On the streets of Al Khobar attitudes changed, or real feelings surfaced. To begin with, the Saudi Arabs in the local shops had never been too friendly. In fact, they normally ignored us, seldom said hello or gave any sign of acknowledgement of our existence.
Expats seemed to be persona non grata, a necessary evil. But now we had Saudi youngsters shouting at us “Fuck You, Fuck You” as though they were New York cabbies. Some Western women were spat upon in the local shopping mall. One of our teachers was knifed while in a gold souq downtown.
My own experience of hostility was an incident in Bahrain, the island nation that has a reputation for greater tolerance than Saudi. I was taking an early morning stroll near the Emir’s palace out in the wasteland when I heard a car pull up on the road behind me. I turned to see an SUV stopped at an angle so that the person in the back seat had a clear view of me. As I took note of three young Arabs in white thobes looking intently at me, the one in the rear seat raised a hunting rifle (the kind you’d use for deer) and pointed it dead center on me. And like a deer I froze. The words So this is how I’m going to die ran through my mind. There was nowhere for me to flee. Fortunately, a car full of potential witnesses came along. The man in the back pulled the rifle in and the car took off. Would they have shot me? I don’t know.
our fellow teachers from Arab countries changed as well. Before the intifada,
we used to joke around quite a bit. But once the uprising became a daily
thing on television, with Al Jazeera showing bloodied Arab children, or
Israeli soldiers humiliating old men and women, our Arab colleagues became
more and more taciturn. All of us felt the chill resentment rise spread
between us. And no matter that we had lunch together on occasion, we Westerners
were less and less often invited to break bread with Arabs in the lunch
room. This uncomfortable atmosphere took a turn for the extreme as soon
as September 11 hit. But, we’ll get to that in a moment....
We Westerners all had schizoid attitudes towards the Arabs. We liked them as individuals. It was hard not to for Arabs are personable, fine-feeling people. Saudis, however, tend to be more distant. Few of them invited foreigners home; fewer still became friends with infidels. There is considerable group pressure on Saudis to remain aloof even from fellow Sunnis. In the Saudi conception of things, they are the center of the Islamic umrah, and they are the people chosen by Allah eventually to rule the world. Their attitude to all other religions is one of disdain and disinterest. Cultural relativism, acknowledgement of so-called “co-religions”, is out of the question. It is no secret that the efforts of the religious oligarchy in Arabia are directed to world-wide expansion of Wahhabiism, Saudi Arabia’s brand of Islam.
There are all
kinds of historic explanations for what brought the West in contact with
the Saudis, but not much of Western rational, enlightened thinking has
rubbed off on them. So, despite the modern highrises, the Safeway supermarkets,
and the Mercedes Benzes cruising along the highways of Arabia, the cultural
programs running in the heads of the Saudis are far from the tracks running
in ours. And one should not be fooled by the occasional liberal, Western-educated
Saudi. He is an anomaly, far from the rank and file of his medieval culture
which is having a difficult time coming to grips with the contemporary
world. During my time in Arabia, I met several well-trained, talented Saudi
individuals who would do very well in a tolerant environment like the United
States. But in Arabia these fellows are a tiny minority that can be crushed
by extremists at any time. We were always aware of this East-West chasm
in mentalities because we found it everyday in our classrooms.
Before the eclipse, schools in Saudi were closed and students were sent home. The mosques were full as the nation of Islam prayed for Allah not to extinguish the world. I was later told that even in the sophisticated, high-tech control centers of the company, the Believers were on their knees during the eclipse, soliciting Allah for mercy. Just how much of this piety was for mutual display and how much was motivated by true belief is impossible to tell. There are no surveys done to ascertain degrees of religious belief in Saudi Arabia. In Saudi you either believe or you are branded a heretic. The punishment for heresy is death.
