I remember Death of a Princess

Memories of Saudi Arabia, circa 1980

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

The news is filled with Saudi Arabia these days. First, the glowing articles about the new prince modernizing the Arabian peninsula, allowing women to drive, and the like. Fawning, hopeful articles that appeared in the middle of last year.

Then the shocking and abhorrent killing and dismemberment of journalist and Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in his own consulate.

The sisters who bound themselves to one another last year and threw themselves from a bridge so they wouldn’t, couldn’t be sent back to Saudi Arabia alive.

Rahaf Alqunun who fled her family while vacationing in Kuwait a few weeks ago, boarding a plane to Thailand, where a man blithely pocketed her passport, leaving her high and dry.

It just doesn’t end, this torrent of news about Saudi Arabia. Now, we’re hearing dark murmurings of nuclear power deals between Trump’s cronies and the government in Riyadh. And before that, references to $30 Billion in deals that “businessmen” are loathe to sever, no matter the ethical implications.

These articles catch my eye perhaps a little more than they do the average Joe. (Or Joelle.)

You see, I lived in Saudi Arabia for two-and-a-half years — rather formative years, I might say. I was 10 years old when we arrived and nearly 13 when we left.

One of the articles mentioned — just barely — the Death of a Princess debacle.

The reference was tucked into the bottom of the article about women escaping the “kingdom.” It was given rather short shrift, and I wondered about that. It had a certain ring to it… “death of a princess.” I had heard that phrase before.

I began googling around. The NYT article offered barely anything about it — just that women had been trying to flee since at least the late 70s, when a princess and her paramour were executed. There was no hyperlink. No name. No reference. That disturbed me. As I sought to learn more, memories of my time in the country stirred.

We left our home in Piedmont, California, in March, 1979.

The flight was interminable. I listened, rapt, to the hits of the day, including Christopher Cross’ “Sailing,” Lipps Inc.’s “Funkytown,” the Bee Gees’ “Too Much Heaven,” and Chic’s “Le Freak.”

I read James Herriot’s “All Creatures Great and Small” and accepted meals and proffered blankets from pretty flight attendants in trim navy suits. By the time we touched down in Jeddah, on Saudi Arabia’s western Red Sea coast, we’d traveled more than 24 hours.

When the aircraft doors opened, an intoxicating scent — sweet and fragrant — filled the plane. The air was hot and silky, like an animal. It was the feeling and aroma of the desert, and it branded me. I love it to this day.

The airport floors were entirely covered with sleeping and otherwise prostrate men in white and brown robes and red-and-white-checked keffiyehs. We stepped gingerly over and around them. To this day, I don’t know why dozens of men were lying on the floor that night.

We had an incredible 36 pieces of luggage. I remember my mom laughing about it. My father hailed several “taxis,” which were dusty pickup trucks decorated with ornate, brightly painted ironwork. We couldn’t all fit in the cab. My brother and I sat in the back of one of the trucks with some of the luggage.

It was night. The sky was black. Soft, warm air caressed our skin. Keening, wild, dissonant Arabic music tumbled through the little window from the radio in the truck cab as we made a U-turn out of the airport, onto a black road lined with beige dirt and rubble.

We were delivered to a relatively small, gated compound on the edge of the city. From the window above the kitchen sink where we washed dishes together, my brother and I watched packs of salukis, wild Arabian dogs, roam the desert twilight.

My father played Abba, Crystal Gail, and Nana Maskouri tapes on a little boombox he bought. Also The Beatles.

We lunched at The Jeddah Sands Hotel sometimes, where we’d select elaborately decorated cakes from beneath glass domes. They were tasteless and collapsed in our mouths like sawdust.

One day, we were seated in the Sands’ cavernous dining room full of pink tablecloth-topped tables. The dining room was empty except for us. A large black man with a big belly entered the room. He wore a white robe, or dishdasha, and a white keffiyeh secured by a black cord. He was followed by a line of six or seven women who took their seats quietly at alongside the window.

My mom, a consummate journalist, suddenly said in a low, intense voice, “Oh my God. That’s Idi Amin.”

