Faith at War
A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu
By Yaroslav Trofimov
Picador Copyright © 2006 Yaroslav Trofimov
All rights reserved.
Abdel Wahhab's Sons
The palatial antechamber impressed me at first. An oversize carpet graced the floor. Tribal sheikhs in gilded shawls, bearded scholars in pristine white robes, and government clerks in bad shoes dozed on faux rococo chairs that lined the walls, waiting to be ushered in. Once every few minutes, subcontinental manservants, silent and fearful lest they look into our eyes, appeared with trays of tiny tea glasses. The frazzled gatekeeper's old-fashioned phone buzzed nonstop.
Like me, all these men waited to be seen by the minister, one of the Saudi kingdom's more powerful men. After a half hour of fidgeting, I began to notice that the once luxuriant carpet was stained and dirty. The whole room badly needed fresh paint, and parts of the kitsch plasterwork on the ceiling had fallen off; one piece hung precariously by the wire. My tea glass was chipped, too.
I wasn't surprised. The Saudi state, with all its petroleum, no longer had enough cash even to maintain top ministers' offices. By the time of my first trip, in 2002, this was no longer the Saudi Arabia of Western imagination, a magic kingdom brimming with ostentatious wealth because, by God's special dispensation, it happened to own one-quarter of the world's oil. There was still dazzling excess in some royal palaces, of course. But the rest of the country was visibly sinking back into the Third World morass from which Saudi Arabia had briefly escaped thanks to the 1970s oil boom. Saudi international airports — unlike the separate royal terminals used by fleets of princely jets and hidden from public scrutiny — had become so dreary and drab that they wouldn't be out of place in the poorest parts of Africa. In the dusty back streets of Riyadh, and under the decayed lattice windows of the Old City of Jeddah, the stench of open sewage gave off the unmistakable sign of an economy in a tailspin.
* * *
I learned this firsthand while on a different trip to the kingdom, walking through a slum that had been inspected by Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah. In a rare public admission of Saudi decline, the prince had visited the kingdom's poor with a message that charity money should be funneled to help the needy at home, rather than Islamic causes abroad. Saudi newspapers heralded that visit as an example of Saudi-style glasnost. My government-supplied minder, embarrassed by what I might see, required plenty of persuasion to show me the maze of crumbling mud houses just a few blocks from a thoroughfare of glittering shops. While the residents were Saudi citizens, most of those who lived here were black. That's simple, the minder explained: these are former slaves. Slavery, the existence of which the Saudi government had denied for years, was formally abolished in 1962. Freed slaves and their progeny had then been told to settle in this part of Riyadh, without much government help in obtaining education and jobs.
As soon as I stepped out of the car, a crowd gathered around me: men with wrinkled, weary faces and pus-filled eyes, toothless women wrapped in black cloth. Several immediately started shoving laminated petitions into my hands. "They are illiterate, but they think you are from the government and can give them money," the minder said, amused by such an improbable idea. Salem al Qahtani, a sixty-one-year-old in a soiled gown, pushed to the front of the crowd. His humble house was the one visited by the crown prince months earlier, he said. "When the prince came, I told him about all of our problems, about how we have no jobs and no money, and he said we should be optimistic and everything will be okay for us," said Qahtani, who couldn't read but insisted he could write his name. "But then the prince went away and nothing happened. I'm still waiting for improvements to happen."
I had barely finished jotting down his words in my notebook when a patrol car of the Saudi security services raced into the alley, its lights flashing red and blue. As the driver hit the brakes, a puff of dust rose up around us, making me choke. Someone, seeing a troublesome stranger in the neighborhood, had tipped off the police. Leaving a submachine gun inside the car, an officer walked out and sternly demanded identification from everyone present. He read the riot act to my minder. The last thing he wanted was to see foreign journalists in such an unflattering area. Saudi Arabia, after all, is a happy, prosperous land, thanks to the boundless wisdom of His Majesty, and of Their Royal Highnesses, by the grace of God. "Make sure that he takes no pictures," the police officer barked at the minder; he stayed put to listen to our conversations. Intimidated, the men and women around me quickly shrank and withered away.
* * *
Although Saudi authorities tried hard to hide such spots of abject misery, they couldn't fool their own people. By the time fifteen Saudi men packed their box cutters and boarded American planes the morning of September 11, 2001, the average Saudi's income had shrunk by as much as three-quarters in one generation. Every family — except for the royal one — felt the pinch. The reason for things going from bad to worse, Saudis were told in newspapers and mosques, was crystal clear: an American conspiracy to control the Middle East and keep oil prices low.
"If my children can't find a place in school or a job, it's all your fault," an otherwise soft-spoken Saudi professor blurted out with surprising anger as we munched dates, the kingdom's main product in the preoil era, in the fading lobby of a Jeddah hotel. "We are being robbed. Why is it that a barrel of oil costs $20, like in the 1970s, while a car that we buy from the Americans costs $10,000, not $1,000 like back then?"
