Daring to Drive
1 A Country of One King and Millions of Queens
The secret police came for me at two in the morning. The second knock on the door quickly followed the first. They were loud, hard knocks, the kind that radiate out and shake the doorframe. My five-year-old son was asleep, but I was awake still, sitting up with my brother.
Startled, my brother jumped up and rushed to the entry. I stayed slightly behind, feeling the night air rush in as he pulled open the door. It was May, so the air was warm but still pleasant, not oppressively hot. And it was dark. My lone porch light had burned out weeks before and I hadn’t bothered to replace it. I thought about the light, I wondered whether the sudden noise would have woken my son—small thoughts passing through my mind in those seconds before everything changed.
In the shadowy darkness, all we could see were men, crowding around my front stoop, pressing forward. They had no uniforms, nothing to identify them. When my brother asked them who they were, there was silence. Finally, one of them spoke. “Is this Manal al-Sharif’s house?”
My brother didn’t hesitate. “Yes,” he answered, his voice firm.
“She needs to come with us right now. They want to see her at the Dhahran police station.” My brother did not have to ask why. That previous afternoon I had been pulled over by the traffic police for the “crime” of driving my brother’s car. The specific citation was “driving while female.” My brother had been sitting beside me, in the passenger seat, and then had sat next to me again for five hours inside the Thuqbah traffic police station, a two-story, nondescript concrete government building with a sturdy fence all around and a detention room where drivers could be held for hours or even days. There was only one detention space in the station, and it was only for men. I’m quite sure that I was the first woman ever to enter the Thuqbah station. It took the police several hours, including a call to the commander and a visit to the local governor’s house, just to produce a paper for me to sign. The paper was a promise to never again drive on Saudi lands. I refused to sign, but they persisted. When my brother read the piece of paper, he realized I would only be admitting to having violated Saudi custom, because there are no specific Saudi statutes or lines in the traffic code that forbid women from driving. All they could accuse me of was disobeying the orf, or custom. I signed, and we were released. My brother and I took a taxi home, thinking that the incident was over, thinking that we had stymied the system, that in some small way, we had won.
We returned to my town house to find the TV on. There were pizza boxes on the coffee table, and three of my friends were clustered in my small living room with their laptops and smartphones. As I walked in, my sister-in-law started crying, and my friends rushed over and hugged me, shouting that they couldn’t believe the police had let me go. One friend had even started a Twitter hashtag, #FreeManal, after I’d texted him from the car when the police first pulled me over. Everyone was talking at once, telling me to look at this tweet or that Facebook page or this news feed. In the six hours, the news of my arrest had gone viral. But I couldn’t look at anything. I was exhausted, physically, mentally, and emotionally. All I wanted
to do was to take a shower and go to bed. But it is against every Saudi custom to ask guests to leave, so I sat and we talked about winning our first battle, about having proved that there is no traffic code explicitly banning women from driving. When they finally left, they were still so excited and happy—and so was I, thinking, Well, now no one can stop us.
But then it was 2:00 a.m. and there were men at my door and my elation from the day was gone. As soon as I heard the words “Dhahran police station,” I was terrified. My brother slammed the door shut and locked the bolt. There was a pause. Then the knocking started again.
My town house was not in the holy city of Mecca, my childhood home of twisted streets and thronging pilgrims, off-limits to all non-Muslims. Nor was it set amid the gleaming towers and sky bridges of the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh, high on a desert plateau. It was tucked in perhaps the most Western enclave in the entire kingdom, the pristine Aramco (Saudi Arabian Oil Company) compound in the Eastern Province, originally designed by Americans working for John D. Rockefeller’s company, Standard Oil, which had helped found Aramco. Today, Aramco is the Saudi state oil company and the world’s largest daily exporter of oil, sitting atop 260 billion barrels of petroleum reserves. It is also the world’s wealthiest company, with a net worth estimated as high as $2.5 trillion. And it was my employer. When the Americans sold Aramco to the Saudis in the 1970s and 1980s, part of the agreement required the Saudis to continue to employ women.
