I was in fourth grade. It was the second week of school. My father picked me up with a look on his face — I thought it was because of his job as a fraud detective. Then when I got home I went to kiss my mom as usual, but she was crying. I had never seen her cry before. Not once. I asked her why she was crying. She didn’t answer. I thought someone had died, so I started crying too. Then my father pulled me back and said, “We need to talk.”
He sat me down on the ground and said, “Shut up, be a man. Men don’t cry. Are you a woman? Only women cry.” Then my mother came out and said it: “Your father divorced me.”
In Saudi Arabia men can initiate a divorce simply by saying “I divorce you” and just like that you are divorced. If he says it three times they are divorced forever; if it’s just once they are officially divorced, but have the option of reuniting.
I looked at my father shocked, and he said, “That’s right, now go pack your clothes. You’re going to live with your mother’s family.”
I was still so shocked I couldn’t move. He grabbed me by my collar and said, “Stop wasting my time.” As I packed, the only things I could think about were my friends and what I was leaving behind. I was just ten years old and my sister was six. I still remember the confused look on her face.
My mother’s family lived on an isolated farm with only five other houses anywhere nearby. The nearest town with a hospital and a school was 20 kilometers away. As we arrived there I saw a look of pity on my uncles’ faces. But my oldest uncle made it very clear that I was not a guest. He told my mother that he was going to make me a man.
There were no kids my age in the family, and my uncle put me to work. I would start working at two p.m. — right after I came home from school — and couldn’t stop working until after the sun had set.
The day after we arrived my father came to the farm. I thought he was going to take us back. I thought he missed us and regretted what he did. I came running out with the biggest smile in the world and said to him, “I knew you weregoing to take us back!”
“Take you back?” he responded. “I don’t want anything to do with you and your mother. I only came here to give your school file to your mother.”
I was devastated. I thought my life had ended. My father didn’t want me. I lived in a dump. I was angry at the world.
The next day I went to my new school. The building was falling apart. It had no AC (a must in a place where the heat reaches up to 140 degrees). The students didn’t like me because I was from the city and from a different tribe. For two weeks no one talked to me. The first time someone did he said, “We will avenge our tribe.” I didn’t understand what he meant but I was scared. After that they started to bully me. They beat me up every time I went to the bathroom. One time they beat me up in the classroom and the teacher just watched as I bled and cried. Every couple of days I would come home with a wound. My mother wouldn’t even ask about them.
It was at that time that I started to spend whole afternoons reading the Quran, at first because I was alone and I had been told that Allah is always with you. For two years all I did was go to school, work on the farm and read the Quran. The Quran twisted my mind. It messed me up.
I was twelve and all I wanted to do in life was to grow up so I could join Jihad. I was twelve and all I wanted to do was kill Jews. I was twelve and all I wanted to do was die for Islam. How could you not want to die for Islam when everyone tells you the Quran is the only book that’s true, that Islam is the rightful religion and every other religion is wrong? How could you not think “radically” when in the first pages of the Quran, God promises Muslims with eternal heaven and everyone else on this planet with eternal hell? A hell with infidels as its fuel.
My father came to visit sometimes. One time he asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I told him I wanted to go to Jihad. He was shocked, and realized that if I stayed there on the farm any longer I probably would become a Jihadist.
* * *
When I was fifteen my father remarried my mother. To this day I don’t know why they divorced in the first place. We moved back to the city and I rediscovered a lot of things, but most importantly TV. Before television I had a perfect image of God. He was merciful, holy, giving. He punished the bad and rewarded the good. But what I saw on TV wasn’t that. I saw children starving and dying. I thought to myself, “This isn’t what the Quran says. Why are those people dying of cancer? Why are these women being raped while their families are watching? How is God letting this happen? Does he care?”
Then it all clicked. THERE IS NO GOD. That’s the only explanation. And if there is a God and he is letting this happen then I don’t want to pray to him. That thought destroyed me.
There is no point in living, I thought. It’s all going to waste. All that time that I spent praying was for nothing. I couldn’t accept it. I thought that if I shut down everything and focused only on the Quran I would regain my love for Allah. I have to get these sinful thoughts out of my head, I told myself. The devil is trying to manipulate me.
But I already knew that there was no going back to those lies. I wasn’t a teenage Jihadist. I was a teenager who thought that life was pointless. It got so bad that one day coming back from school, while my father was driving on the freeway at 40 kilometers an hour, I decided to jump out of the car. I thought it would kill me.
I opened the door and jumped — headfirst onto the asphalt.
Don’t worry — I was alright, left with only one small wound. I still have the scar on my forehead.
I told my family that the door opened by itself. That didn’t go over well. But after that day I had a new appreciation for life. I decided that I only want to do what makes me happy.
To this day I still pray five times a day, so that I don’t let on that I don’t believe anymore. I know that I am not alone. I know there are others like me. I could reach out to them but I won’t because it puts us in danger.
This is the first time I have told anyone about not believing in God. Writing this piece could get me in a lot of trouble. You may think that’s extreme but Saudi Arabia is an extreme place. Insulting Islam is against the law here. The Saudi writer and activist Raif Badawai has been arrested several times on charges of insulting Islam through electronic channels. Last year, he was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes.
It saddens me that I can’t talk to likeminded people because we want to live. We are not in a place that embraces difference, but we will always look for what tomorrow brings.
Today I am nineteen and in college. I’m working my way to my dream, which is to leave Saudi Arabia behind me, start a new life in a much better place, and hopefully help those in situations like mine.
* * *
“Hamza Khaled,” who does not feel safe revealing his name, can be reached on Twitter @HK11192
Casey Roonan is a cartoonist and from Connecticut. Intsagram: caseyroonan