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.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Photos and memories 

Following the earlier post with photos, "John G" has passed on the URL to his album of photos taken while he was a youthful expat in Saudi. I love looking at these photos that people have taken, because they also bring back memories for me as well. Because the sad thing is that photography is very much frowned upon in the Kingdom. There is a great difference of opinion amongst our learned scholars, which is the problem we have when we try to use a 1400-year-old book to rule on a 100-year-old invention. The only original guidance is:

As it is common knowledge, there are countless Hadiths narrated from the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) that strictly prohibit painting pictures of animate objects, for example:
Sayyiduna Jabir (Allah be pleased with him) narrates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) forbade the keeping of pictures at home and making them." (Sunan Tirmidhi, no: 1749)
Sayyiduna Abu Talha (Allah be pleased with him) narrates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said: "Angels (of mercy) do not enter a house wherein there is a dog or a picture." (Sahih al-Bukhari, no: 5609)

So paintings are a no-no. Especially paintings of dogs. But we then get into the debate about whether a photo is a creation (which is definitely banned) as opposed to an image or copy (which may not be). In practice, we are allowed photos for identity purposes, on Id cards and driving licences, and every hotel and company reception has its photos of the "Three Wise Monkeys" - youthful photos of the senior royals smiling at us benignly, just like Saddam Hussein used to, or that Korean guy with the bad haircut. I suppose the logic is that if we find ourself standing next to one of them while washing hands in the Rest Room (we don't stand elsewhere there, for reasons to do with our national attire), we will recognise him and not pass some jocular comment like the Arabic equivalent of "Hey pal, you're a dead ringer for Prince Nayif, how's your chopper?" *

But otherwise photography is frowned upon. There are numerous tales of unwary expatriates who go out in the desert, start taking photos, and then get pulled in by the cops because there was some camouflaged military installation, or an abaya'd female 10 kilometers away on the horizon. And there have been all sorts of problems, as you know, with camera phones, so you get the muttawa tuning in with Bluetooth looking for young ladies like this one. Then there are the weddings. It was often the case that uninvited women would gatecrash the Women's section of a wedding celebration, to scout for likely looking potential wives for some male relative, perhaps their son. Nowadays they use the latest technology.

According to the Okaz daily, the performer, a woman, pulled out a mobile phone on her break and was taking pictures of women attending the wedding. Other women saw this and immediately tried to wrest the phone away from the singer.

As the Irish say, it's not a "proper wedding" unless there's a good fight.

The ensuing argument collapsed into fisticuffs involving more than 20 women. Police had to be called in and arrested all women involved in the brawl.

Anyway, the point I was getting to is that because we don't take photos, there is no archive, either personal or national, of our social history. Which is a great loss and a great tragedy. So it's only in the cameras of expatriates like "John G" that we see how our society and environment has developed.

This one takes me back. Here's John, doing his school homework on the floor. In chemical suit and gas-mask, because it's at the time of Gulf War I. We all had to be prepared to put these on, although the initial distribution to the population was a shambles, but we eventually got them. Fortunately they weren't needed. Saddam Hussein did send his Scud missiles over, but only with conventional explosive. Riyadh and the eastern cities were within range, Makkah and Jeddah just a bit beyond. We were supposed to take shelter when they were coming over, but it was the best show in town, we all went up on the roof to watch. We rarely saw the Scuds, but we did see the Patriots heading towards them and some exploding, although it turns out later that very few made contact. A number of Scuds did land in Riyadh, one quite near us took out a school, but fortunately at night. In hindsight, we were probably quite reckless, going out to watch everything, but a lot of us did. We were a bit like those hippies in the "Independence Day" movie on top of the building - we weren't worshipping the space ship, but we were certainly first in the line of fire if anything came down on us. But, thinking about it, I'd prefer that to being buried in rubble and dying that way.

It amuses me sometimes, when I get into arguments about Iraq War II, when people poke their finger at me (literally or otherwise) and tell me how the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein and his terrorising of civilian populations. It's a valid argument of course, probably the only one that there is in favor of the war, but it's often accompanied by the suggestion that my viewpoint is invalid because I have no personal experience of his vindictiveness and evil. Well, unlike the other party to the argument, who has possibly not been within 5000 miles of a flying Scud, I have some experience. I've not been gassed in a Kurdish village, but I have tasted the fear of approaching death and the relief when it misses, night after night. I, like millions of Saudis and expatriates like John, have been there, seen it, done it, got the T-shirt. So my viewpoint has all the validity of personal experience, not abstract discussion.

Anyway, a change of mood. This one gives me goosebumps on the back of my neck. Now it may look to you like a very scrawny camel chewing at a very scrawny tree in some hostile wilderness. Which I suppose it is. But it's also the desert in all its awful, cruel, beautiful wonder. It's where we originally came from, and it runs thru my veins, hence the goosebumps. It recalls a time when we scratched a living from the land and our animals, we trusted on God, but we didn't speculate endlessly on why pictures or even dogs were supposed to be evil. Then the townies up in Qaseem, with too much spare time and too much food, spoilt it all with their nasty travesty of the true religion. We all headed for the prosperity of the towns and came under their malign influence. Innocence lost, but not for the lucky camel here.

Great pictures, John, keep adding to them!

* "pal" - someone who:

(a) is not actually your friend
(b) is not a person you would want to be a friend
(c) is quite likely to smack you in the mouth for your jocular comment, unless he is smaller or older or deaf.

* "Dead ringer" - English slang for "a good likeness"

* Prince Nayif, - Minister of the Interior, responsible for the Saudi "Justice" system, famous for its public beheadings

* Chopper - as in the English nursery rhyme "Here comes a candle to light you to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off your head...". Also English slang for a portion of the male anatomy.

* It works better in English than Arabic.

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