THE REVIEW - 4 DECEMBER 2009
My blood went cold at the sight of the checkpoint to enter Qatif, the coastal municipality that is home to almost all of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority. Qatif -- my wife quickly explained, seeing my discomfort as we approached the two officers in brown uniform -- erupted in violent protests in 1980, just a year after Shiites launched a revolution in Iran and, closer to home, Islamists opposed to the Saudi royal family seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Today the region is home to both the world’s largest known reserve of oil and its largest crude production facility, which opened in 2004. Its Shiite residents, however, share in little of the resultant wealth: Qatif city has just one distant hospital, poor schools, and no skyscrapers. Violence flared again as recently as last spring, when residents rioted after Shiites and Sunnis clashed in Medina. The Saudi government issued a swift and harsh crackdown, arresting dozens of protesters and erecting new checkpoints. And journalists, diplomats and aid workers are typically discouraged from visiting.
We acted like we knew where we were going, and the police waved us through. Driving past parts of town that had been reduced to rubble after the 1980 clashes, I rolled down the window to smell the dank tang of the Gulf rolling off the flat, waveless sea. Because of Eid, the streets were empty of cars and people, the three-storey commercial strip shuttered and quiet.
It was only five kilometers to the house of my wife’s friends, who had agreed to take us to Dokhala, a cultural festival held in Qatif during the hajj. In the driveway we were greeted by the family patriarch, a handsome silver-haired man, and we split up for lunch: I headed to the men’s sitting room with our host and his sons, my wife to the dining room with his wife and daughter. While we ate, the youngest son, Ali, peppered me with questions: What are you writing now? What do you think of Saudi? Where is your favorite place to live, if not here?
Ali told me that later that night, at the festival, he’d be manning a booth to promote a hotline. What kind of hotline? A hotline for people who need to talk, he said. In conservative Riyadh, I thought to myself, this kind of homegrown effort would be frowned upon. Ali explained that he was studying to be a psychiatrist, an expanding field for a people sometimes queasy about discussing mental health.
After lunch, we piled into ours cars to caravan to the festival grounds. Inside the gates, thousands of men and women paraded on soft sand. A cold wind was blowing off the sea: children wore winter caps and thick coats. At the rubbish-littered water’s edge, a traditional dhow, freshly painted, bobbed in the brown water. Back in the main square, booths offered grilled foods, stewed corns, fried things, and all sorts of sweets.
Eventually we entered a hall for presentations by home-grown charitable organizations and displays of crafts and furniture made in Saudi. An entire family sat on one long sectional sofa, the father discussing details with the salesman as his wife flipped through the brochure. Nearby, Saudi women sat behind tables bedecked with hand-knit wedding outfits and bedazzled matrimonial accessories. Under the bright lights, there was a warm roar of happy voices.
Next we headed for a hut devoted to the history of local pearl diving. Noting the care that had gone into the display -- and used to the guiding hand of government support at public gatherings in Riyadh -- I asked Mohammed how much money the capital had put into the festival. None, he explained: it was put together entirely by 900 volunteers.
We retired to a thatched-roof coffee shop -- just like in the old days, Mohammed said. Groups of men and boys played dominoes and other board games, slugging down hot cups of tea and gahwah. Sitting on a tall bench, I took in the scene, barely believing where I was. The religious police would lose their minds if they saw this -- the games, the genders mixing. Yes, Mohammed replied, but they don’t come here: just look around. He was referring, I gathered, to the numerous tall, well-built men, many of whom had the telltale forehead bruise of the devout. If the religious police tried to stop the festival, Mohammed told me, there would surely be trouble. This was the nature of the detente of sorts that exists between Qatif and Riyadh, whereby in exchange for quiet, the capital lets the Shiites run some of their own affairs, including a local court to settle civil disputes.
Before I left the coffee hut, I was cornered by the festival’s emcee, and surprised to find a microphone placed in front of my mouth. Welcome to our fair, Mohammed translated. Thanks, I said -- hearing my voice booming out over the festival’s speakers, bathing the entire crowd in my nervous English. What do you do here? We are -- I hesitated, instinctively wary of government surveillance of some kind -- we are writers, I said, gesturing at my wife.
What do you think of the fair? It is nice, I said carefully. And what do you think of Saudi? Is our culture good? Again I hesitated: should I say how much I admired Qatif today, how relieved I was to be away from the suffocating rules of Riyadh, how much fun I was having? Could saying these things get me, or worse, my new friends, in trouble?
Measuring my words, I said that I was grateful to know more about Qatif, especially given how difficult it can be to get a feel for Saudi history, much less the history of a group that’s not in power. The emcee smiled mischievously and nodded his head in parting.
It wasn’t much past 8pm. Ahead of us, my wife and I had a long drive back to our hotel. As we made our way through the crowd, Mohammed said his sister Fatima would stay to work the booth promoting Ali’s hotline. Many others would also stay, he said, some just to see and be seen, and the crowds would remain thick past midnight.
Five hours from Riyadh, I barely understood the relationship between the capital and this seaside enclave. Driving home, I did notice that we didn’t have to pass the checkpoint again: apparently they only screen people on the way in.