The professor's calculation, I realized later, wasn't altogether accurate. A typical Detroit-made subcompact sold for over $4,000 in 1979, the year when Saudi crude nearly doubled in price to $24 a barrel. But such resentment remained undiminished even after oil prices surged past $50 in late 2004.
The professor was a liberal American-educated intellectual. He didn't subscribe to the harsh worldview of Saudi Arabia's clerics who divide the universe into the true believers and the infidels — the latter a source of corruption who should be shunned and eventually converted or destroyed. The very fact that he agreed to share food with me marked him as unusually open-minded. Some Saudis I had tried to meet wouldn't socialize with a Westerner out of principle. One Saudi cleric agreed to be interviewed only through a fellow Muslim, who relayed my questions and answers by telephone — lest the holy man be defiled by direct contact with me.
As long as Saudi Arabia was getting wealthier, from the 1970s hike in oil prices and until the 1990–1991 Gulf War, the kingdom's tradition of religious bigotry and violent zeal was contained. As the economic safety valve broke, a resentment that is natural in any society undergoing hard times melded with radical religion into a lethal combination. The result was Saudi militants increasingly acting out their frustrations with the West. In 2002 and 2003, the years I visited Saudi Arabia, infidels and "apostate" Muslims tainted by fraternization with unbelievers were being killed by Saudis in bombings around the world and inside the deceptively quiet kingdom itself. The U.S. embassy in Riyadh, and many residential compounds around the country, built glass-free rooms to which people should run at the first sound of danger. (These rooms would avoid the most common cause of death and injury — piercing by flying shards — in the frequent blasts.) Saudi newspapers ran pictures of young, unremarkable-looking militants sought by police who themselves were infiltrated by the terrorists. Every week, a shootout was reported. And every day, Saudi money trickled beyond its borders and throughout Islamic lands to pay for what many here — as in Washington — saw as the unfolding battle of Good and Evil.
* * *
Since September 2001, I have been fixated on understanding Saudi Arabia. Despite all its problems, it is still the richest Arab country, a place where irate men have the means to make themselves heard, with a bang, continents away. Saudi Arabia is also the homeland of the Islamic faith, and of Osama Bin Laden. No other nation is more important to the Muslim world than Saudi Arabia, and no other nation has done more to change the Islamic religion's nature in modern days, essentially using its oil cash to take over international Islamic institutions. While Saudi Arabia has long been counted as part of the pro-Western camp in the Middle East, no other country in the region is as defiantly different from the West in its core.
I first watched Saudi Arabia, then forbidden to me, from an empty restaurant atop a tower in the middle of the Persian Gulf, just days after September 11. The tower marks the international border on the causeway that links the kingdom and the independent island of Bahrain. Underneath, hungover Saudi men sped through the customs checkpoint after a weekend of binge-drinking whiskey and ogling long-legged girls in Bahraini fleshpots. "This is great here," one of these Saudis had told me in a particularly seedy Bahraini bar the previous day. Before ordering another cherry-topped cocktail and turning to the beauties from Belarus, he straightened his crisp white robe and added matter-of-factly: "But I would never want this allowed in my own country. We Saudis want to stay pure."
Always reluctant to expose itself to outside scrutiny, Saudi Arabia rarely grants visas to foreign writers. By the time I finally got mine, six months later, I had visited almost all of the kingdom's eight neighboring countries and spent hours and hours writing letters into the black hole of Saudi officialdom, cultivating well-connected Saudis abroad and hassling Saudi embassies on three continents. At that point, even getting to the stage of filling out visa forms under a life-size portrait of King Fahd seemed like a dream come true.
The Saudi application form, as these things often do, revealed a lot about the country. One of the first questions on the form was my religion. The question after that was about my "sect."
For an answer, I followed an idea unwittingly suggested to me in late 2001 by the Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, an affable billionaire who had made his fortune in Saudi Arabia. The downside to having a name like mine when representing an American newspaper is that, however I meet people in the religion-obsessed Middle East, I am often required to start the conversation with an explanation of my personal history.
Here it is, again. I was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in a family as mixed as they come: my paternal grandfather hailed from Russian Orthodox polar fishermen and explorers on Russia's Far North, while his Catholic wife traced her lineage to petty Polish aristocracy. My maternal grandmother came from a family of Jewish sugar industrialists in the Ukrainian shtetl of Uman and was briefly married to an officer of Cossack descent. She used to joke that we could organize a three-way pogrom without leaving the family apartment.
