Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Must Read: Lawrence Wright went to Saudi Arabia for three months (during which time the attack on Iraq began), ostensibly to serve as a consultant to an English language newspaper. (He readily admits he had been looking for opportunities to report on the kingdom.) His article, published in the New Yorker, is here. It is excellent reporting. Samples:
After tea had been served, Khashoggi and I began talking about the term "schizophrenic," which many Saudis use to characterize the quality of their lives. Khashoggi said it referred to the split between what he called "virtual" Saudi Arabia and "real" Saudi Arabia. "The virtual Saudi Arabia actually exists in its rules and in the minds of the people," he told me. "For instance, in virtual Saudi Arabia there is no satellite television. In principle, and by law, you are not allowed to own a satellite dish. But in reality we are the biggest consumers of satellite television in the Middle East. Not only that, Saudi businessmen are also the biggest investors in satellites. In principle, and by law, Saudi Arabia is not supposed to have interest-based banking, but in fact ninety per cent of our banking system is interest-based. And it goes on and on. The solution for Saudi problems is to bring the virtual world and the real world together."

. . .

[The new reporter] was from a prominent Bedouin tribe, but instead of a thobe he usually dressed in upscale casual Western clothes - jeans, oversized T-shirt, and sunglasses - with the name of the designer prominently displayed on every item. "Chicks notice such things," he advised me. When we went to the mall together, he stopped in his tracks like a bird dog and watched a pair of girls, entirely swathed in black, descending an escalator. "Check 'em out!" he said, without irony.

. . .

Until 1990, there was no law forbidding women to drive?the social prohibition was sufficient. That year, more than two hundred thousand American troops - including women G.I.s who drove trucks and jeeps - arrived in the kingdom to repel the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Fifty Saudi women decided that it was the right time to challenge tradition. They met in front of a Safeway in Riyadh and ordered their drivers out of their cars, then took a thirty-minute spin through the capital. The police detained them, but there was no legal reason to arrest them. The Interior Minister immediately banned the practice. The Grand Mufti at the time, Abdul-Aziz bin Baz, helpfully added a fatwa, calling female driving a source of depravity. The female drivers? passports were seized, and those who were employed lost their jobs. Several of them had been professors in the women?s college of King Saud University, and the King himself suspended them after their own female students protested that they did not want to be taught by "infidels."

It's fascinating stuff, and Wright's style is unaffected -- he doesn't try to hide his bemusement (at turns, amusement) as he navigates a perfection of foreignness. At times, though, the odd backwardness takes on sinister overtones, as in this poignant moment:
One evening in Riyadh, I was climbing into a cab when I noticed something highly unusual: a woman standing on the corner with her head uncovered. She was remarkably beautiful, and looked directly at me. I could see that she was frightened. I almost asked if I could give her a lift, but that would have been an unthinkable breach of custom: as an unmarried couple in the same car, we could both be taken to jail. So I said nothing. My cab had to make a U-turn, and when we came back past the corner I saw the woman running. She now had the hood of her abaya over her hair. She ran to a shop and tried to open the door, but it was closed for prayers. Then I saw that she was being trailed by a Suburban with the emblem of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice on the door. The woman went from door to door, banging on the glass. Every instinct in me cried out to help her, yet I could think of nothing that would not make the situation worse. I rode on, feeling guilty and helpless, as the muttawa'a closed in.
It's a long article. Don't skip a word. (Link via NRO.)

No comments: