Woodrow W. Denham
Jiddah, Saudi Arabia
To download this file in Adobe Acrobat (.PDF) format, click here (186k).
25 December 1989
Please forgive us if this sounds a bit like a form letter. For various reasons, this is the best way for us to write.
It doesn’t seem like December 25th! After living most of our lives in settings where this is the grandest festival day of the year, it’s strange to be in a society where even mentioning its name in public is not permitted. Nevertheless, two days ago the management at the compound in which we live, one of Jiddah’s many Western expatriate compounds, put tiny blinking lights on many of the trees that line the streets, so it’s clear that something special is happening even if its precise nature remains unspecified.
Our apartment is small, with only one bedroom, a small living - dining room, a tiny but efficient kitchen and a bathroom that contains the laundry equipment as well.
Calling it a villa is pretentious, but such is the local custom. The building is extremely well insulated against the heat. In addition to insulation in the walls and ceiling, it has only two windows both of which are covered on the outside by massive “blinds” about three inches thick, filled with insulation. We have two air conditioners, but during December the weather has been cool enough for us to leave them turned off most of the time. Our “garden”, which is surrounded by an eight-foot high cement privacy wall in the Saudi fashion, consists of about a hundred square feet of dust, a few sprigs of grass, one lonely tree and three pots of tomato and squash plants that Nancy recently started.
Our days begin shortly after 5am when the first of five daily calls to prayer sounds through the incredibly powerful public address system atop the mosque a few blocks away. We leave the compound at 6:30 and arrive at Dar Al Fikr School at 7:00. Classes run from 7:30 until 4:00pm, and we ordinarily leave school at 4:30 or 5:00. We have classes all day Saturday through Wednesday, but only half a day on Thursday. Since Friday is the Moslem equivalent of Sunday in the United States, we’re off on Fridays.
Driving in Jiddah is fun - most of the time. When the oil wealth arrived in the 1970s, Jiddah spent a large portion of its windfall on building one of the most incredibly enormous and complex freeway systems outside of Los Angeles. Most places in the world begin with narrow streets and expand them later; Jiddah began with sixteen lane freeways that interconnect every part of the city, and may never have to expand them. But since it doesn’t rain very often here, and since the city is right at sea level and absolutely flat, they installed the freeways without installing any storm drains. We had a heavy rain for about an hour at dawn one day last week, and the entire city was shut down for the day: the streets were under water and all the schools and offices were closed. Two inches of rain does as much to cripple Jiddah as two feet of snow does to cripple New England.
Despite its freeway system, Saudi Arabia has a short history of automobile domestication - camels go back a long way, but here really old cars date from 1983. In keeping with a local fascination with things that dazzle, the most important parts of an automobile are its paint, horns, lights and mirrors (for looking at oneself, not for looking at cars approaching from the rear). Things like brakes and tires are of no interest whatsoever. While the behavior of cars is highly erratic, the people are extraordinarily friendly and not the least bit malicious. In this environment, defensive driving acquires a multitude of previously unexplored dimensions.
We’ve decided that it’s cheaper and better to eat out than it is to cook at home, so we stop for dinner at a different kind of restaurant almost every night. Jiddah has lots of shops that produce the local equivalent of Greek gyro sandwiches, called shewarmas here. A shewarma consists of pita bread containing shredded chicken, beef or lamb accompanied by any of thousands of extras ranging from onions and tomatoes to cheese and pickles with garlic sauce and lots of Lousiana hot sauce, and a good many things that we still haven’t identified. They cost from fifty cents to a dollar each, and one is enough for a meal unless you’re on the verge of starving. They’re great with a big cold glass of fresh mango juice.
A great many Indians, Pakistanis and Afghans have migrated here in search of jobs and have brought their national cuisines with them. We had a delicious Pakistani dinner on Friday night at a restaurant with no menu, run by a friendly man who spoke no English. He took us back to the kitchen where we could see what was available, and we pointed to what we wanted to eat. Sometimes Pakistani food is dangerously hot here, but not that time: the curries were mild and sweet, the fish was grilled delicately, the fresh bread baked inside a huge tandoori oven was soft and tasty, and the cold water flowed endlessly.
