Citizens in need of a homeland

Far away from media attention there are people stuck in oppression, who never will be known or mentioned. This text is written by a Saudi writer under pseudonym and tells about ethnic and bureaucratic conflicts that can ruin entire lives—and everyone is supposed to look the other way. 

December 14 2011 Text: Waleed Hamadani

A week ago, I drove along the West Coast Road, in the company of a friend, from the city of Jeddah to the southern part of Saudi Arabia. It was night, and the road was quiet. Pilgrims had not yet left Mecca, nor spread out much to fill the highways with vehicles. The road before me was being empty of cars as my friend and I played a “travel game,” one of those games that depend on the memory, done through speech, and which people usually play on long road trips. At this time, I was looking at a reflection of the full moon on the surface of the Red Sea, asking myself why no one can own land or houses on the shore. A matter that may not seem difficult to understand, but here it is nearly impossible. This is just an afterthought that comes to the mind of any person who passes by hundreds of miles of empty or metal-mesh-fenced shores. More than 90% of the Red Sea’s shores are private properties of several influential people in the state. However, as I said, it is just an afterthought that I quickly dismissed from my mind, just as I might swat away a pesky fly. Then I stopped at another checkpoint where a patrolman asks for my ID card.

To be on a wild trip to the south during a time outside the tourism season, this means that that travellers will definitely enjoy the cities and villages they visit without having to encounter the hustle and bustle of tourists. Besides spending some recovery time outside our cities, which are crowded with vehicles, the trip also meant that my friend and I could explore the remote village of my grandmother, less than fifteen kilometres from the Yemeni borders. And indeed, we have now finally arrived at the village, where at the large yard near the valley we see “Maghloub” selling sweets and chips to children, just as he has done now for forty years.

Maghloub suffers from an autism case called “Asperger Syndrome,” which makes treating him special and different for those who don’t know him. But the people of this village and nearby villages have mastered dealing with him. He has contributed to the memories of many living in this area as a peddler selling sweets and cold drinks during many events, both happy and sad, and during the soccer tournaments held in the dusty playgrounds of these remote villages, amid their poverty and unhappy experiences.

I hugged Maghloub, and he asked me about my friend. I told him that he is from the city of Jeddah. “Tell him that I can count a full bag or rice, grain by grain, in order to get an ID,” Maghloub requested. He said that in a begging manner, as he usually does when foreigners visit the village. Who knows! Maybe he will one day encounter an influential person who will help him achieve his wish in getting a Saudi-Arabian identification card.

Maghloub is forty-eight years old, but he holds no ID. He was born and his cries were inaudible because of the raging voice of war. He was ignored in a time when the acquisition of oil and land was better cared for than the people walking on that land. Thus his identity got lost between two countries: Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Maghloub is only one example of the many thousands of people living in these border areas since their birth, in houses built by their grandfathers since the formation of these rural communities. But they have now awakened and discovered that the regime has changed, and according to the new regime they have no identity. Most of them, including Maghloub’s father, were forced to go to Yemen and be issued a Yemeni nationality because it is the easiest solution. Then they would return home to live at least according to the regime/ they will continue to live there after the dust has covered their applications for Saudi nationality, stuck away for decades of years on rusty shelves in the civil status offices. There, where time has forgotten them, they will decay, and nobody will remember them because everyone is now busy with the celebration of the birth of the E-government.

Maghloub knows nobody in Yemen, and he has never visited it before, and he firmly rejects going there so that his belonging to his village will not to be questioned. Therefore he runs angrily after those who play with his special case and way of speech, and who are joking with him and saying “The passport officials will send you away to Yemen!” But at the end of the day, they all acknowledge that he has grown up on this part of the earth and that he does not know anything about anywhere far from his village and the few nearby villages, and he has not gone beyond his house more than five kilometres since he first learned how to get out of his house.

I arrived at the house of my grandmother. She was stretched out on her bed that’s made of wood and palm fronds, gazing into space with two transparent eyes. It is difficult for anybody who knew her ten years ago to recognize her now. She has become littler in size, and her facial features became lost in the wrinkles of her flabby skin. She did not recognize me, because her age has exhausted the last part of her memory and left a very old life in her. She calls for the names of some people whom nobody remembers, and in the evening, she will wait for people who went out in the morning of an old day long ago, and never returned.

