'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 »

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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, , , , , , ,

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, , , , , ,

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, , , ,

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, , ,

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, , , , ,

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, , , ,

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, , , , ,