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“My friend is getting married and has invited us to his wedding.” Abdullah announces with a smile.

“Me?” I ask puzzled. “I don’t even know your friend.”

“It doesn’t matter. He told me he would be honored if you came.”

“OK. I am really excited to attend my first Saudi wedding.”

The following day I receive a WhatsApp message with the address of the wedding hall. The event takes place at the Officers Club. After the location, Abdullah adds: “call me when you arrive.”

I can hear the call to prayer as I open my closet. Isha prayer. I put on my thobe and start to feel as if I had always been wearing this piece of clothing, but it is only my second time. I place the shemagh, the agal, and the tagiya on the seat next to me in the car. Minutes later I drive south on the Eastern Ring Road. My GPS has not kept up with the frenetic construction pace of the city and I get lost a couple of time before finding my final destination. I hadn’t thought about having to pass a security check. It is a place for armed officers after all, so security is tight. I stop my car and the soldiers ask me something in Arabic. I decide to put in practice the sentences I have been practicing with Abdullah.

Asalamalikum. Ana Hisbani. Ma atakalam Arabi.”

The soldiers look perplexed. A Spanish guy dressed in a Saudi thobe trying to enter the Officers Club at night. When I think I am going to be denied access, a word comes to my mind. A word that Abdullah told me when he told me about the wedding.


And the soldiers repeat with big smiles: “Ors, ors!”

Immediately, they lift the barrier, step aside and let me through. They communicate with a security guard that is further down the road. The guard welcomes me and takes me to a restricted parking area next to the main entrance. I call Abdullah.

“Hey, I’m here.”

He comes out right away and starts laughing.

“They gave you VIP parking! They probably thought you were a diplomat or something!”

“I need help with this.” I ask pointing at my smag, feeling little embarrassed. “I have never used it before.”

Patiently, Abdullah proceeds to place the agal on my head and the smag. He tells me that this is what fathers do with their children when they are too young to fix their smag. I actually feel like a child: everything is new and exciting.

Once my smag is in place, we proceed to the building. I feel as if any little move of my head will make my agal fall, so I walk completely straight and move like a robot. We are greeted by many people. I try to sound convincing as I repeat the sentences I have memorized:

Asalam alaikum, keif halek, alhamdulillah, tayib, wish lonik…”

Abdullah looks amused by the situation. At some point he turns to me and says with a wide smile:

“You see? Most people don’t even realize you are not Saudi!”

And we walk into the big reception hall where the groom stands receiving congratulations and blessings from the guests. Handshakes, smiles, selfies, group pictures.

Then we find a seat and a Yemeni elegantly dressed for the occasion comes with a dallah and the finjan. As we take the first sip of our coffee, I ask:

“Where are the women? This is the first wedding I attend without women.”

Abdullah explains:

“Well, they celebrate separately. After the celebration, the groom will go where the bride is and they will start their new life together.”

More and more men arrive. There are several small kids running around the room in their tiny thobes. The oud comes around and I learn how to wave the smoke into my smag. I hold the end of the smag close to my face and take a deep breath. The intense fragrance and the sight of those kids take my mind away from room and into a story that my wife told me a few days ago. A story about Hind, a Saudi woman she recently met. A woman with a sad face, a woman with a forced smile and a constant inner tension. A woman who was divorced and terrified that her ex-husband would take her daughter away from her. A sad story that probably started on a night just like this one, all smiles and good wishes.

The pounding of drums brings my mind back to the room. The crowd starts to gather around a group of men with the drums. Some men start to move in the center of an improvised circle following the rhythm of the drums. Happy faces with wide smiles and a legion of smartphones documenting this moment. The music and the dance have an inviting quality. My feet start to move following the irresistible rhythm, and suddenly someone grabs my arm gently and drags me to the center of the circle. I try to follow the patterns of movement that surround me. I feel part of something bigger than myself. And then someone hands me a sword. The person next to me tells me to follow his lead. I raise the sword, and, at the same time, as if I had given a command, a legion of iPhones raise up, pointing at me, hungry to capture the image of the only foreign guest trying to perform Al Ardha.

