In 2008, I drove in an all male entourage in Rochester, Minnesota for a Saudi Arabian Princess. I call her My Princess because she was assigned to me . I was to be on call 24/7 to drive her anywhere she wanted to go. She travelled with her two assistants and several other family members and assistants. I became very comfortable with both of My Princess’ women assistants. Neither woman spoke much English. I do not speak much Arabic. I loved to listen to the three ladies speak, laugh, and listen to Arabic music in the vehicle I was assigned to drive
Thankfully, My Princess spoke English very well and we rarely had any communication problems.
While I waited to first meet My Princess I was nervous. When she came out of the elevator I was relieved. I looked into her eyes and saw kindness. I knew instantly that we would get along, if not become friends. I was happy to have the opportunity to do something extraordinary from my daily chores of being a cashier. I actually took time off of my regular job to be available to drive. I returned to my job after my driving assigment was finished.
I also helped with other services of errand running, and helping with shopping trips. I was tipped daily for my work, usually a $50.00 per day and was told “to buy a hamburger” from one of her assistants. We usually joked about it, because that was all we could seem to understand from each other. I always made sure My Princess’ assistant knew a hamburger could be purchased for as little as $1.00 . I think she laughed everytime I said “dollar menu.”
Hartoum was her name, at least that is how it was pronounced.
My Princess introduced us “This is Hartoum. She doesn’t try to speak English. I want her to learn. You speak English to her, OK ? She will call you when we are ready to go somewhere. She will learn. She must learn.”
My job was semi- dependent upon communicating with someone who did not speak the same language. I decided right then and there I needed to adopt a very humorous approach the situation or I wouldn’t last one day.
Hartoum and myself had numerous confusions about when, where, how, what, why, and who. We usually ended up laughing because one of us had it all wrong.
Many times I ended up saying ” Hartoum, just give the phone to Princess Nura. I don’t have time to figure this out. I am driving and I can’t talk while driving. It is not safe.”
We all made a grand trip to Mall of America. Hartoum called me and said “Where you? Princess gone. Trouble. Come now.”
“Where are you, Hartoum?” I said. “I am on the second floor of Macy’s. Stay where you are. I will find you. Tell me what you see around you. Purses? Perfume?”
She mumbled something and hung up on me. I had no idea which store or which floor they were on.
As I ran out of Macy’s the store clerk said to me “Are you ok? What’s the matter, ma’am?”
I frantically yelled “My Princess is missing!”
The Macy’s clerk looked at me and thought I had totally lost my marbles.
We all found one another and sat down for coffee and biscotti to regain our composure for another round of power shopping.
I have 6 weeks of stories from that driving experience. I take away very fond memories and would do it all again if ever given the opportunity. I was paid $100 per day for driving, plus tips, gifts, and meals. All of these things can’t add up to what I was “allowed” to experience. It was overall a very positive, educational and interesting experience.
I’ll never forget one conversation with Hartoum. It was all about chicken.
Hartoum asked me to drive her to Kentucky Fried Chicken when My Princess was not around.
“Please… you take me. KFC. Princess say no. It is bad (pointing to her face).” she said
I replied “Oh, yea, it is greasy. So what is the big deal? I don’t understand. Your face looks beautiful, your skin and hair look very nice. Don’t you have KFC in Saudi Arabia?”
“Yes” Hartoum said “We have. Not same. America is home of KFC!”
“I bet it tastes the same, Hartoum. I doubt you are missing out on anything.” I said trying to make her feel better.
She began to get tears in her eyes. I don’t know if they were tears of joy, frustration, or a combination of many things. She said “I marry when we get home. I no ugly face when marry. Princess buy for me medication for (points to face) . I want KFC. I can’t have. It make my face ugly.”
She was a beautifully young woman with a great sense of style and politeness. She worked hard and we helped each other as much as possible to keep the day running as smoothly as possible. We did a pretty good job and experienced no major malfunctions during our six weeks together.
