Woodrow W. Denham
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Back in the UAE
United Arab Emirates University
Al Ain, UAE
7 December 1997
So here we are at Pearl Harbor Day again, busily making the transition from Thanksgiving and UAE National Day when all the festive fairy lights go ON, to Christmas and the beginning of Ramadan when all the fairy lights go OFF.
It’s been a moderately crazy year for us. We thought both of us had jobs at a new university in Bangladesh, but early in the piece Nancy picked up some bad vibes from the President that were confirmed when she received a contract that had no detectable relationship to the job she had been offered. We decided that Woody should go there anyway, once again acting in his traditional role as family guinea pig, to see if we could make the experiment work. The result was a fascinating set of adventures for Woody, most of which he has already described to you in far too much detail, and an email marriage for us as we communicated with each other electronically to a degree unprecedented in our face-to-face interactions, and perhaps unprecedented in all of human history. But Woody’s contract there has ended and he is back in Al-Ain using the Internet to hunt for another contract that might get us safely (and jointly) out of the Middle East. His year in Bangladesh made him a born again conservative who views foreign aid much as Attila the Hun and Ghengis Khan viewed it.
Our vacations away from the UAE and Bangladesh this year took us first to the east, then to the west. In January, we spent several days in Hong Kong severely damaging our budget just a few months before the British gave the colony back to China - probably too damned expensive for them to keep it now that the empire is gone. Then we went to Thailand, spending almost a week in Chiang Mai in the northern mountains not far from China and Myanmar where impoverished members of hill tribes raise tiny fields of super-valuable opium poppies to keep the money coming in, and huge fields of dirt cheap ginger to keep the US Drug Enforcement Administration off their backs. From there we went to our favorite little beach resort at Khao Lak on the southwestern coast of Thailand where we got world class sunburns and pigged out on chicken and sticky rice. The Southeast Asian trip ended with a few days at the Royal River (known locally as the Loyal Liver) Hotel in the center of Bangkok, where we rode long-tailed boats up and down the Chao Praya and back into the klongs (canals) that radiate from the city, and went to a noisy Chinese opera on the night of Chinese New Year. Fortunately Thailand is a LOT cheaper than Hong Kong. After we returned to Al-Ain, we went camping for a couple of days deep in the interior of Oman, at the ancient market town of Sanaw where all the men wear great silver khanjars (daggers) over their bellies, all the women wear shiny aubergine-colored burkas (masks) like falcon beaks over their faces, and all the children are above average. It was a good vacation, but a bit too busy.
During our summer vacation, we drove from New Hampshire to Mississippi and back in ten days. That was our first long drive across America since 1983, and as a result we’ve decided that America is the most completely foreign country we’ve seen in a long time. We recognized much of the old America - the part built more than twenty years ago, with cities and towns and farms and factories - but the new part was utterly alien to us - all those uniform Interstate highway exits surrounded by exactly the same set of fast food restaurants, budget motels, Wal-Marts and service stations. It’s almost as if America had been invaded by an alien species that superimposed its own bizarre civilization squarely on top of the old one, such that these two parallel universes co-exist without ever touching each other. The 3,600 mile drive was one of the most fascinating international travel experiences we have had in many a year.
If all goes according to plan, we’ll spend five days later in December in Muscat, Oman, where both of us are scheduled to present papers at a UNESCO conference on computer-based in-service teacher training in the developing world. Then in mid-January, after the fall term ends, we’re off to Istanbul, Turkey, for the last two weeks of Ramadan at a time of the year when we’re likely to freeze solid but have no contact with any other tourists. We’ve tried to visit there during a good season every year since 1993, but it never quite works out; this year, we’re gonna do it, insh’allah, even in the winter. Rumor has it that some of the restaurants stay open during Ramadan, but we’re taking ham sandwiches just in case.
You can tell winter is approaching, even in the UAE. Three weeks ago, Dubai had its fifth semi-annual International Air Show that is a winter event because neither people nor airplanes can function outside in the appalling summer heat. Last weekend the country celebrated its 26 th birthday with lots of traditional music and folk dancing (cool weather activities) in Abu Dhabi’s streets lined with glass encased high-rise office buildings. The traditional falconing season has begun, with some of the sheikhs flying off to Pakistan to live in palatial air-conditioned tents for a few weeks while using their falcons and global positioning satellites to hunt endangered bustards migrating southwestward from assorted Central Asian “-stans” toward the UAE. The traditional camel racing season has returned too, with races at the Al-Ain track scheduled to begin shortly after sunrise every Thursday and Friday until sometime in March - best seen from the small pavilion where dozens of TV monitors provide a bird’s eye view of the action. And a brand new soft and cuddly twenty-foot tall traditional bionic Santa Claus is on duty around the clock in Dubai’s Wafi Center Shopping Mall, surrounded by great mobs of Moslem kids who know a good deal when they see one.
United Arab Emirates University
Al Ain, UAE
9 November 1997
Recently we found ourselves in a fairly unpleasant situation having to do with politics and religion. Let me tell you about it.
In most countries of the 21st century world, the official relationship between government and religion lies somewhere on the continuum between the radical separation of them in the United States and the total integration of them in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
At the American extreme, the dominant culture of the country as a whole is avowedly Christian, but separation of church and state is so extreme that governments are formally and officially barred from either supporting or opposing any religion or religious group.
At the Saudi extreme, the integration of church and state is so total that the two really are the same thing, and religious dissent from the Wahabi form of Sunni Islam is absolutely prohibited by law. Non-Wahabi Sunni Moslems are expected to assume Wahabi trappings while in the Kingdom, and Shia Moslems from Iran who live on the Arabian Gulf coast of the Kingdom are a suppressed minority. At least in theory Christians and Jews as “People of the Book” are tolerated in the Kingdom, but in practice they must not engage in any overt acts that would normally be associated with their religions. Other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are simply illegal, and again in theory if not necessarily in practice, anyone who espouses those heathen religions in any way does so in violation of national laws. Saudi law is Sharia law insofar as it can be in a world dominated by non-Moslem finance, trade, transportation and communications.
England’s position on the continuum is a kind of compromise between the extremes, but a compromise that is much closer to the American end of it. The Church of England is the “established” religion, and financial and social links between the church and the government are intense. At the same time, however, people are free to worship as they please in England, as is attested by the enormous diversity of churches, temples, mosques and synagogues throughout the country.
With regard to relations between church and state in the Arabian Peninsula, the United Arab Emirates is to Saudi Arabia as England is to the United States. By that I mean that the UAE takes a moderate but emphatically Moslem approach to the matter just as England takes a moderate but emphatically Christian approach. The UAE is officially a Sunni Moslem nation, the government pours a great deal of money into Mosques and Islamic education, and anyone seen eating or drinking in public during the fasting month of Ramadan is subject to arrest and prosecution. Nevertheless, there is a large and very active Shia Moslem community here from Iran, Christian churches are accepted but are not numerous, there are a few Hindu temples here and Hindu festivals such as Holi, Onam and Visnu attract many participants.
I am not a religious practitioner of any kind, but I am interested in the world’s religions. In the UAE as in Saudi Arabia, I have been intrigued by the religious constraints and thought processes that go with Islam, but not personally inconvenienced by them. I have not viewed our time here as an opportunity to study Islam deeply or to become a Muslim, nor have I viewed Islam as a problem that I should attempt to solve. I have watched and listened carefully, but have remained detached from it.
Thus it was with great shock and dismay that I found myself being pulled into a potentially devastating religious conflict with neither my consent nor my knowledge. The conflict says a great deal about life in the region at the end of the 20th century. For reasons that should become obvious in the following pages, I have changed every name that appears in this tale.
Background In the summer of 1989, Don Wade recruited my wife and me to work at an Arabic prep school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
We understand that Don first went to the Kingdom with the US Marines in the early ‘80s to work as a military intelligence advisor to the Saudi Army. Although he never seemed to be especially book-smart, he was highly people-smart, and eventually took a job with one of the Kingdom’s wealthiest merchant princes to establish an English language training program at a new prep school for children of Jeddah’s most powerful and prestigious families. Don’s program had been in place at the school for three or four years when we joined the staff for a year to develop a computer curriculum for grades K-12.
We worked closely with Don and his wife while we were there, and kept loosely in touch with them after we left in 1990 - phone calls a couple of times including one after we joined the faculty at United Arab Emirates University in 1993, two brief exchanges of visits during summers when we were back at our home in the USA and they were at their condo elsewhere in New England, Christmas cards once or twice in the early ‘90s - something, but not a lot. At some point Don said he wanted to talk with me about a business he planned to set up to do educational testing of Arabic children to help them get into American universities, but he never followed up. Eventually we learned that Don had left the school but still was in Jeddah teaching English for Saudia Airlines.
