1:39 p.m. October 29, 2012

The War Nerd: Holiday Inn-surrection

I just saw that poor old Zawahiri, the Ralph Abernathy to Osama’s MLK Jr, is trying to get Muslims to kidnap Westerners.

You can expect a rash of nothing in response, because Al Qaeda is a joke and always was. But when I read that I thought of how I used to stand every morning on the main drag of the Saudi town where I spent the last year, holding my hand out for a ride.

If Al Qaeda was for real, I’d have been taken for a different kind of ride, what Maude Lebowski called “the proverbial riiiiiiiiide.” Out into the desert somewhere to have somebody play the fingertip xylophone with a ballpeen hammer until I was ready to make a sobby video.

It never happened or even came close to happening. What usually happened was that a bashed-up Toyota Hilux with a Saudi driver and two or three Pakistani guest workers would pull up, come to a screeching stop about an inch from my legs, and I’d get in with a “Sala’am Alaykum” for the crowd. Meaning “Peace to alla you guys.” It’s very important to say that, and for them to at least “Sala’am” you back. It’s courtesy now, but like most manners it harks back to a time when life was serious and you didn’t come through that tent flap unless you had that formal promise, “Sala’am.”

My students still took that rule very, very seriously; they wouldn’t come into the classroom unless I formally “Sala’am”’ed them. A half dozen would be standing out there while I tried to explain when to use some rule, usually something about the word “the”—and by the way, what a damn pain English articles are, you don’t have any idea of that till you try to teach them—but they wouldn’t cross the plane of the door, like there was a force field across it, until they got that promise that I wasn’t going to chop their heads off. Maybe they had a point, because it did cross my mind a few times.

So you can bet I Sala’amed loud and clear the first few weeks I got into a strange pickup full of what they call “swarthy” guys. And I listened real careful for their “Sala’am” in return, too. But nothing happened. Some of them were friendly, most were just grumpy and surly, like men are in all-male company. And the routine never changed: agree on a price--three riyals if you’re a wimp, two if you’re normal, one if you’re one of those annoying expats who loves to talk about how good you are at haggling. Since three riyals, the highest price you’ll be quoted, is about 75 cents, you can afford to let the driver win. And then you’re off, zooming into the traffic with nary a look behind. Most Saudi cars are missing their side mirrors, and believe me, those mirrors die virgins-- never used.

Conversation was limited in these rides; they don’t speak much English, and I didn’t learn much Arabic beyond “Here,” “Stop,” “left,” “right,” and “how much?” Sometimes they’d say, “You…England, America?” I’d say “America” and they’d do a thumbs-up. God knows if they meant it—I wouldn’t be all that fond of America if I was an Arab, to tell you the truth--but I appreciated the courtesy anyway. When you’ve been fat most of your life you don’t ask sincerity, you’re just very grateful when people are minimum-polite, because a lot of people don’t feel like fat people deserve even that.

After a minute or so of primate small talk, the driver would give up and focus on the job of driving in the Grand Theft Auto game that is any street in Saudi. The rules are simple:

  1. A lane is what I say it is.
  2. Pedestrians need to be taught a lesson.
  3. I can stop in the middle of the block if I see something I want to look at for a few minutes;


  1. Red lights are a suggestion.

Of course people die driving like that. Like I said, one of us ESL mercs was killed trying to cross the street a week after I got there. But death isn’t as taboo, I realized, over there as it is here. I remember after one close call—a classic Saudi move, truck makes a sudden left turn from the far right lane right in front of us—I thought for the thousandth time, “Whoa, we nearly died!” and then I started wondering in a slow, confused kind of way, “Wait, do people, like, not die in California?” I couldn’t really remember for a while, because you never see them or hear about death where I come from. We’re scared of dead people, we don’t talk about them. I think we’re kind of ashamed of them for dying, I think for a Californian, dying is like getting fat squared—means you’re a loser, the biggest loser of all.

If you’re a Saudi, and especially if you’re a Shi’ite Saudi, death is much more familiar. Something to be proud of, if it’s the right kind of death. And the proudest death of all is to die fighting for your religion. Thanks to the insane Wahhabi who run Saudi, the people of my town had had plenty of opportunity to do that.

