Stoning the Devil

The Gulf, its people and landscapes; Arab women's lives; Stoning the Devil, my novel-in-stories

Al Mutrah and the Arab way of business

This is Al Mutrah, a district of Muscat, the capital of Oman. This is where Badria, in the first chapter of Stoning the Devil, was attacked–by a jinni, as she believed. The mountains here are bare and burnt, and most of the buildings date, I believe, to the 1970s or so–they’re modern enough to be made of concrete, but not old enough to have any real charm. And yet there is something magical about this place. I particularly like the souk, where you can buy frankincense and myrrh, sold by very large black women with big gold rings in their noses, and colourful robes. They sit cross-legged on mats on the floor, and sell their wares from baskets. Some of the traders have stalls; we bought traditional Arab clothes here, which are much lighter and more comfortable to wear in great heat than western ones. In the bay you can see modern ships, but also traditional wooden dhows. Along the corniche there are antique shops selling the most incredible array of vintage rifles, swords, khanjars (traditional horn-handled daggers with curved blades, kept in a silver scabbard)–these are still worn by Omani men in their daily life, as Kamila notices in “The King of Kandy”, when she wants to seize one and stab somebody–as well as Portuguese chests dating to the sixteenth century, and the heavy traditional silver jewellery which Arab women used to wear, which I find more beautiful than the western gold jewellery they prefer now. There are coffee pots, too, and countless rugs, mostly from Persia. You can easily while away an afternoon bargaining with the owner for something, a very pleasant process, as he will make you or buy you tea, or have a boy buy cold drinks for you. You’ll sit on a rug and drink with him and talk about where you come from, and your family, before he’ll really want to talk about prices. And in the end, you’ll feel almost as if you have a friend. It’s a very different way of doing business from the western way. More than once Muslims told me that a good deal is one in which both seller and buyer go away happy. At first I found that strange, because in the west we tend to think we’ve got a good deal only if we get the advantage of the other person–but I came to realize that they were right. It is better to have a fair price than one that is particularly advantageous to you. It’s better to make a friend than to cheat someone through guile and cunning.

I’m not suggesting that there are no greedy Arabs, of course; there are greedy people everywhere. But I think that we in the West could learn a great deal from the Arabs in the way they do business. On the whole, they are concerned with fairness, and although they wish to make a profit and get good deals, it’s just as important for them to have friendly and civil relations with the people they are doing business with. It’s a society in which the individual derives his or her happiness from feeling part of a community, and being respected by the members of that community. It seems to me that capitalism is much less human, on the whole, and even though the politically conservative often claim to espouse both capitalist values and Christianity, these value systems are in fact incompatible, at least as capitalism is practised today.

Are women safer in the West or the Gulf?

Today my ex-student Caeli Waldron posted on Facebook about the number of female college students who are the victims of sexual assualt in the USA–about a third of all women students–and this started me thinking (once again!) about stereotypes of Arab women. The western stereotype, of course, is that Arab women are shockingly repressed by a brutal patriarchal society. The Arab stereotype of western women is that they are not safe at all. Which is truer? Of course there’s some truth to both. But as I thought about these little girls, twins, and their little sister, who posed so shyly but charmingly forus in Nizwa, Oman, some ten years ago, I couldn’t help wondering if these girls weren’t safer than their counterparts in the west. I suspect that they are.

It’s true that they have less “freedom” than western girls in many respects–already girls this age can’t ride bicycles in public, for example, or go swimming unless they’re more or less fully clothed–but these girls were walking the streets of the town without adult supervision. Who would allow their daughters to do that in England or America at this age? I’m not going to suggest that women are totally safe in the Arab world, of course. Sexual assault exists everywhere, and there’s an example of it in Stoning the Devil. Two examples, in fact.

But recently with a class I read Dolores Hayden’s “Advertisements, Pornography and Public Space”, which argues very persuasively that in America the ubiquitous sexualized images of women not only demean women but by objectifying them, encourage men to commit acts of violence. She characterizes America as a “rape culture”. That might sound extreme, but in a country where a third of female students are sexually assaulted, perhaps it’s not so far-fetched. It’s true that in Gulf Arab university campuses, women are mostly sequestered, kept away from men–this situation is depicted in “Titanic 2″ and “The Jinni Crouching Behind Her”, both stories/chapters in Stoning the Devil–and I’m not advocating that either. But I can guarantee that a third of Emirati university students are not sexually assaulted. I doubt if the number reaches 1%. It’s true that there aren’t even statistics kept or made public there, so I can’t be sure.

