'Not From Here,' stories by Nathan Deuel

VIDEO: The ever-changing map of the Middle East

Hi there, I’ve just gotten set up in Doha, Qatar, where we’ll be based for the next week or so. Out my window, I have a view of the Gulf, the Pakistani embassy, and several construction pits. Leaving Riyadh is always a relief; the weight of Islam — so close to Mecca — is heavy there, and it’s hard to take the long view.

The Middle East, after all, has been conquered and reshaped countless times. What feels like an intractable situation — Israel! Palestine! Iran! Iraq! Al Qaeda — is really just the latest upheaval in a crazy part of the world.

For a little perspective, check out this map of the last 5,000 years as it shifts and bleeds with the comings and goings of empire. (Via the always excellent Saudi Jeans.)

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Filed under: Al Qaeda, Doha, Islam, Middle East, Qatar, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, World, , , , , , ,

Rare Saudi poll: The kids are alright

A woman carries shopping bags at a mall in the...

Good luck trying to get her to talk. (Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

Saudi Arabia isn’t an easy place to gather hard data. Women are shy, men are brusque, and notions of privacy could make approaching a stranger difficult, if not dangerous. In such a traditional and closed society, there simply isn’t any precedent for allowing a stranger to nose around asking questions.

That’s what makes this survey — a poll of 1,000 representative Saudis undertaken by a U.S. firm this November —  so interesting.

The numbers indicate a populous that is generally positive about the future but concerned more immediately by slipping  economics and the problem of corruption. All this is generally good news for a world looking for rationality and reform out of the Islamic Kingdom. But then there’s the percentage of those polled who support Al Qaeda…

Economics:

Forty percent of respondents reported their situation had deteriorated in the last year, compared to 36 percent who said things had improved.

Religious extremism:

A large percentage of both men and women see religious extremism as a problem, but the difference is telling: 48 percent of men see it as a problem while the number jumps to 59 percent for women.

Youthful optimism:

Fifty-nine percent of Saudis aged 18-24 years old said the country was moving in a positive direction, compared to 51 percent those in the 55-and-over age bracket. With a quarter of the population under 24 years old and an unemployment rate that some say puts one out of three youths without a job, it’s interesting to see such optimism.

Corruption:

Maybe the most important fact is that a supermajority — 63 percent — said that corruption is a serious problem. As evidenced by the outpouring of anger after more than 100 Saudis died during flooding in Jeddah this winter — anger that was voiced on the youth-oriented venues of Facebook and YouTube — there’s some reason to believe that younger Saudis will not only disapprove of corruption, but make noise about it.

Al Qaeda:

But at the same time, the survey revealed that one out of five respondents expressed “some support” for Al Qaeda. While it’s true that most Saudis polled didn’t express support, in a country of nearly 30 million people, that’s still a constituency for the bad guys of several million.

BONUS:

So how did they do the polls? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Al Qaeda, Islam, Journalism, Media, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, World, Writing, , , , , ,

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: Don't bring a pistol to the party

Spanish M1914 "Liberty" pistol, Cali...

Don't bring this to the table. (Image via Wikipedia)

After living for six months in Mohammad’s apartment – a 1980s unit in central Riyadh with tall ceilings, dark windows, roaches and fluorescent lights – I could no longer dodge his repeated invitations to visit his farm. And so, on a recent Thursday afternoon, my wife Kelly and I loaded up our rented Toyota and headed north.

As we drove further into the desert, I looked hungrily for Exit Four, the only usable clue I had divined from my Saudi landlord’s excited over-the-phone directions. Aware that I had no idea how far north we needed to go, I fought off a mounting feeling of dread by telling Kelly what I knew of our host.

I’d come to know Mohammad gradually, first as we negotiated the rental price, then on an appliance-purchasing trip, then over Pepsi one night at his family’s istriha. He was born, he told me, in 1963, one of 12 sons of an upper-class family. He’d attended junior high in Los Angeles while his father was studying in America. After graduating from a Saudi high school, he began working for Sabic, the sprawling Saudi petroleum and plastics company. He started in the warehouse, rose steadily through the ranks, and eventually was sent by the company to study at Boston University. Upon his return, he did well enough that he could retire in his 40s and move his wife and children from their dark apartment (where I now live) into a Riyadh mini-mansion. Last year, tired of the conservative capital, he bought a farm in the desert.

