October Issue 2009
The Sheikhs of Araby
In an interview given at the height of his power, General Pervez Musharraf tried to make sense of his own good fortune and why he was destined to rule this nation: “I am the only Pakistani for whom not only the door ofKhana-e-Kaaba was specially opened but I had the unique honour of saying azaan from the rooftop of Khana-e-Kaaba. Not once, but twice.”
For people like me who have grown up watching countless images of the Khana-e-Kaaba, the scene was hard to imagine. It sounded disrespectful, even mildly blasphemous. Because of all the images that we have seen of the Kaaba in all its sacred glory, never has one seen a human being on the rooftop of the Kaaba. If it happens, it probably happens off camera and one has to be the head of a nuclear armed state to earn the privilege. Given Pakistan’s brotherly ties with Saudi Arabia, or to be more accurate, given successive Pakistani rulers’ brotherly ties with the very extended clan of Khadim-e-Haramain al Sharifain, Musharraf might have been granted this extra ordinary if not heretic-sounding privilege.
Musharraf was trying to evoke divine sanction by revealing his exalted status. He was appealing to our absolute devotion to the idea that Saudi Arabia is a holy place, its rulers are holy people, and if they accept you as their own, you are a holy person and all your worldly actions are beyond reproach. How can an ordinary human being, who has never seen the inside of Haram Sharif, question the actions of a man who has been handpicked by Allah and then endorsed by his reps in Saudi Arabia? The chant that goes up in a thousand mosques and naat khwani sessions across our land — meray maula, bula le Madinay mujhe — is not just an expression of a vague spiritual yearning, it’s a political statement; almost our unofficial national anthem.
The Saudi Arabia of our imagination is an ancient place, not much different from the way the second Caliph Omar might have found it on one of his nightly rounds. It’s a place where shopkeepers leave their shops open when they go to the mosque to pray. It’s a place of zero crime where a lone woman dressed in all her finery can go from one end of the kingdom to the other end, juggling gold coins, and nobody would dare give her a second glance. Here, justice is swift and transparent. The thieves get their hands chopped off in public, large crowds of believers gather to watch spectacular beheadings. Here, even wild camels are well behaved. The Saudis have followed Allah’s law in letter and spirit and hence, they have been blessed with unimaginable wealth. Is it not a miracle that desert bedouins are the world’s richest people? Is it not true that although hardly anything grows in those deserts but even if a dog goes hungry at night the ruler feels the responsibility?
There is enough evidence to suggest that it is all nonsense.
Saudi Arabia is a cruel place if you are not related to the ruling clan. If you are a foreigner, you might be living in the apartheid era in South Africa. If you are a Pakistani or a Bangladeshi, you can live there for three generations and still not get your basic rights as a citizen. If you are a girl student you can burn to death as the religious police stops firemen from entering your school. Saudi Arabia might pretend to conform to a 1,400-year-old tribal code, but they are also the world’s largest consumers of fast cars, luxury linen and flashy jewellery. They are the prized clients of the world’s richest casinos and upmarket brothels. Saudi Arabia keeps the American arms manufacturing industry in business, yet has no capacity to defend itself or any of the dozens of other Muslim countries that are not as blessed with American weaponry as Saudia. Here is a country which provided the most number of men for the 9/11 attacks yet nobody has ever suggested that the bombs that fell on Afghanistan and Iraq should have been directed towards Saudia. It has produced little except senile rulers with more wives than a Mormon could ever dream of. They have exported nothing but doomsday visionaries, who have been preaching and practicing the art of televised throat-slitting, mostly to and on their Muslim brothers.
Somewhere between the world of our devout imagination and cruel reality, lives the real Saudi Arabia: the retirement home for world-class despots and a last chance salon for desperate politicians. This is a place where the first-ever co-ed university is seen as a sign of radical change and the opening of a cinema is downright revolutionary. The same western world which makes gender equality and gay rights a litmus test for judging the rest of the world, mumbles cultural sensitivity when it comes to Saudi Arabia. They obviously care more about the welfare of their weapons industry and their casino economy rather than the right of Saudi Arabian women to get behind a wheel, or an ordinary citizen’s access to justice.
Islam is often cited as the main reason for our fascination with Saudia and Saudis. We do not seem to have the same brotherly love for Palestinians or our brothers in Darfur. Maybe they are not as good Muslims as the Saudis? Or may be they are just not as rich?
There was a picture circulating on the internet earlier this year: a number of Saudi young men sprawled in front of a lingerie shop, trying to look up the dresses on mannequins in a window display. Undergarments again made headlines last month when an Al-Qaeda member tried to blow up Prince Muhammed Bin Naif, Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism czar. The bomber hid the bomb in his underwear. The initial reports suggested that he had hidden the bomb in his rectum. But the Saudi authorities clarified that the bomb was indeed hidden in his underwear. The attacker assumed, correctly, that because of cultural reasons, his underwear would not be searched. And he was right. After a standard search procedure, he was allowed to meet Prince Naif and exploded the bomb after having a long chat with him.
In a society where they pretend that underwear doesn’t exist, underwear sometimes tends to blow up.
Related post: Giving Away the Family Silver by Najma Sadeque
Muhammad Ziauddin is one of the senior most journalists in Pakistan. His career in journalism spans over 50 years. He has been associated to Dawn, The News and Express Tribune. He regularly contributes to Newsline.