'Not From Here,' stories by Nathan Deuel

In which my friend tells me he's leaving forever

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

This is a long drive for someone with everything to think about. (Image by Bakar_88 via Flickr)

I’m riding in the back of a taxi driven by Sabic, a six-foot Keralite with piercing yellow-green eyes. Dust from the Empty Quarter bathes the morning in an ill, yellow haze. Usually I read, but today I’m sizing up the central city buildings, reading signs, taking note of the way people drive.

“When are you going home?” I ask Sabic.

It’s a familiar question; vacating Saudi is always on our minds, because so many of us here — seven million by some count, compared to a local population of just three times that  — are expatriate workers here on indefinite assignment. But it’s a queasy infinity: None of us can be buried in Saudi, and citizenship is granted to few foreigners born here.

Officially, at least, the Saudis are eager to get rid of us, and there are elaborate “Saudization” plans that call for the training of locals to do jobs currently completed by foreigners. But the reality of a Saudi Arabia in which locals do all the work is still far off.

So here we are — driving along the clogged arteries of 2010 Riyadh — an American and a man from southern India.

Sabic’s been here 14 years. Over that time, he’s completed Hajj, heard from afar about the birth of his daughter — now six years old — and has learned how to drive slow and steady. Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: Family, Hajj, Islam, Middle East, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, World, , , , ,

Down in the floods, something in Saudi Arabia may have changed

THUWAL, SAUDI ARABIA - SEPTEMBER 23: In this h...

Saudi monarch King Abdullah at the inauguration of KAUST, the nation's new flagship university -- which was inundated by the late November floods. (Image by Getty Images via Daylife)

On the first day of Hajj, rain blanketed Saudi Arabia’s vast western coast. As my wife assembled her radio gear in preparation for the next day’s news brief about the storm’s effect on the pilgrimage, I quickly scanned the news online: it was already the heaviest rain Jeddah had seen in a quarter-century, and the city of four million was flooding; four were already reported dead. By the time we woke up the next morning, the death toll had risen to 77.

Blame for Jeddah’s flood disaster can easily be traced. Nearly 30 years ago, the city was issued funds to build a new sewer and drainage system, but according to a story by Lawrence Wright published in The New Yorker, the government official in charge of the project diverted some of the money to personal projects, including a mansion in San Francisco and a palace in Jeddah equipped with a bowling alley. When the misspending was discovered, the Saudi government gave the official a jail sentence and a fine, but he ended up being pardoned — because, a local journalist told Wright, his brother was a private secretary to the king.

So often the news that makes it out of Saudi is ghastly. Earlier this year, a man was beheaded for murder, then had his head sewn back onto his corpse, and was then crucified and hung in public for several hours. These nightmarish headlines top news sites for an hour or two, after which the stories — and the country’s vexing, more fundamental problems — remain ignored or overlooked.

For people who actually live here, this sort of terror is a distant menace, but real enough — especially when combined with all the suffocating moral codes — to result in a grinding everyday unpleasantness. Because this is all set against the pacific lure of malls, good supermarkets and cheap flights to nearby capitals, life here is defined by a kind of uneasy complacency. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Food, Hajj, Saudi Arabia, World, , , , ,

Why it matters that Saudis and Iranians can't make nice

Vue satellite du Golfe Persique

Image via Wikipedia

The ongoing rift is heating up between the biggest Arab player in the Gulf and the mighty Persian neighbor across the waters. What’s at stake is hard to describe — and parsing out what is bluster and what is real is always difficult — but the latest fires actually concern water.

According to news reports, the second annual Islamic Solidarity Games — scheduled for April in Tehran — are being called off after commemorative medals prepared by Iran for the games referred to the “Persian Gulf,” which Saudis and other Gulf Arabs strenuously insist is the “Arabian Gulf.” Seriously.
A more intense issue is the alleged mistreatment last year of Shiite pilgrims while at Saudi holy sites. The AFP reports that in response to what it calls systematic harassment, Tehran has suspended travel for Iranians headed to Mecca, Medina, and other Saudi points. Iranian officials told the AFP this move isn’t political, it is religious.

But around here, that’s not necessarily a good thing. (After all, whether you’re Sunni or not is a lot more important than how much you do or do not love whatever ruling regime you call home. Episcopalian Democrats versus Baptist Republicans this is not.) Look for the issue of Iranian pilgrims to Saudi to surface again, and again — especially as next year’s hajj and Shiite holy days approach.

