Christmas Musings

Sitting on the breakfast table in the studio apartment my wife and I inhabit are three brand-new bottles of spirits — a bottle of 18-year Glenfiddich single-malt scotch whiskey, a bottle of eight-year Barbancourt rum from Haiti, and a bottle of Mount Gay Eclipse rum from Barbados. Not having little ones around the house, the liquor need not be locked up.

The three bottles, all bought on sale from the local branch of that temperance-era monstrosity, the state-owned liquor monopoly, represent my entire Christmas bonus, plus a few bucks out of pocket. Depending on how you look at it, it’s a Christmas bonus either very well spent or utterly squandered.

It wasn’t much of a bonus, some of you might say, which is true. But I’ve never worked for an American company that paid significant bonuses. They are, after all, bonuses, unearned income given as gifts and I’ve never felt terribly entitled to gifts from the people who sign my paychecks. That they employ me at something that isn’t terribly hard, pay me enough to support my wife, and leave me alone to do my job is enough for me. In some places in the world — I shall not name names, but some of you can probably guess — the holiday bonus is an essential part of the client-patron relationship between employee and worker. Huge bonuses equivalent to a month’s wages are typical and expected.

Again, in the Middle East, this is largely because employer and employee have a client-patron relationship; the employer is, in many ways, legally and socially responsible and answerable for the actions of anyone in his employ. Also, most companies in the Arabian Gulf have few, if any, government-imposed “social insurance” costs (past what they must pay to secure visas for foreign workers) tacked on to the wages they pay. At least in comparison to what employers in the West must endure. So, they can often times afford to be much more generous.

I was never terribly fond of spirits, and have mostly been a fan of beer. Honest distilled spirits had always struck me as nasty and unpleasant, and an early experience as a kid with my dad’s liquor cabinet (only sipped and whiffed, but it was enough) chased me away from the stuff. I took a good mug of beer over a martini or a shot of anything.

But my six months in Saudi Arabia a couple of years ago showed me how to appreciate a good whiskey, though I will never say no to a nice cold mug of beer.

Foreigners working in Saudi Arabia — and Saudis who’ve cultivated a love of or need for alcohol — cannot afford to drink for the sheer pleasure of drinking. Alcohol, being illegal, is simply too expensive. People in the Kingdom of the Sauds drink to savor the sheer illegality of the act, to set themselves apart, or because it’s a perfect way to socialize in a place that’s just a little bit crazy. Or, they simply drink to get drunk as quickly as possible. So, unlike in Dubai, where the beer flows and fine French and Italian restaurants have well-stocked wine cellars, there is neither beer nor wine in Saudi Arabia — it costs too much and pays too little to bring either in. There are only spirits, and much more expensive than you’d pay in either a proper privately owned liquor store or a nasty state-owned one.

I was told that the favorite tipple of your typical expat worker (and even Saudi) is Johnnie Walker, Red Label I think. I don’t like Johnnie Walker very much, and drank it only because my workdays were long, I missed my wife and it would have been rude (according to conventions of Arab hospitality) to turn the drink down. But it was nasty stuff, and I was never enthusiastic about it.

The only alternative we had, really, was the local hooch, a foul concoction called siddiqi (the Arabic word for friend) which tasted very much like the Novocain a dentist numbs your mouth with before he sets to work drilling or extracting and had all the cleaning power of an industrial solvent. If you couldn’t get your hands on imported spirits, sid was the drink of last resort, added in tiny portions to cups of Miranda. Unless, of course, you really wanted to get blindingly drunk very quickly. Some, especially Saudis, did, and died. Every now and again the Arabic-language daily Okaz, Jeddah’s scandal sheet and The Saudi Gazette’s big sister, would run police reports of deaths from bad hooch, tut-tutting at the salacious immorality as only the Arabic-language version of the New York Post can. Your friend sid could kill.

Not long before I left, however, things changed. One evening, sitting in a villa before a dinner of goat and rice (or rice and goat — I don’t remember exactly what order things went in), I took the glass of whiskey given to me and noticed it was different. It was smoother, it tasted a lot better. “What is this?” I asked. The managing editor, a hard-bitten American journalist who, prior to coming to Saudi Arabia, had never even been out of the US (save for the occasional foray into Mexico), had used one of our sponsor’s contacts to broaden his liquor horizons: a bottle of Jim Beam for Christmas, for example, and then this odd-shaped whiskey bottle that sat on the coffee table. “Can you believe it,” he asked, “but Glenfiddich is cheaper than Johnnie Walker here?” He laughed.

