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Letters from the Desert (6) Troubles

Life seems so peaceful here, in the Kingdom; in Jeddah, the most western and open city in Saudi Arabia; in a small and cramped Internet cafe where I listen to a large and pleasant Saudi gentleman tell a few Canadian ex-pats with absolute confidence that the Kingdom is the safest place in the world.

I would like to believe this smiling stranger, whose English is impeccable, and whose politeness dulls the sharp and unpleasant arrogance of some other Saudis I have met. I would like to, but I cannot. The Middle East is on fire, and it is a fire which flames lick at the very school I teach in here in peaceful Jeddah.

Our school has a new piece of anti-Israeli propaganda on the wall. It is both grotesque and compelling. Small tanks and toy soldiers roam a blasted landscape by a ruined town surrounding the golden dome of the Temple Mount Mosque, and from the broken ground sprout cracked and burnt and bloody heads of plastic dolls, and here and there dismembered plastic arms and legs are buried or stick up into the air, while in that air fly toy jets and helicopters with the Star of David on them.

It is art and propaganda and a statement of the artist's belief and a true reflection of what the students, these sons of the wealthy of Jeddah, believe with total faith. The piece is not alone. On the walls near it are pictures of the new Intifada's brightest star - the young boy who was shot and died in his father's arms, conveniently caught on film.

In class my students draw the Star of David on sheets of paper ripped from their workbooks, turn those sheets into small aeroplanes and throw them at garbage cans, cheering whenever one falls in. Or they simply hold the sheets up and yell at them and drive their pens through them like knives. They are not discouraged in this. They are, in fact, encouraged.

My most senior students tell me a story of how the violence will surely end one day. They tell me that in the end of days, when all the Jews of the world have at last gathered in Israel, then will the faithful of Islam fall upon them in fury. The very earth itself will rise up and betray the Jewish people. Every rock and bush and tree will come to life and cry out, "There is a Jew hiding here, come and kill him."

All the trees but one, that is. My students tell me there is one tree that will not be party to this ultimate vengeance, which is why, they insist, that if I went to Israel I would see that all the Jews are busy planting these very trees by the tens of thousands. But it won't matter, my students say matter-of-factly. "We will kill them all anyway."

Of course this won't happen yet. The time is not right. The Israeli army is too strong just yet. So my students instead terrorize pieces of paper and shout "Death to Israel" and collect money to send to the Palestinians. They shout poems of hate at morning assemblies under the watchful eyes of their religion teachers, and they cheer the bloody piece of art that hangs in the entrance hall to my school.

I hear those cheers in my mind while I listen to the polite Saudi tell a small group of Canadians in a small Internet cafe that the Kingdom is the safest place on earth. I wonder is this how my students will sound when they have grown into men? Is his face a mask for the same hatred that my students are learning daily? Or is his a different face and if it is which face is the true face?

On a monitor in the Internet cafe one of our fellows has brought up a warning for all Canadians in the Middle East, including the Kingdom. No specific threat to Canadians has been identified, but beware nonetheless. Be watchful.

The Saudi takes a couple of our group off to a nearby restaurant where he proposes to treat. I hear later that he is a poet and some sort of minor celebrity at the restaurant, but it turns out he doesn't pay for dinner. A sheikh is there and he pays for everyone. My friends have an engaging evening at dinner and later at the poet's home watching a large screen tv with several satellites hooked up to it and 600 channels to choose from. None of the channels is Canadian.

I remained at the cafe chatting distractedly with a friend back in Canada, thinking about that warning from the Canadian government, and thinking about a chat I had with a Canadian diplomat last year. We had met at a business function and he was, he said, nearing the end of his tour in the Middle East. He would be back in Canada soon, and he was happy about it. He advised me not to stay too long in the Kingdom. There were two reasons, he said.

The Israeli's and the Palestinians were about to go at it - it was only a matter of time - and there was no telling who might get dragged into that mess, perhaps even Saudi Arabia. Although, and this was the second thing, the Kingdom itself was shaky. Whispers of unrest were in the air.

Anyone, I suppose, could predict trouble in Palestine, even if this latest bloody chaos seems so much worse. But trouble in the Kingdom? It seemed unlikely then, and it does now, except ....

Except that two Saudi nationals hijacked a Saudi passenger jet recently and said they wanted to highlight human rights abuses in the Kingdom, and that may seem a small and isolated thing, but it's not. Not in a country where the royal family is supposed to have absolute power and dissent is not tolerated. Not ever.

I wished suddenly that I were having coffee face to face with my Canadian friend, close enough to reach out and touch her hand perhaps, and not thousands of miles away in an Internet cafe where, as I type at her in the dark, I can hear echoes of a smiling Arab's politely reassuring voice, of a diplomat's warning, of a hijacker's statement, of a student's cheering for that image of bloody death that assaults my senses every day in the entrance hall of my school.

My unease is not lessened a few days later when I hear that the Saudi gentleman with the polite voice and the 600 tv channels has called one of the Canadian teachers and has asked, completely without shame, if the Canadian might have, say, 300 dollars to spare as he is a little short.

From the Kingdom,

The Major


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