I have been meaning to write about what it means to grow up in the Saudi Arabian Wahhabi model, what has held me back thus far is more about “Where do I begin?”
The beast is complex, pathological and has many facets to its manifestation in various areas of your life. It simply permeates every little part of your existence either willingly, subconsciously or via the guilt complex that it feeds on.
My intention here is not to proselytize nor is it to prescribe a remedy. Instead it is to share my experience with you.
I was born in the heydays of the oil boom in Saudi Arabia to expatriate parents from my native Pakistan. We lived happy – somewhat dysfunctional – lives as most would assume. We did better than our extended family and made sure we shared with those back home. My parents were average Sunni Muslims who observed prayers whenever they remembered – with the exception of Friday prayers that most Muslims religiously observe – and tried to generally stick to the ‘norms’ of the faith but nothing too strictly.
Life was good and we had plenty of good fortune that many did not have. My parents wanted us to study in English schools and paid handsomely for that ‘privilege’ in Saudi Arabia. At age 3 I was put on the conveyor belt of what we call the expatriate English educational system in Saudi Arabia. The school was owned and run by a Saudi prince and had relatively good standing in the community at the time. Our English teachers were predominantly British & Irish with a sprinkle of Americans and then a dominance of South Africans in the later years of schooling. An exception to this rule was of course the teachers who taught us Arabic, Quran and Islamic Studies; Mostly Egyptians and members of other Arab states.
I do not remember religion really playing a big role in my early life other than observing prayers when my father took me for prayers or when it was Ramadan and we fasted. As children we were eager to fast and show that we were adults, win school competitions by memorizing the Quran and other such “religious” observance. It was less dogma and more mimicking and following what others were doing in the community in general. Social policing is a common activity in Muslim communities; Your devotion to God is under constant check and invasion of your privacy a trivial matter.
The religious drive creeps in slowly, first it is keeping up image with the good neighbours and then it is trying to outdo them. Of course, all of this in the name of securing your heaven; For example If you memorize the Quran then your parents get a home in heaven. Prayers became more regular as we grew older and the school system pumped out more things to adhere to.
We had two classical Arabic classes and a Quaran class per day. We had to memorize verses, hadith (Prophets sayings) and other Islamic theology. We also had a Quran teacher come at home to teach us how to recite the Quran. This is a common thing to do in the Muslim world and most families do this irrespective of their own religiousness.
What most people do not understand is that in a society like Saudi Arabia (or a predominantly Islamic community) it is quite normal to pray regularly, read the Quran, follow Islamic teachings and think nothing of it. It is a habit almost and you are kind of blind to the affect it is creating in you on the inside. There is little else for adults to do other than be pious. Pretty soon my mother also joined a Quran school to be more in tune with what she saw as her duty as a good Muslim. In Saudi Arabia, women have little option to do anything but basically be more religious. One could argue that men too have ultimately that as the only unrestricted avenue of ‘personal development’. Religion trumps everything.
And everything changed when my mother was introduced to the teachings of Abu A’la Maududi of the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami movement. To illustrate how close he was to the Wahhabi cause, one only has to note that his was the 2nd (in absence) funeral prayer carried out in the Kaaba (that black cube in Mecca) in history.
So after one summer break, we returned from Pakistan with literally a whole library of books. I did not see much of my mother that year, she was busy reading. We did more takeaways that year than in any recent memory and I was happy with all the fried chicken I was getting.
Life was still good as it was a period of what I can recall as repentance for all the bad behaviour we were supposedly engaging in. My parents started talking about how un-Islamic society had become and how Dawaa (preaching) is a key pillar of the faith. Of course, that preaching had to start somewhere and usually that ends up being your home. All of a sudden we started having segregated dinner parties and our family friends shrugged it off as just us being pious good Muslims. Soon enough they too were mimicking the behaviour or simply not thinking much of it.
It is interesting to note that this religious – state encouraged & driven – fervour coincided with the NATO destruction of Yugoslavia and the wars in Chechnya. At the time I did not know any better but looking back I can connect the dots of how mass propaganda was used to manipulate millions to be sympathetic to the Jihadi cause.
I went to a segregated school, studied Quran daily (memorized a few dozen chapters) and had no female contact. As such the only opportunity to talk to a girl was during family dinners. I was reaching puberty and when I did my privilege pass was taken away. I was devastated. I had one crush and she too was now off limits.
Teenage rebellion had begun but I did not see it as a rebellion against the religion. There is no avenue for questioning authority and doing so always lands you in trouble. The rebellion was more immature on the grounds of “I want to do what I want” not realizing that the fire ignited was innate to the human spirit’s desire to be free.
