Saturday, December 23, 2006


Who made the mind aware?
What secret immensity
Decided that there should be something
Rather than nothing?
Sometimes I admit I’m scared
When I think of such a hard
Compassion, killing us more effectively
Than hatred or indifference.

Who made the mind aware?

Does God Himself sometimes admit He’s scared?
Who decreed that life on Earth should be
Born in ocean depths then spread
To rocky sand-strewn tracts?
What cynic God evades us with these half-known facts?

Who made the mind aware?
The livid brain
(That from itself can manufacture universal pain!)

Who made the mind aware…?
Who made the mind aware…?

(And if I knew, Oh Dear God,--tell me, would I even care?)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

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"Bag of Bones", by Stephen King

I have just finished reading this King novel (from 1998) which is often cited as one of his very best--even perhaps on a literary level to justify its being considered as more than simply another slash and scare novel. I must admit that my knowledge of King's books is not great and like the majority of people, most of my awareness of his work has come in the cinema where successful movies have been made of "The Shining", "Carrie" and "Salem's Lot" (and lots of others too).

"Bag of Bones" is certainly a book where King weaves his magic in such a way as to slowly build up tension as the different pieces of the jigsaw gradually come together. The wife of the novelist-protagonist dies of a brain haemorrhage in strange circumstances and slowly the novelist, Mike Noonan, is led back to the house in the country, called "Sarah Laughs", where he and his wife enjoyed good times together. The only problem is that the house is now clearly haunted by several ghostly phantoms including Jo, the writer's wife and Sarah Tidwell, a black blues singer from the turn of the century. It transpires that Sarah's ghost haunts the house and the small community to which it belongs, due to her ghastly rape and murder at the hands of several townsfolk (including one of Mike Noonan's distant relatives)around 100 years before. The old timers in the town know what happened, but aren't telling anyone! Gradually, Mike Noonan with the help of his wife's ghost and a mysterious little girl, pieces together what happened all those years ago and also the reason for why the little town seems trapped in a silent conspiracy of fear. Sarah Tidwell's son, it transpires, had also been murdered when he'd tried to help his mother--and Sarah's ghost has sworn to get even with the descendants of the murderers. Noonan learns that several fathers have mysteriously killed their own offspring over the last 100 years (possesed by the spirit of Sarah)--and even his own wife, who had been pregnant at the time of her death, had paid the price of being connected to a descendant of one of Sarah's killers (Noonan himself). The mysterious little girl turns out to be yet another young person touched by the horrors of the past and the conclusion to the novel where Noonan fights desperately for the life of Sarah's last would-be victim is certainly cathartic. Finally, he finds Sarah's buried bones in a bag, together with those of her murdered son, and destroys them with acid. Now, Sarah's power fades and she can no longer directly threaten the child (though an unexpected twist is still left in the tail!). At the end of the book, Noonan is left fighting for the right to adopt the girl Kyra whose mother, Mattie, has been murdered during the course of the spooky mayhem.

"Bag of Bones" is a consummate dramatic work. Characterization is excellent throughout, but the girl Kyra and the dead blues singer, Sarah Tidwell, are both particularly well drawn. There is also great skill in the way King buids up the tension over 600 odd pages until the climax of the drama is reached. Small clues often attain great significance in the novel's story and little pieces of information, gradually fed to the reader, later lead to discoveries of deep significance. Is it then a masterpiece of the horror genre? least in the modern era. Is it a masterpiece of English literature? Not quite. I found myself at the end of the book wondering why some acid poured on an old bag of bones would have made any difference to the ferocious spirit of Sarah Tidwell who haunted the house "Sarah Laughs" and also the town in general. Perhaps asking such questions is rather unfair on King who was required to come up with a ghoulish ending. However, such small blemishes hardly occur in the work of that true master of the macabre, Edgar Allen Poe.

Friday, December 15, 2006


I was going to entitle this article “Islam and the Arabian Mind,” but it would have been a little predictable and over generalized. I think that in order to appreciate the ways in which religion permeates every aspect of life in the Middle East, the concept of “Inshaallah” is a good place to start.

