You were a constant, ghostly presence in the house, your blue salwar kameez fluttering noiselessly behind you as you exited any room that I entered. The house was not large, not like the mansions in nearby al-Khobar, which meant your stealthiness was hard-earned. But sometimes you were too invisible, and the madam would call your name in frustration. You had an impossible task: to live-in but not quite exist.

Fifteen years earlier, when my family lived in Dhahran, oil workers didn’t have live-in help. More often, we had “house boys,” who were not boys at all, but mostly Sri Lankan men who rode mopeds from their barrack-like quarters to our company homes. When I returned to Saudi Arabia in 2008, I was surprised to discover that our family friends had a maid, you, who slept in a cramped, windowless room off the garage, a space that some expats reserved for making siddiqi, or homemade hooch.

During my visit, I never saw you leave the house. You had no form of transport, and even if you did, women weren’t allowed to drive in the Kingdom. Maids weren’t even permitted to take the Aramco bus to Khobar because of fears they’d be harassed, or that they’d run away.

One day, the madam went out for coffee with other company wives, leaving you and me alone in the house. I stayed behind because I was expecting a guest, a handsome young Saudi man who was helping me with my novel research, and who would later fuck me—dangerously, stupidly, not entirely consensually—in the back of his Chevy Suburban, in the shadows of a compound parking lot.

Just before he arrived, I went to the kitchen for water. You took me by the elbow, startling me with the strength of your grip. Your English wasn’t good, but there was urgency in your voice. You told me you had teenage children at home in Sri Lanka, children you hadn’t seen in years. Your father had died, or was dying, but you couldn’t return; you didn’t have the money. As you spoke, you began to cry.

You wanted me to help, to call someone, but I wasn’t sure who; your desperation was the only thing I understood with clarity. And then my guest arrived, and you vanished again. We went to the living room, where you had laid out a beautiful spread of mezze. There, we sucked on glistening kalamata olives, wiping oil from our lips. As we kissed on the couch—tentatively, listening for the madam’s return—I wondered if you were hidden behind the slatted doors, watching us. I felt guilty for the casual way I took his tongue into my mouth, flouting the laws of a country where you couldn’t even afford visibility.

Later, the man and I drove down the darkened streets of my childhood, looking for a lover’s lane. Eventually, he pulled to a stop in an isolated parking lot at the edge of the compound. He kissed me, but I was too nervous to kiss back. I thought of the Saudi woman whose story had recently made international news, the nameless “Qatif girl” caught in a car with a man who wasn’t a male relative; how the men who discovered her then gang raped her; how the police jailed her, and a judge later sentenced her to lashings, while the rapists walked free.

There were a few cars in the parking lot but no people. I told the man I was scared; he dismissed my fears, though his eyes kept darting toward the road. “Get in back,” he said, and reluctantly, I did. Under the orange glow of the streetlights, my logic grew blurry. I had chosen to get in the car with him; by Saudi standards, whatever happened next was my fault. As he pushed my head into his crotch, I felt the cold seep of degradation; still, I opened my mouth and soon, my legs. He worked with animal urgency. It was over quickly.

Back in the house, I showered, then lay down on the couch in the home office where I slept. I wanted someone to talk to. I listened for you but heard only silence. In the dark, I thought of you in your windowless room, the Qatif girl in her jail cell. I didn’t yet connect myself with your degradation, or hers; I was already creating a narrative in which what had happened to me was okay. In my version of the story, I was a young, sexually adventurous American woman rebelling against the backwards laws of a repressive country. I convinced myself that I only felt ashamed because of the country I was in, where for unmarried women, shame and sex are inextricably linked.

In that narrative, the mere fact of my nationality lifted me above the realities faced by women in the Kingdom. And in some ways, that was true. A week later, I would board a plane and fly an ocean away from my shame, while you and the Qatif girl would continue to live at the mercy of a system that was rigged against you. Still, geographic distance affords scant protection from the truth’s bitter taste. I understand now that in the back of the Suburban that night, I was just a body, my nothingness momentarily as real as yours.  


Keija Parssinen is the author of The Ruins of Us, which won a Michener-Copernicus award, and The Unraveling of Mercy Louis, which earned an Alex Award from the American Library Association. A graduate of Princeton University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tulsa, and Director of Cedar Crest College's Pan-European MFA program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Salon, Slice, The Brooklyn Quarterly, New Delta Review, This Land, Five Chapters, Marie Claire, and elsewhere. Born and raised in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, she now lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma with her husband and sons. Ask her about almost dying in the Rub al Khali.

Photo credit: Jackson Barnett