We were surprised to get a phone call from Don one night in April several years later at our apartment in Al-Ain as I was preparing to fly back to Dhaka, Bangladesh, where I worked for a year as Information Technology Director for a new university. Nancy talked with him for a while as I paced back and forth between our apartment and the parking lot looking for the airport taxi that was late as usual. Don’s wife was in the States and Don just wanted to chat, but it was clear that there was more to it than that. The closest he came to being specific was to mention our editing of a natural history journal when we worked in Jeddah.
Don’s call in April was followed by another six months of silence, then he phoned us again early in October, just after my contract had ended at the university in Dhaka and I had returned to Al-Ain where my wife still worked at UAE University. This time when he talked with Nancy, he was a bit more specific. He wanted us to do something to help with another natural history publication, but precisely what remained unclear. Also, he had a friend who worked with computers at Saudia who wanted to talk with me about computer management problems. Again he made a vague reference to some kind of business deal. Nancy invited him to come to the upcoming GITEX computer show and spend the weekend with us.
On 18 October, we received an email message with two email addresses from Sam Benson, Don’s friend at Saudia, who said he was coming to the UAE at the end of October and would like to talk with us about a natural history web site while he was in the country. On about 25 October, he phoned and said that he needed a sponsor to get a visitor’s visa for the UAE, and asked if I would sponsor him. Since Don had set up the contact and recommended him, I agreed and gave him my name, address and passport data. On 28 October, I received a telephone call from a woman who identified herself as Sam’s wife, saying that Sam would arrive in Dubai at 1730 on Friday. Could I meet him? She didn’t know which flight or even which airline he would be on, but said he would be arriving from Bahrain.
Getting Acquainted with Sam I met Sam at Dubai International Airport on Friday, 31 October, at about 1900 when he arrived (late) on a Gulf Air flight from Bahrain, apparently confirmed by a baggage tag and baggage security tape that he left in our apartment. Since he had staff travel privileges on Saudia, it seemed odd that he would fly Gulf Air, but since that was the only flight arriving from Bahrain, I assumed that Gulf might accept Saudia staff as their own.
Before we got out of the parking lot, Sam said he planned to attend the GITEX computer fair the next day, had to meet somebody in Dubai whom he had just met during his two day stopover in Bahrain, revealed that that person shared his religious interests, indicated that he had been in Bahrain on religious business rather than Saudia business, and said he had paid his own money to ride on Gulf Air because he didn’t want to take a chance on being bumped from Saudia since he would have had to fly on standby status. All of this sounded a bit complicated and, being indifferent to people’s religious interests, I said “OK” and tried to change the topic to computers and natural history. But Sam wouldn’t change.
In particular, since this was his first trip to the UAE, he wanted to know about local attitudes toward Christians, and the cost of living. I told him that the country was a lot more tolerant of religious diversity than was the Kingdom, and mentioned the presence of Christian churches and Hindu temples as well as mosques. I mentioned that several members of the University Computer Center staff who worked with me before I went to work in Dhaka were very active in the Catholic Church in Al-Ain, and that the Abu Dhabi Festival Orchestra and Chorus of which my wife was a member staged an annual performance at a large church in Abu Dhabi. As we drove past the Wafi Center shopping mall, I pointed to it and said that my wife and I had spent some time there the day before watching renovations in progress to accommodate a huge Christmas scene including Santa Clause and a herd of real reindeer, a massive upgrade of what they had done in past years. Concerning the cost of living, I wasn’t especially helpful, saying it was the same as anywhere else - within broad limits, you could spend as much or as little as you want to.
Sam’s refusal to drop the subject of religion was not as distressing in the UAE as it would have been in Saudi Arabia, but it was annoying for I had had my fill of such people in past years, and had just left behind an overdose of them in Bangladesh as well. Short of rudely telling him to shut up, it wasn’t obvious how I was going to get him to drop the subject.
Before we reached Al-Ain, the subject had at least shifted a bit. Sam said his religious interests had led him to visit the UAE to do some reconnaissance with an eye to setting up an educational psychology testing and treatment center that would help children with behavioral problems do better in school. That was why he was unwilling to take a chance on being bumped from a Saudia flight, why he was interested in the cost of living, and why he came to the UAE in the first place.
He said he was already providing educational services in Jeddah as a kind of consultant to the Saudi Arabian International School (SAIS) which belonged to the US Embassy when the Embassy was in Jeddah, but was transferred to Saudia Airlines after the Embassy moved to Riyadh. He had a masters degree in educational psychology, had some experience in teaching English as a foreign language which got him to Jeddah in the first place, and was a self-taught computer technician who trained Saudia staff by day and provided computing and educational consulting services to SAIS by night.
He was eager to provide his consulting services more broadly in Arabia for he was aware that mental retardation and other genetic problems were rampant in the region where marriage with one’s first cousin often has unfortunate consequences. The implication of all of this seemed to be that his religious concerns had led him to his humanitarian mission which also had the potential for being highly lucrative if it worked. Sam’s comments about educational psychology were a lot more interesting to me than his religious patter.
Over dinner at the Al Mallah Restaurant, he was a lot quieter. The only thing of importance that he said was that his wife was from Jamaica. She went with many other Jamaicans to work in Amman, Jordan, apparently as a domestic, when she was in her late teens and stayed there for ten years before going to the US to attend a Bible college, where Sam met and married her three years ago. Their first child was born three months ago.
Since my wife and I worked and traveled all over the Caribbean throughout the ‘80s, we were interested. I don’t want to make heavy weather over something that may be trivial, but I usually can recognize a Caribbean accent at a thousand paces. Furthermore, my wife and I knew the region well enough to be able to identify specific Jamaican, Barbadian, Trinidadian, St. Lucian, and various other Caribbean dialects reasonably well. I am virtually certain that the woman who said she was Sam’s wife when she telephoned me a couple of days earlier did not have a Jamaican accent, or any other kind of Caribbean accent. If she had, I would have immediately asked her about it, as I always do when I encounter Caribbean dialects in Asia. I may have been fooled by a faulty telephone connection or some kind of speech impediment, but I am pretty sure it was an Eastern European accent, which is the way I described it to my wife shortly after the woman telephoned. I did not remember this detail until two days after Sam left.
Sometime after we returned to the apartment, Sam asked to use the phone for a few minutes to firm up his plans to meet his new friend in Dubai. Nancy was busy working at the computer in the office where the phone was located, preparing for her work at the University on Saturday morning, so she overheard his conversations but was too busy to pay much attention to them. He actually made two calls, one to Dubai and the other to Abu Dhabi.
Although it isn’t illegal to be a Christian in the UAE, it is bad form to flaunt one’s Christianity, especially on a borrowed telephone since telephones in the UAE are no more secure than they are in the Kingdom. My wife was very annoyed by his religious talk and was caught in the bind of being a host who should be nice to guests and a resident of the Gulf who must always protect oneself against potential dangers. Had he not ended his conversations voluntarily when he did, she probably would have cut him off pretty soon.
In the remaining half-hour before going to sleep, Sam and I talked about Saudia’s computer systems. I told both Don and Sam that I was looking for another contract, and we would have been far less willing to host Sam had that not seemed to be a possibility. Sam described the Saudia situation in such a way that only a fool would accept an IT management position with them. I’ll never know whether his description was correct, but it put an end to that part of the conversation.
Then we discussed his relationship with the natural history society and whatever it was that Don wanted us to do in that regard. Sam was thinking of creating a web site for the society and had all sorts of plans for making it the greatest natural history web site in the Middle East. He and some others at Saudia were preparing to establish indirect access to the Internet via a server in Saudia’s Houston, Texas, office since it still was illegal for anyone to access the Internet in the Kingdom, with an aim of putting up a Saudia web page as well. So he described actions being taken by an arm of the government (Saudia) to work around an obstacle placed in its way by another arm of the government.
Sam’s enthusiasm for the proposed natural history web page was based on what appeared to be his ignorance of what was already available on the Internet. In a few minutes after my wife finished using the computer and went to bed, I connected to the Internet and showed him most of his proposed information on web sites already in operation in the UAE and elsewhere in the Middle East. The failure of his idea seemed to be of no importance to him, and I heard no more about it. That was not surprising since his real reasons for visiting the UAE had nothing to do with computing and natural history.
Early Saturday morning, I had to take Nancy to Maqam Campus, the women’s campus of UAE University, where she would work that day. I thought we could take Sam with us then depart directly for Dubai, but Nancy pointed out that it was illegal for him to go onto the women’s campus as a visitor. So with concern and reluctance, we left Sam in our apartment while I went to Maqam and returned in just over half an hour.
When I entered the apartment, I found Sam fiddling with our stereo. He was holding a cassette that he described as a recording of Coptic music that he picked up in Bahrain the day before, and said he planned to leave it with us. The music was kind of interesting, but the sound quality on the multiply pirated copy was so awful that I threw the cassette out after I returned from taking him to GITEX and listened to part of it. I should have kept it.