I have spent around ten years on the Arabian peninsula, working a long way from home, and I think it has taken me this long to understand the Arabic concept of “Inshaallah” and the fatalistic concept of life and death that prevails in that desert kingdom. About a year ago, a Saudi I knew well died in a car crash. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was precipitated out of the back seat of a car his friend was driving head first through the windscreen. The others in the car survived because they had been wearing seat belts. However, on offering condolences, I heard the same point of view repeated time and time again. “There was nothing anyone could have done. ‘Inshaallah.’ It was God’s will: his time had come.” Of course, this totally ignored the fact that the victim had decided not to take a basic safety precaution.

First, what does “Inshaallah” mean? The usual translation given is “God Willing.” However, “Inshaallah” goes a lot further than that. It includes the idea that we are all at the mercy of God or Allah in every moment of our lives. “Will the plane come on time?” “Yes…Inshaallah.” “Will I get the money tomorrow?” “Of course…Inshaallah.”

Confused people from the west often ask: “Does Inshaallah mean ‘yes’ or ‘no’ ?” There is no simple answer to this question as it is genuinely difficult to interpret “Inshaallah’s” extreme ambiguity. Sometimes it is used to take the wind out of the sails of an “arrogant” westerner who seems too businesslike and purposeful for the fatalistic Arabic mentality. “Please deliver this package by 1 p.m. tomorrow.” “Inshaallah,” comes the inevitable response, intoned as a clear rebuke to someone who has forgotten that God can upset our plans at any moment.

I suppose, that in the western world we more or less believe our fate is in our own hands. Indeed it is a philosophy and way of thinking that has served us very well and has thrusted us technologically far ahead of more traditional and overtly religious societies.

In Saudi Arabia, which has one of the highest occurrences of road death in the world, each new statistic tends to be written off as the inevitable will of God: his time had come and so he died. No one could have stopped it. The particular conditions that came together to cause a death were secondary in causal terms. The essential and profound reason for the death was that Allah had decided to take back a soul. Of course, in these circumstances, diatribes on road safety tend to fall on deaf ears. Even the gory piles of mangled metal and human flesh that I have often seen on the Saudi highways do not provide any serious reconsideration or deterrent.

Between pious Muslims, “Inshaallah” is a way of displaying a deep faith in Allah and his immanence in all material phenomena. They could agree with John Lennon that life is what happens to you, “while you’re busy making other plans.” A good Arabian Muslim should always bear in mind that the will of God might be different to his own personal wishes.

The traditional westerner’s response to “Inshaallah” is one of impatience and contempt. There is the strong idea that lazy people are excusing their own incompetence and lack of ability by some spurious reference to the will of God. However, this point of view if expressed directly will deeply offend a pious Muslim. He will speak of the arrogant westerner who ignores the power and influence of God who is immanent in everything. The first cause of all things. The Prime Mover, who remains Himself forever unmoved. The West needs to comprehend this fundamental belief in the Arab world in order to come to any clear understanding of the Muslim Arab mentality.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

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When I wander around the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) today, I can see and experience many things that were unthinkable when I first came here just ten years ago. The first significant change that strikes me is the process of arrival itself. The Immigration Security no longer appears to take pleasure in voyeuristically searching around in your baggage in the hope of discovering a porno magazine. In Riyadh, in the past, I have even seen an airport security officer cut open the lining of a Pakistani traveler’s suitcase in the search for banned or illegal substances. In this instance, none were found and the protesting Pakistani was peremptorily waved on his way, humiliatingly left to replace the scattered items inside his mutilated bag. The Westerner in those days received slightly more considerate treatment–but not by much. A colleague of mind was nearly imprisoned for being found in possession of a Bible.

I think it is certain that within the next ten to twenty years, some fundamental changes will take place in KSA. Whether they will be the same as predicted here, only time will tell. It should be kept in mind, that there is always the possibility that future changes might establish a theologically inclined state in KSA, highly critical of Western culture and foreign policy. On this possibility I do not comment. I feel it is, on the whole, unlikely to happen–and if it does, it is probable that we in the West will only have ourselves to blame for it: either through neglect, or a misreading of the situation that leads to the empowerment of, at present, scattered and weak fundamentalist groups.

Now, it is unusual for customs officers to even bother searching bags at all. Everything is put through an X-ray machine and as long as no suspicious material is seen, the traveler is free to collect his baggage and leave. As simple as that! The religious worker who used to check all DVDs and videos for feisty content, was made redundant in a moment; a forlorn casualty of a new and more modern world view that deems such intrusive practices as insulting and degrading to human dignity.