The Aramco compound has long been a world unto itself. With lush green golf courses, lawns, palm trees, parks, and swimming pools, it looks very much like a perfect Southern California town. Inside the gates of Aramco, Saudi rules do not apply. Men and women mix together. Women do not have to be veiled or covered. We celebrated holidays like Halloween, when everyone dresses up in costumes. And
unlike every other place in Saudi Arabia, inside the Aramco compound, women can drive. There are no prohibitions, no restrictions. They simply slip behind the wheel and start the engine. And there are protections. Not even the local city police or the Saudi religious police are allowed to venture onto Aramco-controlled land. Aramco has its own security and fire departments. It handles its matters internally, like a separate, sovereign state inside the Saudi kingdom.
But the Saudi secret police, I learned that night, could still enter.
I turned to face the sliding glass doors at the edge of my living room. Unlike the traditional Saudi way of covering one’s house the way most families cover their women, I have never liked curtains. I always wanted the light streaming in. Now one of the men stood with his face pressed against the bare glass, his damp breath spreading like fog before the dry desert air sucked it back up again. He said nothing, and he did not move. Only his eyes slowly scanned my room. That night, he did not move from that glass door, did not release his face the entire time. Like the others, he was dressed in civilian clothes. That, however, is the hallmark of the secret police. They do not wear uniforms. They do not even identify themselves as police. They have other jobs, other identities. Yet they are woven through society at every level, and their sole purpose is to inform. They are employed by the kingdom to monitor citizens and to enforce the rules.
From behind the door, my brother began pushing back. “Don’t you realize it’s two in the morning? People are asleep here. Besides, we’ve only just come from the Thuqbah traffic police station.” He wanted to imply that the matter had already been resolved. But there was no reply.
My brother paused and then raised his voice a little louder. “Who are you people? Unless you have an arrest warrant, we won’t leave. If you want something, come back in the morning. You don’t show up in the middle of the night and talk about bringing us to the police.”
This was an understatement. In Saudi Arabia, our legal code is referred to not as “laws,” which devout Saudi Muslims believe can be
given only by Allah; we use another word that translates into English roughly as “system.” The system says that no one can be arrested for a minor crime between the hours of sunset and sunrise. The same system also says that you cannot arrest anyone without a statement from a judge, unless the authorities consider you a threat to national security. But the men outside said nothing. After a few minutes had passed, they started knocking again.
I was standing now in my living room, wearing sweatpants and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. I had nowhere else to go. It was a small house: a living room, a tiny galley kitchen, one bedroom, and a balcony, all of 750 square feet. Enough for my five-year-old son and me. I was divorced; under Saudi rules, without a husband, my father was my official male guardian. I could not work, attend school, or travel without his permission. But he lived in Jeddah, on the other side of the country.
I didn’t know if the men could force open the door and come in and take me. I still didn’t even know exactly who “they” were, but I realized I had to tell someone what was happening. I dialed a female Saudi journalist. I’d reached out to her when I’d first become interested in proving that women could legally drive. Even though it was the middle of the night, she answered the phone and told me she’d get me a lawyer. She gave me the number the lawyer would be calling me from. A few minutes later my phone rang. A woman named Suad al-Shammari, who identified herself as a lawyer, was on the line. The first thing she told me was to record our phone call, so I recorded the call with my iPhone as we spoke.
“Who are they?” she asked. “Are they religious police? Representatives from the traffic police? Do they have any kind of warrant?”
I told her that I didn’t know. “They’re still outside knocking,” I said.
Suad talked with me for nearly twenty minutes. She told me that unless these men were from the national security division and I was wanted as a terrorist, they weren’t allowed to come in the middle of the night and tell me to leave my home. She suggested I call the local
police and ask if a warrant had been issued for my arrest. If there was no warrant, I should not go with them. “Send them away,” she said. “Don’t leave with them.” So, as I listened to the men rapping their fists against my front door, I dialed 999 to speak with the police. A man on the other end of the line assured me there was no warrant for my arrest.
