From 9/11 to the Arab Revolutions

    The First Years of My Generation – Identities Beyond Nation, History, and Ideology

    The majority of the 9/11 attackers came from Saudi Arabia, yet the consequences of the attacks for Saudi Arabia were only indirect. The young Saudi writer Ahmad al-Wasel is of the generation for whom 9/11 did, however, have a considerable impact.

    I Shower and He Says, ‘God is Great’...

    Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. I had just arrived in Bahrain with my friend. I was in the shower washing off the dirt of the journey. Drying my body, I left the bathroom to find my friend repeating, admiringly, ‘God is great!’ His blind Wahhabism became evident as I heard him wish more evil upon America.
    Instantly everything evaporated from my mind. No more of the habitual wandering between bookstores and cinemas, or strolling along the seafront. I was absorbed to the point that my empathy with everyone who suffered as a result of this aerial attack made me secretly wonder:
    How could ideology – with this encounter as one of its ugly faces – obliterate people’s humanity, to the point that a person does not feel his own humanity when he should be feeling the humanity of others?
    I can understand how this America has been portrayed for him. It is a portrayal that is aimed at augmenting political conflict. He relates to it as the devil’s ally, an entity that is against his religion and ideology, regardless of the fact that this Christian America formed an alliance with his Wahhabism against Communism and prompted many of our youth to rise to the sacred cause; namely, the Communist war on the Afghan land.
    Perhaps those of us who make up society pretended to forget what happened to our returning combatants, the so-called Arab Afghans, those who did not attain martyrdom when the Russians missed them during the war. What are we going to do in order to reintegrate them into society? We are not even a civil society, but rather a divergent cluster of tribes, dispersed urbanised individuals, and resident Arabs of various regional origins.
    Perhaps this is the crux of this convoluted problem. The societal, economic, political, religious and cultural rights and responsibilities are drastically uneven. History has dictated, based on political emptiness and conspiracy theory, that we do not belong in it. We are nothing but the spot that produces oil for the world; and the spot where the two cities of the Islamic faith, Mecca and Medina, are located.

    The ants eat the cakes

    I was born in the late 1970s, in the wake of the prosperity that followed the oil embargo of 1973. Historically, the event coincided with other local and Arab political events, such as the murder of King Faisal in 1975, and the granting of amnesty to political prisoners of various political affiliations such as Ba’athism, Nasirism, and Communism. Nonetheless, the various currents of Islamic resistance came to reign with absolute power. Political Islam penetrated all poor countries in Asia and Africa and then it snuck its way into the poor and foreign quarters of Europe and America.
    Enormous amounts of money have been spent, quantities that exceed the number of grains of sand on the Arab peninsula. They could have been applied to major development projects, which would have made us a dream nation. Instead, mosques were filled with proselytisers, screaming cassette tapes, and barbed pamphlets. They entered our society to divide people, families, and friends.
    I spent years in school, a place full of ants.
    Yes, I witnessed a conflict, but the so called Islamic guidance with its prohibitions did not manage to persuade me. The threats it made did not render the art that I love repulsive. Rather, it made repulsive the threats themselves. I continued to be passionate about literature, music, cinema, and theatre.