I was sitting with my friend, trying to convince him that the “gecko” climbing the room wall looking for insects, is not poisonous, and that people here coexist peacefully with these lizards and other unusual organisms. However, my friend did not accept the idea and remained expectant, ready to run away should the gecko jump and try to attack him. Meanwhile, the voice of my grandmother outside this lower-class room was echoing in the small space, reaching us intermittently and inapprehensible, as she lay on her bed under a blue sky, telling her son, Maghloub, about things that had happened more than fifty years ago as if they were happening at this moment. She asks everyone she meets to help her collect her things to escape and hide from the bombs and rockets that have fallen on them all in a year that was recorded in the memory of the place with the name of the “fugitives’ year.” It became a watershed event in the city of Jizan and Tihama in general. It is the year when the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser supported the Yemeni rebels against the Yemeni regime in 1962, and the effect of this war has extended to reach inside the Saudi borders where this village and other villages are located. At this time, my grandfather and grandmother escaped to the north with as few things as they could carry; then they returned after the voice of the bombs went away and stayed ready until the war had ended in 1967. However, before they escaped, Maghloub, the last of my grandmother’s sons was born, so he entered life as he was escaping, and life escaped him when he became old. Alzheimer’s disease makes my grandmother repeat the old memories of escape to our present time, linking them to this time and moment. She succeeds in making the paradox as if there were a rebellion taking place in the Yemeni streets today, but this time they need neither Abdel Nasser nor escape.

Maghloub taught himself mathematics, and because of his state he could not go to school. He excelled in memorizing the dates of events around him. He found pleasure in collecting haberdashery and a financial benefit in collecting and selling the bottles of soft drinks. He also enjoys touching the magnetic tapes after he removes them from the cassette player and packs them in boxes like big balls of hair. He also spends his time counting things that people do not usually care about their being counted, as if he is reminding the people around him of his problems, blaming them for not including him among them when distributing the nationality papers.

When Saudi Arabia, in the era of King Fahd, celebrated hundred years of establishment, Maghloub used his fingers and memory only on that night to calculate the number of months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds that were included in the hundred years. He has done this same phenomenal mind play while contemplating the stars on his bed before he fell asleep. On the next day, after Az Zuhr prayer, he would go to the imam of the village’s mosque and tell him those numbers. The imam asked one of the children to bring a calculator, then he spent some time trying to think about how to calculate these numbers, and when he did, he was surprised by the result as he saw the same numbers on the screen: “Well done, Maghloub, you are a genius!” the imam said while smiling at him and at the people in the first row in the mosque. Maghloub quickly wiped the features of pride from his face by his right hand, “Tell them then, tell them that I have even calculated the number of seconds in the hundred years without using this calculator; tell them so they will become surprised and ask about me. Then they will remember me and give me nationality!” Maghloub said this with the features of sadness and genuine despair all over his face, because autistic people cannot demonstrate false feelings.

There is something to explain. When Maghloub speaks about the officials who have the power to issue a Saudi ID for him, he refers to them only by the pronouns “they” and “them” without knowing their names or understanding their mentality or way of thinking. He always asks the people coming from Riyadh and Jeddah to visit their relatives in the village to communicate his story to the officials who are responsible for his case. He sends them off when they leave, and waits for their coming throughout the next year, awaiting the good news, and they come once more to visit their relatives but without the good news. He swallows his disappointment and reminds them of his story before they leave again.

Maghloub has no revolutionary ideas, and even if he tried, he would be unable to create a similar idea, which is the situation of thousands like him who have no such nationality, or a nationality of another country where they have never lived, or who have a nationality, but feel that they are only like tenants who can be laid off at any moment. It is like the person thinking of a revolution who always needs a homeland first, and if that person is not tied to a homeland, how can he revolt?

I spent a quiet time with my friend. I have been trying to watch his looks when he speaks to some of the village people. He listens to the speeches of those who bear the Saudi nationality as if he knows what they are saying, and he tries to hide his surprise when he speaks to their cousins who bear the Yemeni nationality, and sighs when he hears the stories of those who have no nationality at all. I have noticed a different glitter shining in his eyes with every conversation he has had, and with every story he listens to. Although he did not tell me these things, I felt when I saw his responses that he had learned some new facts, that he had some new ideas. And in the moments before he went to sleep, I saw him thinking silently and carefully, as if he were sensing the movement of the Earth, as if it will suddenly move and escape, leaving him standing in the space. Then he will become without a place in the universe, without identity, and without homeland.

On the drive home, silence prevailed throughout the trip. There was no extra time for playing a game. When we drove past some fences and signs that referred to those areas as private properties, I noticed my friend looking at them along the huge extent of land, and we continued to say nothing. On occasion he might interrupt the silence with a question, trying to link the pictures of simplicity, primitiveness, poverty, and loss of identity that he witnessed in those border villages. When he might ask me for an example of my uncle Maghloub, an anecdote of something he might have done or said, I would tell him, for example, that he formed a happy part of my childhood. How he used to walk carrying me astride his shoulders and how he used to do that with most of the children in the village. And despite the instability of his mental and psychological states, people of the village would rest assured and feel comfortable when their children were playing with him. I was describing old pictures from memory but my thoughts returned to the moment when I noticed a checkpoint, one of those many checkpoints on the road. So I stopped, opened the car window, and felt the moisture invading us as I heard a policeman’s insensitive voice asking to see my ID.

We had returned.