Almost as soon as I hung up, my phone rang again. This call was from Kholoud, a women’s rights activist, who had already been tweeting about my arrest the previous afternoon. In the confusion, I didn’t know that at that very moment one of my colleagues from Aramco, Omar al-Johani, was hiding behind a bush very close to my house. He had read Kholoud’s tweets about my arrest and knew the street where I lived. He drove around until he saw the cars and the security guards. Now he was tweeting about the men surrounding my door. Kholoud was following him online. “Manal,” she said calmly, “I want you to do something. I want you to go with these guys. It will bring them shame if we announce that they’ve taken you from your house in the middle of the night. This is a violation of your rights. We should expose them.”
I didn’t like the idea of going anywhere with these people. I didn’t want to leave my son and I still didn’t know exactly who was outside. But I kept thinking about what Kholoud had said. I decided to pray. I went upstairs. In the hallway leading to my small bedroom. I performed two raka’as (the full cycle of an Islamic prayer, spoken while standing, sitting, and prostrating) and asked for God to show me the way. It was now nearly four in the morning. In a little over an hour the sky would be streaked with the first hint of desert sun. I felt something inside me say, “Go, Manal. You’ll be okay.”
I composed myself, walked downstairs, and opened the door. Not everyone outside was a stranger. I recognized one man, Fahad, as an Aramco official; he held up his company ID card as proof. He started speaking to me but the whole time his eyes and his face were turned away, so that he was looking only at my brother. “We just need you to come to the Dhahran police station,” he said. “You’ll sign some papers
and then be released. I am a colleague, so you can trust me. I will be there with you, I will not leave you. I will bring you back.”
I didn’t trust him. I called Aramco security. The man on the other end assured me, “This guy works for us. He will escort you to the police station.” My brother insisted upon accompanying me as well, although all the men outside wanted me to go alone, without him, which should have convinced me that something was wrong. In Saudi society, a woman needs her official guardian (usually her father or husband) or a mahram—a close male family relative whom she cannot marry, such as a father, brother, uncle, or even a son—to accompany her on any official business.
Even a woman in labor will not be admitted into a hospital without her guardian or at least a mahram. Police cannot enter a home during a robbery, and firefighters are forbidden from entering a home during a fire or medical emergency if a woman is inside but does not have a mahram present. In 2014, Amna Bawazeer died on the campus of King Saud University when school officials refused to allow male paramedics to enter the female-only school after Amna collapsed from a heart ailment. The same story repeated itself in 2016 at Qaseem University when male paramedics were not allowed on campus to treat a female student, Dhuha Almane, who subsequently died. It is not a stretch to say that death is preferable to violating the strict code of guardianship and mahrams.
I went back inside and put on my abaya, the swirling black cloak that covered my entire body, except for my hands and the tips of my feet, as well as a hijab, a head scarf, that covered my hair, my ears, and my neck, everything except my face. Then I made one last phone call to Atika Shubert, a female reporter for CNN based in London, who had interviewed me a week earlier. Atika promised that she’d put the news that I’d been taken from my home on CNN’s international website. If she did that, I trusted that I would not simply disappear.
I walked out holding my brother’s arm, I hadn’t even looked at my sleeping little boy or kissed him goodbye. I wanted to believe that this was a formality, that I’d be back in time to wake him, feed him
breakfast, get him to school, and then head to work. At most, I told myself, I would only be gone a couple of hours. At this time of night, it was less than ten minutes from the Aramco compound to the Dhahran police station.
As soon as I stepped outside I counted the people there. There were nine of them: seven men, two women, and five cars. Once I passed through the doorway, the two women—female Aramco guards, fully covered except for a small slit for their eyes—muscled in beside me. I knew they worked for Aramco because over their abayas they were wearing the company’s standard issue khaki-colored coats with a large badge on the chest. They were most likely part of the contingent of female guards who manned the checkpoint at the women’s gate into the compound. When veiled women entered Aramco, these guards were the ones who uncovered their faces to verify the women’s identities. They could gaze upon any other woman’s face, know her identity, without ever revealing their own.
They walked uncomfortably close, as if they were ready to grab me and hold me down if I tried to escape. I got into the back of one of the cars—not a police car but an Aramco company car. The women didn’t follow me in. I was alone, except for two men. My brother sat in the front, and Fahad, the Aramco official, drove. No one spoke. I looked out the window at the blackness, felt the car hum along the road. Five minutes passed, then ten. I could make out none of the familiar landmarks in Dhahran. We were not heading into the city. We were driving east. Everything else left my mind except for one question: “Where are you taking us?”
