Between the end of the second bottle and Jack Daniels at Cyclone – where we ended up at wee hours in the morning – we would usually embark on conversations that took us from Romania and Turkey, to conquering the world. On the days that Ramsey was around, two of us would contemplate our retirement. Retiring to the beautiful island paradise that is Sri Lanka, and retiring to a lovely little beach resort somewhere on the beautiful coast along Unawatuna. An aspiring chef, pursuing his lifelong ambition and yours truly living on the beach for the love of the sea. Where did the wives and the kids fit in this grand scheme was not a concern – once you are well marinated in full-bodied grape juice from South America, life was a lot less complicated.
Time at the Agency was our moment of freedom. Our imagination took flights of fancy, we were free as birds, humming and brimming with ideas.
We were free. There were no balls-and-chains to tie us down. We’ve found our freedom and we were plotting and planning the impending, very long “island vacation.” We were dreaming of the beach-side joint where we sat and boasted about our globe-trotting days and how we managed to retire before grey-hair, to the most unsuspecting Turkish brunettes on holiday. Yes, we were planning to tap the Turkish market for local tourism.
Then, one day, just before we got the ball rolling, there was a huge Christmas wave that swept across the Indian Ocean, right from the island of Java to Madagascar. It was much bigger than our dream, and it washed away our plan, along with a few thousands of people who stood between.
The Asian Tsunami shattered our dream, and it added more pain to my already ruined married life. I moved back home to Sri Lanka, my paradise isle, soon afterwards.
I felt free, at last. I felt free, physically and mentally. The divorce contributed to the latter, and the former came with the territory.
I found freedom. I found independence. I was free from the stress and the hassles of life.
But then, what is freedom?
Is it liberty? Is it independence? Is it being “free-of” troubles and burdens? Is it just a wonderful philosophy that fails to manifest to our own satisfaction?
Whichever it is, freedom is relative, and it’s a topic that can go on forever.
In Saudi Arabia, the outsiders like us think the women are deprived of their freedom. In an already “closed” society, the women have no right even to step out of the door without the consent of the “one in charge” of the household. Even then, she would be in a ninja-suit, with a chaperone by her side who monitors every move she makes. Most Saudi men and the handful of Saudi women I know tend to find no fault with this system – even though some of them are educated in the West and are “exposed” to the other cultures and their ways of life.
Ignorance is bliss, they say.
While discovering this unique land, we were often welcomed and entertained by quite a few very hospitable Saudi nationals. Squatting in their meeting halls (majlis) we chatted at length on various topics and we discovered that their perception of freedom is very different from ours. Not surprisingly.
Once, we met a certain gentleman who likes to believe that he is a modern Saudi. He is someone who spends his summer holidays in Sharm Al Sheikh in Egypt or in Beirut, Lebanon.
We asked him if his wife also gets to take a summer break too.
“Insha allah, for sure...” he says with a big grin on his face.
“Great. You two must be enjoying your trips to Egypt and Lebanon..?”
“No way..!” he says.
We look at each other’s puzzled faces for a brief moment.
“So she doesn’t travel with you then?”
“That’s haram.” (= taboo) says our host with a definitive voice. Exposing their women to the evils of society such as night-clubs, music, women in bikinis is naturally “unsuitable” for their culture.
“Ok, so where does she go for her summer holiday?”
“Oh, I send her to her uncle in Riyadh”
The man spends his summer-break in Beirut (where the population boasts of eight females per every single male) and the woman is sent to her uncle, few miles down the road.
We promptly change the topic.
“I mean, unlike other traditional Saudi gentlemen, you seem to be a quite liberal” my friend says.
“Yep...” nods our host.
(We can talk to the guy about his wife – which is surprising. And we are impressed.)
“So your wife is more independent than the other women then?”
“Oh yes, she has all the freedom in the world...” he says.
“All the freedom in the world?” Vivid images of “free” Saudi women without their chaperones flash before my eyes for a nano second.
“She has all the freedom in the world... to do whatever I ask her to do..!”
comes the answer, and I hear triumphant drum-rolls in my head.
Like I said, freedom is very, very relative.
Image: “Liberty Leading the People” – Delacroix, Eugène Ferdinand Victor (1798–1863)