Jeffrey Black | Middle East Diaries


The Mutawwin, and other Animals: Jeddah, 29th January 2008
January 29, 2008, 2:52 pm
Filed under: Saudi Arabia

Aside from being a PR manager, Mr H is a sheikh and a fundamentalist tele-evangelist that grew up mostly inside the Aramco compound in Dhahran. He has two shows in English and did a programme with CNN and several interviews with NPR. He is the real live born again Muslim, as once upon a time he used to even have his own rock-band. Things are different now. His head is bare, but his chin is well populated with greying strands of the Mutawwa kind. And then he points out the difference in Mutawwa-ism.

The definition is “volunteer,” and is really meant to denote anyone particularly attendant to whatever variety of fiqh that one subscribes to. In his case, the beard, the shortened trousers, the non-touching of women and so on. And then there are the members of the Commission on Enjoining Virtue and Forbidding Vice, (most commonly associated with the word Mutawwa), who are licenced to stamp out, well, vice, in the Kingdom in co-operation with the police. Apparently, although the good sheikh has never seen any, there are also freelance Mutawwa, who, not being licenced, take it upon themselves to point the finger of virtue around wherever they see fit. Continue reading

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Abandoned: Jeddah, 28th January 2008
January 28, 2008, 2:30 pm
Filed under: Saudi Arabia

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Old Jeddah is like some third-world nexus for the unfortunate or displaced. The old balad has sagged, and the dust has gathered in the corners, and the lintels are in most windows broken. But still, the structure of Burckhardt’s Djiddah is mostly here, although with the accretions of a few centuries of commerce, carelessness and refugees. Rubbish lies steaming beneath a sun-worn façade full of mashrabiyyas, the gables and corners of everything at odds with everything else, in a kind of architectural absurdist comedy. I saw a thick rat dead beneath a doorway, mortified at the state of the place. In the alleys weaves an odd motley crew of inhabitants, none of whom had the air of ownership.

The markets closed for prayer. The wasps swarmed on the spices, the dates, on the weakening tomatoes regardless, glad of the reprieve. The muslims prayed and the women went to the alleyways. Here, there are the bright shawls and coverings of Somail women, the odd pronunciation of the Sudanese, the staccato rattle of Yemenis. It has obviously been the exposure to visitors from abroad, coming over the sea, that has obviously made Jeddah the more “liberal” city in the Kingdom. Here, there is less space for exclusionary politics, because who would have the high ground? Who can claim ethnic or religious purity here, where perhaps everyone has had a grandfather that stepped onto the quay grimy and shaken from months at sea. And moreover, when one has lived in the midst of difference, who would care?



Toupé'd: Riyadh, 26th January 2008
January 26, 2008, 2:21 pm
Filed under: Saudi Arabia

Driving along King Fahd road:

Abdul Karim, 41, Taxi Driver. Looks older. Goanese – until now I had thought that the Saudi taxi driving industry was dominated by Pathans, because of their legendary ability to drive all night. But apparently, there is room for the less Herculean. Abdul Karim has been here for 20 years. He will go back next year, God willing. He has saved up–now he has a house and car and wife and two sons at home. If he makes the money, he’ll open a small shop. Indian heaven is a small shop. If someone gives him half a million, he’d go home tomorrow. Worked in Dubai nine months, but decided to come back to Saudi. He could save more here. Taxi driving is a relatively good job because it is clean and you can earn good money. I gave him a five riyal tip on a sixteen riyal drive. Probably excessive. I liked his thick red chunky sweater.

This evening, Mr Iqbal, finally.