His confirmed that his video camera battery was recharged. He planned to make a video of the Microsoft booth at GITEX which he would show to his Saudia colleagues in Jeddah, partly for training but mainly to justify his trip to his Saudi manager who permitted him to take time off in return for the videotape. Clearly the visit to GITEX was a cover for his religious work.
Sam’s Comments about Missionaries in the Kingdom We left Al-Ain at about 0900. After listening to his insensitive and culturally inappropriate patter for a good while and having been unable to shut it off tactfully, I finally went on the offensive as we left the city. I didn’t want his visit to end on a bad note because of our friendship with Don, but I definitely wanted it to end. So I began to ask probing questions that went far below the generalities that he had been dispensing, in hopes that he would refuse to answer and that would be the end of that. Instead, he responded with so much information that I am not sure what to do with all of it. The very fact that he gave me so much information about this delicate subject is quite puzzling.
It quickly became apparent that Sam was a missionary. Not your ordinary missionary who saved souls the way they did it years ago, but a high-tech missionary who used his born-again Christian mentality, his degree in educational psychology, his experience in US Air Force intelligence, and his job at Saudia to save souls, both expatriate and Saudi.
In many parts of the world, being active in the Christian community even as a missionary deserves the kind of ho-hum reception that I gave to Sam’s initial revelations about his religious interests, but in Saudi Arabia it is illegal to practice any religion other than the Wahabi sect of Islam. Sam repeated the rumor that says that a Saudi who practices any other religion can be executed, and expats who practice any other religion are subject to imprisonment for as long as the authorities chose to lock them up, to be followed by deportation. So being an active Christian - especially a Christian missionary - in Saudi Arabia seems like a pretty risky business.
Sam belonged to a particular Pentecostal church whose name meant nothing to me and unfortunately I promptly forgot it. But he said it had 400 members working as missionaries in the Kingdom. They formed a loose association and he said he didn’t know most of them. He said he was an ordained minister, therefore a relatively high ranking member of the organization, certainly a lot higher than lay missionaries who he said simply worked with local groups and had no management responsibilities.
He claimed that 120 different Pentecostal churches had missionaries in the Kingdom, with his own having the largest number of them. So a sizable percentage of all Americans in the Kingdom were Pentecostal missionaries. The lines between sects had blurred because all of them worked under the same difficult conditions and helped each other as needed, which included holding ecumenical evening meetings that would have been prohibited in the West where it was much easier for each sect to maintain its own boundaries.
Sam received his training, ordination as a minister and certification as a missionary without going to a Bible college, a fact that he noted at the restaurant the evening before and emphasized during the drive back to Dubai. He said he was from a small town in Texas, did his undergraduate and graduate work at one of the University of Texas campuses, and did his religious training in parallel with it. One of the benefits of that arrangement was that he didn’t have to list a religious school on his c.v. when he applied for a job in Saudi Arabia, unlike a person whose only academic credentials came from a Bible college. This is significant since the Saudis diligently check references and credentials.
Did Sam deliberately avoid getting a degree from a Bible college for this reason? No, it was just a fringe benefit. In fact, he had planned to work in the Caribbean and just happened to find a job in Jeddah - his first job after graduating - and liked the situation so well that he decided to stay. He had an uncle there at the time, but for reasons that I don’t remember, the uncle was expelled from the country shortly after Sam arrived. Apparently his interest in the Caribbean persisted since his wife was Jamaican and had a degree from a Bible college. Were her credentials subjected to the same scrutiny as his since she went to the Kingdom as a dependent rather than as an employee? He thought not.
Since people went to the Kingdom with Bible college credentials which the Saudi’s checked and accepted, what difference did it make whether he did or did not have those credentials? Sam seemed to think that the Saudis were so stupid that they were unaware of the large number of missionaries operating in their country. I replied that Saudis, Kuwaitis and Emiratis were not the least bit stupid and, with deliberate disdain, said that any actions based on that assumption were doomed. He reconsidered as he talked about the subject further. He asserted that Saudi managers were not noted for being brilliant, but agreed that at the very least they could keep a list of everyone who listed Bible colleges on their c.v.s, and were smart enough to contract out the kinds of things they could not - or preferred not - to do for themselves.
Then he casually mentioned having worked in Air Force intelligence, and noted that American electronic surveillance equipment that was available in the Kingdom could automatically analyze all of their domestic and international communications, in part because the systems were so very highly centralized - which was why Saudia still used mainframe computers instead of shifting to distributed PCs the way most of the other airlines in the world had done in recent years. So maybe they really did have a master list that could pinpoint just about everyone who had used religious language in his telephone, fax and email messages in recent years.
But if they had such a list, what would they do with it? After they finished deporting all of the illegal Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and Indians and Yemenis, would they deport all of the illegal missionaries? In Sam’s opinion, the Saudis actually preferred to employ strongly committed Christians rather than non-Christians who were more likely to disrupt Saudi society with their godless ways. If the Christians stayed out of trouble and worked only with TCNs (Third Country Nationals) whom many Saudis viewed as domestic animals anyway, the Saudis would simply ignore them. If they became a nuisance the Saudis could expel them with no trouble on grounds of their illegal Christianity with no objections from the US Embassy, whereas if the godless folks became a nuisance it was harder to expel them unless they had clearly violated a law. In other words, since enforcement of the laws was discretionary, Christian missionaries were safe so long as they behaved themselves in other ways. But he mentioned that a purge of Mormons occurred there several years ago.
Sam recounted a story about a missionary friend of his who was caught slipping a computer diskette out of a Saudi Aramco compound in the Eastern Province. The Saudis assumed that he was stealing business data, but he demonstrated that the diskette contained nothing but his church membership list, whereupon some of the mutawa religious police who were his friends came to his defense and he was released promptly.
How was it that a Christian missionary had friends among the mutawa? He said the mutawa and the missionaries in his church had a lot in common. Specifically, Islam is a strictly monotheistic religion - there is only ONE God and Mohammed is his prophet - which is strikingly different from the concept of the Trinity that is common to much of mainstream Christianity including Catholic and Anglican churches. Sam’s own church was strictly monotheistic: God is God, Jesus is his prophet, and the Holy Spirit is a complication they omit. Consequently, the theological structure within which they worked looked remarkably Islamic. He also briefly mentioned that Islam includes the Sufi mystical tradition that had a good bit in common with his own born-again faith that extolled direct union with God. He seemed to imply that the Sufi tradition might have been alive and well among the mutawa even though in theory it was prohibited.
Did he and his missionary colleagues concentrate exclusively on TCNs or did they proselytize among Western expats as well? He started off by mumbling and being a bit evasive on this one, then kind of scrambled whatever he was saying and paused for a few seconds. When he started speaking again, he said “I’m sure you won’t tell anybody”, then recounted another anecdote. He said that a female relative of Prince X was diagnosed as having diabetes and the doctors who saw her said the case was hopeless. A missionary was invited to pray for her and lay on hands, and she no longer had diabetes. Sam said he was scheduled to visit the woman later in November at one of the prince’s palaces to confirm the cure, and that the prince strongly supported his church.
I cannot imagine why he told me a story such as this, given the incriminating messages that it contains. I suppose it could be factual, but I suspect that it is libelous name-dropping, self-aggrandizement, a bizarre attempt to impress me, or megalomania. I decided he was quite mad.
Did missionaries get more gold stars from their church or their God for converting a Saudi prince than for converting another Filipino gardener? My question was facetious, even sarcastic, but he seemed not to notice. His answer was serious: yes. With no embellishments.
Sam’s Description of his own Goals and Methods How did Sam’s educational consulting services fit into the larger picture? He wanted to establish a network of facilities throughout the Gulf to help families whose children were not performing well in school. He acknowledged that various Gulf countries already had facilities for physically handicapped children who were less disreputable than children with intellectual or emotional disabilities. But with increasing acceptance of mental disabilities in a population where they were very common, it was important to provide the facilities and services locally to an extent never required in the past when disabled children simply died early.
His therapy was designed to induce children as young as eight years old, and their parents, to become born again Christians. He also mentioned Skinnerian behavior modification and chemical therapy, but his real objective was to induce religious conversion experiences in these people and in the process to capture their souls for God and modify their daily behavior so the children could function better in school - not because improved performance in school was of primary importance to him, but because, like healing lepers and raising people from the dead, it would enhance his reputation and effectiveness as a missionary. I briefly lost the drift of Sam’s comments as I realized that his therapy was not a humanitarian service intended to help disabled children, but rather was a stratagem for gaining Saudi converts for his church.
