Notes From Jeddah Economic Forum (2007)


Note: The forum was by all means a success despite the initial stumbles. The following are my reflections on the forum. They appeared in Arab News during the course of the forum's three days (Feb. 25, 26 & 27). — Siraj Wahab, Feb. 28, 2007.


Day 1: Profound Words Overshadow Sound-System Mix-Ups

JEDDAH, February 26, 2007 — The opening hours at the Jeddah Economic Forum (JEF) were like the weather outside — dull and dreary. Everything was in fairly bad shape. There were no star speakers. Moderator Sue MacGregor of BBC Radio did try to salvage the situation with her witty comments, but she couldn’t. Most of the speakers were Chinese, and so the language barrier created plenty of obstacles. The translation services provided through the electronic system were absolutely useless. And when MacGregor asked the sound managers to get it right, it got worse.

Of course, what the Chinese speakers were saying was absolutely crucial. They were talking about the new Silk Route, reminding the participants how China and the Arabs once had a historic relationship, thanks to the old Silk Route. They talked about the need for a robust revival of the Sino-Saudi trade ties. They also spoke of the emerging role of the East in the global economy.

Going back to the translation, at one point, the service simply went off for a long time. And when one switched to Channel 2 on the portable electronic device to get the English translation, one could hear what’s called a “cuss line” between the sound engineers and the interpreter. Everybody in the hall was looking puzzled, not believing what he or she was hearing. The volunteers on the sides of the hall were scrambling for cover, and MacGregor didn’t know how to react. She kept her poise, however.

As to what we were hearing, it went something like this. “We don’t have power,” the sound engineer said to the interpreter. To which the interpreter replied: “That is not my problem. How can I translate something that I cannot hear?” Then it got quiet. Again, the system came to life. This time, the interpreter was heard saying: “Oh, now I can hear myself.” Poor soul, he was unaware that the entire audience was plugged in and listening to all the mess that was going on in the sound room.

* * *

The exquisitely-designed and colorfully-decorated hall came alive with the arrival of Jordan’s Queen Rania. Everything changed upon her arrival. Speaking without notes, the elegantly-dressed queen struck an instant chord with the audience with her straight-from-the-heart speech. She called a spade a spade, and the audience loved her. Every sentence drew thunderous applause that reverberated throughout the hall. “She has a great Arabic accent; she is suave and sophisticated and yet simple and speaks the language of the common person. That is what makes her great,” texted an Arab News reader from the women’s section of the forum hall at The Jeddah Hilton. But for Queen Rania, the morning session would have certainly been doomed.

What the queen said has been reproduced in great detail on the Front Page today, yet there were points that need mentioning here. “When I was a child,” she said, “I was told a folk tale about an old man planting seeds in the valley. His grandchild asked what he was doing. The old man said he was planting trees. His grandchild was surprised, and said: ‘Trees take many years to grow! You will never taste their fruit.’ But the old man said: ‘They planted, and we ate, we plant so that you can eat.’” There was tremendous response from the audience.

Queen Rania then went on to say: “The obligation to plant well for posterity is a common thread linking humanity — which is why different versions of that story can be found in many cultures. There is grace and glory in the efforts we make to build a better world — even when those investments sometimes take decades to bear fruit.”

It was her directness that charmed the audience. “We have become overly technocratic. We talk of political and economic reforms, of technological solutions, of security concerns — all of which are essential if we are to progress. But what about the language of the conscience and the speech of the heart — the values of acceptance, love, respect and peace? I suggest that we get back to basics because the need for global healing is all too obvious. I am a mother of four young children — Hussein, Iman, Salma and little Hashem. Take a moment to think of your children. Recite their names in your hearts. What kind of landscape — what kind of future are we preparing for them?”

More clapping followed — and why not? People wanted to hear that. Those words came like a balm to wounded humanity. And they were feeling better, realizing that at least there was somebody who understood their pain and suffering. “Tomorrow’s landscape may not flourish as it should because today the soil is being polluted by violence, mistrust and fear,” she said.

When she finished, they still wanted her to go on putting their feelings into words for the benefit of all who happened to hear her or read her words, wherever they might be.

* * *

There was one little incident that brought smiles to the droll morning session audience. MacGregor was explaining how the voting device worked. Pointing at the little voting machines provided to everyone, she explained: “When the vote is opened, simply press the button on the keypad that corresponds to your answer.” The demo question that was displayed on all the screens in the hall was: “Please register your gender.” The options listed were 1. Male, 2. Female, 3. Both and 4. Don’t know. Even as MacGregor said the results would be displayed in a moment, they were already visible on the screens and were sending everybody into howls of laughter: According to the results, 64 percent were male, 26 percent female, 3 percent both, and hold your breath, 7 percent didn’t know their gender! At lunch, that was the subject of intense discussion: Who fell into that 7 percent.

* * *

The evening session was equally memorable. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was as direct as Queen Rania. His anecdotes about his visit to the ghettos of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the bits of torn cloth he saw being used as shade in Darfur were very moving. “We need to declare a war on poverty,” he said, amid thunderous applause. “I was ashamed of myself when I went into those slums in the Ethiopian capital. I asked my protocol people to leave me alone. I wanted to take a look into their lives all by myself. No sanitation, no hygiene, no water, dozens of people crammed into little rooms and shanties,” he said in a voice that seemed to quiver with emotions. “We need to have equitable distribution of wealth. Let the spirit of solidarity spread from the Jeddah Economic Forum,” he added.

Erdogan was followed by Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States. Although rather brief, he spoke of how Al-Qaeda had almost succeeded in rupturing the ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia. “Things are getting better,” he said, pointing to the growing number of Saudi students going to study in the United States. According to him, young people are falling prey to extremist ideologies because of ignorance.

What started as a dull day ended on a sharper note.

Day 2: American President's Brother Building Bridges With Saudis

JEDDAH, February 27, 2007 — There are many interesting sessions being presented at the Jeddah Economic Forum, but just as much (if not more) is happening on the sidelines of the forum. International and local businessmen, educators and officials from around the world are sharing ideas, building relationships and negotiating business deals — typical networking stuff. It seems as if there is a conversation going on in every nook and cranny of the Jeddah Hilton with the impromptu meetings occasionally spilling out onto the picturesque palm-fringed seaside promenade just across the street.

It was during one such networking sessions that Arab News ran into Mr. Neil Bush, the younger brother of the US president. There was no cause to strike up a business negotiation with the affable brother of the current US president, who runs an educational software company with dealings in the Gulf region, but Arab News did take the opportunity to speak to him.

