound consisted of about 200 identical “villas” – nothing overly fancy, but all came with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and furnished with what I now know to be very typical 80s décor. It took months for our shipment of personal belongings to arrive, but once that happened, Villa #62 began to look more and more familiar as they days of unpacking progressed.
Now, it’s probably fair to say that my memories may not be as accurate as my folks’ memories are, but for the sake of creative nonfiction writing, I’ll include as much as I can remember. I do know that upon arrival in the capital city, the Christmas tree that my mother had purchased at Costco just before we left Canada was immediately confiscated, as it held symbolic meaning for a faith other than Islam. Yet, somehow, some way, Mum was able to find a new tree, and as soon as December 1st had come and gone (my brother’s birthday, so NO CHRISTMAS BEFORE RYAN-MAS!), the tree was set up, resplendent with ornaments from our old life, Christmas music filled every nook and cranny of the house, and the smells of much-loved family holiday recipes swirled through the air. I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for Mum and Dad – they had just moved their two young children halfway around the world, away from everything they had ever known, and it was obviously important that some Christmas traditions made the trek with us. My brother and I attended the Saudi Arabian International School of Riyadh, known as SAIS-R, and the band and choral teachers brought together every single student, no matter their background or faith, and we all participated in one of the largest school concerts I have ever known.
Riyadh was home to a large ex-pat community, with families from all over the world. We were fortunate to live on a street that had at least three other families who had also migrated from Edmonton, and all the parents had known one another – or at least known OF one another – in the days prior to this new chapter of our lives. Though I have lost touch with quite a few of them, we are still bonded by this one incredible thread, and I am confident that I am speaking for all of us when I say it was such a gift to be able to grow up in the sand dunes, stained golden red in the desert sunsets.
At some point, my parents joined a community of Canadian ex-pats known simply as The Canadians in Riyadh. They were a tight network of folk from all over the Great White North and had suddenly found themselves all thrust together in the swirling shamals and oppressive heat. The CiR group organized all kinds of family-friendly events, from classical concerts themed for the seasons played in the natural amphitheater of Buttermilk Canyon, to Halloween parades around the compound’s pool. A close family friend from Winnipeg arrived in Riyadh in the early 90s and she immediately gathered a group of Canadian girls and started the very first chapter of the Girl Guides in Riyadh. We met twice a month at the Canadian embassy, and even went door-to-door on our compounds selling the original recipe Girl Guide cookies (still the best recipe to this day, in my humble opinion).
Christmas was a very special time in Riyadh – though the government and religious police closely monitored gatherings (and occasionally shut them down), we never went without some sort of holiday gathering with our closest pals from around the city. I remember making perogies, gingerbread houses, and touring the Christmas bazaars that were discretely held on some of the other compounds around the city. One of my most prized ornaments, even to this day, is a pair of “Desert Diamonds” – one of Mum’s friends had figured out she could collect and disinfect camel poop, spray paint it silver, add a touch of glitter, and voila – a unique and unforgettable Christmas ornament for the tree. As I sit and write this, my own pair of Desert Diamonds is sitting right at the top of my tree. It’s a great story to tell, and the look on people’s faces when I hand them this pair of seemingly innocuous silver balls followed by, “Oh, and by the way, that’s camel poop!” is one of my favourite things to do.
The Canadians in Riyadh organized a large-scale event every Christmas way, way out in the desert. Large party tents were erected on the vast sandy rock ground, traditional Christmas dinner was catered, and the talents of several “local” musicians and singers would entertain the masses as they mingled and jingled under the Riyadh sun. Each year, Santa would arrive in a different manner – but almost always, in a way that was SO Arabian. Sometimes on the back of a camel, being led by a beautiful Arabic man; other years, on top of someone’s Land Rover or in the back of a Toyota pickup truck. Even now, when I sit and watch the home movies my Dad took during the event, I almost always tear up at the sight of about two hundred children running across the desert towards Santa… it truly was Christmas magic. Santa would then sit and hand out presents to all the little girls and boys, and we would pose for pictures on his lap – except instead of a commercially created holiday backdrop, we were often framed by desert escarpments and the occasional sand dune seen in the distance. I remember hearing Boney M’s Christmas album, and even Fred Penner’s Winnipeg Christmas compilation. We were very fortunate to know Fred and his family, and one of his backup singers has been my Mum’s friend since they were in Grade 6 in Winnipeg. Despite the polar difference in weather and landscape, the feeling of Christmas simply did not change. It was still magical, joyous, and something we looked forward to celebrating every year.Years later, we moved to an island off the east coast of Saudi Arabia, where rules and restrictions on Christmas just did not exist. I starred in a Christmas pantomime, participated in a holiday showjumping competition on my horse, Ben, and still made gingerbread houses with the new friends I made when we moved to the island. All of this was set to the ever-present melodies of Boney M, Fred Penner and Nat King Cole.
I haven’t celebrated a desert/island Christmas since 2002, but the memories and feelings that are evoked around this time of year will always and forever take me back to a time in my life when I literally fell down a rabbit hole and ended up on one of the most incredible journeys of my entire life. I miss the desert gatherings, and the merriment around the compound pools singing Christmas carols and gorging on fruit cake and shortbread. I believe we take little parts of all our journeys with us as we continue through the circle of life, but I must only close my eyes to be transported back to Riyadh or Bahrain. Perhaps one day I will be able to share a desert Christmas with my own children, but for now, I will continue to drift back to that time of my life when Christmas was green, the palm trees swayed, and Santa arrived on the back of a camel.
Maura Penn, aged 40
Edmonton, Alberta Canada