This was the look on my husband's face when I walked into the living room of his parent's house in Saudi Arabia where we were visiting over the winter break. He had just returned from the Saudi Ministry of the Interior on an errand to register our one-year-old son, Jibreel in the Saudi citizen's database.
We live in Oregon and Jibreel was born in the United States. I am an American, my husband Ahmed is a Saudi citizen and a green card holder and we wanted Jibreel to have dual citizenship. Having Saudi citizenship has advantages in that our son can receive free health care while in Saudi Arabia and college scholarships in the future. Since Ahmed has a lot of family in Saudi Arabia and we knew we would be visiting from time to time, it made sense for Jibreel to have Saudi citizenship in addition to his American citizenship.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
What followed was a mind bogglingly surreal, insane and ridiculous explanation for why Jibreel could not be registered in the database, could not receive a Saudi passport, and would not be allowed to leave Saudi Arabia unless we changed his name.
Unbeknownst to us, there is a list of names banned by the Saudi ministry of the interior including foreign names like "Linda", names related to royalty like "Amir" (prince), names that could have a political meaning the Saudi government doesn't want like "Abdul Nasser", and names of angels. Jibreel is the Arabic version of the name Gabriel, the angel of God.
None of this made any sense to someone like me, American born and raised but it would be our reality for the foreseeable future. To compound the problem my marriage to Ahmed was not recognized by the Saudi government which would further complicate registering Jibreel as a citizen.
When we met in 2016, Ahmed told me that if a Saudi man wants to marry a foreign woman, he has to get permission from the government. This was an outrageous concept which we chose to ignore; we went ahead and got married in 2018 the United States, with no permission from the Saudi government.
I found out about Jibreel's name issue right before I was scheduled to give a talk at Desert Designs, a gallery and interior design store in al Khobar which I had been looking forward to visiting. Desert Designs carries my jewelry and I'd been online friends with the owner for years and was looking forward to meeting her.
Sometimes you have to put aside your fears and worries and just show up for what needs to be done. The talk went well and I was grateful for the invitation.The next day, I called the American embassy because I thought for sure this would be something they could help with; Jibreel is an American citizen and he should not be prevented from leaving Saudi Arabia because of his name. The response I got from them was cold and infuriating: that I should have read the State Department travel warning on this issue (I've since searched and couldn't find anything about it on travel.state.gov), that they cannot help because this is an internal issue between the Saudi government and one of its citizens, and they confirmed what the ministry of the interior said to Ahmed; that Jibreel could only leave Saudi Arabia on a Saudi passport. They suggested we just change his name if we wanted Jibreel to be able to leave.
I spun into a serious depression after this and I stayed in bed for a whole day. I cannot remember ever feeling this helpless. Ahmed and I were stuck with Jibreel in Saudi Arabia indefinitely and I was completely powerless to do anything about it because it wasn't my country, I had no connections, and didn't know how to get anything done here. My life was completely and utterly out of my control because there was no way I was going to leave without my son and had no idea when that would be. A name change and a new passport could take months in the United States, I had no idea how long it would take in Saudi Arabia. Ahmed had a job to return to in Oregon, and I had a business that I cannot run remotely. We had a cat named Maria who neighbors had graciously been taking care of. I was incensed that we were being told we would have to change our son's name.
I lay in bed for hours, second guessing all of the decisions over the last 3 months that lead up to us being stuck, asking myself, like the Talking Head's song, "how did I get here?"
Ahmed's parents noticed how down I was and took us out to some sand dunes to try to cheer me up. It helped. We met some camels out there and it's hard to be depressed when camels are sticking their faces into yours.
Jibreel was having a great time, completely oblivious to the problems centered on him and always the center of attention at his grandparent's house.
At this point we were afraid we'd also have to change his name in the United States as well because we didn't know how we could have a plane ticket in one name and two different passports with two different names.* It seemed like we were caught in a Kafka-esque nightmare and could not anticipate when it would end.
I tried to imagine what my father would say when I told him. I could hear him in my head saying "The health care is not free in Saudi Arabia if Jibreel has to pay for it with his name."
