Arid Letters

The Diary of an English Teacher in Arabia


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Najdcore

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.  Continue reading

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2 Comments

Transit Kaleidoscope

I’m a little disappointed in the content I’ve written for this blog. I – WE, really – probably expected something different. We expected crazy stories about the strange things here in Arabia – camels, scorpions, mosques, veiled women, oil wells… I don’t know, what DID we expect, anyway? Something DIFFERENT, I guess.

But the reason I only sporadically have something different and strange to write about, is that I spend more time noticing the things that aren’t different, but the things that are the same.

So let me tell you a story, about something that has stayed the same: hotel rooms.

A year and a half ago, I was sitting in a hotel room in a strange town – Huron, SD, the definition of “strange town” if ever there was one. I was there doing a few weeks of training for my new job in insurance sales – this was going to be the job where I saved up money to settle down and start a family and turn my plans into reality …

Well, it’s like Grandpa Brubacher told me just last week. We were sitting in a Culver’s in Wausau, Wisconsin, and he said, “Boy, stop trying to plan so much. A lotta things are gonna change and you won’t be able to change ’em.”

Gramps is a wise guy – I mean, my plans sure changed a lot since last April. In fact, that week, as I suffered through the training for my new job, was also the week I made my decision to go abroad. Everything changed that week. You changed, so we changed, so I changed my plans. That’s all a guy can do when he’s sitting alone in a hotel room.

But this is all wrong. I told you there was going to be a story about things that are the same. That was my plan, when I started writing this, but I keep encountering deviations.

Here’s something that stays the same: nights spent alone in hotels in strange towns. Tonight, the town is Manama, Bahrain – more of a city than a town, sure, but still a strange place.

Here’s something else that stays the same: if you’re in a strange city, alone in a hotel room, you have some strong drinks in the evening. I still remember how bitter that overdone coffee tasted every night in Huron. Tonight, I think it’s tea – double bagged, with so much sugar that there’s a layer of crystals left in the bottom every time I empty the cup.

The tea is sweet. So is Bahrain. It’s 3.30 a.m. right now. Jet lag and strong drink will keep you up too late, or have you up too early, or something. I can’t tell. It’s always changing.

I’m trying to reel it in here. I’m sorry, I really am. But things get so foggy when you’re in transit. Memories, time zones, plans … They all run together until all you can do is dance on their grave and puke them up out the other end of the kaleidoscope until the future looks more mixed up than that abortionist’s dumpster of a metaphor that I just pulled out of the blender.

In writing classes, they’ll say, “Show, don’t tell.” The funny thing is that “show, don’t tell” sounds more like telling than showing.

But the outcome always outweighs the decision, that’s what we’re getting at here. So I’d better start showing you some stories. The people want pictures!

Next time … I promise I’ll tell you a good story. That’s my plan, anyway. But tonight, I only have chopped up, scrambled, tiny pieces of stories, running together … You find yourself in a strange city, can’t remember how long you slept or when/where it was, you’ve got too many hours on the plane behind you, and kilometers to go before you sleep (all respect to Robert Frost). And the only thing to do is have some strong drink in an empty hotel room in the early early morning. So I pour some more tea and play some music that I would usually detest, but under the circumstances, so far from home, it makes more sense.

You guys, it’s a true story: I’m listening to Sheryl Crow tonight. Strange cities and empty hotel rooms have a way of making things like Sheryl Crow sound ok. You have plans, they change, no problem. You think we know who I am until we find out that you don’t know who we are, but that’s ok too – it’s all people. Time and plans and stories all run together, and the drink is still hot and strong.

Empty hotel rooms in strange cities have a way of invalidating doubts and regret. But make no mistake … Every single day, I still wish you could be here with me.