08.14.12 Truth & Wisdom

From Hollywood to Saudi Arabia: The Trail to Self-Love

From Hollywood to Saudi Arabia: The Trail to Self-Love

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 seven 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 the best compound 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 can take 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 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.

Tradition and caution 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 police will arrest me for flashing my neck, let alone my breast.

For the first time ever I got a glimpse of how regional culture, and probably any fundamentalist society, 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, system 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 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 and 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 @rana_alamuddin, Instagram @rana_alamuddin or you can check out her blog.


  • TiffanyBadal

    I have had to move to various cities (albeit in the US) for my husband’s job. Currently we live in a city I cannot connect to. I really connected with this piece although I have never been to Saudi Arabia or ever will find myself there, the message that being brought out your comfort zone can lead to inner exploration is universal. Excellent job.

    • Burkawoman

      Dear Tiffany, thanks so much for your input and for confirming that you do not need to travel to the opposite end of the planet to feel disconnected or out of your comfort zone. Alienation, self-loss, transformation and reinvention of the self can all happen close to home and especially within. It truly is an inner journey and no one can trek it for us. Only we can.

    • Burkawoman

      By the way, how has life in this new city been for you since last year?

  • CJefferson

    You know, this is something I’ve never been forced to take stock of, which made your post all the more fascinating. Thank you for sharing your experiences so vividly. Btw, I love the accompanying picture:)

    • Burkawoman

      Thanks so much for your openness in reading about a topic which you aren’t primarily concerned with. It’s a testament to your curiosity about life and others… I’m glad you love the picture! It’s Burkawoman, a character I am developing which will become a feature film action hero!

  • Maya Di Machki

    insightful and empowering! thanks for sharing!

    • Burkawoman

      Thank you Maya. I feel we women should be more proactive at supporting and empowering one another without rivalry. I strive to do that and still have a long road to master this precious gift…

  • I guess it is all in your upbringing don’t ya think? Is modesty such a bad thing? I do not promote the oppression that they surely must be subjected to but I find nothing wrong with a culture that encourages modesty. Did you eve rthink that maybe we are the idiots? Just saying? Check yourself. I do not want to run around naked surrounded by over sexed american males/pervs. To each his own! (And…no, I am not fat…great body>)

    • Burkawoman

      Hi Naia, thanks for your feedback. I agree that modesty, class and dignity are absolute virtues and make up some of the attributes of a civilized people. That being said, I mainly believe in freedom to self-expression for all individuals. So any value a person embodies should be a choice. If you are forced into a belief or behavior, than you are not allowed to think for yourself and act as a free agent. God-the universe-nature, whichever term you prefer, designed us to be free and to be responsible for our freedom. With freedom of course comes accountability but it is oppression and the crushing of individuality, hopes and dreams which I am fiercely against. Regarding our upbringing, my parents were open-minded educated individuals but also conservative when I was growing up and I come from a very conservative ethnic/religious community in Lebanon. But I still turned out very liberal and free. So I do believe, your own personality and soul have a great role at who you end up becoming, As for running around naked surrounded by oversexed pervs, I don’t think any woman would want that! I sure don’t. However a little skinny dipping rocks in my opinion! I’m glad to hear you admit you have a great body too. More women should celebrate what they’ve got!

  • sarah

    I found this piece really thought-provoking. And whilst I agree that sometimes situations call you to do the inner work, that having a strong sense of self shouldn’t be dependent on your environment/external world, we also need to remember how vital our environment can be to our wellbeing. Imagine if you were a surfer who for some reason had to be land-locked? Or if you love experimenting with fashion and have to live in a place where everyone has to dress the same? We can all ‘put up with’ a lot, and stay strong in environments that don’t align with what we love, but I think part of self-love is about honouring what we really need (whether that’s access to the sea, the ability to dress how we want etc).
    Perhaps through living in Saudi Arabia the things that don’t feel good to your soul will light a path towards what you really value and need, and that kind of clarity is priceless 🙂

    • Burkawoman

      Dear Sarah, thanks so much for your insight and clarity. It’s like you read my mind! Yes, we might take for granted or not take seriously the small pleasures and joys that truly light us up inside. It’s easy to dismiss them as frivolous or capricious. But the truth is, they really are vital. If we truly need to be around the sea, as you mentioned, we might need to honor that and make it happen. I battle with this every day: is my challenging lifestyle in Saudi guiding me towards more authenticity and a clearer reinvention of myself or am I torturing, punishing myself, or most importantly, am I sabotaging my inner truth and potential? And you are absolutely right that seeing what you don’t want, being faced with what you don’t want to become, forces you to dig deep inside to discover what you really value and need to be happy, what lifestyle you crave and who you want to become to fully self-actualize. The question is: do we ever feel fully self-actualized? I don’t think so. I think it’s a never-ending process, and feeling lost, confused and desperate every now and then may also be part of self-actualizing, don’t you think?

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