Once I asked the class how they could deny the world was millions of years old when dinosaur bones were being found all over its surface. Their answer is typical, and it comes straight from the mosque: Allah put dinosaur bones into the Earth to test our faith. End of discussion. Many students displayed no intellectual curiosity, although they could readily memorize facts which they would never believe in. In their minds, if something didn’t come from a sheik or an imam, it had no validity. This willful ignorance disturbed me the most.
In the classroom, we had instances of students who insisted on leaving the room when we showed educational videos. This was because they had been told that music and films were diabolical. Not uncommonly, some of our students used their pens to dig out the faces of women depicted in our textbooks. Others defaced pictures of churches, Christian crosses, statues of Buddha, and images of dogs. At times, entire pages were torn out of texts. I found instances of this even in the reference section of the university library near our center. Foreign texts were routinely defaced in acts of religious zealotry.
Censorship was everywhere. At our training center, magazines like Time and News Week were scrutinized by our librarians so that all ads for alcohol were pasted over; all nudity, of course, including statues artists of the Renaissance, was covered up. In local shops, the faces of women on packaging were covered by price stickers. Some books that we teachers had ordered for the training center were withheld because they had the word “evolution” in their titles. This included books on topics like the “evolution of thought” published by Oxford University Press. Other books were banned because they dealt with Arab history, written by Western rather than by Arab scholars. At one meeting of the library’s censor committee, I was told such books would be buried.
This doesn’t mean we had no books in the center’s library. We actually managed to accumulate a decent collection, considering the circumstances. However, only we teachers ever made use of it. The majority of our students were neither capable nor interested in reading the library’s holdings of scientific, cultural, and historic material. The only videos they watched voluntarily were those of Mr. Bean. Most of our magazine subscriptions were eventually cancelled, ostensibly because they cost too much money, but more likely because they were from the United States.
The pervasiveness of ideological control is noticeable on every block of every city in Saudi Arabia. According to the Quoran, men can pray in a clean place at home, but in Saudi they are pressured to go to the local mosques. For convenience, there is one on every block. There are mosques on the beaches, in schools, in military and police compounds, in airports, at border crossings, at gas stations, in shopping malls, in corporations, in government buildings; and there are temporary mosques in urban residential areas that are being constructed. When the call to prayer is heard, shopping malls shut down; stores, banks, businesses, and gas stations close. On the highways, it is not uncommon to see truck drivers leave their vehicles to pray by the roadside at the scheduled time for prayers. A pious nation indeed.
Religious indoctrination and group-control is all pervasive. If people are not watched by religious enforcers, the mutawa, they are watched by the nation’s secret police. This sense of being observed extends to the classroom. I was warned a couple of times to watch what I say in class lest it be “reported.” Religion, politics, and sex were not to be discussed in school, so there was little of importance to talk about. No meeting of the minds or informed discussions ever took place between expats and Saudis. Everyone just continued to pretend that everything was ok while people even in Saudi Arabia were being killed.
Group cohesion and conformity are central to the lives of Saudis. In this, the nation’s leadership has been more successful than the Communists ever were. But, as in Communism, such demand for conformity has squashed personal initiative, creativity, self-expression, joyfulness, and any sense that the individual even matters. By way of illustration, we had a talented young man at the center who wanted to start his own magazine. The more he sought advice and support from his fellow Saudis, the more discouraged he became. He was told it would never succeed, that it went against tradition, that it might be offensive, and so on. Little wonder that he gave up. Multiply his experience several million times and you have the prevailing mood amongst young people in Saudi Arabia. They are defeated before they even get started in life.
As I am revising this, three of four terrorists are being hunted in Saudi Arabia. They slit the throats of at least six Westerners during the Oasis compound standoff in the town where I lived, Al Khobar. The Oasis is where I used to have brunch with my colleagues. The chef there, a man named Johannsen, was killed, as was one of the waiters who had his throat cut. Needless to say, I am relieved to be out of Saudi. But at the same time, life on the outside somehow lacks an edge.
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