Saudi Arabia: the land of minarets and McDonald’s

Saudi Arabia is often seen as the funder and root of the Islamist problem with its staunch Wahabi interpretation of Islam. It does as it pleases, while its seductive barrels of liquid gold seal the lips of western allies. A land where women are not allowed to drive, where they only exist in the public sphere in the form of an anonymous black silhouette, where Orwellian ‘morality police’ roam the streets, where public beheadings still take place. This country has made quite an impression on the rest of the world, and not a good one at that. The reasons are obvious.

As this unforgiving, literal approach to Islam is exported to my motherland, Pakistan, there is both adoration and abhorrence for the Saudi interpretation. In the aftermath of the recent heart-wrenching devastation in Peshawar, too many are quick to shift the blame.

"Let the Saudis keep their violent version of Islam!" I often hear. “This is all their fault."

I have never heard of acts like these carried out in Saudi, however harsh their interpretation may be. Why is it that its manifestation on Pakistani soil has to be the stuff of the worst nightmares imaginable? Why is it that this very strain of Islamic ideology does not appear in such a massively self-destructive form there? It is problematic to begin with, but we can’t deny that in Pakistan we nurture and protect it until it develops its own set of wings. Combined with our problems of poverty, corruption, illiteracy, it becomes an indestructible beast. 

It may have been adopted from another land, but mother Pakistan has lovingly let it suckle at her breast. 

It’s easy to transfer responsibility of this brutal slaughter of innocents onto anyone but ourselves. This way, we don’t have to look in the mirror and face the monsters we’ve become. 

Most of us are quick to judge Saudi Arabia because of what we hear about it. We are not incorrect in doing so, but there is more to it than meets the eye. Below I will share my personal experiences, which are not meant to excuse away the many, many issues that exist in the country - but only to offer a rare glimpse into another part of life there. 

As an ardent critic of religion in general and by extension, a critic of any state governed under religious law, I am naturally no fan. But the place holds a special significance for me. It’s where I grew up, as a Pakistani ‘expat' kid in one of the golden oases offered to some privileged foreigners, known as ‘the compound’. Saudi Arabia was the only home I knew, the place I was raised with great care, warmth, sunshine and open-mindedness. It provided me with a solid secular education that formed the core of my non-conforming, ever-questioning mind. Granted, this is not the average experience for people growing up in Saudi, but it is nonetheless, an experience that is shared by many children of the South-Asian diaspora in the Middle East. 

'The compound', in pre 9/11 Saudi Arabia, was a slice of cheer in the kingdom of the fun-drought. Combined with the luxury of tax-free income, it was a blissful yet unrealistic combination. 

Different bubbles of reality co-existed simultaneously for us foreign children – depending on where our dad (or very rarely, mom) worked. High-end employers would entice their expat workforce with perks like compound-living, which promised that they would not be exposed to the harsh realities of Saudi life on a daily basis. We were gated communities scattered throughout the land, with a varying number of amenities depending on the employer. Some compounds were complete micro-cities; with their own TV channels, gyms, swimming pools, strip mall, theatre, etc. There was very little reason to leave. And in the early days, Saudis were not allowed to reside in the compounds. Our lives were lived quite separately. Our schools were separate too…

Segregation was a running theme, it turned out, in more ways than one. 

Despite growing up there, I hadn’t properly interacted with a Saudi till I was at least eighteen. We were shielded from one another’s way of life, lest either of our ‘principles’ corrupt the other.

In my comfortable bubble, I had a perfectly lovely childhood. Nothing at all like what you hear in the media about life in evil Arabia. I wore what I wanted, I trick-or-treated during Halloween, I swam at our compound pool where some of the European ladies often sunbathed topless, women drove freely too. It was like living in western suburbia. I was also blissfully unaware, sheltered and naive about things kept out of our artificial pods of existence. It was a strange Stepford-wife kind of experience that I only realize was strange in retrospect. Things were eerily idyllic, the weather was always sunny. Electricity was in abundant supply in comparison to my motherland, buildings were cool with manufactured air. Crime was non-existent, or so they told us. 

