This book Sandstorms: Days and Nights in Arabia by Peter Theroux tells of the author's adventures in Egypt and Saudi Arabia during the 1980s as he was searching for information on what happened to Moussa Sadr. He wrote a book about that, but this one is about other stuff that happened during his time in the Middle East.
Peter learned Arabic, made friends with Arabs and did his best to explain Arab culture to visitors so the visitors would have a better understanding of the Arabian ways. Please keep this in mind as you read the following excerpts because I don't want you to get the wrong impression that his book was only about this stuff I noted. I guess these are just the funny and odd things that stand out the most to me. Actually there is so much more - like the man who wanted to convert Peter to Islam and then asked if he had any girls (American? British? Filipino?) available so he could have a good time. When one day Peter decided to say yes that he has available girls and they are Saudis, the man got extremely angry and never spoke to him again! Must be one of those cultural things about MEN that I will never understand!
Since this book's information is quite old, I do wonder as I'm reading how much has changed since Peter lived in Arabia.
THIS ONE JUST MADE ME LITERALLY LAUGH OUT LOUD
Peter was driving in Saudi Arabia when his car slid into a ditch. A police car arrived and the officer checked his driver's license which was issued in Peter's home state, Massachusetts.
Officer: "Just wait a minute - what's this?"
"That's my American license. I don't have a Saudi one yet, but -- "
"What do you mean, 'American license'? Show me where it says 'America.'"
Alas, it doesn't since it was issued by Massachusetts - a state - and not the federal government. So the officer calls another officer over and they talk. The second officer comes over with the pleasant "salaamu aleikum" greeting declaring that he knows Massachusetts: "It's the best state!"
We chatted - he was friendly and extremely religious and demanded to know why I had not converted to Islam, since I knew Arabic and could presumably see, in the Koran, the perfect fulfillment of Judaism and Christianity. Surely I rejected the infamous sacrilege that God had a mother and a son? ... I tried to pump him about his visit to Massachusetts.
"I never visited there - I know it from history. America is full of good people but bad things - sex and crime, and some people are so backward - they worship the devil and follow the tower" - he meant al-bourj, the zodiac - "but Massachusetts is the only place they know how to deal with witches - by hanging them! Good night, my friend." (pgs. 20-22)
Not sure why this struck me so funny. Must have been the matter-of-fact way the guy declared MA the "best state" because they hung witches there. In the past. Not that that is funny at all ... moving on.
ON CONVERSIONS OBSERVED IN KSA
It involved in his opinion "a cultural rather than spiritual transformation. I never knew a Christian whose values changed radically after adopting Islam, but the outward changes - especially in name and wardrobe - were always striking." [Insert examples of American converts who adopted "very specifically, the clothes and habits of the desert Arabs."] "It was as if a Russian Jewish convert to Christianity in Oklahoma made it an article of faith to dress as a cowboy every day, down to the chaps, spurs, and lasso. ... It was a one-way street, of course, since apostatizing from Islam to any other faith was a capital crime." (pg. 139-140)
Haha...I can understand adopting the head scarf if you thought God wanted you to cover your hair, but I have puzzled over the complete transformations and changed names. Hey, I guess if you don't like the name your parents gave you, it's a good excuse to find one you like better! Too bad your selection is limited to Arabic ones, however.
He told of an Islamic University which "used a textbook, which debated, among other questions, whether or not Shiites have tails." (pg. 127)
"The ugliness of the Arab world's hostility toward its own Shiites was remarkable, and I felt that Saudi Arabia was abusing its prestige as guardian of Mecca and Medina by hinting that the Shia were 'deviants' and ridiculing their clergy. I had to take my stand, and I took it by being part of this friendly Shiite underground." (pg. 128)
If I were a Shiite, I think I'd show them my tail so their mystery would be solved! ;-)
WHY NO CHURCHES ALLOWED?
"Surely the Saudi bigotry against other religions revealed a deep insecurity in the face of other cultures and faiths and was a sop to empty nationalism and phony clerics. Even the least observant Muslim in Saudi Arabia measured power and influence in religious terms. ... It was a subtle and informal way of marking territory. When the city of Rome decided, in 1984, to grant a building permit for a mosque near the Holy See, the reaction of the Riyadh press was anything but uplifting: jeering articles applauded this tanazul, relinquishing or surrender, on the part of Rome and the Vatican. They did not rule out that tolerance or political opportunism may have played a role, as they surely must have, but that was beside the point: Europe and all Christendom were gloatingly shown to be demoralized and weak for having caved to Islamic machismo. It was also portrayed as a crushing blow to 'world Zionism.'"
I wonder if this is similar to those folks in Tennessee who didn't want a mosque in their town. Were they also marking territory or desiring to not show weakness by surrendering? Were they trying to deliver a "crushing blow" to "world Islamism"? Hmmmm...
When Peter was talking to his friend about allowing a church for all the Christians in Riyadh (foreigners of course since all Saudis are Muslim by birth), he asked, "Wouldn't you respect them more if they went to church, if they had a church to go to?"
"'Having no churches prevents them from learning wrong things,' shrugged Hamdan. 'They should be grateful. It's their chance to learn something about Islam.'" (pg. 172-173)
So have things changed much in these 25-30 years? I don't know. But it sure is interesting to read some impressions about this part of the world from the pre-9/11 days. Sometimes it's hard for me to recall what I thought of or knew about Arabs or Muslims before then. Actually all these things described above sound nothing like the Arabs and Muslims I've had the pleasure of getting to know. Maybe I should be more clear from time to time about that. Samer asks me sometimes why I am reading books about his people (and finding faulty things such as I mentioned above) and I tell him if he were some Jewish Israeli guy who found me online, invited me to his country and became one of my best friends, I'd be reading books on Israel and Zionism and doing the same thing. So I blame Samer. He started it! ;)