Diary

Safa Al Ahmad

I took the train to Hasa today. The station at Dammam, near the Persian Gulf, is clean and spacious. But security dealt with me as though I was getting on a plane to Kandahar. Families with oversized suitcases and a million plastic bags checked in. Big, beautiful copper chandeliers adorned the corridor leading to the trains. Purple flowering shrubs grew beside the track. The train gathered speed. Languid camels rushed by; dust mounted and turned the scene white. The small screen in our compartment was playing Tom and Jerry cartoons. Tom chased Jerry down the hall with a gun and it blew up in his face. How symbolic of our dictators. I was glad of the distraction. It has been a while since I visited the beautiful, oppressive region of Hasa, in the heart of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.

I covered my face as I got into Ahmad’s car. ‘I’m glad you understand. I was worried I’d have to ask you to cover your face. Please make sure your scarf doesn’t fall off. I told them you are a good woman,’ he said apologetically. There were palms as well as dust and a faint waft of open sewage as we headed to his village. Long stretches of dense fat trunks and lush, dusty green tops shadowed the road.

The old Hasawi villages of my childhood, not far from here, had mud houses with shared walls and palm trunks for roof trusses. The low wooden doors were studded with huge round nails. Cool, shaded alleyways snaked between the houses. Cats and kids ran through them and adults ducked into low doorways. My grandfather’s two-storey house had a square open courtyard with the rooms set round it. The barn was next to the bathroom, with a cow, goats, chickens, one very loud rooster and an undetermined number of cats. My grandmother fed the animals as lovingly as her own children.

Going to visit my grandparents in the old days I entered a strange world inhabited by animals and djinns. The grandchildren would scare each other with stories of djinns turning into black cats, or jumping on you. We would leap from one low roof to the next trying to run away from the imagined horror. A few simple precautions could be taken: don’t step on a cat’s tail, don’t pour hot water into the sink without invoking the name of God (otherwise you risk scalding the djinn living at the bottom of it), and make sure to kill a goat on the doorstep of a new home or, if you are poor, break eggs.

In Hasa all parental rules were suspended. We were left to our own devices. Sometimes, the djinns would follow me home and give me nightmares. My cousins and I would go to an old woman’s house, where Hasa’s answer to ice cream was sold: Vimto, in small plastic bags that were piled high in the freezer. You took the bag, bit off the corner and sucked. It was refreshing in the sweltering dry heat.

‘We’ve reached the edge of town now,’ Ahmad said. ‘Do you need to fix your scarf? Are you ready?’

Where I remembered mud there was now cement. The new concrete-block houses we passed were laid out just like the old mud ones had been, close knit with a maze of tiny alleyways barely wide enough for Ahmad’s small car. But the charm had gone. It was a Lego version of the place I used to visit.

In Ahmad’s village everyone knows everyone else. But these days strangers keep showing up. Ahmad’s cousin and children waved as we tried not to run them over in the alley. ‘He thinks you’re my wife,’ he smiled, content with my disguise.

The Saudi government keeps a close watch on this previously sleepy village. It is now a hotspot for police surveillance and patrols. Troublemakers live here. There was car racing and guns were fired in the air. The real trouble had to do with religion. A few energetic young people decided it was their right to celebrate religious rituals openly, as they do in Qatif, a Shia city about a hundred kilometres away, and in Bahrain, about the same distance away across the causeway.

Ashoura is one of the most sacred days for Shia Muslims. It’s when they commemorate and re-enact the killing of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, by the Umayyad army in Karbala, Iraq. It is seen as a celebration of dignity in the face of injustice, the oppressed minority fighting against the oppressive ruler: the Sunni/Shia divide relived. In Hasa, the celebration of Ashoura is a clandestine occasion, and has to take place inside homes and buildings designated as Hussainiyat. You risk arrest even for running extension leads for a speaker system into a neighbouring house, or keeping a Hussainiya open past curfew. The black fabric put up to mourn Imam Hussain’s death can be displayed only on inside walls, even though all the surrounding villages are Shia and there is no one to offend.

The young people felt it was time to march in the streets, to cry and chant in public. Weren’t they citizens of this country too, just as much as the Sunni majority? The government’s answer was swift. Arrests began. Young men would be held for a week or two and then let go; with every Shia imam’s birth or death that was celebrated there were more arrests. The young men worked out a schedule: anyone who had been arrested during the last event would not take part in the next; no one would miss too much work or school. Frustrated by this persistence, the police started to make life more difficult by harassing residents and enforcing nightly curfews.

