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.