She fished out of her purse paper and a pen. She stood up. My father put his hand on her arm and said, “Joan. You cannot. You will be arrested, and I won’t be able to get you out. Sit down.”

I know that killed her. It cut deep.

Recently, I researched it and learned that the brutal dictator Idi Amin indeed fled Uganda to shack up in Jeddah in 1979, where he lived for years with several of his wives and some of his children in the top two floors of the Novotel Hotel. He had, according to my reading, “at least six wives and by some counts 43 children.”

A boy named Brian Boyd lived in our compound. He was 18. He had smooth brown skin and tousled brown hair bronzed by the sun. He’d sit in the shade of a building by the pool and play his harmonica to The Logical Song by Supertramp. He played with us in the pool. I was beside myself when he’d catch and throw me in the air. I’d gaze at him surreptitiously out the window. I’m 50 now and still remember his handsome face and how painfully my young heart bloomed whenever he was near.

Sometimes we’d go out for “broasted chicken.” Usually, we got it to go, but sometimes we ate at a small table by a window in a kind of mall.

Driving through the streets of Jeddah, I saw piles of ornately carved wooden shutters, splintered and tossed in the gutters. They were being pulled from traditional houses in the old town and junked. Even at that tender age, I knew this was a travesty. I wanted one of them but never tried to acquire one.

At the gold souk, we wended our way through aisles of folding card tables piled with mounds of gold. My sister saw a heavily jeweled ring on the ground. She tried to pick it up, but my father jerked her away.

My father gave me a View-Master with a set of thin cardboard “reels” of photos of Mecca and Medina, which I imagine are very rare now. I was fascinated by these photos, in large part because we were told many times that photos of Mecca and Medina were forbidden to infidel such as ourselves. I’d lie on the couch, aim the device at a bright window, and click through the images of pilgrims circling the mysterious black Kaaba.

Crossing the street in Jeddah one day with my father, cars began slowing en masse, then stopping. Men leaned out their open windows, shook their fists, and yelled. My father quietly said, “I need to release your hand, dear. Walk behind me.”

He dropped my hand. I followed his instructions. The cars resumed their progress.

I tamed a wild kitten born under our pre-fab house and named her Patches. She was a delicate calico, tiny, slender, and smart. My mom allowed me to keep her when we moved to Yanbu, a little more than three hours north of Jeddah, a Red Sea village destined to become a new international port.

We were one of the first foreign families to arrive to Yanbu Al-Bahr, a new industrial city built from scratch in the desert outside a little fishing village named Yanbu.

The same brochure refers to the Yanbu International School, which evidently still exists. It was founded in 1979 — the year we arrived. We were among the first students there.

I remember being on a school bus. Kids joked around the open window as the drab beige desert flew by outside, jostling each other for the chance to yell, “I’m Jewish” out the window so they could see traffic come to a shuddering halt.

Sometimes, we were able to find imported frozen pizza in the commissary . My parents laughed and showed us how the word “pork” had been obliterated from the ingredients list on the back of the box by a heavy dark marker.

We lived in Camp IV, which evidently still exists, though the Camp IV in the linked video is far nicer than I remember. When we got there, it was a conglomerate of flimsy pre-fab houses plopped in the middle of the desert. There was no vegetation except bright pink and green coleuses which thrived in pots and some pink bougainvillea tended by residents.

The sand storms were legendary. No matter how tightly we closed the doors and windows, within a short time, eddies of sand could be seen in the air inside our home. Furniture became coated with powder-fine sand.

On a flight over Bahrain once, a sandstorm kicked up and infiltrated the airplane cabin. You could see and feel it flying through the air, grinding between our teeth, peppering our eyes. My mother was white as a sheet. We thought it was fun.

Our parents made wine, like foreigners. They tore open plastic bags and poured incredible amounts of white sugar one after another into a giant pot on the stove stirred by my mother. They’d unload cartons of grape juice, add yeast, boil it up, and then pour everything into big plastic containers which then lived in the bathtub of one of our two bathrooms, where it would brew into something that would do the trick.

