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March 31, 2006

Arabian Parable: Innocence

Posted by William G. Ridgeway

The first time I clapped eyes on Hamed, I thought, uh-oh. Be careful here, William. Hamed was obsequious to the point of parody, and parody was indeed what it was. When greeting Arab colleagues, he would embrace them, gushing praises while kissing them flamboyantly and repeatedly on each cheek. With expats, he would whisper compliments with a look of half-disguised disdain in his eyes.

After six months of studiously avoiding Hamed, I gradually got to know and even to like him. Being more cautious with him than with other Arabs, I treated him with a fake respect almost as fervent as his own. He would compliment me on my acrylic tie; I would praise the cut of his dishdasha. In solemn tones, he would fete British honesty; with equal earnestness I would enthuse about Arab hospitality. He knew I was acting, but was obviously amused that I attempted, albeit unskilfully, to play along with him.

Hamed was an intelligent man, steeped in the history of the region. One day, I found myself in his office, and we got talking properly for the first time. The conversation turned to local history - the usual chaos of tribes, treachery and trade. He told me of his own tribe, which once had been the most powerful in the country:

When I was a young boy, my mother came to me and told me to run quickly to the village meeting place. I got there as fast as I could, and saw my father and his men surrounded by armed soldiers. I ran to my father and hung on to his dishdasha, but he hardly noticed me.

Everybody was staring at the fort. Nobody spoke. I didn't know what was happening. Why were the soldiers here? Suddenly, without warning, there was an explosion. I remember the bright flash, and the noise echoing around the mountains like thunder. Then, as if in slow motion, the fort collapsed. When the dust cleared, there was nothing left. Just rubble. After the noise, there was silence. Nobody spoke. Not even a bird sang. Eventually, the soldiers drifted back to their jeeps and drove off into the mountains. My father turned to me with tears in his eyes. I didn't know what to do - I had never seen him cry before. This is the end of the tribe, he said. This is the end of everything.

Hamed sighed dramatically, and tears wobbled in his eyes. I was hooked.

Over the coming months, Hamed and I were as thick as thieves. He would tell me things about Arab societies I had never heard from a local. He would say:

The truth about Arabs, cannot be told, even to a brother. But I will tell you.
Hamed had wasta serious wasta for his wife was none other than Shamsa, the illustrious politician and women's advocate. Shamsa had famously led the campaign for female representation in the region, managing to do this without infuriating the sheiks or mullahs. Not an easy one to pull off. I was a big fan. Knowing this, Hamed managed to introduce her into every conversation but always in self-deprecating, fake-modest tones. He would tell of the crowds of hundreds waiting outside their house, each with a petition of one sort or another. He told of the time Shamsa veiled herself completely so that she could walk among her followers incognito:
As she walked among her people, she had such pity on them. They loved her so much, and they had nothing.
Another story is best left to Hamed:
One night we were asleep. Suddenly, one of the maids rang up. I answered.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Sir," she said, "but there is an old man outside. He says he must see Madame."

"Well, he can't. Tell him to come back tomorrow."

"I tried to, Sir, but he keeps saying he will not go away until he has seen Madame."

"Tell him he is very rude, and Shamsa will not see him."

"But, Sir, he has a cow with him."

"A cow?"

"Yes, a big cow. He says he has driven a thousand kilometres to present the cow to Madame."

I turned to Shamsa, and woke her up. "There is an old man outside, who wants to give you a cow."

"A cow?"

"Yes, it's outside."

Shamsa dressed, and we went to the gate to receive the old man. On seeing Shamsa, he dropped to the floor and praised God. Alhamdulilla. Allah Akbar. Six months before, his family had petitioned Shamsa on behalf of a sick relative. They thought she had forgotten him, but yesterday they had received enough money to pay for medical treatment, alhamdulillah. Thanking God, he had immediately driven up to pay his respects and express his family's gratitude.

Shamsa couldn't remember the case, but played along with it. In cases like this it is usual for people to bring gifts, and it is very rude not to accept them. So, thanking the man, Shamsa led the cow into the garden and closed the gates. We waited for the man to drive off and Shamsa and I laughed so much that the cow took fright and ran off around the grounds of the house. It took an hour for the maids to catch her.

I came to. Asking Hamed what he did with the cow, he explained:
I have a farm up in Al Ain. She lives there now with the rest of my herd.
Some time later, Hamed greeted me as usual and said he had a present for me. A present? I said. Yes. With great ceremony he linked arms with me, and ushered me into his office, where we sat down. Hamed eyed me mischievously, reached into a draw, and brought up something wrapped in tissue paper. Genuinely intrigued, I asked:
What is it?
He replied:
You will see, my friend.
With great care and concentration he unwrapped the little parcel to reveal a round vegetable that looked like a small pumpkin. He passed it to me in cupped hands. I took it, and examined it. I said:
Thank you so much, Err . . . what is it?
He said grandly:
It is a custard apple. You open it up, and inside is like custard.
To which I could only reply:
Well, that's wonderful, Hamed. Thank you very much. Where did you get such a thing?
Hamed looked fit to burst with pride, replying:
I grew it. On my farm. I grow many things there. But custard apples are my . . . my passion. I picked the best one for you, because you are my friend.
I didn't know what to say.

