From Riyadh to Racecars.

This is for you, Jill.

Once upon a time, there was an energetic, little, Pakistani girl who loved cars.

Four years old, she just adooooooored the throaty roar of her Abbooji’s powder blue, air-cooled, rear-engined Volkswagen 411. Remembers him cursing every time he worked on it. After that car was sold, there was the navy blue, chrome tipped family Volkswagen Type 3 Squareback…the original “station wagon”.  Because of its sound, she lovingly named it “The VolksDragon.”  On those long botanical field trips to mountains where Abboo would collect plant specimens, she lounged in the spacious trunk chewing Zebra stripe gum or Chiclets and reading Archie comics. Who could blame her for doting on the adorable white VW Bugs? Her mother’s cousin’s wife’s white Herbie the Love Bug look-alike, and the coveted the glossy black VeeDub Bug belonging to her brother-in-law. Not to mention…ALL the taxi-cabs in Lebanon, where she lived, were Mercedes E Class sedans. Giant Teutonic behemoths growling, with intrusively loud honking horns and the delicious interior scent of tanned thick leather upholstery…simply irresistible.

Would you believe me if I said she’d awaken before dawn to watch the daily garbage truck put on his mesmerizing show? That she hung around her older brother and his friends at the workshop where they wrenched on motorcycles and vintage cars? That she and her little brother played “race-cars” on their skateboards?  Or set up elaborate Matchbox Cars racing tracks?

All through elementary school she drew sketches of a woman, wearing a helmet, driving a race car. Most often the helmet was pink, the car was a convertible, and the woman’s long  black hair flew out from under helmet at the nape of her neck.

When she grew old enough to realize she was a “car-guy”, her family moved to the Royal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where, for women, driving was illegal. At first, she didn’t care and continued to obsessively watch the Dukes of Hazzard, all the Smokey and The Bandit movies, and Knight Rider…continued nursing the dream.

Unbeknownst to anyone, when her daddy drove the family in the 1982 Chevy Impala or, even better, the “Gymsee” (nickname for the handsome red 1983 GMC Suburban –truly one of the most delightful vehicles known to man, and her primary object of desire) she made it a point to sit behind her Abbooji, so she could see the road from the driver’s perspective. Secretly, carefully, she watched what he did.

 

On night drives, safely shadowed from the streetlights, she’d sit behind Abboo, pretending she could drive. In cars with automatic transmissions, listening carefully to the RPMs and at the right transition times she’d mimic the motions that were needed to create a manual gear shift. Clutch included.

Once time Abbooji peeked over his shoulder and said: “What are you doing Betta? Are you pretending to drive the car?” He chortled delightedly at this unexpected find! Mortified, she bit her lip hard, unbuckled her seatbelt, and soundlessly slipped to the floor behind his seat, trying to disappear. Her face burned hot as she buried into the Chevy’s scratchy, but clean, red synthetic rug.

Growing into a teenager, she left home for a Catholic all-girls boarding school in London, England. Still, there was no way for her to drive; although women drivers certainly weren’t banned, the legal driving age was eighteen and there was no car for her to learn on. 

WHEN oh when oh when oh when would she ever ever EVER get to drive???

Then……at last……the summer before she began medical school, just before turning eighteen, she finally got behind the wheel. He was a red 1986 Isuzu trooper with a 5 speed manual gearbox and a 4WD. Although things did not turn out as planned, she was finally able to put her theoretical knowledge into action. Brave man Abboo sat in the right seat.  He’s not the calmest person, so the instruction was emotional to put it mildly. But none of that stopped her grinning like a lunatic with paper bag toy.

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In the fall of my first year in medical school, just after my 18th birthday, I got my “official” driving lessons.

My instructor was a woman who chewed rose-scented tobacco beetle leaf rolls, smelled pungently of sweat mixed with talcum powder, and labored to eject her massive frame out of the car which she grabbed with her thick stubby henna-tinted fingers, wearing three rings on each hand. With her silver nose piercing ring, large black mole atop right eyebrow, floral print black hijab and those full tobacco orange-stained lips she carried an air of casual aggression. Her persistent, irritated frown broke into a weary gap-toothed sneer as jet black eyes lined with kohl looked over me: a petite, young, slender, well dressed girl reeking of privilege.

In a gravelly voice she spoke these words: “Protect yourself from the bigger cars, protect the smaller cars from yourself.” It was an oft-repeated axiom which was the philosophical core of her curriculum.

The lessons were arranged by distant relatives who lived in the city. My instructor came highly recommended.

