29 Aug Inspiring Women Qs_v3
Name: Margo Catts
Married to: Steve Catts
Children: 3, all grown and having children of their own
How long have you been in KSA? 1.5 years
Saudi Arabia possesses a wealth of cultural and social treasures waiting to be explored by expat and locals alike. Margo’s inquisitive and witty blog posts inspire us to look beyond our compound walls to discover these rare gems and appreciate the unique nature of Riyadh and beyond.
Where were you and what were you doing before you came here?
Our home is in Denver, Colorado, where I was working as a freelance writer and editor, mostly working on technical and business titles.
What are your main occupations now that you’re in Riyadh?
I can write full time now! I try to do one blog post a week, which demands more time than I think it deserves. I devote the rest of my working time to final revisions on a novel that will be heading out into the big world in a few months, and making a start on the next, which is set in Saudi Arabia.
Tell us how your blog began and how it has evolved over the last year.
I started a different blog a few years ago as a place for my girlfriends and me to chat about a brilliantly dreadful reality-dating TV show, The Bachelor (mothballed at being-catty.blogpot.com—the “Embarrassment of Riches” post is probably the best one to get a taste). When people heard I was moving to Saudi Arabia, the first question was usually “You’re going to blog about it, right?” Meanwhile, I was being admonished by my literary agent to start establishing an online presence—website, blog, social media. Suddenly, a move to Saudi Arabia meant I didn’t have to wonder what to write about.
The blog (http://margocatts.com/foreigngirl/) has chronicled my own path of discovery over the past year and a half. I consider it a privilege to live in a country so many are barred from entering, where I can see what others cannot. My intent is to take advantage of that opportunity and describe what this closed place is like, through the eyes of a Westerner, to other Westerners. Often, though, I find that the lens flips, and being here shows me things about my own culture that I couldn’t have seen that way before. These could be my favourite moments. Exploring the unknowable’s—what makes us what we are, puzzling over the whys and how’s—is fascinating, and for me, writing is the best way to think. I promise I get way more out of creating a post than anybody does out of reading one.
There may be fewer new experiences to write about now than there were in the first few months, but I still rarely make it through a week without something striking me from the news, my own outings, a conversation with a friend, a routine errand. In fact, a recent post came from a “routine” day that I realized halfway through was made entirely of things that would be commented on anywhere else as “can you believe this?” (“The New Normal,” http://margocatts.com/2014/12/08/the-new-normal/). The most shared post came from being repeatedly asked “So what’s it like there?” during a visit home (“Saudi Cheat Sheet”, http://margocatts.com/2014/07/10/saudi-cheat-sheet/).
What other literacy projects do you have in the pipeline at the moment?
I’m in the mopping-up stage of final edits for my first novel, The Gathering Jar, which in a perfect world will be available next fall. We’ll see, but I’ll post updates on the blog. In it a young woman, unable to forgive herself for the consequences of a fire she started as a child, attempts to flee that identity by going to live in an abandoned Colorado mining town a thousand miles away. But what she finds there instead are echoes of her own secrets on every side—in the mysteries of the town itself, of a local family, of her own family’s history—that she must unearth and face if she is ever to reclaim a life of her own.
The next novel, City of Walls, is set here in Saudi Arabia. It’s the story of a woman who comes here as a teacher, hoping to separate her teenage son from the people and influences that have drawn him into trouble at home. But a terrible accident tests whether the bonds of love, of family, and of principle can reach across the two cultures, forcing her to consider how far she will go to save him, and whether she even can.
Talk us through a typical day for you in Riyadh.
I live on a compound, so a lot of ordinary things are easier for me here—we have free access to a gym and other exercise or recreation, as well as daily bus service for shopping, so my days take shape based on the calendar. Some days I need to take the shopping bus in the morning, others I stay home and write or exercise first. There are lots of social opportunities as well, with bus-riders often suggesting that we get together for lunch, or women getting together to pursue hobbies or sports. The adjustment to how long it takes to do ordinary things here was a big one, but I’ve learned to accept that sometimes buying and putting away groceries can take the better part of a day. As a writer, though, a balance needs to be struck: experiencing everything the outside world has to offer is where raw material comes from, but sitting in front of a computer alone is where you do something with it. I try to experience as much as I can, meet as many people as I can, but I do have to strategically say no, stay home, and do the work.
What do you most enjoy about living in Riyadh?
It’s ironic that a closed country should be such a global crossroads, but it is. I love the multicultural life here, and I’m not sure there’s another place where you get the chance to live intertwined with so many people from so many different countries and cultures. We also love to travel, and living here makes Europe, Asia, and Africa much easier to get to than they are from the United States.
What have been the challenges?
Sigh. In Riyadh, I’m afraid it’s going to fall back to the really mundane issue of traffic. Its traffic and congestion that often push us to stay home instead of explore, or to go someplace closer rather than some place more interesting or new, such a shame.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading After the Prophet, by Lesley Hazleton, which is a history of the Sunni/Shia split, after having just finished her biography of Muhammad, The First Muslim. I’m just so hungry to understand this place and these people, and have been chewing through Saudi-related titles like snack food. My Kindle, however, is suggesting something to me in which “she never gambled on love, but he made her want to risk it all.” I think I’ll pass on that one, but if you’re looking for a novel, check out my current favorite, The Sun and Other Stars by Brigid Pasulka instead.
What would you recommend to a new expat and an old timer in Riyadh?
Find a friend, and get out there! Exploring new places and things can be intimidating here, so finding a buddy is key. The expat community here is incredibly close, so it’s easy to find a group or a neighbour or a co-worker to guide you through a new experience. Let people tell you what they love, and if you’re interested, ask to go along with them next time.
The Dir’iyah souk is one of my favorite places in Riyadh, but it’s easy to be overwhelmed and unsure of where to go or what to do. I had a friend give me a guided tour on my first trip, and I’m sure that’s what’s made me enjoy it so much ever since. The Second-Hand souk is another favorite, which can make you wonder even more whether you should be there at all. (Answer = yes, you should.) The desert as well shouldn’t be attempted alone, but with a caravan of four-wheel drive cars and respect for the Bedouins who live there you can feel free to explore. (Edge of the World is a great destination near Riyadh.)
For the times when you’re on your own, discover restaurants and shopping, and in January/February, be sure to get to the Janadiriyah festival.
The best guides to this country are those who call it home. Saudis can take you places you’d never be able to go alone. If you are invited to a Saudi home for dinner or to a wedding, don’t let anything ever get in your way. My favourite memory of Saudi Arabia may end up being the wonderful women who surrounded me in that wedding hall.
What was the one bit of advice that someone has given you that you’ve realized was priceless?
You can only find happiness when your attitudes and your actions are in harmony. In other words, your inner nag will never shut up until you do what you know you should. Yes, this has to do with moral choices, but it also has to do with how you choose to spend your time. It’s that inner voice telling you to stay off the easy path, to get off your duff, to put yourself out there.
I, for example, naturally tend toward the lazy and reclusive, but the nag won’t let me enjoy myself there for long. I think I’ve figured out that you will never be happy if you don’t go after what you want, no matter what it may be or where you are in life or in the world. Life in Saudi Arabia provides both fuel for the effort and the means to use it, so I’m very happy here indeed!