Arid Letters

The Diary of an English Teacher in Arabia


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So far my Saudi home base has been the Riyadh area, smack in the center of KSA- actually pretty much in the middle of the entire Arabian peninsula. From ancient times, this central region has been called the Najd. You can think of this region as sort of similar to the American Midwest – the “Heartland”. While Middle America features cattle, corn fields, semi-trucks, and religious fundamentalists, Middle Arabia features camels, date palms, caravans*, and religious fundamentalists. Najd has never been the most populated area of Arabia. For centuries, human settlement existed sporadically in the form of nomadic Bedouins or insular small towns huddled around a source of potable water like so many prairie homesteaders crowding around a pot belly stove. Despite it’s sparse population, Najd birthed Wahhabism, an Islamic denomination which swept Arabia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Arabic historian Fouad Ibrahim describes a region composed of religious minorities from which the Salafists emerged the “dominant minority”. Today, Saudi-Wahhabism is a defining political/social force with influence well beyond Saudi borders.

* modern caravans also use semis, but have solar power, so you can live in them too

Think of the example how folk music and flannel shirts influence the American scene from LA to NYC. Modern Najd has kind of done the same thing, exporting back country traditions to more worldy metropolii. For perspective, imagine if over the last century USA had moved our population center to Montana. What was once the home of sparsely scattered ranchers and wild individualists blossoms into the seat of our government and culture. Folks from Miami are headed to Bismark because it’s a little closer to the action. Despite this rapid expansion, the region keeps it’s  staunch conservatism and insular communities. In a matter of decades, the social hub of the country emerges from a place no one had ever heard of.

Al-Namrood is a Saudi black metal band that you’ve probably never heard of. Most Saudis have never heard of them either. Worldwide, NOBODY has ever even seen them. That’s because, despite having released five albums in a career spanning almost a decade, Al-Namrood has never had the chance to play a concert. Of course divergent opinions and the sub-cultures which foster them are kept to a brutally strict minimum here.

I’ve written before about all my students giving identical answers, like they all live exactly the same life on the weekends. This is a positive here, not a negative. We might generalize that Eastern cultures are more collective compared to Western individualism, and Arabia is no exception. This is the country where a Saudi friend rebuked me for suggesting that we screen print a thobe. It’s just not done. Amazingly, this culture has preserved a formal dialect unchanged for a millennium and a half. You might feel the same way about your language if you were convinced that it was the pure, uncorrupted, uncorruptible dialect that God used to send down his final revelation. (King James Version only Christians literally can’t even.) And within this society, somewhere, three dudes are recording black metal and mailing it off to Canada, C/O Shaytan Records, their record label.  

Secrecy is necessary as apostasy charges are a very real possibility. “Apostasy” as the definition goes in this neck of the Najd is a renunciation of one’s religious/political allegiance. In KSA atheism is literally the same thing as terrorism, and the penalty is death. While I’m poorly qualified to speculate on the rulings of Wahabbi jurisprudence, it seems a safe guess Al-Namrood would be marked slightly apostasy flavored should the issue ever come up. The band’s lyrics are full of pre-Islamic polytheism and appropriated holy war imagery and so on. At least, this is what the internet says re A-N lyrics, to be fair it all sounds like Arabic black metal to me.The band’s name honors King Nimrod, a legendary rebel against the Almighty, in some tales responsible for the tower of Babel, in others he’s the king who went to war against Abraham, or founded the evil city of Ninevah, or received instruction in the dark arts from Noah’s fourth son (my favorite). These dudes are making music that could literally* result in a guy with a sword and another guy with a basket for catching detached items, all on the accusation of thrashing against the Lord. So metal.

I’m using “literally” millenially i.e. figuratively. Statistics for executions in KSA are difficult to trust. Islamic leaders point out that decapitation is not Koranic, calling it “an old Nejdi tradition having nothing to do with Islam”. so in the case of apostasy the government usually sticks to several years of imprisonment receiving monthly lashings. 

In the mid-18th century, a religious leader named Muhammad bin Abdulwahhab began preaching a puritanical reformist version of Islam, “Wahhabi” or “Salafist”, meant to be “fundamentalist” in the sense that it was a return to traditional values, and was vocally opposed to foreign-introduced observances like honoring saints, pilgrimages to places other than the MBR(3), or blending Islam with mystic folk traditions a la whirling dervishes, reading tea leaves, etc.Abdulwahhab formed a pact with Muhammad bin Saud, who established Saudi Dynasty I. (Today’s iteration is Saudi DIII). This pact firmly established Salifism as the only valid take on True Monotheism™, keeper of PMo PBUH’s(4) legacy, spiritually allied with the Sauds, guardians of the MBR, charged with establishing a Koranic government. In return:

“Abdul Wahhab would support the ruler, supplying him with ‘glory and power’. Whoever championed his message, he promised, ‘will, by means of it, rule and lands and men’ (sic)”. (1)

Mohammad bin Abdulwahhab’s hometown of ‘Uyayna is just 30 km northwest of Riyadh, and the Sauds made their first seat of power the town of Ad-Diry’ah, just to the west of the city. Riyadh’s modern borders have expanded to join with Ad-Diry’ah. Since the pact between church and state enjoined three centuries ago, the population and influence of Riyadh has mushroomed, almost tripling from 1955 (106,000 people) to 1968 (300,000). What was once a gathering place for nomads is today the home of some five and a half million, the urban hub of the Arabian peninsula. (2)

The Saudi government has matched the growth of the population with growth of influence. The powers in Riyadh beneficently oversee a controlling interest in  the world’s oil supply. Compared to their neighbors torn by sectarian violence, Saudi Arabia is a model of relative peace and stability. They control admission to the MBR which mil- if not billions of Muslims worldwide believe they ought to visit at least once if they want a shot at a decent afterlife. Among all this financial, military, and religious power, the streets of Riyadh boast emblems of modernity like skyscrapers, iPhone abuse, and the choice between Starbucks Dunkin’ or Krispy. But don’t get sucked in to the 21st century veneer, as failure to conform to the strict moral guidelines will result in a visit with The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, Saudi Arabia’s surreal yet very real religious police.

