'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, , , , , , ,

Wahabi-lite: The disorienting half-freedoms of Qatar

West Bay, located in Al Dafna

En route from Saudi to NY, a stop in Doha. (Image via Wikipedia)

So I’ve only been in Qatar about 24 hours, but already I am in a kind of gentle culture shock. Riyadh, where I have lived the last 18 months, is a land of men, cars, and dusty buildings behind walls. You rarely ever see women, and there are only two skyscrapers. That’s why my trip to the local grocery store here in Doha was so bizarre.

Doha is a moonscape of new skyscrapers — some finished, some in progress — all perched on the baked sands of a half-moon bay. Our tower is on the so-called west side, a short walk from one of the major malls. Picking my way along the scarred half kilometer — some sidewalks complete, others a gash of rubble — I spied south Asian workers in dusty boots and jumpsuits. But I also saw what I took to be a British woman, in a t-shirt, smiling!

This sounds like pedestrian stuff, but to my eyes it felt like scandal. (Could it be possible that it had been so long since I’d seen a woman walk so casually?) Read the rest of this entry »

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

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, , , , , , ,

Did I see a man die this morning?

Tuwaiq Escarpment on Makkah Road, South of Riyadh

West of Riyadh, Mecca Road. (Image via Wikipedia)

Traffic in Saudi Arabia: After every white-knuckled trip here, I was such a raging, quaking mess that I finally gave up renting a car and took to using a driver.

This morning, heading east into Riyadh, I saw a bronze-colored Camry swerve on the west-bound service road. Trying to overtake slower traffic, he veered onto the soft shoulder but lost control. There was no guardrail, and I saw the vehicle slice into yellow sand and jackknife into the air. Kicking up a dense cloud of dust, the car flipped over once, the dark underbelly exposed, then flipped again. In a concussion of glass and metal, the Camry slammed to the asphalt, rocking on its roof in the middle of a four-lane freeway. Mecca Road. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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, , ,

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 »

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

Saudi FAIL: Not dead, I was nonetheless hit by a car today

Riyadh - Mecca Highway

Zoom zoom along the Riyadh-Mecca highway. (Image by Bakar_88 via Flickr)

The sun glinted off oil-smeared asphalt. Winter’s already over, and the heat was building in the last morning minutes before the call to prayer would ring out across this city of several million.

I stood at one of Riyadh’s busiest intersections, half-way across Olaya Street. With cars blasting by to my rear, I checked the light ruling the traffic I’d need to cross. Sweat began to bead. I felt like a bug: All flesh and limbs and fluid, ready to pop against the unforgiving weight of a metal cleat.

No one walks here. Sidewalks are built beyond human scale, with foot-high drop offs at the curb. Driving isn’t much better: Women are banished from the wheel, so their 12-year-old sons take up the slack, with predictably dire results. With not much else to do, these boys drag race and hot rod and have perfected the dark art of drifting. For so many locals, disposable income is high enough that one can actually imagine — after an accident — abandoned BMWs, Mercedes, and even Rolls Royces, of which I’ve seen three gathering dust. New cars are easier than fixing old. The accident fatality rate is reported to be the highest in the world.

Thinking all this, surrounded by the sonic and visual whirr of traffic blasting by, I readied myself for the light to change. That flash of red would stop oncoming traffic — in theory. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Death, Homesick, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Traffic, World, ,

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, , , , ,