“The Jeddah Economic Forum has been very productive,” he said. “I have been to this conference four times since 2002. I have seen it develop from the very beginning. There was less participation in the past, now there is more international participation.”

He was among the many awestruck by the speech of Jordan’s Queen Rania on Sunday. “I loved her speech,” he said. “She had a very realistic perspective on things. The panel discussion that followed later was interesting and stimulating.”

Neil Bush’s business card describes him as chairman and CEO of Ignite Learning, a company devoted to developing technology-assisted curriculum. “We are building a model in the United States for developing curriculum that is engaging to grade-school kids, and our model is to deploy this engaging content through a device,” he said. “So it is easy for any teacher to use our device through projectors and speakers. The curriculum is loaded on the device. We use animation and video and those kinds of things to light up learning in classrooms for kids. It helps teachers connect with their kids. We are planning to develop an Arabic version of that model.”

Bush said his company intends to recruit skilled developers to create that Arabic version of the curriculum, focusing on the basics, like science and mathematics. “We are starting to build these local joint ventures outside of the United States so we will have this Arabic content probably by the end of the year,” he said. “But we won’t be penetrating this market thoroughly for the next two to three years.”

Now was the time for me to bring up the elephant in the room: The fact that the policies of his brother (unlike the policies of his father) are deeply disliked in the region for reasons that are obvious to anyone following the current state of affairs.

I had to ask him: How does Neil Bush react to people who tell him they are not happy with his brother’s foreign policy? “Don’t forget, I am the son of a president who I deeply respect and admire and who is admired a lot in this region,” he said, referring, of course, to George H.W. Bush, who liberated Kuwait from an Iraqi occupation in 1990s. “I think my dad has demonstrated in his policy how sensitive he is to culture, how bringing people together and how dialogue and conversation can lead to peace... And even when there is aggression you know you can deal with it in a way that is wise and judicious.”

True, I said, but what about his brother’s strategy? “I think people need to be fair about the position my brother is in,” he said. “My brother is president at a time in history that we have never seen before as Americans. Our country was attacked viciously, and I think everybody in the world recognizes that. The reaction he has had to it in part reflects the deep hurt of the tragedy that struck us on Sept. 11, 2001. He is doing what he thinks is right.”

The younger Bush says he emulates his father when it comes to discussing politics with his brother. “I have a personal policy similar to my dad’s policy and that is I don’t discuss politics with my brother,” Bush said. “He is an elected president. He never appointed me to be his secretary of state. I love my brother as a brother. He has two children; I have six now, so we talk about life in general. We have a lot in common. But he doesn’t talk about my business and I don’t talk about his. When he retires we will have plenty of good chats.”

At this point, the conversation consciously moves away from this topic and toward this whole “clash of civilizations” thing. “I get frustrated when I talk to my American friends about the region in general and particularly about Saudi Arabia,” he said. “There is this common misperception of the Arab people, of the Muslim faith, about the relationship with Saudi Arabia. I think there needs to be leadership on both sides to help bridge the gap of misunderstanding. A lot of my American friends, a lot of Americans in general, have common misunderstandings and the basic myths that they have in their minds about this region.”

So what is Neil Bush doing to rectify how Americans perceive Saudi Arabia with the reality on the Saudi street?

“It is not at all hard for me to explain; it is easy,” Bush said. “I can explain it very well, but people won’t believe me unless and until they come and see it for themselves. For example, I am bringing a delegation today that talks of water-desalination technology — very amazing technology. They have never been to Saudi Arabia. Obviously they can’t help but be impressed by the hospitality and the warmth of the reception and the response of the people that they met regarding their project. They just loved this place. The terrain is interesting to them. You know, romantic and kind of exciting. So there is a lot to be said about coming here and seeing it for yourself.”

Bush says it is important to gain “a more balanced perspective” on Saudi Arabia, and to let go of some of the stereotypes. “If I go by the images of Saudi Arabia portrayed in movies, that of gun-toting mullahs, then I think I will have a very different impression of Saudi Arabia than the one that is balanced and based on reason and facts.”

As a man whose family is deeply involved in the global oil business, Neil Bush has spent a lot of time in the Kingdom and says he’s not only grown to love the people, but also to understand the system. “It’s a kind of tribal democracy that people don’t talk about very much,” he said. “So it hurts me quite a bit and causes me anguish over the ignorance outside about Saudi Arabia.”

Indeed, not every system needs to be a Western-style Jeffersonian representative democracy, does it?

Day 3: Big Stars in the Lobby

JEDDAH, February 28, 2007 — On Day Three, most of the action was on the sidelines. Networking was in full flow throughout the last day. It was during the early-morning hours when the Arab News team caught up with former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chr├ętien.

A principled man, his eyes reflected steely determination — the same determination that made him refuse to commit Canadian forces to Iraq in 2003. The United States was quite miffed at him at that time, and the American media had a lot of fun at his expense (unwilling, it seemed, to recognize Canada’s noble efforts in attempting to stop the Rwanda massacres in 1994 while the US was fearful of committing its own peacekeeping forces). But Chr├ętien didn’t waver in light of this criticism.

“If military action proceeds without a new resolution of the Security Council, Canada will not participate,” he said at the time in the Canadian House of Commons. That made him more popular worldwide. That popularity was reflected at the forum where people greeted him and shook his hand.

In his conversation with Arab News Editor in Chief Khaled Almaeena yesterday, he was cheerful and in a mood to indulge in repartee. “You know I quit politics because I promised my wife that I would have none of it when I turn 70. And sure enough, I kept my word. I quit politics when I was 69 years, 11 months and one day old.” Everybody around was quite impressed.

* * *

At the other end of the Hilton lobby was Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa. He was mobbed by women who seemed very eager to shake hands with him and register their support. Many wanted photos with him, and he didn’t decline their requests. He acknowledged them politely and asked them to remember him in their prayers. One of his many fans, Alshaima’a Almaddah, an English major at the King Abdul Aziz University, later told Arab News that he is admired for his bold stands. “He is trying his best to come up with solutions to some of the most pressing problems in the region. We all support him. He is articulate, and his eyes see out to the horizon. He knows the pulse of the Arab people. He says what we all feel should be said,” she said.

* * *

After lunch, when everything seemed to be quieting down, all eyes turned in one direction. “Walesa, Walesa,” said Almaeena. Moments later, the former Polish president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa was surrounded by a huge number of admirers. “You live in our hearts,” Almaeena told him. “I have always wanted to shake hands with you. The whole world draws inspiration from you. You are a courageous man.” Almaeena’s reaction was understandable because here was the man who helped break the back of communism in Eastern Europe.

