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March 31, 2006

Arabian Parable: Experience

Posted by William G. Ridgeway

One day, I received an official letter requesting my participation on the board of a disciplinary committee. Gulp, I thought. I read further and my heart dropped. The committee was being convened to investigate professional malpractice by my friend, Hamed al-Kathiri. The accusations were not pretty, involving sexual harassment and favouritism.

I put the letter down, and immediately went to see my boss. I said:

I can't do this, he is a friend of mine.
The reply came:
We are all his friends.
I asked my boss:
But why me?
The answer came:
They need a white face.
Try as I might, I could not wriggle out of the committee. As was the nature of these things, the Arab elite had spoken, and could not be challenged without a firing or resignation.

I went to see Hamed, and showed him the letter. He smiled, saying:

I have many enemies, my friend.
I replied:
I'm not happy doing this.
Hamed said:
You must. I need a friend on the committee.
I then asked:
Is there any truth in these allegations?
Hamed replied:
Do you need to ask? A friend would not ask.
This was going to be difficult.

The first meeting of the committee was a fiasco. Hamed was asked to come in. He swept through the door, and stood glaring at us. The Libyan chairman said:

Please, Mr Hamed. Sit down.
Hamed looked disparagingly at the chair offered to him, and walked to the corner of the room. He sat down on the floor and crossed his legs.

The chairman looked unsettled, saying:

Please, Mr Hamed. If you could just sit down, then we can start . .
Hamed looked up from the floor:
I am sitting down. I am just a poor Muslim. I do not deserve to be on the same level as you esteemed gentlemen. Please proceed.
The Libyan walked over to Hamed, and offered his hand. Hamed responded:
I will only be raised up by Allah.
Eventually, after much coaxing in Arabic, Hamed was raised to his seat, where he glared at each of us defiantly. The Libyan chairman continued:
Mr Hamed, we are here simply to find out some facts. Firstly, concerning the letter from Ms Al-Salim.
Hamed interjected:
She is a junior clerk. Are you equating her words with mine? Gentlemen, you say you are professionals, which I am willing to believe. This women has been manipulated paid possibly to say these things against me. I am Hamed Al-Kathiri, and I say she is lying. If you say she is not, then you are calling me a liar. Do you believe what this . . . woman . . is saying?
The chairman stated:
Well, we must investigate.
Hamed responded:
Which means that you believe what she is saying. I will say this once, gentlemen. She is lying and I am not. If you proceed to question - or investigate this, then you are calling me a liar. Hamed is not a liar.
Hamed now leant forward and dropped his tone:
All of you I know. You, you and you are not from this country. You are our guests, yet you abuse this and accuse innocent men, like Hamed. I advise you to be careful. If you cross Hamed, then there will be consequences. Hamed has long hands. Think not just about yourselves, but about your families. Would they wish you to go to war with Hamed? I think not. Be careful about who you insult. You have insulted Hamed and there will be consequences.
With this, he stood up, cast a final glare at me and stormed out from the room. The meeting was over.

We sat in silence for a moment. I needed a cigarette.

The committee carried on for five weeks, and was painstakingly thorough. Arabs love committee work because it resembles governance, and allows them to display their often extensive knowledge of procedure, protocol and precedent. Hamed's behaviour was as capricious as always. Sometimes he would attend. Sometimes he would not. At times, he would weave arcane arguments to undermine the legitimacy of the committee. At others, he would stand and berate us in the bloodiest of terms. Most of the time, however, he would sit like a bored schoolboy waiting for the bell. The whole thing made life very uncomfortable in the office. To make matters worse, two weeks into the proceedings, I was promoted to being Hamed's boss. The Arab pantheon were playing games.

Behind the scenes Hamed was active, inflicting as much damage as he could on the members of the committee, trying to isolate and discredit them. One day a Lebanese colleague came to my office. He asked:

Hey, that Hamed guy came to see me the other day. He was asking all kinds of questions about you. Some weird stuff asking my opinion about your competence and that kind of thing. I, of course, told him I thought you were a genius, but hey what's going on?
Eventually, one day, after hours of sophistry and exegesis, the committee came to a verdict of not guilty on all counts. In our investigations we had uncovered some ugly information about Hamed, but none that directly related to the charges in hand. He thus got off by the skin of his teeth. As his Head of Department, I phoned him up to tell him the news. He said "oh" and put down the phone.