My mother found astonishingly fresh bread in the market. It was soft as cotton candy and fragrant as all get out. I remember my father coming home for lunches at our round wood table. My mother put out the bread, a bread knife, cold cuts, and mayonnaise, and we’d gorge ourselves on this bread, the likes of which I’ve never since found.

My father took us to The Sharm on the weekends. We’d pile into the beige and white van my mom named “Lurching Matilda” and bounce our way along rocky dirt roads past staggeringly tall sand dunes to deserted beaches on the shore of the Red Sea.

Above the water, the sand was colorless. The skies were often white-hot. The landscape barren. We’d don masks, snorkels, and fins and spend hours paddling happily over expanses of psychedelic corals in every imaginable color amid schools of clown fish, moray eels, lion fish, trigger fish, and groupers, above giant rays, and in one particularly memorable case, above a rather large shark. My father was in the lead. He turned around slowly, put an index finger to his mouth, and beckoned us to follow him slowly.

Sometimes, my dad brought a spear gun and hunted red and blue polka-dotted groupers for our dinner.

Once I picked up a fan of red coral from the sea floor. My mask was filling with water, so I put the coral between my legs to drain my mask as I kicked, treading water.

Suddenly a stultifying pain bloomed between my legs. I’d been stung by fire coral. Faint and breathless, I managed to make my way slowly to shore where I collapsed on the beach. I had lace-like scars for years.

Everyone in the compound collected giant white conch shells which, when turned over, revealed shiny pink lips.

None of us had a conservationist bent in those days. The richness and bounty of the sea was unimaginable.

BBC blared from our radio most of the time. Our parents listened intently. Jimmy Carter was trying to rescue the hostages in Iran. Things were tense. Eight months after we arrived in the country, the Grand Mosque in Mecca was overrun by people trying to overthrow the House of Saud, resulting in the “deaths of hundreds of militants, security forces and hostages.”

My parents planned an escape route out of the country in case things got out of hand and we were unable to reach an airport safely. They arranged a boat to cross the Red Sea at a moment’s notice.

I fell in love with a seventh grader named Jeff Jenkins, from Texas. He had straight sandy blonde hair and green eyes, and I wrote page after page about him in my journal. I’d climb out my bedroom window to hang out at the “Rec Hall” and watch Jeff play ping pong. Of course, he never looked my way.

I got my first period at our makeshift international school. The nurse sent me home, ostensibly to get help from my mother. When I got there, my mother began to cry and barricaded herself in her bedroom for three days.

Since they had their steady supply of homemade wine, and the occasional Sidique, which is “basically neat distilled alcohol” she could continue her favorite hobby, which was drinking. My budding sexuality was apparently a problem for her. My dad helped me when he got home.

And throughout I heard murmurings about the princess.

Two years before we arrived, she was executed in a car park in Jeddah for the crime of rejecting the suitor her parents had chosen for her and eloping with a young Saudi student she’d met at university in Lebanon. They were captured after she tried to stage her own drowning. She and her lover were apprehended at the airport. She’d chopped off her hair and donned boys’ clothes, but the ruse failed.

Her name was Misha’al. She was beautiful, vibrant, and beloved. Her grandfather tried to warn her. He coached her on what to say before the courts. When she defied him and said before a court of law, that she had committed adultery, he intercepted the proceedings, leading her away. In Saudi Arabia, you are convicted if you state three times that you have committed adultery. He beseeched her to stop. He said, “I cannot save you if you continue.”

She returned to the room and stated twice more that she had committed adultery. God knows why she did this. Perhaps she thought this was her way of proudly declaring she loved this man, her paramour, her fiancee.

She was a princess. The king’s daughter. She was 19. She was shot by firing squad. Her lover was forced to watch and then beheaded.

The furor when I was there, the reason I kept hearing the phrase “Death of a Princess” in hushed tones, was that a construction worker managed to covertly snap a few photos of the executions from an Instamatic camera hidden inside a cigarette case in his shirt pocket. When those made it out of the country, a film crew got interested.