At this point we realized that some of our vacation plans would have to be changed. We had planned to go see Mada’in Salih, the Nabatean ruins near the city of Al Ula as well as visit Mecca to do the 'umrah pilgrimage and Medina. Mecca and Medina would have to be scrapped because Ahmed needed to spend what time we had trying to get us out of the country. We already had a flight and lodging reserved so fortunately we did get to visit for 2 days.
Mada’in Salih is a place I've wanted to visit since 2003 when I first visited Petra in Jordan, also built by the Nabateans. The architecture in both places is unforgettable; huge Roman-style tombs and buildings carefully carved into sandstone rocks. I never thought I'd be able to visit Mada’in Salih back in 2003 because Saudi Arabia did not allow single woman travelers to enter the kingdom unaccompanied.
I have made one framed original drawing from this magical place available for sale. Here is the drawing, click it to learn more:
Jibreel had a great time crawling around in the sand at Mada’in Salih. While we were there, Ahmed went to the local ministry of the interior to see if someone could intervene and solve our problem but was not able to find anyone who could help.
After our visit to Mada’in Salih was over, Ahmed spent every other day going to various ministries in various cities, al Khobar, Dammam, Dharan, and Qatif explaining the problems and trying to get help. Sometimes people were sympathetic but told him only a manager could help and the manager wasn't there. Others told him he had made things worse for himself by marrying without the permission of the government.
While he was gone, I stayed at his parents, tried to keep my business running remotely, took care of Jibreel, and tried not to succumb to depression. The things I do to stave it off normally weren't as available; walks in nature, running, and painting. There was nowhere nearby to go for a walk, I couldn't run in the neighborhood because "what would the neighbors think?," and it was difficult to carve out time to do any painting because there were many relatives we had to visit and Jibreel to take care of.
In the end, I was able to go running if we drove to the Corniche along Tarout Bay, on the Persian/Arabian Gulf, about 10 minutes away where there were no neighbors who might "think something". What that "something" that they might think was, I never found out.
Still, Ahmed was very concerned that someone would report me to the police, a fear left over from growing up when the Saudi religious police, or the Orwellian named Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, patrolled the streets and flogged women if anything but their hands and face were not covered. The religious police's presence and power were drastically reduced in 2016 on orders of Mohammed bin Salman. **
Every time we'd go to visit a new set of relatives, we'd sit in a room and Ahmed would relay the story of our situation. Inevitably, someone in the room would tell a story of someone else in the family had to change their baby's name as well. Apparently it is a common problem and many names that are banned that aren't even on the list I referred to above.
After about two weeks of talking to dozens of Saudi ministry bureaucrats, with help from his father and his brother, Ahmed eventually found someone who said he would try to help. This particular bureaucrat talked to his colleagues and discussed a loophole in the law which would allow us to register Jibreel as Jibreel and not one of the other names we had been reluctantly mulling over.
I found the time to complete an ink and watercolor painting. My mission in life is to help people realize that even though they have been through painful times or experiences, that they can turn those experiences into something beautiful. I tried to do that with this ink and watercolor painting which is available for sale. Click the image below for purchasing info.
By this time our return date was approaching and we still couldn't leave. We had to push our flight out an extra two weeks, not even knowing if things would go as we hoped. Every other day Ahmed called or went to some ministry to check on the progress. Jibreel got registered. The next week his passport was promised. I was still skeptical and nervous. Finally we received the passport and were allowed to go home.
People have asked me how was my trip and what do I think of Saudi Arabia. My answer is "it's complicated." There are a lot of beautiful places steeped in history and religious tradition and I think the strong family structures is something much of American society sadly lacks. Homelessness does not exist because people with mental illness are taken care of by their families and drugs and alcohol are outlawed. Throughout this whole process, many relatives tried to help us and if you ever get yourself into a predicament there, you know your family always has your back. That's not necessarily the case for a lot of people in the United States.
It's my hope that if some other family finds themselves in this unenviable position, they will discover that if you don't take no for an answer from these bureaucrats and keep asking and going to different ministries, that they may eventually find someone who will agree to register the child with his or her given name.
In the meantime, I'm looking forward to beginning some new oil paintings of landscapes in Saudi Arabia.