Later that day, I took the custard apple home and showed it to my wife, retelling her the story. When Hamed invited us up to his "little farm" for the weekend, we were delighted, and arranged to meet at a garage on the coastal road, about fifty miles from the city. As planned, there was Hamed, waiting for us in a dark dishdasha, sitting in an old Mitsubishi Pajero. He waved animatedly at us.

We followed him into a fertile area, dense with palm trees. When he stopped to turn up a side-road, I noticed birdsong, and thought for a moment how much I missed it. After another twenty minutes of twisting and turning under the palm canopies, we arrived at gates which were immediately opened by Indian servants. We drove down a driveway, bordered by beautifully manicured hedges.

Shamsa and her two children stood waving at the doorway of the farmhouse. I recognized her immediately. She greeted us warmly and ushered us into the majlis, a huge, carpeted room festooned with large red pillows. Hamed announced:

Shamsa has cooked a meal all by herself. She has been preparing it since early morning.
And so she had. A wonderful assortment of food and drinks were laid out on the floor rice, spiced red chicken, fresh vegetables, lamb. Hamed said proudly:
All from the farm.
The meal and conversation were, of course, excellent, with Hamed enthusing about his love of farming. He said:
I am only myself when I am here.
Shamsa agreed:
We get up at four in the morning, say our prayers, then Hamed works on the farm before coming to work. Every day he does it. He spends all his spare time working here. Sometimes I hardly see him.
Hamed responded:
Yes, I have already done a day's work before I come to the office. Such work is important. Unfortunately, I have a wife who will not help me.
She smiled. Although, Shamsa was a famous and powerful person in Arabia, she was very much taking a back seat here. Today, she was Hamed's wife. It was Hamed's day. At the end of the meal, Shamsa brought in the kahwa, and began to pour it. Hamed frowned, stopped her and smacked her hand dramatically.
No. No. No. You don't pour coffee like that.
Shamsa smiled. It was a joke.

Hamed took the pot from her, poured a cup and passed it to me. He smiled:

One of the good things about Islam, is that it allows you to punish your wife. Sometimes they need punishment. Don't you agree, William?
I smiled. It was an Arab Catch 22 question:
Whatever you say, Hamed.
Hamed continued:
Yes, I am thinking about getting another wife. All my friends say a man of my status should have another wife, don't they Shamsa?
To which Shamsa responded:
Yes, they do, but nobody else would put up with you.
Hamed feigned shock, and laughed. Shamsa and Hamed were unusual for an Arabian couple. They interacted easily, and seemed to like each other enormously. Later that day, as we ambled around the farm, Shamsa mentioned that their families had resisted their marriage as highly irregular and impolitic:
Different tribes and all that.
Neither were from rich families, but they had worked hard and done well she at education (she was Dean of a University College before entering politics) he, at his farm, and "his other interests". Hamed said, wielding his stick to take in all of the farm:
See all this? This was just a piece of dust when I bought it, wasn't it?
Shamsa, confirming this, said:
Yes. There was nothing here. Nothing. See that shed over there? That's where we used to sleep when we first got married. We had such fun then.
I looked over at the shed, which was now home to some Bangladeshi farm workers. Hamed added:
She would help me on the farm then. Now, she says she has this other job that's more important.
Hamed stopped and surveyed the majesty of what was indeed a wonderful sight. The farm was about 20 acres in size with plantations of bananas, dates, pomegranates, oranges, lemons and grapes. It was beautifully structured and maintained, with every individual plant having its own water sprinkler. With the enormous amount of work taken to develop the farm, and its intensive and expensive irrigation, it occurred to me that this must be among the costliest agricultural produce in the World. I asked:
What do you do with the produce?
Hamed replied:
Oh, we give it away on religious festivals and the like.
Hamed spotted a worker, and stopped in his tracks. He shouted something, and beckoned him to come. The man looked put out, and timidly approached us, almost cowering. Hamed beckoned him to come closer, sternly said some words to him in a foreign tongue and introduced him as Said. The man offered his hand. We shook hands. The man looked unsure of what to do next. Hamed dismissed him, and the man slunk off towards the banana trees.

Hamed then explained:

Of course the farm was not always this size. It was half the size when I bought it. I umm . . I expanded it.
Shamsa added:
I don't think I should be hearing this story.
Hamed chuckled, and gesticulating with a stick, said:
You see, the boundary of my land, came up to about here. And all this here was common land. You see, there is a farm over there . . . and one there . . . But this was common land. Now you can get into a lot of trouble if you encroach on common land, particularly when you are close to other farms like those.