I sat at the dinner table most nights with the women assistants. There was not much talk. One assistant was pregnant and was sitting by the fire . She kept taking off her shawl and wiping her brow. The next day she gave birth to a baby boy. I brought hot chocolate to My Princess at the hospital. She showed me photos of her family. The baby boy was named Khaled. My Princess told me that Khaled was the name of her husband and showed me his photo. He was handsome.
During dinner at the Olive Garden I was able to sit with the entire family. Princess Sita, Princess Nouf, Prince Fahd and his wife,Princess Noura and the assistants. They were all very polite to me and smiled at me when I passed. Princess Sita gave me a gold guinea coin which I had made into a necklace. I wish I still had it, but I was forced later to pawn it to pay my rent.
I was not aware of the fact that women were not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia until about two weeks into the driving detail. My Princess told me during dinner “Women are not allowed to drive in my country.”
I was shocked. I looked around the table. We were all women. They all looked at me to see my face and my reaction. I said ” Well, I’m a pretty good driver, right, Princess? Except for that time I backed up over the curb.”
Some of the women around the table laughed. My Princess said ” Yes. You are a good driver, Gretchen.”
I replied “Well, except for that time I ran over the curb.”
The ladies at he table laughed.
She ended the conversation by saying “Even if I were allowed to drive in my country, I wouldn’t want to.”
I didn’t know what to say. I knew I was the only woman driver in the entourage from day one, but I never thought twice about it until I knew women were banned from driving in Saudi Arabia. After that, I began to question why I was chosen or allowed to drive, but nobody had answers for me. I still do not have all the answers today, only more questions.
The day the whole family left was a very busy day. It was also very emotional for me.
I really wanted to get on the gigantic Saudi jet with My Princess. I even asked her once to put me in her suit case and take me with her. She said “No. You would not like it. You wouldn’t be happy. You go back to your work and take care of your baby. I will send you money for the baby and I want to see pictures when she is born.”
We hugged and she handed me an envelope. I didn’t look inside until I got home.
I cried at the airport when we all had to say goodbye. I looked forward to the day when My Princess and her family would return. They were all very kind to me, at least to my face. One assistant gave me her dress because I commented how much I liked it. I found it in a package delivered especially for me. I felt like I had grown this large family within six weeks and then they were all gone only to remain in memory.
There was $2000 cash in the envelope. I had worked hard for the money. I had been reliable, helpful, kind, prompt, and hospitable. I represented myself, hometown and my country to the best of my abilities. I was proud of myself for doing an excellent job under wintery road conditions and shopping eight to ten hours a day while four months pregnant.
I did it!
I often wonder about each of the assistants. They each had their own stories of traveling. Some enjoyed it very much, others were not so happy. Some complained and others smiled.
I wonder if Hartoum ever got married. Did she have any children? Did she ever learn English? Did she ever get to eat at KFC in the USA? Did she ever go home to Nigeria? Is she happy? Is she safe?
Will My Princess ever return? Will I ever be ‘allowed’ to drive her again? Does she know how much the opportunity to drive for her changed my life? Does she understand what I am facing as I stand for my civil rights and the rights of others?
I wonder if My Princess or her assistants ever think about me?
I like to think they are sitting around a dinner table somewhere in Paris or Geneva saying ” I wonder what happened to the woman driver from the USA who wore the white hat and ran over curbs?”
Perhaps they are talking about what happened to me in 2010 when I was terminated from my employment as a driver because I am a female. I hope they are talking. I hope they are willing to speak up for the rights of all.
Two weeks ago I was honored and privilaged to meet Manal Al Sharif.
She is the woman who video taped herself driving in Saudi Arabia and brought viral attention. Meeting Manal inspired me even more to continue telling my true story about driving and/ or NOT driving the Saudis. Manal told me my daughter’s picture is very well known through out Saudi Arabia. My daughters are the driving force !
Please share this post, reblog it, tweet it, facebook it, talk about it if you want to help me make a positive impact for future generations!
I would love to document my journey through gender discrimination in a book titled “Let My Mommy Drive”
Please help me make this a reality as I am struggling to just get by right now.
Manal’s viral video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sowNSH_W2r0
http://www.startribune.com/local/170856591.html?refer=y Article about our case
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Here is a copy of our official complaint.