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  Field Notes From
Saudi Arabia on Edge



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From Author

Frank Viviano



Saudi Arabia on Edge On Assignment

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From Photographer
Reza



In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Reza


 

Saudi Arabia on Edge

Field Notes From Author
Frank Viviano
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    Nights in the middle of the Empty Quarter are made for the kind of deep, quiet reflection that scarcely exists elsewhere today. The vastness of the place and the intensity of the stars hanging above it impart a sense of immersion in a much larger universe. After my time there among the Bedouins, I understood for the first time why three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—had all been born on the Arabian Peninsula and the land adjacent to it.
    The desert's sheer austerity somehow renders large philosophical questions immediate and elemental. Bedouins themselves spend a great deal of time talking about such things, which can be a bit unexpected from camel or sheep herdsmen so preoccupied with the daily exigencies of life. They would appear to have little time for philosophy. But they do, and to a degree that would shame many university professors in the world beyond the Empty Quarter's margins.


    A taxi ride in a large Saudi city is a strange and often frustrating experience. For years the government has tried unsuccessfully to convince its citizens to accept jobs as taxi drivers. But Saudi Arabia is a rich country, and its young men believe taxi driving is for other people, chiefly Filipinos, Pakistanis, or Bangladeshis. Oftentimes these non-Saudis can't read Arabic, the language of nearly all road signs. The result is that most drivers memorize landmarks or use cell phones as navigational instruments.
    Passengers call the person they're going to see and, after determining the taxi's location through a description of surrounding buildings or landmarks, they are gradually homed in toward the destination—if they're lucky. If not, someone on the other end may be forced to get into a car with his own cell phone and guide the taxi toward its goal by driving in concentric circles until the two vehicles finally meet. The amount of time lost in this odd four-wheel ballet is staggering.


    Camels are everywhere in Saudi Arabia, but they have no apparent economic or transportation function anymore. In the past, when the region's cultures were still largely nomadic, camels were the only way to transport goods across the bone-dry center of Saudi Arabia, as they can walk for many days without water. But the camel's practical function began to change with the oil boom following World War II.
    Today a Bedouin is far more likely to be at the wheel of a pickup truck than on the back of a camel. In fact, it's not unusual to see camels themselves transported across the country in the bed of a pickup. Yet they seem in no danger of vanishing from the national scene and can even be seen walking down the highways of Jeddah, an otherwise thoroughly modern metropolis.
    Camels have also maintained their trading value, notwithstanding the loss of evident purpose. A thoroughbred can cost a million dollars. For months while in Saudi Arabia, I struggled with this paradox, asking dozens of Saudis why they still own camels. More often than not the answer was, "Because we've always had camels."




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