In a tourist souvenir shop in an old (1980s) part of Riyadh, last night, I met a couple of men I was not quite expecting too.
Sitting in the back of a shop, two young thick-set men sat in their thobes drinking tea. Thinking them to work in the shop I asked about something hanging up. They replied that in fact they didn’t work there, they were just visiting. It wasn’t what they said, though, that particularly struck the attention but how they said it. By the accent they were plainly from the south of England.
My companion (a Saudi colleague) began chatting with them, asking them what they did, how long they had been in the country and how they liked it. They were teaching English, had been in the Kingdom for about a year and really liked it. As they explained why they liked it so much, I found myself slowly backing away and disengaging from the conversation. This was how life was meant to be, they explained. If you truly believed God’s word, then you would realise that this was the perfect way to live. People thought they liked to live in England because of freedoms, one of the young men explained, but he knew what God really wanted and lived his life in England just as he now did in Riyadh.
He spoke very calmly and smoothly and was perfectly relaxed. There was no doubting his ideology though. It wasn’t just about religion; it was about particular cultural habits as well. He voiced a rejection of the values and benefits of the West. There was nothing crassly stupid in what he said. It was his general theme that left me worried. A second generation (at least) Britisher, he voiced a complete rejection of its culture and proudly described how he ostracised and isolated himself back home. Initially looking for support from my colleague, when he learnt that my colleague had spent time in America (and worse, had liked it), his attitude shifted. My colleague afterwards commented that the man wouldn’t look at him.
It was interesting that my colleague shared my doubts about these men. If I had picked up on some things, seeing it from the British side, he had latched onto others, seeing it from the Saudi and Moslem side. Everything about the pair was studied. Their dress certainly, but also their personal grooming. Their particular type of beard but without a moustache was a clear sign of a hard-liner, my colleague commented later. Would this pair steepen their dislike of England? Would they hit the head-lines?