Thursday, July 1, 2004

Of Sand and Dates

Of Sand and Dates
By Narendra Luther

Last month six of us -- poets and writers -- visited Saudi Arabia at the invitation of the Hyderabadi community there. With an area of 2.2 million square km, the country occupies 4/5th of the Arabian Peninsula and is strategically located. It has one-fourth of the proven oil reserves of the world. Its gas reserves are 4.2% of the world's total. It is endowed with minerals also. There are 600 sites for gold mining alone, besides other base metals.

It has a population of 20 million. The male population at 54.3% heavily outnumbers the females. About one third of its population comprises foreigners -- the largest being Indians. Amongst Indians, Malyalis number about half-a-million. A close next to them, people from Hyderabad number about 400 000. They cover the entire range of jobs, from the highly qualified to the non-skilled.

We visited Riyadh the capital, and Jeddah the port city.

American City

Riyadh is a modern well- planned city on the American pattern. It has grown rapidly in recent years and now has a population of 4.7 million. There are tall multi-storey buildings and super markets some of which are open 24 hours a day. We saw no camels there; only limousines. Large mansions of the local people with closed forbidding gates can be seen in most places.

In Riyadh the State Museum is worth seeing for its architecture, its landscape and the highly sophisticated manner of presentation. Saudi men wear their traditional dress while women are in burqua. Women are barred from driving alone. They must have a close male relation with them.

Korea and China have flooded the consumer market. The traffic is well regulated. No cops are visible; yet no one jumps the red light. On the whole it looks like an American city transplanted there. In Riyadh there are the Hyderabadi quarters called Hara. The lower middle class of Hyderabadis lives there. The bazaars and the chaos and confusion of traffic of Hyderabad are replicated here.

Jeddah is both a seaport on the Red Sea and an airport for the Muslims going for Haj and visiting Madina, the holy city. It is therefore the most cosmopolitan city of the country with a population of 2 million. It has a beach with recreational facilities spread over a distance of 20 miles, called Corniche.

The City Never Sleeps

The azan – call to prayers -- is made five times a day and all business must come to a stop. Shops are closed for the duration of the period of the namaz. The religious police enforce this rule. The siesta time is between 12 to four PM. Apart from these breaks, there are no closing hours and the city never seems to sleep.

The people of the Hyderabadi origin are generally well of and occupy important jobs in business and government. Surprisingly, some of them have relocated from America were they were holding good jobs. The reason for that is that there is no tax in Saudi Arabia. Consequently, at the same level of compensation, the take-home pay almost doubles in Saudi Arabia.

However, every expatriate is not rolling in money. The driver from Rajasthan who one day drove me to the city told me that he earned one thousand Rials (equal to Rs. 12) per month). In that income, he could not afford to keep his family there. Rent alone would be 400 Rials. There are others who get even less. The Bangladeshi attendant in our apartment was getting only 400 Rials – half the official minimum wage. Jobs like airhostesses are done by Filipinos.

No public meetings are allowed in the kingdom. Indians, used to open meetings, rallies and procession have to get used to a rigid discipline. All our functions were held in the auditoria of the Indian Embassy School, or of the Embassy. In Jeddah one function was held in the auditorium of a hospital and the other in a hotel.

Everyone must carry an identity card or a passport. Every time we came out of our rooms some made sure that we carry our passport because you can be asked to produce them at any time.

High Regard for Indians

Indians are regarded highly compared to Pakistanis. The latter have on occasion been involved in cases of smuggling contraband items. Both live in segregated areas and generally don't mix much. In Jeddah, for example, a road constitutes an informal border between the Indians and Pakistanis. The Saudis too don't mix with expatriates.

The Problems

All expatriates miss their homes. I suspect the invitation to us was a part of the attempt to relieve that feeling of homesickness. They seemed to feel good to listen to poetry, prose and jokes from the homeland.

Because of the large number of children of Indian origin the government of India has opened a number of Indian schools under the embassy in all major cities. These schools follow the Indian system and examinations are held by CBSE. The problem for the parents arises when the children have to go for higher education. Those who are well of send their children to America, Canada or England for higher studies. Others send them back home. That necessitates a split in the family leading to enforced and prolonged abstinence on the part of couples. The hen that lays the golden egg stays abroad. The wife may get gizmos – and the old in-laws to look after.
That leads to family tensions – and in some cases, depression. As one of them put it to me, 'We don't get a chance to see the children grow'. Some of them asked me whether some solution could be devised for providing for higher studies for children of Indian origin.

The third problem arises out of the new call for 'Saudiization' because of unemployment amongst the local people. As more and more Saudis are returning from abroad after acquiring higher qualifications, Indians face retrenchment. There is therefore an air of nervousness particularly among the lower- skilled.

While many Hyderabadi stayed have there for twenty-five years and over, a few have acquired the Saudi nationality, which is not easy to get. Every Indian dreams of coming home to start a better life with the earnings from petro-dollars. Some low - paid Indians there raised this point. People back home expect them to finance their 'conspicuous consumption' in lavish ceremonies thus frittering away their hard-earned savings in avoidable indulgences. They want to construct houses in India while working there so that when the time comes they can come to a home. One of the points made by them was whether the government could allot some land -- and even build houses for them. Some of them have been duped by unscrupulous people in this regard.

I felt good in seeing the Indian community doing well and being regarded highly by the host country. However, if only half the opportunities were available back home, they would gladly come back and contribute their mite for their own country – if only they could. Meanwhile, could we do something to solve their problems?


Archived by