Contradiction is common in many governments, and the Middle East is no exception: interpretations of the Qu’ran seem to have secret agendas and rules apply only to plebians, not the rulers (cue Gaddahfi and family partying it up with expensive booze, while alcohol was officially illegal in Libya). Nowhere do contradiction and hypocrisy reign supreme, as uchecked and unscrutinized as the royal Al-Saud family, as in Saudi Arabia.
“Their behavior does not reach the self-concious level of hypocrsy, of believing one thing and doing another, for it is a set of dissonant beliefs that they do not even recognize coexist at the same time.” (p. 93)
So remarks John R. Bradley in Saudi Arabia Exposed: A Kingdom in Crisis, an aptly-named book which provides a first-hand inside look at Saudi Arabia’s people, culture and policies that goes beyond the usual news headliners that the Western world reads. The book uncovers many issues and realities that often get lost in the women’s-rights and Al-Saud and Wahhabi rhetoric (although he does discuss these as well).
I hate the West, I love the West….I hate the West, I love the West…
The most amazing realities Bradley uncovers involve the young Saudi adults (men, of course) that he teaches. One young man, Fahd, doesn’t want his siblings to meet his ‘Western guest’ because they will be yelled at for associating with infidels and be made fun of at school. “Of course, I think it’s stupid. But what can I do?” is Fahd’s reply when Bradley challenges him to stand up to such xenophobic behavior. The idea of someone being made fun of for having a foreign guest is ridiculous, although in the Saudi’s defense it’s not like Americans are simply innocent in our treatment of people different than us (look at the Trayvon Martin case).
19-year old Mohammed is an equally pampered and isolated young man living in his own private wing of the house who is an outrageous study in hypocritical extremes. Mohammed read’s Al-Qaeda political magazines and yet eats nothing but American junk food.He sit’s in online chatrooms, first defending Palestine and Islam and then taking time out to tease lesbianson other chat sites. He obliviously refers to the hypocrisys in his own life when he says, “They had everything [the 9/11 terrorists] and they gave it up for Allah.” Indeed, it can only make one scratch their head andwonder how a person who is so “confident” in his beliefs and who prefers to speak English (“A language he loved and was desperate to improve his proficiency in)” (p. 89) can, at the same time, support and admire people who made it their life’s mission to kill Americans, who denounce the very culture he also enjoys.
How can this hypocrisy exist? In Saudi Arabia it reaches extreme levels, namely because these youths admire an organization that aims to kill people, but the love-hate relationship with the West, and particularly America, is apparent in other non-Muslim countries. Witness in France: the French youth might laugh at America like their parents, but they still stand in line at McDonald’s, copy hip-hop style and blast our Top 40 music in their clubs. Youth around the world are similar simply because they embrace American music, style and movies and demand freedom and the right to be themselves (both which are at the heart of American culture), but non-American youth seem to be much more focused on American politics than young Americans themselves, as witnessed to how they let their opinions of our government taint their views.
Nevertheless, the idea that the person sitting in front of you sharing a cigarette and tea with you is also someone that cries for the 9/11 “martyrs” is rather discomforting, a truth that Bradley admits:
“It was difficult not to be insulted, for was not the implication that I, and others like me, are dirty, dangerous, contagious, unsafe?” (p.98)
This is an unsettling feeling that one gets being around people who are in some way quite different than yourself: there’s always a slight feeling that a divide exists, that the dominant group is somehow not as yielding as it should be. I myself have experienced this many a time, in different contexts. Why am I here, if I’m so different, if my views are so bad? you think. Mohammed’s answer to this question is that the author is “different” from other Americans.
Why is he different? Because he attempts to create a dialogue between two cultures that view each other often warily? Because he dares to go beyond his religious and ethnic social group? (Oh, what a concept!) “I somehow was an exception, perhaps as a useful guest or even as a protected subordinate,” Bradley hypothesizes. The reasons run the gamut (and, when considering Fahd’s response, it’s important to note that he is willing to ‘risk’ his own reputation to host his horrible house guest) but Mohammed’s is the best: “I get to know our enemy better.” (p. 99)
Flower Power Men
“The revelation that if one travels into the Asir mountains to find Al-Qaeda supporters, one ends up encouintering men who wear flowers in their hair and cultivate a passion for perfume.” (p. 65)
The passage Bradley devotes to Saudi “Flower men” was tantalizingly short (or at the very least, devoid of a much-desired photo). The idea of grown men wearing wreathes of flowers in their hair a la little flower girls at a wedding is, well, intriguing, especially when one considers that feminity is discouraged in men. As Bradley is quoted above, more of that juxtaposition/contradiction that was mentioned before is blatantly evidenced here, where in the same land die-hard fundamentalists cohabit with men whose
“Headbands of these faun-like young men were a riot of fresh and dried flowers showing their vitality and character. Friendly and giggling continuously throughout a brief conversation, they finally scampered away, swinging their thighs and glancing back suggestively over their shoulders.” (p. 64)
Vibrant wreathes of flowers as men’s hair pieces seems positively boring when one considers the much-more lascivious behavior of the youths Bradley describes above. Again, it is kind of hard to imagine such open-minded men living in the land of Wahhabi die-hards, but apparently it is perfectly okay for men to make open passes at each other, as long as every one agrees to look the other way, which leads us to…..
