1990; a year I wouldn’t forget easily – Our first Christmas in Arabia. A country that is completely Muslim, no other religions are practised there. What a challenge that was , how can we celebrate Christmas if there are no decorations? We chose to make our own, thankfully stationery stores were on every corner, so we made paper chains and golden stars, but where oh where would we get a tree? One bright idea was to buy a fir tree at the local nursery, what a brilliant idea that was, until once decorated the branches touched the floor from the weight of the decorations.
I never thought I’d be spending my first Christmas under threat of war, August 1990, had been a month of many changes. We had not long moved into our first apartment in Jeddah, freedom at last from the confines of living at Abdul’s parents and the strictness of Makkah.
Jeddah is a cosmopolitan city; favorite home of Expats, close to the Red sea, which boasted beautiful clear blue seas and cooler weather, Jeddah known as Bride of the Red Sea, for the abundance of sea food freshly caught and served in the many local restaurants. A mecca of designer shops, restaurants and cultural activities, I was so excited; our own place! Abdul’s dad had given us one of his apartments that he owned, it was small first floor apartment and in a tall building with a bakalla (small convenience store). It compromised of 2 bedrooms 2 sitting rooms (one for men and one for women) a family bathroom and a guest toilet. Upon our first viewing when I opened the guest toilet door it was crawling with cockroaches the white tiles looked more like polka dotted walls, the floor a mass of black cockroaches crawling in and out of the open toilet, which was just an open hole in the floor. I screamed and slammed the door shut telling Abdul to seal up the door, never to be opened again whilst we lived at that apartment. We settled in just like we were a newly married couple again; our own space and furnishing our new little home. It was strange at times as the building was occupied by Egyptian workers mainly; who thought it was a novelty having a western woman living in the same building. Trash was put outside our doors then carried down at the end of the day to the large dumpsters in the street, many a time I found neighbours going through my trash – unsure why- but it was unnerving to see these people going through my trash.
The second of August was to change my little world and to change that of countless innocent Iraqis and Kuwaitis. The news flashed on the TV screen; Iraq has invaded Kuwait and killed the King’s brother, rumours abound they would try to take Saudi next. What had I let myself in for? For a girl who never left the UK before, to suddenly be living in a possible war zone , Abdul joked, “that you couldn’t take a Scouser anywhere without trouble following them”,and whilst he meant it to allay my fears I couldn’t hide my fear I was terrified, what did this mean for us all?
I received a letter from my mom, begging us to come home though my dad didn’t seem that bothered, I was so scared of what was to come , the world stepped up and came to the aid of Saudi (mainly to protect the oil reserves and to protect Kuwait). The news started coming in hourly; forever changing. There were rumours that Iraq had joined up with Iran; however we see pictures of Iraqi soldiers surrendering to the Saudis’ for forgiveness. Saddam had lost the respect of his people and they thought he was crazy and had betrayed them.
My brother in-law Hassan and his wife were in Egypt, but trapped trying to fly home, however it wasn’t safe. There was a threat of scud missiles hitting us in Jeddah I was so terrified, I was used to seeing these things on TV, but to think this was part of my life now, was pure crazy. We needed a plan of action so we considered withdrawing all our money from the bank, and bough a bigger TV aerial, and we begin to watch CNN 24/7 all doom banging in into our heads, I knew Abdul was keeping his worries from me as a way to protect me, but I felt isolated and alone – I had no friends or family in Jeddah, only my beloved Faris who I kept close at all times. Was this the calm before the storm?? So much for our new start in our new home.
Trade began to suffer and Abdul and his brothers were considering closing their aluminum factory, and we considered flying back to the UK, but at that time it was to unsafe, we were trapped and had to stay regardless of what would happen, our life was in the hands of the madman Saddam
Soon the nightly sounds of war planes descended over Jeddah, as I laid there awake, not knowing if it was enemy planes or the coalition, my heart constantly thudding at the thundering sounds in the dead of night. It’s hard to explain the thoughts that go through your head, time stops and everything around you goes silent except the sounds of the war planes engines, waiting for the first explosion, that thankfully didn’t happen and the engine sounds disappeared quietly into the night.
The government began to advise people that they should start stocking up on supplies, in case full-scale chemical war breaks out. We began to stock up on necessities, such as water tinned food, that was easy to eat without being cooked, staple supplies and first aid supplies and clothes. The government informed us how to wear gas masks in case of Chemical fall out, that’s when reality really hit home, I realized we could be in serious danger, and it was no longer something being watched on TV or listened to on the Radio. It was here, right on our doorstep.
