The palace smelled of spice – cardamom, ginger…qahwa was being brewed in the kitchen. Golden colored coffee served in golden coffee pots with long delicate spouts. This is a drink fit for royalty. And it was for royalty. Literally.
My alarm would go off around 8am and I was snooze it begging for more sleep. The curtains were drawn and the room was black. Bing. The blackberry went off, and the night nanny was ready for me to come get the little prince ready for the day. I’ll be there in 15 minutes, I typed. Suffering from severe loneliness, which was most likely leading to severe depression, I dragged myself out of bed, pulled on some jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a shawl. The palace was always freezing and the thermostat was always set at a frigid 54 degrees, even in the suffocating heat of the Saudi summer.
After getting ready I would leave my room in the nanny quarters of the Riyadh palace and walk down a long exterior corridor to the main palace building. The palaces in Riyadh were austere, surrounded by thick, high walls with just a glimpse of the neighboring mosque’s minaret peeking over the top against a hazy sky. After passing the female staff quarters, an immaculately manicured interior garden and courtyard, I finally reached the side staff entrance and walked up the stairs to the kitchen. Buzzing with staff that had already been awake for a few hours prepping for the day, I greeted everyone and walked through the double doors into the second story hallway. The stark difference in lighting from the kitchen to the hallway always caught me off guard. The kitchen was bright, simple with wooden cabinetry, white walls and a large table in the middle where we could sit during our breaks. The hallway was dark with heavy wooden paneling, low light, a few upholstered seating choices, a vase of flowers and the closed exterior doors of the princess’ bedrooms. Abdullah’s (Ebo affectionately) bedroom was located just across from his mother’s on the left side of the hallway. Upon entering the two year old’s room, the night nanny, Teresa, was waiting patiently to go get ready for the rest of the day. Ebo was jumping on the bed surrounded by dinosaur toys and laughing with bright eyes and rosy red cheeks.
Ebo, get down from there, I would say with a smile. He would laugh and roll backwards onto his back, jump off the bed, then it would be a chase to try and snatch him in order to get him dressed and ready to see his mother and grandmother once they woke up. I walked up to the closet which was built into the entire wall. I opened the door where we kept his daytime attire. He often had new clothing with tags marked with “Dior,” “Chanel” and the like. When in Riyadh, I would typically pick out some comfy clothes consisting of t-shirts and sweatpants with some sneakers for him to run around in the garden outside. After spraying his clothes with the required amount of Chanel cologne and a little convincing, I pulled on a matching set of grey Dior sweatpants with some sneakers, questioning the choice given that we were still in potty training mode. I brushed his thick, chocolate colored hair and brushed his tiny baby teeth. Mealtime was also a time where I used my skills in debate. A picky eater, the chef would make Ebo four different meal options to choose from. And if he did not like any of those, we could request something else.
The staff loved Ebo, and rightfully so. He was a gorgeous baby and extremely intelligent. At two years old he could hold entire conversations with adults. He was obsessed with dinosaurs and would run in circles without stopping. So much so, that his grandfather bought him two baby gazelles (yes, gazelles… like the ones in Africa), which were kept in the garden for him to run around with. Sometimes we would start the day in the garden if the weather was nice, and others we would head to his play room. This room was the size of an entire apartment with toys, games, puzzles, a giant flat screen tv and cushy white and black couches and poofs upholstered by Missoni. Ebo would watch cartoons and we would wander around the palace grounds until I received a text notifying me that his mother, Princess S was awake.
Sometimes we would wait until as late as 5pm in the day. The Saudi royals would often sleep during the day and stay awake at night. The princess would often still be in bed when I brought Ebo to her. She was only a few years older than me, but had obviously lived a very different life. There were times I would feel envy for that life. The money. The private planes. The silk bed sheets. The walled palaces. The servants. But then, I would see, first hand, how money does not equate happiness. You can have all the money in the world, but without real freedom you feel trapped. These women had the most beautiful things, but they did not have the ability to make their own choices. The novelty of buying new things, fancy things must wear off quickly. Experience fuels the soul, and for any experience of their own these women had to ask permission from men.
With the room still dark, I would bring Ebo to his mother. She would hold him in bed, but like any two-year-old…they can be “terrible.” And in this case, even more so, since he only saw his mother for a short period every day. He would act out crying and purposefully being insufferable to try and gain her attention. At my young 24 years, I would judge her. Not really quite understanding that, though cloaked in jewels and shiny things, these people needed compassion too. It was only later I realized that the princess was brought up the same way, seeing her mother maybe a couple times a day. And her mother was brought up the same way. So really…who am I to judge?