The sword, conceived to inflict pain, becomes an expression of joy. The very same object designed for destruction is now the symbol of union. We can have laughter instead of tears around its sharp blades. Life can be a fight, and life can be dance.

And I think of Hind. I imagine her sad story, beginning on a joyful night like this one. A marriage, conceived to cultivate love, becoming a source of pain.  

12. مكتوب Written


جاء عبدالله حاملاً معه كتاباً و قال لي ” لقد كنت ابحث عن كتابٍ جيد  يمكن ان يساعدك في تعلم اللغة العربية، فليس من اليسير ان تجد كتابا جيداً لتعلم اللغة العربية في السعودية، لكنى اعتقد ان هذا يمكن ان يفيدك في فهم اساسيات اللغة ”  فتناولت الكتاب منه  ونظرت الى صفحاته الملونة وكان عنوانه “ قواعد اللغة العربية المبسطة”  و بعدها قلت ” ارى ان ما قرأته عن كرم الضيافة السعودية كان صحيحاً، فالناس هنا فعلا  لطفاء و كرماء”

ذهبنا الى مجمع غرناطة، و لاحظت ان الناس كانوا ينظرون و يلاحظون وجود عبدالله كثيراً، اعتقد انه ذا شعبية واسعة اكثر مما اعتقدت.  توقفنا بعدها في مقهى و وجدنا زاوية هادئة  حيث نستطيع ان نحتسي قهوتنا و نكمل ما بدأناه من قبل من تعليم لغات بعضنا لبعض. بعد ان جلسنا ، فتحت كتابي الجديد بفضول شديد و رحت أقلب صفحاته بشغف،  لطالما احببت رائحة الكتب الجديدة و النظر الى صفحاتها المتشوقة لتُقرأ،  فشرعت بالقراءة بشكل عشوائي لبعض المعلومات عن اصول اللغة، و كان مذكور  في

احداها ان جميع الكلمات تتألف من جذر و منها تتفرع المفردات.

 فقرأت كلمة ” ك-ت-ا-ب  كتاب”

فوافقني عبدالله الرأي  و قال” نعم، كتاب ، و يوجد كلمة اخرى تدل على الشخص الذي يكتب الكتاب و نسميه كاتب”

فقلت له بلغتي العربية الركيكة ” اذن، انت كاتب”  و كلانا ضحك بعد ان شجعني عبدالله على محاولتي لتكوين جملة من الكلمة التي تعلمتها لتوي.

و بعدها سألته ” وماذا عن كلمة مكتوب”

فشرح لي عبدالله ” ان كلمة مكتوب تعني ما تم كتابته، و لكنها ايضاً تحمل معنى اعمق، فهي تعني ان شيئاً ما مقدر ان يحدث، اومحتوم الحدوث”

فكرت بأعماق هذه الفكرة و ران لي التوغل بمختلف المفاهيم  للقضاء و القدر و الحتمية  التي مرت ، و لسبب ما تذكرت ما كانت تقوله والدتي عندما نتحدث عن الصحة و

 الموت ، فكانت تؤمن اشد الإيمان بأننا كلنا لنا وقت معلوم و محدد لتصعد به ارواحنا للسماء، ومهما نفعل ، لا نستطيع تغيير ذلك . و ادركت اننا في اسبانيا نتشارك مفهوم ” مكتوب” الذي شرحه لي عبدالله لتوه . وخطرت على بالي زوجتي أليسون، الأمريكية الجنسية فمن خلال سنوات حياتنا في الولايات المتحدة ، لاحظت ان اكثر الأمريكان الذين قابلتهم يؤمنون بحرية الإرادة و قدرتهم على تحديد الخيارات المتعلقة  بمجرى حياتهم، فالإنسان وحده يحدد مصيره و قدره ، وهو وحده من يملك كامل الحرية و الارادة بما يتعلق بقرراته و تصرفاته سواء آلت الى خيرٍ او الى شر. و جعلت اتسائل ما اذا كانت حياتنا هي كتبُ كُتبت ، او اننا نحن كتَابها ؟ ام لربما مزيج من الإثنين.

