Ambros Prechtl, ND PhD
King Abdu Aziz University
Department of European Languages
M E M O R I E S of C O U N T R Y X
Just back from seven years in a country so strange it is hard to believe that something like it can exist in the closing decade of the 20th century. I won't tell you immediately which country I have in mind. I'll tell you all sorts of things about it, give you clue after clue, some of which will make you shake your head in disbelief, and -- let you guess. I wonder how far you will have to read before the penny drops.
Here are a few relatively objective data first. The country -- let me call it Country X -- is large in land area, about 1/5 that of Canada, but its population is small, less than 2/3 of Canada's. Its large land area is a liability rather than an asset, much of it being uninhabitable.
The country's health care system is well developed. It boasts 30 nurses and 14 doctors per 100,000 people (Canada 35/20). There is free public health care for everyone and there are expensive private hospitals for those who can afford them.
University education is not merely free, but the government of Country X pays every student who attends university the equivalent of about $ 350.00 Cdn a month.
Country X is a veritable consumer paradise, where palatial shopping centers vie with traditional local markets in offering you anything your consumer heart may desire -- the cheapest junk from Pakistan or Taiwan and the most exquisite of manufactured goods from Britain, Germany, Switzerland or the United States. Giant supermarkets offer a variety of foods as wide as that of any North-American supermarket. The only thing you won't find there is pork and wine. And, because there are no taxes on any level -- no income tax, no sales tax, no property tax -- many imported goods are cheaper in Country X than in their countries of origin. Top-of-the-line Mercedeses choke the streets of major cities. Per capita income is as a high as in all but a few of the world's developed countries.
But, though Country X is of great importance for our globe, very little is known about what goes on inside it. It is a country veiled in silence. Want to join me for a few glimpses behind that veil? I can't imagine that you have already guessed its identity.
Country X straddles the line that separates the Third World from the First World. It boasts the best the West has to offer of technology; but its political and social doctrines strike us like remnants of past centuries. I have before me a copy of a newspaper article from the "... News," about the trial of an Indian woman, a resident of Country X, who was charged with having practiced witchcraft, found guilty and sentenced to three years in jail. The plaintiff, an Indian man, accused her of having cast an evil spell on his brother and all his family because that brother had divorced a daughter of hers. Though "the witch looked at the accuser in anger and denied all that he had said," the article concluded, the court found her guilty as charged. [I'll give you the full name of "... News," the country's foremost English-language paper, when I reveal the identity of the country itself.]
Though Country X is not and never was a communist country, there is much about it that reminds one of the former Communist countries in Europe. Terms such as Amnesty International, democracy and freedom of speech are dirty words. Trade unions and strikes are illegal. The country has a well-developed and well-organized national security system, complete with an omnipresent and ever-vigilant, very secret, secret police force. It has, moreover, a kind of police force not known elsewhere -- a morality police, whose avowed purpose it is to promote virtue and to prevent vice.
This morality police is a force unto itself, responsible to no-one but itself, and it has the power to regiment areas of life which we would consider strictly private. Take this for an example: a young couple at a local market, she licking an ice-cream cone. Enter an officer of the feared morality police. He chides the husband for letting his wife lick ice-cream in public. "It is not acceptable," he remonstrates, "for a woman to show her tongue in public. That's something for the bedroom only."
The morality police makes sure that, if women appear in public, they do so in modest attire. In many parts of the country, modest attire means that not a square inch of a woman's skin may be visible. With a woman thus attired, it is impossible to tell whether she is pretty or not, black or brown or white, young or old. The only thing one can tell is whether she is short or tall, slim or corpulent.
But the gentlemen of the morality police watch over men's attire too. While out jogging, I was stopped by them several times because they found my shorts too short though I wore Bermuda shorts that went down to and covered at least half of my knees. I was given to understand that that was no way for a grown man to be running around in public.
