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.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Wild Ones 

Remember the movie, "The Wild One", with Marlon Brando? Nice quiet town, nice law-abiding people, all going about their peaceful business. Until their worst nightmare comes true. A gang of unruly bikers, the "Black Rebels", rides into town. Nasty people, you wouldn't want your daughter mixing with them. Then there's all sorts of threats, violence and mayhem, until they are eventually thrown out.

I was reminded of this film, funnily enough, by a posting by Ahmed over at "Saudi Jeans", about the Riyadh International Book Fair. Now that title may sound to some of you like the ultimate ironic joke, the juxtaposition of....

Riyadh - epicenter of Wahabbi World
International - with connotations of sophistication, worldliness, multiculturalism
Book - apart from the Quran, can be deeply dangerous things, can carry all sorts of ideas, therefore their import is strictly regulated, and the Saudi list of banned books is longer than the one the Vatican used to have
Fair - carries ideas of fun, people mixing together and sharing a common enjoyment

....but there is in fact a Riyadh International Book Fair, and it is one of the few good things going on there at the moment. In spite of it still being a very Saudi event (you'll see what I mean), it is a small beacon of progress and genuine culture in a sea of self-inflicted ignorance. If I were back in Riyadh I'd definitely be going to it. Our friend Ahmed from "Saudi Jeans" went.

I went there on Thursday morning, and the place was crowded. As usual, a large number of visitors were flocking at the small spaces of a few publishers, while most of the rest publishers were doing nothing but removing the dust off their untouched books. The locations of the famous publishing houses such as Dar Al Saqi, The Arabic Cultural Center, Dar Al Jamal, the Arab Establishment of Research and Publishing, and Dar Al Mada, were the main spots of attraction to readers. Meanwhile, most of other publishers' locations, especially Saudi book publishers, were almost empty.

However, this is Saudi Arabia, so....

It was surprising for me that Dar Al Saqi did not provide any of the Saudi writer Turki Al-Hamad's novels; not even his latest book Reeh Al-Jannah, a novel about the 9/11 suicide bombers. Al-Hamad's books are usually banned in Saudi. The best-seller Banat Al-Riyadh by Raja Al-Sanea was not available too, which leaves me wondering if it was banned.

....yes, our wise leaders are still banning books, even books by Saudi authors, because sometimes we need to be shielded from ideas that aren't good for us. Especially when the author writes about 9/11. Why would Saudi readers be interested in a book about 15 Icelandic (or were they Samoan?) plane hijackers? And "Banat Al-Riyadh", "Girls of Riyadh", a sort of Riyadh-based "Sex and the City", if you can imagine that; as well as being far too racy for us, it also deals with women's hopes, fears, ambitions and longings, whereas our rulers know for a fact that women don't have any of those.

Ahmed also went to one of the discussion panels.

Last night I went to a panel on cultural diversity, and I have enjoyed a very good discussion. The panel was done the Saudi style, with the only female speaker Dr. Khairia Al-Saggaf talking from another room, where we could not see her but only listen to her voice.

This is standard at Saudi conferences. The women go to another room, and watch the main events on TV, occasionally making contributions via a microphone. I've heard some very good female contributions at conferences, but only as disembodied voices echoing around the men's hall.

Most foreign visitors pretend not to notice that there's anything strange about this arrangement, a bit like we all do when some gabbling "bag lady" comes and sits next to us in the subway train. However a German speaker didn't understand the rules....

This made Dr. Warner Dawm, the German speaker, says he wishes Dr. Al-Saggaf was sitting with them on the same podium. She did not comment on that, but one of the audience later told the German guy to respect our culture and traditions.

....and when our more zealous citizens say "respect our culture and traditions", that means don't even think about discussing our culture and traditions. But they'll discuss yours, of course. Anyway, as Ahmed said,

I did not think he (Dr. Dawm) was being disrespectful, and I'm glad that he did not apologize.

So am I. But Dr. Dawm may not get invited back next year.

Anyway, it soon became obvious that "The Wild Ones" had just ridden into town; not on their bikes (symbols of decadent Western culture), but probably in beat-up Toyota pick-up trucks. You know who I mean, the guys with long beards and short dirty thobes, bad breath, croaky voices, and often acne from too little fresh air - the zealots, the extreme conservatives, the ultra-religious, the "Imam University Gang".