A British producer named Antony Thomas made his way to the kingdom to interview people about the princess’s story. The resulting documentary was titled Death of a Princess and was scheduled to air on April 9, 1980 in Britain and a month later on PBS in the US. We’d been in the country a couple of months when all this began.

The Saudis exerted “strong diplomatic, economic and political pressure” to cancel the broadcasts. When he failed to get the British broadcast cancelled, King Khalid expelled the British ambassador from Saudi Arabia.

In May 1980, PBS officials in the US endured unending pressure from corporations and politicians. Mobil Oil Corporation took out a full-page ad in the New York Times’ op-ed section opposing the film, declaring it “jeopardized U.S.-Saudi relations.” Sound familiar?

Although King Khalid offered $11 million to the network to suppress the film, it was broadcast by PBS on May 12, 1980. Some PBS stations refrained.

I didn’t know or understand any of this. I had never looked into “Death of a Princess” in the decades since my time in the kingdom. I didn’t even know I remembered the phrase, or that it would have resonance when it surfaced in the New York Times article about women trying to flee.

I finished finished fifth grade, sixth grade, and half of seventh grade at Yanbu’s International School. I was 10, 11, 12. A time of sexual awakening. I had painful crushes on boys. I noticed how handsome so many of the Arab men were. I stared at their hairy, brown forearms.

Sometime during the first half of seventh grade, my parents threw a big party. I believe it was New Year’s Eve. My mom and her drinking buddy Jan Robinson were wasted and got the hare-brained scheme to go for a little walk. They were shrieking and singing at the tops of their lungs when they were apprehended by Arab guards.

Small, dark, Arab guards wearing black pants, short-sleeved blue shirts, and red-and-white-checked keffiyehs flooded the house. They had small automatic rifle-like guns slung over their shoulders. They filled the hallways of our small house. We were ushered into my bedroom and told to stay there with the door closed. There was lots of yelling in the house and disruption.

We were lucky. My father’s company, Parsons, was able to protect him. We were permitted to leave the country without punishment. We had two weeks to do it, as I recall. We packed and left in a whirlwind. I remember we were officially forbidden to ever enter the country again, neither my parents, nor us, nor any member of our family. Evidently, there’s a list somewhere with our names on it.

I used to be an apologist for Saudi Arabia. I saw beautiful things there. I have meaningful souvenirs in my home from that time. A painting of a disabled boy on a crutch and some burros in the souk beneath a sign in Arabic slung over a stall. A bronze Bedouin coffee pot. A red velvet dress embroidered in satiny yellow and green thread. A Bedouin bracelet. An Omani knife. An Arabian sword. A camel saddle. A bronze camel. An antique map of the country. Even a big bronze dish with the kingdom’s emblem emblazoned on its surface.

I heard the mean things said about the Middle East all my life. I nearly got a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies. I remain fascinated by the region.

When people said things, I thought, they just don’t know. They’re over-generalizing. They’re ignorant. We all are. How can we say we are somehow more evolved. That’s ridiculous, ethnocentric.

Until the Jamal Khashoggi killing. Until the “death of a princess” phrase floated up, and I decided to do a little research. My attitude about the country changed, and hardened. Now, I find myself reading every word and every story I see about women trying to escape these regimes.

In March 2018, a princess from Dubai tried to escape the United Arab Emirates, a country with similarly draconian policies. Her name is Latifa Al Maktoum.

She was apprehended at sea, in the Indian Ocean.

Just before attempting her escape, she made a video explaining her plight. “Pretty soon,” she says, “I’m going to be leaving somehow… If you are watching this video, either I’m dead, or I’m in a very bad situation.”

A description on the video’s YouTube page states:

On the night of March 4th, 2018, there was an unprecedented international incident when a significant Indian and UAE military force converged, and carried out an unprovoked attack on a small, American pleasure yacht off the coast of Goa, India.

The family is claiming she is now safely at home recovering from a kidnapping attempt.

She is believed to be under house arrest and heavily sedated.

Writer, copywriter, editor, and word lover. Subscribe to my newsletter at christywhite.substack.com

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