Licking an ice-cream cone in public is not the only thing women are forbidden to do in Country X. Here is a headline from the same "... News": "Women's Demo Was a Stupid Act, says...." Can't tell you just yet who said this. If I did, I'd give the game away. But I can give you a few clues. Country X does not permit its women to drive motor vehicles. Now, during the first Gulf War, about fifty rebellious young women staged a driving demonstration. They had seized vehicles belonging to the male members of their families and driven them down the main streets of their country's capital. They were stopped in their tracks. Out of nowhere, the police appeared to take all the wayward damsels into custody. The man who called their performance a stupid act was one of the senior ministers in the country's government. When questioned by reporters, he admitted that the women, "who did not exceed 40 in number, had driven about 12 cars for a short distance," and he expressed his regrets that the spouses of those women had permitted this act to take place.
Through the grapevine we learned that some of those spouses were flogged for not controlling their women folk better. Quipped one of the women with whom we talked about the incident "Better them than us." She did so in whispers lest someone from either the secret police or the morality police should hear.
The morality police has its agents planted in all sorts of places. From day one, I received whispered warnings from some of my colleagues that I should watch what I said in class because I could expect there to be a representative of the morality police in every class. An American pilot trainer told me that, in every group of students he taught, there was bound to be an agent of the morality police.
Has the penny dropped? Do you think you know now what country I have in mind? If not, stay with me. If you think you already know what country I have in mind, stay with me nevertheless. I have a few more surprises in store for you.
Women in Country X are not allowed to do all sorts of other things which women in our part of the world take for granted. They are, to offer a few examples, not allowed to leave their homes unchaperoned, not allowed to sign themselves into a hotel without a male chaperon, not allowed to travel abroad without a male chaperon, not allowed to work in public. For all the work they may be expected to do at home, they cannot work in public except as teachers in girls' schools or as medical doctors. Sales clerks in stores, bank tellers, secretaries in offices -- they are all men. My wife had to buy her underwear from sales clerks that were men. The moralists of Country X seem to think that the firmament would come down on humanity if women were allowed to work side by side with men in stores, in offices, in schools.
Both my wife and I taught at one of the country's most important universities. About three-quarters of the student body were boys, one-quarter girls. But the twain never met. In the morning, I'd drop my wife at one of the heavily guarded gates on the women's side. From that moment till it was time to go home in the afternoon, I could communicate with her only by phone. Come going-home time, she'd let me know by phone when she was ready. Then I'd make my way back to the gate to pick her up. The maintenance people on the women's side -- plumbers, painters, electricians, etc. -- were all women.
It goes without saying that the teachers on the women's side were all women too. However there were a few courses that had to be taught by men because there were no women qualified to teach them. These courses were taught via closed-circuit television from the men's side. The girls would hear the male teachers' voices and see their faces on the T.V. screen, but their own faces were not exposed to the eyes of men.
The university we worked for was on e-mail but did not have access to the Internet. Allah forbit!. On the internet, teachers and students alike would have been able to find women that were less than modestly dressed and, worse, they would have had access to news which the censors of their own coutry made sure they did not get to see at home.
I made liberal use of e-mail to communicate with people on several continents, but I could not communicate with a female subscriber from the same university. If I had been caught communicating with a woman, thought that woman should have been my wife, I would have risked losing my account. Male students caught trying to communicate with female staff or students not only risked losing their accounts: they risked being kicked out of the university.
In Country X, unmarried teenage girls are not allowed to have anything to do with boys who are not their brothers. No going out with boys, no dating. They cannot even talk to boys on the phone. If my wife wanted to talk to one of her students on the phone, she'd have to work her way past the student's parents, who would make sure first that the call was a legitimate call, not just a girl fronting for a boy.
If parents go out, leaving a daughter of marriageable age at home -- marriageable, for a girl, means having had her first period -- they lock either the rooms that contain the phones or they lock the phones themselves. If a girl should manage to circumvent all these safeguards, she'd have to be super-careful not to get caught. If caught, she could be in deep trouble. She would have dishonored the family. To restore the family honor, she might have to be married off to some man old enough to be her grandfather, who moreover might have two or three legitimate wives already.
Ali, one of my students, told me that, having just turned 21, he could no longer visit his older brother's house. The reason? His brother is married to a young wife, in whom a visit by Ali could wake immoral thoughts. There'd be no telling what might happen. A proverb [of Country X], he told me, has it that the brother-in-law is the death of the brother's wife.