If he could do what he wanted to do in Saudi Arabia, why set up branch offices in Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE? In part because the services were needed there too, but also because there were fewer constraints on Saudis when they traveled to those other countries, and it was easier for everybody - like Americans who used to go to Las Vegas for divorces and Mexico for abortions. But it was more complicated than that. He wanted legitimate offices in outlying countries as well as in the Kingdom so he could travel in and out of all of them to do his missionary work using multiple entry visas and work permits that he would never be able to get in any other way. Furthermore, working with children all over the Peninsula would subsidize his missionary work throughout the region, and he would not have to continue working for an organization such as Saudia. So in effect, his educational counseling work was cleverly designed to save souls for God in what I saw as a most ungodly way, and to provide legitimate cover and adequate funding for his travels as a high tech missionary throughout the region.
It was perfectly obvious that Sam was concerned exclusively with converting Saudi nationals, for his scheme was irrelevant to TCNs who couldn’t use the services and other expats who presumably wouldn’t need them. So Prince X should not be seen as a fluke or an aberration. The anecdote, be it true or false, depicted him as a precedent or a victim depending on your point of view, and a powerful and wealthy one to boot.
Suddenly we were in Dubai. We dropped his suitcase at the Airport Hotel which agreed to hold it for him until 1300 when he would meet his friend from Bahrain there. As we approached the World Trade Center, he said he would return to the UAE at the end of November to begin setting up his first clinic here. I quietly commented that his techniques were different from those of 19th century missionaries who wrecked havoc throughout Africa and the Pacific, but his attitudes, values and objectives were the same. He agreed, apparently without noticing or understanding - or caring about - the scathing attack that my bland tone masked. When I let him out in the parking lot by Hall 7, he grabbed his video camera, shook hands with me momentarily and disappeared into the crowd.
Don Wade’s Possible Roles In something like shock, I drove to McDonald’s Restaurant in Jumairah and sat there for an hour or so to reflect on what I had heard.
Maybe Sam was nothing but an isolated madman playing games with himself and us, a person suffering from delusions acting out his fantasies in arrogant, rude and potentially dangerous ways. But even if that were true, what difference would it make? He might have been crazy, he might even have been stupid in some ways. Neither meant that he was harmless.
Sam’s words more or less spoke for themselves but Don Wade’s role in this matter was less obvious and more difficult to disentangle. Most of my thoughts on this matter came to me after I left Sam at the World Trade Center, and are speculative.
Perhaps Don had been deceived by Sam and really had no idea what his friend was doing. I specifically asked whether Don know about Sam’s missionary activities, and Sam said, “Well, not really”. I interpreted that to mean that Don knew something, but perhaps not all of the details.
Did Don tell Sam that we were sympathetic to his cause? Was Sam trying to recruit us to that cause or somehow implicate us in it? If not, he could have used our services as hosts simply because Don recommended him and never said a word about any of this subversive religious business.
Was Sam’s plan to set up facilities for Moslem children connected in any way with Don’s older plan to do educational counseling for children in Jeddah to send them to American universities? I had no idea.
Was Don’s proposal to establish a natural history web site legitimate, or was it intended mainly to serve as a cover for providing access to born-again Christian sites that might number in the thousands on the Internet by now? If it was intended only as a cover, Sam’s lack of interest in its content was easier to understand.
Who was responsible for Sam’s asking me to serve as his visa sponsor, Sam or Don? Because of that act, my name and passport number became attached to Sam’s UAE visa. Much more importantly, however, he could continue to use my visa data - or misuse it - as he saw fit until the passport expired in 2005. Would he name me, without my knowledge or permission, as his sponsor to return to the UAE at the end of November?
After Sam got the visa and entered the UAE, he could remain in the country on my sponsorship without my knowledge. Later in the week - much too late - I realized that I didn’t even know whether he had left Dubai after GITEX closed as he said he would, since I didn’t watch him get on the plane. Was he still in the country, maybe with his missionary friend from Bahrain, under my misguided sponsorship? If so, was that Sam’s idea or Don’s?
Did Don recruit Sam to work at Saudia, or were they nothing more than coincidental colleagues there? For the first time in years, I thought of two other Pentecostal missionaries who Don recruited to work at the school in Jeddah. They were Tom, an American computer technician and classroom computer instructor, and Sally, an American English teacher.
Tom and Sally were missionaries who served the Filipinos who worked as cooks, cleaners, drivers and gardeners at the school, and through them other Filipinos in Jeddah. Sam said he didn’t know Tom. The last time I communicated with Tom, probably in about 1993, he worked as a computer technician at a university that was within commuting distance of his farm.
Late in our year in Jeddah, Sally married a man who worked for one of the American military suppliers, and they left their jobs in Jeddah to return to the US. According to Sam, they went to Louisiana where he became an ordained Pentecostal minister. They returned from Louisiana recently, her husband employed by an arms supplier again, and both active in the Christian community again. It seemed strange to me that a person would be a Christian missionary and work for an arms dealer, but perhaps I am naïve. Sam seemed to see no problems there.
To the best of my knowledge, nobody else at the school in 1989-90 was of their religious persuasion, but two out of ten Western expats is a significant percentage.
Sometimes Don looked like a bumbling fool, but he was no fool and I always felt that his bumbling was contrived. In fact, Don was so skillful at bumbling about and never threatening anybody that he could easily have worked for military intelligence or anybody else while he worked at the school in Jeddah, and continued to do so at Saudia, without raising any suspicions.
So was Don the hapless victim of a series of clever missionaries who took advantage of him, or was he in charge of the missionaries? Prior to the experience with Sam, I never connected Don with Tom and Sally’s activities. Now I do. Following this line of thought to its logical conclusion, perhaps Don was in charge of a group of people who used teaching as a cover for missionary work which in turn served as a stronger cover for some other kind of work.
Perhaps all of my speculations constituted nothing but a colossal and ultimately ridiculous conspiracy theory based mainly on my years of exposure to the Eastern habit of constructing conspiracy theories to account for the most obvious and mundane of events. But I was seriously concerned that both Don and Sam presented problems.
Request for Assistance The content of Sam’s message to me was bad enough, but the way he delivered it was worse. I felt as if somebody like Timothy McVeigh had just dropped in for a visit and had spent several hours describing his rationale and plans for blowing up the Oklahoma City Federal Office Building. Nothing hysterical, nothing out of the ordinary except for his single minded focus on his topic, just a simple plan very carefully designed to attack Saudi society at its roots so that people such as Prince X could be blackmailed and even destroyed. And Sam’s arrogant attitude said I should admire him for being so clever.
We decided to respond in two ways. First we faxed Don stating some but by no means all of our concerns about Sam, but we received no reply. Second we reported the matter in person to the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi. Nobody likes a whistle blower and we knew that reporting it could backfire in any number of ways. But sometimes you must take a chance on Uncle Sam, even though a little paranoia in that regard may be healthy too.
Specifically we requested assistance in dealing with two major problems. First came the broad problem. If Sam really were part of a far right fundamentalist Christian conspiracy to destabilize the Middle East and we didn’t report it to somebody who might be able to stop him, then we would be partly to blame for whatever damage he caused. I’m not fond of the Saudi regime, but an attempt by ultra-conservative American Christian fundamentalists to overthrow ultra-conservative Saudi Moslem fundamentalists marks no improvement, and my being caught accidentally in the middle of such a potentially devastating event simply was not acceptable.
Next came the narrow problem. Sam said he would return to the UAE at the end of November to begin setting up his first clinic here. The idea that he might list me as his sponsor to obtain another visa was not acceptable either.
Clearly I did not think Sam was a harmless crackpot, or I would not have put so much time and effort into preparing this account.
Visit to the US Embassy With my account of the event in hand I arrived at the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi at about 10:20 a few days later and drove around it a couple of times searching for a shady parking place. I finally found one on the small street behind the Embassy compound, directly opposite the guard who keeps watch on that little corner of the world.
The guard at the window beside the front gate, probably Filipino, was both intelligent and pleasant, but nothing in his orders said he should let me in at 10:30, especially since I wasn’t sure who I wanted to see. Could I please return at 13:00 when the embassy normally dealt with Americans? I explained that I had driven all the way from Al-Ain, had a problem that I needed to discuss with somebody as soon as possible, and repeated my request for admission. More discussion but no progress.
Finally I decided that talking wasn’t going to work, so I showed him the cover page to the long report about Sam’s visit. He read it quickly and immediately telephoned the Consular Section, talked to somebody there for a few seconds with his back to the window, and hung up. No further questions except for asking me how many people were with me. I said “none”, so he gave me a little piece of paper and pointed to the entrance a few feet to my right. The guard there admitted me immediately. I went through the normal electronic scanning for metallic objects, and was inside the compound a moment later.
At 10:30, the visitor’s area inside the Embassy was empty and quiet; I was the only person there. I went to the Cashier’s window, knocked on it a couple of times and waited. A woman arrived, briefly looked at the cover page again, and asked me to go to Window 5 in the visa processing area. A man of unknown ethnicity met me there, looked briefly at the cover page that the woman gave to him, said he had just talked with the gate guard about me, and asked me to wait while he went to get the Vice Consul.