Other things have changed too. Alcohol is more freely available than it used to be-though still officially illegal-and all the latest Western movies can be bought uncensored at certain venues well known to the cognoscenti, both on DVD and video. In supermarkets and bookstores, magazines are freely available without the missing pages and black cancellations of the past. More tolerance is displayed to the adherents of other religions.

Why is all this happening? I think that it comes down to a new understanding on the part of the ruling class that the Wahhabi clergy cannot continue to wield the power and influence it once had. The Saud family has come to face the fact that the traditional Wahhabi education was rearing a vehemently anti Western and (even more important from their point of view) anti Saud citizen. But what did this Wahhabism stand for exactly?

The Wahhabi fundamentalist approach to Islam and life meant that science had to be always in agreement with religion. Our own Christian history shows clearly, that this is not always (or even most often) the case. The early days of Islam saw a great explosion of knowledge in all fields of research as a new and confident people, secure in their faith, began to search Heaven and Earth in an attempt to better understand God’s monumental act of creation and gift of life. In these early days, it is well known that Islamic scientists were well ahead of their Christian counterparts, as the fundamentals of algebra, chemistry, optics and other sciences were worked out. In addition to all this original work, it was the Muslims who preserved the Greek cultural and scientific heritage by translating it into Arabic, at a time when Europe was slumped in a long Dark Age.

Eventually, however, the conservative clergy reacted against the new sciences proclaiming that they were coming up with conclusions contrary to those expounded in the Qu’ran. From this point on, all scientific research had to take the Qu’ran as its starting point–because God’s Word was necessarily true. From this basic tenet, the Muslim clergy didn’t move until the days of colonialism fully revealed how far the once proud Islamic Ummah (or peoples) had fallen behind the West in scientific know-how.

While some Muslims attempted to make up for lost time, conservative peoples such as those in most of Arabia became more inward looking than ever and continued to rely on the opinions and edicts of extremely conservative clergies, such as those of the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. For a while, tensions were hidden by the need to create a new nation and build modern cities and infrastructure (using the technological knowledge of the West!). Nevertheless, after a while, tensions between the new and the old were certain to re-emerge- and the actions of thirteen Saudis on 9/11 led to a chain of events that, for the first time, fundamentally threatened the old alliance between the Saud family and the Wahhabi clergy. In particular, the recent spate of bombings in and around Riyadh made it clear that action needed to be taken. In recent months, hard line Wahhabi clerics who in the past had supported the use of violent methods have appeared on TV recanting their earlier positions and asking their young supporters to do the same. State school textbooks are under review, as are prohibitions on women drivers- and dissenting voices are now more likely to be heard than at any other time in living memory.

These are significant changes. Most young Saudis have grown up surrounded by clerics and teachers who assured them that their own austere form of Islam was the only correct and sure path to Allah and Heaven– and the innate sense of superiority conferred by this point of view, has been magnified by oil riches and easy jobs. I have personally spoken to young Saudis who were, for example, contemptuous of the idea that Americans have been to the moon. According to the information they had got, it was all a big conspiracy (like everything to do with the Americans!) and the grainy pictures were really taken in a basement somewhere in New York City!

Where then will it all lead? It is difficult to be sure due to the ubiquitous secrecy of all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia (a fact of existence that never changes here and is perhaps attributable as much to the Arabic mentality as local conditions in Saudi Arabia). However, I would tentatively like to suggest some possible future developments based on recent and observable changes in KSA (although we must always remember that Saudi policy is neither made nor discussed in public).

Within ten years, I believe that churches will be built in KSA. (although not synagogues or Hindu/Buddhist temples), and non Muslims will be allowed to enter mosques, and just possibly Makkah and Medina too. Alcohol will be on sale in five star hotels, though still not freely available in the shops and supermarkets (as in present day Dubai for example). Women will certainly be driving in ten years and the educational syllabus will have undergone an overhaul that hopefully will have created a more tolerant citizen. An obvious general benefit of all these changes for the visitor will be that he/she will feel himself much more welcome and valued in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia than at present.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

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On arrival in Saudi Arabia, more than ten years ago now, I was amazed at how different everything was to my preconceptions. I had been fed the usual line that Saudi was a staunch ally and supporter of the West and that life was easy and comfortable there. How very wrong these ideas proved themselves to be! A particular incident crystallized the reality for me.