Walesa seemed to appreciate the attention and willingly answered, with the help of a translator, a couple of questions from this diarist. “I am very impressed by Arab values,” he said. “When we lay the foundations of the new world, we will need your values. They are essential.”

Walesa felt the West should take a look at how the situation in this country has been managed. “In Europe and the United States we can observe anarchy in democracy. There is a serious lack of one stable authority. Oftentimes situations in democracies get out of control. If we try to combine your ideas with ours, maybe we can have a better solution. That is why I am here at the JEF,” he said.

Walesa, the son of a carpenter who went on to become the president of Poland, was certainly upset with an unbalanced world. “It is not good. We don’t know how to react in this unipolar world. We have only one superpower, the United States, and it has taken the role of a traffic cop manning a crossroad. We are confused. We don’t know whether to support the United States or the United Nations. The US does not have the authority to act in many areas. It is the United Nations that has the authority to act, but it is not effective. So who should we support of the two? That is the question.”

Walesa said the pace of progress in the Kingdom amazed him. “Of course there is this element of oil money in the progress, but then other countries also have oil and have not been able to move as fast as you are moving under King Abdullah. Besides, here you have a successful combination of private and government sectors. I am attracted to this system.”

* * *

The forum was by all means a success despite the initial stumbles. The story will never be complete without acknowledging the role Saudi women college students played. They were at the forum in large numbers lending a helping hand to the organizers. They were proud to be there. Arab News talked to some of them, and they were all happy to be contributing their might to the success of the organization.

“It was challenging, but as volunteers we worked as a great team,” said 18-year-old Doha Ghouth, an English major at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. “Many of us had no background in economics. So we wanted to meet these incredible people from all over the world. We did. But our work kept us busy most of the time. We worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.”

The group of volunteers underwent two weeks of training at Effat College and met a couple of times with officials at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“This was my first time as a volunteer at the JEF,” said Ferdous Abbar from the College of Business Administration. “We contributed not just to the forum but to the country at large by projecting the right image of Saudi women. We showed the world that Saudi women are extremely capable. It was good to hear the positive feedback from people. Being with influential people encourages us to be like them. So this is not just volunteer work. It means a lot to us.”

“It was awesome,” said Umniah Al-Zahery, who works as an executive assistant of a company. “When I heard about the volunteer program for JEF, I immediately seized the opportunity. Despite the training, everything was a new experience. To get to know all these people is unbelievable. Where else could we get such a chance? I thought they only would discuss trade between countries, but when I came here I found that was not the case. It was a pleasant experience.”

“Of course, we have improved our communication skills and also hopefully cleared many misperceptions about Saudi women in the outside world,” said Nada Al-Mojadedi, a marketing student at CBA. “I want everyone to know that Saudi women are capable of improving their society. We can make a difference in the world. Being here was big step forward for us. No two opinions about that.”

“The reasons I volunteered were because I believe in social responsibility. I want to do something for my country,” said marketing major Sara Abdullah Bakhashwain, a young lady who has been raised both here and abroad. “Honestly, in most of the countries I have visited they have this perception that Saudis have a lot of money, sun, oil and camels. They wonder why I am walking around in jeans in the West. They don’t know that we Saudi women are educated people. They need to correct their perceptions of us. They need to come here and see for themselves.”

The volunteers were not just Saudis. There were Pakistani and Indian women students among them. One Pakistani volunteer was the young finance student Sumera Ghias. “It was a fascinating experience,” she said. “It really exceeded my expectations. I had an idea that I would just go around helping people at this forum. Actually I learned a lot. It definitely helped me improve my communication and networking skills.”

Another Pakistani volunteer, Hiba Ali, was equally excited. “It was the first such opportunity for me to get started with this networking phenomenon. We business students can gain a lot from the speeches and the interactive sessions at such prestigious forums.”

As leaders of the world came to learn and understand more about Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, it gave all of us a chance to learn more about them. It also served as a reminder that the powerhouse economies of the world have their foundations in education and empowerment of all their people to power those economic miracles. These incredible young Saudi women showed us they are ready, willing and able to join in.

The Jeddah Economic Forum should be a wake-up call that the world won’t wait for Saudi Arabia. Too many nations are anxious for the trade and commerce that make nations prosper. If Saudi Arabia doesn’t start moving forward in overcoming all its economic challenges soon, then it will take a very long time to catch up.

The Trip to Madain Saleh




Note: This trip into Saudi Arabia’s ancient past remains one of my most unforgettable experiences in the Kingdom. Written in a diary format, this travelogue first appeared in the weekender section of Arab News (Review) on April 20, 2006. — Siraj Wahab, Jeddah, Feb. 24, 2006.



JEDDAH, April 20, 2006 — It may sound strange, but the first time I heard about Madain Saleh was when I was visiting Jordan in the summer of 2000 on a media junket organized by the Jordanian Tourism Board. The JTB guide, Odeh Al-Shobaki — I remember his name because he was a diehard Bollywood fan — while leading us through the beautiful valley where Petra is, said: “This is an extension of your Madain Saleh. The structures are similar to what you have in Saudi Arabia. The Nabataean tribes lived and flourished in this area around 500 B.C. Petra was their northern capital, while Madain Saleh was their southern one.”

We, or rather I, was clueless. Still, we nodded our heads. Madain Saleh remained in the back of my mind until one fine morning last month when Dr. Ausaf Sayeed, the Indian consul general in Jeddah, and his No. 2, Dr. Suhel Ejaz Khan, wondered if I had been north of Jeddah. If not, would I like to be part of a three-day diplomatic trip to Madain Saleh? “Yes,” was my instant response.

It is not every day that you get to travel with diplomats. Along with being a diplomat, Dr. Sayeed is also a geologist. In fact, he is a geologist first and a diplomat second. It was in geology that he did his doctorate and then joined the Indian Foreign Service. The unique rock formations of Madain Saleh thus hold a special attraction for him. He visited the area years ago when he was stationed at the Indian Embassy in Riyadh.

Day 1

We were a group of five families and we left Jeddah at 5 on a Wednesday evening. As the sun went down, we kept traveling until we reached the SASCO stop, which is midway between Jeddah and Madinah. We prayed Maghreb there. It was cold and windy. The children — Oshin, Malak, Aiko and Sania — came out of the vehicles but then scurried quickly back inside. We gulped down cups of tea and felt refreshed.

