first person

When in Riyadh

My childhood move to Saudi Arabia left me furious and isolated. Then I found boxing.

Photo-Illustration: by Preeti Kinha; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by Preeti Kinha; Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by Preeti Kinha; Photos: Getty Images

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I don’t recommend biking around a Saudi Arabian neighborhood in a burka. There’s a good chance the fabric will snag in the spokes, first of all. You risk getting yanked off your bike; risk injury, embarrassment. Sometimes your burka, or your abaya, will billow and lift, revealing haram clothes underneath: another thing you do not want. That’s when the situation can really escalate. The morality police might intervene, shout at your exposed bits while they poke you with a long stick.

I don’t have any beef with the burka, with covering in general. To each her own. But at age 12, the age I was when I tried to bike the block in an abaya, I didn’t want to be dressed this way. I didn’t have a choice. I’d recently moved to Saudi Arabia, and you know how they say: “when in Rome.” Well: when in Riyadh, too. When in Riyadh, especially.

The year I turned 12, my parents decided to move us to Saudi Arabia. They were nothing but positive when they broke the news. Unlike the frozen Canadian tundra where we lived, Saudi Arabia offered a temperate climate and exciting desert habitat featuring unlimited amounts of sand. There was Mecca, camels, too, and I was familiar with Princess Jasmine, who seemed like she could be a local (she’s not). But my parents didn’t mention more crucial facts about Saudi Arabia: the burkas, for instance, or that women aren’t allowed to drive, or the fact that a woman caught doing “witchcraft” would be publicly beheaded in the town square, to serve as a lesson to others.

The year Muhammad Ali was 12, his parents bought him a red-and-white Schwinn bicycle for Christmas. He went by Cassius Clay in those days, and lived in Louisville, Kentucky. He rode his new bike down to a festival being held at the Columbia Auditorium because he knew about the free samples they were giving out: candy, holiday popcorn. While at the festival, his bike was stolen, and when he asked around for the police, someone directed him to an officer by the name of Joe Martin.

Ali tracked Martin down to a gym where the policeman spent his spare time teaching the young boys of Louisville how to box. “I told Mr. Martin that I was gonna whup whoever stole my bike,” Ali wrote, in his memoir The Soul of a Butterfly. “I was half crying and probably didn’t look too convincing. I remember Mr. Martin telling me, ‘Well, you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people that you’re gonna whup’.”

Ali joined the gym. He began training, really dedicated himself. By his own account, he was the first one in, the last one to leave, six days a week. Boxing, he wrote, kept him clean, away from alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, the streets. It gave him purpose, and a hope for something more.

In our Calgary suburb, I could be seen energetically riding my ten-speed nearly every day, weather permitting. Winters were spent in the basement, which I used for soccer practice. I’d run my sweaty drills down there, hours at a time, shots rocketing off wood-paneled walls.

In Riyadh, soccer was no longer available to me. My second-floor bedroom window overlooked, cruelly enough, a playground. I’d press my nose against the glass, stare down at the boys as they kicked up dust, a ball at their feet. A few times I tried to join them, but my abaya just got in the way, made me overheat, wrapped itself around my crane legs, slowed me down. After a while, I just stopped trying, hung up my cleats for good. My bike was abandoned too, tethered to a pole outside our apartment building, where it accumulated rust.

One day, not long after the move, I locked myself in our bathroom and cut off my long, black hair, buzzing my scalp Britney Spears-clean. I don’t really know why I did this. I don’t know if I was protesting the move or if I was hoping to pass as a boy, or both.

I started going down to the playground again, started getting into fist fights, picking fights, with those boys. The fights never ended well for me. I was outmuscled, outmaneuvered every time. I always went back for more. I’d shoot off my mouth, square my jaw at those stupid boys, entitled where I had been denied, their freedoms elevated at the exclusion of mine. I wanted to take all these feelings I had in my body, and push them out, see where they could land. I wanted to injure those boys. I wanted them to pay.
Maybe my parents knew I was spending my free time getting beaten up by adolescent boys on the playground, but maybe they didn’t. I offered them nothing, shuffling in and out of my room, sullen, mute, miserable. A few months after my Britney moment, Dad came home with a grocery bag full of VHS cassette tapes. He patted the spot on the couch next to him, and told me to pay close attention. I remember how the type flashed across the bottom of the screen — Kinshasa, Zaire: Heavyweight Title Fight. 30 October, 1974. I remember the chanting, the fevered crowd. I remember the shine of Muhammad Ali’s white satin shorts, the punishment of his right hook; I remember the precision, the footwork, the speed, the fire. It was exhilarating, watching him. It produced a kind of high.

I had a new routine now. Each day after school, I would rush home, slide a tape in, sit too close to the screen. I studied Ali, the way he didn’t flinch, how he aimed with such tidy, surgical precision, each punch ripping the air: sharp, hard, on purpose. He worked muscle and blood. He never gave up, and rarely lost. He teased his way across the ring, nimble, always on the lip of danger.

One day, I dug up an old pair of puffy mittens, from Canada, slipped them on, punched the air until my hands grew hot. When Mom sewed me a pair of boxing gloves on her rickety old Singer, I began using them instead, shadowboxing in my teenybopper room, knocking around my bed, with its pink floral sham, lost in a fog of imagined daring. I jabbed at phantom bullies, at my own reflection in the full-length mirror, perimetered with magazine cutouts of Mariah Carey and Paula Abdul. Here the outside receded, replaced by a world of my conjuring: a world of athleticism and achievement where I fantasized I was the GREATEST OF ALL TIME!

