"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Monday, November 21, 2011

Observations on Saudi Arabia in the 1980s

If you've read any of my posts this year, you may know I've enjoyed a number of books by Westerners traveling through Arabia and other parts of the world. I find it such an interesting way to learn more about the variety of cultures, the religions, the people, the foods, the animals, everything. Of course they are told from specific people's eyes where the natives' habits may seem curious or strange, but that's part of what I love about reading books or blog posts of those visiting the United States. I like to see what stands out to people, what they find noteworthy, what they find worth sharing.

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.




ON SHIITES


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!  ;)

16 comments:

Qusay said...

I enjoyed this posts very much :)

Susanne said...

Oh, I'm glad! Thanks for reading and for the feedback.:)

Amber said...

Interesting!

The changing of names: I recall reading a long time ago that the only reason people would 'have' to change their name if they converted would be if their name originally meant something un-Islamic. So if it was a name that referenced worshiping another god or something like that. I know (and by 'know' I mean read their blogs) plenty of people who've converted to Islam and don't change anything, name wise.

I think, in current times, people who change their name (assuming that it doesn't have a 'bad' meaning) are doing so for two reasons: 1) They want to identify not just with the religion of Islam but with the Arabic culture. 2) There's something about their life before they found Islam that they don't like. They're using the name change to sharpen the separation between the 'old' them and the 'new' them.

In the historic context of the book I'd have to guess that taking on the Arabic culture probably made those converts lives easier in S.A.

As for not allowing mosques/churches to be built: That's always struck me as being a combination or insecurity and prejudice.

Is your faith or theology that weak that just having the house of worship of another faith in the vicinity will draw your congregation away like flies?

And the prejudice involved in telling members of your community that they don't have the right to have their own place of worship is just...it's disgusting.

Susanne said...

Amber, true! I've known several online bloggers who have kept their born names, too. Probably most of them, in fact. I do have one on Facebook, however, who changed her name. The funny thing about her is that my Arab friends often first think she is Arab like them. Her husband is Syrian and she does speak often of her time living over there so I can't blame them for getting mixed up initially.

"1) They want to identify not just with the religion of Islam but with the Arabic culture."

You actually made me remember in the Bible when the children of Israel were taken captive by the Babylonians. Remember the young men whose names were changed? Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, in fact, are more well-known by their Babylonian names than their Hebrew ones.

I wonder why people want to associate with Arabic culture so much. Do they really think Islam is only for or THE BEST when practiced like the Arabs do it? I guess when you consider Muhammad was Arab, yes. Yet, I don't try to act Jewish just because Jesus was a Jew. I suppose I am flawed! (I do have a Hebrew name, however!)


" 2) There's something about their life before they found Islam that they don't like. They're using the name change to sharpen the separation between the 'old' them and the 'new' them."

Like Saul to Paul - makes sense!


"In the historic context of the book I'd have to guess that taking on the Arabic culture probably made those converts lives easier in S.A."

Yes, true. He also mentions seeing Cat Stevens in Riyadh affecting "an unnatural accent" and assorted Arab, Indian and Afghani clothes. So I guess it's not just Arab stuff! This guy just strikes me as one of those types who doesn't like people changing things around too much. The cowboy bit just struck me funny as he made that comparison.


"Is your faith or theology that weak that just having the house of worship of another faith in the vicinity will draw your congregation away like flies?"

Great point. And especially more for those people who believe God draws people to Himself which I think most Muslims (and Calvinists in the US) believe. So people cannot go away from God if God has chosen them for the righteous path no matter how many churches (or mosques) are tempting them.

"And the prejudice involved in telling members of your community that they don't have the right to have their own place of worship is just...it's disgusting."

Yes, I hope we can not succumb to Saudi like behavior more than we already have in denying people the right to worship in mosques and so forth. This guy mentioned Saudi TV preachers cramming religion down people's throats yet denying them any choice. Lots of lessons to be learned from books like this. I don't want the US to follow those paths more than we already have.

Thanks for your feedback!

Wafa' said...

Beautiful yet judgmental book but are we all judgmental about things we don't know !! and sometimes things we have clear idea about.

Huge number of Saudis still believe in witchcraft and if someone is "a witch" or "a warlock"- <<cute names btw- and caught, he or she would be executed-most of the time- cuz it's a believe that they are dealing with the devil or demons or jin..
So you can tell why the police
officer was so happy about Massachusetts.

As for the changing of clothes, it's mostly due to the believe that this is how Muslims at the time of the prophet used to dress and most people like to imitate the prophet in every thing including the way he dressed.Plus, Orthodox Muslims here prefer this kind of dressing and believed that anything else is westernized and converts mostly follow in the same step.
As for name changing, it's also following in the step of the prophet when he changed the names of some of his companion cuz they weren't "Islamic". Amber explained it better, I guess :)

Sadly, the situation for "Shiite" is still the same and "Crazy ideas" are still circling about them.It's disgusting and hateful but since when do "minority" in any place in the world being treated fairly.You know what ? I don't mind the stupid idea but others but the problem is that they are always followed by prosecutions and worse .

why no Churches are allowed? . Not for the same reason "Hamdan" mentioned. But again, it's a believe among Muslims that the prophet said that there won't be two religions in The Arabian Peninsula. And since Islam is ruling there so it's the only religion allowed. Some have been questioning the saying while other are wondering about the area that this saying is limited to, as they suggested it would be Medina and Mecca so it's OK to built churches in other places. But no one would agree of that, no one wants to see a Saudi who is Christian or a Jew !!