    Anxiety in the desert

    We received the shocking news that evening – I recall that it was evening – through my uncle-in-law, who was the office manager of the Kuwaiti newspaper Alanbaa at the time. It was Thursday evening, 2nd August, 1990. That evening, Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait. We were watching an Iraqi soap opera called Black Candles. The show was discontinued without further notice, as often happens.
    The occupation of Kuwait was but one version of the occupation of my relatives’ land. I was shocked by the occupation by Saddam Hussein’s army. It fostered a political awareness in me when I was not yet more than fifteen years old.
    We followed all the news we could get. There were political announcements, statements made by officials, and contradictory justifications for this occupation. In the end, it was all about the oil!
    After retirement, my grandfather used to divide his time between staying in Kuwait for half the year, and in Riyadh and his hometown Unaizah in al-Qassim Province for the other half of the year.
    This occupation was like iron hammering on my little head. It prompted me to pay attention to the political, economic and religious history of this Arab peninsula whose picture has been divided up into an assortment of states that differ in size with no historical justification.
    It is the wisdom of the brothers Sykes-Picot!
    Saudi society did not stay put. Religious protest movements appeared, characterised by the successors of the Wahhabi brothers. At the time they called for a revival through a series of sermons and public conferences which they launched from official pulpits. They endeavoured to confront and embarrass the government for its collaboration with the American army to liberate Kuwait, as if they had not noticed Aramco and its employees!
    And there went the government, diving into a war with its revivalist offspring who it fostered on its own land. It did not imagine that the offspring who would return from Afghanistan would bring with them other surprises!
    In addition to this, incessant national demands began to make themselves heard, exemplified by the November 6th movement (the feminist strike). It was started by forty-seven women who drove their cars through the streets of Riyadh. They demanded the same rights that Kuwaiti and American women enjoyed; namely, to drive in their own country. There was also the movement for the demands that had been deferred since the 1960s. It would be repeated in the 1990s around the issues of constitution-making, judiciary reforms, and establishing parliament. It was mainly groups of Communists and Nationalists who stressed these demands.
    After the liberation of Kuwait, there were those who escaped and those who went to prison. The atmosphere was charged again. We did not know what awaited us. At the time, I used to devour books that dealt with the region politically and historically, staying as far away as I could from the yellowed pages of the old books with their scandals and Orientalist bent.
    My repressed anger toward history and its makers transformed into a chronic migraine. I visited a psychiatrist more than once. Perhaps for more than one reason. My adolescent anxieties had an intense beginning, pulling me between ideological, sexual, and social choices that perhaps were related to the blooming of my talents, which ranged from writing to singing and dancing.
    I was able to enter the world of journalism earlier than my peers. I was not distracted by the games of masculine adolescence, such as playing soccer in the neighbourhood, driving around to show off my car, or flirting with girls in markets and shopping malls.
    I rapidly moved towards converting my talent for writing into a productive energy. I worked in journalism during high school, until after college it became my profession.
    I published my first poetry collection during my third year in college. The publication of my books was sponsored by the Bahraini poet Qasim Haddad and the Lebanese poet Unsi al-Hajj. Lebanese publishing houses and, later, Kuwaiti journalism offered the space that allowed me to move beyond local conventions and raised the calibre of my writing through freedom, aesthetic appreciation, and principles of creativity. Inasmuch as my presence in the Arab world allowed me that, it also deprived me of a presence in Saudi Arabia because I did not satisfy the requirements of the Wahhabi censor.
    Perhaps he is right, because I have rebelled against his cane and broken it.

