Thursday, August 04, 2005

Death of a King

I have written previously about my time working in Norway back in 1981. I have had a vague inclination to also write about the following year spent in Saudi Arabia but it would take up several articles and I’ve misplaced my round tuit. However, the death of King Fahd this week transported me back to June 1982 when King Khalid died whilst I was working in the Kingdom for Aramco (The Arabian-American Oil Company, although it was 100% Saudi owned by then) as a (Nortel) vendor Consultant.

The first clue that something was wrong was that both of the Aramco radio stations were playing the same output, from what I recall it was somewhat sombre classical music. A check of the Arabic stations brought forth just chanting from the Quoran, a fairly regular occurrence for prayer time but unusual in its ubiquity. The news gradually filtered down that the King had died. Whilst there is not an Arabic tradition of formal mourning, the majority of Saudi Nationals drifted away later in the day in order to say prayers in their own Mosque.

The day passed reasonably normally, although it was somewhat like a Thursday with the lack of faces. (The Arabic week runs from Saturday through to Friday, with the staff weekend being Thursday and Friday. Friday is the holy day on the same basis as the European Sunday used to be. Contractors generally worked a six day week so Thursdays were known as “ServOrg Sunday” on the basis that not too much work got done by the Service Organisations with the Bosses out).

Aramco had its own TV channel, receivable across most of the Eastern Province. Every day, there was a fifteen minute news programme in English, although it was particularly Saudi-centric with world affairs getting a very minor look-in. It tended to be somewhat formulaic, starting with the arrival of important dignitaries. That particular episode struck me as somewhat surreal to the extent that it sticks in my mind some twenty-three years later.

The presenter was male, (of course, females don’t work in Saudi Arabia), British, well dressed and well spoken. His delivery was always flawless but you sometimes caught a glint in his eye which conveyed the unspoken thought in the back of his mind, something along the lines of “who writes this crap?”

The programme started with the announcement that the King had died. It then showed all of the dignitaries arriving at the airport in their private Jumbos and entourage, being greeted by members of the Saudi Royal family with the traditional embrace & triple cheek kiss. Each dignitary received air time befitting their status and the TV order appeared to be based on order of arrival when there was any doubt as to protocol. Needless to say, death of a King brought all of the Gulf neighbours over along with other Countries that had an Islamic system. As there wasn’t too much for the presenter to say after the full titles of greeter & greetee, military brass band music was generally played to fill the gaps.

There then followed a rather clumsily edited footage of the King’s final journey from the morgue to the grave via the Mosque. The royal family are based in Riyadh, the inland Capital City and the King had probably died in the King Faisal Hospital there. He was transported by ambulance and the Saudi version of an ambulance is like the American version, i.e. more akin to an oversized hearse in Range Rover style rather than the casualty room on wheels. On arrival at the impressive Grand Mosque, the King was unloaded on a stretcher and carried in with a large throng. Saudis don’t use coffins but I was rather surprised to see that it looked like the body was wrapped in a burlap sack. I was later to find that it was actually a robe, or more likely, several of them as he was completely shrouded from head to toe (& he was a big chap, as most men who live a life of luxury tend to be).

The Saudi traditional national dress is a one piece long sleeved garment called a Thobe which is shirt-like above the waist and dress-like below the waist down to the ankles. They tend to be white cotton (for summer use) but I even saw tailored pin-stripe versions. They also wear a small skull cap called a Tagiyah, a square tea-towel-like garment called a Ghutra (often white or red gingham check) and a sort of double-rope black hoop thing to keep the Ghutra in place called an Agal. The clothes are incredibly practical for hot weather in the desert and are much more comfortable than western garb, I did buy a set to bring back home for fancy-dress but have lost them in the mists of time. The garb is similar throughout the Gulf States but there are interesting variations, for example, Bahrainians have tassels on the back of their Agals.

Whilst the Royal family wear similar clothing (although much better tailored as befits their wealth) they tend to distinguish themselves by the use of sweeping capes (often with delicate golden embroidery tracework) which does make them look particularly regal.

Back to the funeral, and King Khalid is being carried shoulder high on a plain stretcher by the throng. I have vague recollections that he may have been on an ornate carpet, of the style known as a Persian rug (although not in Saudi, where the term Persia was being tippexed from history, the Persian Gulf being renamed the Arabian Gulf). He was taken into the Grand Mosque (which was indeed very grand on the outside) and the cameras followed. At first, it was difficult to see what was going on but the camera slowly made its way down a side aisle to the front. All of the people inside were going through the ritual of prayer (which all Muslims do five times a day) and were facing towards Mecca (which is west of Riyadh). The western wall of the Mosque was comparatively plain, with frosted windows and a row of rather incongruous looking air conditioner units below, the sort of self contained ones that remove the heat from inside and dispose of it to the outside in the same way that a fridge does. I then realised that the King had basically been dumped on the floor in front of the worshippers whilst they went through their abolutions. My memory may be playing tricks, but I seem to recollect that he may have even been wrapped up in the carpet as well.

The next step of the process was to collect him again and put him back in the ambulance. After he was slid back in, the bearers started to pile in with him and some even hung onto the back of the tailgate in a scene reminiscent of a Keystone Cops movie played backwards. A couple of the final boarders were wearing western jackets and I noticed that one of them was armed, his jacket swung open, exposing a pistol holder, presumably part of the Royal Bodyguards (King Faisal had been assassinated in 1975 by another family member so they were always conscious of security).

The ambulance arrived at the graveyard which was to be the final resting place of the body. He was carried aloft, with a large crowd clamouring to touch him as he passed. The burial was very quick and straight-forward in an unmarked grave. The Gulf states traditionally bury the dead before sundown, presumably because this was the only practical course of action for nomadic tribal desert dwellers which are the origins of the area.

Of course, the news was far from finished. If the arrival of the dignitaries was the first course and the funeral the main dish, we were finally treated to the dessert, namely everyone important flying back home again with due recognition, accompanied by Colonel Bogey and the Liberty Bell (the Monty Python theme tune), both of which were inspired choices.

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