Things got more exotic after my birth. I spent part of my childhood living a happy colonial life on the African island of Madagascar, where my father taught statistics at the local university and where I fed freshly captured grasshoppers to my pet lemur monkey as I learned from French textbooks that my ancestors were the Gauls. Having left Ukraine before it reemerged as a separate country, I lived virtually my entire adult life first as a student and journalist in New York City and then as a foreign correspondent based in France, Israel, and Italy — my new home country in whose elections I vote and whose language has become the father tongue that I speak with my pizza-addicted children and Roman wife.
I have always refused to pigeonhole myself into a particular group, "religion," or "sect," as the Saudi visa form now asked me to do. If anything, years of chronicling life in Jerusalem had made me wary of priests, rabbis, and mullahs of all denominations.
But Prime Minister Hariri, coming from a country where an individual's prospects in life are closely correlated with his or her membership in one of Lebanon's seventeen officially recognized religious subgroups, left me no choice as I met him for an interview. After issuing compliments about his lavish palace ("This is extremely impressive, Mr. Prime Minister" — "Ha ha, you haven't seen my home yet"), I launched into my usual introduction: "I'm a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and if you're wondering about my name, I am an Italian of Ukrainian origin." Before I had a chance to ask my first question, the prime minister paused for a minute of puzzled silence, calculating, and then came up with my proper place: "So, so you must be Orthodox, right?"
"Well, I'm not really religious," I started mumbling, but then it hit me. If my father ever went to church, or my mother to a synagogue (occurrences that I have not yet witnessed), I figured they'd probably go to the Orthodox ones. "Yes, Mr. Prime Minister," I replied, "You can say I'm Orthodox." He was satisfied with his erudition. I was "Orthodox" from now on, on the Saudi form and on multitudes of other Middle Eastern visa applications thereafter.
When I finally picked up my Saudi visa, a sticker embossed with a hologram of a palm tree and two crossed swords, the religion entry marked me as an obvious unbeliever; the consul didn't mistake me for an orthodox Muslim. Having been branded an infidel ruled out any thought of entering the holy city of Mecca. Set among volcanic black hills a short drive east of Jeddah, Mecca is the birthplace of Islam and its prophet, Mohammed. It was the seizing of this city in 1924 that gave Saudi Arabia's ruling family, al Saud, that hails from the Nejd highlands hundreds of miles to the east, such authority and prestige across the Muslim world. Mecca, which every able-bodied Muslim is supposed to visit at least once in a lifetime, is off-limits to infidels. The four-lane expressway between Jeddah and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's two main urban areas, passes through Mecca's hallowed grounds. Well before the holy city begins, there is a huge control post, strikingly similar to the U.S.–Mexico border gate between San Diego and Tijuana. "For Muslims Only" announce the freeway signs pointing ahead, to the booths where officers carefully check papers — the ID cards that, for Saudi residents, are color-coded to distinguish between Muslims and unbelievers. In late 2001 a European ambassador obsessed with Mecca dressed up in Bedouin garb and sneaked in; when he was caught on the way out, he had no choice but to convert on the spot. The occasion was trumpeted by Saudi newspapers as an important victory for the true faith just as America started bombing the Taliban.
* * *
Just before the Mecca checkpoint, a narrow bypass road branches out from the highway, snaking through the mountains. On maps it is officially called the Non-Muslims' Road. The name itself is probably the most poignant reminder of the staggering culture gap between Saudi Arabia and the West. While the kingdom is crammed with American cars, American fast-food outlets, and American retailers, and while its diplomats and top princes often speak accentless English acquired after years of study in America's most expensive private schools, the ideas that made the West what it is are rejected without appeal. In the Saudi system, not even lip service is paid to the humanistic ideals that have shaped the modern world since, say, the eighteenth century.
Freedom of religion, in the concise words of the U.S. State Department's annual human rights report, "does not exist" in Saudi Arabia. Only Muslims can be Saudi citizens, and any public expression of other religions — even by the six million or more foreign workers who make the Saudi economy run — is a crime. Saudi authorities have been known to bar companies from using the letter X in their names, on the grounds that X looks too much like a Christian cross. Unrelated women and men cannot socialize — even McDonald's restaurants keep isolated male and female sections, with separate entrances. Crimes like sorcery, adultery, apostasy, blasphemy, and witchcraft are still punished by death — often by stoning or beheading on a Riyadh plaza, ringed by cafés and toy stores, and popularly known as "chop-chop square." Nor is there freedom of the press, speech, or assembly. In fact, the name of the country itself denotes personal ownership by al Saud, whose chief Abdelaziz, the father of the current king, seized the land through bloody tribal conquest in 1902–1932. Not even sham elections of the kind held elsewhere in the region legitimize al Saud's rule. And, at every step, the Muslims and the infidels must take different paths. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Faith at War by Yaroslav Trofimov. Copyright © 2006 Yaroslav Trofimov. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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