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    Posted December 18, 2013 by
    Mumbai, India
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    The written word: Your personal essays

    Reminiscence of a Scary Night in Jeddah


    With their eye balls thrust out, the cops rummaged all around with an overriding enthusiasm to unearth something undesirable to nail us. The probe went on for sometime like a futile exercise, yielding nothing. At the end, the senior among them turned back to us sarcastically commanding in Arabic ‘Yella Thal’(come on), visibly upset and venting out all his discomfiture. My belly set on fire, I beseeched: “Sir, we are no wrongdoers; legitimate residents only, came here to work, earn some money and make a living. We never did anything illicit or immoral”, though I knew that it would not make any impact on him. The Saudi cops neither know nor heed any other language except Arabic and to make matters worse, are harsher than their counterparts elsewhere in the Gulf. In Saudi the expatriate community always has a phobia when facing the cops, which is indescribable. Adamant in their elusive pursuit even after finding nothing despicable anywhere and not bothering to let us know our transgression, they took us to a police station few kilometers away, and made to wait near the station chief, the ‘Sword of Damocles’ hanging over us.

    We were employed by the Electro-Mechanical Contracting Division of a well known Saudi conglomerate. We three colleagues were living together in a rented 2BHK apartment at a place called Al Rawda, which was just 10 minutes walk from our office. Our daily duty including two hours overtime used to end at 9.00 o’clock in the night and thereafter we used to do our shopping and cooking. By the time we were off to bed, it would not be before midnight. Three hours leisure time daily in the afternoon from 1.00 to 4.00 p.m. could let us snooze to make up for the shortcomings. Being married bachelors (that was the term comically coined by us to describe ourselves, which aptly reflected our living condition there) all three of us shared the tasks of shopping, cooking, washing etc., which were enjoyable for us, during that time we gossiped on various topics, cracking jokes, making fun each other, etc.


    We were busy in our cooking and chatting chorus as usual that night when the doorbell rang. One of us opened the door to see if any of our colleagues came to call on us as it used to be. Suddenly, these cops in their traditional Arabic dress burst through and marched inside like an array of penguins. Unaware that they were cops, we questioned them for such an uncivilized behavior. Immediately, to our utter dismay, one of them lifted up a pair of handcuffs and showed us, setting on the panic button in us. Struggling to suppress my terror and grief, I mutely cursed those interlopers for spoiling the night and our painstakingly prepared dinner too. Throughout the ordeal we tried to be steadfast and hold our ground as never any of us even dared to deviate, let alone defy, any of the rules, regulations and customs of the country.

    Saudi, Being hyper Islamic, is perhaps the strictest country in the world, where religion is entrenched in the minds, a notch ahead of everything and the tempers simmer unrelentingly whenever its veracity is impugned even slightly. As is known, Sharia is the rule of law which as enforced in Saudi is the severest form of law and way of life, and punishments for offences are the harshest. Needless to say, anybody caught for trafficking in illicit drugs and similar offences would end up in the gallows, so also for murder, rape, etc. and for stealing it is the convict’s right palm that would be sheared off. Nevertheless, so wicked are the ways of the drug cartels and mafias that they do not spare even the innocent from scapegoatism and resort to any clandestine methods to achieve their nefarious ends. The case of a poor carpenter named Santosh is still live in my mind. Santosh landed in Saudi on a contract to work as carpenter through an agent in India, who reportedly deceived him. In a nutshell, the episode as gathered from media reports goes like this: Santosh was so poor, uneducated and without any proper means of sustenance at home. He could not even afford a proper bag to carry his belongings. Before departure to Saudi, his agent ostensibly gave him a suitcase asking him to hand over it after use to an anonymous person in Saudi who would approach him once he settled there. Shockingly, that suitcase had a secret chamber at the bottom where illicit drugs were concealed which the poor fellow didn’t realize and alas, he was caught red handed by Saudi Customs at the Jeddah International airport. He was charged with the heinous crime of drug smuggling and was executed within a week. Next day, newspapers in Saudi carried the news of his execution. However, after a few weeks, a prominent daily carried an article on him titled ‘Carpenter from India – culprit or scapegoat?’ This gave a more heartrending twist to an already pathetic incident. One can only hope and pray that the innocents never get trapped and punished like that.

    The kingdom is very unique in myriad ways and to experience that uniqueness, there is no better way than living in the country for some time. Only thing is that one has to bring about some discipline in life while living there and should never be swayed into any wrong or illegal path. No source of entertainment, except the Satellite TV which was our only consolation, else home atmosphere would be akin to the barren landscape outside. Citing it as an electronic source of vice, once the hardnosed muttawas ordered to root out Satellite Dishes altogether from the country. Fortunately then the pragmatic former King himself intervened and reversed the order. Saudi has an umpteen number of religious police too, who in the local dialect are known as ‘Muttawa’ or ‘Mutaween’. Muttawas are in fact more powerful than the normal police, for they can interfere practically in everything in the name of religion. During prayer time, they would appear in their peculiar type vans shouting ‘yella salah’, ‘ yellah salah’, which means, ‘rush for prayer’. During that time shops are to be closed and people are not supposed to roam around or assemble except for prayer. While being out we used to be little scared, for the muttawas may even cane people who wander around during prayer time. However, one may wonder that even despite all such rigidity, illegal activities are not uncommon, albeit very surreptitiously. Alcohol is very strictly banned, but locally distilled as well as foreign made stuff are available, so also drugs, thanks to bootleggers inside and outside. Those who patronize would only know the whereabouts and availability. Illicit liquor would camouflage and incarnate even as mineral water, bottled and sealed in the normal way causing not an iota of doubt, unless and until unsealed!

    After a long wait at the police station, a middle aged man with the hues of an Egyptian appeared before us with a little boy. The boy, after looking at us, instantly gave a nod in disagreement. The station in charge rose from his seat and shook hand with one of us saying consolingly ‘malish’(never mind) and asked us in Arabic ‘fi seyyarah’, which meant ‘Do you have vehicle?’ Immediately one of the policemen who took us to the station came inside saluting his boss and said something to him in their vernacular. Eventually, we heaved a sigh of relief which was quite ineffable! We were dropped back near the building where we stayed, and the time was around 2.00 a.m. the next morning. We cursed ourselves for our ordeal and went to bed. The rest of that night, sleep evaded me and I kept pondering as to what could have been our fate had the little boy in his immaturity wrongfully implicated us.

    Baffled, the next day I asked some of my Arab colleagues at the workplace to know what could be the intention of the cops. They opined that the cops could have been trying to trace out some offenders for stealing, hurting the boy, or for some other offence and it is customary for them to focus on bachelors in the vicinity if anything untoward is reported from a particular locality. So flabbergasted, I wondered whether being a bachelor in Saudi tantamount to an offence. The more strict the country is, the more bizarre it too. A recent news report said that two young men from the UAE who were attending the ‘Janadriyah’ festival on the outskirts of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, were deported by the Muttawas since the men looked so handsome that they could entice Saudi girls! Close on the heels of that, another report stated that a Saudi bride persuaded her groom to marry two of her friends also along with her, and paradoxically, the guy succumbed to pressure from her and his own relatives as well! Where else on earth such weird incidents take place?

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