We’ve spent a lot of time in the incredible diversity of street markets scattered all over the city. To avoid the midday sun, most businesses are open from 9am to noon, and again from 5pm until 10pm or later, so we spend our evenings in the markets. We’re learning about - and beginning to buy - some of the things for which this part of the world is justly famous. Jiddah is one of the finest places in the world to buy so-called “Persian” carpets, hand-made throughout the Middle East and adjacent parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. They are available in diverse patterns and weaves, made of various kinds of wool, and cost anywhere from almost nothing to almost everything. We still don’t know enough about them to buy an expensive one, but that may happen next month.
One of the major attractions of the city is the antique market. Saudi Arabia is still reveling in its newfound wealth and its incredible leap into the high technology world of the late 20th century. As a result, the Saudis are engaged in the self-destructive practice, so common throughout the developing countries of the world, of selling off their artistic heritage. Gold and silver, jewelry and clothes, coffee pots and camel saddles, almost everything that was important before the oil boom is for sale now to expatriates at very low prices. Most of this stuff should be in museums in Saudi Arabia, and two or three generations from now the Saudis will wish they hadn’t sold it, but right now they have no respect for their own past and will almost give it away. It’s a sad situation, for the beauty of the objects they are casting off is extraordinary.
On Friday, we finally found a museum where a few of the national treasures are being preserved. It’s a private collection in four buildings, one specializing in the Arabic heritage, one in the Islamic heritage, one in the pre-Islamic history of Arabia, and one in other cultures represented in Saudi Arabia. One of the most remarkable things about this society is the enormous emphasis it places on the visual arts: fabric designs, painting, sculpture, calligraphy, abstract and floral decorations on all sorts of objects. This visual orientation - which stands in sharp contrast to the linear - verbal - mathematical orientation of much of contemporary Western culture - has found its way into the school’s computer curriculum which deals almost exclusively with electronic art.
As a result of our having spent so much time taking photographs in the West Indies, we’re not adapting at all well to the fact that photography is both difficult and risky here despite the heavy emphasis on the visual arts. Many people don’t want to be photographed, and many of the most beautiful places in the city are simply off limits to people with cameras for either religious or security reasons. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of being in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Arabian Natural History Society, an old and respected expatriate institution in Jiddah, has been publishing a journal once or twice a year for at least a decade. Last summer some faculty members at Dar Al Fikr School accepted responsibility for editing the current issue. As a result, we’ve found ourselves simultaneously co-editing the journal amid learning how to use Apple Macintosh computers and LaserWriter printers to produce the camera ready copy. The finished product looks good and we’ve learned a lot about Macs, but we still prefer IBM computers.
We’re scheduled to have our winter vacation during the last two weeks of January. If all goes well, we’ll drive southeast from Jiddah to the city of Taif and spend a few days there, then continue southwards to Baha and Abha where we’ll spend a few days in the mountainous Asir Province, the home of the Arabian monkeys. Then we hope to continue on down to the tiny seaport and fishing village of Jizan on the extreme southwest coast of Saudi Arabia, an ancient place that has served for centuries as a major connecting point between Africa and Arabia. But plans change often here, so we may not make it.
20 February 1990
Our recent trip through southwestern Saudi Arabia took us around Makkah, often spelled “Mecca”, to the city of Taif atop an escarpment east of Jiddah, southeast to the towns of Baha and Abha in the Asir Mountains, southwest to the village of Jizan in the Tihama Plain beside the Red Sea, back up the escarpment to Abha and Baha, and down into the Tihama again for our return to Jiddah along the Red Sea coast. The trip lasted ten days and covered almost exactly 3000km, or just about 1800 miles. Since it is illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, you can guess who did all the driving.
For 1400 years, Jiddah has been the port through which most pilgrims have reached Makkah about thirty miles inland from the Red Sea. As the holiest city in the Moslem world, Makkah is off limits to all non-Moslems and until recently received fewer than 25,000 Moslem pilgrims each year. With oil money came construction of the enormous King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jiddah and the purchase of a fleet of Boeing 747s by Saudia Airlines. The number of pilgrims to visit Makkah each year now exceeds one million, and the number of non-Moslems in the Kingdom also exceeds a million.