There was a lot of extremists in the audience, who insisted that anyone different from us is an infidel, and that we have to deal with him on this principle. I liked it when Dr. Faisal Al-Muammar, the moderator of the panel, stopped the same man from talking in an offending manner about Shiites, describing them as rafidha.

"Anyone different from us" in their case means anyone with a trimmed beard, laundered thobes and clear skin. But it definitely includes the Shiites (rafidha = refusers or rejectors, because they refuse to accept the Sunni "world view". And to a Shiite, saying "rafidha" is about as polite as calling a black man "nigger"). If you think these extreme Sunni guys hate Christians and Jews, just see how they regard their fellow-Muslims, the Shiites.

Shiites were the subject of a hot debate at the end of the panel, when Dr. Khaled Al-Dakheel said that Shiites are part of us. This was the point where the panel went out of control. Before Al-Dakheel was able to complete that sentence, a Sheikh from the first row interrupted and told Dr. Al-Dakheel that Shiites are not Muslims, and that he has to say this.

In other words, Shiites are really infidels. Scary stuff. And the "Wild Ones" are now turning the nice gentle learned Book Fair into a minor riot.

Al-Dakheel was surprised by the rudeness of the man and refused to say that. Here, tens of extremists sitting on the left side of the hall started shouting, and told Al-Dakheel to shut up.

The session was brought to a hurried close. But "The Wild Ones" are only just starting.

As soon as the panel ended, a large group of the long-bearded-short-thobed guys gathered around Al-Dakheel. I could not hear what they were telling him, but I saw him later leaving with one of the organizers from a side door.

A potential victim has left. They look round for another one. And who better than Dr. Mohammed Al-Zulfa, the member of the Shoura Council who had tried to introduce that bill to legalize women driving? A pro-feminist moist-eyed liberal if ever there was one. They've hit paydirt! It's like when the Jody Foster character wandered into that bar in "Accused"!

But after the panel was ended, the same people who were gathered around Al-Dakheel came and stood around Dr. Al-Zulfa and started talking to him. They were telling him to stop calling for women's rights, and that he has no right to talk about such issues because they should be only tackled by Sheikhs and scholars.

Let me explain. All our laws are based on the Quran. Therefore to be a lawyer, you need to be a theology graduate, from my favorite university. And if you are not, you have no right to discuss legal issues, or indeed anything at all; just shut your mouth and do as you're told. But Dr Al-Zulfa gets a little feisty.

Al-Zulfa refused to obey, and asked what's the difference between him and these sheikhs. “Is it something with my clothes? I can change my clothes, you know,” he told them.

No Doctor, don't change your clothes! Don't chop 20 cms off your thobe and trail it in the dust! Anyway, you wouldn't be able to do the croaky voice and the acne and the bad breath and the crooked teeth.

The organizers are now trying to clear "The Wild Ones" out of town, but the religious hooligans are not finished yet....

The organizers were telling the people that they have to leave because they are closing the gates now, but the extremists kept on shouting.

....and switching his tiny knot of brain cells into overdrive, their leader delivers the "killer question" to the good Doctor....

“Do you want to face God on judgment day with women's driving next to your name?”

Dr Al-Zulfa apparently did not reply, so let me pick up that question on his behalf. When God asks Dr Al-Zulfa what he did in his earthly life, and the Doctor replies "I tried to make it legal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia", then God will reply....

"Good lad, come and sit down here. Glass of wine? Bacon sandwich? I never banned them, you know, it was that lot! Anyway, I'm just starting to watch the World Cup. Who do you fancy in Group C?

Whereas, when the leader of the "Imam University Gang" turns up (and may God grant that his journey to Paradise is not delayed any longer than necessary), and he tells God that "I made sure that the women of Saudi Arabia kept their modesty by wearing head-to-toe acrylic and always being accompanied by a male relative and were never led into temptation by being able to drive", then God will reply....

"Miserable ugly git. And don't come too near me, your breath smells like something just died.....oh you just did, ha, ha, ha! Right, go down to the cellar and fetch the Doctor and me half a dozen of the '88 Merlot, we've got some serious drinking to do. Then when you've done that, pop another twelve rashers of bacon under the grill. And after that, you can go and do all the laundry for Mother Theresa and her nuns...."

Because God is good, and just, and She has a real problem with people who are mean to women.

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