“That’s because no one wants to drink it,” came the response.

I did, however. It was still a little rough going down — it takes time to cultivate a taste for spirits even when you like them, and I am only just beginning to truly appreciate the stuff — but this was something I had to remember. Something I had to try again. When I got back, and a bottle of booze didn’t cost 500 or 600 riyals ($133 to $160) or whatever people were paying for them. And didn’t risk a prison term, either, if you made the wrong contact or were simply the wrong liquor buyer at the wrong time.

Since then, Jennifer and I have tried other things. Dirty gin martinis are good. Rum, however, is very good. The Barbados rum and the Haitian rum we’ve tried and really like are both very different; the Mount Gay smells like a freshly opened bag of cane sugar, and is sweet and smooth like fresh breeze and a warm beach, while the Barbancourt smells of molasses and voodoo and has the hot temper of rebellion and piracy down deep in it. I’d buy my rum and my Madeira in barrels if I could afford to, but it’s just as well my wife and I have cultivated very expensive liquor tastes on our very limited budget. It means we will drink much less and enjoy it more. These three bottles, especially the whiskey (which we have not tasted yet; I have tried 12 and 15-year Glenfiddich, but not the 18-year), should last for several months.

Saudi Arabia demonstrates perfectly the problem of trying to legislate virtue and turn God’s law into a working and enforceable legal code. Because where there are men preaching and hectoring against sin, there are men all the more eager to do those sins. Even upon the pain of the lash, which is always there in Saudi Arabia. A good many Saudi Muslims I know understand this, and would like to see their ever-present religious authorities — especially the much-hated muta’wwa, the religious police — disappear. “What gain does a man get from praying if he is forced to pray?” one acquaintance asked me.

Muslims in general, and Saudis in particular, are no less capable of kindness, decency and politeness than anyone else. And no less capable of understanding how prohibition makes hypocrites out of just about everyone.

In a mirror, of sorts, to the “War on Christmas” nonsense that seems to be the favorite meme of the Right this season (and maybe the last few), some Sunni scholars, especially those who live in religiously mixed societies and who believe that God’s laws ought to apply to the whole wide world, have made a fetish of telling believers that it is haram — forbidden — to greet or congratulate non-Muslims when those non-Muslim religious holidays roll around. I remember an especially barren and unsympathetic monthly publication from a group on Sunni “scholars” in South Africa (published in English but still unreadable without knowing Arabic because it used so many Arabic terms) telling readers that they could not wish their non-Muslim friends and neighbors well on national days or religious holidays, could not go to their funerals, and generally could not be kind or compassionate to them. It was advice worth ignoring, and I ignored it.

As do a lot of Muslims. Two years ago (and I suspect this happens nearly every year), the ulema (religious scholars) of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province issued a fatwa (ruling) warning Muslims that they were not allowed to wish Christians a Merry Christmas (not wanting to actually name the holiday in question, the news release put it far more obliquely, but that’s what it amounted to) and that Muslim merchants could not sell anything intended for use in a Christmas celebration or as a gift. I’m certain some of you are reading this and going, “what an awful thing, and how typical of those evil Muslims.”

But consider — the fatwa would not have been issued if Muslims had not been wishing Merry Christmas, or selling merchandise, or giving of gifts. (It was in this light that I remember a similar warning given by agriculture officials in the western part of the kingdom some weeks prior, that people should not eat the locusts swarming from Sudan because they’d been sprayed with DDT and were poisonous. What country is this that people eat locusts? However, remember that the Gospel of Matthew describes John the Baptist’s diet as “locusts and wild honey,” so maybe they aren’t so bad.) In Jeddah, which is not part of the Wahhabi heartland and has an ancient history of being a lot more open and a lot less rigid in its interpretation of Islam, holiday greetings were not an issue, and I don’t recall any fatawa (the plural of fatwa) from the local “Church Police.” Residents of compounds even put up Christmas lights around their houses. It wasn’t a day off in Saudi Arabia (save for those who had arranged with their employers to take it off). But I know it marked, religiously and culturally, in homes throughout the country.

Muslims — Saudis, Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, Arabs from various and sundry countries — were kind to their Christian neighbors — Filipinos, Indians, Sri Lankans, Arabs — when they didn’t have to be. When the law said they shouldn’t be. I won’t say I know what the meaning of Christmas is, but that pretty much sounds like the Gospel to me.

Merry Christmas everyone. And eat as many locusts as you want.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.