Foreign empires resisted by Nejdi tribes:
  • The Persian Sassanid Empire, who built "The Walls of Khosrau" at the 
    northern boarders of Najd to seal off the unruly Arabs.
  • The Rashidun Caliphate and the Prophet himself PBUH. A Najdi leader named 
    Musaylima responded to rising Hejazi political power by declaring his 
    own prophet-hood. PMo PBUH's successor Abu Bakr promptly invaded the 
    Najd and divinely silenced the opposition. Maybe Musaylima truly 
    believed God was leading him (don't most of 'em), but it's feasible
    that this was actually a bid for Najdi independence, in which case the
    poor guy was more Braveheart than apostate, if Braveheart was more 
    concerned with starting a religion and less concerned with 
  • The Egyptian Ottomans.
  • The Turkish Ottomans.  Most recently cooperation between Saudi DIII and 
    Anglos began when Brit WWI strategy found it advisable to destabilize 
    the region ergo the entire crumbling Ottoman empire, who were 
    begrudgingly cooperating with the Central powers.
  • The Anglo-American soft empire.

Nejdis are still quite likely to resist foreign influence, although the task is becoming impossible with globalization.  I don’t know about the rest of Saudi Arabia but in Riyadh there are two stores that sell musical instruments and last I saw neither carried equipment adequate to create say Arabic basement black metal. According to a Guardian write up, Al-Namrood “have to smuggle their instruments out to the US for repair via a clandestine drop off spot in Bahrain”.  It follows they’ve had to smuggle them in as well which I’m fascinated imagining how a guy smuggles a trap set into Saudi Arabia.

It reminds me of a British fellow I heard of who, and had I known him personally I would have reprimanded him for stupidity recklessness and breaking the law, went to great pains to smuggle from Bahrain the most important part of a BLT sandwich. Before leaving KSA, the guy packs a cooler with a bunch of stuff that looks like the leftovers of a beach picnic or something. Then in Bahrain he buys a few kilos of Christian cholesterol direct from a butcher and special requests for it to be labeled as turkey or something, and puts it in with the picnic basket leftovers, and I guess this works for him, although it seems like kind of a dumb risk and a lot of trouble just for a proper English breakfast. So now I’m wondering if faced with permanently giving up either bacon or rock’n’roll, which would I choose? I actually can’t answer that.

Business class passengers often label Middle America “fly-over country”. (I’d like to remind them they probably come from somewhere that is just a collection of letters like NYC or SF or DC or LA etc). Like the heartland, the Najd used to be an area mainly relevant only insofar as people crossed it on their way to more important places. P/A Gulf to the east, Red Sea ports to the west, and to the north the gateways to Persia.  For centuries the Najd was “caravan-over country”, as nomads shuffled camels, incense, fabrics, and other goods towards the coastal areas or up through Babylon towards the mountains of Turkistan or Kashmir.  Of course, the desert highway across the Najd also served importantly as the land route for pilgrims from Persia or the Indian sub-continent, destined for the Hejaz and soul-purifying laps around the MBR(3).

Do Al-Namrood produce their music as an antidote to all the piety in the air? Or maybe they just play to tribute futile frustration and sandstorm obscurity?

There was this recent London installation, and the gyst of the Art™ was that this death metal band enter a sound-proof, air-tight cube, and scream pound thrash etc until they run out of air, at which point I assume they’re released, and while the audience outside the cube can see the band in the physical contortions of scream-/pound-/thrashing and see the box vibrating, they can’t hear anything, and this is a statement about perhaps the indomitable human spirit against life’s futility or maybe not I won’t presume to put words in anyone’s mouth.

Riyadh is a simultaneous dis- and utopia, depending on who you ask. It’s a city with mind bending layers – extremes of wealth and poverty, piety and corruption. Al-Namrood capture this cognitive dissonance visibly as well as audibly in their first official music video which is a surreal collage of hookah vixens, nomads, and militants, a sort of George Orwell / Dziga Vertov / Frank Herbert love child.

Traditional instruments and black metal come together naturally, like a shared room in a cheap hostel. “Estahalat Al-Harb” begins by lifting a snake charmer’s flute then somehow keeping intact the mesmerizing pipe trance as the song explodes into a sandstorm of tormented vocals and kick drums. Al-Namrood makes up for not a little technical deficiency with metal zealotry. I don’t know where exactly their aggression is directed, but it’s clear they’ll never back down.

(1) (Lacey, Robert. Inside the Kingdom (2009) pp. 10-11

(2) (Elsheshtawy, Yasser.  Evolving Arab City (2008) pp 124-126 via


(4) THE PROPHET M— ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) PEACE BE UPON HIM

Author: Simeon Brown

Love walking barefoot on hot asphalt, love skateboarding, dislike foods that come in boxes. Amateur creative writer, professional cool hunter, pianist. Favorite part time job ever? Mortician's assistant. Favorite visual artist? Louis Wain.

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