Ms. Y appeared next, American, probably in her mid-30s, and interested. She immediately began to ask me whether I could provide particulars about the person in question - name, age, height, weight, eye color, etc. When it was obvious that she was taking me seriously, I told her it would be much more efficient for me to give her a long report that I had written about this matter just after it happened, if she would like to see it. She took the long report and disappeared for almost half an hour while I sat in the waiting room and watched a cricket match from Australia.
She returned at about 11:10 and asked me to come with her through the secure door into the office area. Once we were inside and the door was locked again, she directed me to the left, into the office that belonged to the Second Secretary, Embassy of the USA. Mr. Z was not there and I was told he was on leave (perhaps true, or maybe he was watching the meeting on TV). However, as soon as we entered the office, Mr. M arrived too. Ms. Y asked Mr. M and me to sit in two of the leather chairs facing the desk in a small arc, and she took the third one, between him and me. Therefore all of us were facing the desk. If I had wanted to videotape the interview, that’s how I would have set it up.
It was immediately obvious that both of them had read the report in its entirety and had learned most of what they had read. I was impressed by their abilities in that regard. So we skipped the preliminaries. The comments that followed went from point to point in no particular order. I’ll summarize the exchange, but with no claim to the accuracy of the sequencing.
They began by returning the cover letter and the report to me. I said I assumed they had photocopied it, but they did not reply. When I got back to the car, I checked and discovered that the report had been unstapled and re-stapled very poorly. They kept copies.
Did I complete any paperwork or sign anything or go to the visa desk at DXB to assist Sam in getting into the country? “No” to all of the above. Good. If he had used me as his visa sponsor, I would have had to participate in the paperwork at some point. That means he probably did NOT use me as his visa sponsor. So maybe he used his travel agent, a hotel or somebody else.
Have I heard from him since he left? No. If he telephones me, I should assume that somebody else is listening at his end and make it absolutely clear that I am angry about his behavior when he was here, that I do not want him to contact me in any way again, that I will have nothing to do with his entry into the UAE, and that I have given a detailed report on the incident to the American Embassy in Abu Dhabi. Missionary types rarely hear subtle things and “you have to hit them on the head with a stick to get their attention” (Mr. M’s words). Make it clear that he should get out of my life and stay out. Not only may that message get through to him, but also it will protect me from any kind of entrapment.
With regard to the larger issue of Sam’s activities and plans, both of them were basically noncommittal. Did he actually threaten to do any physical damage to anybody or anything? No. But I pointed out that his activities with a Saudi prince could have even more serious implications. I noted that I had omitted the name of the prince in the report, and asked if they wanted to know who it was. Yes, just for the sake of completeness of course. I told them that I wouldn’t speak it, but would show it to them on a post-it that I had inside my wallet. So I did, and they made a mental note of it. I destroyed the post-it as soon as I got back to the car and threw it in a wastebasket a while later.
Mr. M said he thought it was unnecessary to initiate any kind of investigation at this time since that might result in complications for me, but if I ever learned that Sam had returned to the UAE, two routes were available, both of which would result in investigations.
First, he gave me a sheet of paper with the names and positions of two UAE Immigration officials whom I should contact. He had prepared this information before the meeting began. He said there was no need to do it now, in fact I shouldn’t do it now, but I should do it if there was ever any reason to even suspect that Sam had returned to the UAE and might have listed me as a sponsor.
Second, he said I should contact the US Embassy and ask for him, Ms. X or Mr. Z who they would inform about the matter as soon as he returned. I asked for contact information for them. Mr. M said his cards were in his office at the other end of the compound, and Ms. X said hers were still at the printer suggesting that she was new to Abu Dhabi. They scratched around in a desk drawer, found a copy of somebody else’s card, put their names on the back of it and gave it to me, all of which seemed a little peculiar to me.
What did they do with the information? I have no way of knowing whether they destroyed the report as soon as I left, decided to sit on it for a while, or faxed copies to Washington and Riyadh even before I was out of the office. Anything is possible.
Final instructions were to leave the Embassy knowing that I had done the best I could, and let them handle the matter. Don’t do anything else now. Laid back, friendly, competent, noncommittal, reassuring Americans. I suppose that’s their job in cases like this.
At 11:30, I returned to my car with the guard watching me.
While Nancy was Away
United Arab Emirates University
Al Ain, UAE
3 April 98
Our family has grown. We acquired a very young pre-owned cat a few days ago and are trying to find time to acclimate her to our household. According to local experts, Shadow’s breed is “Shirazi” from the city of Shiraz in Iran – sort of Persian with variegated gray medium-length fur and a medium length face.
My new contract as Assistant Director of Instructional Information Technology began last week at a new university that is being built here in the UAE. The university doesn't really exist yet except on paper, but is supposed to accept its first students in September, just five months from now. Two new campuses are under construction, one in Abu Dhabi (400 students in the first class), the other in Dubai (1100 students). Both will be high tech wonders, the finest that money can buy, insh'allah.
While Nancy was at a conference in the USA late in March, I used my last bit of free time to explore a few more corners of this fascinating place.
First I went to the Musendam Peninsula, the point of land that juts out to form the Strait of Hormuz between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. I drove from Al-Ain to the small city of Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) which is on the Arabian Gulf coast just north of Dubai, and then went up the west side of the peninsula to the Omani town of Khasab which is near the top end of the peninsula, tucked inside a fjord ... a hot little Arabic town in a setting that reminds you of the Norwegian coast except that it doesn't have any trees.
The west coast road from RAK to Khasab is still under construction here and there, but most of it is finished and those parts are superb, the way the Omanis do everything - real class! And the views are great too - the Arabian Gulf spreads out to the left and the mountains jut straight up into the sky to the right. It’s just over the border in Oman, and utterly unlike anything in the UAE.
A broad valley runs inland from Khasab into the mountains and leads up into the highlands, then back down to the town of Dibba on the Indian Ocean coast. Even though I decided not to drive to Dibba for the road was too steep for our little Honda, I did drive about 20 km down the valley. On the way, I gave a lift to a man whose car had broken down, and he wanted to go to a coastal village that was inaccessible by road until somebody used a bulldozer not long ago to cut a road of sorts up one side of the mountain and down the other. The Honda was really panting when we got to the top of the pass on the way to the village, so I decided not to drive down to the village itself because then the car would have had to make it back out through a infinite series of hairpin turns right up the side of the mountain. The views of the sea and the mountains from the top of the pass were worth the effort, but having to stay in the village because the car melted down seemed unreasonable.
As you perhaps know, we're about half way through the month of the Hadj, the annual pilgrimage to Makkah in Saudi Arabia. At the end of the Hadj, every adult male Moslem is supposed to sacrifice a sheep or goat as part of the ritual. Since the UAE has a lot more adult male Moslems than it has sacrificial sheep and goats, the UAE has to import animals for the slaughter. Many come from Iran, and the big goat movement is ON! They come into the port at Khasab in huge twin-engine outboard motorboats - no doubt called goat boats - each carrying about 30 animals. Indian laborers were taking the animals off the boats, putting each boatload into a separate truck, and driving them to RAK and Dubai for distribution throughout the UAE in time for the big killing a couple of weeks from now. I must have seen a couple of thousand immigrant sheep and goats that day. Cleaning out a boat after bringing a load of seasick goats from Iran must be a truly grim experience.
All things considered it was a good day - left Al-Ain at 05:30 and got back at about 22:30, pretty well wiped out - almost 400 miles of fairly difficult driving.
The next couple of days, I went back up into the mountains behind Buraimi, the town adjacent to Al-Ain but on the Omani side of the border. There I wandered through three oases and hiked up the wadis (dry river beds) and falajes (manmade irrigation channels) that bring water down from the mountains to the date plantations. Culturally the places are quite similar to each other - tiny villages of mud huts that have been upgraded with cement blocks - but the physical settings of the three are strikingly different.
To get to the first village, I had to go over a low, steep pass - sort of like a double sided ski slope - and into a bowl that contained the village and the oasis. I parked at the bottom of the oasis and spent a couple of hours walking uphill through lush palm groves, then along the edge of a deep gorge cut by floods through gray boulders the size of small houses, then three or four kilometers up the edge of the cement falaj that follows the contour line beside the wadi and reliably brings water down from the higher elevations year round. Ancient abandoned villages and long disused agricultural terraces sit here and there along the fringes of the wadi under an intense blue sky, overlooking a gorgeous but desolate moonscape of boulders and jagged mountains.
