'Not From Here,' stories by Nathan Deuel

We're moving from Saudi to Turkey

Hagia Sofia

My new neighbor: Istanbul's Hagia Sofia. (Image by qyphon via Flickr)

Dear readers,

I’m sorry about my infrequent posting lately. Below are two reasons why, and by way of continuing apology, a link to my latest piece — a feature in the Brown Alumni Magazine about being alone in a room in Saudi Arabia with a young woman who wants to attend an ivy league university.

1. As I wrote with some emotion last month, my beloved dad Al Deuel passed away April 13 after a brief battle with cancer. We are all still crushed. And among other things, his passing came just days after my wife and I left Riyadh, which we no longer call home.

2. Instead, Kelly McEvers and I are most likely moving to Istanbul, where I will be based as she looks to rotate into Iraq as National Public Radio’s new Baghdad correspondent.

So over the next weeks and months, my focus will begin shifting from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Gulf, to Turkey, Iraq, and the greater Middle East. If you have any advice, questions, or avenues of research you’d like Kelly or I to pursue, please don’t be shy.

For now, here’s a sample of that BAM piece about interviewing young women in Saudi for undergraduate admission to Brown — and also an appeal for your continued patience. Everything’s different now.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Iraq, Islam, Kelly McEvers, Middle East, NPR, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, World, Writing, , , , , , ,

A tale of two Arabian cities

Yemenis sit in the old city of Sanaa as the mi...

The old city of Sana'a is like a fairy tale -- unless you start knocking on doors. (Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

It’s March 2010 and the clang of metal rings out down a dusty street in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Soldiers in blue camouflage hold oiled assault rifles, standing among a gathering crowd. One of the city’s dispensaries for cooking gas has just received a shipment. There’s a shortage of fuel all around the city, which is groaning under the twin strains of governmental dysfunction and an influx of refugees from the north. A jet streaks high above us, presumably en route to the border with Saudi Arabia, where the Yemeni military is targeting anti-government Houthi rebels and alleged cells of al Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Some in the West have begun to call Yemen a failed state, but at least they’re calling it something.

I have come to Sana’a with my wife – who is on assignment for American public radio – from our base in Riyadh, a historical friend to its southern neighbor. People say that Yemenis built Saudi Arabia – and it’s true that big companies of Yemeni origin, such as the massive Bin Laden Group, were responsible for a lot of the early contracts to build roads and infrastructure in the Kingdom.

But warm relations between the two countries soured in 1990 and 1991, when Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since 1978 and at that point presiding over a united north and south Yemen, joined Cuba in voting against a United Nations resolution authorizing force to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Saudi Arabia was outraged by the decision and began deporting Yemeni guest workers. Nearly a million were eventually removed. The absence of dollar infusions from Saudi’s booming oil economy – and the loss of millions in US and European support, likewise rescinded in response to that UN vote – didn’t help things for Yemen, which faced dwindling petroleum revenues that are expected to slow to a stop soon.

Coming from the comparative wealth and restrictions of Riyadh, I am eager to see Sana’a, which I’ve read is poorer in cash and resources, but richer in less quantifiable terms. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Al Qaeda, Israel, Oil, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, War, World, Yemen, , , , , , ,

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.)

[youtubevid id=”idWkkIKW_yU”]

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

Israel Settlements: Freeze them or put democracy on ice

Bush, centre, discusses the Middle East peace ...

Saner day: Bush with Sharon and Abbas. (Image via Wikipedia)

New Yorker editor David Remnick offers a cold assessment of the question of new settlements in East Jerusalem. Basically, he says, Netanyahu must figure out how to reboot himself as a more reasonable actor in this drama, or risk ever again being able to talk to his Arab partners.

The essential question for Israel is not whether it has the friendship of the White House—it does—but whether Netanyahu remains the arrogant rejectionist that he was in the nineteen-nineties, the loyal son of a radical believer in Greater Israel, forever settling scores with the old Labor élites and making minimal concessions to ward off criticism from Washington and retain the affections of his far-right coalition partners. Is he capable of engaging with the moderate and constructive West Bank leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, and making history? Does there exist a Netanyahu 2.0, a Nixon Goes to China figure who will act with an awareness that demographic realities—the growth not only of the Palestinian population in the territories but also of the Arab and right-wing Jewish populations in Israel proper—make the status quo untenable as well as unjust?

via Obama and Israel : The New Yorker.

There really aren’t many reasons for optimism. Especially if Obama — who has deeply felt, proven sympathies for Israel — is portrayed there as a member of the P.L.O.

Then again, who would have believed health care reform was going to pass…

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Filed under: Barack Obama, East Jerusalem, Israel, Middle East, The New Yorker, World, , , , ,

Yemen blew my mind

The old city of Sanaa

Some of the old quarter's so-called mud skyscrapers date back 2,000 years. (Image via Wikipedia)

Sorry for my absence around here. I just got back from a week in the heartbreaking city of Sanaa, the current capital of the fragile Republic of Yemen.

During my short visit, I feel like I saw as many hawks as pigeons, and as many fighter jets as hawks. And there were guns and daggers everywhere.