A typical apartment in Country X has two entrances, one for the men and one for the women. When people go visiting, the men go in through the men's door and the women through the women's door, and the two sexes don't see each other again until they leave.
Though you have probably guessed by now what country I am talking about, let me tell you a few more things about it before I reveal its identity.
Judicial executions are common in Country X. Drug dealers are usually made short shrift of: they are tried and sentenced a day or two after they get caught and they are beheaded the Friday after. Friday is execution day. Drug dealing, rape and murder are the three principal crimes that call for the death penalty. A convicted thief may have one of his hands cut off.
Executions are a public spectacle. A big crowd gathers around Execution Square long before the event itself. When the executioner, usually a big and strong black man, separates the culprit's head from his body with one powerful, well-practiced swing of a big sword, the crowd breaks out in loud shouts of approval.
Still guessing? Well, whether you are or not, I am not yet ready to lift the veil. I want to toss you a few more clues first.
There is something else Country X has in common with the former communist regimes -- its media eagerly expose the wickedness of the outside world while they try to depict their own country as a true bastion of morality. A clergyman accused of sexually molesting either little boys or little girls in some western country merits headlines in the major papers. Since nothing like that is reported to happen at home, people -- all but those who for one reason or other know better -- take this as evidence that nothing like it ever does happen there.
One is constantly bombarded with propaganda that every denizen of Country X is a paragon of virtue while the West is a den of debauchery from one end to the other. But you won't hear a word -- not an official word, that is -- about the thousands of Country X males who escape the straight jacket of their country's pseudo-morality every chance they get to do in the wicked countries of the West or of the East the things it would be too risky to do at home -- get drunk, fornicate and gamble for money. The flesh markets of Bangkok are among their favorite haunts. There they can buy themselves little girls to spend a weekend with. When the weekend is over, the little girls slip back into the anonymity of the big city while those male paragons of virtue go home to Country X to join the we-are-the-most-virtuous-society-on-earth chorus again. Never miss a beat.
A prominent publisher in Country X -- a seemingly educated man, who has spent years in Britain -- believes that there is no virgin to be found in any of Britain's junior or senior high schools. When I asked him how he knew, he looked at me contemptuously and said, "We know and you know. The difference between you and us is that you won't admit it."
A series of car accidents on one of Germany's super-highways involving dozens of cars is big news. Traffic accidents galore happen in Country X but they are not written up in the papers or reported on T.V. Scandals financial or sexual involving western politicians are big news too. They show just how corrupt the outside world is and, by implication, how pure Country X is. In the seven and a half years we spent there, we did not come across a single line of criticism of its government or of its institutions.
The very papers that write about "young girls auctioned off in Amazon towns" pass over in silence the fact that in their country, young girls quite often go to the highest bidder too though the name of the game is not auction. In Country X it's the bride price from the highest bidder that often gets the prize. The happiness of the bride herself is of little more consequence than it is at the auctions in Amazon towns, nor is the fact that she be 15 and the highest bidder may be old enough to be her grandfather, if not her great-grandfather. Young men who are not independently well off can't compete in this marriage market. The girl a young man would like to marry may become the prize of some rich oldster married and divorced several times over, and that rich oldster could conceivably be his own grandfather.
Still guessing? Won't be long now before I pull away the veil that I have draped over the name of our mystery country. Bear with me just a little longer.
An article titled "Housemaids tell tales of woe" tells the story of a group of Asian housemaids, who returned home from a foreign country close to, but not Country X itself, accusing their employers of rape, attempted rape and failure to pay them their wages. Thousands of housemaids, Asian and African, working in Country X itself could tell similar tales of woe but not one of those tales would find its way into the country's media.
In a similar vein, an article in one of the country's leading English-language papers maintains that "Liberty in U.K. [is getting] Worse...." It charges the British government with muzzling the press, with "sanitizing" books and periodicals through onerous libel laws, with generally suppressing the freedom of speech. This in a country that practices total censorship itself. Every copy of every paper or magazine that enters Country X from abroad passes through the "Ministry of Information," a euphemism for censorship. An editor of a newspaper who does not want to risk losing his job, perhaps even going to jail, must make surer than sure that nothing goes into print that might challenge official political, social or religious doctrines. Every manuscript of every book to be published in the country has to meet the approval of the censors; so does every textbook to be used in schools or universities, every program to be aired on radio, every film to be shown on T.V. Nothing can be said or shown in public that Big Brother has not put his stamp of approval on.