Soccer, cycling, being physical outdoors in the way I wanted to be physical didn’t feel like options to me. Here, it was boxing. It was me, alone in my room, throwing punches at nothing; a chosen response to all this imposition, a way for me to undo my frustration, to quell my sorrow. My face would flush, my shoulders ache, and I would find great satisfaction in this. Certain things are best understood in motion, it seems. The body’s the first to realize its strength and autonomy before the rest of you catches up, before the rest of you begins to see: Whatever was strung around your neck won’t be the thing to announce your value, a black cloak will never contain you.

It was alone, in my room, spent, proud, muscles fatigued, my restlessness abating, that I felt steady and content once again. It was in this way I began to believe: I was still the one in charge of my life, no one else. I began to believe I would survive this place.

After Muhammad Ali medaled at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, the New York Times ran a six-column headline, sub-headed: “Cassius Clay, an 18-year-old Louisville light heavyweight, gave the United States its third gold medal in boxing.” Back in Kentucky, Ali, celebratory, hopped on his bike with his buddy, Ronnie, and motored into downtown Louisville. When it started to rain, they parked and ducked into a little restaurant. Ali had his medal around his neck, hadn’t taken it off since Rome. He slept with it, even though it was uncomfortable, dug into his flesh, woke him up some nights. At the restaurant, when Ali and Ronnie sat down, ordered two cheeseburgers and a pair of vanilla milkshakes, the waitress just stared at them. We don’t serve Negroes, she said.

“Well, we don’t eat them either,” Ali joked.

Ronnie pointed to the medal. A manager was summoned. It didn’t matter. There would be no service.

Heart racing, Ali rose, walked out of the restaurant. Winning in Rome was an incredible achievement, a moment when he felt pride, nationalism swelling within. But “what I remember most about 1960,” he would later write, “was the first time I took my gold medal off.” It was after the restaurant. “From that moment on,” he said, “I have never placed great value on material things. What really matters is how you feel about yourself.”

As his career advanced, when people asked Ali about the Olympic medal, he would tell them he lost it. What he didn’t say was: He had lost it on purpose. “The world should know the truth,” he wrote in his memoir. “It’s somewhere at the bottom of the Ohio River.”

By senior year of high school, I’d grown accustomed to life in Saudi Arabia, made adjustments in attitude. I stopped fighting, in principle, in person. I grew out my angry hair, fell in love for the first time.

The Singer gloves gathered dust, deflating in the depths of my closet. Mariah and Paula were swapped out for Jared Leto. I taped Jared to my mirror where he stared at me, wearing a jean jacket and a dreamy expression, looking like he could be my boyfriend.

At my desk, I took practice SATs, made flashcards. Once, Dad came into my room, picked up a spiral notebook, the surface of which I’d covered with a boy’s name, written in every possible size and slope and shade. “Who’s Majed?” he said sadly, but didn’t wait for an answer. He didn’t really want to know, I guess. Sometimes, it’s better for dads not to.

The last birthday I spent with my parents in the Kingdom, they took me out for a fancy French dinner at the Hotel Intercontinental Riyadh, the same hotel Muhammad Ali happened to be staying in that night.

It was my dad who saw him first: white tracksuit, commanding in an armchair, his presence serene, exalted. Dad wanted me to say something. “Go on,” he said, “Go meet him.” So I crossed the lobby, shaky. The Greatest of All Time.

There were others, all men, all adults, but when I approached, Ali looked at me. Advanced Parkinson’s by then. I held his gaze, told him, as best I could, how much he meant to me. I told him about the tapes, how his fights made me love the sport. I didn’t tell him watching him, day after day, had sparked something both primal and noble in me. I didn’t tell him he had helped me imagine a different kind of story for myself, one where I could be the victor. I didn’t ask about his red-and-white Schwinn. In his memoir, Ali doesn’t say whether he ever got the bike back, but maybe it doesn’t matter so much. Maybe whatever was lost that day isn’t as important as what was gained. Maybe the bike was just the vehicle that got him where he needed to be.

Sometimes in childhood, you arrive at a moment of denial. You’re denied the ball, the bike; service at a restaurant. Being denied with such authority you hesitate, feel timid. You doubt. You don’t doubt them, you doubt yourself. You’re 12, you’re a girl, you’re not from here. Doubt is such a tedious emotion. If you let it, doubt will consume you until there you are, punching at nothing with your mittens on. There you are, punching another person with discipline, trying to prove a point. But you can’t prove your point. Not really. I wish someone had told me: It’s a waste of time. They can’t hear you. I wish I realized doubt is always and only ever a moment, and you get to decide how long the moment lasts.

What I remember most about that night in the lobby were Muhammad Ali’s hands. Hands that had KO’d Sonny Liston, George Foreman; hands that rumbled in the jungle, curled and tightened into a Black Power fist, hoisted high and proud for the world to see, now quivered with disease. As I spoke, Ali gathered my hands in his own, cupped them, held them. A pen was produced and he accepted it. His fingers trembled, determined as he willed them to produce one letter then the next, each one nested against another: the chosen name he fought by, the enduring name through which he carried out the principal work of his life. I stood still and watched him create the name, painstaking, pressing against the page, the letters sloping up and up: sprawling, large, neither willing nor able to be contained.

When I Moved to Saudi Arabia as a Kid, Boxing Saved Me