    A very late king

    The developments that seemed like a prelude to King Abdullah’s accession in Saudi Arabia mobilised some matters that had been put on hold, postponed, or stopped. The same had happened in the early 1990s when King Fahd established the Basic Law of Governance (the constitution) and the Shura Council in 1992.
    The jihadi sector, the so-called ‘Qaida’, continued its war inside Saudi Arabia with bombings that began in 1995 and continued until 2003. Foreign residential complexes with their British and American expatriates were not spared, nor were many Saudis and Arabs who were killed or injured during these attacks.
    The arrival of King Abdullah brought some political mobility. This came after the rather long stupor on the political scene that followed King Fahd’s sickness. He was shocked into sickness by what al-Qaida did to his country!
    The Commission to Promote Virtue, detested by Saudi society, was confronted with a firm stance on the part of King Abdullah after 2002. This was after an incident in which some of its members banned schoolgirls in Mecca from going out during a fire without wearing their abayas, which resulted in a tragedy. Fifteen girls between the ages of twelve and seventeen died as a result of asphyxation, after being run over by cars, or after throwing themselves out of the windows of a school the roof of which burned down after an electrical short circuit. Fifty more students from this school were also injured.
    This saddened the king. Consequently, he issued a decree to merge the General Administration of Girls’ Education with the other institution of learning for boys. Together they became the Ministry of Education. This event also enabled the exposure of the Commission’s dirty laundry in the media to an unprecedented degree!
    Another positive step taken by the king was the creation of a space for a national dialogue in 2003. It was a step intended to increase participation, but only within an official framework. It initiated a dialogue about questions concerning women, youth, children, and sects. Also, in 2005, a local organisation for human rights was founded, followed by an official commission to handle these concerns.
    The founding of the Bay‘ah Council (Allegiance Council) to regulate succession in Saudi Arabia in 2007 resulted in a nationwide political mobilisation instigated by the ruling family. To what extent it will be effective is a matter that remains to be seen. In 2008, the King participated in the dialogue on religions, and in 2009 he attempted to remove the head of the judiciary from office. For the first time a female deputy minister was employed in the Ministry of Education!
    Nonetheless, many other events, political, social, economic, and other, continued to cast a dim shadow. One of these events was the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the creation of several ’states within the state’, of which al-Qaida was the most active, recruiting its members from the youth of the land and striving to continue its war inside Saudi Arabia, penetrating from all possible borders.

    The ants’ new eggs

    Several of those who switched dogmas strived to use the example of the thinker Abdullah al-Qasimi (1906-1997) as a justification for their personal transformations. Yet the case of al-Qasimi was not as they imagined. It was the case of a fundamental transformation of grand concepts, such as God, human nature, and the universe.
    Several new names appeared. Some of them tried to demonstrate the innocence of their dogmatic history but only managed to settle some personal accounts with their past. A few memoirs circulated in particular society clubs. Some of them became books, while other authors claimed to engage in political analysis from their initial dogmatic perspective. They began to live out the new illusion that they had turned from experts on terrorism, social analysts, and politicians into thinkers. They embarked on collecting their simplistic articles in books they could not sell!
    Perhaps al-Qasimi’s theory of speech evolution among Arabs applies to them. First they have sounds, then words, and then words and meaning. It is a theory that became famous under the title ‘Arabs: A Speech Phenomenon’ (1977). Meaning: there is no society without thought, and these people write without thinking. It is an instinctual kind of writing. It appears in the form of endless chatter.
    There are marginalised voices that provide a counter-discourse, but they are wise and fresh. Some of them are made in protest, and some in criticism, reviewing ideas and situations.
    I can point to Hassan al-Maliki, who has published more than one work critiquing historically and dogmatically the phenomenon of expiation in the Hanbali Way, which the Wahhabi Way inherited and made use of in its mobilisation of people. He has published more than one book, starting with Readings in Dogma Books: the Example of the Hanbali Way (2000). In another, An Advocate, Not a Prophet (2004), al-Maliki critiques Muhammad Abdul Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism. Yet the religious institution and its ants that populate the hallways of the Ministry of Education harassed him in order to remove him from his position under the pretext of absence in 2003 (although the Ministry had assigned him to a curriculum development project). They attempted to reassign him to an administrative position, but he won the case in 2009.
    From the opposite bench, I observe a new tendency to review history and experience in a critical, contemplative manner. Several representatives of the multifaceted national movement are doing this. For instance the political thinker Turki al-Hamad, who belonged to the Ba’ath Party and published his autobiography as a trilogy.
    The history of the Communist movement in Saudi Arabia in its early stages in the 1950s and 1960s has also been critically reviewed by one of its thinkers. Ishaq al-Sheikh Yacoub, who published a two-volume autobiography, spoke about the workers’ movement since the 1950s and about his escape from imprisonment to Arab and European countries, where he continued his education and political and journalistic work until he received a political pardon. This was in 1975, when King Khalid came to office following the assassination of King Faisal. Later, al-Sheikh Yacoub also published the book Intellectual Questions about his detention, interrogation, and experiences in prison. He is thinking of possibly writing a third volume of his autobiography.
    He was followed by someone from the second generation of the Communist movement. The poet and novelist Ali al-Dumaini published his first autobiography indirectly, in the guise of a novel called The Grey Cloud. He returned to publish his memoirs of detention and imprisonment in A Time for Prison, Times for Freedom. He also runs an online forum for discussion and creativity, through which the periodical magazine Branches is published.
    There are many cultural representations that we could praise addressing most of the social, political, and economic issues. These are by new novelists who have not abandoned the criterion of creativity in their novels. Among the authors are Yousef al-Mohaimeed, Omaima Alkhamis, Layla Aljuhani, and Seba Al Herz.
    The novels by these authors present issues such as racism toward the non-Arab races that live among us, discrimination against those who do not belong to influential tribes, women’s rights, such as premarital romance and their financial independence, the corruption of the religious institutions, and discrimination against religious minorities.