Lunchtime was much the same as breakfast. We always sat alone together in the big formal dining area. The walls were a pale yellow in the Riyadh house with heavy curtains, salmon colored upholstered chairs and delicate linens. The chef would bring out an array of lunch choices. In trying to coax him to eat I would end up eating his food a lot of the time. Simultaneously, I was trying to teach him how to use his utensils, therefore, the beautiful linens would get covered in food – and most memorably a green spinach dish that the little prince loved. Afterwards was naptime, and I relished in these couple of hours to myself in the middle of the day. I would often take a nap myself, because it was never sure how late I would stay up with Ebo. If there was a wedding, for example, it was sure that I would be awake with him into the early morning chasing him around the celebration in heels and a long gown. That was exhausting. He was a good sleeper, so I would get around a two-hour break, then it was time to play outside. Since he was a HE, I was able to take him to the other side of the palace where the males spent their time. There was a big ornate mosque-like building with mosaic tiled rooms and fountains. We would walk by caged falcons that the prince used for hunting out in the desert. The air smelled like spices and brewing qahwa. Walls in the living area were covered with what looked like Persian tapestries and the room was dotted with large cushions, which were meant for sitting. We’d play on the cushions and lie there, sometimes with the news on. It was during this time that there were hot tensions in nearby countries like Egypt and Libya, but nonetheless, I felt incredibly safe where I was. Constantly surrounded by security. I was probably the safest I’ve ever been in those moments.
In the afternoons, Ebo would have swimming lessons in the pool house or we would visit his aunt, Princess L. She had her own villa, and we would often visit her as she was waking up, and after she prayed. Her rooms always had bowls of golden wrapped chocolates. I would always grab a handful and shove them in my pocket for later. Later I would carry him around the palace on my hip or try keeping up with him as he zoomed off in front of me – plastic dinosaur always in hand. At this point in his life, dinosaurs were it. Everything was a dinosaur. He had an array of different dinosaur toys, and always ALWAYS had to have one in his hand. He even slept with the hard, plastic things. It was adorable. I could relate, because I too had a fascination with dinosaurs when I was a child. He hated water though, not a natural swimmer that one. He would scream anytime we put him in the swimming pool. After forty-five minutes of screaming, I would finally give up and take him out. The pool house was like a very expensive spa. It was two stories with a private gym up top where the princess would have her personal trainers fly in from England to do a session with her. Cabinets were stocked with ThinkThin bars and fancy coconut water. You could look over the second story down into the pool and the entire building was glass on one side. You could see palm trees, citrus trees and the immaculate landscape. When the sun would go down the sky would turn a dusky purple and you could watch it all from the swimming pool if you wished and you could always hear the prayer call echoing in the distance.
Dinnertime was spent at his father’s palace. A hired car would pick us up every afternoon at the same time. I dressed Ebo in a new outfit and made sure he was clean and fresh before going out to see any family. They liked him to smell good, most specifically, which is why a large bottle of men’s Chanel cologne was always in my diaper bag. They liked him to be spritzed beforehand…and he must always be presented to them with a clean diaper. Part of the royal Saudi culture…and maybe the Saudi culture in general…is visiting family as a nightly routine. In Riyadh we would go visit Baba S or Baba N. These princes were high up in the food chain and had many grandchildren. The nannies would tow the children in hand, dressed in black abayas, climbing in and out of the large black escalades into their palaces for a visit. Little princes and princesses would be running all over the place in their designated areas. There would usually be a buffet of fried foods available for them to eat for dinner. Adult princesses and princes would float in and out unintentionally wafting their colognes and perfumes throughout the space. After a few hours of sitting around awkwardly with a mélange of other nannies and royalty alike, picking at chicken tenders and fries, I would collect little Ebo and let our driver know we were ready to leave. I would line up behind whoever was talking to Amira or Baba etc… and hand Ebo over for a hug. He would always have a smear of red lipstick all over his cheeks at the end of the night.
The sweetest moments with the little prince were spent getting him ready for bed. He had a large walk-in shower, which I could stand in barefoot without getting my clothes all wet to clean him off. He had big dark chocolate brown eyes and porcelain skin. The baby pot belly and chubby cheeks melted my heart, and at this time of night he would start to wind down. We would often have conversations in the shower, and I would tenderly wash his hair, brush his teeth, dry him off, put lotion on his skin. It was always here when he would ask me, Are you my momma? Or he would tell me how much he loved me. My heart broke at the thought of this little baby being confused about his mother, but also, I knew I could not stay with him forever. I could not be his mother. I would give him a kiss and a tickle and tell him I loved him back…because I did.
I was lucky to have experienced this brief time in his life when he did not know he was a little prince, but just a child like any other. After leaving him with the night nanny, I would wander back through the kitchen and down the stairs, through the colonnade and down to my bedroom and shut the door. I would have some sort of dinner plate left for me in my room from the chef, which I would eat after taking a bath and changing into my pajamas. After a couple hours of watching a movie or surfing the internet I would fall asleep under the big, cozy comforter trying not to think of the fact that I was alone, and that tomorrow would pass the same way. And the day after that and the day after that.