Which was worth waiting for. But first, was he wearing a toupe? Hard to know. At any rate, journalist and professor of English at King Saud University, columnist for Jang and Urdu News, speaker of Farsi, Urdu, Arabic and perfectly idiomatic English, toupe or not, he is quite the man. Pakistan needs him, he says. Was in Iran at the time of the revolution. He was meant to be on his way to Africa. But ended up teaching English in the Ministry of Defence, which turned out to be a school for Savak. After the Shah fell, he was wanted by the revolutionaries on account of the Savak connection. A Canadian jewish man saved him, and had him spirited out of the country. Had met Idi Amin in Uganda. Claims he was the last person to interview Benazir Bhutto, in Dubai, before she was killed. Says that she was totally out of touch with reality, on a messianic mission to go back to “her people” in Pakistan. She was behaving as if she was already Prime Minister. And then the inevitable happened. Sees not much hope for Pakistan. The PPP will hibernate for seven years, until the son is old enough. Nawaz Sharif has no guts, and Musharraf is petrified of being assassinated by the Baluchis–which is a fair enough thing to be afraid of for a man that has killed so many Baluchis.

The Pakistani community in SA is formed along much the same lines as it is back home. But he said that they didn’t move from Pakistan for economic reasons, which I found hard to believe. They moved because they liked to be outside the country. And that is why the Punjabis are underrepresented here, because Punjabi mothers didn’t like their little ones being away from home.



Toupé’d: Riyadh, 26th January 2008
January 26, 2008, 2:21 pm
Filed under: Saudi Arabia

Driving along King Fahd road:

Abdul Karim, 41, Taxi Driver. Looks older. Goanese – until now I had thought that the Saudi taxi driving industry was dominated by Pathans, because of their legendary ability to drive all night. But apparently, there is room for the less Herculean. Abdul Karim has been here for 20 years. He will go back next year, God willing. He has saved up–now he has a house and car and wife and two sons at home. If he makes the money, he’ll open a small shop. Indian heaven is a small shop. If someone gives him half a million, he’d go home tomorrow. Worked in Dubai nine months, but decided to come back to Saudi. He could save more here. Taxi driving is a relatively good job because it is clean and you can earn good money. I gave him a five riyal tip on a sixteen riyal drive. Probably excessive. I liked his thick red chunky sweater.

This evening, Mr Iqbal, finally.

Which was worth waiting for. But first, was he wearing a toupe? Hard to know. At any rate, journalist and professor of English at King Saud University, columnist for Jang and Urdu News, speaker of Farsi, Urdu, Arabic and perfectly idiomatic English, toupe or not, he is quite the man. Pakistan needs him, he says. Was in Iran at the time of the revolution. He was meant to be on his way to Africa. But ended up teaching English in the Ministry of Defence, which turned out to be a school for Savak. After the Shah fell, he was wanted by the revolutionaries on account of the Savak connection. A Canadian jewish man saved him, and had him spirited out of the country. Had met Idi Amin in Uganda. Claims he was the last person to interview Benazir Bhutto, in Dubai, before she was killed. Says that she was totally out of touch with reality, on a messianic mission to go back to “her people” in Pakistan. She was behaving as if she was already Prime Minister. And then the inevitable happened. Sees not much hope for Pakistan. The PPP will hibernate for seven years, until the son is old enough. Nawaz Sharif has no guts, and Musharraf is petrified of being assassinated by the Baluchis–which is a fair enough thing to be afraid of for a man that has killed so many Baluchis.

The Pakistani community in SA is formed along much the same lines as it is back home. But he said that they didn’t move from Pakistan for economic reasons, which I found hard to believe. They moved because they liked to be outside the country. And that is why the Punjabis are underrepresented here, because Punjabi mothers didn’t like their little ones being away from home.



Pushtunistan: Riyadh, 19th January 2008
January 19, 2008, 2:12 pm
Filed under: Saudi Arabia

My taxi driver this morning proudly claimed to be from Peshawar and that he was a Pashtun. Of course. He loved it when I said he was from Pashtunistan. After half an hour of trying to explain in his rotten Arabic that Islam was the seal of the prophets and so on and that I ought to accept it, he then said that Benazir Bhutto was a Shia, and not a muslim, and that it was from her mother’s side. I looked surprised. He was right, of course. I had forgotten that.

Prayer time at Diraa’. Fifteen minutes before prayer time, the gate of Masmak Fort is resolutely shut, never mind that there is Ibn Saud’s arrow head faithfully embedded in it. It’s shut, and there is no entrance until after the prayer. So I sit in the vast, vacant, and low-lit Diraa’ Square while the call goes out. Slowly a stream of men from all directions proceeds calmly through the massive portals. They come from the clothes market, the gold souq, the police station, the honey merchants, the barber shops.

