The Time I Almost Became A Middle Eastern Princess


As a little girl raised on a sucrose-rich diet of Disney movies and the color pink, my main ambition in life was to become a princess. I tried to convince myself that I already was a princess who got inexplicably separated from my regal family, but would one day be reunited and get to sleep in a canopy bed. (I considered a canopy bed the absolute pinnacle of luxury.) The whole thing was very Anastasia.

Then, once upon a time, it finally happened! (Well, not exactly as described, but with a little encouragement I tumbled right back into those childish escapisms.)

I was visiting a Middle Eastern country where they toss out life sentences like parking tickets, which is why I’m not addressing it by name. It was an extended stopover that my friends and I decided to splurge on en route to a friend’s wedding in Asia (as if that wasn’t a splurge enough).

To cut costs, we were sneaking five people into a standard hotel room. My friends, all female and commonly classified with adjectives including “blue-eyed,” “loud,” “blond,” or “redhead,” made doing anything sneaky an impossibility. Despite our relative exoticism we managed to get by hotel security every time.

On our first night, we stayed true to character as post-collegiate westerners, and went to the nearest hotel bar, as they only serve alcohol at hotels. We proceeded to get canned on happy hour (read: free) bullfrogs: acid blue cocktails served in hurricane glasses.

Blue tongued and wasted, we shamelessly flayed on the dance floor to a band that was straight out of College Town, USA. Some things don’t change. No matter where you are in the world there will always be bars with sticky floors; cheap, sugary drinks; and crap cover bands singing, “Sweet Home Alabama.”

My redheaded friend — let’s call her Ginger just because I know she won’t like it — started making out with someone in the thick crowd of the dance floor.

“You should stop your friend. You know you can get arrested for doing that here,” a girl said to me in an English accent. Ronda was British, but currently living in the Middle East teaching English.

She helped me corral Ginger, and then introduced us to her friends. “That one,” she whispered to me pointing to a tall guy drinking a coke and smoking a cigarette.

“He asked me to talk to you. He’s kind of a big deal,” she snuck in before he came over on praying mantis legs, all skinny and boyish.

At first, Rashid would only speak Arabic to Ronda, and have her translate. It turns out he was shy.

“He wants me to ask you if you know who the ruler of this country is.”

Luckily Ginger knew.

“He is my father,” said Rashid, this time in clear English. Turns out he was educated in the finest boarding schools Europe, and spoke perfect English. Also, it turns out he wasn’t that shy. I thought he was lying, but over the next few days the privilege and special treatment that surrounded him revealed it to be the truth. Plus, you know, he was addressed as “your highness” and traveled through public areas with a security squad.

It was a whirlwind romance: not of me falling in love with him, but of me falling in love with the idea of him. Yet like any holiday romance tinged in champagne-tone sunshine, it would never work in the real word. But what was the harm in pretending for a few days, right?

My friends and I would hang out with Rashid in the garish presidential suites of five-star resorts where we’d drink tea with heads of security looming. The resorts were dripping in real gold and conspicuous consumption: It was like Donatella Versace vomited all over the place.

Rashid acted like a little prince with manners most dignified. He never made me feel uncomfortable, and he never touched me. (Well, he did call me “beautiful” and pinch my cheek one day. My facial cheek that is.)

When we were strolling through the malls — a bona fide tourist attraction, all shiny, new, and frosty with recycled air — Rashid asked with faint apology if I’d mind walking behind him. I chalked it up to a “when in Rome” situation. But there were other differences, like when he told me he spent every single day of a violently hot August at a water park, which made me remember that our dissimilarities were more than just cultural.

Despite his politeness, he did make it clear that he was interested in me by casually promising me things like a visa, a car, and a house if I wanted to stay in the Middle East longer.

While sitting in epic traffic amongst candy red Ferraris, Rashid started talking to me about religion. “You must try this for me,” he asked in that awkward, non-native syntax that allowed you to chalk up even suggestions of religious conversion to a language barrier, “You pray to Allah once a day, then you call me, and tell me how you feel.”

“I don’t know about that, Rashid.” I tried to be noncommittal.

“You must try it. You will feel so good! This I promise.”

From the backseat I hear Ginger hiss a little too loudly to one of the others, “He’s trying to covert her: We’re gonna be rich!”

“Ok, Rashid, maybe I’ll try it.” I said, distracted.

When it was time to leave for my friend’s wedding, Rashid tried to get me to stay, but of course I left anyway. He gave me a paper that I still have with at least seven contact numbers on it.

“I’m guessing you’re not on Facebook.” I said, examining the paper.

“Anytime you want to come back to my country. You tell Rashid. You can ring me, and I will send the plane.”

Over time, the tale has been mythologized in the shared history of our circle of friends.

Most commonly it’s immortalized as a playful criticism: “If you hadn’t been so uptight about accepting wedding camels, the rest of us would be slugging back bullfrogs poolside by now!”

And other times, when I’m feeling helplessly self-indulgent, it’s another daydream: I fantasize about calling Rashid and asking him to “send the plane.” I could be an ex-pat Sheikha in Italian sunglasses and a burqa bedazzled with Swarovski crystals. It would be a life of summering in the Budva Riviera. Hell, I’d take any life of using the word “summer” as verb. And I’m pretty sure I could swing a canopy bed out of the deal.

Then there is the haughty, self-righteous trump card of knowing I passed on Middle Eastern royalty. And for a brief moment I get to feel like hot sh-t, until I subsequently conclude that if I ever did call him, he would most likely have no idea who I was, and hang up the phone on me.

The enduring and best inheritance from the tale is that it’s a good story and a nice fantasy — for the both of us.

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image – Shelley Panzarella