    Oil did not tear the cloak

    I conducted research about ‘The Great Women of Unaizah’ in order to discuss examples of female characters who have resisted seclusion and imprisonment from the twentieth century to the present. Through this research I was able to continue the work of my teacher Thurayya al-Turki, who completed a study entitled ‘Unaizi Women in a Shaking Era’. Her research was limited to the 1920s, and dependent on the writings of Western travellers. I, in contrast, drew on the oral histories found in prose and poetry texts. I reconstructed these texts and analysed them based on knowledge conveyed to me by my paternal grandfather, who was a commendable storyteller. I concluded my study with a view on an organised, comprehensive regression based on an ideology of repression and hegemony that started to take root in the 1930s. That is, with the formation of the state, as a result of which the economic role of women diminished. Their role in buying, selling, owning, and pawning diminished, to the point of discontinuing traditional education in female teachers’ homes and closing down public spaces where women and men traditionally met throughout the day.
    Nonetheless, the liberal and open-minded segment of society challenged the orders to discontinue female education by sending their daughters to study abroad until female education was allowed again in 1963. However, since the founding of the kingdom, women have remained non-citizens. They are not granted identity cards. Even their travel is dependent on the male: a father, brother, or husband. A woman does not drive or own a car, and does not choose her husband or see him before the night of the wedding, although these matters may vary to some extent according to societal conventions.
    What have they done to women? I wonder what they have done to my grandmother, mother, and sister. It is the problem of an entire society.
    The government and its institutions, along with the dissident Islamic currents who stand as a source of negative pressure on society and its apparatus, have constantly tried, despite losing their credibility, to stand in the way of anything that could offer an opportunity to discuss issues related to the rights of women. We even became ashamed of the demands that we are still making in the twenty-first century. In this country that produces the largest amount of oil in the world, women do not even own cars. It is as if they cannot be responsible for themselves!
    Debates relating to women do not stop at the question of driving, nor at the merging of the General Administration of Girls’ Education with the Ministry of Information, which was formerly in charge of overseeing boys’ education, nor at permission for women to stay in hotels without a male relative, nor at the decision to allow the employment of women in retail shops that sell women’s clothing, nor at issuing civic identity cards, establishing women’s sports clubs, adding physical education to the curriculum of female schools, etc.