And, should something escape the scrutiny of the professional censors, it is not likely to escape the notice of the vast army of religious zealots, self-appointed censors who will bring any lapse of attention to the notice of the powers that be. I speak from personal experience. I had a book on how to give up smoking published in Country X. It had passed the official censors all right but, soon after it appeared on the shelves of local book stores, several angry readers let the publisher know by phone that there were things in the book that were not compatible with Country X's high moral standards. Here are two of the things they had found offensive. Talking about techniques of relaxation, I recommend that the reader think of himself in a setting he enjoys, to wit "you and your girlfriend out in a boat at sunset." In Country X, "girlfriend" is a dirty word. Somewhere else in the book I say, "Imagine yourself kissing your wife or your girlfriend with lips no longer reeking of smoke." Here was the offensive "girlfriend" again and -- something that made it worse -- talk of KISSING a girlfriend! The publisher was frightened by the calls. In Country X, the very thought of having a girlfriend is immoral. He had the book recalled at once, asked me to re-write it, and had a new edition of it on the shelves a few months later.
In like manner, the country's media make much hue and cry about human rights violations in the rest of the world while the very massive human rights violations that happen at home go unreported. Here are a few headlines from "... News":
UN told of rights abuses in Iran
Rights violations in Asia disturbing: Amnesty
Amnesty reports widespread torture, killings in 1988
In articles like these, the country's spokesmen shed crocodile's tears about human rights abuses in the rest of the world but turn a blind eye to the rights abuses that occur at home.
Camel races are a popular event in Country X. But the jockeys that ride the camels are little boys, not men. These boys are tied to the backs of the beasts so that they cannot fall off and their screams of terror are supposed to goad the animals to give it all they have. These boys are "recruited" by unscrupulous agents in the poorest of Asian countries -- bought from their parents, abducted or simply rounded up in the streets -- and then shipped to Country X, where they are kept captive, to be pressed into service on race days. Human rights violations? Why, no! Since the rich playboys of Country X do not dirty their hands directly with the "recruitment" of these boys, there are no human rights violations.
Country X makes much self-congratulatory noise about the fact that it abolished slavery in the 1960s. But slavery was abolished in name only; in practice it very much continues to exist.
The country employs a vast army of modern work slaves recruited from the world's poorest countries -- housemaids, drivers, street cleaners, garbage collectors, construction laborers, blue collar workers of all sorts -- to do the dirty work, which the country's citizens regard as below their dignity. Many of these "contract workers" are exploited and abused beyond the power of words to describe. They are lured into the country with promises of decent jobs and fair wages. The reality that awaits them is something quite different. Many of them work long hours six days a week, some of them seven days a week, for a pittance. According to their contract, they should get a day a week off. Many of them -- especially the housemaids, the poorest of the poor -- get no time off at all. Many of them, if they get paid at all, are paid less than half of the 250 US dollars a month they were promised.
Take the cleaners on the men's side of our university, Bangladeshis most of them. They are paid the equivalent of less than 100 US dollars a month. In their own country, 100 dollars would be money; in Country X it is nothing much, for Country X is no cheap country. Its general cost of living is about the same as that of Canada. Just before we left Country X for good, those poor cleaners had not been paid for half a year. If we had had to go without pay for half a year, it would have hurt us but we could have survived because we had reserves. How can those poor wretches build reserves when their pay is far from enough to make ends meet in the first place. The maintenance girls on the women's side had not been paid for several months either.
True, these "slaves" don't wear visible chains, but there are invisible chains that bind them just as securely. When they arrive at their place of work, they have to surrender their passports to their employers and they can't get these passports back until their employers are ready to let them go. These modern slaves cannot even run away when things become unbearable. Where could they go without passports in a country where security is tighter than tight.