It was here that we asked each other what we might expect at Madain Saleh. I had no idea. My friend, Danish Abdul Ghafour, was as clueless as I. Dr. Suhel Khan had only heard about it from the consul general. Saleem Quadri had some idea, thanks to what he had seen on the web. The only person who had been to Madain Saleh before was Dr. Sayeed but he and his wife, Farha, sons Faateh, Faaleh and Azhaan and another couple, Mr. and Mrs. Shafiq and their son, Ubair, were already in Madinah. They had started earlier and we planned to join them for dinner in the holy city. About 6:45 p.m., the caravan started for Madinah.

Madinah is the city of peace, the city of radiance and the city of our most beloved Prophet (peace be upon him). For some reason, your eyes get moist the moment you enter the city’s holy precincts. We were cracking jokes and having fun all the way, but the moment we entered the Prophet’s city we were in a different world. By the time we got to Madinah, Isha was over. Unlike the Grand Mosque in Makkah, which is open for 24 hours every day, the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah is closed after Isha. We prayed the night prayers in our hotel rooms and had a delicious dinner at an authentic Hyderabadi restaurant called Meraj. During dinner, Dr. Sayeed told us the plans for the next day and what we should expect at Madain Saleh.

Day 2

At 5 a.m., we heard the call to prayer. We performed our ablutions and headed to the Prophet’s Mosque. A cool breeze was blowing across the city. Praying in the Prophet’s Mosque so far has been the most moving experience of my life. It is the dream of every Muslim to get as close as he can to the Prophet of Islam. We prayed Fajr and said our salaams to the beloved Prophet and his companions who rest next to him under the green dome. We then came out of the gate named after the Angel Gabriel, and it was a great sight. The minarets stood out against the light blue sky. Danish and I spent time in the area around the mosque’s majestic courtyard, sipping tea from a nearby “boufiya.”

By 8.30 a.m. we were ready to leave for Al-Ula. At this point, we were joined by our guide and his two daughters. Obaidullah Abro is a Pakistani working for a Makkah-based tourist company. He has a passion for Madain Saleh and all the Islamic sites and, in addition, he is very well-read. He had all the relevant Qur’anic and literary references about the area. It was he who informed us that Al-Ula is 380 km northwest of Madinah. And, at legal speed limits, it would take us about three hours to reach our destination. What we had not factored in was that long stretches of the road to Al-Ula were single track, and driving can become both hazardous and slow. Abro said plans were under way to build an airport at Al-Ula. Quoting local authorities, he said the airport would promote regional business and tourism and should be operational within three years.

We thought we would drive nonstop to Al-Ula, which is what Abro told us, but he and Dr. Sayeed had charted a different course. Our vehicles suddenly veered off the main road and we got into an area of ancient, crumbling mud houses. They were baking in the scorching sun. As we rolled along, in the distance we saw an imposing fort perched high on a cliff. As we got closer, cameras clicked away. This was Khaybar. It was here that a very important battle between non-Muslims and the companions of the Prophet was fought. The fort was almost impregnable and had given the holy warriors a tough time. After many failed assaults by different companions of the Prophet, the Prophet finally asked Ali — later the fourth caliph — to lead the final battle and he was victorious. The spring where he performed his ablutions is still flowing. The shade of the palm trees was indescribable. The peace and tranquillity there has to be experienced to be believed.

Our caravan then rolled on, and soon we were in Al-Ula. It was an amazing landscape. The mountains had a red hue while Al-Ula was green. There were plenty of date farms, and the tall trees swayed in the wind. We soon arrived at the beautiful Madain Saleh Hotel (www.mshotel.com.sa), which sits in front of a huge mountain. The hotel is relatively new. Asghar Baig Younes, the hotel manager, was waiting for us. We were welcomed with cool drinks and then we had lunch. We were tired but excited.

That evening, we explored Al-Ula. Abro took us to the place where the Prophet stayed after returning from the Battle of Tabuk. It is said that the Prophet prayed at one of the mosques in Al-Ula, which is now closed, but you can take pictures of it.

As the sun was about to set on the town of Al-Ula, we saw haunting silhouettes of the mountains. One particular peak looked as if it were a woman begging for mercy. From the other side, it gave a completely different impression, but an eerie one nonetheless. “Caravans never stopped here in ancient times,” Abro explained. “They scheduled their trips so that they would cross the valley before sunset.” When we returned to the hotel, we prepared for the next morning’s trip to Madain Saleh.

The word “mada’in” comes from the Arabic word “madina.” Madina means city, and mada’in is its plural. Many expatriates from the Subcontinent confuse the Arabic word “mada’in” with the Urdu word “maidaan,” meaning a plain stretch of land. The city we were visiting is Madain Saleh, or the cities of Prophet Saleh.

Day 3

We got up early on Friday, and by 8:30, we were on our way to Madain Saleh, 22 km north of Al-Ula. The area was once the location of a significant city located on a major trade route from Yemen to Damascus. During the early Islamic period it became an important pilgrimage station for Syrians and Egyptians traveling to the holy cities of Madinah and Makkah. We saw tombs with massive facades decorated with eagles; there were dozens of tombs carved inside the rock. Someone has rightly mentioned that the first thing that strikes you is the Nabataeans’ skill at carving mountains into burial chambers. The symmetry of their work testifies to their knowledge of geometry. Outside each tomb there is an inscription.

Before arriving at Madain Saleh, we saw billboards telling people to discover Islam rather than discovering Madain Saleh. We were curious to know what was wrong in visiting an ancient Nabataean city. According to Islamic scholars, Prophet Saleh was the son of Thamud. He came from Bani Ad or the tribe of Ad. Saleh’s tribe moved from Yemen and had moved to a place called “Hager.” This is what is known as Madain Saleh today.

Like the tribe of Ad, the Nabataeans built their homes on mountaintops. They learned the art of building from the tribe of Ad and they were also blessed by God as the tribe of Ad before them had been blessed. They had power, riches and gardens rich in plants. However, they too, like the tribe of Ad, worshipped idols. God sent them Prophet Saleh, who was one of them. He was from a good family, was wise and people often came to him for advice. They admired and liked him, and had hopes that one day he would become one of their leaders. They were disappointed, however, when he began preaching to them about one God. They were so disappointed with him and angered by his teachings that they began to turn from him. They told him that they would believe in him if he performed a miracle — but not just any miracle. They pointed to a huge rock and told Prophet Saleh that they wanted to see the rock split in two and that they wanted a she-camel to come out of it. They wanted the she-camel to be 10 months pregnant, tall and beautiful. God allowed Prophet Saleh the miracle and as the rock broke into two pieces a magnificent she-camel appeared from within. Some of Prophet Saleh’s people believed and became his followers, although most continued in their disbelief.