I don’t have any real solution for this. But when we read that a third of our young women are sexually assualted at college, which should be a safe place, we should be outraged. Politicians on both sides of the aisle should be screaming about this, and measures should be taken to make women safer. Perhaps we could learn something about greater security for women from the Arabs, while Arabs could learn something about greater freedom for them from the West.

Family picnic in Oman

I wanted to post something cheerful, normal, and optimistic this week after the horror of the Colorado massacre, which has disturbed me greatly. I took this photograph at Wadi Kitnah in Oman, not far from the border with the Emirates. The pool you see in this picture at the foot of the cliff is deep–daredevils leap off the cliff regularly. (I didn’t!) Just out of sight over the hill there’s another pool, actually a series of linked pools in little caves. They’re big enough to swim in, and they’re always cool, which means, I suppose, that the spring is very deep indeed. Interestingly, too, there are fish in these cave pools, although they’re hundreds of miles from the sea or any kind of river. The fish are blind, but seem completely unperturbed by the presence of swimmers. Another curiosity of this picture is that the head of the family, the father, is walking behind the women-folk. In public one never sees a man walking behind the women of his family. Even if he tried to, the women would probably prevent him. Many times I tried to be a gentleman and usher a female student into a room ahead of me, saying “After you”, but on no occasion would she ever allow this. The male students would very rarely allow it–in this case, out of respect for my senior status as a teacher. (Quite unlike western students!)  It was always pleasant, on a four-wheel drive trip into the desert, to find an Arab family enjoying the peace and beauty of the scene as we did, too. They would always nod pleasantly, and if they were eating and we passed close by, offer us food. Sting has a song, from the Dream of the Blue Turtles album, I think, whose theme is that he is optimistic that we won’t have a nuclear war because the Russians love their children too. (This was in the 80s). That’s my hope for the world now: we all love our children. What parents who love their children would ever wish them to be involved in a war?

The Hard Rock Cafe, Bahrain, 1998

Here I am onstage at the Hard Rock Cafe, with The Last Straw, a trio comprising myself, Steve Bushill on bass and acoustic guitar, and Greg King on drums and percussion. We were hired for three nights and had to fabricate some kind of excuse to escape teaching at UAE University, where we worked. Apart from the beautiful stained glass behind us, and the stunning collection of guitars they had, there were a number of highlights: the delightful Filipino staff, one of whom, a cook, sang with us on stage; the friendliness of the US Navy sailors who were often listening, who seemed incredibly happy to hear any rock music, even by old guys like us; and perhaps more than anything, the female Bahraini journalist I spoke to there, who had recently interviewed Kofi Annan, and discussed local politics with me with total frankness. People are often surprised when I tell them that I used to play rock and blues in bars and hotels in the Middle East, but in most of the Gulf, with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, this is possible. Hotel bars and clubs like the Hard Rock are licensed to sell alcohol. You’re supposed to be non-Muslim to be served, but in practice if you enter wearing western clothes, they serve you. Lots of Arabs drink in these bars too. Of course some of them are Christians. Westerners often forget just how many Arabs are Christians, especially in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. I am sometimes shocked that the “Christian” right in the US so ardently supports Israel’s brutal suppression of the Palestinians, when so many of the Palestinians are in fact Christians. (And I’m equally shocked that the recent brutal suppression of the Shi’ite majority in Bahrain by the Sunni royal family went so unremarked in the western press; but then there are no Biblical prophesies concerning Bahrain and affecting the salvation of Christians, are there?) 

I’m rather shocked to see how young I looked in this photograph, or how old I look now in comparison. However, I still have the guitar, and will be on stage this weekend at Cregeen’s Irish Pub in North Little Rock with my latest blues-rock band, Slings & Arrows. I will be playing until I die, I think. And in case you think that the Arabs don’t like rock ‘n’ roll, one of the best experiences of my life was playing with another band, The Empty Quarter, at the Women’s College in Abu Dhabi. We came on stage after a very sexy female Egyptian singer–and when I say sexy, I mean she would have blown her western sisters off the stage–skintight leopard skin suit, stilettos, her band playing behind a curtain so they couldn’t be seen by the girls in the audience–and then we came on and the girls went crazy, almost as if it were Beatlemania. For some reason we were allowed to be seen. Perhaps  because we didn’t have beards they didn’t think we were real men, and thus were no threat. The best thing of all was that the girls had been forbidden to dance, but two “men” appeared in the aisles, dancing in men’s clothes, in the way that Gulf men dance, with their canes, nodding their heads–and when they approached the stage we saw that they were girls in drag, with painted beards. Of course they were quickly stopped, but yet again it was an indication of the indomitable spirit of these girls. They really aren’t the pathetic, submissive little things that we hear about all the time in the media. There’s a fictional treatment of this incident in “The Jinni Crouching Behind Her” in Stoning the Devil, or at least a partial rendering of it. I’ve transposed the Egyptian singer to an engagement party, and cut my own band out of it altogether. What a pity!