So yes things have changed and have not around here.

Suroor said...

I don't like Saudi Arabia at all - I have family and friends who love it and would give up anything to live there. Good for them; I lived there and can't stand the place. Some people are really great but many Saudis are deeply racist and judgmental. However those who are not so are very strong-willed and great people with generous hearts.

Suroor said...

I think KSA is a theocracy and hence there are no churches. I mean are there any mosques in the Vatican City? The Prophet never forbade building of churches or synagogues in Arabia but see KSA itself is a wrong name - Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. So the Prophet's country is now the Saud's! Many Arabs don't like to call Arabia, KSA.

Yesterday I was reading some accounts in the seerah where it was mentioned that some early Muslims left Islam and became Christian and the Prophet didn't persecute them at all. The visit of the Christians of Najran was also very peaceful and successful for both parties. So what is being practiced in KSA now it not really according to sunnah.

Yes, but all Arabs are scared of magic, witches and Jinn. That is a very real fear for them. Indonesians and Moroccans are called witches and "husband-snatchers."

Funny we were talking in class about the Bible and as soon I mentioned it a student said it has been *corrupted* and the belief is still that Jesus received oral revelations like Muhammad :) Anyway so back to the Bible - then students began saying how Quran is the perfect word of God completing, complimenting, replacing and making perfect the Bible and the Torah. Ah well...

Amber said...

Susanne,

Funny! Did I ever tell you that the first time I went to the Greek church they were convinced I was Greek? I kept having to explain that I wasn't, not even anywhere in my family tree. Strange.

"I wonder why people want to associate with Arabic culture so much. Do they really think Islam is only for or THE BEST when practiced like the Arabs do it?"

I'm guessing that it's something relatively recent since Islam spread to other cultures without Arab-ifying them. Yes, I just made up that word. Anyway. Maybe it's part of an effort to get back to Islam the way Mohammed practiced it and since he was Arabian they think that that's the best way? Or maybe it's like some people have said and the Saudi version of Islam is the one being exported because they have all the money and so more people are being taught that that's the way it should be? Completely ignoring the idea that Islam is supposed to be for all people and that there's (as far as I know) no mention of everyone having to walk the way the Arabs do...

"Yet, I don't try to act Jewish just because Jesus was a Jew. I suppose I am flawed! (I do have a Hebrew name, however!)"

That's because you'd have to give up bacon! :p And hey, my name has origins in the Arabic language (anbar). So if we have to start acting with our names I'm in trouble... :)

Susanne said...

Wafa', have I ever told you how much I enjoy your point of view? :) I love how you described this as a "beautiful yet judgmental book." By the way, the guy lived in KSA for five years so it wasn't like he was just passing through on a two-week visit. Maybe I should have added that fact.

Thanks for explaining about the witch thing. Yeah,I figured that's why he liked Massachusetts and since that's so much in the past (we hope!), I had to laugh at that being the reason MA was considered the best state by that guy. :)

I enjoyed what you added about dressing like Muhammad and changing names and so forth. Sorry you all aren't allowed freedom to choose your religion or lack thereof. I guess it's just one of those things determined by where you happen to be born in this world.

Really enjoyed your feedback - thanks!



Suroor, the author mentions people referring to KSA by other names for the reason you mentioned. I think something about "The Peninsula" or something else that did NOT reference the Saud tribe. Thanks for pointing this out!


How funny that you even brought up the Bible in your class! Thanks for sharing that story with me about my corrupted holy book! Heheh. Really enjoyed your comments! I'm glad you were able to post this time!!! :D



Amber, yes, I remember you wrote about that on your blog. Haha! Even after you told them your last name, they were determined you were Greek! Ha!! I used to love those stories! Wonder whatever happened to that older guy you thought was named Andrew, but he ended up being something else - Arthur, maybe? :)

Hmmm, yes getting back to Arabian Muhammad...makes sense. LOL that I'd have to give up bacon! You make me laugh. I'm really not so much a huge pork eater, but I guess I eat things that have pork products in them. Like marshmellows and candy that may have pork gelatin. Not sure about that.


*imaging Amber acting like an Arab* :)



Thank you all for your comments!

Becky said...

I'm late to the conversation and I'm going to talk about something completely different, cause I'm rude like that :P

" 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!"

This actually reminds of my ex (Pakistani not Saudi), I sometimes tried to get him to care about the atrocities happening to Pakistani girls and women by saying "how would you feel if it was one of yoru sisters". He would get SO angry with me, yelling at me telling me never to speak about his sisters like that again (as if it somehow sullied them?).

Susanne said...