There are a number of accounts of this camel and her miraculous nature. Some mention that she used to drink all the water in the wells in one day, and that no other animals could approach the wells. Still others claimed that the camel produced milk sufficient for all the people to drink, on the same day that she drank all the water and left none for them.

For a while, Prophet Saleh’s people let the camel graze and drink freely but in their hearts they hated her. The unbelievers now began complaining that this huge camel with its unusual qualities drank most of the water and frightened their cattle. They hatched a plot to kill the camel. They watched her closely, observing all her movements. As she came to drink at the well, one of them shot her in the leg with an arrow. She tried to escape but was slowed by the arrow. Another followed the camel and struck her with a sword in the other leg. As she fell to the ground, he stabbed her with his sword. The killers were given a hero’s welcome, cheered with songs and poetry composed in their honor. They mocked Prophet Saleh, but he issued a warning. “Enjoy life for three more days, then the punishment will descend upon you.”

Prophet Saleh hoped that they would see the folly of their ways and change their attitude before the three days had passed. Instead, they plotted to kill him. Nine men were sent to kill him, but God protected him by sending large birds from the sky, killing all the nine assassins.

After three days, thunderbolts filled the air, followed by a rumbling noise and severe earthquakes that destroyed the entire tribe. The land was violently shaken, destroying all living creatures in it. Neither their strong buildings nor their rock-hewn houses could protect them. All were demolished before they realized what was happening. As for the people who believed in the message of Prophet Saleh, they were saved because they had left the place.

It is said that while Prophet Muhammad was passing through the area on his way back from the Battle of Tabuk, he stopped to meet with the people there. The people fetched water from the wells from which the people of Thamud used to drink. They prepared their dough (for baking) and filled their water-skins from it (the water from the wells). The Prophet ordered them to empty the water-skins and give the prepared dough to the camels. Then he went away with them until they stopped at the well from which the she-camel (of Prophet Saleh) had drunk. He warned them against entering the area where the people had been punished, saying: “I fear that you may be affected by what afflicted them; so do not enter upon them.”

In other Hadiths, it is narrated that the Prophet Muhammad warned his people that should they enter Madain Saleh, they should think about what had happened to the unbelievers.

This is why people have not been encouraged to visit Madain Saleh. Now, however, the Supreme Commission of Tourism (SCT) is putting emphasis on tourism and in the future, tourist traffic to Madain Saleh is expected to increase considerably.

When we got back to the hotel, it was nearly 1 p.m., and we headed straight to the biggest mosque in the center of Al-Ula to say our Friday prayers. The imam had a sonorous voice, and the Qur’anic verses reminded the believers of the life in the Hereafter and God’s punishment for those who disobey Him. I was again reminded of the community of disbelievers who met such a fate in the mountains in Madain Saleh.

We got back to our hotel, had lunch and said good-bye to the hotel staff before setting off for Madinah. It must have been four in the afternoon. Abro wanted to take us to the exact place from where the she-camel had emerged and so we went, thanking him profusely for his knowledge and his skills as a guide. We were in Madinah by 8.30 and back in Jeddah by 1 a.m.

Madain Saleh is an excellent place to visit and learn about Saudi Arabia’s pre-Islamic past. One also actually walks in the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The modern accommodations, and the good people in the area will welcome visitors who, I suspect, will hope as I do to return someday.

— For those who are interested in taking a trip to Madain Saleh, Obaidullah Abro can be reached at 0502509688. His firm also organizes field trips for schoolchildren. The manager of the Madain Saleh Hotel, Asghar Baig Younes, can be reached on 04-8842888. The hotel’s e-mail address is: info@mshotel.com.sa.

Interview With Rajaa Al-Sanea, Author of 'The Girls of Riyadh' (2006)

Note: Despite all the criticism that the young Rajaa Al-Sanea was subjected to in the Arabic media following the publication in September 2005 of her controversial Arabic novel, "Banat Al-Riyadh," she was calm, composed and confident during the interview that I conducted with her in March 2006. When I asked her if she regretted writing "Banat Al-Riyadh," Al-Sanea's answer was straightforward: "I am proud of it and I would hate any change to be made to the novel's content." When this interview was first published in the weekender Review section of Arab News, it generated a huge debate in the newspaper and on various blogs it was posted on. — Siraj Wahab, Feb. 17, 2007


JEDDAH, March 11, 2006 — Twenty-four-year-old Rajaa Al-Sanea stirred up a hornet's nest with the publication of her first novel, "Banat Al-Riyadh" or "The Girls of Riyadh." Reactions to the 319-page novel have, in some cases, been extreme. The novel deals with the lives of four young Saudi girls who must live according to the traditions of Saudi society. The girls are students at a university in Riyadh.

Al-Sanea has attained instant fame because of the raging debate over her novel which was first published in Arabic by Saqi Books in Lebanon last September. Now she is looking for an English language publisher. Nearly 250 articles have appeared about the novel, both here and abroad. Her critics and fans come from all age groups.

Al-Sanea's detractors contend there is nothing great about the book and offer a variety of justifications for their position. Some credit the book's success to its introduction, written by Labor Minister Dr. Ghazi Al-Gosaibi, a renowned poet and author. "'Banat Al-Riyadh' is a work that deserves to be read. I expect a lot from this author," he writes in his introduction.

In trashing the book, one Saudi woman writer said: "But for Dr. Al-Gosaibi's introduction, nobody would have given this novel a second thought." Some others say the reason for Al-Sanea's popularity is her good looks. In an Associated Press report, Donna Abu-Nasr describes her as "a petite brunette who wears an Islamic head scarf, like virtually all Saudi women."

"This is the age of television and looks matter," said a 30-year-old Saudi who read the book last week. "Somebody got it for me from Beirut. Beauty drives the marketing of your product. Rajaa has the looks, and so even when the product, i.e. the novel, is bad it sells and is selling like hot cakes," he said.

Al-Sanea's fans, whose numbers are legion going by the hits on her website (www.rajaa.net), say those who criticize are simply jealous of her success. They (the critics) say the style is atrocious. They say the language is far from classical Arabic. They say it is peppered with chatroom English and full of meaningless terms from the Internet. When Al-Sanea was asked about it, she was blunt. "I wrote the first few chapters in classical Arabic, but I modified them later because I couldn't convince myself that women my age would use classical Arabic to speak to each other. I used colloquial language to improve communication with my readers."

