Without Chief or Tribe: An Excerpt from Nathan Deuel’s Friday Was the Bomb
I was having lunch at the swan near Hyde Park and some son of a bitch took my bag with all my documents, the email began. It was June of 2009 and I was sitting at a desk in Riyadh. Assuming this was spam, I was about to press delete, when something made me reconsider.
Outside, it was summer in Saudi Arabia, where temperatures could exceed one hundred and thirty degrees. My wife Kelly and I had lived in the country for nearly a year. We’d spent much of our lives in foreign countries or in strange corners of North America. We’d met in Cambodia, spent years in Southeast Asia, got to know Russia and the former Soviet Union, and I proposed to her on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska. This time, however, the Middle East in general seemed a little beyond my talent set. Maybe it was the heat making me feel weak? By this time of year everyone was spending entire days indoors, emerging only to drive air-conditioned cars, in which metal could be so hot it might burn your skin. Streets buckled, the wind howled in from the desert, and meanwhile booze was still illegal, women were forbidden from consorting with men they weren’t related to, and it was hard to imagine why anyone would ever choose to settle here. Considering all this, we—the swashbuckling couple who had never shied away from doing something insane—were about to bring a new baby into the world.
Earlier that spring, my wife had consulted with our doctor, who was open to natural birth. Pressed, she admitted that even at this, the best hospital in the country, we couldn’t know in advance which doctor we might get for the actual event. Most doctors, we feared, would just wheel in the knives and proceed to surgery. In Saudi Arabia, women could have up to eight babies, and the rich ones understandably came to view childbirth with as much ceremony as a hair appointment and scheduled caesareans weeks in advance. After these procedures, the nurse would arrive, take the baby to the nursery, and when it was time to leave, a nanny fed the child and carried her to the car. Honestly, I didn’t think that sounded too bad. And Kelly might have agreed, too, had we not met that Swiss doula at a camel race outside town. While we watched the beasts galumph around a desert oval, the beatifically maternal Swiss woman advocated for a natural birth with as little to do with medicine or surgery as possible. Over the next few days, driving around Riyadh’s wind-blown terrain, we talked and I suppose both became convinced—enamored, really, by the challenge of it. After all, it seemed ironic—in an otherwise throwback culture, which was leery of modern progress, which loved all things pure and holy—that they might consider a natural birth odd and subversive. Kelly heard about a doctor who could help. We drove to his clinic with a stack of cash nearly half an inch thick. The money—five thousand dollars—was a guarantee he’d come any time, day or night, no matter what.
“Don’t worry,” he said after we’d paid. “I’ll be there when you need me.”
I’ve got a year-long gig in Saudi Arabia, subcontracted by Aramco Oil, to make slide/tape training programs, which means I fly around in helicopters taking pictures on oil rigs and at gas-oil separation plants. American tinkerers have been taking apart radios and cars and putting them back together for fun since the dawn of the 20th century. In 1983 the Saudi’s don’t yet have a comparable background in technology so we take their money and teach them the blue-collar and computer skills that will eliminate their dependence on us. They don’t want us there. Too many American expats are assholes, especially in a country where everyone is of a darker complexion and doesn’t speak English or wear pants or worship Jesus.
I live in a camp a few kilometers inland from the Persian Gulf with about 3,000 men, most of whom are third-world worker bees with long contracts and shit wages. The few hundred Americans are paid high-end blue-collar tax-free wages and housed in long trailers with six rooms and three bathrooms on either side. My room has a single bed, a wardrobe, a desk and chair, a sink and a mirror, a small fridge, and a black and white television. I share a bathroom with the guy next door.
Women are not allowed in the camp and an outbreak of the clap in the Filipino neighborhood has been traced back to a blow-up doll named Farrah. Alcoholic beverages are illegal and possession could mean jail time and lashes. I favor a clear moonshine called sadiki, which I mix with Pepsi. The kingdom has no Coca-Cola. When opening a new bottle I pour a little puddle in an ashtray and set it aflame. If it burns blue it’s a good batch.
