Living on the edge:
From Riyadh to Chico, and back again
"…a minor but perilous triumph of being over nothingness.”
Joan Didion, 1967
Anyone looking for hate need not look very far. Go to the Internet and you can find streams and creeks and rivers of it, spilling out of thousands of Web sites dedicated to hating just about any group you might choose. An organization called CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) establishes itself in an effort to promote harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims; not long thereafter, another organization called Anti-CAIR is organized to carry the message that CAIR is merely a propaganda machine, and a front for Muslim extremists.
In nearby Folsom, plans to build a 31,000 square-foot mosque have created a buzz of alarm. There are 10 mosques in the Sacramento area, but the new mosque planned for the city of Folsom features a traditional Islamic design that emphasizes its visibility and its difference.
Closer to home, a reader writes to the Paradise Post calling for an ill-defined nuclear strike against Muslims, and that suggestion is followed by a letter of staunch assent in the paper’s next issue.
Even an organization like World Wrestling Entertainment has shown sensitivity to the volatility of our times. It has withdrawn Muhammad Hassan, a hostile and negative Arab-American character, from its lineup of wrestling personas. When wrestling promoters become actively PC, you know you’re living in sensitive times.
Four years ago this month, 19 young Muslim men commandeered four commercial jet aircraft and flew three of those planes into buildings. The fourth plane crashed before it could reach its intended target. In Manhattan, two of those planes brought down two of the world’s tallest towers, twin monuments to American corporate power. Nearly 3,000 people perished on that day, and nothing has been the same since.
On the morning that nightmare took place, Khalid Saeid, then 23, was a student at Butte College. Friendly and outgoing, Saeid was eager to share knowledge about his background as a Muslim and as one who had spent more than half his life in Saudi Arabia.
Most of the students at Butte College showed little interest in Saeid’s cultural heritage, not even on the morning those 19 Muslim men flew the planes into the World Trade Center. In Saeid’s English class, students were invited to speak of their feelings about what was happening on that momentous morning. Few had anything to say. Perhaps, like much of the nation, they were simply numb and confused. Or perhaps, like far too many of the nation’s young, the events in the news just didn’t seem worthy of their attention. As was often the case in that class, Saeid broke the silence. “Maybe,” Saeid said, “this will be a wake-up call to the U.S.”
Though he most certainly did not mean to suggest that he was happy about the attack on the World Trade Center, and though he was, like everyone else, horrified by the violence, it was an incendiary thing to say on that morning of confusion and death, in an atmosphere where some in the Arab world were already dancing in celebration of the attack.
The events of that morning notwithstanding, Saeid’s fellow students treated him much as they had before Sept. 11, and as they would continue to treat him throughout that semester, which is to say they showed no increased interest in Arabs or Muslims, but neither did they exhibit the slightest hostility toward the lone Arab student in their midst, probably the first and only Arab most of them had ever known.
That was then. Now, four years later, Saeid is a student at Chico State where he heads up the Muslim Student Association. On a hot summer morning, he sits in a Starbucks on Nord Avenue with his friend, Dawud Afsharzedeh, a convert to the Muslim faith who grew up in Chico, but who now lives in Saudi Arabia. Both men are dressed in traditional Arab garb—blazing white robes, called thoubs. Saeid wears a white headdress, called a ghoutrahin, and Afsharzedeh wears a red-and-white checkered headdress, called a shimagh.
In summer, Chico can seem far removed from the rest of the world. The town is emptied of students, and gone with them is the snap and bustle of all that young life they bring when school is in session. In their absence, the locals gather to read newspapers in the coffee shops, but the news seems remote. People are dying in Iraq, of course, and that’s a great shame, though it is hard to know what to do about any of it except, perhaps, to stay the course, or just keep busy enough with one’s personal affairs to avoid having to think about it very much. Gasoline prices skyrocket. Terrorists have struck in London, and that is worrisome, but there isn’t much likelihood terrorists will ever target Chico. And besides, it’s hot, a good day to linger in the air-conditioning, to peruse the sports pages and order a refill on the coffee.
