Rabbitbrush Rambler: An ugly surprise


A few days ago, in my files I came upon a 25-page article from an American magazine which another writer must have sent to me, knowing I would have been interested, and I reread it at bedtime. This article was written in 2004 by an American journalist who had recently been doing temporary work for the Saudi-owned newspaper Okaz and its English-language edition Saudi Gazette. His description of the workplace and Saudi Arabia jogged many memories.

A quarter century earlier than he was there, I had been writing features for Okaz and Saudi Gazeette, and sometimes also for Arab News, and Aramco World. I enjoyed the experience, visiting wonderful places like a Bedouin camp where a wife was weaving a new strip for her tent, the Red Sea and scuba diving with schools of fish, Jordan and other wonders like Petra, women-only art shows where the artists wore veils, Yemen, which turned out to be a tougher one. It was fun, but, still, I knew that every assignment I did was being examined closely by higher ups.

My pieces were stuff about interesting places and activities, although I did try to privately sneak some photos of public places like the fish market, which were taboo, and driving was no problem because I had a driver. Women could not yet drive there, which was a good thing if you can picture all the wrecks on the streets and roads caused by men who drove like maniacs.

Women were as curious about me as I was about them, so some invited me on the spot into their homes for a cup of tea (shaay). There, they removed their veils, revealing their friendly faces, and we communicated with lots of gesticulations and smiles, while I tried to guess whether an older woman in the room was a mother-in-law or the eldest wife in the household, bossing the other wives and children.

With gratitude, I still remember the kindnesses and helpfulness of many Saudis, women and men alike, and their friendly laughter when I made gauche mistakes. Which took place more often that I would like to have happened.

The pieces I was writing were not about issues that would have driven me up a wall if I had been in my own country. But, in contrast to my activities, an author who was there a quarter century after me was a bona fide journalist with a temporary assignment to coach young novices about things like investigative reporting. He was having little success because that just was not the way Saudis expected to write news. 

In his off-hours he mingled with Saudi journalists in Jeddah and Riyadh, where he occasionally heard criticisms about issues, while other writers were just doing their jobs without much curiosity, apparently. One whom Wright chatted with was a Saudi who was working for Arab News. This confidant had studied journalism in Indiana earlier, and now he was contributing pieces to Arab News that contained criticisms about things he did not like in the kingdom. So, naturally, he got fired but found another job.

In the article I was now rereading, it mentioned this critic’s name, Jamal Khashoggi. Suddenly I was wide awake.

WHOA! WHO? THAT JAMAL KHASHOGGI? The one who recently was brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Turkey by a team of Saudis and has been in the headlines since then?

The one who had recently been living in voluntary exile in the United States and writing criticisms of the Saudi government, including in the Washington Post?

This sordid event has become a major, international affair, understandably, and Jamal Khashoggi is not going to be forgotten soon by anyone. But I suppose there is no reason to save the article in my files now, so into the trash bag it will go.

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