Things do become unbearable for many of them. Most housemaids work inhumanly long hours. They get up before the earliest risers and are up till the latest night owls of their employer's family go to bed. Some of them are "on call" 24 hours of the day. To make matters worse, a good many of them are taken advantage of sexually by their masters. That's par for the course in Country X: if a man pays for the services of a housemaid, that includes the sexual service. And the wives, who suspect what's going on, are livid with jealousy and make life hell for the poor women when the husbands are not around. They scream at them, call them animals, beat them, kick them and threaten them with lethal weapons. We know of one poor housemaid who had boiling water splashed into her face by her irascible mistress. I often said to my wife, "Don't know where these poor devils find the strength to get up morning after morning to yet another day of misery with nothing ever to look forward to."
I remember reading in a recent book about life in Country X that a rich family employed two Asian girls ostensibly as housemaids but really for their teenage sons to practice sex on. [PRINCESS, A TRUE STORY OF LIFE BEHIND THE VEIL IN SAUDI ARABIA. Jean P. Sasson. Morrow. N.Y. 1992]
Every once in a while, during the seven years we spent in the country, we'd find a brief notice in the paper of a foreign maid executed for murdering her master or someone in his family. Never a word though about what the master or his family had done to drive the maid to such a desperate deed. While we were there, Western media carried the story of a sixteen-year-old Asian housemaid sentenced to death for killing her master, not in Country X, but in a neighboring country that subscribes to similar codes of behavior. [In a footnote at the end of this piece, some specific details of the case are supplied.]
There have been similar cases in Country X but western media have not reported them. The veil of silence around Country X remains intact.
I wonder whether the veil that I have draped over the country's name, is still intact too? If it is, I am about to lift it.
Let's take stock. I have told you that, while the country boasts the best the 20th century has to offer in technology, in other areas of life the 20th century has not arrived there, and I have given you a good many particulars to back up this general statement. I have further tried to show how unreservedly most of the country's people, victims of their own propaganda, believe that theirs is the most moral, if not the only moral, society on earth. The president of the Society for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice -- that is, the commanding officer of the morality police -- quite obviously subscribes to this belief. Here is the concluding sentence of an interview he gave to Arab News, the major English-language paper in his country: "We should be proud of being the only country in the world that enjoins good and fights evil." Congratulations, Saudi Arabia! Congratulations from the wicked world surrounding you....
***** T H E E N D *****
Note: The name of the poor 16-year-old girl is Sarah Balabagan. The setting of the tragedy -- United Arab Emirates. A virgin, she killed her master, a 50-year-old who was out to rape her. UAE media made the murder victim out to be 85 years old. That was sure to arouse public anger -- this brasen foreign hussy killing a venerable old man in his eighties who could not possibly have wanted to rape her. The truth is, that the man who tried to violate her was a strapping 50-year old. After more than a year in jail, she was tried, convicted of murder and sentenced to death. But there was such an outcry of public indignation in the Philippines and elsewhere that, the president of UAE decided to commute the death sentence to one year in prison plus a hundred lashes. I feel certain that, if this had happened in Saudi Arabia, there would have been no hope of a revision of the verdict.
A film, made in the Philippines about Sarah, was to have its premiere around the middle of March 1997, but it was banned by the Philippine government at the last moment. One of the reasons offered was that showing the film would sour relations with the UAR, one of the most important trading partners of the Philippines. The Muslim population of the Philippines, up in arms over the film because in their opinion it was an insult to Islam, threatened to blow up cinema houses that would show the film. These threats may have had to do with the banning of the film. A good many Filipinos I talked to were furious that their government so easily knuckled under when a Middle East country shows anger. There are bastards everywhere, one of them argued, among Christians as well as among Budhists, in the US and in Canada as well as in the Philippines. If a Christian who has committed rape is tried and found guilty, we don't call it an insult to Christianity and, if a US citizen is charged with a heinous crime, Americans don't mount barricades calling it an insult to the US. But if a citizen of the UAE emirates, who has behaved abominably, is to be exposed publicly, the government of that country calls it an attack on the dignity of the country itself and exposing a Muslim as a scoundrel becomes an attack on Islam.
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