قطع سيل افكاري اعتذار عبدالله بأن اشخاصا آخرين سينضمون الينا، و قال لي انه لا يعرف من هؤلاء الأشخاص على نحو قريب، لكن واحدا منهم قد انهى لتوه كتابة اول كتاب له، و اراد اصدقائه مفاجاته بلقاء  عبدالله بكونه الشخصية التي ألهمته على الكتابة، و بعد ذلك بقليل، دخل ثلاثة شبان في مقتبل العمر و كما اخبرني عبدالله لاحقا انهم في المرحلة الدراسية  الثانوية، و كانت و ترتسم على محياهم ابتسامات عريضة بينما اقبلو يصافحون و يسلمون على عبدالله  بحماسة و بالطريقة السعودية التقليدية  بطرح الكثير من الأسئلة  عن الصحة و الحال و التي اصبحت تروق لي  حتى لو لم افهمها،  و بينما كانوا يتجاذبون اطراف الحديث بالعربية لاحظت الحماسة على وجوههم ، و لطافة و لباقة عبدالله في اعطائهم الإهتمام الكامل والإصغاء لما يقولونه. ابتسمت و شرعت بالنظر الى ملاحظاتي ” كاتب، كتاب ، مكتوب”  كاتب شاب يشارك كتابه الأول مع كاتب خبير ، بدأت بالتساؤل ما اذا كان الفصل السعودي من كتاب حياتي كان مكتوباً مسبقاً و محدد المصير.

ترجمة: هند العيسى

Translated by: Hind AlEssa

Abdullah comes with a book to our next meeting. “Here,” he says. “I went to look for a book that could help you learn Arabic. It’s hard to find a book on Saudi Arabic, but this one should help with the basics.”  He hands to me a book with a colorful front page. “Easy Arabic Grammar.” I see that what I’ve read about Saudi hospitality is true — the people here are kind and generous.

We walk through Granada Mall, and I realize that people are turning their heads to look at Abdullah. He seems much more popular than I had realized. We stop at a coffee shop and find a quiet corner where we can enjoy our coffee and continue teaching each other Arabic and Spanish.

I open my new book with curiosity and quickly flip through its pages. I have always loved the smell of new books, that smell of pages ready to be discovered. I randomly check one of them. It explains that words are constructed from a single root.

“K – T – B,” I read. “Kitab.”

“Yes,” says Abdullah. “Good. Kitab means book… and katib means writer.”

“So, anta katib,” I respond and we both laugh.

“Very good!”

“And what about ‘maktoob’?” I ask.

“That means ‘written,’ but the, word also has a deeper meaning. It means that something was meant to happen. It was destined.”

“How interesting.” Fate, destiny, predetermination. I mull these concepts quietly as Abdullah checks his phone. I can almost hear what my mother always says when we talk about health and death: we all have our time to go. It has already been decided, no matter what we do. I realize that in Spain we seem to have the same underlying believe in some form of maktoob. And then my wife, Allison, comes to my mind. She is American and in our years living in the U.S., I grew familiar with the American mentality about destiny being in our own hands. Most Americans I met there seemed to believe that they determined their own fate, that they had free will to choose everything in life — good and bad. So are our lives a book already written, or one that we are writing? Perhaps a combination of both…

Abdullah apologizes because someone is going to join us briefly. He explains that he doesn’t know the people who are coming, but one of them has written his first book and his friends want to give him a surprise: meeting his inspiration as a writer, Abdullah. Shortly after, three teenage kids enter the coffee shop. Wide smiles cover their faces as they shake Abdullah’s hand and engage in the ritual exchange of polite fast questions that characterizes Saudi greetings and that I have come to love, even if I can’t understand it. We sit and Abdullah explains that they are students in their second year of high school. As they continue to speak in Arabic, I just observe the excitement in their faces, the kindness of Abdullah giving his full attention to these kids. I look down and I smile when I see my notes: katib, kitab, maktoob… A young teenage writer sharing his first book with an experienced writer. I begin to wonder if the Saudi chapter of my life has, in fact, already been written.