I found out about this in dribs and drabs, rumors—bragging, more like—from locals. The first one to mention it was a very unusual Saudi: he was from this Shi’a town, but had spent four years at school in Oregon. Oregon! I don’t even feel eligible to live in Oregon, it’s too clean or something, but this guy had gone from Saudi to an Oregon college. And had an American girlfriend there, he told me. Drank wine, the whole decadent lot. He came over when I was sitting in the hotel coffee shop, sitting out one of the damn prayer times, started talking to me—they’re not shy. I don’t think there are shy Saudis. If there are, they probably die young and are glad to be gone.

This guy, Ali, comes over to me in the full thobe’n’kaffiyeh outfit and starts chatting in perfect Oregon English. Blew me away. His days at college, his trouble finding a job in Saudi without “wasta” (Influence, pull, connections—very big thing there) and finally, his family and their proud role in “the Uprising.” At this point I start to take a professional interest. What uprising? I never heard about any uprising in this part of Saudi, and I follow insurgency news pretty closely. In fact, I’d never heard of this town at all until the ESL company sent me there. Ali was very proud of the Uprising and shocked I didn’t know about it. “It was only ten years ago, right here. My brothers were on the street, fighting.” It took me a while to piece together what he was saying, because (as I found out later) the Saudi government has worked very hard to keep a total blackout, not just on news about the Uprising but any news about this town, this region of SW Saudi Arabia.

Ali’s account was kinda confusing, because he assumed I knew the background already, which I didn’t—mainly because the Saudi government and the lapdog American press has done a real good job of keeping it quiet. Ali’s story was pure glory and combat: “My brothers were out there in the street in front of the Holiday Inn, firing at Prince Mishal.” It sounded like one weird uprising: The Holiday Inn Rebellion. What, they didn’t honor your discount card? Queen size bed when they promised King?

That was all I got out of Ali; for one thing, he mainly wanted to reminisce about Oregon, and I think he also got a little wary when he saw how interested I was in war stories. It’s not a safe war to talk to strangers about, even now.

So it wasn’t easy finding out what really happened. My students wouldn’t talk about it at all, wouldn’t talk religion at all. I didn’t even know they were Shi’a until I came to work one day and there wasn’t a student in sight. I ran into my boss in one of the empty corridors and asked, “What’s going on?” He flinched and ducked into his office. A Jordanian finally took me aside and whispered, “Ashura, today is Ashura.” I knew what Ashura was, the sad, glorious holiday for the martyrdom at Karbala—my favorite holiday actually—but only Shi’ites celebrate it, and till then I had no idea we were in a Shi’a city.

That was a strange day. We had to go to our classes as if it was just another day—but there were no students. The Saudi rulers in Riyadh were not going to allow any observance of the holiday—there wasn’t even a mention of it in the English-language Arab News. And we were required to mark every student absent that day, and deduct their stipend. Wahhabi have a “zero tolerance” policy for Shi’a, or anything else for that matter.

No one is supposed to be Shi’a in Saudi. In fact, nobody is supposed to be anything but full-metal jacket Wahhabi. It’s hard to find much nice to say about Wahhabi…even other Muslims get a queasy look when they talk about that sect. To give you an idea, the founder of Wahhabism, Ibn Wahhab himself, was thrown out of an 18th-century Arabian town because he was a little too fond of stoning women to death. The whole stoning custom had gone out of fashion in his home town, a shameful tendency towards tolerance had taken hold — but Wahhab fixed that. He loved a good stoning, used to organize these little celebrations himself and take part till his throwing arm got tired. It got so bad that the town fathers finally threw Wahhab out, those weak-kneed feminists.

Wahhabi Sunni Islam is the only religion officially permitted in the country. No churches are allowed, and as for synagogues, they make their views pretty plain on the visa application: “Jews are not permitted in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Christians, Hindus, Buddhists etc. are permitted, if they can get a work visa, but if they try to build a church or shrine or whatever, it’s a felony. Nearly everything is a felony under Wahhabism.

The people in my town in SW Saudi Arabia had never been like that. This whole region had been part of Yemen until 1934, when the Sauds, who were already getting rich, bought the whole province off Yemen. The people came with the land purchase, which was lucky for them in some ways and unlucky in others. Lucky, because you’re gonna be a lot richer and safer as a Saudi than a Yemeni, but unlucky because these people were Ismaili Shi’a, the most dreamy, non-fascist brand of Islam you could find. The Ismailis have an idea that Allah is everywhere, in everything, even us dirty and non-perfect people. It’s the dead opposite of Wahhabism, where the motto is, “By the book, strictly by the book,” and especially the meanest, nastiest parts of the book.