I’m Gay and They Know it
“The holding of hands and even exchange of light kisses among men is carried normal” (p. 154)
Men holding hands or putting their arms around each other is not restricted to friendships in the Middle East: in Egypt, I was (pleasantly!) surprised to see young men doing this with their friends, because in our macho tough-man American culture, no man can hold hands with his friend without being called gay and ‘freaking out’ his friends. In most male friendships in the Arab world, this behavior is simply akin to that which girls do with their girlfriends and probably stems from the fact that in some places, male-female contact is quite limited, particularly in Saudi Arabia. Bradley expounds the theory that an “all-male world made if anything more of a man out of a young man than the promiscous mingling with women, which many felt had a polluting, emasculating influence” (p. 161).
You can almost see the terrible logic behind such a theory (why is acting like a woman so bad? To paraphrase Madonna, it’s as if you’re saying being a girl is degrading). But because this seems to be a dominant theme in Wahhabism, men are stuck with men, and inevitably some of these men become Gay-or, at least, take a stab at it because they have no chance at relations with a woman. Jeddah is host to several gay discos, a fact I was surprised to learn, as dancing is forbidden under Wahhabism as surely is the type of music that would be playing at a disco; how on Earth did anyone even have the guts to build them in a country where alcohol is illegal? The idea of a disco in Saudi Arabia is just another example of the many contradictions of the country, and begs the question: what if women wanted a (obviously) women-only disco?
Only then would the state take notice: because they were forced to (again, that also begs the question: WHY is the state taking a blind eye?). Why are people content to just look away from something that, if asked about an interview, they would publicly condemn? The fact the government denies such acts is perhaps not so strange only when one brings into context the idea Bradley observes in which the people deny
“….just as they state that Islam treats all Muslims as equals as they casually exploit foreign Muslims because they happen to be from South Asia.” (p. 157)
The fact that many Saudi Arabians look down upon upon their own Muslim “brothers and sisters” says a lot about warped perceptions and how the true meaning of the Qu’ran is abused and propaganda’d for even an individual’s agenda. Indian Muslims in retrospect are viewed no differently than Arab Muslims in the Qu’ran, and yet the thousands of Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani workers who turn up in the country looking for work are treated like the garbage they’re forced to sweep off the streets. The abuse their fellow Muslims inflict on them is particularly surprising when one considers the positions of other foreigners-and non-Muslims at that-in the countr
According to Bradley, Americans are at the top of the food chain, even higher than Saudis themselves. That either indicates that the Saudi’s are majorly trying to suck up to the USA or that they’re selective in who they decide to show their renowned hospitality for. Saudis, Europeans and other Arabs follow (in that order), which perhaps suggests that the Saudi’s are financially motivated in their relations than religiously (again, not what you’d expect from the land of Mecca). South Asians (such as Indians)are at the bottom of the list (I couldn’t help wondering where other cultures not mentioned (such as Africans or Asians) would show up on this racist hierarchy, or if they even live in Saudi Arabia).
Snooty demeanors don’t end with the racist organizing of social groups, either, in Saudi Arabia. Much like their spoiled US neighbors, the Saudis highly frown upon “what they consider demeaning work such as taxi driving” (p. 131) and refuse to hold such menial jobs–or, in fact, hold any jobs at all. Indeed, the same issue that occurs here in America, where nobody wants to do the laborious jobs such as farming, carpentry, plumbing, or menial jobs such as being a waiter, is occurring in Saudi Arabia. Why does this phenomena start to occur? Because a society becomes so materialistically wealthy that it’s members decide they’re too good to do anything, even if they’re sorely lacking money and are about to be thrown on the street? Like Americans, the Saudis are lucky because they do have people willing to take on these menial tasks: foreign workers happy to have any job, even if they don’t get paid for several months. But how can one have a just society where most of the workers are treated little better than slaves?
To Conclude: Will the Al-Saud soften their colours?
Like any other people, the Saudis are overshadowed and unfairly grouped with the ruling government and religious establishment, as Saudi Arabia Exposed shows us. Saudis like to speak English, go to clubs, dress non-traditionally, debate the state and-in the case of the Flower Men-really break traditional molds. Saudi culture is not black-and-white, rigid and unchanging, as one might have thought. Bradley includes an interesting quote from the infamous T. E. Lawrence, and it is one that, in light of this discussion on contradiction and hypocrisy, is particularly fitting:
“They were a people of primary colors, or rather of black and white….They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt….They knew only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hestiating retinue of finer shades….Their thoughts were at ease only in extremes….” T.E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) (p. 93)
Lawrence spent a good deal of his life living and intimately working in the Middle East, so it should be safe to say that he was fair in his analysis. When it concerns religion, especially the religious establishment, then yes, Saudis-and religious people throughout the world, for that matter-come across as extremely black-and-white, sure of their religion and the morals that it expounds. Good and evil are strictly laid out in religion, and even those grayer areas are “ignored,” doubt outlawed. Perhaps the Saudi government and Wahhabi officials want to rule in black and white because it makes the country easier to control, but I do believe that the Saudis are more “colourful” than that and hopefully (as we have seen recently with women’s rights) the establishment will lighten up and this intriguing country can open up.