North of Sq Dira, North of Masmak Fort, where Ibn Saud’s companions fought so bravely (I found out it was largely by deception that they gained entrance to the compound, as one of them dressed up as the woman that normally brought al-Rashid his breakfast in the morning..), there is a subtle but definite transformation: from the heroic exploits of Arabia to the streets of Pushtunistan. Al-Dhahirah Street, which is mostly lined with textile vendors, is suddenly Chitral, or Gilgit. Flat bread and cheap textiles. Toeless plastic sandals on a cold night, worn with woollen cloaks, the chitrali caps.



Fortified: Riyadh, 17th January 2008
January 17, 2008, 2:05 pm
Filed under: Saudi Arabia

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In order to avoid the over-boisterous football teams in the gym, earlier I ran laps round the tennis court in the cold afternoon sunshine. Then slogged through the traffic to make it to Souq al-Thuraim just in time for prayer, when it shut. That gave me a few minutes to look around, at the muddy massiveness of the Masmak fortress, with kids and their mums playing around in the shadow of the thick corner towers. Apparently, in 1902, Ibn Saud, or one of his daring accomplices, hurled a spear with such force at the door of Masmak fort that the head is still lodged in the wood. That’s great. But, throwing a spear at a door? What was he hoping to achieve?

The souq surrounding eventually revealed itself to be stocked with cheap and cheerful goods for the self-conscious but down at heel shopper. It wasn’t so different from the commercial areas in the older parts of Cairo, but the people were better dressed. Adjacent was Dira Square and the vast, caverned mosque. Thing is, there aren’t so many people around. Despite having one of the highest birthrates in the world, Riyadh still seems to be rather underpopulated, at least in the sense that there are not so many walking around shouting, fighting, hawking, and evading the police as in other parts of the Middle East.



Patrolled: Dammam, Khobar, 16th January 2008
January 16, 2008, 1:54 pm
Filed under: Saudi Arabia

Slicing through the desert on the way to the petroleum conurbation that is Khobar-Dahran-Dammam. The constant presence of herd of black camels and the attendant bedu in the desert flanking the road. Mohammed maintains that it is the fact that King Abdullah drinks camel’s milk before bed every night that enables him to keep tabs on his thirty-something wives. And that he has a fridge full of camel products. That’s a thought: King Abdullah’s fridge. The desert here is flat, scrubby and whipped by a freezing wind. Stepping outside the car for a few moments is actively unpleasant – and that was before I stumbled into a roadside mosque looking for the urinal. Almost lost my head.

Aramco is a company with its own city, protected by fighter jets that circle above 24-hours a day. It has its own pervasive and highly Americanised corporate culture within, reflected in everything from the traffic lights to the return-book bin in the “recreational library.” Everyone is believed to be fulfilling their potential as a human being, and if not, the management will be very concerned about it.

As far as my tasks were concerned, the proper channels were the ones I was supposed to go down, which despite that being what I was doing, wasn’t quite enough to get any actual information. But it was a start. Loitering in the entrance hall to power.

Khobar: A strip of malls affronting a freezing Gulf. Girls praying on the grass outside Pizza Hut and TGI Friday’s – it was hard not to think that they were in reality bowing down to some far-off god of American fast food.

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Sun sinking low over the cold desert. Mohammed tells a story about a German journalist that he once worked with. This journalist, who now works as a real estate broker in the Caribbean, and who reportedly had a passion for Scooby Doo cartoons, was with Mohammed in the car late one night driving along an unlit highway. Suddenly he turned round to Mohammed in a fright, and said that he had seen an old man with a suitcase walking along the road in the dark. In the circumstances, maintained our German journalist, the old man could only have been a ghost.

Who is more unhinged, Mohammed or the German?

Return to Riyadh – and the entire participation in the Middle East under-23 football championship is checking in to my hotel.