The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.

In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

A short history of Arabia 

It was late at night on the sixth day, and God had just one more thing to do before turning in for some well-earned rest. For the first time coining the phrase "TGIF", She congratulated herself on inventing the Day of Rest. Now just to finish that parking lot.....

But as She looked at that vat of black semi-liquid and the piles of sand and grit that She was about to mix, She thought "What's the point? It'll be several hundred generations before Bentley and Ford come along and invent the horseless carriage. And it's not as if anyone sensible will want to go to that corner of the world. I know it's handy for the Garden of Eden, not that they'll be there long, but it's as hot as Hell, anyone sensible will head for the Mediterranean and the Nile instead. The invention of tarmac can wait several millenia. In fact, let the lazy B's discover it for themselves, why should I do all the work? So She tipped out the black semi-liquid, and covered it with the sand and gravel, and called it a day.

And indeed, no-one sensible did want to go there. It was as hot as hell, the only things to survive were palm trees and camels, and, a major drawback, there was nothing to ferment. (OK, there's Date Wine, but would you drink Date Wine?). So no-one sensible did go there. That just left the not-so-sensible people, who did go there. Let's face it, if you could live by the Nile and bathe in ass's milk, or that bit between the Mediterranean and the Jordan and eat oranges and drink real wine and cook in virgin olive oil, why would you choose to spend your life squatting in the sand eating rancid goat cheese? But some did. But we won't call them the not-so-sensible people. Let's call them Arabians instead, it's kinder.

So there are my ancestors, tending their goats and sheep and camels, eating dates, milk and cheese, trying to keep out of the sun. Otherwise, not a lot is happening. There is the story that Abraham came with wife Hagar and son Ishmael and founded Makkah and the Arabic side of his family. However he soon disappeared back to the Jewish relatives, and life went on as before. There was an Egyptian civilization, then a Greek one and a Persian one, then a Roman one, and of course let's not forget all those Jewish kings and prophets around Judea and Israel. Meanwhile, we are inventing 101 recipes for dates, milk and rancid goat's cheese.

The Nabateans, who had built themselves a very prosperous trading city up at Petra in present-day Jordan, set up a branch operation in our desert at Madein Saleh. But it's all about location, location, location. No footfall, no customers, no income, and by the time the Ottomans' railway went past two millenia later, it was far too late to stop it going out of business.

Mohammad was born in Makkah in 570 CE, and there was a brief flurry of activity when he founded Islam. But when he died, anyone who was anybody in Islam went north, to where the climate was kinder and the food was better, and they founded the Ummayad dynasty in Damascus and later the Abbasid Dynasty in Baghdad. Which is a bit of a shame, really. It's like having a birthday party as a dorky child, and when the other kids have eaten all your food, they just disappear and go and play where it's more fun. And let's face it, it is more fun anywhere else on the planet. Centuries of a climate as hot as Hell, and awful food, and nothing to ferment, have not made us a fun people. You wouldn't find any Arabian court jesters, with silly hats and bells on their feet, working the court and palace circuit of North Europe. Sure, the Muslims came back to Makkah once a year for Hajj, but we always felt it was out of duty, not because they looked forward to our company and the vibrant Makkah nightlife.

So another millenium passes. In Europe (and I apologize to readers from India, China and Japan who have their own rich pageant of history going on at this time) there was the rise of monasticism, then scholasticism, then the renaissance, then the reformation, then the enlightenment, then the industrial revolution. For us in Saudi Arabia, things went on as before, fairly quietly. The good thing about being people with no wealth is that no-one wants to invade you or go to war with you. There were, however, some exceptions.

The first one was quite early on, and I'll come back to that.

The second one was when the Ottomans invaded. Why they did that was anyone's guess. Probably because they'd just been turned back at the gates of Vienna, leaving their coffee behind. Left with nowhere else to invade, they went for the least obvious place, the one that nobody else would think of invading, the one with no wealth and natives who didn't smile or make jokes, and where it was hot as Hell. Attacking fellow Muslims, but hey, what's new, and anyway they liked railways, and decided to build one all the way to Madinah for the pilgrims. Temperatures up to the 130's, where the only sensible thing is to squat in the shade, and they built a railway, all by themselves! Didn't even use labor from the sub-continent but forget to pay them, like we would have done. But there's no telling these railway enthusists, once they get an idea in their head....

The third war was the Great War, with the leaders of the Hashemite tribes (who looked like Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif) being joined by an Englishman (who looked like Peter O'Toole) pushing the Ottoman Turks back, blowing up their railway as they went. Cruellest thing you can do to a railway enthusiast, blow up his railway. Anyway, they pushed the Ottomans out of Arabia and all the way back to Syria. Exhausted by this long war, the Hashemites sat back to enjoy the fruits of victory....

But they hadn't reckoned with the sly and scheming House of Saud, whose original allies had included the miserable and misogynistic religious leader Muhammad ("sin may be fun, but fun is definitely a sin") ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The Sauds had been clever enough to avoid all this messy fighting, and preferred instead to watch events from a distance, lurking in the desert out east where no Turk would dare venture. (A soccer commentator would call it "making intelligent use of open space"). But now was their time to pounce upon the unfortunate and exhausted Hashemites, grabbing Makkah and Madinah, and shoving them over the border into present-day Jordan. Hence "Saudi" Arabia. It's rather like one of those "Indiana Jones" films where Indiana risks life and limb getting the priceless artifacts from the underground tomb, dodging that huge ball that rolls down the tunnel, but when he emerges into the open air, the fat sweaty German takes them off him at gunpoint without so much as a "thank you".

The rest, as they say, is history. Americans came and found that dark liquid under the sand and helped us extract it, so that no longer do we need to squat out in the shade, we now sit in air-conditioned offices, watching our brethren from poorer countries but infinitely richer civilisations as they build our skyscrapers and sweep our streets and drive our wives to the shops. Stuff the work ethic, we'll go for the oil derrick. As the Christian hymn says, "God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform...". Amen to that.

But what about that first war, you ask? It's a very obscure one, but one of our Imams referred to it recently. You can see him speaking here. (Number 1059)

Sheik Muhsen Al-'Awaji: Before Islam, the Arabs fought for 40 years to defend the honor of a female camel. This was in the Busous War. A female camel was humiliated, and a 40-year war ensued to defend its honor. ..... I'm not saying I'm proud of a war over a female camel's honor, or that I would call to wage a war to defend the honor of a female camel...

Now if you Google the "Busous War", you won't find anything, apart from lots of other blogs saying "What is he on about? What is he smoking? Can I have some?" But there is a good reason for that. The story of the Bosous War has been never been commited to parchment, papyrus or paper. It is passed on exclusively by oral tradition down the generations of the people of the Arabian peninsula. The Sheikh is one of those in the line of story-tellers. However, fortunately for you, so am I, and I can tell you what I know.

But that will have to await my next posting. All the A's are off on a long weekend. I'll be back late Sunday or Monday to tell you how we defended the honor of a female camel.

Have a good weekend yourselves.

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