I never set out to be an activist. I was a religious girl, born and raised in Mecca. I started covering myself with abayas and niqabs before it was even required, simply because I wanted to emulate and please my religious teachers. And I believed in a highly fundamentalist version of Islam. For years, I melted my brother’s pop music cassette tapes in the oven because in fundamentalist Islam, music is considered haram,
meaning forbidden. The first time I ever heard a song, I was twenty years old. It was the Backstreet Boys’ “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely,” and I still remember almost every word.
The only thing I did at a young age that was somewhat rebellious was to get a job. I had a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and I was hired by Aramco as an information security specialist. I got married young, at age twenty-four, and had a son. Then I got divorced, which is fairly common; some published statistics estimate that the divorce rate inside Saudi Arabia is as high as sixty percent. Both my parents were divorced when they married. But once I turned thirty, I started to do daring things on my birthdays. On my thirtieth birthday, I was working in the United States, in New Hampshire, and I went skydiving. The next year, I bought a ticket to Puerto Rico and spent thirty-six hours traveling alone. And back in Saudi Arabia in 2011, when I turned thirty-two, I decided that I would start driving.
I learned the proper rules of driving when I was working and living in the States—I got a New Hampshire and then a Massachusetts driver’s license. But in Saudi Arabia, I never got behind the wheel, except inside the Aramco compound. Saudi women rely on drivers, usually foreign men, some of whom have never taken a driving test or had any kind of professional instruction, to ferry them from place to place. We are at their mercy. Some families are wealthy enough to employ their own personal driver, but many women rely on an informal network of men with cars who illegally transport female passengers. Women carry lists of these private drivers in their phones, and we call and call until we find one who’s available. Or we take a taxi—taxis and their drivers are at least registered and licensed by the traffic police—but the taxis are old and many of the men who operate them don’t bathe, so the stench is often overwhelming. My friends would text me if they found a clean taxi driver, and I would text them.
Almost every woman I know has been harassed by a driver. They make comments about our appearance or about conversations they overhear; they demand more money; they touch you inappropriately. Some women have been attacked. I’ve had drivers make all sorts of
inappropriate comments and tape my calls when I’ve used my cell phone, even drivers who don’t speak Arabic, thinking maybe they could blackmail or extort me. Then there are the cases of drivers who sexually molest the children they are hired to drive to and from school.
It is an amazing contradiction: a society that frowns on a woman going out without a man; that forces you to use separate entrances for universities, banks, restaurants, and mosques; that divides restaurants with partitions so that unrelated males and females cannot sit together; that same society expects you to get into a car with a man who is not your relative, with a man who is a complete stranger, by yourself and have him take you somewhere inside a locked car, alone. Even women who have personal drivers cannot depend on these hired men. Some don’t show up, others disappear entirely. The Saudi men call women “queens,” and say that queens don’t drive. Women often mock this title by saying “The kingdom of one king and millions of queens.” Or they post a photo of Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth driving her Jaguar, saying “Real queens drive their own cars.”
One night in 2011, I had a doctor’s appointment after work in Khobar, outside the Aramco compound. When I left the medical office at nearly 9:00 p.m., I called all the drivers I knew to ask for a ride home, but none was available. They were off-duty, or busy driving other Saudi queens. When the clinic locked its doors, I started making my way down the streets. There were plenty of men in their cars out that night, and they all saw me, walking alone, my face uncovered. (Most Saudi women cover their faces.) It was an invitation for them to harass me, and they did. Some cars whizzed past; others slowed to a crawl. The drivers honked their horns and screamed slurs and cruel names and other vile things. I kept looking straight ahead, but it was terrifying. I called my brother, but his phone was turned off.