To accommodate the sea of pilgrims, the government built two six-lane expressways directly from Jiddah through Makkah to the cities of Taif and Riyadh to the east; to accommodate the non-Moslems, it built two highways that go around Makkah to those cities. One of the bypass highways follows the meandering course of Wadi Fatima, a dry river bed containing villages and irrigated fields, northwards through the foothills and up onto the gentle eastern slope of the high plateau on which Taif is situated. The other goes south of Makkah in a direct route to the base of the 5000 foot high escarpment just west of Taif, then scales the face of the escarpment on a route that closely resembles an expert ski run except that it twists more and is 30 kilometers long. The Wadi Fatima route is closed whenever the river floods; the escarpment route is closed whenever rock slides block it.
Our trip began when we drove along the southern bypass to the base of the escarpment, discovered that the escarpment road was blocked by a rock slide, and back tracked about forty miles to go around Makkah on the Wadi Fatima route. The southern bypass took us through gently rolling desert countryside, fuzzy green with new grass following the winter rains and dotted with sprawling Bedouin tents and myriads of goats, sheep and camels. The Wadi Fatima route took us through rugged hills and several ancient oases where earthen dams capture the rare rains and hold the water to irrigate extensive gardens and orchards.
At Taif, the cool summer capitol of Saudi Arabia, we stayed at the Hilton Hotel up on the edge of the escarpment and made a few trips down into the city center. It was cold enough for Nancy to buy a pair of gloves on her first visit to a Taif souq. The ancient city of Taif has been almost obliterated by “progress” in the form of new highways, new suburban housing, intentional destruction of the old markets, and so on indefinitely. We found it to be depressing. However, we enjoyed our stay at the beautiful new hotel where the food was superb and the cool winds were invigorating after months in the humid plain beside the sea.
From Taif we drove south along the edge of the escarpment to Baha. The escarpment is one of the great natural wonders of Saudi Arabia. According to current geological theory, the Red Sea and the Great Rift Valley of East Africa originated when the African continent moved westward relative to the Saudi Arabian peninsula. The separation of the two major land masses resulted in the development of a huge “crack” between them; the bottom of the crack lies at the bottom of the Red Sea, the top of it on the east side lies atop the escarpment in Saudi Arabia. Between the two are the Tihama Plain on which Jiddah and Jizan are built, and an extremely rugged range of foothills at the base of the escarpment
From the road atop the escarpment, the views straight down for thousands of feet and westward across the spikey foothills into the Tihana are truly spectacular. The new highway twists and turns southeastward, sometimes going “inland” a few kilometers to bypass especially difficult terrain, often clinging precipitously by its fingernails to the edge of the escarpment. Morning and afternoon during the winter, massive clouds collect just below the edge of the escarpment and ooze over the rim in extremely dense fogs that reduce visibility almost to zero. In a few places, dense juniper forests have developed in moist cul-de-sacs. The geology of the high plateau is quite complex, with everything from Precambrian shield to deeply folded sedimentary deposits to recent lava flows scrambled together indiscriminately.
The villages along the top of the escarpment are culturally distinct from those in the foothills below, for until recently there was almost no contact between the top and bottom of the cliff. The foothill villages have warm climates with scant rainfall, and rely on dams to collect water for narrow gardens in the wadis; the high villages have cooler climates and considerably more rain, and rely on terracing to distribute water over large fields spread across the hillsides. Many ancient villages still stand like massive stone sentinels along the crest of the escarpment, monuments to a tradition of intertribal warfare that extends back for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.
At Baha, we stayed at one of the strangest pieces of architecture in Saudi Arabia - a mountaintop motel that consists of an office, a restaurant and a hundred little white domed cement “igloos”, each a separate villa with living room, bedroom, kitchen and bath. No doubt the views from the igloos are outstanding under the proper conditions, but from deep inside a cloud, gray is gray wherever it is.