As far as the Wahhabi sticklers are concerned, Ismailis are kaffirs. Sorcerers, even, because the Ismaili Shi’a, dreamy folks that they are, love to hold big all-male dances (don’t ask) where the shamans get possessed and sniff out evil by the smell, and go to work on it, magic-wise. The Wahhabi will chop off your head for this if they catch you, and they do occasionally catch and detach some poor schizo Ismaili who thinks he’s possessed by the Spirits.

The Shi’a put up with that, and with a lot of other mean-assed Wahhabi harassment. Ismailis can’t get government jobs — that’s why Ali couldn’t get a job in his home town, because they all go to Wahhabi carpetbaggers imported into this town. Their holidays, like Ashura, are forbidden. Their mosques have a way of getting in the way of new roads that never get built once the bulldozers have finished off the heretics’ mosque. Meanwhile, if you drive down the main drag of town, what you see is one huge Wahhabi mosque after another, all built in the past 20 years, most of them on the site of Ismaili mosques that got flattened by God’s Own Eminent Domain Laws.

This is a pattern you see all over the Muslim world: people will put up with injury much better than insult. Remember when nobody stateside could understand why the Afghans were madder about the Quran burnings than about airstrikes that killed dozens of civilians? Insult to the group as a whole, that’s worse than injury to individuals in the group. That’s the rule. So all the harassment and persecution, even though it wrecked the lives of people like Ali, was just background noise. It didn’t threaten the group’s identity; that’s the main thing. Sure, it was unjust and all that, but you don’t expect justice if you grow up in Saudi. Or Fresno, for that matter, but that’s another story.

Anyway, it’s when they insult the group, the religion, directly, that it’s time to strike back. And that’s what happened, as I eventually found out, in 2000. That’s when Ali’s brothers had got out their AKs and went into the street.

Back then the governor of the province was a little prince, one of the king’s sons, named Mishal. Mishal was a Saud, with the family arrogance, and a Wahhabi, meaning slightly less tolerant than a Baptist with a migraine. He decided that it was his job to tell the people of the province that they were filthy heretics doomed to Hellfire and that they must stop their pagan rituals.

Now that was a mistake. The people of the province are divided into a half-dozen clans or tribes, and each tribe has its own special job. The tribe in charge of maintaining the Shi’a rituals is the Makrami (I know, it sounds like Macrame, but I can’t help that). And just like in the old Scottish way, the head of the tribe is called THE Makrami. Well, Prince Mishal, who wasn’t very bright, went to the Shi’a mosque complex to tell The Makrami he’d better stop his Shi’a ways (gonna skip the cheap joke there if you don’t mind) and go Wahhabi. The Makrami said, basically, “Hmmmm, interesting—boys, git yer guns!”

Prince Mishal had overreached himself in the way of viceroys through the ages. He saw all the overpaid Saudi police—there are at least three different police forces in town, and they all have more guns and vehicles than most armies—and he figured the filthy heretical Shi’ites would flinch. They didn’t. It was the cops who ran away, in the way of mercenary paramilitary police forces everywhere. Within a few days, in April 2000, the townspeople had run the cops out of town and had Prince Mishal holed up in the Holiday Inn.

I went to this same Holiday Inn later on, and I’m sorry to say that they’ve fixed all the bullet holes. It’s as boring as any other Holiday Inn—you can see it for yourself, right past the fake waterfall pouring out of the fake boulder, kittycorner to the HyperPanda supermarket. Got that green logo and everything. You’d think they’d make some commercial hay from their illustrious background, like “NOW, 20% more bulletproof!” or “Now YOU can rent the suite where a Saudi prince crapped his robe in terror!” but nope, no plaques, no bulletholes, just a pool with one of those disgusting nargilah gazebos.

It was hard finding out how the rebellion ended. People didn’t want to talk about that—for good reason, as I found out later. What they did say, and they said it with pride, was that the Sauds sent two F-16s flying low over the town to intimidate people. Didn’t work. They had Mishal holed up good, and they weren’t going to flinch at mere air power, the ultimate paper tiger.

I couldn’t seem to find out how it ended, though. And I didn’t, until one day when I got a ride from a guy who was not only fluent in English but also crazy enough not to be shy about telling me what happened. That was the informer I came to know as “Steve.”