The falaj (irrigation channel)

This is the falaj at Al Khatwa village and oasis in Oman, just thirty miles or so from Al Ain, where I used to live. There’s a spring about three miles from the village, and so water has been brought in by this concrete irrigation channel. It waters a colossal oasis of date palms. Before the modern concrete falaj was built, there must have been one built of mud bricks, I imagine, though I’m not sure. The village appears to be quite old. About thirty years ago the government of the Sultanate of Oman build a new village for the populace out of concrete; it’s about three miles away from the original village and close to an excellent road. However, some of the old houses in the village are still inhabited, simple though they are, and whenever I visited, which was fairly often as I loved this place, the mosque always seemed to have worshippers there. The village is situated in the Hajar Mountains, which run from north to south through the UAE and the northern part of Oman. To me they always looked Biblical: you could imagine Noah’s ark on top of one of them after the flood. Barren as they are, they change colour with the time of day. At sunset, they are chameleon mountains, turning from grey to orange, burnt umber, crimson and violet.                      And here’s another photograph of the same falaj, with my younger son, William, on top of it. Because the terrain is so rugged, we would hike along the falaj. It was rare to see Arabs doing this, but it did happen, and I may post a picture of an Arab family going for a picnic next time. I can’t think of much direct relevance here to anything in Stoning the Devil, though some of the Emirati characters, it can be assumed, came from Oman originally. (After independence from Britain forty years ago, large numbers of Omanis came to settle in the UAE and were given passports.) On an ecological note, the falaj provides renewable water. Less ecologically sound is the practice of drilling deep wells. The water table is lower each year, and eventually Emiratis are likely to have to build more desalination plants on the coast.

Dhow in Musandam

I took a trip along the fjords of Musandam in this motorised dhow about ten years ago. The water was crystalline, and wonderful for swimming, as long as you didn’t think too much about the many possible dangers–tiger sharks, Portuguese men o’war, etc. But the reason I’m posting yet another picture from Musandam is that this is on the Straits of Hormuz, where the US Navy is building up its presence now, to enforce the blockade on Iranian oil, and generally to make sure that the Iranians know who’s calling the shots in the region. There’s an irony here. The skipper of our dhow, not an Iranian but an Arab, told me that the British had laid cables in these waters to connect their protectorate with India, around a hundred and fifty years ago. And anyone who knows the history of Iran knows that while the country was never formally part of the Empire, it was more or less a client state, from the time of the nineteenth century Great Game, when the rival power seeking power in the area was Russia. Sound familiar? Britain, the beacon of freedom and democracy in the nineteenth century, supported the autocratic rule of the Shahs, especially after the discovery of oil. Sound familiar? After the second world war, both the UK and the US, which by then had supplanted Britain as that beacon of freedom and democracy, supported the coup against the democratically elected Mossadeq, who had the temerity to attempt to nationalize the oil industry. MI6 and the CIA both actively supported the coup, to make sure that the oil remained in hands friendly to the west. I need hardly draw the parallels with the present. In general, western democracies only support democracies in the developing world insofar as they serve the geo-political needs of the west (which is to say, the geo-political needs of the ruling capitalist class.)

If I’ve been on my soap-box for this post, forgive me. There’s no overt political ‘message’ in Stoning the Devil, but if you read between the lines one thing does emerge quite clearly: that the despotic regimes of the Middle East could not exist without the active support of western governments (in the form of arms sales and alliances and trade agreements) and without the complicity of western governments and the army of western experts–engineers, businessmen, doctors and educators–who keep those countries running. This is especially true in the Gulf Arab states.

I’m not a fan of the Islamic dictatorship that rules Iran, and I agree that the country shouldn’t be allowed to develop nuclear weapons; but any invasion of the country by western forces would be catastrophic for the region as a whole–including the lovely people just across the water in Musandam, Oman.

Young footballers in Musandam

On the day of the World Cup Final in football–Spain just won–here’s a picture of some young Arab football players in Musandam, Oman. They stopped us as we walked past and gesticulated for us to take a picture. Football (or soccer as it’s known in America) is popular all over the Arab world, even in the Gulf. When I played for the UAE University team–largely because my son was also playing on it–most of our best players were Maghrebis, guys from Algeria and Tunisia especially. More than one of them had been professionals or semi-professionals before becoming university lecturers, and they were incredibly fast, strong, skillful, and determined. The only racial clash I can remember at one of these matches was caused by a bigoted Englishman, sad to relate.