One Saudi woman journalist probably hit the nail on the head when she observed: "It is our tradition not to talk about the ills of our society. We know there are problems in our society, but the general reaction is to keep quiet. We have been taught from an early age that if we talk about the ills of our society, people will laugh at us. We are seen as role models in the Muslim world. And even when we are not entirely perfect, we should pretend that we are. 'Banat Al-Riyadh' deals with four characters. They may or may not represent all of Saudi society. But yes, we do come across the four fictional characters in our daily lives. Probably Saudi society - and especially Saudi women - are so much in the spotlight that this novel has come in handy for people who want to take a peek into the lives of Saudi girls. My only problem is that it sheds only a negative light on Saudi women. People outside this country will take it as a definitive word on the girls of our country." Many of Al-Sanea's critics would agree and they want her to change the title of the novel precisely because they think it gives the impression that it is true of all the girls in Riyadh.

The Book

"Banat Al-Riyadh" examines the lives of four Saudi girls: Sadeem, Qamrah, Mashael and Lamees. Mashael is half-Saudi and half-American. Her American mother and friends call her Michelle. All four are students at a university in Riyadh. According to one Saudi female columnist, there are in fact five women instead of four. "Everyone seems to forget the narrator," she wrote.

The narrator is unidentified, except that she is in her early 20s. She is a modern Scheherazade who tells the stories of the girls' weekends. Her motivation is to end society's tyranny over her friends.

The four girls are bound by a strong friendship despite many differences. Each one of them experiences failures except Lamees who succeeds in both her professional and personal life. She marries the man of her choice and goes with him to Canada to study for a degree in medicine.

Lamees is the group's fortune-teller. She always is consulted by her friends about future matches and emotional relationships. At one point in the novel, she ends her friendship with Fatema because she is a Shia, and Lamees is a Sunni. Lamees likes Fatema's brother who is studying medicine, but the relationship ends abruptly after they are caught in a cafe by members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

Lamees has a kind heart and helps her friends in resolving their problems. She supports them in times of need. For example, she teaches Qamrah, who has been ill-treated by society, how to use the Internet, send e-mails and to chat online so that she can come out of the isolated world she finds herself in. Qamrah is a divorcee with a baby.

Qamrah's story is typical. She married Rashed after an arranged meeting at which the two families allowed the prospective husband to see the girl once to decide whether he liked her. There was no exchange of ideas or thoughts. "See the girl once and make up your mind." Qamrah also had the same chance to see the man and give her opinion. Since they both agreed, their families proceeded with the marriage. After marriage, the two go to Chicago so that Rashed can finish his postgraduate studies. The novel discusses their marital discord.

Rashed forces her to give up her hijab. And she does so in the hope of winning his heart. But when he sees her without hijab he thinks she looks ugly. He asks her to wear the hijab again to hide her ugliness. Qamrah loves Rashed despite all his cruelty. Matters come to a head when she learns of Rashed's betrayal. He has a mistress: A Japanese-American woman. Qamrah insists on meeting the woman and leaves seething with the desire for revenge. She stops taking her contraceptive pills and becomes pregnant.

When Rashed finds out that she is pregnant, he slaps her and sends her back to Riyadh. He then sends divorce papers and she becomes a single parent. She lives at her father's house completely isolated. Her family members prevent her from going out. They fear she will stain the family name and honor if she goes out but her friends nonetheless manage to get her out from time to time.

Sadeem's story is no less tragic. She is raised by her father because her mother dies soon after giving birth to her. She loses her first love and then her second. Her first tragedy is caused by Walid when he deserts her after a few months of marriage. She gives herself to him one night considering that he is her husband even though the wedding had not taken place yet. Walid disappears and is never seen again. He eventually sends divorce papers which come as a shock; she blames herself because she did not wait until after the wedding. Sadeem never tells her family about what happened. She believes Walid divorced her because he thought she was girl with loose morals. (In the Muslim world, engagement norms are different from those in the West. The man and woman are considered officially married when their marital vows are exchanged and the documents signed. However, the period from the time of signing the documents till the night of the wedding is the engagement period. There is nothing in Islam to prevent them from having sex before that night as they are officially wed, but to do so is considered a mistake by society and men may get the impression that the girl is too easy or that she has had a premarital relationship.)

Sadeem's second tragedy is caused by Firas. She meets him in London while recovering from her first tragedy. She falls in love with him and he with her. But the fact that he has never been married prevents him from marrying a divorcee. Firas then marries one of his relatives and later calls Sadeem and offers to continue the relationship without leaving his wife. Sadeem refuses. Her suffering increases as Firas continues to call her. She finally decides to forget all about him and she is left with no choice but to marry her cousin Tareq. She never wanted to marry him even though he had strong feelings for her.

Mashael is more realistic and more liberal. Compared to her friends, she has had more freedom. She was born to a Saudi father and an American mother. One day, she meets Faisal when he asks her and her girlfriends to allow him to enter the shopping mall with them as a brother. (Single young men are not allowed to enter big shopping malls in order to prevent them from flirting with women.) This brief encounter is the start of mutual love. Their attraction lasts a year, and when Mashael asks Faisal to marry her, he refuses since his mother will not allow him to marry a girl who was not chosen by his family. On top of that, there are objections to Mashael's American mother. The upshot is that Mashael loses her faith in men and travels to San Francisco to study with an American cousin. They are attracted to one another, but things never progress to love. Faced with this confusing relationship, she travels back to Riyadh. Her father decides to move the whole family to Dubai in order to escape the gossip about Mashael as well as what has become her bad reputation.

In Dubai, Mashael works for a satellite TV channel. She succeeds in her work and lives freely. She admires a TV director who works with her, but she remains confused about whether she loves him. She asks her father if he will allow her to appear on TV as there is an opening for a TV hostess, but he refuses and convinces her that her appearance on TV would lead to problems in Saudi Arabia and with his family.

The novel has one encouraging story and that is the marriage of Lamees to the man she has chosen. It seems that Lamees learns from the mistakes of her friends and never repeats them. In fact, she formulates a strategy to win her colleague's heart after falling in love with him at first sight. She uses everything to make the relationship succeed. Her plans culminate in a happy marriage and a trip to Canada to study medicine.

The Author

"I try all the time to distance myself from motivated writings since, in the Arab world, this kind of writing is more or less a form of propaganda that transfers a distorted image of reality to the reader," Al-Sanea told Arab News when asked about her motive for writing the book. "I write because I enjoy this kind of art; I'm not sure if anyone has to give a reason to write or to paint."

During her interview with Arab News, Al-Sanea said she was surprised by the amount of attention the novel has generated. "I did expect some controversy - but not to this extent," she said. "About 200 articles have been written about the novel in the Arabic media and about 50 in English. I never expected that. It is important to listen to both parties. Any creative act usually leads to controversy, but what is important is the end result - positive progress, I hope."