One hot morning I was standing on the corner outside Telemoney with my hand out as usual, waiting for a ride. Nobody was interested in picking me up that morning, seemed like. You get a sense of who’s going to stop for you, usually older guys in giant Chevy Suburbans or younger guys in white Toyota pickups. The sedans are never going to stop unless they’re old hulks. That morning it was all sedans zooming by, civil servants too rich and lazy to care about picking up a couple riyals by giving the kaffir a ride. I had plenty of time to look over the long line of tired Bangladeshi workers waiting for Telemoney to open so they could stand in line inside for another hour to send a few dollars home. They’re the ones who really have it bad in Saudi: six-plus days a week, 11 hours a day, with the boss holding their passports. And even they aren’t as bad off as the Sri Lankan maids. Indonesia won’t even let its women go to Saudi to work any more, they kept coming home beaten and raped and robbed.

So I’m watching these slaves who are a few rungs lower down the rankings than my variety of ESL slave, feeling sorry for them and sorta good about the fact I’m not one of them, when I hear somebody call out in loud, cheery American English, “Hey, get in!” I look around and there’s a huge ugly Suburban, black and orange like all other Saudi Suburbans, right in front of me. I get in without even looking to see the driver; that’s how unworried about kidnap/terror I was by that time.

We zoom off and I finally take a look at the driver, who’s already got a nonstop flow of almost perfect American English going. He’s the skinniest guy I’ve ever seen, and very black, very African looking. There are a lot of African-looking people in this town--it’s on the old East African caravan route--so I’m not too surprised by that, but the skinniness is amazing, and that voice is even weirder. Almost perfect US English, except slow, very loud, and a slight drawl. Three blocks later he’s decided we’re going to be friends, and he’s going to take me to and from school every day, and I ask him how come he speaks such good English when most of the English teachers at my school are pretty vague on the concept. He says, “Ooooh, thanks to GAHD, it izzzz a GIFT from GAHD, I was able to learn this! I listened, I had a radio and I listened, I studied—“ “By yourself?” “Yes my friend! Aaaaaall by myself! I studied and THANKS BE TO GAHD I was able to speak like this!”

This is pretty weird, and I’m not sure I believe it because Steve is a little overwhelming even by local standards. He starts slamming his fellow Saudis, and I’m not sure what to say. Ever been around Jews telling Jewish jokes? You’re never sure how loud you’re supposed to laugh. Every time he sees something he starts by saying, “LOOK at that! You see how stupid these people are?” Anything from a pickup with two camels folded snugly into the bed, which I always thought looked pretty cool, to genuinely dumb stuff like a Lexus SUV stopped in the middle of three lanes to talk to a guy on the sidewalk, Steve introduces it by telling me how stupid “these people” are.

I tried to get him on a safer tack, so when we were stopped at a corner by the prison—the biggest building in town by far, a half km square, and full to bursting by all accounts—I said, being the eager American asking about local customs, “How do people decide who goes first at a four-way stop like this?” That’s me, Mister Peace Corps. Steve says, “Oh it is eeeeasy! I will tell you, my friend! It’s very simple: The white people go first and the black people go afterwards!”

He was right, by the way; I saw that over the next few months. Race is such a weird deal that I wouldn’t even have thought of the “white” Saudis as white, but they’re white over there—and Steve was the blackest guy in town. He was cheerful about it all, in his crazy way, just like he was about his medical problems: “You know it has been a difficult year,” he tells me happily as we barely ease past a melon truck to make a blind right turn, “I had six heart attacks last year, and for a while I lost my sight as well.” “Six?” “Yes, my friend, six in one year! Thanks to GAHD I survived!” “But how…six in one year? You seem pretty young…” “I’m 28, not so young!” “Well, but, how come you had so many?” And that’s where I realized that fluent English or no fluent English, Steve didn’t think about the world the way I did, because he said in a thoughtful, considered way, “I’m pretty sure it was witchcraft.” Not much you can say to that except, “Oh, huh, witchcraft…” “Yes, there are people who do not want me to do well, I’m afraid.” Once again, the best I could do was, “Huh, wow.”