Ahmad stopped at his uncle’s house. In a white thobe and white Ghutra headscarf, traditional Saudi dress, he was blinding in the afternoon sun. We went up the stairs. I uncovered my face. Shoes were piled at the door. Ahmad’s mother and two brothers were waiting for us. Ahmad’s brother Ali is a shy, reserved, 21-year-old ex-prisoner. Like Ahmad, he was wearing a white thobe. He had short black hair, wide brown eyes and wide lips. He smiled timidly. Sitting in the small brown living room, Ali and his family recalled the past year.

On the sixth of Muharam, the first month of the Muslim calendar, things went horribly wrong. Late at night, young men started putting up posters in the village, commemorating the coming death of Imam Hussain. They hung a flag on every lamp-post. They had spent two weeks preparing for Ashoura, and they had made hundreds of posters. The police came even later that night and pulled all the posters down. A cat and mouse game ensued. The young men put up more posters. But in the morning, they had all gone. Twenty-five men were arrested. This time, the police didn’t follow their usual arrest and release policy.

Ali was the last to be caught. The other men had got messages to him: stay out of sight, don’t get arrested, we all confessed under torture that you were the leader of the ‘group’. For two months he evaded arrest. He stopped going to classes at college, but it was his last year. He had to take his final exams. Anticipating his appearance, the police sealed off the building and stormed into the exam hall. But all they could find was his name on the exam paper. They called for backup and started combing the building.

Sitting on the sofa with his feet curled under him, Ali crouched into a small ball to show me how he squeezed himself under a bathroom sink for an hour and a half. He looked at me with deep brown eyes, remembering what happened next.

A policeman finally found him and smacked him on the head. Other policemen joined in the beating in front of his fellow students and he was paraded out of the building.

The torture began. It was carried out after working hours so that civilians wouldn’t hear his screams. He was kept in the basement of the police station and brought up after sunset prayers and taken down again at dawn. For 15 days he refused to admit any wrongdoing.

They used a cigarette as a timer. They lit it and placed it on the table. ‘You have until the cigarette burns out to confess.’ They made him stand for five days, sometimes in the corridors so that others could see him. ‘They would stop the torture only to go to pray,’ Ali said. They saw no contradiction between their actions. Ali, on the other hand, couldn’t pray, or go to the lavatory, without permission. He didn’t have a shower for the 24 days he was in solitary confinement.

‘First, they wanted me to confess that I was the ringleader of the group which put up the posters. They would place pencils between my fingers and squeeze until they broke,’ he said, and showed me how they did it.

His mother on the sofa next to him went pale. She fidgeted with her abaya and tried to rebalance it on her head, to regain her composure.

‘No, no! Ali wasn’t tortured in jail!’ Ahmad interjected. He tried to calm his mother down and asked if lunch was ready.

I was quickly ushered down the stairs into an empty green room with purple and pink plastic flowers decorating the walls. There was a green carpet to sit on, sturdy sofas and a prayer rug in the corner. The other women of the family trickled in.

It is customary for Hasawi women to remain in their abayas even if there are no men around, just in case. To break the awkwardness of having a strange woman in the house, they started talking about children and husbands. Bouncing a pink baby on her knees, with her pale white face perfectly framed, a newlywed looked shocked at my lack of interest in children. Fertility is highly valued in Hasa, and marrying at 15 is the norm. The women sitting around me on the floor were taking turns holding the baby while her mother took a much needed nap.

‘Children are a never-ending responsibility,’ Um Ali sighed, and the other mothers murmured agreement. ‘I couldn’t sleep a wink when my son was in prison. It was hard not knowing.’ Her head ensconced in her abaya, only her aged face showed, her small beady eyes and puffy eyelids, a round full nose and small mouth thinned with sorrow. As we waited for lunch, Um Ali’s story unfolded. She had lost her husband and daughter in a car accident. Another daughter had died giving birth. Death was no stranger to her, but her son’s disappearance for 15 days had been harder. At first, the police wouldn’t even acknowledge they had him. Ali wasn’t the first person in the family to be arrested, and he wouldn’t be the last.

Lunch was ready. Set on the floor was a square plastic mat with a big platter of white fluffy rice, fried fish and chicken on top. Around it were plates of salad, vegetable stews and the Hasawi signature – sticky dates, to be eaten before, during or after a meal.

