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DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia — A peculiar place, this desert kingdom, at once both familiar and puzzling.

Shortly after arriving here, one sees confirmation that the pop-America invasion has not spared this once-closed country. As it has from Tokyo to Moscow, the sugar-coated, cholesterol-loaded, genuine-imitation-plastic side of the American dream has sunk its roots here and spread like kudzu.

Behold the 24-hour Safeway. The Sizzler Steak House. The Hardee's hamburger joint, the 7-11, the Swensen's Ice Cream shop. In a country without trademark laws, The Medmac is a McDonald's ripoff and will fry you a similar gut bomb, and Pizza Sheik's thick-crusted pie passes for Pizza Hut fare.

Just don't get caught in any of those eateries during one of the five daily prayer times.

MUSLIM PRAYER times, when the Islamic devout take time out to worship, are scheduled five times from sunrise to sunset. Most of the prayer times last about half an hour, during which all shops, banks, restaurants and other businesses must close.

Most businesses urge their customers out the door during prayer times. A few, like fast-food restaurants, allow patrons to stay, but stop all services, shutter the windows, turn off the lights and bolt the doors so no one can get in or out.

The city rests at prayer. Although non-Muslims are free to get on with their lives, a group of officials known as the prayer police patrol the streets to insure all public places remain closed until the proper hour. Prayer policemen are unarmed yet carry much sway with shopkeepers — if found breaking Muslim rules, their businesses cane temporarily closed.

A green arrow on the desk from which I type points to Mecca, birthplace of the prophet Mohammad, who brought Allah's (God's) word to the Arabs in the seventh century. To Muslims, Mohammad is the last and most important prophet in a line that includes Abraham, Moses and Jesus. The faithful face Mohammad's birthplace when they pray, hence the arrow on my desk.

AS ONE OF the five pillars of the Islamic religion, prayer is taken most seriously. In his book, "Understanding Islam," author Thomas W. Lippman recalled then-President Jimmy Carter's visit to Saudi Arabia in 1978. Just before Carter arrived, the call to prayer went up and members of the military band that was set to greet him laid their instruments on the flightline and dropped to their knees in devotion.

"It made a bizarre photograph in American newspapers the next morning — men and trombones prostrate together, but it did not strike the Saudis odd in any way," wrote Lippman. "It was prayer time, so they prayed, as God commands."

Despite the gravity with which Moslems practice their religion, crime is not uncommon. In fact, a Reuters News Agency writer who grew up in the Mideast reports heavy illicit drug traffic throughout Saudi Arabia. As she pointed out, oil gave many Saudis a lot of money but nothing to spend it on but sand, so some instead choose cocaine, heroin or marijuana as the objects of their wealth.

But the government has a cure for dope sellers — death.

OF ABOUT 100 public beheadings here last year, most of those slain were drug smugglers, according to the Reuters reporter, who now works in the region. If Washington's Mayor Marion Barry had lived here, he'd never be seeking office again. Criminals, by the way, are beheaded by sword while a crowd watches.

And sometimes it takes more than one hack to finish the victim. The executions, I understand, used to take place each Friday in Dhahran but have been suspended since the herd of foreign journalists arrived to cover the Persian Gulf crisis two months ago.

The government apparently didn't want to turn the beheadings into a media circus. Many of the country's extreme social ways stem from the strict Wahhabi sect of the Moslem religion. Unique to Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism stresses a black-or-white, back-to-basics philosophy similar to American Puritanism.

IF NOT CAUGHT and punished by the prayer police, Wahhabis who sin can expect an afterlife filled with much wailing and gnashing of teeth in a place even hotter than the Saudi desert, if one exists.

Some of the sect's most severe rules target women. In public, Wahhabi women wear crow-black, top-to-toe gowns that reveal nothing more than ankles. A thin, trademark veil covers the eyes and makes the women appear half blind because they must stoop close to whatever they want to see clearly.

In a car, a Wahhabi woman cannot sit beside a man who is not her husband. She cannot enter public buildings alone. She can ride only in special seats on a bus. In many places, including a nearby ice cream store, women cannot sit — there's a sign that shows a woman sitting with a red cross through its center.

The government condemns the sale of skin magazines and anything else it considers pornographic. Even in newsweeklies like Time, censors either chop out photos of swim-suited women or scribble over them with a black marker. In an Archaeology Today edition, the lower half of a picture of a Greek statue was torn off.

NEEDLESS TO SAY, the women's rights movement never reached Saudi Arabia. But, believe it or not, a woman's plight in this country was even worse before the the oil boom in the '70s. Up until then, most girls quit school at about the eighth grade and went on to marry and raise kids. Oil brought cash and a little openmindedness. Now many girls continue through high school and some graduate from college and go on to professional careers in law, medicine or other fields.


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