I don’t remember where the mosque was in relation to our building when I was growing up, but I remember that it was close enough that you could hear the prayer call in most rooms of our family’s two-bedroom apartment, even over the steady groan of our dedicated fleet of window-mounted air conditioner units. It was fainter if the radio or TV was on, but you could still make it out if you stopped to listen for it, a distant mellifluous warbling that followed you as you moved around the apartment, as you did other things. The prayer calls happened without fail five times a day, 365 days a year, broadcast throughout the city by loudspeakers mounted on minarets. They became part of the soundtrack of my childhood, the way that the roar of vehicular traffic or the crowing of roosters at dawn must be for other kids.
The call itself was beautiful and stark, though it had a harsh quality to it like it was coming out of a megaphone. It resembled the sound of an announcement made over a public address system, which I guess it was in a way, but for the entire city of al-Khobar, for all of Saudi Arabia. It always sounded exactly the same—the intonations, the length of the pauses, and even the slightly distorted quality of the voice—to the point that if I were told today that the call had not been pre-recorded I would be shocked. Looking back, I realize that the prayer call plays faintly in the background of many of my childhood memories: it plays as my parents toil in the kitchen on weekend afternoons making lunch; it plays as my sisters and I sift noisily through piles of Lego on the living room floor; it plays as my family strolls through a shopping mall recently shuttered for the mandatory prayer time closure, a few tardy shopkeepers still rushing to lower their clackety storefront gates. The prayer call is always there, an aural patina that coats my life’s first quarter.
Growing up, I understood that these prayer calls were not for me, not for my family. Engaging in prayer in Saudi Arabia for my family, who was Catholic, meant something else entirely. My dad had to drive us half an hour down a sandy highway in his red ’81 Mitsubishi Galant to one of the compounds where the Western expats lived, in which there was a gym in an elementary school that had been converted for the morning to be a place of worship. Imagine a tarp thrown onto a basketball court and rows of plastic folding chairs, and you basically have it. The makeshift altar was located roughly where one of the ceiling-suspended backboards would align when lowered for use. I remember many mornings being bored during mass and gazing up at the school’s team banners in the rafters, worrying about whether the plastic action figure that I had accidentally left out in the car might be blanched and partially melted into the dashboard when we returned, a casualty of the heat.
We were living in Saudi Arabia at the time because in the early 80s my dad had applied to work there as a pharmacist for the largest oil company in the country, shortly after he passed the national board exams in Manila. In doing so, he joined the already decades-long mass migration of health care workers in the Philippines seeking employment overseas, and with this move, he altered the trajectory of all of our lives in a profound, irreversible way. One year only, he told my mom, but then the promise of more money and incremental advancement led one year to become two, then two became three until eventually, we were living there for thirteen years.
In those thirteen years, we adapted as a family to our new home. We got used to the unbearable heat, the stinging sand, the sight of citizenry everywhere clad in gutras and abayas. We came to love the streets lined with stores selling gold jewellery and Persian rugs, the shawarma stands on the street corners, their operators dripping rivulets of sweat. The insularity of the country became a way of life, as did the workarounds. We learned that most restaurants permitted you to dine through the prayer time closures in their “Family Room”, sections of the restaurant where women and families were segregated from men who were out in public by themselves, sections often located upstairs in rooms with drapery that could be drawn to conceal diners. We discovered that public celebrations of Christmas were forbidden but we could still have a small ornament-adorned plastic tree in our apartment so long as it was not visible from any exterior-facing windows. Routines that were unknown to us before entering the country became our own: we came to look forward to late-night shopping at Ramadan, the celebrations at Eid, the taste of fresh chicken slaughtered in accordance with halal custom at the butchery near our building. I picked up some rudimentary Arabic, which I can still recite as a parlour trick when bored at dinner parties.
Not that adapting was ever really a choice for us, anyway; the country exacted strict compliance with its way of doing things. Every time we returned from a vacation abroad, we would be made to enter long queues at the airport with the other expats where we would wait for our turn to lay our suitcases open on tables so that their contents could be scrutinized by customs officers looking for contraband. As our stacks of folded clothing were rifled through, we steeled ourselves to lose something, or have something damaged beyond repair: once, my sister’s Mariah Carey album was confiscated because its cover was considered to be too lewd; another time, my brand new leather basketball was punctured with a knife to ensure that it did not harbour anything illegal inside (it didn’t). It was a mass purging before entering the country, serving as a warning to outsiders that the rules here were meant to be followed, regardless of how draconian you might think they were.