One of the cars followed me. There were shops lining the street, but it was night, so they were closed. And they were all set back, with wide parking lots in front. This guy would slowly pull his car into one of the lots. Then he’d lower his window and look at me, as though
inviting me to get in. I’d keep walking, and he’d pull into the next parking lot, lower his window, and look at me again. I was so mad. I felt violated, all because I couldn’t find a driver and I couldn’t do what he could: drive myself home. When I passed by what must have been a construction site, I picked up a loose rock from the ground and held it in my hand. As soon as he saw me with the rock, he shot me a furious look and sped off, tires squealing. But I threw it anyway, as hard as I could, toward him and his car. Then I stood there in the street, tears running down my face, crying like a little girl. I’m not a girl. I’m a woman, I’m a mother, I’m educated, I had a car that I bought and had been making payments on for four years—it was sitting with its stone-cold engine, parked next to my town house—but I still couldn’t stop things like this from happening to me.
In Saudi Arabia, harassment isn’t a criminal offense. The authorities, especially the religious police, always blame the woman. They say she was harassed because of how she looked or because of the way she was walking or because she was wearing perfume. They make you the criminal.
When I got home that night, I poured out my complaints on Facebook: the degradation of having to find a driver, of always worrying about being late, or being left somewhere, of trying to cobble together a patchwork of rides from relatives and drivers whose numbers I hoarded in my phone. I ended my post by promising to drive outside the Aramco compound on my birthday and take videos and upload them to YouTube. David, one of my American friends from New Hampshire, wrote on my Facebook wall “trouble-maker,” and I replied, “no, history-maker.” But even then, I didn’t believe myself. I thought I was bluffing.
Fahad, the Aramco government affairs man, the person who had promised to bring me home, who had told me over and over that we were going to the Dhahran police station, had lied. But I couldn’t call him a liar to his face. Instead, in what I hoped was a calm voice, I
asked where we were going. He had said the Dhahran police station, I reminded him.
He brushed off my question, saying, “Yeah, yeah. Well, they waited so long at Dhahran and you didn’t come, so now they’ve asked for you to go to the Khobar police station.” His style was smoother and softer than that of the religious police, who used to carry sticks for beatings and now just scream and yell at women. But the message was the same: it was my fault for not grabbing my bag and my abaya and going straight away with a group of strange, unidentified men at two o’clock in the morning.
Khobar is a sprawling city with almost 1 million residents. Like most newer Saudi cities, it is a collection of skyscrapers and shopping malls, located on what was an ancient port bordering the Persian Gulf, which we call the Arabian Gulf. In the West, it is perhaps best known for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, when a massive bomb hidden inside a tanker truck by extremists killed nineteen American military service members.
The sky was just turning light with the first streaks of pink as we arrived at the station. It was a big, cinder-block building on King Abdullah Road, not far from the waters of the gulf. I had already passed this very same station in my car two days before. That day was the only other time that I had driven on public roads inside the kingdom.
Inside the station, everyone was nice to me at first—even solicitous. They asked my brother and me if they could get us juice or water, maybe some coffee. They apologized for bringing us in so early. “We just need to finish this paperwork,” they said. “We will let you go just after we finish this paperwork.” My brother and I were led into a small room with one window. There was a desk and some chairs and a very large picture of King Abdullah framed and hanging on the wall, looking down at me.
The man from the police station started off by saying that they didn’t want to scare me, and he began with the simplest of questions: “You are Manal al-Sharif?” I nodded. Then he turned to my brother and asked him some questions as well.
It was hard to tell how much time had passed. Eventually, a young man entered and offered me a sandwich and orange juice, but I refused to eat. I tried to cooperate with the questioning as much as I could, hoping that they’d get what they needed and let me go home to my son.
There was a second man in the room, sitting behind a desk. He too began to speak. He wanted to know who was behind the Women2Drive group, of which I was the public face and one of the leaders, and also whom I had spoken with in the foreign press. He asked me about my relationship with Wajeha al-Huwaider, the woman who had filmed me driving. Wajeha was a well-known activist in Saudi Arabia, but I had no idea about the depths of her troubled relationship with the government. The second man would ask me questions, and then the first man would ask me questions, over and over. I kept smiling the whole time.
All of a sudden, the man behind the desk closed the interrogation file. He looked at me and said something very much like, “Come on, Manal. You know the king is going through a very difficult time with the Arab Spring and all the things that are happening in the region. Why would you add more burdens to the king? Don’t you love the king?” And there right in front of me was the king’s picture, staring down at me with that half-smile.
