'Not From Here,' stories by Nathan Deuel

A visit to Faisal Shahzad's Pakistan village

The gate is locked at terror suspect Faisal Shahzad's family home in Pakistan. (Screen grab courtesy of The New York Times.)

A major shout-out for friend and colleague Adam B. Ellick, who submits another one of his knockout videos for The New York Times. Ellick is one of a new kind of journalist: a so-called “one-man-band,” who can parachute into a difficult place and assemble both front-page print stories AND three- to ten-minute video reports.

His latest dispatch is from the ancestral Pakistan village of terror suspect Faisal Shahzad. Check out the video — and see how Ellick’s reporting compares to other print pieces you’re reading now. Video’s pretty good, huh?

Previously: Ellick contributed an moving and challenging video primer on the spread of extremism in Pakistan’s Swat valley.

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Filed under: Faisal Shahzad, Islam, Pakistan, Religion, Taliban, Terrorism, World, , , ,

Happy Valentine's Day? Not in Saudi Arabia

A Saudi woman is seen at a flower shop on the ...

Some Riyadh flower shops get away with stocking pink flowers , such as this one pictured on V-day last year. (Image by (AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

Think you have reason to loathe the treacly holiday? Try Saudi Arabia, where it’s actually illegal.

The battle here against chocolates, red teddy bears, and red roses is upon us again. Pitting the Saudi religious police (known officially as the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice) against love-sick teens, it’s an old chestnut, worn smooth by overuse, so much so that locals collect and ridicule the latest headlines. Among the winners this year:

* “Roses are banned … violets are too”
* “No Valentine’s: Saudi religious police see red”
* “Roses are red, violets are blue, Valentines in Saudi risk a flogging or two”

As bored as I am by stereotypical news stories from Saudi and the lazy thinking that pigeonholes this place as nothing more than barbaric, the notion of a banned romantic holiday speaks to a larger problem for young people here: Loneliness.

But boys will be boys, and girls, girls. Seeking each other, Saudi kids have for years been evolving better and better contra-religious police strategies. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Islam, Religion, Riyadh, 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, , , , , , ,

When teenaged Saudi girls attack!

Saudi women cheer and wave national flags as t...

Saudi women in traditional dress at a beach in Jeddah, on the western coast of Saudi Arabia. (Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

I knew it would happen eventually. I’ve jogged just about every night the year-and-a-half we’ve lived in Riyadh. First was in town, when we rented a hotel room for the first month. Back then, I dodged Crown Victorias and made my way round and round the parking lot behind Kindgom Tower, one of two skyscrapers here. It wasn’t pretty; choking on exhaust, I was always on the lookout for religious police, who had every reason to bust a geeky white dude pounding pavement in shorts.

Since then, we’ve mostly lived in the Diplomatic Quarter, home since the late 1980s to most of the foreign embassies. Off the western edge of town, the DQ — as it is widely known, causing ice cream franchise confusion — was conceived as a kind of model living unit for a future Saudi Arabia. Built at a cost estimated to be $2 billion, the 2,500-acre community sits amongst sculpted parks, canyons, fountains, a men’s and women’s gymnasium, several schools, two small commercial squares, and an equestrian club.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Islam, Middle East, Religion, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, World, , ,

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.

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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, , , , , , ,

Saudi Arabia: Where seeing a woman makes you gasp

Two women dressed in abayas.

Two women in full Riyadh-style covering. (Image via Wikipedia)

In an echoing, blast-chilled Riyadh mall today, I saw something unusual. At a series of tables outside an up-market cafe — rather than a chain-smoking Saudi dude or a pair of ill-dressed European businessmen looking jet-lagged and confused — I encountered a woman.

Usually relegated to the “ladies section,” where women covered head to to in black are packed into smoked-glass booths with curtains, this gal was instead sitting at one of the outdoor tables, sipping an orange juice. She wore the robe-like abaya and a scarf tightly covered her hair. But — behold — her face was utterly there, smiling and very real.

She tapped on a laptop and sipped more juice. It would be an utterly unremarkable scene anywhere else, but this was Riyadh and thusly cause for heart-beating surprise.

A few minutes later, still off-kilter, I passed  a block of shops under construction. On other days Afghan workers trudged in and out, lugging tools. Today, no one was in sight and one of the soaped-over glass doors was thrown open. Among the dusty confusion of plaster, paint buckets, and twisted metal I spied what looked like a pile of women. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Islam, Religion, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Women, , , , ,

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, , , , , , , , ,

Pakistan confuse you? Watch this, now

[youtubevid id=”a6T5DeZ9Z4c”]

My friend Adam B. Ellick makes video documentaries for The New York Times. This is his harrowing, heartbreaking story from Swat. If the dimensions of that region’s suffering — and the nature of Pakistan’s problems — remain unclear to you, watch this.

And thanks to Adam for all his hard work.

Filed under: Islam, Journalism, New York Times, Pakistan, Religion, Taliban, , , , ,

Saudi Terror Alert: Two Qaeda suspects, policeman shot dead

Third Saudi State (present day) (Saudi Arabia)

Image via Wikipedia

This report from southern Saudi is not good:

RIYADH — Two suspected members of Al-Qaeda were killed and a third was arrested in a firefight in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday that also resulted in the death of a policeman, the interior ministry said.

The official SPA news agency quoted ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki as saying the early morning shootout took place at a police checkpoint in Jizan province on the southern border with Yemen.

Turki told the agency that two of the three suspects, who had been on board a vehicle, were wearing women’s clothing and wore explosives vests and carried grenades.

“More grenades, automatic weapons and bomb-making materials” were also found in the vehicle, he added.

More info as we get it.

Update: No more info readily available. The Saudi security forces apparently did a good thing, and had the instincts to share right away. But that may be the last we hear about this specific case for some time.

via AFP: Two Qaeda suspects, policeman shot dead in Saudi.

Filed under: Al Qaeda, Islam, Politics, Religion, Saudi Arabia, , ,