By Raya Meddine
We know the expression "never say never" all too well but take it for granted.
I've been traveling since the age of 7 months, lived in nine different countries and speak five languages. My thirst for exploring new worlds is unquenchable.
But I have said in the past, "I will never travel to Saudi Arabia." Why would I want to support a country in which women are forbidden to drive, vote and cannot leave their home without wrapping themselves in black fabric from head to toe? Why would I, a woman who has never felt more alive than on the nudist beaches of Croatia, live in a land where women's faces are blurred on billboards and pictures of little girls in bathing suits are scratched in black marker on toy boxes?
Why would an actress and writer enjoying her career in Hollywood trade the red carpet for a burka?
Flash-forward. My husband is offered a job opportunity that is professionally, creatively and financially exciting. Out of all places, the job is in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Also, I lied. I was no longer enjoying my career in Hollywood and craved an unexpected life adventure.
I knew the shift would be challenging, that I'd have to shed my old skin to make a new one, let go of the old to make space for the new. I had all the New Age jargon and mind-set down. I was, after all, a spiritual woman and Los Angeles had given me all the doses of Kundalini yoga, meditation, Agape services, colonics and Chinese herb detoxes a woman could need. I was ready for a transformation.
After much thought we decide to embark on the journey with our then 6 months year old daughter. Malibu move over, we'll be sand surfing in Dhahran.
We moved into one of the best compounds in the country. 11,000 people from a hundred different nationalities. A city within a city where women can drive, jog in shorts and wear a bathing suit. There are pools, golf courses, tennis fields and a DVD store carrying uncensored movies in which foreplay does lead into lovemaking, a cigarette and breakfast instead of cutting straight to the son's college graduation. A bubble indeed but it seemed like a pleasant one to be in with my little family.
Not so fast. After a while, reality started to sink in. I don't like anyone here. I can't drive outside the compound. I'm at the mercy of my husband or a driver to take me anywhere and finding a taxi takes hours. It's 120 degrees outside. I'm stuck at home in the air-conditioning. I live on the Truman Show. And even when I do get out, there is literally nowhere to go besides the mall, Starbucks and McDonalds. Restaurants are segregated into "family" and "bachelor" sections so that unrelated men and women cannot mingle. No wonder you end up being aroused by an accidentally flashed armpit.
Religion and fear are so steeped into the collective zeitgeist, that every move is drenched in paranoia and self-censorship. If showing my hair in public is considered offensive, can you imagine what it is like to breastfeed my baby in the mall? Sheer terror. I'm always scared the religious police will arrest me for flashing my neck, let alone my breast.
For the first time ever I got a glimpse of how local culture, and probably any fundamentalist religion, perceives the female body: as sinful, shameful and degrading. I was saddened down to my very essence not just as a woman, but mostly as a human being.
Everything became a challenge: meditating, finding inspiration, feeling joy as I woke up. I missed being a free, creative woman with places to go to and fabulous friends to meet for brunch.
It got so bad at one point that I started to Google things like "I don't know who I am", "Symptoms of bipolar disorder" and going on suicide blogs in which people share their dark despair and past attempts.
Then I realized if there's no one out there to mirror me, does that mean I loose who I am? Shouldn't my identity be so rooted that no matter where I am, how disconnected I am from what resembles me, that I should not waver in my joy and endeavors?
When stripped from all exterior motivation to belong and impress, when disconnected from any outside like-mindedness, are we destined to wither away or is that precisely the time to honor who we truly are?
It suddenly dawned on me that all this oppression and annihilation bore a gift for me: the gift of self-liberation.
Don't we all oppress, sabotage, censor and scare ourselves daily in some shape or form? Are we truly waiting for any one person, regime or job to do it for us? We do it to ourselves every day whether it's by believing we are not enough or by being afraid to live our true potential and dreams.
So I choose today to accept this gift and to see this kingdom as a land of blessings and opportunities, for the challenges it offers me are a mirror of what I choose to never inflict on myself again.
Living in Saudi Arabia has pushed me to look inward because there's literally nowhere else to go. I guess the desert has much to teach us, namely what it means to be a nomad. Nomads travel the desert to flee drought, sand storms and other natural threats. But the real lesson here seems to be how to become an "inner nomad". Not navigating outside factors but rather traveling within ourselves, discovering our internal landscape, understanding it, caring for it without running away from it or judging it as a drought, sandstorm or other threat.
It cannot be a coincidence that upon moving to Saudi, we found ourselves living on a charming little street called "Nomad Trail". It seems inner travel is my destiny at this time in my life. It's drafting me into surrender, acceptance and finally, I hope, into unconditional self-love. I shall oblige.
Raya Meddine, aka Rana Alamuddin, is a Lebanese-American actress, writer and TV host who works between Los Angeles, Paris and the Middle East. Among her latest projects, a part in the film Sex & the City 2, a series regular role on the TV drama The Young and the Restless as well as guest starring roles on CSI: Miami, Rizzoli & Isles and Touch. Raya Meddine is ambassador for the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles, helping bridge gaps between the US and the Middle East through the arts and entertainment industry. Her alter ego is Burkawoman. You can follow her on Twitter @burkawoman1 or you can check out her Burkawoman blog—"for every woman who wants to shed her burka and reveal the super hero within." This op-ed first appeared on Amanda de Cadenet's The Conversation and appears here by arrangement with the author.