The second oasis had the same basic components, but there the floods had cut the wadi straight down about 200 feet deep into an alluvial gravel plain. I couldn’t even see the wadi until I was standing right on the edge of it - reminded me of some parts of the Snake River in Idaho, but nowhere near as deep. In addition to the village and the oasis in the relatively accessible areas outside of the wadi, there were several small plantations right down in the gorge itself, surrounded by cement walls to keep floods from washing them away. Getting down into the gorge and back out again was something of a challenge for a novice like me, but the men who were working there scampered up and down the trails like mountain goats. There were a few quiet pools tucked under the rocks avoiding the sun, but it must be truly awesome to be “at the farm” when a flash flood comes thundering down the mountain.
An old wall stretched across the bottom of the third oasis, so I parked the car outside and walked in, again up hill, but this time for several kilometers in the bottom of a broad, shallow wadi where a lot of water still was running in multiple braided channels cut in the smooth rock surface. The pools contained small fish as well as frogs and tadpoles. This must be butterfly mating season, for several times I found myself in the midst of great flocks of them, some bright orange, others small and white like flurries of snowflakes. Just around the first bend, I found an ancient brown mud fort sitting on a small hill out in the middle of the valley, abandoned, desiccated and partly dissolved by winter rains. Further upstream, the wadi narrowed and I was in a calm, humid, even lush micro-environment full of banana, mango and papaya trees that reminded me of limestone gullies in Barbados. Further up, the gorge broadened again and I came out into something that I must call a meadow that seemed to continue for several more kilometers up into the mountains. The winter was wet, and the hills were wearing a light coat of green fuzz that made them look a lot less austere than they usually do. A family of five passed me as I entered the meadow, and they were still going uphill at a pretty fast clip when I decided it was time for me to head back down to the car.
This is the season when date trees must be hand-fertilized by their owners to make sure they produce the right kind of fruit, and a lot of people were working up in their trees in all of the oases. It's really quiet out there.
I stopped at a tiny restaurant / grocery store in the middle of nowhere and had mutton biriani for lunch. It was NOT quiet there! While I was eating my meat and rice, a Nissan 4WD and a Lexus sedan stopped and unloaded a family of UAE nationals consisting of one man, four women at least two of whom probably were Marine drill sergeants, two teenage girls, four teenage boys and a whole preschool of little kids including a girl of about five or six who had an enormous and much used pacifier in her mouth. The crowd hit the restaurant and store like a storm. In less than ten minutes, they managed to totally scramble the contents of the ice cream freezer, rip open a package of muffins and scatter the contents all over the floor, scatter plastic bags everywhere, knock over a chair, and spill a can of Pepsi. Clearly the staff had had that experience before, and set up a roadblock at the door to catch people on the way out and collect money from them. On the average, each of them bought about $6 worth of candy, cookies, muffins, potato chips, soft drinks, and other junk food, so it probably was by far the biggest sale of the day for that little store. But I'll bet it took the staff at least an hour to put it back together after the gang blasted off.
The next day, for a total change of pace, I went to Dubai for their month-long 1998 International Shopping Festival which in just three years has become a major event attracting people from all over Europe and Asia who know a good deal when they see one. Since the oil boom hit, the city has gone from being a dusty speck on the Gulf coast to being a close rival of Hong Kong and Singapore, but with a healthy economy. The skyscrapers, freeways and shopping malls are simply astounding, and most of them have been built since we arrived here.
I’m not much of a shopper, but I’m fond of oriental carpets and was especially interested in attending some of the cultural events that occur in conjunction with the “shop ‘til you drop” orgy. Unfortunately the World Trade Center’s “Carpet Oasis” was closed (guess I’ll have to go back!), but its exhibit of modern tapestries from around the world, on loan from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, was open - thirty vertical tapestries, each about 4x8 feet, in brilliant colors made by women’s groups in the Caribbean, India, Bangladesh, the UAE and ethnically mixed communities throughout the UK.
During midday, most things close throughout the UAE for a kind of siesta, so I went to the wharves where activity never ceases. The new waterfront on the Creek below the high rise offices and hotels is home to a fleet of hundreds of ancient wooden dhows, traditionally sail powered but now propelled by Caterpillar diesels, that carry huge loads of cargo all over the Gulf, and as far afield as Pakistan, Aden and Zanzibar. Automobile tires, refrigerators, tea, cement, and just about everything else you can imagine are transshipped from the deep water harbors at Port Rashid and Jabal Ali through the dhow port in the Creek. All of the boats whose crew members I talked with yesterday were headed for Bandar Abbas, Iran, just across the Strait of Hormuz from Khasab on the Musendam.
As the sun moved west, my next stop was the UAE Heritage Village where the Emiratis have created a kind of living museum of their own cultural traditions, and of course are making it pay for itself with restaurants and shops that sell traditional foods and crafts. The most fascinating part was the extent to which the site captured traditional Emirati life styles. The details were too numerous to mention, but examples included veiled women making clothing and food, men demonstrating their falcons and performing traditional drum dances that seemed to be pretty monotonous the first few times I saw them but that are becoming increasingly complex and interesting as I see more of them, and little children being thoroughly indoctrinated into the traditions as fully active participants. A group of about fifteen preteen girls in gorgeous, long, flowing, brilliantly decorated dresses, with long black hair and sparkling gold headdresses were welcoming visitors with singing and incense when I arrived. And there were donkey and camel rides for this generation’s urban kids who probably don’t spend a lot of time out on the land. I’m really impressed. Three years ago, the Heritage Village was so poorly done it was embarrassing; now it is a world class living museum. You can do just about anything with an infinite supply of money and a lot of good ideas.
I ran out of film just as the sun set, so I went in search of some more, and by the time I found what I wanted, I was on the other side of the city. Instead of going back to the Heritage Village, I went to the Global Village, which is Dubai’s own annual version of a world’s fair. By far the biggest pavilion was operated by the Dubai Indian Association and the Government of India, in large part because so many of the people in the UAE are expatriate Indians. About 125 open-air shops selling Indian arts, crafts and foods surrounded the stage where a nonstop show presented folk music, dancing, magic acts, and all manner of other entertainment from throughout India.
In addition to the sprawling Indian pavilion, there were smaller pavilions from Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Oman, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, several other Middle Eastern countries, a few African countries, China, Thailand, and the Netherlands. Not quite sure where the Dutch came from, but there they were with funny shoes, strange hats, lots of flowers, great piles of fine cheese, and a calliope! They probably were the most exotic bunch of folks in Dubai! And everything came to a screeching halt at 8pm when a ten minute fireworks display erupted over the Creek.
So my week felt a lot like being on vacation in a country of astonishing contrasts. To end it, I’ve been writing this letter while watching some Indian laborers repair our water heater. The heater fails about once a year, so once a year I get to spend a morning like this. I see that low-tech water heater as being about midway between the incredible glitz of Dubai and the ancient traditions of the oases.
Foreword Welcome to an exercise in paranoia. It deals with my attempts to comprehend events that were deliberately made incomprehensible to me. The result was a kind of hallucination spanning almost two years, during which I had no idea what was going on in the minds and actions of people who had a great deal of control over my life and my income.
On the surface it appears to be a description of things that happened around me. Viewed from this perspective, it is indeed the only account I have been able to construct that accommodates all of the data and does not contain any conspicuously fatal flaws. If the story contains errors of omission or commission, I sincerely apologize to those who may feel maligned, and will gladly edit it to correct those errors if only someone will come forward to set me straight. I must note, however, that if those who may feel maligned, and others of their ilk, had admitted to their actions in the first place, my story would be based on knowledge rather than on ignorance or speculation or fantasy or hallucination, and I would not have made these possible errors.
But viewing it as a superficial description of things that happened around me is fundamentally incorrect. Rather it is an account of what happened inside my head. And it is as true and complete as I can make it from that perspective. For that reason, even if I got it totally wrong I should leave it as it stands on grounds that it accurately demonstrates the psychological imbalances that a person can experience when living and working in a society in which all important decisions are made behind locked doors, people who make such decisions are not accountable to anyone, and people affected by such decisions have no right of appeal. I have omitted a great many names but I have not changed any of them “to protect the innocent” for that incorrectly implies that somebody is guilty. Not so. To the best of my knowledge, nobody in my tale is guilty. The problem is culture conflict, not guilt or innocence.
I refer you to other works in this genre including Franz Kafka’s The Trial set in Central Europe in the 1920s, and Hilary Mantel’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the 1980s.
My tale has a couple of morals. One might be that if you can’t cope with the kind of life described here, you probably would do well to avoid working in the Arabian Peninsula. Another is that the litigious nature of contemporary American society has its downsides but the alternatives can be a lot worse.
The Tale Thirty years before my time, Al-Ain was one of a handful of dusty little Arabian villages in the Buraimi Oasis. Sitting on the border between the emptiness of what is now the United Arab Emirates and the mountains of what is now Oman, with its back against the towering sand dunes of Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter, it was inconsequential to just about everybody except the family of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan. Then Sheikh Zayed was a young charismatic leader of a desert tribe who did interviews with Wilfred Thesiger; now he is the ruler of the United Arab Emirates and a justly revered elder statesmen of the Arab world. Al-Ain is his home.