*As it turns out, you can travel on two different passports with two different names because when traveling internationally, the first time you show a passport is to a government official who stamps your passport with an exit stamp. The second time you show your passport is to the airline to board the plane; all the airline cares about is that the name on your ticket matches the name on your passport. They don't care if you exited the country on a different passport with a different name. So conceivably, we could have changed his name in Saudi Arabia so he could get a Saudi passport and use that to exit Saudi Arabia and then showed his American passport with his real name to the airline to board an airplane back home.
**Ahmed wasn't sure if a woman running in public would offend someone who might report us to the police but fortunately I was able to go running on the Corniche without incident. Those who take comfort in the fact that they can go running without fear of being reported to the police, might pause to consider that now, in the west, if you say something that offends someone else, they can go after your job and get your fired. One can debate which is worse.
So glad to hear you all got through it!
Thanks for sharing.
Are doing okay now?
Thank you for sharing your experience in the medieval kingdom, which is anything but “Islamic”. They certainly have a long way to go and my advice is if one is able to go on the Hajj (Pilgrimage), that one do so as soon as possible because I see black clouds ahead for the entire region. I’m glad you were able to visit and happy that you were able to keep your son’s name. Another thing is that western Saudi seems to be more open and lax when it comes to females exercising openly, especially in the port city of Jeddah and historically, that area has always been more moderate because it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, as opposed to Najd in the East, where the current ruling family hails from.
Thank you for sharing your story! I’m so glad it worked out in the end. Will you be going back in the next few years?
Well as crazy as that sounds, I am not surprised. Having lived in Saudi Arabia for over 25 years, I was not surprised. I did forget about those banned names though. Having relatives who are Saudi citizens we were always aware of the government approval system. I can try to explain the reason, but I am sure your husband has already explained to you some of the reasons. As Saudi Arabia is a very conservative country (or at least it has been for many years) the aim is to try to protect its citizens from going into marriage with a non-Saudi due to cultural differences specially family and customs. Marriage approval from government or religious authority in the Arab world is not unheard of. Even Christians do need approvals from the church for marriage in some parts of the world. In Lebanon interfaith marriages face difficulties as well, much easier in the US and other countries.
Going back to the matter at hand. Life is full of challenges and you grow more as you over come it (which you will), you will gain more experience and wisdom. The name on the travel document doesn’t change who he is, where he comes from and what he will become.
Much love and hugs.
Ash from Dubai :)
Girl, praise be that you all made it out safe and well. Thanks for sharing your story, I’ll be sure to share it as well. I felt like I was right there with you during this ordeal— researching, contacting my Saudi friends, being anxious and angry and frustrated. I even had a nightmare one of those nights! But hopefully your story will help others who may find themselves in a similar situation. We’ve survived our share of Orwellian ordeals— hopefully this was the last you will have to endure. All my love to Jibreel and Ahmed.
Lori: I left that part out because I thought it was tedious to explain and read but here’s the answer to your question. Jibreel entered on a Saudi travel document that Ahmed got from the Saudi embassy. The fact that the embassy issued him a travel document but initially refused to issue a passport in his name was one of the other infuriating aspects of this ordeal.
Very harrowing experience, Katie and Ahmed. I’m so relieved you returned safely!
I did not understand why Jibreel couldn’t go back to the US without a Saudi passport. Did you have to have a Saudi passport to leave, Katie?
Again, so glad it turned out, certainly not as you would have liked, but also not disastrous.
We I love the pictures!
What a story Katie!
“Never take no as an answer” is a good advice.
Thank you for sharing your experience with this challenging topic. Your stress and sadness is palpable. I’m glad you can return to your art now, with your family intact.
As a dual Canadian/American I can tell you that I was always told to show the passport of the country you are entering. Good luck with your travels!
Wow! Thanks for the detail. It makes the emotional stress of the incident very real. Also appreciated that there was balance in that you pointed out the importance and support of family – yes something that can but does not always occur here.
Wow. what a story. It’s good to have you three back.
The pictures and paintings in your blog are fun
to look through. i especially love of the one of Jibreel and his grandfather. I will read through what you have written once I can download it in larger print.
What a hair-raising experience! Thank you for sharing so we don’t have to keep asking and make you relive it again. Welcome back!