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Abdullah Al Wesali On Going Home

The "On Going Home" series offers a glimpse of what returning home means for authors who have spent three months in the U.S. as part of the International Writing Program's Fall Residency. This week's installment comes to us from Abdullah Al Wesali:

Photo by Thomas Langdon
Photo by Thomas Langdon

A strange feeling haunted me in the JFK Airport as I awaited my Delta231 flight to Amsterdam, the first leg in a series of flights that would return me to my home country, via Dubai. It was a feeling of bisecting nature, one that deeply divided my soul into two parts. All my luggage had been shipped, leaving me with nothing but my passport, boarding passes and my laptop bag with its bright yellow International Writing Program (IWP) tag dangling from it.

This is a feeling that can conquer any person forced to leave behind a new part of themselves in order to return to their original, historical and cultural selves. As I thought of this while sitting in Terminal 4 at JFK at 8:30pm, the fact that I was leaving the US finally became real, and all the events of my residency suddenly turned into history. No matter how much I had prepared myself for this feeling before coming to Iowa and seizing the opportunity to participate in the residency, I found myself missing it.

Pictures, voices, songs, phrases, snippets of dialogue and scenes from the three-month residency sounded in my ears and passed before my eyes, especially those from the last night, at the Broadway Millennium Hotel in New York, where we had all gathered in farewell for one last night. It had been an emotional goodbye, filled with an intense sense of separation. That night, we each discovered how beautiful our friends were. There was a common feeling of silent apology among the group, not for any wrongdoing, but for not having gotten to know each other better. I think a limited timeframe is always a short amount of time, no matter how long it actually lasts.

The weather was the first thing I noticed when I stepped off the plane and into Saudi Arabia. It was that time of winter when the temperature typically seems low, but because I had come from a colder climate, I found the 17 – 22 degrees Celsius to be highly agreeable.

I found that in the three months I had been gone, my 15-year-old son had become much more responsible. He took care of his mother and his 13-year-old brother during my absence. Responsibility such as this promotes maturity, but this great benefit wasn’t much on my mind. Rather, his actions greatly helped his mother, given that Saudi Arabia applies strict control over women and their activities, including driving cars. So to reward him for this good deed, I brought him what he had asked for, which was a track suit from the original Nike store with matching sneakers. Though these items are available in Saudi Arabia, there is a special feeling that comes with the traveling gift.

Abdullah Al Wesali at his desk.
Abdullah Al Wesali at his desk.

My return to work went less smoothly. Two months into the residency, I had received an email from the administration at the hospital where I work (I am the only one of my 28 colleagues with a background in health management) asking me to interrupt my residency and return to work! I apologized about not being able to do that, but I still spent one week off work after returning home because I still had that time left on my approved vacation. I was not ready to return to work that fast, though now that I’m back, I see how working in the hospital supplies me with many writing themes.

During my residency I used to write in a journal, and it’s amazing how fresh the sense of place, weather and people appear to me every time I reread it. These days though, I find it hard to take the time to write, as I am very busy traveling to and from the capital Riyadh. The ministry of culture chose me and seven other writers to be part of the Riyadh Book Fair Cultural Panel, which is responsible for designing the literature program that will accompany the book fair. The Riyadh Book Fair is the biggest in the Arab world, and I think the IWP residency helped give me credibility to participate in that. I am sorry to say though, that the majority of my colleagues on the panel seem to be conservative and traditional in their suggestions, which stand in contrast to my liberal and new ideas.

The cultural club in Dammam, the city where I live, in the east of Saudi Arabia, is also keeping me busy, with its invitation to talk about my experience at the IWP residency. This is likely to take place in February. Not that I’m worried though, as I have plenty of material to prepare for it, including photos and journal entries, while the lecture will be conducted in Arabic, my mother tongue.

I have noticed other changes too. Close friends who are enthusiastic about learning all the details of my residency have remarked on my newly acquired tendency to talk less. More than one of them has told me that I look sad! Maybe this is because I look sad when I am deep in thought. Indeed, the 2nd book I read from the collection of books I brought from the US is called The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman, and it has given me much cause for thought. The premise of the book is that all the cultures in the world are unified by common norms and values, the values of globalization, though this is something I don’t completely agree with, especially after returning from the residency. More work needs to be done to reach commonality, and it’s our job, the writers’ job, to unite the world.

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