With the arrival of oil money, Al-Ain changed as much as Sheikh Zayed did. In the 1980s and early 1990s, it became a flat and featureless modern city with over 200,000 residents, many miles of superb highways lined with trees and flowers, vast expanses of public gardens, a small business center, several square kilometers of date palm plantations surviving from long ago, and United Arab Emirates University.
By 1993, the university had something like 12,000 students, most of whom were young national women, and 2500 faculty and staff, most of whom were expatriate Egyptians, known facetiously by themselves and everybody else as the "Egyptian Mafia". The Egyptians saw the place as a remote suburb of Cairo, with strong overtones of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. They had established nearly complete control over the university by their sheer numbers, but their attitudes and values were more important than their biomass. Their primary objective as inferred by Western staff was to keep their jobs, which they accomplished by skillfully implementing an oxymoron. They refused to do anything new for fear that they would do something wrong and be fired for it, while at the same time they created more and more paperwork for themselves to process in order to justify their existence. I admire such clever people.
When my wife Nancy and I arrived in Al-Ain to work at the university in 1993, she joined the first year English program on a three year contract and I joined the Arts and Humanities Faculty on a two year contract. Immediately thereafter, I was permanently seconded to the University Computer Center where I was appointed head of the Academic Support and Client Services Department. This semi-Byzantine complexity gave me faculty status and perks in a full time management position, a rare combination in the East.
One of my first jobs at the computer center was to develop a technical training program for all university faculty and staff, and one of the people assigned to work for me as a trainer was a myopic member of the Egyptian Mafia. When I met him, he proudly told me that he had been doing the same job at the computer center for fourteen years, which was a symptom of why twelve Western managers and technical experts had just been hired to jerk the place into the 21st century.
Another symptom was that in the 1980's my trainer learned to use and teach a piece of database software called Q&A, and that was where his skills as a trainer both began and ended. Q&A was obsolete long before I arrived at UAEU, so his skills were obsolete as well, but that didn't matter. He was much loved by the Arabic staff, and he was mine. I had to do something with him, but what?
My trainer was adamant about teaching Q&A. He refused to teach anything that he didn't know perfectly for fear he would make a mistake and be fired, and he refused to learn anything else perfectly because of his vision problems that were a lot more useful to him than perfect vision would have been. So long as I had him, my chances of getting another trainer who could do something productive were nil.
I discussed the problem at length with Paul, the acting director of the computer center during my early days there. Paul was a very proper Brit with whom I really enjoyed working even though he always reminded me of the mad colonel in The Bridge Over the River Kwai, determined to do things right even when he was working for the enemy.
After struggling for months with the recalcitrant trainer, Paul and I came up with a scheme to unload him by shipping him off to the Faculty of Education where he had a lot of friends who thought Q&A was swell. Even though we worked with the Dean of the Faculty to make it happen, we fatally misjudged the situation on several points. We didn't learn about the snags until much later, when another member of my staff volunteered the information in an attempt to help me understand the mess I had gotten myself into.
In the first place, my trainer had an arrangement with the Faculty of Education whereby they paid him overtime whenever he taught a course there. The fact that he taught his courses during normal business hours and got paid by the computer center for doing it was no problem. He had come up with a clever way to get double pay for teaching a course that nobody else on the planet had bothered to teach for years. Needless to say, he was not happy at the prospect of being transferred to the Faculty of Education, for then he couldn't be a double dipper and would lose a lot of his inflated income.
Another major problem was that working for the Faculty of Education had a very well deserved negative prestige value while working for the computer center had a somewhat less well deserved positive value. My trainer was delighted to get double pay for teaching at the Faculty of Education, but the idea of being transferred there permanently was repugnant to him.
The ultimate problem was that he, like many others in the region, claimed descent from the Prophet Mohammed. That relationship gave him a reputation throughout the university that would have been impossible for him to uphold if a couple of us heathens had succeeded in transferring him out of his cushy job at the computer center. He lost a good bit of face when we tried to transfer him, but the loss would have been immeasurably higher had we succeeded. He dug in his heels and struck back with a vengeance.
As Paul and I were working on our stratagem for dealing with my trainer, he and a friend of his were conspiring to depose us. And his co-conspirator had reasons of her own for going for Paul’s throat.
When Paul joined the computer center staff about six months before I did, he replaced the acting director, a young woman who occupied that position because she was a national, was married to a professor, and had a BA in computer science from an American university. Although her academic credentials were irrelevant to running a major university computer center and she had no detectable skills or experience, somebody had to sign the paperwork and nobody else on the staff had even remotely appropriate political credentials. Her status as a national came to the fore. When Paul replaced her, she was demoted to assistant director and swore she would get him, even though Paul had nothing at all to do with making the decision to bump her.
The battle was lost before the first engagement. Two heathens, by definition ranked somewhere between mercenaries and prostitutes regardless of their credentials and experience, were no match for a powerful national woman and a man who by definition could do no wrong.
The day after we gave my trainer the memo about his transfer, we received a curt notice from the Deputy Vice Chancellor - another Egyptian as well as Paul’s boss - saying that my trainer would remain on the Computer Center staff. Period. No discussion and no other comments. Not only did we still have my trainer and his co-conspirator to contend with, but now they were furious as well as incompetent, and we had alienated the DVC. Not good.
My trainer refused to speak to me ever again until the week before I left the university, at which time he suddenly became super friendly in a gloating sort of way. His was a wasted staff slot, but my ignoring it was less trouble than trying to fix the unfixable.
Meanwhile, the first DVC departed and a new one replaced him. The new DVC and my trainer’s co-conspirator shared a common name, but the relationship if any between them was never clear. Also another expat named Con became the new permanent director of the computer center, Paul became assistant director, the co-conspirator was given a position that allowed her to retain her status but left her functionally quarantined, and Con assigned my trainer to work in the co-conspirator’s office where they did nothing together for years.
Precisely what happened late in 1994 is wrapped forever in shrouds of obscurity, but apparently people were busily at work in the background.
When Nancy and I returned from our winter vacation in Thailand near the end of January 95, I found a message in my mailbox telling me to pick up a letter at the office of the Dean of the Arts Faculty. I had met the dean several times before, provided some direct assistance to his faculty, and got along well with him, but since I was seconded to the computer center, I didn't work for him. I couldn't imagine what I should pick up at his office.
The anonymous notice that I found there said, in bureaucratized English as a Second Language which I translate freely here: "Your appointment ends on 31 August 95 and your contract will not be renewed. Thank you for your services. Have a happy life." Thus my first execution was accomplished.
I immediately went to the dean's office and asked him what he knew about this matter. He said he had seen the report and was puzzled by the fact that my contract would not be renewed since he felt that my work at the computer center was benefiting the whole university. He denied any connection with or prior knowledge of the non-renewal decision. I learned no more from him, for three weeks later he was summarily dismissed and sent back to Egypt right in the middle of the Spring Term. Presumably there was no connection between his dismissal and my non-renewal, but I never learned what happened to him.
My next stop was at Con’s office. Con knew nothing about the matter, had never even been asked to prepare a performance evaluation for me, and was shocked to discover that he could have one of his senior managers dismissed out from under him without even having an opportunity to oppose it before it happened. Not only did I appear to be a very lame duck, but the director's authority over his own staff, hence his ability to function as an effective director, were seriously weakened by this action.
Con’s immediate response was to appeal the non-renewal decision to the new DVC, who said the decision must have come from the Dean of the Arts Faculty for he knew nothing about it. But the DVC said he would investigate. A few weeks later - things move slowly in the UAE - he told Con that the termination of my contract was a done deal and no appeal was possible. Over the coming weeks Con objected a couple of more times, until finally the DVC told him to shut up. My termination was firm and final.
While waiting for Con’s informal appeals to the DVC to run their course, Nancy and I engaged in endless wild speculation about what might have produced this distressing event, fully aware that the abortive transfer of my trainer might have been the trigger that set off the explosion. But there were a number of other possible explanations as well, each of which held some kind of fatal flaw. As we re-read Hillary Mantle's Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, our list of plausible explanations expanded exponentially.
I had written a cranky letter about lousy drivers in the UAE and distributed it to a lot of friends in America. Had a censor caught one of them?
I had had a shock one day when a VVIP - a student in Economics 101 - sent one of his retainers to commandeer several members of my tiny staff to write his term paper, and may have said something inhospitable at the time.
I had had a run-in with a national who thought he could get me to assist him by threatening me, being culturally oblivious to the fact that I was eager to help him without his treating me as if I were an Egyptian.