The "not guilty" verdict, however, did not satisfy the Arab elite, who wanted Hamed out. I was sitting at home when I received a call from my Arab uberboss, who was recruiting in Canada at the time:

Hamed is leaving us, alhamdulillah. The qaraar has just been sent. He needs to be out within two days. I'll see you in a week, inshallah.
The next day, I received the official qaraar, and immediately went to Hamed's office. He smiled thinly as I entered. After the initial pleasantries, Hamed fell silent. I then broke the silence:
Listen, I've just heard that you are moving from your job.
Hamed's face tightened:
Excuse me?
I asked:
You have received a qaraar from Administration?
It turned out that the letter had not reached him yet. Cursing inside, I passed him the letter. He read it carefully, and chuckled. He said:
Well, well. Excuse me. I will be with you in a minute.
With this he picked up the phone, and spoke in Arabic. He used the same easy tone and compliments he once used with me, with lots of gentle laughter and inshallas.

Eventually, he placed down the receiver, and smiled.

Well, that is excellent news. I have got the job I wanted. I start next week.
I smiled uneasily, trying to keep him from losing face. He feigned good humour, something he was good at and continued:
Yes, yes. It's just what I wanted. Shamsa will be delighted.
I looked around the office and asked:
So, you will be needing some help moving your stuff. I'd be glad to help.
Hamed responded:
Shukran. Shukran. Yes, I would be happy if you could help me perhaps tomorrow, after office hours. I have enemies here, and they might come to the wrong conclusions. I don't want to give them the chance to talk.
The next day, Hamed turned up with a young man a relative from his village, who gave me an inscrutable smile. Clearing offices is hard work, and Hamed's office was no different. I offered to clear his emails as company policy dictated, so we sat together as the screen flashed up. Among the emails some were of a lewd nature, Fresh teens. Get it here! Etc. I feigned indifference to these, as he did, but the process was uncomfortable and embarrassing.

Eventually, the office was cleared. All that was left was a small Arab carpet, which he rolled up and handed to me, saying:

This is for you, my friend. Thank you for your help.
We walked together to his car and shook hands. As I stood waving him off, I wondered about the nature of the politics that had forced him out. Arab organizations are notoriously opaque, but this one left me baffled. I had been manipulated by those above me both in the trial and the dismissal. I had been instrumental in the downfall of a friend, and could not for the life of me work out how it had happened.

Arabians are never sacked in the Western sense. They are moved to other jobs. Incompetent or dishonest Arabs can be forced to make a number of horizontal moves like this during their careers. A sacking however is a sacking in anybody's language, and it inevitably leads to loss of face. I wondered how he was going to break the news to Shamsa, and the effects this would have on her own reputation and career.

A month later, I discovered that Shamsa had also been moved "to another job". Whether the two incidents were connected I do not know, but the possibility is there. It certainly would have done her reputation no good having a husband who had been humiliated in this way.

Given these reasons, and the turbulence in our relationship, Hamed and I did not see or communicate with each other. I resigned myself that this was the end, and vowed to learn what I could from this confusing experience.

Six months later I received a phone call from Hamed, who was as complimentary and breezy as ever. He said:

I'm glad I decided to move. To be quite honest, I didn't like it in the Department. Too much politics. This is much better. I should be Director next year. Shamsa and I were talking about how much we missed you. We haven't seen you for so long! We've just bought a new house in the Arabian Hills area, and would very much like you to come and stay for the weekend.
This was wonderful. I told my wife and she was delighted also. It would be nice to pick up with Hamed and Shamsa, uncomplicated by office politics.

On the allotted day, we packed the car and set off to the meeting place. As usual, I smuggled a bottle of wine into my bag, so my wife and I could have a drink after the evening's socializing. We reached the allotted place, and waited. Ten minutes later, I wondered it this was the right place. After half an hour my wife suggested I ring to check I had got the details right.

I rang up Hamed's number. After a few rings, a woman picked up the phone:

There is no Hamed here, sir. You must have the wrong number.
I dialed the number again. After a long while the same woman answered. She said:
I'm sorry, Sir. I think you have the wrong number.
Checking my mobile display, I said:
Are you sure?
The reply came:
Yes, Sir. I am sure.
I returned to the car, and told my wife what had happened. She gave me a knowing look. The message became clear, and was understood. Driving back, we sat in silence and sadness, feeling many miles from home.
retained by author 2006

To read William G. Ridgeway's previous articles, see his Letters from Arabia.


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