I was quickly shipped out to Ras Tanura: a major ARAMCO training complex (but a small and boring little town) and in the evenings I used to walk into the center, buy a few things– and maybe get a take-away meal. On this occasion, I noticed that everyone in the pizza shop was rushing around, as if desperately trying to beat some deadline. They just about managed to prepare my pizza and take my money before closing for the sunset prayer. All this was very new to me, so I thought the best thing to do was take a quiet walk on a hopefully deserted beach while I ate my pizza. As the sunset and I munched away, I noticed a crouching presence right in front of me. Suddenly he sprang up and started shouting and gesticulating wildly at me. Even though I was new to the country, it was fairly clear that he was objecting to my consumption of pizza in his presence while he was praying. I tried to utter a few conciliatory words, but he suddenly barked out a few words in egregious English.

“You must pay fine of one hundred riyals.”I shook my head incredulously and informed the man that I didn’t have one hundred riyals with me (not actually true!).

“OK, you pay one riyal,” came back the immediate response. I took a deep breath and drew out one riyal from my pocket and handed it to the man. He had made his point. It was the principle that mattered in this oil rich country and not the amount.

This was my first encounter with Wahhabism, the strict form of Islam that is taught in Saudi Arabia. Muhammed ibn Abd Al-Wahhab who died in 1792 was the founder of this severe form of Islam– and the unification of the vast majority of the Arabian peninsula into the Saudi nation took place on the back of an alliance between the Saud family and the Wahhabis, and continues to this day. Wahhabism is still the form of Islam taught in the Saudi schools–and also in those numerous Islamic schools around the world that have been financed by Saudi money. So what exactly does Wahhabism stand for?

It is said that Wahhab was actually a reformer as he wished to eradicate non Islamic practices that had crept into the religion, such as the veneration of Saints, the celebration of the prophet’s birthday and so on. In practice, his ideas soon became the foundation for an extreme and fundamentalist sect of Islam that taught that only Wahhabis were on the right path to salvation. Even other non-Wahhabi Muslims were said to be in serious error and their eventual fate could not be assured. Particular opprobrium was reserved for Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, etc. Wahhabism did not in itself preach violence, but rather an austere form of Islamic asceticism. This included no pre-marital sex nor post marital adultery- or the consequence was pain of death! Music, cinema and all forms of light entertainment were also frowned upon and sometimes banned by force of Shariah law. Effectively, one read the Qu’ran and followed its precepts: this was the only sure way to obtain salvation.

Is Wahhabism a breeding ground for terrorists? Its ascetic precepts can certainly be directed along these lines, though the cross over point between ascetic fundamentalism and terrorist violence is not a very clear one. Osamah Bin Laden was educated as a Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia and he has become the world’s most sought after terrorist. On the other hand, he comes from a respected Saudi family, which has made millions of dollars from the construction industry in the Middle East. And no one suggests that his father or brothers are ‘terrorists.’ It is worth remembering that Osamah Bin Laden lost his Saudi citizenship long before September 11 and in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. He went around the mosques preaching that the Saud family were puppets of the West. It was that which lost him his citizenship and sent him into continuous exile.

On the other hand, there are undoubtedly plenty of young Saudis–educated in the Wahhabi tradition– that agree with him and they are a fertile breeding ground for his anti-Western and anti-Saud message. The Royal Family in Saudi Arabia have now understood the danger and are moving aggressively and systematically against Bin Laden’s supporters. However, their task is complicated by the sympathy that many within the Wahhabi tradition have for Osamah and his message of Jihad, or “Holy Crusade” against the West and its supporters in the Arabic and Muslim world. New tensions are arising between the Saudi Royal Family and the Wahhabi clergy and it will be interesting to see how this conflict of interests plays itself out in the months and years ahead.

One thing is for sure: Saudi Arabia is changing and opening itself up to new ideas from the outside world. Not everyone is happy about this and isolated factions within the Wahhabi tradition might easily turn to violence as its power and influence inside the country, is gradually stripped away. All in all, the next five to ten years in Saudi Arabia will be an uneasy time and is likely to give birth to many new ideas and changing perspectives. In the west, we should all fervently hope that these changes can be contained within the present status quo.