“Abdullah” sounds nervous over the phone. He nearly didn’t want to talk to me in the first place, even though I’m not using his real name in this article. His paranoia stems from the fact that a close friend was recently arrested for possessing some of the hash Abdullah had sold him, and now he believes the authorities are “out to get” him, too. Which is why he’s recently shut down his Facebook, deactivated his email account and gone into hiding from the mutawa—the country’s religious police.
I’ve been an expat in Saudi Arabia for almost 15 years, so I’m well accustomed to how frustrating its hardline Islamic restrictions can be for secular people trying to live their lives. However, this doesn’t compare to the dangers of doing what Abudllah does and illegally importing or selling drugs or booze, crimes for which perpertrators can be thrown in jail, lashed, or even publicly executed. Increasingly, the mutawa are the ones responsible for finding and catching those deemed guilty of these crimes against Sharia.
Regardless of the law and the heavy penalties for breaking it, liquor and many other illicit substances are available in Saudi Arabia—it’s just a question of knowing where to look. A rare study on the topic, published by the World Health Organization in 1998, found that 24 percent of patients at a hospital in Riyadh had abused alcohol. More recently,WikiLeaks exposed the royal family’s wild parties, which include liquor, cocaine, and prostitutes.
When it comes to women’s rights, Saudi Arabia takes baby steps to a whole new level of infancy. (In utero steps? Spermy steps?) Sure, the King Khalid Charitable Foundation launched the country’s first ever anti-domestic-violence ad last month, but women are still unable to defend themselves against those same domestic-violence cases in court. In 2013.
One other huge breakthrough that I’m sure would have Susan B. Anthony setting off streamers in her grave is new legislation that allows women to ride bicycles. Granted, they still have to be supervised by men—but bicycles! Think of the endless freedoms that come with finally being able to cycle around Riyadh, a city not built with cyclists in mind whatsoever!
Oh, also, girls in private schools are now allowed to play sports, but girls in state schools still can’t. So, much like in other parts of the world, the amount of rights a person gets depends entirely on their wealth.
Despite these forward-thinking changes, Saudi Arabia was still ranked 131 out of 134 countries for gender parity in the 2012 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report. So recent, optimistic reports of Saudi Arabia going through a “feminist revolution" seem a little off the mark.
I spoke to Nouf Alhimiary, a 20-year-old photographer from Jeddah, about the challenges she faced when trying to put on an art exhibition about Saudi women in a country where basically every minutely inflammatory art piece gets banned from public display.
VICE: Hey, Nouf. How come you were only allowed to display half of your exhibition? Nouf Alhimiary:You know that thing where you take a picture of your outfit every day and post it on Instagram or Twitter? I thought it was interesting that a lot my Saudi friends do that when they’re out of the country, but can’t do it here because they have to wear the exact same thing every day: the abaya. I wanted to create a parody of that by photographing women wearing the same thing in different places. I wanted to call it What She Wore/ What She Wore Underneath. The plan was to take pictures of all these women in the abaya, take pictures of whatever they were wearing underneath, and then display both pictures together.
But you weren’t allowed to do that? The curator for the Mostly Visible show told me I couldn’t do it because the government would have rejected it. In Saudi Arabia, the government has to look at every art project that’s going to be exhibited to decide whether or not it can be displayed. The curator told me that if I included pictures of women outside their houses not wearing the abaya, they wouldn’t display it.
So what did you do? I settled for What She Wore, which I actually like because it makes you ask, “Why do all these women look like they’re wearing a uniform?” But even though I only displayed pictures of women in the abaya, a lot of people at the exhibition came up to me and asked, “Why are you trying to change women?”
What’s It Like Being a Stand-Up Comedian in Saudi Arabia?
Breaking into stand-up comedy is notoriously hard in Western countries where there’s an infrastructure of clubs and agents and laws that allow performers to say pretty much whatever they want. But in Saudi Arabia, where the notoriously oppressive government still uses beheading as a punishment and women aren’t allowed to drive, among other things, it’s nearly impossible to be a comedian. The country’s stand-up scene is “burgeoning,” to be kind, or “pretty much nonexistent,” if you want to be mean.