On a morning like this, no one in Starbucks pays the slightest attention to Saeid or Afsharzedeh, despite their blazing white thoubs and their exotic head gear. Perhaps the people of Chico are too cosmopolitan to stare at people in such apparel, or perhaps it is just too hot to bother. Whatever the reason, the two men draw little attention from the people who come and go. Chet Baker sings moody love songs on the sound system, the espresso machine sighs, and Dawud Afsharzadeh sits nursing a Caramel Macchiato and a summer cold.
It is not surprising that Dawud Afsharzadeh has a cold. He has traveled from the searing heat of Saudi Arabia to the summer heat of Chico encased in the metal skin of a jetliner, breathing recycled and artificially cooled air for some 14 hours. Then, once back in Chico, the place where he grew up, he is in and out of air-conditioned buildings that lower the temperature by as much as 25 degrees.
Afsharzedeh is a Sunni Muslim, though not by birth. He comes from a Mexican-American heritage, with Seventh-Day Adventists on his mother’s side of the family, but he turned away from religion entirely during his teenage years, disillusioned with Christian teachings, confused by the concept of the Holy Trinity, and skeptical of the story of a God who could die. Afsharzedeh found his way to Islam only after the customary rites of passage that in his case included youthful rebellion and run-ins with authority figures and Chico police. Then, one day after he’d turned 20, he had an unlikely encounter with a Palestinian Muslim he met in the Chapman neighborhood. That encounter would ultimately change him from David to Afsharzedeh, would take him from a life he considered empty to a life he considers full, would take him from Chico to Riyadh. He has been a practicing Muslim for eight years now, and he speaks of his faith with a quiet but intense conviction. Meeting the Palestinian Muslim in Chapman now seems to him almost to have been fated, the will of Allah.
And it was, for those who believe, the will of Allah that made Saeid a Muslim by birth, though he, too, is an American, born in Woodland while his Saudi parents were students at U.C. Davis. Following his parents’ example, he, too, studies in the U.S. “Anything American is automatically better,” he says. “We know that a degree received here supercedes any degree received in Saudi.”
“I keep waiting,” he jokes, “for some redneck to tell me to go back where I came from. I’ll just jump up in the air, and when I come down, I’ll say, ‘I’m here.'”
As he did four years ago when he was a student at Butte College, Saeid persists in his desire to spread the word about Arabs and Muslims. He wants to spread the word about Friday prayer, and about the way prayer sometimes conflicts with other obligations. “This is our holy day of the week and the services start around 1:10 p.m.,” he says. “Some students might have a class at that time and some students are too shy to discuss it with the teacher. Teachers need to understand that we cannot miss this important prayer.”
Saeid is now 27 years old. Of those years, 12 have been spent in the United States—in Florida, in Utah, in Northern California, and 15 have been spent in Riyahd, Saudi Arabia. On some days, he thinks of himself as a Saudi, and on others he thinks of himself as an American. On all days, he is, in fact, both.
In Chico, Saeid has taken the name “Rakann,” a name he adopted when many of his friends had difficulty pronouncing his first name Khalid. He likes Rakann because it sounds like “Rock on,” and because the name has Bedouin origins that give it Arabic connotations of a hick, the Arabic equivalent of a Gomer. Since he spends most of his time in Chico, his identity as a bit of a hick pleases him. For purposes of publication, he says, he would like it known that his thoughts are offered “In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful.”
Divisions between people create borders of separation, and all borders are dangerous places, whether those borders are physical, cultural, religious, or psychological. Khalid Saeid and Dawud Afsharzadeh live on several such borders, at the crossroads of much of the world’s current division. Saeid was born on a border between past and future, between east and west, at the nexus of tension between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Dawud Afsharzadeh moved to that border as a young man, adrift in a culture from which he felt alienated.
Many people might question the timing of Afsharzedeh’s conversion. It is not a particularly comfortable time to be a Muslim in America. They are many people’s worst nightmare—swarthy young men with abiding faith in Islam and strong ties to Saudi Arabia. If you were shuffling behind one of them in line waiting to board a plane, you would almost certainly cast a suspicious glance in their direction, shift your shoulder bag uneasily, take note of whether the guy with the security wand checked them out with extra care.
