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.

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