Letter from Saudi Arabia: ‘The Irish here are all in the same boat’

It hurt not to come home for Christmas. But the skies opened again, and hope is renewed

Hilary McCormack: in an effort to keep our spirit of adventure, my friends and I took to exploring the kingdom

Hilary McCormack: in an effort to keep our spirit of adventure, my friends and I took to exploring the kingdom

 

Hilary McCormack is from Mullingar, Co Westmeath. She lives in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, where she is an executive assistant at King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center

Yeah, it’s the new year! Twenty twenty-one arrived with a whimper, bringing with it a nervousness that none of us could ever have envisioned. But we are all grateful nonetheless, and praying that better times are not far behind.

Here in Saudi Arabia the weather has turned chilly. It can get down to 10 or 12 degrees in the evenings now. So the jumpers I normally keep for my trips home are out, and I will wear one most evenings until March.

I was on the brink of a visit home in March last year when international travel to Saudi Arabia came to an abrupt halt, thanks to Covid-19. At the time I thought, For the sake of a month or two, how hard can this be? How naive could I be? Little did any of us realise we would need to hunker down for a hot summer staycation here in Riyadh, as our lives turned into a combination of Groundhog Day and a surreal science-fiction movie.

As coronavirus spread globally, the borders here closed almost immediately. And from that point on, until about November last year, only repatriation flights were available

I have been happily living and working in Riyadh for more than three years. Ordinarily, I travel back and forth to Ireland whenever the notion takes me, or simply when I need a fix of family and friends. So once coronavirus restrictions set in, the Irish here did all we could to remain positive, as we are all in the same boat one way or another.

In an effort to keep our spirit of adventure, my friends and I took to exploring Saudi Arabia. In return, Saudi offered up some hidden and charming destinations. Places with names such as Yellow Lake, naturally wild and romantic places such as the Al Souda and Al Qarah mountains, remote places such as the Al Habala tourist village, which sits in a striking natural valley, and the bustling cities of Al Ahsa and Abha.

The kingdom has reported that about 1 per cent of the population has been infected with Covid-19 in the past 11 months. It has previous experience with a coronavirus – Sars, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which first emerged in Asia in 2003 – so it acted swiftly this time around, taking no chances. I think everyone here views that as a very good move. As the new coronavirus spread globally, the borders here closed almost immediately. And from that point on, until about November last year, only repatriation flights were available.

The Saudi authorities even cancelled hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that millions of Muslims make each year to pray and give thanks for their good fortune. It had not been cancelled since the founding of the kingdom, in 1932.

As the year rolled on, every other major religious event around the globe seemed to be scaled back, moved online, held in private or, in the worst-case scenario, like hajj, called off. Whole communities were advised to keep their distance from family and friends. Easter, Eid ul-Fitr, Yom Kippur, Holi, Thanksgiving, and Hanukkah all suffered. Perhaps the higher powers we believe in have conspired to teach us all a lesson.

On Christmas Day, as everyone at home was basting the turkey and perfecting the roast spuds, I was bothering them with Zoom calls. We did our best to mimic the jolly, cheerful, cork-popping gatherings we are used to

Late last year Ireland’s Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, said, “Don’t come home for Christmas.” For me, as a perpetual traveller, Christmas at home is sacrosanct. So it really hurt the diaspora to hear it, but he appears to have made a good call. Even my sensible father said, “For the love of God, Leo is right: don’t be travelling home. Sure no one can.”

So Christmas 2020 moved to Zoom. That did take the fizz out of it a bit. (I succumbed to Zoom fatigue back in October.) So on Christmas Day, as everyone at home was basting the turkey and perfecting the roast spuds, I was bothering them with video calls. It seems they could see me or hear me, but rarely both at once. We did eventually connect, however, and did our best to mimic the jolly, cheerful, cork-popping gatherings we are used to.

What next? I have been almost afraid to think about 2021, because of what it could have in store for us. Saudi has already begun its largest ever vaccination operation: the kingdom is offering the jab free to every resident. The uptake has been very good, and many friends and colleagues have already had their first shot.

The authorities are still keeping a watchful eye out; most people have followed the guidelines of mask wearing, social distancing and limited gatherings. Just before Christmas, Saudi once again closed its borders, this time for a week, to try to stop the new strain from reaching it. So travel plans once again took a nosedive for many, but the skies opened again, and hope is renewed.

If the world’s best minds can’t find a way to bring an end to the pandemic soon, we may just have to perfect the art of living in bubbles and Zooming. So in 2021, after such a tough year, my wishes for you are be extra kind to yourself and those around you. I hope to be home by March, but don’t hold me to it, just in case.

This column is dedicated to my wonderful Aunty Breda, who passed away on the last day of 2020 from Covid complications

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about yourself and what you do

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