So, I came up with a strategy - what Saddam Hussein called a policy of "peaceful expansion". Every night, I would come to the farm in the middle of the night, when the other farmers were sleeping and quietly move the fence by a few inches. Just a few inches every night, so that it couldn't be detected.

Shamsa groaned:
He did it every night for a year.
My wife and I laughed in disbelief and admiration. Hamed continued:
In one year, I had doubled the size of the farm, and nobody noticed. Peaceful expansion! Nobody was hurt. Nobody lost anything. Mafi mushkala. No problem.
Shamsa added:
Until the wali found out. Then there was a huge row. Every five years, they review boundaries here, and they found that our boundary had . . . moved.
Hamed smiled thinly:
Yes, the wali was there with the maps, and a ruler.

He was saying, "look, look, this is different . . . this is bigger".

I was saying, "no, no, the scale of the map is different. There is a problem with the old map".

Eventually, I sent it to the Minister for Agriculture . . .

Shamsa interrupted:
Your cousin . . .
Hamed continued unperturbed:
. . . and he agreed that the more accurate map was the new one.
I thought of Hamed creeping up to the fence every night by moonlight, and moving the fence forward three inches. I looked at the "expanded" part of the farm, which was now taken up by pomegranate and lemon trees, and couldn't help feeling admiration for this man. My wife described him later as
both the maddest and most rational man I have ever met.
I could only agree.

Hamed showed us around the rest of the farm and spoke with gusto about his plans for the future. Eventually, we reached a collection of sheds which housed a collection of goats. Hamed pronounced:

The most noble goats in Arabia. The Sheik of Riyadh only ever eats these goats. He will not look at another.
Without warning, he hopped over the fence, and began whooping and chasing the goats with his stick. The animals understandably panicked, with some attempting to scramble out of the compound altogether. After several moments of high anxiety and bleating, Hamed launched himself full stretch and managed to grab a kid by the leg. Dusting off his dishdasha, he emerged cradling the terrified animal:
They are beautiful, aren't they? They love me, you know. I am like a father to them.
We then approached what turned out to be a cowshed. In hushed and sombre tones he told us that of all the cattle in Arabia, those we were about to see were the fiercest:
Killers! If you as much as turn your back, you are dead. You see here, I have put reinforcements on the fence.
He shook the fence wildly.

We peered into the shadows to view these killer beasts, and saw several very small cows munching on grass. My wife, whispered to me:

They are the least terrifying cows I have every seen.
This time, Hamed carefully lowered himself into their compound. He moved like a man might on a minefield, or escaping searchlights in a prison break. With a finger on his lips, he said:
Shsh, I must be very careful here.
With this, he crept to a pile of straw and lowered himself down until he was lying flat. He put his feet up on a nearby pole, and crossed his feet. The cows took little notice of him, and continued to chew the cud. He whispered:
See, I have no fear of them. They respect that. If they sense fear they will attack.
Hamed lay like that for over five minutes, revelling in his heroics. At one point he closed his eyes, seemingly perfectly content among his killer cows.

As the day drew on, we got ready to leave. Hamed and Shamsa locked up the farm, and seemed to be leaving with us. He said:

My dear William, we would very much like you to come to our house.
I replied:
But I thought this was your house.
Hamed responded:
Oh, we have all kinds of houses. But I want you to come to the house where we live. Come on, it's on the way back to yours.
Intrigued, we hopped into our car and followed theirs into increasingly heavy traffic. He turned off down a small road.

After a few miles, we came to a large gateway, with a two security guards and a series of ramps. Once past the saluting guards, we entered a grand driveway that was lit all the way with elaborate light strips. The driveway turned, and we found ourselves in front of a modern and very beautiful marble mansion. The kind of house Michael Jordan or Bill Gates would live in.

Before we knew it, the car door was opened by a uniformed lady, who bowed and bid us welcome. Hamed and Shamsa went on before us, as servants ushered us to a space under a huge marble archway, obviously used for outdoor receptions and entertaining. Three more uniformed ladies were there, pouring drinks and placing cakes on the table.

Hamed sat down, saying:

Welcome to our home.
Peering up at the curving marble way above my head, I said:
This is yours? Wow.
Shamsa joined us, saying:
We love this place. It was all Hamed's idea. He designed and built it himself.
Back at work, our relationship flourished, and we spent many hours discussing the problems in the region, and the need for social and political change. Occasionally, when I would allude to his power and wealth, he would stop me. He would laugh and say:
I am just a humble Arab.
I sometimes got the feeling the joke was on me.
retained by author 2006

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


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These are marvellous tales, insightful as a Cartier-Bresson photograph and so well-written. More would be most welcome. Besides being informative and entertaining, they describe the vast cultural differences in this world, and the current Western folly in believing that our systems of governance are exportable.

Posted by: s masty at April 1, 2006 07:16 AM
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