For its expat community, Saudi Arabia is a country of transience, of temporary work visas and time-limited residency permits. There is no path to citizenship for expats who reside in the country, and for the entire time we were living there, there was no such thing as a tourist visa. From the moment we arrived, my family knew that our stay in the country would one day come to an end. I emigrated from Saudi Arabia in 1998, a few months before the rest of my family, in order to finish my last year of boarding school in the United States. Before my parents and sisters left the country for the last time, I asked my youngest sister to take my dad’s camcorder and record some footage of our favourite places, because I knew that we would never return. The resulting videos—shaky, dim, and often blurry, the result of my ten-year-old sister taking the camcorder out to all of our old haunts and filming long, uninterrupted shots—is at times unwatchable, almost laughably bad. But what else was I expecting? Doesn’t every attempt to capture the essence of a place and distill it into a single viewing experience fall short in some important way?
I have lived in Canada now for longer than I lived in the Middle East, and these days my memories of childhood feel oddly unfamiliar to me, almost fantastical, wrought from a life separate from my own. Once, when we were still dating, my wife and I visited her elementary school, a nondescript brick building in central Mississauga flanked by a few portables. It was unremarkable, practically indistinguishable from the other schools in the area. Still, I remember feeling jealous about how easy it was for my wife to revisit this place from her youth, how she could grip the monkey bars she hung from as a kid, feel their texture and girth in her hands. I imagine that there must be something so powerful and satisfying about this, to be able to stand and reminisce as an adult in the spaces you occupied as a child.
The closest that I can come to this is to trawl the online repositories of pictures and videos of Saudi Arabia in the 80s and 90s, media mostly culled from family photo albums and home video collections, media never meant for anything other than private viewing, remarkable only for being so mundane. One video is essentially dashboard camera footage of a drive from Dammam to Abqaiq; the vast majority of it features a view of a highway in the middle of an expanse of desert. It’s become a bit of a game for me, to see if I can extract something from these images that evokes a glimmer of recognition—a street name I recognize, a brand of juice box I remember, maybe. Recently I joined a group online for people who used to live in Saudi Arabia where these types of media are shared on a regular basis, and I was struck by how many of us appear to be doing the same thing—it’s as if on some level we’re all searching for some validation that our childhood experiences were real and not somehow fabricated or imagined.
What is the appeal of revisiting the past? For me, the inaccessibility of the place of my youth has fueled a desire to reexamine it. But there is something more. As an immigrant, I have come to understand that thinking about the past helps me to reckon with the upheaval that results from living in so many different parts of the world as a child, to process the trauma of multiple relocations, to reconcile the milieu of cultural disparity. I’ve begun to view all these chapters of my life in different places around the world as parts of an unbroken whole, a path describing a single, wobbly trajectory. Only recently have I been able to start to embrace the hodgepodge of a person I was becoming, the person I became.
If one thing is true, it is this: the Saudi Arabia of my childhood is gone. Since I left the country, women have been permitted to drive, movie theatres have opened, and even the longstanding tourist ban has been lifted. I see the photos on the internet of Saudi men and women lining up to attend a screening at a local theatre and I am incredulous. I watch the commercials featuring women driving in the country and I am amazed (and ecstatic). I see the video walk-throughs of my elementary school that has been remodeled half a dozen times in the last two decades and I find it no longer recognizable. The Saudi Arabia I remember, my Saudi Arabia, exists only in memory, never to return.
One of the videos my sister made before we left the country has a shot taken from our apartment’s balcony, the view from which was mostly obstructed by a nearby midrise building. While recording, my sister pans left and right, and nothing else moves in the shot; there are no people or cars moving on the streets below. But captured in that minute-long take is a snippet of the early afternoon prayer call, which sounds booming and majestic despite the tinniness of the camcorder’s microphone. Watching the footage now as a middle-aged man who left the country over two decades ago, I find it mesmerizing, almost hypnotic, and instantly I am transported back—suddenly, I remember how a blast of heat would hit you whenever you went outside, as if you had opened the door to a preheated oven; the way that blowing sand would burn your cheeks during a sandstorm; the way that the Arabian sun would dazzle at noon, directly overhead and blinding in its brightness. And then I realize that all these years, I have been wrong: that prayer call was for me, too.
Angelo Santos is a writer, filmmaker, and physiotherapist who has lived in the Philippines, the Middle East, the United States, and Canada at various points in his life. He now lives in the Greater Toronto Area. He is currently working on a collection of essays.