The plan had been hatched months before: I would complete driving school, and then over winter break I’d sweet-talk my parents into buying me a car.

Learning to drive in the city of 19 million people, where no lines were painted on the roads, the sheer variety of vehicular traffic was mind-boggling. It was an English colony, so driving was on the left side. Most roads were paved, and divided informally into three lanes. The inside lane was reserved for bicycles, often who were “car-pooling.” Most often, passenger on the bicycle perched on the bar between the bicycle seat and the handle bar. However, if it was a lady passenger, she’d ride side-saddle on the rear bicycle storage rack. Often the swarm of bicycles would be livened up by alternative vehicles:  hyper-energetic donkey carts, slow moving ox-carts, and sometimes even a high strung camel  bewildered buy fate and commotion, frantically towing some type of cart.
The middle lane was most often occupied by large trucks, passenger buses, and horse carts. The horse carts were functioned as taxi cabs. And then, in the outside lane were the cars. Let’s not forget the chaos caused by the motorized Vespa rickshaw cabs.

“Protect yourself from the bigger cars, protect the smaller cars from yourself.”

I don’t remember the car. All I remember is the steering wheel vinyl peeling off, and the stick shifter knob caked in layers of greasy grey gunk. And that my instructor had a passenger-side brake pedal. Upon completion, I was given an international driving license. There was no test involved.

The future FDM moved to the US for residency training. Her parents — as always, indulgent and generous — bought her a Mazda MX 6 with a V6 twin rotary motor. It was white, of course. (White is the best color to show off the curves of any car, in case you were unaware of that fact.) She took some drives through West Virginia to test the car’s feels, but mostly she divided her time between the hospital or sleeping to recover from those brutal 36 hour shifts which came every third night.

Although she was young and and all about the rules…she knew some rules were to made to be broken. She broke them when she had to save her patients’ lives. And, she broke them again when it came to building her own life. Against all odds, she married her sweetheart. The young couple lived a fairy-tale life, with three beautiful babies, wonderful friends, jobs, and community. It was all a dream come true. Who could possibly ask for more?

And then…

In the early summer of 2009 the girl, now a mom of three tots under the age of five, received a phone call from a cherished mentor and long-time family friend. He was an ER doc and a car enthusiast who had encouraged her to pursue medicine as a career when she was a little girl in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Back then, he drove a maroon Pontiac Bonneville Sedan with steel-belted tires. Classic 1980’s vibe. After a long catching up, he asked her:

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Maroon Bonneville Sedan, circa 1985

“Betta, what car are you driving nowadays?”

“A 2000 Honda Odyssey.”

“Why the HELL are you doing that? You must buy a Mercedes immediately!”

She mumbled some reply, quickly hung up, and went to assist her toddler son in the bathroom. But that night in bed, she smiled as she closed her eyes. A rekindling of her dream. She remembered the taxi-cabs of Beirut, how they felt like absolute tanks. Why not a Mercedes?

Quite miraculously, the following week the Odyssey’s transmission locked up. It had to be flat-bedded to the shop. The prognosis was grim. The hideous uterine symbol of indentured servitude was totaled.

Leaving the minivan as a charitable contribution to NPR, the woman packed up her babies, and flew Down Under to visit their grandparents and uncles. It was a solid month of driving European cars: Abbooji had a 1999 Mercedes E Class sedan, her little bro’s navy blue Saab 90, silver grey 1987 Saab 900 Turbo. She once again loved the taste of the tough steel feel of these lo-tech older cars.

One evening, her little brother uttered those fateful, magic words: “Have you seen the Mercedes R Class?”   …And that was it. She was smitten.

Upon returning stateside she immediately logged on to Autotrader.com and began researching the MB R-Class cars for sale. After some digging, she found her answer: A V6 twin turbo-diesel R320 CDI with 4Matic transmission and three rows of seats would fit the bill. Ahhh how she longed for a diesel engine!

For the first time in her entire life she applied for an auto-loan independently. Then, bargained the price down with the dealer of used MBs in suburban Atlanta, printed the loan approval, and bought a one way airfare.

Flew down. Clinched the deal. Drove back the R. Named it The Pig.

Thus began a love story.

Piggy’s chronicle is long, and will be told one day. But suffice it to say here that my sweet, beloved Pig has served me with over 180,000 miles of dutiful service, has safely transported my most beloved cargo of Big T and the Little T’s, and….most unexpectedly of all… opened the door to my driving on track.

Then, a few weeks ago I got word. Saudi Arabia has, finally,  made it legal for women to drive.