It was consumer heaven in certain ways, and consumer hell in others. The streets were lined with western fast-food chains and our supermarket shelves were stocked with incredible products from around the world. We had a wider variety of cheese, chocolate, art supplies than I’ve seen anywhere else. But things like music, books and videos were censored, often excessively (I speak of the pre-internet days, so perhaps that is less regulated now). Commodities were available in abundance, knowledge was controlled. It was an odd dichotomous life. Women I knew were abaya-clad (milder, cloak version of the burqa) outside of the compound, and wore whatever they desired inside.

It was like a reverse-Amish compound, if you will allow me that comparison. 

While on the outside, you did your thing, got your supplies and went back in to shed the layers of forced modesty. On occasion, if strands of hair strayed out of the headscarf in front of the wrong people, you could be tapped with a cane on your ankles - oh it’s no big deal, just the friendly neighbourhood Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice intervening in your moral behaviour. I learned to accept that as part of life, because I always had ‘normal’ to return to. As I grew, my thoughts often strayed to those who did not have an escape... 

I heard a lot of terrible things about Saudi Arabia as a child. Pakistani relatives would say they never wanted to visit, because it sounded so oppressive. This would upset me. Because my life did not involve any of the oppression they described. I thought they were being unnecessarily judgemental and hypocritical, given the rules I saw surrounding life in Pakistan. Eventually, I began to see the things everyone spoke about, all around me. 

Once I saw, I could not un-see. Even in the bliss of a compound, the idea that this was happening in my surroundings was unbearable. 

I moved to Pakistan briefly before moving to Canada as a teenager. Those years were formative in my life. I could not adjust to Pakistan, I just could not live up to the conservative expectations. And yes, I am saying this as someone who grew up in Saudi Arabia

Back there I lived in a multi-cultural community, but in Pakistan the population was very very Pakistani. I rarely came across diversity even in mindset. I soon discovered Pakistanis were not accepting of outsiders. I was regarded as an anomaly; this strange westernized teenager, supposedly from ‘Saudi Arabia’. People would bluntly ask: why are you like this? Where is your headscarf? Aren’t you supposed to be from Saudi Arabia? I could never successfully explain what my experience there was like. And how this life in Pakistan was more oppressive than any I had ever lived.

There was an odd empty morality in Pakistan, people did not pray as much as in the holy-land, but they judged you twice as harshly… for ‘propriety’. In this great nation, there was no need for a designated department for promotion of ‘virtue', because it seemed, everyone in the population had been recruited to perform this task. They said these values were coming from religion, but their religion was missing a lot of the times. At least in Saudi the hardcore, were truly hardcore and straight forward, easy to spot. In Pakistan it was more complex. Religion was more of a web than a linear path. Previously I had only seen linear, it was easy to opt out of linear, harder to free yourself from a web. 

People in Pakistan seemed fascinated and impressed with the fact that I had been to Makkah and performed pilgrimage a number of times. My parents took us often because we lived about 40 minutes away, and it was an adventure, a road trip every time we went. The brightest and first thing that caught my eye when we drove into the city where non-Muslims were not allowed, were the giant golden arches of McDonalds. Ah yes, Saudi Arabia… the home of the McArabia meal. Interesting juxtaposition that – the hatred of the west combined with the embracing of it to the level where a personalized local McMeal is born…

We have that a lot in Pakistan too. We demonize the west as this oppressive, immoral force that is responsible for the mess we are in. And we simultaneously want to emulate them. We pirate their TV shows, dress like them, wear their brands with pride. Heck, many of us move there for a ‘better’ life, while still cursing the immorality of those that welcomed us. Our liberals look down on Saudis as the savage extremists.

We rarely look at ourselves.

Whether Saudis worship the god of capitalism, the god of Muslims – or both – they do not turn to the destruction of their own land and their own people. What Pakistan has turned into, is a country that makes Saudi Arabia look good. 

Eiynah is the author of children’s book ‘My Chacha is Gay’ and is a blogger/illustrator on the topic of sexuality in Pakistan. She dreams of a progressive motherland. Follow her on Twitter

Eiynah is the author of children’s book ‘My Chacha is Gay’ and is a blogger/illustrator on the topic of sexuality in Pakistan. She dreams of a progressive motherland. Follow her on Twitter 

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