I’ll be back in full effect in the coming days. Thanks for your patience.

Filed under: Middle East, World, Yemen, , , ,

Obama's Middle East opportunities

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud (R)...

Obama meets this fall with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. (Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

Over and over, the smartest people in the room seem to be the good men and women of the International Crisis Group. Consider their crystal clear take on President Obama and the Middle East, from the final paragraph of an op-ed in today’s Washington Post:

The longer the United States remains encumbered by rigid mental habits, the longer it denies itself the means to influence events. Already, Washington has accepted bystander status regarding moves by Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Worse, it can do little to prevent more ominous and increasingly likely developments — a confrontation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, or between Israel and the Palestinians over Jerusalem– all of which carry serious risks of spillover. President Obama is seldom better — and never more himself — than when he escapes the deceptive comfort of inherited certainties. His administration must start by discarding a reading of the region in which “moderates” fight “militants,” and “moderates” prevail. That vision has no local credibility or local resonance. It has no chance.

via Robert Malley and Peter Harling – Shifting allegiances in Middle East mean opportunities for President Obama – washingtonpost.com.

If you live in a country where booze is legal, spill some on the ground for Chas Freeman and his failed nomination. When you’re done, read the whole piece by Malley and Harling. Then wait for it all to come true: Among other things, the U.S. just named a new ambassador to Syria — filling that post for the first time since 2005. Warning: Don’t hold your breath.

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Filed under: Barack Obama, Islam, Middle East, 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, , , , , ,

In defense of Dubai's migrant labor system

Emirate of Dubai

There's money here. (Image via Wikipedia)

You’ve read the horror stories from Dubai. Beyond all that glitz and glamor lies a dark underbelly: The wretched lives of the mostly Indian and Pakistani men who actually build the place, clean it, and make sure everything works.

It’s all too typical to read media reports describing these men as being transported like cattle onto scorched earth building sites, where they work all day. At night, the story goes, they are corralled into substandard bunkhouses, where they eat bad food and drink worse water. Much of this is not in dispute.

What is important to consider is the idea that migrant workers in the Gulf are paid badly, or unfairly. Foreigners who come to work in oil-rich Gulf countries can make as little as $125 a month. Some analysts call this income tantamount to slavery. Others go further, calling that level of pay a systematic outrage that makes the world a worse place.

But what if precisely the opposite is true? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Business, Economy, Middle East, Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., , , , , ,

Living in Riyadh's ghost town

A typically desolate, beautiful DQ park.

One of the Diplomatic Quarter's desolate parks.

It was September 2008; after a few days in Riyadh, my wife and I left our spartan hotel room, with its bouquet of sweat and sewage, to rendezvous with two American bankers we’d met at the Sharjah airport. “Poor you,” they’d said, learning we were just moving to Saudi. “Let’s meet for dinner.”

Outside, the dust was thick. The bankers — one a buff guy with a buzz cut who looked like a parody of a CIA agent, the other a wry Korean-American — picked us up, and off we barreled through snarls of sun-baked cars. Battle-scarred Crown Victorias gunned their engines past late-model Toyotas. A Hummer ploughed over rumble strips, cutting off a brand-new 700-series BMW. The low-slung immensity of central Riyadh — economy booming on oil, population growing exponentially, housing at a premium — shimmered in the late summer heat. This was home, if we could find a place to live.

Since King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud’s reconquest of Riyadh in 1902, and his subsequent rallying of the country’s tribes under one flag, the city has been the seat of Saudi government — at least in theory. But harsh deserts and a harsher culture meant it long remained one of the most closed-off cities on earth. For years it was instead Jeddah, the much older and more open Red Sea port town, that brokered Saudi’s relationships with the world, hosting the country’s government ministries and foreign embassies. In 1975, however, it was announced that the foreign ministry and embassies would be moving to Riyadh, and that many of the westerners and Saudis accompanying them would be housed together in an experimental new neighborhood called the Diplomatic Quarter. Now, more than three decades later, I was hoping to live there too. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, World, , ,

Last night, at the checkpoint

Biometric United States passport issued in 2007

I need one of those, the blogger said, eying my passport. (Image via Wikipedia)

The blogger stood beside his compact green sedan, the police lights washing over his polo shirt, jeans, and sneakers. I coasted over, surprised at how slight he seemed in person. The gears of my Chinese-made bike clicked, and I felt in my breast-pocket for the comforting heft of my U.S. passport.

My wife had explained to me that her Saudi visitor would need someone to meet him at the gate of our walled compound. But we no longer rented a car — I had become terrified of traffic and the idea of blood money — so I would face the checkpoint police born on the unenviable conveyance of two wheels.

The night air was cool, and men with guns swarmed. Stretching beyond the guards was a long line of vehicles, each waiting to gain entry. Next to an armored personnel carrier, two heavy-set soldiers in berets sat smoking in the shadows. I noticed the glowing red bulb of a burning cigarette. It was the gunner manning the .50-caliber cannon. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Journalism, Media, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, World, Writing, , , ,