After an hour of driving, I found Exit Four and looped up and over a bridge that spanned the expressway. One of those Toyota pickups with red racing stripes was speeding toward us, kicking up great clouds of sand. My phone rang, and I picked it up.

“Is it you?” Mohammad purred. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Guns, Islam, Middle East, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, , , , ,

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, , , , ,

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, , , , , , , , ,

Twins embrace ancient art of NY bartending

USA 2006 (October 9th) New York, New York City

New York: It's hard -- always has been. (Image by Paraflyer via Flickr)

I do feel sorry for Kristy and Katie, twins from the Midwest who’ve lived difficult and unrewarding lives in New York for a year. College graduates and aspiring journalists, the ladies describe their year-long job search to The New York Times:

SEVENTEEN months out of Rutgers University, they live in an unwelcome continuum of mass rejection. Between them, Kristy and Katie Barry, identical twins who grew up in Ohio, have applied for some 150 jobs: a magazine for diabetics, a Web site about board games and a commercial for green tea-flavored gum; fact-checking at Scholastic Books, copy editing for the celebrity baby section of People.com, road-tripping for College Sports Television.

The story —  by N.R. Kleinfield — goes on to list the pair’s travails. Highlights include:

  • Eating too many canned beans.
  • Busking for business cards — networking! — not money.
  • Having their mom tell them she’s embarrassed by them.

Like I said, I am sympathetic to the ladies: It sucks to tend bar and be broke and eat beans and wonder if things will work out. (Hint: They will or they won’t.) But I’m still annoyed.

After all, aside from a select few — the rich, the lucky, the talented, or a combination thereof — most everyone’s first year in New York is less than glamorous, not the “lush time of stimulating work, picturesque travel and a rich social orbit” the twins say they expected. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Economy, Islam, Jobs, Journalism, New York City, New York Times, , , , , ,

Will Saudi religious police attend tonight's concert in Riyadh?

A Saudi holds up his entrance ticket to see th...

A ticket to a film screened without a hitch this December in Jeddah, Saudi's comparatively liberal city on the Red Sea.

This evening I’ll be among men and women, watching live music played on a stage.

Such a scene would be typical in many parts of the world. (Oh, how envious I was of a barn-burning show in New York Monday night!) But I live in Saudi Arabia, where a delicate brew of competing interests helps discourage co-ed, public gatherings — especially if they aren’t connected to Islam or traditional Saudi culture.

As such, it’s worth noting that the Mexican Embassy here is sponsoring a three-piece marimba band. More noteworthy still is that this trio will be playing to a mixed crowd at a venue that holds 4,000 people.

This is the third event of this kind at the venue, Riyadh’s King Fahd Cultural Center. (The first, in May 2008, was a night of classical music; the second, in February 2009, was a crew of traditional Japanese drummers; and a previous contender for the third, a concert this spring by a Cajun band sponsored by the U.S. Embassy, was canceled at the last minute.) But whereas the classical music and drumming hearkened centuries back, this is the first time men and women are permitted to gather together in a public space to hear something akin to contemporary music.

And that’s why I’m eager to attend. This summer, organizers at the same venue attempted to show a feature film. Titled Menahi, the film grappled with modern life in Riyadh, portraying the plight of a rural Saudi who’d relocated to the capital. But on the first night, conservative Saudis attempted to disrupt the screening, reportedly yelling at attendees both before and during the show. (Religious police told a local newspaper the intruders “were not commission members and the commission did not have any role in the disruption”; I wasn’t there but have heard differently, including a report that chairs were thrown.)

Will there be another such disruption tonight, perhaps with an official visit by the religious police, known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice? Or does such an event no longer merit their attention? Will men and women interact without incident? Or, out of practice and unaccustomed to such freedoms, will there be an incident?

Bonus: Wonder what happened to the Cajun band’s Riyadh stand? It was insane.

Update: In the end, there was no commotion. Still, the night was as interesting as they come, and I’ll have a full report for you soon.

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Filed under: Islam, Journalism, Music, Politics, Religion, Saudi Arabia, , , , ,