She also is quick to remind people that the book is a novel - a work of fiction. "I hate to disappoint you but the characters in the book are not my friends," Al-Sanea said. "The novel is based on events I've heard about; they have added authenticity to the novel."

Al-Sanea considers herself an author, not a firebrand. "I am just a member of this society who is giving the reader a chance to look through my small window and share the same scene with me," she said. "Any successful work should have a creative idea behind it, and I do believe the issue is not to write about different aspects of society, but to catch a creative idea and put it on paper."

The young woman is fascinated by the works of Dr. Ghazi Al-Gosaibi and Ihsan Abdul-Qudos. "I also read non-Arabic works in their original language. I have always admired 'The Old Man and the Sea' by Ernest Hemingway. In that novel, the writer uses his enormous talent and expertise to impress the reader with an environment that is abstract: The sea and one man."

Al-Sanea hopes to continue honing her craft and, at this point, expects it to be a lifelong pursuit. "I want to continue to write and produce novels of the same caliber. I have a book in my mind already, but I would like to keep it to myself for now," Al-Sanea said, noting that her family and friends have been supportive of her. She has no regrets about "Banat Al-Riyadh." "I am proud of it. I would hate any change to be made to its content."

Interview With Ahmed Faraz (2001)

Note: Ahmed Faraz, the legendary Urdu poet, is a romantic genius. No two opinions about that. This is perhaps one of my best interviews to date. Maybe because I have a passion for Urdu poetry, especially romantic poetry. This was first published in the Jeddah-based Arab News in 2001. Ahmed Faraz was visiting Jeddah that year for an unforgettable mushaira organized by a good Pakistani friend of mine, Sher Bahadur Khan of PASCO (Pakistan Social and Cultural Organization). I also covered that mushaira for my newspaper. At the end of this interview, I am reproducing the mushaira report as well to give you an idea about its historicity. — Siraj Wahab, Jeddah, Feb. 15, 2007


JEDDAH, May 17, 2001 — Ahmed Faraz doesn’t look like the quintessential fire-breathing rebel that one would expect from some of his well-known couplets. For example:

Tu wahin haar gaya tha mere buzdil dushman
Mujh se tanha ke muqaabil tera lashkar niklaa


He is, however, extraordinarily mild-mannered, thoroughly modest and dreamily romantic. There are no airs about him despite the fact that he is the best of living Urdu poets. His metaphors evoke delicate images whether read in the dust of a village in Uttar Pradesh or in the posh surroundings of Karachi’s Defense Society. No wonder he is the toast of all “ghazal” singers in the subcontinent. These lines have been immortalized by Munni Begum in her soulful voice:

Phir koyi haath hai dil par jaise
Phir tera ahd-e-wafa yaad aaya


Jis tarah dhund main liptay huay phool
Ek ek naqsh tera yaad aaya


Aisee majboori kay aalam main koyee
Yaad bhi aaya to kya yaad aaya


Yaad aaya tha bichhadna tera
Phir nahin yaad ke kya yaad aaya


Yeh muhabbat bhi hai kya rog Faraz
Jis ko bhule woh sada yaad aaya


Faraz has given some highly original couplets to Urdu poetry — original in thought content and rich in diction. It was he who formulated the “you-too-Brutus” concept for the first time in a couplet:

Main margaya wahin ke saf-e-doston se jab
Khanjar badast tu bhi ravaan tha meri taraf


He has enriched Urdu poetry with some of his unique lines. Critics believe his poem “Salamti Council” — Security Council — should be counted among the best in any language and not merely in Urdu alone.

Phir chaley hain mere zakhmon ka madawa karne
Mere ghamkhwar usi fitna gar-e-dahr ke paas

Jis ki dehleez pe tapki hain lahoo ki boonden


Faraz was in Jeddah recently at the invitation of the Pakistan Social and Cultural Organization (PASCO) headed by Sher Bahadur Khan. It was indeed a rare pleasure to listen to him as he reminisced, recalling events which shaped his personality and sharpened his poetry.

“I was in Class 9 when I wrote my first couplet. Ramzan Eid was around the corner and my father had brought new clothes for all of us. My elder brother, Mehmood, who was in first year then, got an elegant suit while I got a ‘kashmira.’ In those days, the ‘kashmira’ was not a very sophisticated article of clothing of attire. I was extremely unhappy and these lines were the result:

Jab ke sab ke waaste laaye hain kapde sale se
Laaye hain mere liye qaidi ka kambal jail se


Loosely translated it means, “everybody got elegant clothes and I got a prisoner’s garment!”

However, it was a year later before Faraz received his first real inspiration to write poetry. “I was in Class 10 and there was a cousin of mine who was also in Class 10. Our parents thought we should prepare our exams together. She was very good in Urdu poetry and was able to quote hundreds of couplets off-hand. One day she asked if it was OK with me if we played ‘bait baazi.’ I was nonplussed and wondered what kind of game it was. She then explained to me the finer details of this literary game; I agreed to give it a try and lost miserably because I knew no couplets... She beat me hollow.

“This continued for a while until I decided to learn as many couplets as I could. Even then I lost. Finally, I realized that there was no way to win against her unless I started composing couplets on the spur of the moment. They were not great literary gems but they had meter and they rhymed. My cousin thought that the couplets were from recognized poets and accepted them.”

After a pause, Faraz lit a cigarette and switched into rewind mode again. “The real turning point though came in the early 1950s. We were at Edwards College, Peshawar and we had an invitation from a college in Gujarat. They were organizing a ‘mushaira.’ Our principal was an Englishman named Dr. Nobel. I used the little English I knew then to convince him to send us to the poetry contest. The principal agreed but wondered who the other poet from our school would be. There had to be a team of two so I composed a few lines for a friend of mine and asked him to go and tell the principal that he wanted to be on the team. The principal agreed and the two of us were off to Gujarat. Many budding poets there had come from Lahore. My poem on Kashmir was a big hit.”

Could he recall that poem?

“I just remember this line:

Takhreeb-e-gulistan hoti hai taamir-e-gulistan se pehle.

“My ghazal was also very well-received and we won the first prize. Our principal was very happy and there were huge celebrations.”

So when did he take up Urdu poetry as a full-time vocation? “Urdu poets had a very bad image then. They were synonymous with pan-chewing, sloppily dressed slobs living in a world of their own. It was at this time that we saw a new image of poets projected by the immaculately dressed Ali Sardar Jafri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi. Unconsciously, I was drawn to being a poet.”