‘Did you hear about this new machine they implant in your arm for insulin?’ said a pregnant woman in a black and white polka-dot dress and flower necklace, trying to change the conversation to another popular topic, diabetes, a common ailment in Hasa among people of all ages.

‘I used to give Ali’s father the insulin shot every day,’ Um Ali reminisced.

‘Me too!’ said a young-looking 41-year-old woman with bleached hair and eight children, the youngest a teenager. ‘I was married at nine,’ she explained.

‘So was I,’ said her sister-in-law, sitting next to her. ‘But they didn’t allow him to consummate the marriage until I was 11.’ The newlywed looked slightly alarmed. Fifteen was one thing but nine!

‘My grandmother was married off at nine too,’ I said. We all started to fidget with our abayas.

I was called upstairs to continue the conversation about torture with the men. Sipping red tea from little glass cups, Ali picked up where he had left off. He looked more relaxed without his mother there. ‘One day I was brought to the officer for questioning, but a policeman had to carry me. My feet were so swollen I couldn’t wear shoes.’

As fate would have it, Ahmad was there to ask about his brother. He didn’t recognise the man being carried down the hall. The policeman left Ali for a moment while he went to get some paperwork and Ali broke down crying and tried to tell his brother about the torture.

‘Confess! Tell them what they want to know!’ Ahmad said, alarmed at the state his brother was in.

‘How can I confess to something I didn’t do? Or name innocent people?’

The seriousness of the situation sank in. The police didn’t merely want Ali to confess to hanging up posters, they wanted to establish that there was an organised group doing it, and – the mother of all crimes – that a sheikh was funding it. They wanted the imaginary sheikh’s name. Since the young men had pooled their own money to pay for the posters, Ali didn’t know what to do.

‘Just give us a name and all of this will stop,’ they would tell him. But Ali couldn’t name a person who didn’t exist, and the torture continued.

The officer came in and saw the brothers talking. Ahmad was promptly kicked out. Ali was made to pay. He had to stand up for three days, and was forced to drink huge quantities of water until he vomited. With no bathroom privileges, Ali had to relieve himself standing where he was. ‘The torture was one thing, but the humiliation …’ he trailed off.

Ahmad, meanwhile, was trying as best he could to get the authorities to release his brother. Ali’s alleged crime had spiralled from hanging posters to terrorism. His case bounced from court to court with no hearings or verdicts. Ahmad spent a year and a month fighting the system. Depressed, tired and on the brink of being fired from his job, he got back one day last February from a hellish trip to Riyadh, turned off his phone and took a nap.

Waiting for him when he woke up were an avalanche of text messages and voicemails from everyone who knew what had happened to his brother’s case. Worried that a court might have suddenly passed sentence, he called one of his relatives back. ‘They’re releasing them tonight!’ the relative said. Shocked and unable to believe the news, Ahmad drove to the jail where Ali was being held. At one o’clock in the morning, Ali and a few others were freed. Stunned, confused and with Ali trying not to faint, the brothers embraced. There had been no trial, no verdict and no explanation for their release.

Ahmad thinks it was because of the Arab Spring.

At every entrance to the city of Qatif there is a checkpoint. Two patrol cars make a bottleneck, forcing the traffic to pass slowly between them. Our car had tinted windows, and the policeman wanted to check out the women inside. You have two choices: cover your face, or flirt a little to encourage the man not to fine you for the illegal windows. If you’re a young man who’s taken part in demonstrations, the checkpoint is where they arrest you.

I was going to meet Ahmad al-Mshikhs and Hussain Alak. With kind brown eyes, his big frame enhanced by his white thobe, Ahmad exuded energy and an air of confidence even though what he is doing may land him in jail. He was on the phone talking urgently to another member of a newly formed committee to help detainees in Qatif.

‘Do I tell him to surrender himself to the police or not? Five men went in yesterday and they haven’t been heard from since.’ No one was sure how best to deal with the new security situation. ‘OK, I’ll tell him to take two weeks off work, just in case. At least he won’t lose his job if he’s arrested.’

For three months there have been weekly demonstrations in Qatif and the surrounding towns. The government is ‘running out of patience’. Instead of just picking people up during the demonstrations, they go to your school, your place of work or – late at night – your home. If you aren’t there, they tell your family to bring you in.