In Saudi Arabia, your patriotism is measured by how much you love the king. The king is revered like a father, and we are considered his daughters and sons. And out of all the Saudi kings, Abdullah is the king I have loved instead of feared. He is the only one to start opening doors for women, to speak up for women or to allow more freedom of speech and freedom of the press. So it was not hard for me to tell the interrogator, “No, of course, I love King Abdullah so much. I wouldn’t want to do anything that would cause him any more burdens.”
The interrogator nodded and said that the problem wasn’t so much with me driving, it was with me posting my video on YouTube and talking to the foreign media and causing so much fuss.
I tried to follow his lead and started apologizing. I told him that if
my participation in the Women2Drive campaign was what was causing all these problems, I’d just stop. I told him that I never imagined I’d have all these problems with officials, and I was so sorry. My purpose, I added, “was not to inconvenience anyone.”
He nodded and then left. My brother and I were alone. Fahad, the Aramco guy, was already gone. Just as the first interrogator had finished, Fahad had stuck his head into the room and said: “I think you’re fine now. Sorry, I have to go to work. It’s seven a.m. and I have to report to my office.” He told me we could take a taxi back, or call him and he would come pick us up.
I sat in silence with my brother, texting the girls who were putting up the feeds on Twitter. I asked them to please stop tweeting about me and my arrest, telling them that I did not want any more attention. It was just something minor, I added, just the video that was the problem. I would be released soon.
About thirty minutes passed and then another man came in. The first thing he did was order my brother to leave. My brother was swiftly escorted out and, in his place, they ushered in a woman. She was called the prison guard. No name, just “the prison guard.” She was fully veiled in a black abaya and black niqab with black shoes, black socks, and black gloves on her hands. Even her bag was black. I couldn’t even see a glimpse of her face, just a thin slash through the cloth where the whites of her eyes glowed. She sat next to me, saying nothing. Her gloves were so old and worn that there were holes in the fabric and along the seams where the threads had come loose. I could see down to her dark skin. Her bag was old too, battered, with a strap that was barely hanging on. But then I stopped looking at her because the new interrogator was not done.
He took my bag with my wallet, my cell phone, and everything I had. My papers and my identity were gone. Even my ability to tell time was gone; there was no clock in the room. On any other morning, I would know when my neighbors began to move about their houses, when the Aramco buses would begin their morning loops around the smooth asphalt streets of the compound. I would know when my
five-year-old son woke up. On this morning when he opened his eyes, he would discover that his mother was gone.
Now I was truly frightened.
The new interrogator asked me all the same questions, what’s your name, what’s your age, where do you work? He continued to ask me for the names of the people I had talked to in the foreign media. Everything was the same as the previous rounds of questioning, except he spoke in a harsher tone. Then he left and I sat there, with my silent guard, waiting.
Then another man came in. He sat down right in front of me, and the first thing he said, in a concerned voice, was, “Tell me your story.” So, I told him my story again, and he listened, and then he left the room. I didn’t know until much later that all of this was a standard pattern: to use multiple interrogators, to alternate between cajoling and being sympathetic and then firm and harsh, to repeat the same questions again and again, to keep the detainee waiting. Each time, they were trying to see if I would change my story. Would there be inconsistencies? Would I inadvertently say the wrong thing or give something away?
I don’t know if I would call myself a calm person by nature, but the effect of having been up for more than twenty-four hours, of having eaten so little, and of having expended so much adrenaline, first in the car and then at the traffic police station the previous afternoon, made me calm and methodical. My story was my story. It did not change.
At some point, one of my interrogators had brought in a copy of Al Yaum newspaper. He held it in his left hand, his fingers gripping the paper like a vise, until it buckled and creased around the edges. With his free hand, he pointed to my picture and the headline about my arrest on the front page. Afterward, he threw it on the desk. He wanted the names of people involved with the driving campaign. I gave him only two names, names he already knew: Bahiya al-Mansour, the girl who had started the Facebook event for Women2Drive, and Wajeha
al-Huwaider, the activist. (Both were later picked up and interrogated as well.) But I kept my answers short, as King Abdullah’s bespectacled face gazed down from his portrait. Then once more the prison guard and I were left alone.