Abha, the capital of mountainous Asir Province, was a major stop on the ancient caravan route from Yemen to northern Arabia. Now domestic tourism plays an important part in its economy. Asir National Park is headquartered at Abha. It covers 400,000 square kilometers of desert stretching from the Red Sea to the crest of the escarpment and is modeled almost perfectly on parks operated by the US National Park Service. The Thursday morning market in Abha is one of the finest places in Saudi Arabia to see and buy indigenous crafts such as basketry, pottery and jewelry. The countryside surrounding the city contains a great many villages of distinctive traditional houses made of mud with numerous slate ledges protruding from their sides as rain deflectors. Nearby is the highest point in Saudi Arabia (3015 meters or about 9000 feet above sea level), and on its peak sits the Abha Intercontinental Hotel, built a few years ago as a palace for the king but now operated as a five-star hotel. It is palatial in every sense of the word - 258 rooms, a huge conference center, ultramodern high-tech everything, built almost entirely of marble, topped with a gold dome, hanging right on the edge of the escarpment. We were the hotel’s only guests the night we stayed there. Fortunately its operation is heavily subsidized by the government.
The road down the escarpment from Abha to Jizan is unforgettable - a constant 14% grade for the first 10 kilometers, becoming slightly less steep but far more crooked as it leaves the cliff face and enters the foothills. And the change in the afternoon temperature was just as remarkable as we descended from 60 oF in Abha to almost l00 o in Jizan.
Jizan, lying on the outermost fringe of the kingdom, is a little town that time and the government forgot. It is built atop a low salt dome that is dissolving, and is surrounded by salt flats and endless stretches of featureless desert. The government recently built a beautiful new deepwater harbor there, but it appears not to be in use yet. A small boatyard continues to build traditional fishing boats, but mostly the town is very quiet, hot, dusty, depressed.
We hired a guide to take us to an oasis in the coastal plain near Jizan, and to a more distant market town in the foothills. On the way to the oasis, an uninsured and unlicensed driver ran his 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser into our car and ripped off our rear bumper. A large audience gathered immediately, and a military officer who was trained in England, Hawaii and Taiwan came to our rescue. He identified the other driver as one of his relatives and assured us that our car would be repaired promptly and at the other driver’s expense. When the police arrived, the deal had been struck and the police accepted it. An hour after the accident occurred, our car was in the repair shop, and at 9 o’clock the next morning it was returned to us, free of charge, and in better shape than it was before the accident occurred.
We resumed our trip to the oasis where we saw water pumps and irrigation channels turning the desert into a garden - at least for a while, until the ground water is exhausted. The fields yielded tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers and other ordinary vegetables, and the orchards yielded assorted tropical fruits including bananas, papayas, mangoes and limes. The Jizan region is famous for its tall conical mud huts covered with grass for protection against rain. This architectural style, which is common on the African coast of the Red Sea, is evidence of long standing cultural and economic ties across the sea. Our guide took us to visit one of them near the oasis.
Abu Arish, the market village in the foothills near the Yemen border, has been connected with the outside world by road for less than a year, and is virtually unchanged from what it must have been like a thousand years ago - except that used plastic bags are not biodegradable. The vigorous and noisy market covered several acres and sold traditional items including medicinal herbs, pottery and basketry, huge gourd water carriers, fruits and vegetables, camel and donkey saddles, garlands of brightly colored flowers that men wear around their heads, elaborately embroidered women’s dresses, sour crepe-like bread that is common in Ethiopia, and a good many things that we couldn’t identify.
While returning to Jiddah, we visited a large abandoned village named Dhee Ayn in the foothills at the base of the escarpment below Baha. Dhee Ayn consists of about forty stone houses jumbled together atop a huge quartz outcropping near the south wall of a broad wadi. Its position was easy to defend, and the natural spring nearby made it a highly productive oasis. A steep trail rises from the fields to the maze of paths within the village, and hummingbirds flit through the brush beside the trail. The sand-colored houses are built of massive broad flat stones carefully piled and interlocked as much as three stories high. The windows are tiny, the doors are low, and the buildings are certain to stay cool on the hottest day. The entire village was abandoned during the early 1980s when a new highway was built a few kilometers away, and the villagers were encouraged to move into new houses closer to schools, hospitals and stores. The village should be a national historical monument, but such is not the case yet.