That atmosphere notwithstanding, Afsharzedeh insists on wearing traditional Arab robes when he travels. He is sanguine about the fact that he is certain to be given greater scrutiny because of it. “It’s just something you live with,” he says, “something you know to expect.”
And Saeid makes a point of wearing his thoub and ghoutrahin at least once a week as he goes about his business in Chico. It provides him an opportunity to build bridges between cultures. “I’m a walking information booth when I’m dressed like this,” he says. “How do you keep that thing clean?” is a question he sometimes gets from curious Chicoans, along with the more probing question as to whether or not he wears anything under it.
Neither Saeid nor Afsharzedeh has experienced any hostility, nor any infringement of their civil rights. “Chico is a pretty special place,” Saeid says. “People here are either open-minded or they’re drunk,” he jokes. “I’ve never had reason for fear in Chico. Even in Sacramento the climate is a little more anxious.”
There have, in fact, been few reported cases of anti-Muslim violence or harassment anywhere in northern California.
Saeid tells a story about celebrating Halloween in downtown Chico, wearing his Saudi robes and ghoutrahin. “The police were very nice,” he says, “especially the female officers. Some people made jokes, yelled ‘Hey, bring down the price of oil,’ or ‘See, honey, I told you the Saudis were after us,’ but there was no hostility. One guy said, ‘fuck Osama bin Laden,’ but there were no problems.”
Afsharzedeh is a few years older than Saeid. He recently turned 30, a tall man, his face framed by a wispy black beard, and by the red-and-white checkered cloth of his shimagh. He is married to another Muslim convert, an African-American woman from Sacramento. Slightly more than 2 million of the 6 to 8 million Muslims in the United States are African-Americans and make up the largest percentage of the Muslim population in the states. About a million Muslims live in California.
Only 12 percent of the Muslims living in the United States are Arabs, making Saeid a member of minority within a minority. According to the census of 2000, there are 1.2 million people in the U.S. who identify themselves as Arabs. The census does not collect data on religious affiliation, but Arab Muslims in the United States are thought to number roughly 700,000.
There are an estimated 1,200 mosques in the United States devoted to serving the spiritual needs of those nearly 8 million Muslims, but only 2 million of the 8 million American Muslims associate themselves with a mosque. One of those 1,200 U.S. mosques is in Chico. Kahlid Saeid worships there. When he’s back home in Butte County, so does Dawud Afsharzadeh.
Islam is marked by the so-called five pillars, which include: 1) the Testimony of faith wherein Muslims proclaim the oneness of God and the authority of Muhammad as His Messenger, 2) the Ritual Prayer which is to occur five times daily at specified times, 3) the Annual Fast wherein believers abstain from food and drink during the daylight hours for the period of one month, 4) the Almsgiving, which serves as a type of yearly charity incumbent upon all believers who possess the means, and 5) the Pilgrimage which demands that Muslims make a journey to the holy-city of Mecca. Further staples of the faith include the prohibition of alcohol, pork and pre-marital sex.
His Islamic faith is at the center of Afsharzedeh’s life. He is the father of three sons, and he works hard at grounding them in that faith. He makes his living teaching English and math to mostly Saudi kids in a private school outside of Riyadh. He wears a watch that beeps a prayer reminder five times each day. He has committed himself to memorizing the Koran. There is, he knows, pleasure in vices, in drinking and gambling and chasing women. “But what is the cost?” he asks. “Better to give up those pleasures for the betterment of mankind.” If you memorize the Koran, Afsharzedeh says, you save five members of your family in the afterlife.
He gestures in the general direction of Chico State. “The life I was living here was night and day from the life I now live in Islam. What was I doing with my life before? The whole idea in the West is to live to the fullest, then when I die, that’s it.”
He sips his Caramel Macchiato. “But Islam gives me a direction. Those of us who believe still have brains, but we also have a rule book, and the book tells us how to live as God has asked us to live. In the U.S., the only goal is to make money.”
Saeid’s admiration for his friend Afsharzedeh is both apparent and revealing. He is impressed because Afsharzedeh, an American, shows such great respect for the Koran, and for Saudi culture. “A lot of us are coming here to the U.S. for the very reasons he’s leaving,” Saeid says, with enthusiasm. “He’s rejecting the materialism, and all the pleasure-driven pursuits so many Arabs come to the West for.”