‘It seems the police think if you are wearing jeans and a T-shirt these days, you are a protester,’ Hussain said. He was wearing a tie and a dark suit too big for his thin body. A quiet man, he let Ahmad do most of the talking. Hussain is a journalist and critic, who wrote a scathing article ridiculing the police for their vigilance in pulling down posters while criminals and murderers go free. He and Ahmad said that you don’t feel anything after the first slap: it’s the humiliation that lasts.

‘The Saudi government was worried that if it used excessive force with the demonstrators, it would have an immediate economic impact,’ Hussain said, ‘and with the price of oil rising due to the revolution in Libya, it could not afford to further destabilise the oil-rich Eastern Province with harsh tactics.’ So it decided to attempt ‘dialogue’ instead. On 9 March Ahmad and ten young men took a bus to see Prince Muhammad bin Fahd, the ruler of the province, at his request. For an hour and a half, they spoke frankly to the prince.

‘He wanted us to present our demands as if this was the first time he’d heard of them. Back to square one. As if we hadn’t been making the same demands for decades,’ Ahmad said. ‘Every time we talked about random arrests, torture, harassment, discrimination, he would say: “This is not our policy, those are individual cases.” I don’t know which is worse. How can the police arrest someone and put him in jail on the policeman’s own whim? I asked Prince Muhammad to go and visit the prisons in Qatif and Hasa, and listen to the prisoners being tortured. Everyone knows about it. Why shouldn’t he? But the prince denied torture was used.’

‘A decade ago, the Shia would negotiate directly with the king. This year, it’s the regional prince, then his deputy, and now it’s the governor,’ Ahmad went on. Things keep getting worse for the Saudi Shia. ‘The government has linked two very separate issues: relations with Iran, and the Shia of Saudi Arabia. Any perceived “win” for Saudi Shia would mean a win for Iran, and they can’t let that happen. When we talk to Sunni sheikhs, they always say the same thing, that there are oppressed Sunnis in Iran. How is that my fault? How does that justify treating me badly as a Saudi citizen? The arguments are false, but it seems there is no plan to resolve the issue with Iran, and sadly that means us as well.’

Two boxes of fruit juice and a Kit Kat later, the two men concluded that the political situation would reach a stalemate. ‘People here are still worried about losing their jobs. They want to take a government loan, build a house and have some stability,’ Hussain said. ‘Why would they rock the boat? It’s going to stay quietly tense.’

My cousin Taha married his third wife and divorced her seven days later. Catching up on family gossip, I sat in front of a table covered with cookies, cake, fruits, nuts, cardamom coffee and two types of herbal tea. My aunt, in her mid-fifties, her frail, thin body weakened by diabetes, ten children, 30 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, sat next to me drinking ginger-infused tea. With a mischievous smile, she told me that the third wife had called her in tears, begging her to persuade her son to take her back. ‘I didn’t do anything wrong! I swear!’ she said, but the second wife had got wind of the other woman and demanded he divorce her or else. Worried about what the first wife (also a cousin of mine) might be going through, I wondered if she had insisted on the divorce too. My aunt looked at me as though I was crazy, and proudly explained how upset my cousin was when she heard about the divorce. ‘A woman is not a toy for him to throw away whenever he likes! He has daughters. What if a man did that to them? He married her, he should stick to it.’ That was my pragmatic cousin’s opinion.

By then it was time for dinner and my father gave me a stern look – time to drop the subject. The men in the family didn’t seem to be bothered by the third marriage or divorce. It’s my cousin’s religious right, after all.

He had been introduced to his third wife by a sheikh; he met his second wife the same way. The sheikh has a ledger full of names of women who wish to marry and don’t mind being someone’s second, third or even fourth wife. These women are usually over 30, financially independent, and virgins. Men no longer need to be rich to have several wives. They just need to find a woman with independent means whom society deems to have missed her chance as a first wife. The best candidates are teachers in government schools. They are paid the best salaries and work short hours. The new wife gets to pay for everything. All the man has to do is show up once in a while. The sheikhs are more than happy to play matchmaker. It is their duty to solve the ‘marriage problem’ in Saudi society by encouraging polygamy. Despite allegations of corruption and abuse of power, they are almost untouchable.

Nothing is done without reference to religion. Who you choose to follow will dictate how you live your life. When you fast, how you celebrate the numerous holidays, down to the smallest detail of when to arrange an engagement or wedding. And, in the current political climate, whether the government suspects you of participating in demonstrations on the streets of Hasa and Qatif.