By this time we were pulling up to the school where I worked. The only way I can describe that place is that it looked like a cheap Hollywood studio: lots of low beige buildings with no windows, sitting in the hot sun in the middle of a field of dust. This wasn’t sand desert where I was, it was dust desert, a whole different thing, drier and nastier than those sand deserts. Sand—pfff! Sand is for wimps. I did my time in the dust, red dust that even pigeons make deep footprints in, and cats’ footprints look like Sasquatch tracks. And when the wind blows, you’re flossing with that dust, you’re snorting it, you’re sandblasting your eyes with it, you’re shampooing with it.

Sand and construction projects that’ll never be finished, that’s Saudi. All around our school, they were gonna build something, sometime, so as a preliminary they totally flattened everything in a five block radius. Then they stopped, because some little prince siphoned off the money. So you end up with instant ruins, blocks of half-done cinderblock with the red dust making it look like they’ve been abandoned since the Prophet’s time even though they’re actually five years old. Only the parking lot is alive in these places; you’re in your car with the AC on or you’re indoors. Not a lot of outdoor loitering unless you want to be squeezed dry like a juiced orange.

Steve glommed onto me from that day, and the first item on his agenda was to show me the sights of the town. For him, like for most people there, “the sights” meant the Holiday Inn where they’d brought ol’ Prince Mishal to bay. After I got off work, he was there in his idling giant Suburban, and we rolled down the main drag while he told the story. “There, do you see that house? That was my friend, my friend since childhood; they took him away.” It took a while to get the story clear, but what Steve told me was that Prince Mishal folded, like you’d expect a soft Saudi prince to do, when he found himself cornered in his suite. He made all kinds of concessions; freedom of religion, freedom of whatever, just let me get back to Riyadh in one piece.

They let him go. That was a mistake. If anybody reading this ever plans to take a prince hostage, listen: don’t let him go, ever. Keep him alive and cooperative—there are a lot of things you can do to people that aren’t pleasant but aren’t fatal, either.

Because once you let him go—well, I’ll let Steve tell it. We’re riding down the street and there’s a stretch of desert, you can see right to the dry ridges of Yemen. He says, “Do you see out there, the desert? That is where they are…” Who is? “All of them, the young men, they took them away, they are out there somewhere.” I start to get the picture; he means “out there” in the Joe Pesci sense. How many? “Hundreds, hundreds…” We bounce up to the big corner with the Holiday Inn and he cheers up, explaining how they took position there, in the wadi, and fired up at the suites where the Prince was staying. That was how it was for everyone who told me the story: they may have lost in the end, but by God they put the fear into that Mishal. He had to leave the province and he’s never come back. In his place is, believe it or not, another Prince Mishal, also a Saud—but he’s the nice one. The Sauds may not be the smartest family in the world, but they know when to use the ol’ velvet glove.

And that’s what they did in 2000: they promised, and promised, and promised. From the moment the F-16 flyby failed, it was all sweet talk from them. The young men went home, put their AKs away again, and the bad Mishal took the next Learjet back to Riyadh. And that was when the police came into their own. Like most of the world’s armies, the Saudi security services aren’t designed to fight foreign powers, as we saw in 1991. That’s what they got us for, that’s what they pay us protection money for. All their armed forces — and there are many, many of them — are designed for what you call “internal security.” Which means kicking in doors just before dawn, taking males of military age away, doing unpleasant things to them until they give you a list of names, and then following the same policy with everyone on that list. You end up with quite a roster, and it takes quite a while, but the Sauds have plenty of time, all the money in the world, the total cooperation of their friends in Langley and the Pentagon, and absolute control over the press reports coming out of their territory.

Twelve years on, the Sauds are winning in a slower, smarter way. The locals have no friends, no money; their religion is slowly being Wahhabized, just like Islam in Indonesia and all the other places the Sauds are doing their best to make a little meaner and more rule-crazy in their own image. They’re doing it with demographics now, importing Sunni settlers from Yemen to tip the balance. There are rumors of a huge new city going up in the desert near the town I worked in, supposedly a “campus” for the local university, but it’s twenty times bigger than that would ever need to be. It’ll be a Sunni city, a Wahhabi city.

Meanwhile the local Ismaili Shi’ites try to stay alive and maybe even get a tiny piece of the tsunami of money that’s flowing over the rest of the country. They get very, very little of it, and most of what comes to the province goes for mosques—Wahhabi mosques, naturally. But they fought back when their beliefs were directly insulted, and to them, that still means a lot. In the meantime, they do what people in their position always do: they grovel when they have to, fight when there’s no choice, and have a lot of kids.