Saeid beams at Afsharzedeh.
“They love this guy in Saudi,” he says. “It’s like Cat Stevens. It’s like he’s stepping down. Malcolm X, Cat Stevens, Dawud—these people make us proud.”
The mixture of pride and apology surfaces in many of the things Saeid says about Saudi Arabia. Both Saeid and Afsharzedeh are skeptical, for instance, about the identity of the 9/11 hijackers, 15 of whom came from Saudi Arabia. Saeid and Afsharzedeh both doubt that those men were, in fact, Saudis. One reason for Saeid’s skepticism about Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attack is his doubt that Saudis could have pulled off such a feat.
“Man,” Saeid says, “Saudis don’t do anything for themselves. People from the Philippines, from Bangladesh, and from Pakistan, they do all the work. There’s no such thing as a Saudi handyman. And yet those planes came in, first one tower, then within minutes, the other tower. Hard to believe Saudis could do something like that.”
He notices a customer at Starbucks clearing the table of trash. “If this were Saudi Arabia,” he says, “people would just leave the trash for the help to clean up. When I came back to the States to go to school, I really had to change my attitudes about working. I worked as a janitor and in fast food, and in Saudi, that’s just not work we do.”
Saudis are not universally liked or respected even among Arabs. Get in a cab in New York or Paris and the driver who is dissing Saudis is more likely to be Syrian or Jordanian than a Bible-thumping Christian fundamentalist from Appalachia. Throughout much of the Muslim world, Saudis are not uncommonly viewed as arrogant, as hypocritical, imperious and condescending. “The Lebanese,” Saeid says, “see Saudis as these horny, dumb, rich guys.”
Though neither Afsharzedeh nor Saeid completely dismisses the possibility that Saudi men might have been key players in the September 11 attacks, both men find other scenarios more likely.
“Let’s say that invading Iraq was a U.S. plan from a long time back,” Saeid says. “If you want what they have, how are you going to get it? You have to have a reason. You can’t just march in and take it.” He pauses for effect, choosing his words, threading his way between Arabic and English. “I’m not saying that the U.S. bombed itself, but it could be we let it happen. And an attack like that could set up a pretext for invading Iraq.” He looks away, distracted by a truck rumbling by on Nord Avenue.
“And now there’s all this suspicion and hatred directed toward Saudis, just as that hatred was built up toward Iraq. Saudi Arabia sits on 25 percent of the world’s oil, the best oil in the world. Maybe 10 years from now, the U.S. will have invaded Saudi Arabia. That’s the direction things are going.”
He is not satisfied with what he has said. He shuffles through some papers and comes up with a reprint of an interview with Prince Saud al Faisal. “I share these feelings,” he says, shoving the paper across the table. In the interview, Prince Faisal is quoted as saying: “The shock of finding out that it is Saudis who did this awful, horrendous crime is beyond description … Imagine if you wake up one day, you have children and find that one of your sons is a mass murderer. How gut-wrenching a discovery is that?”
“Here’s what I know from my faith,” Afsharzedeh interjects, quietly. “Satan is always there. This existence is not where I’m supposed to be. I’m destined for paradise, or for hell fire. In paradise, everything is better and it lasts forever. In this life, we are building our position in the hereafter.
“Saudi Arabia is a good place to be a Muslim. Everyone prays when it’s time to pray. Saudi Arabia remains a good place for Islamic values. Still, over there we live in both cultures. When you leave the gates of Mecca, you see American-style graffiti, young guys wearing caps or T-shirts with Tupac, or 50 Cent on them. Right outside the gates of Mecca you immediately see a Burger King, a KFC, a McDonald’s.”
He grows impassioned as he speaks of Mecca. “You’re in front of God everywhere, but Mecca is like magnified. When you’re there, you can just feel that this place is HOLY.” Afsharzedeh lays great emphasis on the word. “So it kind of annoys me to come out of the gates of Mecca to see all those American franchises, to see graffiti everywhere, and to hear rap music.”