In the UAE, although you don’t often find Emirati boys playing football in the streets–probably because their freedom of movement is so restricted by their dishdashas–you do see a lot of Sudanese and Somali boys playing. When I say ‘street’, what I really mean is the areas of scrub and sand between rows of buildings. In the smaller towns, and even in Al Ain, which has a population of more than 150,000, there are still lots of unpaved areas. The provincial towns are not densely settled, and people are often seen walking about. Once, from the balcony of my apartment, I saw a local boy and girl in school uniforms, obviously imagining themselves unobserved, kissing behind a wall. Whatever the rules, human nature finds a way to flout them.

More Musandam – and the changing Arab world

This gives you a good idea of what a fishing village in Musandam looks like, close up. There is no road access to this village; kids have to go to school by boat, and anything that goes in or out has to come by boat. It looks idyllic, and certainly the people here live a peaceful life. All the same, they have electricity and television, and they’re aware of what’s going on in the world. As Reza Aslan says, the Middle East is being remade now, and the image we have of the Middle East, as well as its self-image, will to a large extent be forged by writers. It’s vital for the people of the region, as well as for the world, that we don’t oversimplify, that we have mulitarious images of this part of world, and unsentimental ones, that show it as it really is. Naturally, I try to do this in Stoning the Devil, but it will be fascinating to see what the natives of the Middle East do now, how their visions will affect reality. Anyone who has been there knows that the western stereotypes of hordes of fundamentalists and terrorists are absurd. Besides, as Aslan says (again–I’m a great admirer of his work), the real struggle is not the one that arch-conservatives want us to think it is, between Christianity and Islam, but on the contrary it’s between different visions of Islam: a restricted, fundamentalist, Salafist one, that would keep Muslims in the seventh century, or a more liberal, pluralistic one, such as most of the young and educated people there seem to want. If you’re interested in the history of Islam, and a great intellectual analysis of the contemporary Middle East, you couldn’t do better than to read Aslan’s No god but God. If you want to know what it actually feels like to live there, you could do worse than read my novel-in-stories, Stoning the Devil.

Here’s another picture of the same fishing village, with the scale of the mountains surrounding more apparent:

Musandam, Oman (I)

Here is the missing first part of the series of posts on Musandam. This is a scene, obviously enough, of fishermen in a busy fishing village. You’ll notice that the older men are wearing dish-dashas and gutras (traditional tunics or full-length shirts, with turbans), while many of the younger ones, especially the boys, are wearing western dress, often track suits or soccer uniforms. Musandam is a very dry, barren area; I saw a few goats and chickens scratching a living there, but don’t remember seeing anything growing there. Fishing seemed to be the main means of sustenance. Notice too that the old man in the second picture has a flowing beard. In general in the Gulf this is not a matter of personal taste but is a strong indicator of religious conviction. If a man has a long beard, he’s generally supposed to be a deeply religious man, and is often a mutawa–a word that’s hard to translate but that means something like religious instructor; it can mean a religious policeman too, for instance in Saudi Arabia, where there is a special branch of the police force to check on people’s morals. In the old days, before the advent of free public education, most boys, if they received any education at all, got it from mutawas, who taught them how to read and write, and gave them religious instruction. This is the only education that Sheikh Zayed, the first president of the UAE, got, for example. It should not be supposed though that the older generation, who are often illiterate, are in any way simple. In fact they are often very canny and astute, and highly skilled in the learning they needed to survive. They tend to have phenomenal memories too–much better than college-educated people, who rely on books and computers to remember things for them.

Musandam, Oman (II)

This is a traditional sailing boat, a dhow, on one of the Musandam fjords. These boats, with their lateen sails, were copied by the Portuguese on their caravels, as they could tack against the wind. Dhows used to trade from the Gulf all the way to India, and down the Swahili coast, from Dubai and Oman to the Horn of Africa, Lamu, Malindi and Mombassa in Kenya, down to Zanzibar. I’ve sailed on dhows just like this in Lamu, for example. The Arabs brought Islam down the east coast of Africa with them. There are some stark contrasts. In Lamu, for example, you’ll see Muslim women, very well wrapped up, alongside bare-breasted animist women from the interior. This picture gives you an idea of how rugged the mountains of Musandam are, and how barren. There isn’t a lot of agriculture there. Fishing is the main industry there, though because it’s so close to Iran there’s some smuggling too. It’s a very beautiful place.