Sauk Centre woman has lived an adventurous life, much of it spent in the Middle East
Jill Roberg Abahsain, of Sauk Centre, returned to her roots a few years ago when she moved back to Minnesota. Her life here stands in stark contrast to the many things she experienced through the years of living immersed in different cultures around the world. Recently retired, memories came flooding back as she reflected on the many years of her life spent in the Middle East.
Jill grew up in Minneapolis, attending Roosevelt High along with future governor Jesse Ventura when he was simply “James Janos.”
When she was a student at the University of Minnesota, she found out she needed to take a foreign language and chose Farsi – a rather unexpected choice. It is the language of Iran and is widely spoken in Afghanistan. That decision led to a meeting which would radically change the direction of her life.
Fellow student Muhammad Abahsain, a native of Saudi Arabia, was a classmate. His native language was Arabic, and the characters used are the same as Farsi.
“He was cool. He could read all the strange characters (of Farsi). But he didn’t know what he was saying,” Jill remembered.
Muhammad was one of a group of Saudis given academic scholarships to study in the United States. The Saudis realized they needed native Saudis to teach in their newly-established universities. The government chose the area of study for the students. Muhammad was studying Middle Eastern studies with a major in Arabic middle ages.
“He was beautiful and exotic. I just liked him. He was very nice,” said Jill. “He prepared interesting foods.”
Jill said Muhammad was not religious. “He was completely secular. The Koran was only a literary reference for him.”
When Muhammad moved to Salt Lake City in 1976 to work on his Ph.D, they were a “couple,” and Jill went, too.
In 1982, he returned to Saudi Arabia, but Saudis were not allowed to marry foreigners. The separation proved to be too much, and the next year Muhammad proposed to Jill in a letter. He suggested that he could seek permission for them to marry.
In 1984, he returned to the United States, and they were married civilly at a government office in Alexandria, Virginia. They were married again at the main mosque in Washington, D.C. Their paperwork was stamped, and Muhammad flew back to Saudi Arabia to gain approval from the prince. Jill waited in Minnesota for a few months until Muhammad sent her a plane ticket to join him.
They lived in the professors’ compound in Riyadh on the grounds of King Saud University, a secular institution. Jill worked in the medical education office at the university hospital.
In 1988, Muhammad was nominated chair of Islamic studies, and they moved to Newcastle upon Tyne in England. Jill finished her degree there and was certified to teach English as a second language.
“That was when Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, causing major controversy and many Muslim protests worldwide. The university asked Muhammad to be a spokesperson for the Muslim community,” said Jill.
Bookstores would pretend to be out of the book when Muhammad requested it, to be able to speak on the topic. The stores easily sold books to Jill. The major bookstores had apparently been told not to sell to possible Muslims.
The two loved traveling throughout England and seeing old sites, but as the first Gulf War loomed, Muhammad was worried about his family and decided it was time to go home.
“I started teaching English at an interesting elite school in Riyadh. We had a lot of friends. Saudis married to Americans gravitated together,” she said.
Muhammad was tapped to work at the new King Abdul Aziz Museum, mainly translating the king’s papers.
“I’d read them in English, and we would work on the language nuances together,” said Jill. “We made a good team.”
Jill edited two books that were published during that time, one with Muhammad, Prominent Women from Central Arabia, and one under the auspices of the current king of Saudi Arabia.
“Perhaps my fondest memories were the embassy parties. Being invited to an embassy function was the highlight of our social lives,” Jill said. “Many of them would be at the U.S. Embassy where the State Department would organize musical events, or holidays such as the 4th of July would be celebrated. There were no robes or scarves required for the women. While alcoholic beverages were outlawed in the country of Saudi Arabia, beer and wine flowed at the embassy. We got to experience many different countries’ hospitality this way. The French and Italian parties were always very classy. The British Embassy paid special attention to protocol, replete with seven-course dinners served by a staff with impeccable white jackets and spotless white gloves.”
When Muhammad retired in 1999, the Abahsains went first to Bahrain for a school year, when Jill taught. Bahrain is a tiny island country that takes barely over an hour to drive completely around.
“It was once governed by Britain and there remained a strong Indian presence from the Victorian empire era,” she said. “Like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is on the spice trail, the majority of spices being imported from India. Spice markets seemed stocked with an infinite variety of the freshest, most exotic spices.”
At the turn of the millennium, in December 1999, Jill and Muhammad were at a huge party at the pyramids of Giza, a mere 15 miles from their newly purchased home in the Cairo suburb of Maadi.
“There is an Egyptian tradition that when Mary and Joseph fled with the baby Jesus, it was there in Maadi that they rested, and Jesus had his first bath,” she said. “The word Maadi translates as ‘water.’”
The Abahsains’ move to Egypt was a careful choice.
“Saudi Arabia was not a relaxing place to live, not a place to retire to,” Jill said. “I couldn’t drive. He had to take me, or I had to take a taxi.”
In Egypt, Jill’s brother frequently visited with various groups of curious friends from the Sauk Centre area.
In 2006, Muhammad thought it would be nice to return to Riyadh as expatriates, with Jill teaching at a new experimental college.
“The university brought us back to live in the embassy compound,” said Jill. “We lived a Western lifestyle there.”
Even in retirement, “We continued receiving translation requests in between visits from friends and family.”
Muhammad took on the task of completing an English translation of Gilgamesh, the “first written story of humanity.” The British had previously translated what they could (some of the original tablets had been shattered.) Muhammad was about half done with an up-to-date, more readable version when he suddenly died in 2007, after a cold that wouldn’t go away turned out to be non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The university granted Jill 40 days to mourn. Women are not allowed to attend funerals, so the women gathered at the house of Muhammad’s sister. Later, Jill found out the hard way that people are not encouraged to visit cemeteries, when she was apprehended while visiting Muhammad’s grave.
After finishing her contract, Jill returned to Cairo and got a job as a copy editor and columnist at the Egyptian Gazette, the largest English-language newspaper in Egypt. She worked there for about 18 months before taking a job as a librarian at the expat community center.
After the revolution that was the start of the Arab Spring, in December 2010 and January 2011, Jill knew it was time to leave.
“There was no particular reason to stay,” she said. “It wasn’t until I got here that I realized how scared I had been. It was tense.”
She had purchased a house in Sauk Centre, during a visit home in 2008, so she had a place to live in the “quietness of Sauk Centre.”
She retired in May 2017 from teaching English as a second language in Melrose and Sauk Centre. She had also been part-time director of the Sauk Centre Area Historical Society.
She continues to be active on the historical society’s board, writes for the Sauk Herald occasionally and volunteers as a tour guide at the Sinclair Lewis House in the summer.
She is surrounded by mementos of her years in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, some of which include wool rugs made by Arabia’s nomads, the Bedouin. She has an intricate tapestry showing a woman serving wine, something she found in Riyadh. It is unique in the fact that women are seldom shown.
“It’s my pride and joy,” she said with a smile.
Life is simple, and Jill’s true needs very few.
“Here I feel safe, yet find beauty in nature and friendship with a new set of wonderful characters with traditions and worldviews still new to me,” Jill said. “My life abroad has left me with the gift of embracing the uniqueness of every place and all people. Even at places as common as Walmart, life is beautiful if you can watch it anew each day.”