Saeid nods in agreement. He is the more animated of the two men, and the more congenial. He has an easy-going sense of humor. In fact, until recently, he had dreams of becoming a stand-up comic. In a political climate like the one we’re living in, the idea of a funny Muslim seems almost oxymoronic, but Saeid can readily assume the role of class clown.
“I joke around in classes with some teachers,” he says, “and be silly and tell them ‘oh, is it because I’m Arab? You just tryin’ to put the brown man down, huh?’ and the class, including the teachers, laughs because they know I’m kidding. Even with my friends, we make fun of each other. I’ve been called all the names you can think of—camel jockey, bin Laden, towel head, terrorist, you name it. And it’s all done in the name of fun as long as the intentions are positive, as long as both sides are cool with it. It’s all in the tonality.
“In trying to understand another culture,” Saeid says, “start where you’re sitting. Look at any of the stereotypes. Blonde woman equals dumb. Black guy equals drug dealing and a big penis. If you have all these stereotypes right here where you live, how can you jump half a world away to a place you’ve never been and then project your stereotypes?”
Neither Saeid nor Afsharzedeh is likely to win points for being politically correct. Their Islamic views stand in stark contrast to many of the attitudes most commonly found on the Chico State campus. Afsharzedeh, for instance, is quite comfortable with the Saudi law forbidding women to drive.
“Driving is crazy in Saudi Arabia,” he says. “Lots of male aggression. My wife is glad not to drive there. A woman’s nature is different. A woman can have love for her husband only, but a man’s nature might run to many women. A woman’s instinct is more forgiving. Men could not share a wife without conflict, but women can share a husband.”
“When I am in Saudi Arabia,” Afsharzedeh says, “I feel like a sane person in an insane world. People drive with their personalities. No one signals. Speed limits are ignored. Compared to Saudi Arabia, people in the U.S. are polite, almost robotic.”
He smiles, wryly. “but I must admit,” he says, “I kind of like driving over there.”
He brushes invisible crumbs from the table then continues. “In American society, I can have a wife and two girlfriends, but I can’t have three wives. How is that a better thing? If I am married and I lose interest in my wife, do I just discard her for another? In Saudi Arabia, I can take another wife without displacing the one I have.
“And to say that a woman is oppressed because she doesn’t get to show her body, see, I don’t understand that. How is that oppression?” He shakes his head. “My wife gets more rude comments for wearing a veil here in the States than I ever get for wearing my thoub. The veil is more a brutal shock to society here.”
He chooses to live in Saudi Arabia because, he says, “The biggest problem for Muslims living here is reconciling our beliefs with the lifestyle—booze, pork, the rest of it.”
Saeid, too, expects to return to Saudi Arabia once his education is complete. “It’s easier to bring up children in a Muslim country,” he says. “Just as an example, I was recently at the movies, sitting behind an American father with two kids. There was a sex scene and I heard the guy sighing deeply, as if it’s one more thing he has to worry about. See, in Saudi Arabia, I wouldn’t have to worry about having that experience with my own kids.
“We want to keep Saudi Arabia as a place that provides an example of what it means to be Muslim,” Saeid adds. “The pace of change and westernization there created a backlash. Parents see their kids with western attitudes, western clothes. Kids don’t think it’s cool to pray, and the more traditional Muslims get threatened by all that stuff.”
Saeid pauses to collect his thoughts, then continues. “The pace of change in Saudi Arabia was so rapid,” he says, “that the country has tried to slow it down. They want to preserve the old ways. The U.S. is a happy place—fun, amusement parks, candy, kids at the beach, bikinis. You can have sex with anyone you want right away. But Saudi kids are very naive about things, not like kids here. Traditional Muslim people want to see the innocence of those kids extended, and they feel threatened by this wave of stuff from the U.S. and the West.”
Asked about the criticisms of Saudi policies toward women, Saeid offers some intriguingly un-PC justifications. How, for instance, does he justify the fact that women are not allowed to drive there?
“Remember,” he says, “that because of the sex separation there is an abundance of hormones raging amongst both sexes. I have seen with my own eyes about 20 very luxurious cars surround a single car that had a driver and one girl sitting in the back who appeared to be young and beautiful. Each guy in those cars was thinking he will be able to win her over the others. And she could just be going from a grocery store back to her house and has to go through this crap almost every time.”