Becky, you can talk about whatever takes your attention. I thought that statement worth a second look myself! Glad you shared what you did - thanks! I guess your ex just didn't want to think such a thing was possible, huh? Reality is sad though.

Thanks again!

Abdullah from Saudi said...

Hi Susanne

During my living in the West I came across many conversations and dialogues. However, my initial finding is that dealing with religious people seems more fruitful. Religious christians are willing to listen and to talk with some seriousness. And it seems you also religious woman and I wish you well.

If I could add something about the issue of Churches in Arabia. First of all, there is nothing to do with insecurity whatsoever. But the reason is that Arabian peninsula is exception case. I am sure there are some Orientals who wrote about this issue. Why it is exception? Because we are told by our prophet -pace be upon him- to preserve this island to islam and nothing other than islam. We believe from the bottom of our heart that the islam the truth and we have to follow what we have been told to do. I am talking to with extreme honesty and frankness. My understanding of islam is that it is not against the existence of Churches or christian, and this is very clear and there is no coercion on christian to convert but they have full right to practice their religion in their churches in islamic countries but not in arabian peninsula. You see Saudi people against harming churches in egypt and syria or iraq but on the same time they are against building churches in saudi arabia because of what the prophet said: (there is no religions in arabian Island).

The insecurity seems more obvious among christians than among muslim in my small observation. Muslims send their kids to christian schools -Ireland for example- and they teach muslim kids Christianity and the kids still muslims. The pope for instance consider islam as major challenge. Some people go far to think that the war on terrorism has undeclared policy in which that islamic reaching to Christians stopped. In history muslims are more tolerant with other religions than christians and you can simply ask the jewish people.

Finally, Saudis are living in their land for thousands of years, and they are not invaders of arabia and so you can tolerate somehow what they want to be done in their land. There is no (Dum Diversas) in arabia.

Susanne said...

Abdullah, welcome and thank you for your comment! I enjoyed seeing it when I woke up this morning.

Thanks for explaining why no churches are allowed in Saudi Arabia. I can understand better why Muslims refuse to allow them because they are simply following the intolerance of their prophet. It's not your faults he cleansed the land of its former inhabitants and made it only for Muslims. It's kind of like what my European ancestors did in cleansing the (now) America. Bad on both parts, in my opinion. But we each live with the results of what happened in history, right? And, hey, if Muhammad's actions are OK'd by God...all the better! A lot of evil deeds are supposedly OK'd by God so ... take them with a grain of salt.

I read a great book earlier this year about Jews in Muslim lands that explained how Isaac's sons were treated in Ishmael's house. (That's kind of the word usage that was used especially in the title.)

"In history muslims are more tolerant with other religions than christians and you can simply ask the jewish people"

I've heard it said that it was never so bad for Jews as it was in Christian lands nor was it so good for Jews as in Christian lands. Meaning of course that Christians traditionally were among the WORST in treating Jews and also among the BEST. Jews in the US now - especially among people I know - are dearly dearly loved. That's why Christian Zionism is such a big deal to many. Of course it's debatable whether that is love for Jews or merely love for the State of Israel...that's another matter entirely.

But if you ask most any of my friends and family if they love Jews, they will exclaim overwhelmingly that they do. Thus why so many of them aren't huge fans of those they see as enemies of the Jews (which they wrongly equate with those against the current Israel.)


You said the Saudis had been in the peninsula for thousands of years. I didn't realize that. But were there not other tribes there equally as long? If so, why do the Sauds get to rule over them all? Because they aligned themselves with the religious folks and came to power that way?

Or perhaps you meant "Saudis" in the broader sense including all people nowadays who consider themselves Saudis. Eh, so what? I'm sure the Jewish and Christians tribes in Arabia had been there a long time when Muhammad drove them out. The Saudis may not have invaded the peninsula, but it seems they wiped it free of tribes that didn't subscribed to Muhammad's new religion of which it has been said there is no compulsion to accept.

It's all a bit confusing perhaps. Anyway, thank you again for your explanation on these issues!

Abdullah from Saudi said...

Thank you Susanne for your answer. I would be grateful if you just clarify something to me. I have studied the history of Mohammed -pace be upon him-. However, you mentioned something about him which never come in my reading. (my be I was mislead or there are hidden facts from me and you could bring them out).

You said:

""I'm sure the Jewish and Christians tribes in Arabia had been there a long time when Muhammad drove them out. The Saudis may not have invaded the peninsula, but it seems they wiped it free of tribes that didn't subscribed to Muhammad's new religion of which it has been said there is no compulsion to accept.""

I have never read about the prophet drove Christian tribes out of Arabia. and It would be nice if you give me source for this information. In fact the current royal family in United Arab Emirates and Oman use to be Christian family called (Lakhmids ) and they are now muslims and also ruling their countries.

Ironically, christians in Arabia massacred by Jews (Dhu Nuwas) not by by muslims. Look at:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhu_Nuwas

Susanne said...

Sorry for that. I don't know why I included Christians in that when I was thinking of the Jewish tribes in Arabia. Thanks for correcting my mistake. :)

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