One of the things that fascinated me was the women of Saudi Arabia. Before we deployed to Desert Storm in October of 1990, we were given many different briefings on the culture. The army didn’t want us screwing things up!
What we heard kind of scared the women in our unit, because we really didn’t know what to expect. It was all very strange and different, and this was before the internet, so it was a little like stepping off a diving board and not knowing if there was water in the pool. As it turned out, we would spend most of our time in the middle of nowhere, with no contact with human life other than our fellow soldiers.
But in the first month, we were in Dharhan, and I had an opportunity to go to a mall. Some things are universal — the mall looked like any other mall. In one store front, I saw these gorgeous dresses in stunning colors. I was told that the women wore these under their abaya. That’s the long, black covering the women wear.
I wandered off in search of a bathroom, because in the army, you always go when there’s an opportunity. You never know when the next opportunity will be available. As I come out, I’m greeted by three Saudi Arabian women. We stop some distance from each other and stare at each other. At least I think they were staring at me.
The women were dressed in black abayas that covered them from head to toe. Even their faces were covered by sheer black cloth, so I could not see what they looked like. I didn’t really think about it until then, but we rely on a lot of visual cues with faces and eyes, and I couldn’t do that with the women. Even the garments hid body language cues.
The women stared back at me, and I had the distinct feeling I was like an alien from outer space to them. Since they were on their way to bathroom, they circled around me, maintaining their distance. And all I could do was wonder what it was like to always look at the world through a veil.