The Middle Ground

When I decidedIMG_4310 to start this blog a few months ago, for obvious reasons I made a conscious decision to keep it strictly socio-cultural, without touching upon sensitive geo-political issues that would likely obscure the very message I am attempting to convey. However, after the tragedy that occurred in Mina over the past month amidst a backdrop of an evermore tense and frankly frightening political climate, I feel there are some things that must be said and this blog provides the ideal venue.

It’s not a very encouraging time for those who dream of peace in the region. Discourse and rhetoric on both flanks of the Saudi-Iranian ‘divide’ are becoming more scathing, and more pronounced. On the Iranian side, there is a perception among many that the Saudi government somehow targeted those of Iranian nationality (theirs bearing the brunt of the death toll) and failed to adequately manage the tragedy post-event. Many in Saudi Arabia conversely are convinced, and convincing others, that there was some high-level Iranian involvement to instigate the stampede and hence stir commotion and upheaval, putting into question Saudi Arabia’s authority over the holy sites. What is being side-lined in both cases is the very real, human aspect of the disaster – those that have lost their lives or lost loved ones on a spiritual journey that is meant to be the highlight of a devout Muslim’s life. The blame-game and heightened rhetoric tends to only exacerbate the pain of those grieving at this sensitive time. Yet another event is now polarising the two populations even further, to the delight of hardliners, while pushing the possibility of mutual understanding and empathy back another few decades. This disaster cannot and should not be belittled; however, it is also worth considering what is at stake on a larger scale for the future of the region and its inhabitants, and what needs to be kept in mind.

I had left Iran immediately after the unfortunate events of 24 September for a conference. It was then that I was asked, or implored, by my mother not to return and risk my safety at this delicate juncture. She is under no illusions that the country is teeming with mobs sharing the sole aim of tracking down and attacking Saudis. Nonetheless, the images of anti-Saudi demonstrations outside the embassy in Tehran coupled with the sharpening tone of both governments towards each other gave her cause for concern. I calmly reassured her, as I have to other family members and friends enquiring about my safety, that as poignant as it is, and regardless of what the media shows (media which also regularly aggravates tensions), I truly don’t expect this latest event to fundamentally alter my experience or encounters in Iran. Nor has it since my return.

I do concede, the immigration officer on my way back in inspected my passport for a few more seconds than usual, and proceeded to ask me questions with a rather stern face. Nonetheless, as soon as I got to my topic of research (Iranian Studies), his face broke into a wide smile as he acknowledged my objective interest in the country, and he wished me the best of luck while stamping my passport. I have been living here for nine months now, and my experience with the wide majority of people that I meet – and you meet a lot in the hustle and bustle of Tehran and surrounding regions – is that people are able to separate between politics and individuals in a way that is in fact unique in the Middle East. Not one person I have come across has cared that I am Saudi Arabian; not one person I have come across has cared that I am Sunni. Of course, this is besides the gasps of interest followed by a series of questions. It’s not as though I am holding a huge placard declaring myself as Saudi; as I’ve mentioned in previous posts I blend in as many Arabs could pass for Iranians, and vice versa. As soon as someone hears the quirk in my accent though, after usually asking if I’m Indian (which I get the world over) and then finding out my nationality, the interest and curious questions begin. I am not claiming that hardliners or chauvinists do not exist. I am also not trying to claim that the experience of every other Saudi Arabian residing or visiting here might be the same as mine. All I can give however is my own personal feedback and what I have come to understand about the Iranian people; and with the relative scarcity of fellow Saudis here, I think it is a good example to go by – assuming that other hypothetical Saudis wouldn’t come here expressing prejudiced or extreme views themselves. One cannot generalise and blindly label a population of 80 million, just as one cannot do the same with a population of 19 million.

I suppose there is another relevant example to mention in this regard. Yesterday, as I was buying some dough from the university shop (a yoghurt drink, laban or ‘ayran in the Arab world), a good friend of mine joked to the cashier: “don’t serve her, she’s Saudi”. While I personally knew that the mentality of my friend could not be further than what his joke indicated, after he left the cashier – a lovely lady that I enjoy a good rapport with – spent a full five minutes taking me aside to make sure I wasn’t offended, hurt or in any way upset by his comment. She said that remarks like that have no place here, no matter what the context or intention.

The silent majority has nothing to do with the politics at the top. They are not looking for where to place the blame. They are mostly going about their day-to-day lives, some are currently mourning, and others are perhaps wondering when the region will ever get back from the depths it has plunged to – as I am. This blog has up until now been trying to recount my everyday experiences and display the kindness I have witnessed from both strangers and acquaintances as a Saudi Arabian here, not because I think that kindness and hospitality are unique to this country or something not to be expected in Iran, but because the damaging and divisive way in which so many interpret the current ‘cold conflict’ between our countries gives credence and authority to the preposterous idea that there is a fundamental enmity between the populations. I’ve been attempting to use my personal experience here – while of course not an all-inclusive, infallible sample but still something – to disprove just that.

In my humble opinion, those of us with more moderate outlooks need to do much more to tackle the damaging words and stereotypes that are so lightly strewn about if we ever want to see a region that is not on fire. Some might argue that it has nothing to do with us, but on the contrary, it starts with the personal, the human conduct and interactions between those who are to inhabit this star-crossed region. There needs to be far more awareness in general and less susceptibility to blind hatred, prejudice and false categorisations. This of course goes for both sides of the ‘divide’. If we are ever to witness a day where animosity or destruction does not permeate the pores of the Middle East, extreme, sectarian or simply bigoted views and statements must be de-normalised and ostracised, and indeed one day hopefully removed from the equation. A day when radical preachers, for instance those pronouncing fatwas that the blood of all Shia ‘heretics’ or their sympathisers is halal, will themselves be outcast. Both populations – to be sure, all of us in the Middle East – need to be more aware of the middle ground, which surely exists among us but is not as vocal as the others. If we wait for the politics of the region to first settle, it will undoubtedly be too late. Open minds, compassion and awareness of the other is what we need to start moving forward.

Sorry for the rant. I will henceforth return as much as possible to the socio-cultural.