So what does all this really mean? What seems like trifling name games over the Persian/Arab gulf is actually connected to moves on the larger regional chessboard. One prevailing theory suggests that the mighty Sunni powers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt are feeling vulnerable, seen by the Islamic world to be too close to Israel (and the U.S.) to continue proudly bearing the Muslim banner. This weakening, as the thinking goes, is opening up the chance for Iran to take the lead. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Al Qaeda, Hajj, Iran, Islam, Middle East, Religion, Saudi Arabia, Shiites, Sunnis, , , , , , ,

Checkpoint Qatif: Shoulder-to-shoulder with Saudi's Shiite minority

As many as 900 volunteers helped prepare for this year's festival in Qatif. (Image courtesy of Sanabes.com)

As many as 900 volunteers helped prepare for this year's festival in Qatif. (Image courtesy of Sanabes.com)

My blood went cold at the sight of the checkpoint to enter Qatif, the coastal municipality that is home to almost all of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority. Qatif — my wife quickly explained, seeing my discomfort as we approached the two officers in brown uniform — erupted in violent protests in 1980, just a year after Shiites launched a revolution in Iran and, closer to home, Islamists opposed to the Saudi royal family seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Today the region is home to both the world’s largest known reserve of oil and its largest crude production facility, which opened in 2004. Its Shiite residents, however, share in little of the resultant wealth: Qatif city has just one distant hospital, poor schools, and no skyscrapers. Violence flared again as recently as last spring, when residents rioted after Shiites and Sunnis clashed in Medina. The Saudi government issued a swift and harsh crackdown, arresting dozens of protesters and erecting new checkpoints. And journalists, diplomats and aid workers are typically discouraged from visiting. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Hajj, Islam, Middle East, Religion, Saudi Arabia, Shiites, World, , , , ,

What will come of Saudi Arabia's 'Katrina moment'?

When in 2005 it rained during Hajj, the annual Islamic ritual here, pilgrims rejoiced, seeing the cooling waters as a gift from god. This year, when the heavens opened, the rush of waters took on a far darker meaning.

Heavy rains that struck western Saudi Arabia last week killed as many as 106, mostly in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. Many of the dead drowned in cars as flooding swept across highways. Others were reportedly killed when bridges collapsed. See the below video for a sense of the destruction.

[youtubevid id=”7jnOYouHw_A”]

But what’s interesting is that, in a country where public protests are officially illegal, Saudis quickly began to gather and voice concern the only place they can: On the web. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Hajj, Islam, Religion, Saudi Arabia, World, , , , , , ,

What happens when 2.5 million Muslims gather in one place?

Muslim pilgrims crouch to perform their fairwe...

The scene at hajj, which this year could be a swine flu petri dish. (Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

I gave you the inside scoop earlier this week on my wife’s trip to western Saudi Arabia for NPR. Among other things, Kelly was tracking down the impact of swine flu on hajj, the annual pilgrimage by Muslims to two of Islam’s holiest sites.

Check out the story, which ran last night on All Things Considered.

Anxious health officials in Saudi Arabia say that for the first time in recorded history, a global pandemic could affect the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. The H1N1 virus is a major concern for authorities in Saudi Arabia, who are gearing up to host some 2.5 million Muslim pilgrims from 160 countries later this month.

Muslims from around the world have been coming to Saudi Arabia for hajj for more than a millennium. It’s one of the five pillars of Islam. Every Muslim who is able is supposed to make the journey to Mecca at least once in a lifetime.

Note the two “standups,” when Kelly speaks directly and casually into the tape as she’s on the scene, first at the Jeddah airport’s Hajj terminal and later at a gas station, where she talks to pilgrims from Bangladesh. She couldn’t have done any of it without Power Horse.

via Flu Threat Looms As Mecca Readies For Pilgrims : NPR.

Filed under: Hajj, Health, Islam, Kelly McEvers, Saudi Arabia, Swine influenza, , , , , ,

Need to race down some hajj pilgrims? Drink Power Horse

In a handout picture released by the official ...

Mecca's Grand Mosque, site of so much intermingling. (Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

Just got a text from my wife, who flew to Jeddah this morning to report out two stories for NPR. One concerns swine flu preparations in advance of the annual hajj pilgrimage — the greatest movement of people in world history, being as it is a scramble for as many as 2.5 million Muslims to flock to one location over one three-day period. In a normal year the ritual can result in riots, bridge collapses, outbreaks of meningitis, and fire. But this year calamity looms, because 2009 hajj is also the potential site of a  Swine Flu petri dish.

The thinking is that pilgrims have often been saving all their lives to travel from their tiny villages in Kenya, Sudan, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc. By the time they fly to Saudi Arabia, they are old, weak, and in poor  health — perfect candidates for the flu. Having traveled halfway around the world, these pilgrims proceed to undergo a grueling religious ritual that has them walking long distances, wearing little clothing, sleeping in tents, and praying in cramped quarters.

If flu starts spreading, experts are concerned not just by the versions of the sickness that will take hold in Saudi. Much more frightening, science types say, is how widely and quickly H1N1 and its friends will spread as all the pilgrims begin heading back home. That’s 2.5 million potential flu carriers.

Truth be told, the Saudi government is actually quite rigorous when it comes to the pilgrimage. They have to be. Hajj is an event that every year places the country squarely on the world stage. And being host to the “two holy mosques,” as they’re called, in Mecca and Medina, is how the King and his cohorts derive so much of their power and influence both at home and in the Islamic world. It’s embarrassing when disaster strikes, as has happened in the past. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Hajj, Health, Islam, Middle East, Religion, Saudi Arabia, Swine influenza, World, , , , , , , , ,