Throughout the ten-day trip we constantly watched for Hamadryas baboons that are common in the mountains, and found eight troops of them. One of our two best encounters with them occurred in a parking lot at the edge of the escarpment in Abha. The troop of about 30 was well acquainted with humans and had no fear of us at all. As soon as they discovered that we had bananas, three of them tried to get into the car, and one magnificent male perched on the hood of the car for about ten minutes posing for portraits. When we ran out of bananas, they got bored and left. Our other excellent encounter occurred just before sunset one evening when we came upon a troop of perhaps 120 baboons spread out across a grassy park-like area in a wadi deep in the mountains. These animals were more cautious than the ones in Abha, but their habitat and behavior were far more natural. We spent about half an hour with them, watching from across the tiny stream of water flowing in the wadi as they stared at us and did most of the things that relaxed Hamadryas baboons ordinarily do with or without an audience.
Saudi Arabia is characterized by a remarkable diversity of architectural styles that I can’t describe in the space remaining but can illustrate easily with our photographs. Although tight restrictions apply to photography throughout the Kingdom, they are enforced less stringently in rural areas than in cities. Both of us took a great many photos.
7 April 1990
Since we returned to Jiddah from our vacation in southwestern Saudi Arabia, the academic year has zipped along at a blinding and baffling pace.
The first week of classes in February consisted of short days while everybody tried to figure out what the class schedule was to be for Term 2. Some people would think it unwise to postpone making that decision until the beginning of the term, but such is the nature of things here. The next six weeks were more or less ordinary weeks of classes.
Then on 27 March, when the new moon came into sight, the month of Ramadan began with a bang from a large cannon and nothing has been the same since. Suddenly the school day was shortened by 3.5 hours, and many classes were cancelled to fit the truncated schedule. On Thursday, 12 April, our Ramadan vacation is scheduled to begin - four days earlier than was announced two weeks ago - and will continue until 29 April, or is 3 May? We aren’t sure yet. Then we’ll have perhaps two more weeks of normal classes, to be followed by a month of disrupted classes while students take their government final examinations. People who are accustomed to working according to meaningful schedules find life in Saudi Arabia to be somewhat stressful.
The month of Ramadan is a time of fasting during the hours of daylight and feasting during the hours of darkness. Since Moslems are forbidden to eat or drink between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan, the entire life of the country is turned upside down to accommodate their fasting. People eat a huge breakfast just after sunset, then have two prayer periods the second of which ends shortly before 21:00 (9pm). Most businesses are then open from 21:00 until shortly before sunrise when the last meal is served. Being out on the streets during the hours of darkness is most exciting: crowds shopping, cars racing, horns honking, elementary school kids playing soccer in the parks at 02:00, people being “high” on all the sugar they had for dinner. And being out during the hours just after dawn is very pleasant: driving in Jiddah is easiest when everybody else is sound asleep. Since the school continues to operate on an attenuated daylight schedule, the kids who stay up all night then sleep a lot during classes, which makes teaching easier in some ways but harder in others.
During March, the Saudi Arabian Natural History Society sponsored several walking tours of the center of the old city of Jiddah, the Bilad district, conducted by the director of the city’s historical preservation program. Despite the city’s mad rush into the future, some Saudis appreciate the beauty of their heritage and are beginning to invest in preserving it. The traditional architecture of Bilad consists of hundreds of three and four story houses of coral limestone and wood with rowshan windows, i.e., windows covered with artistically complex wooden screens that admit light and air but maintain the privacy of the people - especially the women - inside. Much of the work that is being done throughout the District today deals with preservation or restoration of the rowshan screens, and the introduction of that traditional architectural style into new buildings currently under construction. Since we were escorted by city officials, no limits were placed on our photography.
A second SANHS excursion took us east of Jiddah to visit archaeological sites in and near Wadi Fatimah, the broad dry watercourse where oasis agriculture has been practiced for thousands of years. The hot dry climate, strong abrasive winds and occasional massive flash floods are hard on archaeological remains, so making sense of what we saw depended as much on our imaginations as on the fragmented structures lying before us. One site that we visited was a Turkish fort that was abandoned when the Arabs drove the Turks out of the peninsula in 1932. The rather primitive rock structure sitting atop a hill overlooking the wadi has nearly disintegrated in less than sixty years. Then we visited the foundations of a large stone building on the valley floor believed to have been used as a granary during the pre-Islamic period, probably about 500AD. We ended our tour at a circular water reservoir about 100 meters in diameter that was used for about a thousand years until it was abandoned in 1980. The floor of the reservoir is encrusted with the tiny shells of the snails that serve as vectors for schistosomiasis parasites.