We drove through a maze of half-finished buildings on the outskirts of the city of Hofuf, down streets with no obvious names, the location described using landmarks. I was going to meet some Hasawi men who had participated in the March demonstrations.

As far back as the 17th century, Hasa and Najd have been locked in a hostile relationship. The Najdi tribes who inhabited the central plateau of what is now Saudi Arabia and had scarce natural resources waged wars against their non-Wahabi neighbours all the way up to Iraq and down to Yemen. The men of Hasa were not warriors but farmers blessed with rich natural resources and a strategic location on the Gulf that made Hasa an important trade route. Choosing pragmatically not to fight the Ottomans, Portuguese or al-Sauds, they paid their taxes and pretended to acquiesce.

The Saudi Wahabi alliance, with the aim of spreading their brand of Islam throughout the regions they controlled, sent their own imams and judges to Hasa as emissaries. The Shia in what became the Eastern Province were in a bind. The Wahabis considered them heretics. The prominent families of Hasa and Qatif even petitioned the British in Bahrain, pleading for protection from the army of Abdul Aziz al-Saud. No help came. If they wanted to avoid being beaten to death, the Shia had to pay taxes at a rate that was normally only levied on non-Muslims. They were also forced to pray in Sunni mosques. One day, so the legend goes, a crazy man saved them. He headed out to an open sewage ditch, dipped himself in it, then marched off to the mosque. The imam was so enraged that the Shia were no longer required to pray in Sunni mosques.

‘What is happening now is just like 1400. Look how they are crushing the protests in Bahrain,’ said Yassir, one of the older men in the group. In the year 1400 of the Hijri calendar – 1979 in the Western calendar, the year of the Khomeini revolution – everything changed for the Shia of the region. ‘No longer did we need to wait for the Mahdi to come and save us. We finally started to interact with the state,’ Abdullah explained.

The Saudi government, under siege from both East and West, saw the many demonstrations in Qatif and Hasa in support of the Iranian revolution as a show of allegiance to a foreign state. Not even the CIA thought the government would last. When Qatif held Ashoura in public, in defiance of the government, thousands poured into the city. In the intricate alleyways of al-Qala, the old town of Qatif, protesters and dissidents were briefly safe from the watchful eye of the tower built to monitor them. But piece by piece the area was bought up by the government for large sums of money and bulldozed. In its place is now a parking lot.

The 1980s were a tumultuous time. Saudi Shia suffered badly in the tug of war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Countless numbers were arrested and tortured; many more fled or disappeared. The crackdown left a permanent scar. Shia were required to be loyal citizens without being treated as such. They began to feel the effects of collective punishment in jobs, schools, colleges and the underdevelopment of their towns.

It was unwise to admit in public that you were a Shia. At school it was best to lie if asked directly, otherwise the other children would ask to see your tail – a rumour going around – or stop talking to you. Another Shia student would timidly seek you out. ‘You look like a Shia. And I heard you argue with the teacher in religion class,’ she would whisper. ‘It’s OK, I’m a Shia too.’ If outed by someone, you might hear the comment ‘But she is so clean!’

‘To open a Shia mosque,’ Abdullah said, expressing his frustration, ‘there are specific rules that must be met: it must be in a new neighbourhood, and the only one within a specific area. You must have permission from all the residents in the neighbourhood, and the call to prayer has to be done in the Sunni way.’ Even then permits are rarely given. They aren’t given for Hussainiyat either. You open one, get arrested a couple of times until it becomes an accepted fact.

The room was buzzing. The men were talking excitedly about the recent protests. On 25 February, the imam of a mosque in Hasa, Sheikh Tawfiq al-Amer, had climbed the pulpit and announced his support for a constitutional monarchy. A petition was already circulating, signed by Muhammad al-Tayib, a famous liberal activist based in Jeddah. The demands were the same: a constitutional monarchy, major institutional reforms and separation of powers.

Sheikh Amer was arrested two days later. The young men were angry, and made plans for a protest. ‘We used the sheikh’s arrest as a pretext,’ Yousif admitted. The following Friday, the men congregated at the mosque. The substitute imam gave a sermon on the virtues of ‘patience and a kind word’, Karim remembered incredulously. Even now he couldn’t believe the man’s audacity. The imam also preached the importance of keeping mosques as places of worship – an allusion to the looming protest. Anger bubbled up. He was interrupted several times. Finally, a man jumped up and shouted at the sheikh: ‘What patience are you talking about? Hurry up, finish your sermon!’ The man was arrested a few days later, and is still in jail.