We heard from a well placed friend that an Egyptian Dean of one of the Faculties was out to get me because my Ph.D. was in cultural anthropology rather than in computer science, even though a Ph.D. in computer science would have been totally irrelevant for anyone in my position. Rumor had it that the Dean was equally opposed to Con and Paul on the same grounds, but he had taken me on as a test case and would go after them later. Or was it more subtle than that? Since the husband of my trainer’s co-conspirator was an influential national who worked for that Dean’s Faculty, perhaps the Dean was simply doing his work for him, serving as a cover for my trainer and his co-conspirator.
We speculated that if Nancy’s contract was terminated, then she might be the guilty party and my non-renewal was just an early warning. But her annual contract renewal came through on schedule, so we decided I must have been the villain.
In mid-April, I got tired of waiting and talked with a high ranking friend on the "4th Floor" about appealing my non-renewal directly to the Chancellor who was also the Minister of Higher Education and a nephew of the President of the UAE. My friend said "Do it!" so I wrote a one-page letter outlining my accomplishments and my predicament, and requesting that my contract be renewed. I handed it to my friend who scribbled a note of support in the margin and gave it to the Chancellor’s secretary.
Three days later, vague messages began to filter down from unspecified sources on the 4th Floor indicating that perhaps all was not lost, and that I should wait for a final decision. And the new DVC never spoke to me again.
At the beginning of June, I was still getting vague "wait a while" messages, but I could wait no longer. According to the non-renewal letter, I had to do all of my administrative out-processing to collect my pay and my ticket home. So I did the paperwork, still waiting for somebody to save me. To no avail.
Nancy and I returned to America at the end of June, her for her summer vacation, me forever. On 2 August, I received an email message from Paul saying that my contract renewal had just come through. No problem. Would I please return at the end of August and continue with my work? Thus was accomplished my first resurrection. The source of the renewal was unspecified. It just happened. Sometimes it’s best to say al-hamdulillah and not ask questions.
In mid-January 96, it was deja vue all over again when I got another non-renewal notice, this one correctly stating that my contract had been renewed for one year only and would not be renewed again. No problem. I had accepted that condition when I got the second contract, but Con had not and began to importune the DVC again. This time the DVC didn't pause or offer to investigate. He simply told Con to shut up about me. No discussion. Kaput. Khalas. Thus I was finished the second time.
When Paul’s contract renewal came due at the beginning of March, he was given thirty day's notice to leave the country. Paul is an accountant and computer manager by profession but a lawyer by genetics, and immediately launched a legal appeal based on his contract that specified that six month's notice would be given by either party in the event of contract termination. He won that round and left at the end of August, on exactly the same date that my contract ended.
Meanwhile, I was busy finding a job at a new university in Bangladesh for the next academic year. At the end of September, after a long summer vacation in New Hampshire, I went to Dhaka. Not wanting to put all of our eggs in a known basket case, we decided that Nancy should stay in the UAE until I made sure Bangladesh was OK. Thus, not for the first time, I went forth in the guise of the family guinea pig, and we spent the year commuting back and forth across India and the Gulf of Oman.
During my year in Dhaka, Con’s tenure as director of the computer center, which began with great excitement about bringing the university into the 21st century with a bang, ended with a whimper because of monumental political problems over which American managers and technical experts had no control. Paul's fate and mine were symptomatic of much larger problems. Con left after three years of his four-year contract.
Nancy and I concluded that living in Bangladesh was not acceptable for the long term because of political instability, work stoppages, power outages, violence, disease, corruption and a few other problems, so I returned to the UAE at the end of my contract in Dhaka in October 97, long after Con and Paul had left.
Early in 1998, the UAE government announced the establishment of a new university with two brand new campuses to be constructed in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The official, widely publicized and entirely plausible reason for creating the new university was the rapid growth of the student body and the need to provide distributed education in the cities where they lived rather than bussing all of those young women to and from their dormitories in Al-Ain every weekend in a logistical nightmare that was costing the university about a million dollars a day.
But Western speculation said the unannounced reason for creating the new university was that the Egyptians had by then virtually paralyzed the old University, and it was easier to build a new one and never hire another Egyptian than it was to dislodge the Egyptians from the old one. The new university was to be staffed exclusively by nationals and North Americans. It was assumed that the old university would be allowed or encouraged to sink into the sand with all hands aboard.
I was appointed Assistant Director of Instructional Information Technology (IIT) at the new university. Thus happened my second resurrection. Eventually I would relocate to Dubai to run the information technology program there, but my early tasks in the new position required that I continue to live in Al-Ain and work with faculty members at UAE University who were developing training materials for the new faculty. I had no office there, but my supervisor, the IIT project director, set out to correct that problem immediately.
A few days later the national who was head of the new university found an office for me. It just happened to be on the 4th Floor in the suite that the DVC occupied before he moved up to a higher position. Although the DVC was gone, his long time assistant was still there - a highly competent man, but an Egyptian and a born middle manager who was congenitally predisposed to being officious with underlings and obsequious with overlings.
When the erstwhile DVC’s assistant saw me walk into his office with the IT project director, he instantly became as apoplectic as possible under the circumstances. After years of being obsequious to me, suddenly he was openly hostile and passive aggressive. And he must have been on the phone to his former boss within minutes of my departure.
Twenty-four hours later, at the very beginning of a five-day Eid al-Fitr holiday when forgiveness and reconciliation are major items on the Moslem agenda, I received a thoroughly incoherent telephone call from the IT project director in which he made me an offer I couldn't refuse: I could resign quietly within the next few days and cite "personal reasons" for my decision, or I could fail to resign and the university would fire me and blacklist me so that I would never be permitted to work there in the future. He said I shouldn’t take it personally – it was his fault and not mine – but he refused to provide any explanation whatsoever.
To avoid potentially nasty ramifications for Nancy’s contract at UAE University, I resigned quietly, well and truly finished the third time.
My sources at UAEU indicated that the former DVC told somebody at the new university that I had been fired from UAEU and should not have been hired by the new university. That person - whoever it was - accepted the statement without checking the records or checking with me, and I was out. In fact, my first contract at UAEU expired normally and was renewed by the Chancellor albeit with some difficulty, and my second one, which was written as a non-renewable one-year contract from the very beginning, expired normally. I was not fired from UAEU and I did not resign; I simply walked away when my second contract expired on schedule. But I committed the mortal sins of deeply offending my trainer and making the DVC lose face.
How can I make sense of all this? How about concocting a conspiracy theory? Perhaps the DVC, in cahoots with the Dean (who wanted Con, Paul and me out of the university), on orders from the co-conspirator’s husband, operating under the influence of the co-conspirator who had her own bone to pick, responding to my trainer’s outrage, was responsible for my first non-renewal notice, and that the DVC lost a lot of face when I went over his head and requested a contract renewal from the Chancellor who approved it. While my first resurrection was bad for his face, my second one was absolutely intolerable, and he came down on me with a terrible swift sword. So much for justice in the inscrutable East.
The last time I saw my trainer, he was well into his nineteenth year at the computer center. Con’s former secretary said he still taught courses in Q&A to his buddies in the Education Faculty. All of the software, data systems, client services and training programs that Paul and I set up had long since been abandoned or erased from the servers; Con’s network and system servers worked only intermittently; nobody used the university-wide email system any more for it took two to three weeks for an email message to go from one campus to another; the antiquated administrative systems that were supposed to be replaced in 1994 were still there; the Internet telephone book still said Con was director of the computer center even though he had been gone for over a year, and the computer center staff was down from almost 50 to 13.
It is difficult to live in a country where the powerful can exercise capricious and arbitrary power without constraints, where the accused are presumed guilty and have no rights or formal appeal processes, and where people who lose face will do their utmost to cause their opponents to lose their heads. The American system is terribly messy and I complain about it when I'm in America, but it's a damn sight better than some of the alternatives.
Afterword As a Westerner living in the Middle East, I have often been amazed at the horribly convoluted conspiracy theories that run rampant in the region. One of the most complexly convoluted ones I have ever encountered was proposed by the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority in the report of its investigation of the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 shortly after takeoff from JFK Airport in 1999. All of the evidence points directly to suicide and mass murder by the pilot, but the Egyptian government simply would not accept that interpretation and battled for years to win support for its belief in an American-Israeli conspiracy to defame the Arab Nation.
Yet it is easy enough to understand how such preposterous notions emerge and run rampant in a world in which ordinary people have no access to information, rulers who do have access to information are free to distort it in any way they see fit to manipulate their subjects, and subjects in turn are free to assume that whatever explanations they receive – if any – are simply untrue. Although the theories that emerge often resemble mine in being utterly absurd, they at least provide a plausible – if indeed irrational – interpretation of events that are otherwise incomprehensible. They fill the intellectual vacuum that dominates societies in which no information and disinformation are the only kinds of information that are available.
I began writing my tale in a sincere attempt to “unscrew the inscrutable”, but in retrospect I see it as a parody of life in the region. And that is sad.
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