So when Ahmed Ahmed, the Egyptian-American comedian, was performing in Saudi Arabia in 2008 and the bookers wanted to find some locals to open for him, they had to hold auditions to find ordinary people who were funny enough to get onstage and tell jokes. An English teacher named Omar Ramzi got a Facebook message that said auditions were being held, tried out, and soon found himself in front of a thousand people doing stand-up for the very first time.
Omar stuck with comedy, and four years after his debut he had become famous enough to acquire a nickname (“the White Sudani”), made good money doing underground comedy gigs, and was featured on national TV and in the Saudi Gazette, an English-language daily newspaper. The catch was that despite being born and raised in Saudi Arabia, Omar had never received Saudi citizenship and was living illegally in the country thanks to a string of mishaps. After navigating the not-funny joke that is the Saudi bureaucracy, he eventually managed to flee to Cairo. I reached out to him through Skype to talk about the turns his life has taken.
VICE: So your nickname is “the White Sudani”? How did that happen? Omar Ramzi: Yeah. See, my mother’s Irish and my dad is Sudanese, and obviously most Sudanese people are dark-skinned, with African origins, but there is a small minority of white Sudanese that came from North Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, and places like that. My dad is from that small minority. We’re like the bluefin tuna of the human race—almost extinct.
What was it like growing up as part of that tiny minority? So, I was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but I lived a very different life than most people—I lived in a compound, which is like a gated community. There’s several of them all over the country. The one that I lived in was called Saudia City, which is for the employees of Saudi Airlines. They had everything: They had their own schools—American schools, British schools—medical centers, pools… It was like a little city where the rules of the country did not apply. Women could drive and wear whatever they wanted to. There were parties and alcohol. And just outside the gate, you would see women all covered up with the black [burqa], like all ninja’d out, you know? They were like completely different worlds.
When you started doing stand-up, you were doing it in that wider world of Saudi Arabia. What was that like? It must be a lot different from what I think of as stand-up in America. The thing is, in the West, heckling is part of the norm in stand-up comedy. In this part of the world they don’t know about heckling. There’s no such thing. People sit down and they will respect you, even if you suck ass.
Omar’s first show ever.
That must be nice. Yeah, but it’s a bit of a challenge because they had a lot of rules. You can’t use profanity. You can’t talk about the government. You can’t talk about the royal family. You can’t talk about religion. So what is left to talk about? What is left to make fun of? I ended up making fun of the students I was teaching English to. I’ll tell you one of my jokes. I was teaching them the difference between “to” and “too.” After like three weeks of going through it, I thought, They must finally understand. So I asked who could give me an example of the difference between the words.
[heavy Saudi accent] “Teacher, teacher, I have the answer for you, teacher!”
[normal voice] “OK, go ahead.”
“For example, teacher, the one with the one ‘o’ teacher: ‘I want to go to the supermarket.’”
“Oh, very good, good job. What about the other one?”
“Yes teacher of course teacher. For example: ‘I want to go tooooooooooooooooo the beach.”
So you know, things like that, things that everyone could laugh at and that weren’t insulting.
The laws of Saudi Arabia are based on strict Sharia principles, which require genders to be segregated and forbid women from driving, traveling alone, and achieving the same professional status as men. Of course, the effects on civil rights are a total bummer, but perhaps the most awkward Sharia by-product has to do with lingerie. Strangely, almost unbelievably, most of the Saudis selling women’s underwear are men. And in a country where a man and woman dancing together is the Western equivalent of having anal sex in the middle of a nursery, many ladies find it uncomfortable to speak with a dude about panties and bras.
Guess what, everybody? Arabs and Israelis have found a new way to hate each other. Since the turn of the year, a hacking war has been taking place in the Middle East. The conflict was primarily ignited by two guys: one called “0xOmar,” who’s battling for Saudi Arabia and claims to be from the Saudi capital of Riyadh, and another called (confusingly) “OxOmer,” aka Omer Cohen, an IDF soldier and proud Israeli. Between them, these two men have been leading newly-formed legions of keyboard warriors in a rush and a push to spill the other side’s credit card details all over the web and generally make their lives as tedious and annoying as possible.