He shrugs, and tears at a napkin, then continues. “And even though we have cops and clergy men around to threaten these young, teenage, horny, hobby-less kids, still it’s not working. So, if women were allowed to drive, they would be in danger, sort of like here, when a girl in a short mini skirt and a cleavage-revealing tube top is walking back home from the bars by herself. How many offers for a ride will she get? Whistles and hoots? Grabbing her ass? A few ‘show your tits'? And this is in America! It’s in Chico, where the ratio is three girls to one guy.”
Saeid’s napkin is shredded in front of him. “Is it a good thing that women don’t drive?” he asks, rhetorically. “I don’t know, but if it was allowed, unfortunately I think there would be a lot of problems.”
Saeid also mounts a defense of public executions in Saudi Arabia. “That does have some advantages to it,” Saeid says. “If a person murders someone, that person gets executed. Everyone sees it to know that murder is not right, unlike in America where if you kill someone you most likely get 25-to-life, which means a roof, a bed, food, companions, sports, no bills to worry about. Or the murderer might get away with it entirely with the help of big-priced lawyers.”
And what of the widespread support for Osama bin Laden throughout the Arab world?
Afsharzedeh sighs heavily. “Look,” he says, “I’m not going to speak in support of Osama bin Laden, but if you take out religion, and take out people dying, there are going to be some people who will see Osama as a fighter who took on a heavyweight. It’s 2005 and Osama’s still out there. That’s God’s will, and by saying that, I’m not saying anything he does is justified.”
“Terrorists are a bunch of idiots giving Islam a bad name,” Saeid adds. “As long as Shaytaan (Satan) is around, his job is to make illegal things look legal by twisting logic. Terrorists are directed by Satan to do what they do. And, as always, Allah knows best.”
Does either man see a possibility of peace between Muslims and Jews?
“Muslims and Jews—we agree on the food,” Saeid says. “They don’t eat pork, and we don’t eat pork. Kosher beef is slaughtered in the way Muslims do slaughter. The animals are not killed in the presence of other animals, and they are killed while facing Mecca. If I’m in a strange place and don’t know what to order, I always order Kosher.”
Saeid pauses for a moment. “Islam doesn’t teach hatred for Jewish people,” he says.
Afsharzedeh interrupts him. “Anti-semitism is a phrase I think the Jews invented to confuse things,” he says. “Saeid is semitic; the Jews are semitic. They’re both semites. Muhammed himself had Jewish neighbors and he was kind to them. But still, I think there will always be conflict between Jews and Muslims.”
Afsharzedeh blows his nose into a napkin, then continues. “ The point of separation between the religions is at the cross. Who was on the cross? The son of God, or a prophet? Jews diverge by accepting neither Jesus or Mohammed. Muslims know that Mohammed was the last prophet.”
“A Muslim is one who submits to the will of God,” Saeid explains. “By that definition, Jesus was a Muslim because he submitted to God. So, if you say you hate Muslims, you’re saying you hate people who submit to the will of God.”
Saeid shuffles through some papers, then offers a statement made by Shaikh Abdulaziz Bin Abdullah Al-Ashaikh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, condemning the terrorist bombings in London, a condemnation that reads, in part: “Killing and terrorizing innocent people and the destruction of property are not condoned by Islam. Attributing all these horrific incidents to Islam is unjust … Islam is a religion of righteousness, betterment and progress. Islam is the final revelation that Allah chose for humankind to guide it from darkness to light. The unjust killing of a human being in Islam is forbidden. Allah said: ‘And kill not anyone whom Allah has forbidden except for a just cause.'”
Neither Afsharzedeh nor Saeid seem troubled by the ambiguity of this statement, the vagueness about how to determine what is and what is not a just killing in a just cause. The two men get up to leave. They are going to the mosque a few blocks down Nord Avenue. Afsharzedeh will return to Riyadh in less than a week.
But now it is time for prayer. Saeid pulls out of the parking lot into the light summer traffic, a man in a blazing white thoub and a dusty black Toyota with the words “There is no God But God, Muhammad is his messenger” emblazoned on the rear window, and the nickname “Rakann” stamped on his personalized license plate.