We have begun to spend our Fridays at the Red Sea Resort, a Sheraton Hotel beach property about twenty miles north of Jiddah. It’s a narrow, pleasantly landscaped compound bounded by cement walls to the north and south where expatriates are free to behave much as they would on beaches elsewhere in the world. A jetty extends out from the beach and across the reef lagoon, right to the edge of the coral reef itself. It’s a superb place to snorkel and dive, with all of the incredible beauty of one of the world’s finest reefs right at your feet.
Last Thursday, we drove south of Jiddah on a new freeway known as the South Cornaish that extends for many kilometers along an uninhabited coastline where the reef has been left untouched by development projects. It’s much more difficult to dive or snorkel there than at the Red Sea Resort, but the freeway offers spectacular views of the fringing and barrier reefs, the brilliant blues and greens of the sea and the deep red of salt ponds a few meters behind the seashore, the blinding white of the desert sand where it merges with tidal flats, and huge flocks of pink flamingos and other wading birds that feed in the shallow sea.
Recently we’ve become increasingly adventurous in visiting and photographing many of the gorgeous mosques in Jiddah. Entering the mosques and taking photographs of them that include people are strictly prohibited, but photographing them at night and early in the mornings during Ramadan when nobody is around seems to be OK. All of them have at least one tall minaret and some have two or three, and most of them are capped by one to a dozen graceful domes. At night, the domes and minarets are illuminated gently, and the adjacent plazas, typically paved in marble, are packed with families who use them as picnic areas and playgrounds.
The weather has remained remarkably cool far into the spring, and our garden has developed quite nicely. Now we have grass rather than dust, and the grass is bordered by various flowering plants including several varieties of hibiscus, a few bougainvillea, an aloe, about a dozen small century plants, and three handsome banana trees. With careful watering, things seem to grow several inches every day.
On 12 April, we plan to fly to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus to spend our Ramadan vacation, and Kristi plans to join us there for about ten days. Cyprus is reputed to be both interesting and pleasant, and the Greek half of the island that is open to tourists has the added virtue of being non-Moslem, an especially important consideration during Ramadan when burning the candle at both ends leads to burn-out throughout the Moslem world.
Dar Al Fikr School
5 June 1990
We expect this to be our last letter from Jiddah. After much deliberation, we’ve decided not to renew our contracts for another year at Dar Al Fikr.
Now for a quick summary of the latest news. Summer definitely is here: afternoon temperatures always exceed 100F and sometimes exceed 110F. Nancy has done some underwater photography at the Red Sea Resort and is pleased with the results: even though the water is a little too rough for snorkeling sometimes, it’s perfectly clear and the marine life is gorgeous. The Month of the Hajj is rapidly approaching and the annual pilgrimage has begun: about a million visitors will arrive in Jiddah over the next few weeks and most of them will land on the runway just beyond our house. In preparation for our departure, we’ve spent a good bit of time recently in Afghan carpet shops and at the Bedouin antique souq. Our collection of treasures remains small, but we’re pleased with it. Three weeks ago, Dar Al Fikr had its annual pageant at which student and faculty achievements were displayed to guests including His Royal Highness Prince Majed, Sheikh Zaki Yamani and a great many other dignitaries less well known in the West whose children attend Dar Al Fikr.
In our previous letters from Jiddah, we have dealt with things that were somehow external, public and concrete, and have deliberately avoided matters that were internal, private and conceptual. Things of the latter sort are more difficult to discuss and make less exciting reading than good travelogues, and we were afraid we might say something that would be mistakenly viewed as critical of Saudi Arabia and Islam. This time, we’ll try to provide some glimpses into the inner world. We sincerely hope that we do not offend anyone.
