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.  Continue reading

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Sandy Singles


IMG_2019Image David and a couple Saudi friends are standing outside the Kingdom Tower, because it was families only that night – NO SINGLE DUDES ALLOWED!!! Because single dudes are just trouble….


I wish I could think of an explanation for this shoe/sandal graveyard. But I can’t.


How bout them melons?


I really, really, really hate sandstorms. But I kind of enjoy the feeling like I’m about to throw a Molotov cocktail.


Food is so cheap here. When I get the gumption, I cook dinners fit for kings. This is my crab and roasted eggplant from the other night.


Amanda thought you couldn’t be “hot” in a niqab. Pssshhh. Whatever. Girl I’m fabulous.


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Yesterday I experienced my first sandstorm.  If I had to use one word to describe a sandstorm, it would be… “disgusting,” really.  In a rain storm, there’s this feeling of freshness in the air, a certain alive-ness that gets up into your head via the nose and stays there as long as the grass is wet.  None of that with a sandstorm – just wind trying to rip your face apart, starting with the corners of your eyes, forcing this subliminal dustiness up into your sinuses and between your teeth.  It makes your fingers slippery and coats your throat.  I put on sunglasses to give my eyes some protection from the sand.  The added shade made it almost impossible to see through the already murky dusk. 

The air actually becomes colored – like, not just the atmosphere up in the sky, but the air right in front of your face is no longer clear.  Everything takes on a brownish-orange tinge – it put me in the kind of mood that aborts imagination and precludes joy.  When I was a kid, I remember running outside in a fierce rain storm, with fat drops hurtling down so furiously that they stung my face.  I ran around our garden and laughed maniacally, sent into ecstasy by the rain.  That would never happen in a sandstorm. 

I wonder if it’s the sand, or the lack of moisture, that makes people be like they are here.  I met my fellow teachers yesterday.  My office mate is a very pleasant Canadian, about my age, who has been here for a couple years.  The rest of the teachers, I regret saying, do not seem to be very enjoyable to be around.  I can get along with them on a personal level, but it seems that everyone who has been here for more than a year or two carries a chip on their shoulder towards Arabs and Arab culture.  They stick the place out for a paycheck, but the loneliness of compound living and the austerity of sharia law seem to wear people down quickly.  Many of them would kill the boredom with a drink, but of course there’s nothing like that for hundreds of miles.  All the pretty girls have bags on their head.  And all the rock’n’roll must be listened to at the volume of a whisper – it’s like lights out at church camp, here in KSA.  

It seems like it’s par for the course for teachers to become bitter and reactionary here.  I’m determined not to adopt these attitudes myself.  But as the sandstorm took my breath away and dried out my eyeballs, I began to understand why it might be difficult to remain cheerful.  This is a severe place.