It was work to keep my body in the chair. I had never thought of sitting as tiring, but it was taking every muscle in me to keep myself in that position, to keep my head from folding over into my lap. I hadn’t been to the bathroom yet, and I knew that at some point soon, it would be time for midday prayers. I kept asking this woman if there was a place I could go for some privacy.
Suddenly the silence broke. There was big flurry of activity. The door opened, people motioned, speaking in fast, clipped Arabic, without any of the usual pleasantries or greetings: “Come with us.” I followed and found myself in another area, surrounded by a lot of men. My face was uncovered, and I was the only woman, except for the prison guard, who followed mutely along.
I started speaking, asking, “Where is my brother? Where is my bag? What’s happening?”
We were led to a metal door and motioned through. I could hear the metal close hard behind us. I kept asking the guard: “Why are we in here? What’s going on?”
She was as terrified as I was. I could hear her voice shaking as she said, “I don’t know.”
The room was the filthiest thing I had ever seen. It was crawling with cockroaches, their hard shells racing across the floor and up the walls, the scurrying of their legs making a low, clicking sound. The room stank of piss and sweat and every foul odor possible to imagine. I took small breaths through my hand, my stomach clenching in revulsion. There was another, smaller room attached. It had no door, but it was supposed to be the bathroom. There was no toilet, just a hole in the ground and human shit all over the floor.
On the floor, amid the cockroaches, was a sponge mattress. Nomadic Arabs don’t have traditional beds, just these roll-up mattresses. Even now, when many people live together in one house, we often
sleep on these mattresses at night and then roll them up for the daytime. This was a small mattress, and it was filthy, shiny with sweat and dirt that had been worn into the covering. There was nowhere else to sit. We were inside the detention room of the Khobar police station, and I did not know for how long. I felt tears well up in my eyes, but I shut them. I was not going to cry in this place. I was not going to cry in front of this woman.
Finally, the woman told me her name. Halimah. I kept saying to her, “Halimah, what did I do? Where is my brother? What’s going on? Why did they take my bag?” I was like all those interrogators, but in reverse.
Halimah kept saying, “I don’t know.”
I started banging on the metal door, my fist pounding and then stinging. “Please, please, where’s my brother?” I would call out. “Can I just talk to my lawyer? Can I talk to my son?”
I stood for a long time, but I was so tired. I had been awake for the better part of two days. My head was throbbing, and I had to sit down on that disgusting mattress. I had to close my eyes. But I started talking to Halimah. I asked her about her husband, I asked if she had children. She told me that her husband was a security guard. Being a security guard is usually the lowest form of work that a Saudi man can accept. Most guards work long hours and earn low wages, maybe 1,500 riyals a month, which is only about $400, not even enough to pay rent in most places. Halimah said she had two kids. She told me their names, but in my exhaustion, I forgot them. I asked her question after question, the way you try to forget about your own situation by involving yourself in someone else’s.
As she spoke, I looked at my fancy shoes and my fancy, well-made abaya, which cost the equivalent of her husband’s salary for at least one month. The bag that they had already taken from me would have cost her husband three months’ wages. Her phone was an old phone, black and white, the kind that could only hold about ten messages before it ran out of storage. I looked at her and thought of her having no other options than to work in this place, thought of what must
have driven her to take this job. Sitting in that cell, I pitied her, even more than myself.
Suddenly the door was wrenched open. Two guards told me to come out, and as I walked through the doorway, they told me to show my hands. One of the men was holding a large roller covered in blue ink, which he proceeded to slide across my hands until they were thickly coated. He told me to press my fingers and hands to a series of papers, first my thumbs, then my fingers, then my whole hand. Because I am a woman, it was taboo for him to touch my skin. Methodically, I followed his instructions. I placed my hands on the papers, and when I looked up, I recognized one of the other men in the room—the head of the Khobar police station. He had also been present at the Thuqbah traffic police headquarters when they had detained me the day before.
I looked straight at him and asked, “What’s going on? Why are you doing this?”
“You ask yourself, Manal al-Sharif,” he said. “You put yourself in this position!”