    The new fire is spreading

    ‘The members of the new generation are filled with a firm sense of their national identity. They want prosperity for their country. Parallel to that, they want a space inside Saudi society for developing their positions and thoughts without the despotic totalitarian presence of the state and the religious authorities.’
    This is a section from the conclusion of a study by Mai Yamani, the daughter of the former Minister of Petroleum Affairs, Ahmed Zaki Yamani. She writes about the outlook of Saudi youth, my generation. I find that she puts her finger on many of the challenges we face.
    The study touches upon many of the controversial issues in Saudi society, through fieldwork and personal interviews with various segments of society: young men and women in Saudi Arabia from a variety of regions, social classes, religious denominations, and social and political orientations, including liberals, conservatives, and extremists.
    Are there new places of exile for the youth of Saudi Arabia?
    I pose this question with the assumption that some of the Arab, European, and American countries are exiles sought out by people wishing to fulfil desires, for lust, diversion, or leisure. Now there are new sites of exile in the Gulf countries and elsewhere for acquiring qualifications, abilities, experience, and expertise through education, work, and maybe residence.
    Some young friends and colleagues, both liberals and conservatives, look forward to liberal work options that allow them to live outside the country, if only in the neighbouring Gulf states. This is the case despite their regret that their country lags behind the times and that it refuses them the opportunity to live a new life that fulfils their demands and respects their desires and needs.

    Facebook nation and the globalisation of rap

    The World Wide Web furnished, more than one might have expected, an opportunity for publicising and spreading what could occur in the minds of the members of Saudi society. Together with the continual creation of websites and online forums and the increase in membership, followers, and voyeurs, the internet mainly provides the previously non-existent opportunity for people to appear and discuss their issues publicly, while concealing their identities.
    Perhaps the Al-Jazeera channel encouraged this through its famous programme Opposite Direction with the garrulous broadcaster Faisal al-Qasim. His example inspired discussions expressive of verbal prowess rather than seriousness, in-depth analysis or the search for solutions.
    State security continued to chase some websites and deactivate them, until it recently became able to control personal blogs and mass communication websites such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.
    The internet remains the incubation centre for a generation of male and female authors. Websites became sites for  practices controlled by censors who lack expertise or professionalism. Some of them could be considered sites that compensate for the lack of possibilities for meeting the opposite sex in real life. The by-product is the new personalities that now populate Saudi culture.
    What is worthy of note is that this spider’s web has fed Saudi culture and journalism with opinion writers and commentators who are busy with daily and weekly pages that deal with general issues. Sometimes one of them has an article censored, or is banned from writing, which causes him to return to his old nest until circumstances permit and he comes back again.
    These sites were also created to narrate stories that had previously not been possible. For more than two decades, narrative literature in Saudi Arabia depended on symbolism in the form of the short story. The novel was not considered a serious work. It continued to be regarded as an undesirable state of delirium, if we compare it with examples of Arabic novels in other Arab countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq.

    Do not open your mouth until we say so!

    The Arab region is living through an unwanted war in Iraq, Sudan, and Lebanon. Moreover, since the 1990s and until our entry into this century we have been under threat from Salafi, jihadi groups, exemplified by al-Qaida and similar organisations, with bombings that target us along with those they claim are their targets.
    From 2003 to 2011 the government has published lists of wanted people suspected of belonging to al-Qaida. They are said to be planning bombings in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the world. The government is still chasing its offspring, admonishing them, calling on those who are able to reveal their hiding places, and demanding that they repent and return. It has transformed into a machine that pumped out its suicidal ideological goods until the makers lost the keys of the machine! Its offspring escaped, the offspring of the old ants that always propagate.
    Perhaps the wars moved to the internet after the information and communication revolution. If indeed these governments with their regimes did not know how to run their realm of land and sky, the spider’s web is a realm which they will not be able to control except by cutting off the electricity.
    Ahmed al-Omran, the writer of the famous English-language blog ‘Saudi Jeans’, said that the idea of organising electronic publishing is bad enough as it is, explaining that it is theoretically and practically difficult to monitor what goes on on the internet.
    As for Fuad Farhan, whom the Saudi bloggers agreed to dub the ‘king of bloggers’, he has been detained because he published a list of names of public figures he disliked. He expressed doubt that those who he had put on the list know what new media is in practice, and proofed this by saying that the definitions of the kinds of electronic publishing mentioned in the list are inaccurate and unscientific.

    Ahmad al-Wasel
    is a Saudi poet, novelist, and critic. He was born in 1976. He has published five collections of poetry and two novels.

    Translated by Yasmeen Hanoosh
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2011

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