]> Sojourn in the Middle East

Sojourn in the Middle East

Part 3 of 9
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This is a blog of some of my impressions during a seven-month period living and working in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (the "KSA") in 2007-08.


It's a popular pastime among expats -- and apparently among Saudis -- to head over to Bahrain for the odd weekend. A small island off the coast of Arabia in the Persian Gulf, it's a more liberal place. There are bars, clubs, music venues. Here in Saudi there are none of these.

It is said (I have inquired of no authority on the subject) that during the 1970's there once were, and Saudi was beginning to open up -- but this was the time of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, and supposedly Iran said, look, you've got Mecca and Medina, you'd better shape up as far as Allah is concerned.

I have no idea what the opinion of the typical Saudi is on this subject, or whether there is one, as I've not really met any Saudis yet on a social basis. (Sad but true.) It is said that Saudis are oft to be found in bars and clubs in Bahrain and Dubai, drinking with as much relish as the next man, but this could be only a small, rebellious proportion.

I am also unsure of the true substance of the prohibition against alcohol -- it is forbidden by the Koran, of course, but as with the difficulty of properly storing and preparing pork in the Semitic lands of old, there is surely a back story. The Saudis generally seem to be quite serious and straight-faced in their interactions, at least relatively speaking, and this reminds me of similar seriousness I've found amongst many Pakistanis, as well as among the Muslims I met from China's Muslim provinces. The impression is that life just seems less of a humorous and light-hearted matter to these folks, and of course alcohol is not particularly compatible with that.

Tending to be of opposite sentiments myself, I'm not sure how well I'll fit in here, but given the decidedly expat flavor of my circles so far, it's not certain that's much of an issue.


Saudi residences (in and around Riyadh at least) are almost inevitably walled. I've already spoken of the walls surrounding my compound (which I'm able to see over, lord be praised), but in fact this is only following general cultural practice. I've not laid eyes upon a single Saudi residence, excepting a set of low-rent apartments here and there. Walls go all the way around, and even a gate is lacking -- doors are the general rule.

I personally am quite mystified by this, since clearly in olden days (not so olden around Riyadh, home of many bedouins only settled in the couple of generations) living in tents, walls were a rarity. How had there been such a shift towards emphasizing privacy?

Was it a case of pent-up urges and frustrations, long unslaked desires at last finding their outlet? We see the Saudi national flag is green, a green rare in the desert, but coveted the more so for it.

Eid Mubaarak

Thursday, October 12, 2007. The royal clerics determined they had seen the new moon -- the time of Ramadan was expired. A tremendous release after a month of fasting and heftily augmented prayer periods. Start of the week-long Eid holiday. Time to bask in the aura of spiritual accomplishment.

     Behold the mellow light that floods the Eastern sky. In signs of praise both heaven and earth unite. And from the four-fold manifested Powers a chant of love ariseth, both from the flaming Fire and flowing Water and from sweet-smelling Earth and rushing Wind.

     Hark! ...from the deep unfathomable vortex of that golden light in which the Victor bathes, ALL NATURE's wordless voice in thousand tones ariseth to proclaim:


Peace to all beings.

Well, maybe, but not quite. ;)

These words were written in the late 19th century by Madame H.P. Blavatsky (The Voice of the Silence), whose sentiments drifted more in the direction of godless Buddhism than towards any Islamic faith.

And yet -- and yet, we can detect the strands of a profoundly Buddhist attitude in another Westerner's encounter with foreign religion, roughly contemporaneous, Sir Richard Burton's delightful masterpiece of maverick Islam, The Kasidah:

`You changeful finite Creatures strain'
(Rejoins the Drawer of the Wine)
`The dizzy depths of Infinite Power
To fathom with your foot of twine;

`Poor idols of man's heart and head
With the Divine Idea to blend;
To preach as `Nature's Common Course'
What any hour may shift or end.

`How shall the Shown pretend to ken
Aught of the Showman or the Show?
Why meanly bargain to believe,
Which only means thou ne'er canst know?

To be continued.

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