I was never really a good Muslim because I just never felt that connection. I really tried but it never happened for me. The bar was always being set higher and you could never be perfect anyway, I thought to myself. After all, not even the prophet was perfect and even he prayed and cried for his own salvation. How do you come out on top of that ladder?
As I grew older more and more regulations came into being; Praying was very important now, observing the correct rituals was paramount and devoting yourself to God was pureness unparalleled. There was a prayer for everything:
- i) For going to sleep
ii) For waking up in the morning
iii) For exiting your home
iv) For going to the toilet
v) For riding in your car
vi) Prior to taking a bite of your food – each bite
… I can go on but you get the picture
Pretty soon I had them all memorized and usually ended up just murmuring to myself and pretending that I said it right. I simply adjusted to the new normal. But you cannot fake religious zeal, that is the hardest one to get away with. I was usually found behind the sofa hiding at prayer time – to play video games – and then running up half way to the mosque right before prayers ended and pretending I was exiting the mosque.
On the surface you would think that I was a very average teenager rejecting parental wishes, and I was. However, it is the series of dominating religious directives that get you one way or the other. While I was not very Islamic I did believe in the word of God as I saw it. And the immense feeling of guilt paralysed me. This guilt is a crucial part of the Wahhabi ideology’s feeding ground. You are always unworthy, a slave (you are made to say it over and over again), a miscreant, a low life who would be lucky to bask in the glory of serving “true” Islam.
I took it upon myself to preach about Music being haram (unlawful), calling friends to prayers and lecturing them on being a good Muslim. When it came to praying I was first in line, got up at dawn and really strived to be a good Muslim. This behaviour was not constant and would eventually lapse back to me being a regular kid. However, one thing that is often misunderstood is that just because a Muslim does not observe religious duties does not at all mean that the belief in those duties is any less.
The guilt that I carried for not being a good enough Muslim was constant and actively nourished by my environment. By the time I was in my teens we had extra sessions at home where we read Hadith (the prophets sayings) in a circle every night. This was in addition to the daily Quran lessons at school and home. On Wednesday evenings (equivalent of Friday night as Thursday & Friday were weekends) my dad and I went to English Quran sessions held by faculty members of universities and doctors. Many people showed up for this event as we got great food at the end, you checked off something holy and the depth of the conversation was a little more as they read out Tafsirs of the Quran. Tafsir is more than the translation and includes the associated context or hadith or event at the time of the verses being revealed and/or other meanings that could be derived. Of course this could be a great source of knowledge – the golden age of philosophy in Islam – if done right but if done wrong it just further entrenches the human mind in religious dogma. We, being in Saudi, got the latter experience.
Our Quran teacher was especially pleasant with his contempt for our middle class “riches” such as having a TV aka “Satan Box”. He would also lecture us how we were filthy westerners who sat on the toilet seat like dogs instead of using a hole in the ground eastern style toilet. This upset him greatly for some reason, he made us do ablutions before we sat down for the Quran class while he picked his nose.
Music was strictly forbidden – We were told God would pour molten lead into our ears on judgement day – but TV was ok as long as it was not a woman exposing herself, the state censorship bureau diligently worked day and night to save us teenagers from seeing forbidden flesh. Yes, it was a very important function of the state. American movies and sitcoms were broadcasted round the clock on the Aramco TV channel (The oil giant had a TV channel back then). It was my favourite TV channel.
Growing up in the Kingdom is like a series of controversies out of thin air, contradictions at every turn and a thoroughly frustrating experience of life; A very acute case of cognitive dissonance run amok. We liked Hollywood movies and action blockbusters, dreamed of living it up in America, enjoyed the music (in secret) but hated the country too. When the Gulf war took place in the 90s, we saw ourselves chanting in support of Saddam while he rained down scud missiles causing our school to close down. America was our dream and enemy at the same time.
Children were traumatised and politicised early on with regular trips to mosques, sermons and the constant pro-jihadist point of view. The US funded terrorists in Bosnia were portrayed as heroes, Chechnyan Wahhabi psychopaths were brave warriors and people donated religiously to the cause of Islam. It was fever pitch hysteria during those days.
You would be standing at 2am praying the special night prayers during the holy month of Ramadan and trying to squeeze out a tear. Everyone was weeping for the Muslims of Bosnia – unknowing that it was a NATO orchestrated war to breakup Yugoslavia – and the mosque carpet was damp everywhere. I never managed to squeeze a tear genuinely but later not blinking to trigger tears.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Oceania Saker.