The worshippers left the mosque and marched to the Emarah, the headquarters of the prince of Hasa, demanding Sheikh Amer’s release. ‘Prince come out!’ the men chanted. ‘No one expected we would head in that direction, so there were no police cars to block our way,’ Karim said. For an hour and a half they marched and chanted. ‘We started in front of the mosque in the hundreds and ended up numbering two thousand. As we passed through the streets more people joined in. We spent about 40 minutes in front of the Emarah, then marched back. No one had banners. Just men marching. The security forces soon showed up, but stayed far away, and even helped with the traffic.’ Everybody went home safely. A day later Sheikh Amer was released.

Several urgent meetings took place in Hasa, at the behest of the government. Prince Muhammad bin Fahd promised to look into the protesters’ demands in exchange for a guarantee that no protest would be staged the following Friday, the Facebook ‘day of rage’. The prince refused to be ‘strong-armed’ into making concessions, even though the demands had to do with familiar grievances that had been persistently ignored. A follow-up meeting was scheduled for Wednesday, 9 March, then delayed to Saturday the 12th, a day after the day of rage.

The situation in Bahrain had reached boiling point, and everyone wanted to know what would happen in Saudi Arabia. Would some Sunnis rise against the government too, as they had in 1400? Or would this be a sectarian issue, easily isolated and extinguished? The whole country held its breath. No one seemed to know the depth of discontent, not even the government. The Shia community waited nervously.

‘On Friday, 11 March, there were more security forces out on the streets than people,’ Yasir said. ‘We felt there was something very wrong, and started to warn protesters not to head to the mosque. We even formed a human chain to stop people getting through.’ It was a smaller crowd than the week before, but some were determined to reach the mosque. ‘There was this old man – he looked about 65 – who kept trying to push past me and shouting “Enough!” and hitting me on the chest. People were finally speaking out.’

Meanwhile, in Riyadh, the two main roads leading to the demonstration sites were closed. The streets were deserted. People were afraid to go out in case they were mistaken for protesters. The police barrier wasn’t breached. Across the country the silence was deafening.

The Shia stood alone.

There were arrests that day in Hasa. The government didn’t have to play nice any more. The Shia were the only ones they needed to fight.

‘A friend of mine in the Emirates was asking me the other day why we live like Syrians. Syrians!’ Hussain said. ‘We are not a poor country, but here we are living like poor people! Why? We need a revolution to uproot this government! I have the right to live a better life than this. I am Saudi. I deserve to live with more dignity.’

Karim, sitting languidly on the sofa to my left, interjected. ‘A constitutional monarchy is the best way to go. This has been proven across the world. We want something like Jordan or Kuwait. I would say Britain, but it took them hundreds of years to reach where they are today.’

‘Why should I let them rule me?’ Hussain was not appeased.

‘To me, it’s only a pragmatic solution,’ Yousif said. ‘We don’t want them to rule, but as a first step to more integral reform I would say a constitutional monarchy is a good thing for now. Otherwise they will exterminate us.’

The debate went on and the contradictions grew.

‘If there were more people with me, I would go out and demonstrate now! But the sheikhs have persuaded the Hasawi community to stop the demonstrations.’ Hussain looked dejected. Forty prominent sheikhs in Qatif had recently called for the protests to end in the interest of ‘dialogue’. Many such messages have been issued.

‘I would love to be the first martyr for change, but if the sheikhs have come out against the demonstrations I won’t protest. I will not be cursed by them. They are too powerful in our community, they still mean something to me.’ Yousif was confessing to something the others didn’t want to acknowledge.

‘It is easier for me to protest against the government than against a sheikh,’ Yasir agreed. ‘I simply can’t. Our children will have better luck changing the country than us.’

As the men started to leave, I remembered a friend’s story about his encounter with a fisherman. To catch grouper fish, the fisherman would use a three-pronged hook with a shiny bit of metal attached to it. The fish would be attracted by the glitter. ‘Don’t you worry the fish will catch on to your trick?’ my friend asked. The man laughed. ‘One fish I caught was covered in these hooks. The fish make the same mistake over and over again.’ ‘Shia in Saudi Arabia,’ my friend said, ‘are a bit like grouper fish. The government knows exactly how to catch us every time.’