I decided to pick our bedroom as our Safe Room, as it was the biggest room, I had no idea how many months or possibly years we could be locked in that room. We moved Faris’s travel cot into there, we had lots of videos and a TV in there, and in case power supplies were taken out we had lots of books papers pencils, candles, batteries. I wasn’t sure if we had enough supplies as we had no idea how long this would be for, it may or may not happen, living with the fear of uncertainty. We began to seal up all the windows and the air conditioners. I hated the fact the building had metal bars on the windows and begged Abdul to get his dad to take them off (most buildings in Saudi have metal bars on for decoration), but to me it was a question of safety, which Abdul’s dad ignored.
The threat of war was all that consumed our days, would I ever see England again, my family, my friends, was this how I would die, in a foreign country, just another war casualty? Abdul seemed unconcerned, but when I was alone all I could do was cry my heart out; I was just so fucking scared.
When we ventured outside you could feel the tension in the air, when shopping at the local souks; other than that to an outsider life looked like it was carrying on as normal, to me it made things even scarier. Finally the news comes that all English nationals and their dependants must register at the British Embassy immediately, I knew there and then this was it, something serious was about to happen.
News trickled through that Libya has joined with Saddam, our friend Essam was in the Libyan army, is this what it has come to, we will be fighting against our own friends, because of these mad men. Essam was Abdul’s closest friend and mine too, remembering the good times we all shared in our early days of meeting, how bazaar that now he may be killed or he may kill us!!
The news came through that Saddam had offered all third world countries free oil supplies for their support, It was a sign he was becoming desperate and who knows what he would do?
We went to the British embassy to register and they informed us that if war broke out they would send transport to evacuate us out of the country before it blows, we had our passports at the ready, and a briefcase with any legal documents and money kept safe, ready to go at any time. We were living on a knifes edge with the news that threats of scud missiles being fired at Riyadh, while they are closer, still the thought, could they reach us? All thoughts in my head of planning our future, even everyday mundane things are no longer thought about as you sit and wait, unsure what will happen and when.
I remember being in the International market, shopping when I saw my first American Soldier, in fact it was the first western person I had seen within my time in the Kingdom, I was so excited and wanted to run over and say hello, Abdul laughed at me and told me not to, I had forgotten I was wearing hijab, Abdul joked I may get shot as the poor American soldier would just see a crazy Arab woman running towards him, it brought home then the reality of my situation again -, that my life was no longer normal.
Abdul went to the factory to assure the workers all is well and they are safe, I was alone with Faris, when suddenly the air raid sirens started to go off in the street,, the TV programs stop and the screens turn red and start to flash with the same sound as the sirens in the street, I had no idea what to do, I was so fucking scared I grabbed Faris and ran to the safe room, I couldn’t get hold of Abdul, all the phone lines were engaged. I had no idea what to do, I didn’t know anyone there, I couldn’t speak the language. I was terrified. I held Faris close and prayed it wasn’t the beginning of the end. I wished we had gotten the gas masks earlier as advised, stupidly we never thought it would come to this, so soon. Suddenly all is deathly quiet; I held my breath, crying silently trying not to scare Faris. I was waiting for that first bomb to fall, will it just blow us up – will be a chemical weapon as we have been warned about will we die a slow death? I couldn’t believe it suddenly the TV was back on and that annoying American sitcom show Full house. I was so confused I had no idea what the hell was happening. Suddenly my phone rang and scared me shitless, it was Abdul, thank god he’s safe. He told me it was all a false alarm. The armed forces were testing out the warning systems…….W.T.F, no warning at all how pathetic, can they not do anything right. I burst into loud sobs and start to shout at Abdul,where the hell was he, why wasn’t he here why was I alone with my baby son, why, why, why?? He eventually told me he’s coming home as I put down the phone I held Faris tightly as my tears poured down and fell on his face. What a fucked up situation I was in, what on earth was I doing there? Soon Abdul was back and held me tight letting me cry while Faris looked on bemused at us both and carries on playing with his toys.
A few days later we heard the King had offered sanctuary to the Kuwaitis who have had their homes destroyed; he had huge tower blocks sitting empty there in Jeddah and marked them for the Kuwaitis and their families to come to till it’s safe for them to go home.
February 1991: Iraq agreed to an unconditional pull out with the Soviet Union. Could we trust Sadamme though he fired two scud missiles at Hafr, Al Baten and Dharan already? On February 24, a massive coalition ground offensive began, and Iraq’s outdated and poorly supplied armed forces were rapidly overwhelmed. By the end of the day, the Iraqi army had effectively folded, 10,000 of its troops were held as prisoners, and a U.S. air base had been established deep inside Iraq. After less than four days, Kuwait was liberated, and the majority of Iraq’s armed forces had either surrendered, retreated to Iraq, or been destroyed.