Although there are a great many profound differences between the Saudi Islamic world and the one from which we come, we offer these comments with the greatest respect for the people with whom we have worked so closely this year. Our experiences at Dar Al Fikr have been an invaluable part of our educations as world citizens, and we are grateful to the school for having given us an opportunity to see Saudi Arabia from a unique vantage point.
To an extent long ago lost in the West, Saudi Arabians live in a God-centered world. We have often mentioned the calls to prayer that we hear five times each day, and the cessation of all commercial activity that occurs during each prayer period, lasting from 15 to 30 minutes each. During each prayer period, people congregate in mosques or anywhere else that is convenient, in groups of all sizes, to face Makkah and pray. The depth of their devotion is truly impressive and comes, at least in part, from their schooling.
Dar Al Fikr is a Moslem school, and each day’s activities are centered on Islamic religious studies, Classical Arabic language and literature, the history of Islam and biographies of its most important people, the geography of the Arabic and Islamic world, and so on. When boys complete Grade 9 at Dar Al Fikr, about 60% of their course work to that point will have been in subjects directly related to religion, the remaining 40% having been spread over math, science, art, English and physical education. These percentages change considerably in secondary school, but religious subjects continue to be important right through Grade 12. We have no idea how these figures compare with those from religious schools in the US, but they are radically different from those from US public schools.
Yet US public schools instill attitudes and values in a secular manner that directly parallel the attitudes and values instilled religiously in Saudi Arabia. The values are different as are the methods of teaching them, yet in the end all of us think systematically about the natural and the supernatural, freewill and determinism, relations between men and women, between superiors and inferiors, and so on. Here we’ll briefly sketch a few elements of the Saudi worldview as we have experienced it.
One of the most frequently heard expressions here is insh’allah “God willing”. It is used in, or at the end of, virtually every sentence that has to do with the future. It isn’t exactly the same as a future tense auxiliary verb, but it comes close. It means, roughly, “Man proposes, God disposes”. The future is entirely in God’s hands, and to say that anything WILL happen in the future is a form of hubris; therefore, all statements about the future are made conditional on God’s will.
In the West, we say “maybe, I plan, if ...“, and make contingency plans for coping with unexpected future events; in Saudi Arabia, a more common way of dealing with the intrinsic uncertainty of the future is to avoid making plans at all, or to make them in such a tentative manner that they cannot possibly constitute hubris. Hence the intrinsic uncertainty of the future is accepted here as a normal part of life, whereas we in the West see it as a problem to be solved. The Saudi attitude toward the future manifests itself in a number of ways including schedules that change on a weekly, daily, sometimes hourly basis; policies that are continually modified to adapt to changing circumstances; an absence of calendars and weekly schedule planners on desks; and so on. From a Western point of view, planning for the future is inadequate here; from their point of view, our insistence on making and adhering to rigid schedules, often spanning a period of years, is at best foolish and at worst sacrilegious.
Just as the future is in God’s hands, so too is the present. People are obliged to live devout lives in order to gain merit in the eyes of God, but whatever happens in one’s life is God’s will and is by definition good, for God is good. This attitude is often expressed by the term al’hamdulillah “praise God”. From a Western point of view, it seems entirely appropriate to hear this expression used when something that we like has happened, but it is disconcerting to hear it-used when something that we dislike has happened. “Nancy’s knee is quickly recovering from surgery, al’hamdulillah.” “This morning, Nancy’s knee hurts a lot, al’hamdulillah.” From their point of view, both the recovery and the pain are God’s will and he should be praised; from a Western point of view, the latter usage doesn’t sit too well.
In the West, we take insurance for granted: health and life insurance, property insurance, liability insurance, travel insurance, and so on. The Islamic world looks upon insurance with antipathy. At Dar Al Fikr, we do not have health insurance, implying risk sharing and a certain degree of gambling on the future. Rather, the school covers all health care expenses for its employees as one of the normal costs of doing business, and the concept of risk is not a part of it. Automobile liability insurance is rare here and in some places is illegal: if a person has an accident, it happens as a result of God’s will, hence the person suffers the consequences of the accident. This is as true of an “innocent bystander” who is injured in an accident as it is of the person who “caused” the accident. In fact, our Western concept of causality may be the first casualty of such an accident, since if may be argued that the “innocent bystander” really was the target of the accident and the person who “caused” it was an instrument in the hand of God. This argument is especially plausible in accidents involving a Moslem and a non-Moslem, wherein the non-Moslem is likely to be at a disadvantage regardless of his apparent role in the accident simply because he is not a Moslem.
Yet the concept of individual responsibility is not absent here; rather it is reserved for deliberate violations of the law, and is enforced rigidly. The result is a society that is amazingly free of street crime. It is truly delightful to be able to go anywhere, anytime, with large sums of cash in your pocket and know that you will not be mugged; to leave your car unlocked and know that it will be there when you return to it; to know that the drivers in the cars around you, reckless though they may be, are not high on drugs or low on alcohol. Control over these matters is largely external - people learn to obey laws because they will get into serious trouble if they break them, not because obeying laws is intrinsically rewarding to them - but they certainly do obey the laws. I wish I could say the same for Americans.
The relationship between God and man in Saudi Islam, with all men being equal before God, is mirrored to some extent in the relationship between men of great power and those of little power. For example, the person who owns Dar Al Fikr School is an extraordinarily wealthy and powerful man who has not instituted a hierarchical administrative structure in the schools. Indeed, each of the three schools (Boys, Girls, Kindergarten) has its own principal and faculty members, but there is no headmaster or director of academic affairs above the principals, nor are there department chairmen below them. In effect, virtually everybody in the school reports more or less directly to the man who owns it. From a Saudi point of view, that means that the owner has a great deal of personal control over his school, and all of his employees can fare well by being on good terms with him; from a Western point of view, it means that there is no chain of command, so when the owner is away, nobody is really responsible for making things work. From their perspective, it’s a fine system; from ours, it’s problematic.
The separation of the sexes in public settings is almost total here above six years of age. Women are viewed as precious treasures that must not be defiled in any way. The higher one’s social status, the more forcefully this view is maintained; it is maintained absolutely at Dar Al Fikr. Very high status women here have positions in the society that are far more exalted than those that could be attained by anybody in the West, including Western royalty. As outward and visible symbols of their extremely high status, many of the women with whom Nancy works never appear in public settings (where men could see them) without being totally wrapped in black - headscarf, veil, gloves, shoes, clothing - with no skin or hair whatsoever uncovered. With their positions goes a great deal of wealth and privilege: drivers for their cars, large staffs of servants, travel anywhere in private airplanes, and so on. But from a Western perspective, their lives are quite circumscribed for they cannot do many of the ordinary things that characterize our lives: drive cars, go to supermarkets, swim at the pool or beach, hold jobs in most areas (women’s banking, teaching, gynecology and pediatrics excepted), and so on.
These verbal sketches are necessarily over-simplifications for the world is much too complex for anyone to capture it in a few brief vignettes. Nevertheless, the differences between East and West are real and the poor communications and misunderstandings that they sometimes engender can appear to be insurmountable. Several times we have said things that we intended to be entirely complimentary only to have them misinterpreted as insults; no doubt we have misunderstood them equally seriously on other occasions. Yet, despite the enormous differences between the two cultures, we’ve developed good working relations with many of our Moslem colleagues as well as with other Western expatriates on the faculty, and will be sorry to have them end a little less than three weeks from now.
For years, we’ve wanted to visit India, so we’re finally going to do it, insh’allah. Our immediate plans call for us to leave Jiddah on the evening of 24 June and fly to Bombay on Air India. After a ten-hour wait, we’ll take a domestic Indian Airlines flight southwards to Madras, and begin a long vacation. If all goes according to our current itinerary, we’ll spend a couple of months wandering through the extreme south of India, then a few weeks in the vicinity of Delhi, Arga and Jaipur. We won’t go anywhere near the trouble spots in northern India. We’re scheduled to leave Delhi on 20 September on a nonstop Air France flight to Paris where we’ll have to wait a couple of days for a connecting Air France flight to Boston, arriving home on 23 September. Of course our plans can change a zillion times between now and then. We’ll keep you posted, insh’allah.
Return to the Middle Eastern Collection Index.