Faraz feels that Urdu literature parallels what is happening in English and French literature. “The problem is that our work is not being translated into other languages so the world knows nothing about what is happening in Urdu. I don’t think Faiz (Ahmed Faiz) was any less than Octavio Paz. If Paz can get a Nobel (Prize for Literature) so should Faiz. There has to be a concerted effort in this direction. There is a dire need for what I call cultural landscaping. People have stopped reading, which is sad. What is even worse is that comparative studies have become a thing of the past. We need to keep abreast of what is happening in other languages.”

Since Faraz is near the top of Urdu literature, it was natural to ask him for his opinion about Urdu poetry in both India and Pakistan. “There is some excellent poetry being written in Pakistan. India has not produced the kind of poets that Pakistan has during the last couple of decades. Forget about Mirza Ghalib. He was not truly from Hindustan. His ancestors came from Central Asia. Leave him aside for the time being. Take (Sir Muhammad) Iqbal — he came from Pakistan; Faiz — he came from Pakistan; (Noon Meem) Rashed — also from Pakistan; and Nadeem (Ahmed Qasmi, the only stalwart of both prose and poetry) — he was again from Pakistan. India has not produced any mainstream poets of the caliber of those I have just mentioned. Yes, the Indians are doing an excellent job in ‘tehqeeq’ (research) and in this they are way ahead of their Pakistani counterparts.”

No article on Faraz can be complete without his classic ghazal, “Ranjish hi sahi...” whose freshness has neither dimmed nor faded with the passage of time. It was composed almost three and a half decades ago. Gustave Flaubert, it is said, became fed up with his masterpiece “Madame Bovary” because it overshadowed his other works. We wondered if Faraz was jealous of his gem. “No way because the best is yet to come.” Mukarrar!

----
Note: Following is the report on the mushaira that took place in Jeddah on Thursday, May 3, 2001. Naturally, Ahmed Faraz was the cynosure of all eyes at that memorable evening at the Saudi-German Hospital Auditorium in Jeddah. Everybody was fascinated by his poetry. And so was I. And it is reflected in this report that I wrote and which appeared in Arab News two days later on May 5, 2001. — Siraj Wahab, Jeddah, Feb. 15, 2007
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'Itna Sannata Ke Jaise Ho Sukoot-e-Sehra'


JEDDAH, May 5, 2001 — He is one of the greatest exponents of Urdu poetry in all its forms. Gifted with a rare mode of thought and feeling about love and rebellion, he has given a new meaning to the craft of Urdu poetry. Ahmed Faraz gave a glimpse of his poetic genius at a mushaira (poetry reading session) organized here on Thursday night by the Pakistan Social and Cultural Organization (PASCO).

It was indeed a rare treat to listen to this towering Urdu literary figure whose inimitable work has inspired generations of Urdu lovers. He passionately spoke of the need for “cultural landscaping” in Pakistan. “We should rise above politics and come together to promote our culture... Such functions should be held more often as they are part of the cultural landscaping that I am talking about... This is the only way of correcting the negative image that our beloved country has acquired in recent years.”

Ahmed Faraz fans here in the Kingdom, whose numbers are legion, packed the Saudi German Hospital Auditorium and hung onto his every word and couplet with bated breath. They kept reminding him of his best poems and best couplets as they knew all of them by heart. Faraz did not let them down one bit.

This is how he described his incarceration during one of the military regimes in Pakistan. The clarity of thought and imagery and the symbols used in these lines speak volumes about the mastery that Faraz has acquired over the craft of creative writing in Urdu.

Itna sannata ke jaise ho sukoot-e-sehra
Aisee taariki ke aankhon ne duhaee di hai


Dar-e-zindaan se pare kaun se manzar honge

Mujhko deewaar hi deewar dikhayee di hai


Door ek faakhta boli hai sare shaakh-e-shajar

Pehli aawaaz mohabbat ki sunayee di hai.


There was a thunderous applause. And this was just the beginning. A product of the progressive movement that came to dominate Urdu literature in the 1940s and 1950s, Faraz then touched the hearts of his fans with some superlative ghazals.

Misaale dast-e-zulekha tapaak chahta hai

Yeh dil bhi daaman-e-Yusuf hai chaak chahta hai


Idhar udhar se kayee aa rahee hain awaazen

Aur us ka dhyaan bahot inhimaak chahta hai


Duwayen do mere qaatil ko sab ke shehr ka shehr

Usee ke haath se hona halaak chahta hai


That was just incomparable. Faraz then demonstrated his ability to turn words and phrases into things of beauty:

Ek to khwab liye phirte ho galiyon galiyon

Us pe takraar bhi karte ho kharidaar ke saath


Earlier, Dr. Peerzada Qasim held total sway over the audience with his refreshing lines. A poet seeped in the intricacies and nuances of Urdu language, he recited exquisite couplets. His depth of thought can be gauged from the following couplets:

Yaad kya daste hunar hai ke sanwarta gaya main

Us ko socha to use yaad hi karta gaya main


Ek tasveer banaayee thi mukammal na huyee

Ek hi rang lahu rang tha bharta gaya main


And when he started reciting this poem, the audience were swooning with excitement along every word:

Ruswaayi ka mela tha so maine nahi dekha

Apna hi tamaasha tha so maine nahi dekha


Us khwab-e-tamanna ki taabeer na thi koyee

Bas khwab-e-tamanna tha so maine nahi dekha


Pyaase to rahe lekin tauqeer nahi khoyee

Darya wo paraya tha so maine nahi dekha


His “Ek diya bujha huwa” was also very well-received.

Another prominent poet from Pakistan who captivated the audience was Zafar Iqbal. The audience burst into laughter when he said:

Na koyi baat karni hai na koyi kaam karna hai

Aur us ke baad kaafi der tak aaraam karna hai


And then Zafar Iqbal launched into serious stuff sending one and all into a crescendo of wah-wahs and serious introspection. One could feel the audience identifying themselves with these couplets:

Lafz patton ki tarah udne lage chaaron taraf

Kya hawa chalti rahee aaj mere charon taraf


Aasman par koyi tasveer banata hun Zafar

Ke rahe ek taraf aur lage chaaron taraf


Etebaar Saajid was also successful in driving home his point with some thought-provoking couplets:

Hai itna shor kissi se mukhatib bhi nahin

Jo sun sakte hain bas unhee ko sunayee dete hain


The consul general of Pakistan, Qazi Rizwan-ul-Haq Mehmood, took everybody by surprise when he recited a couple of very good couplets of his own:

Us ke dushwaar raste pe chalta huwa

Gir pada hun dubara sambhalta huwa


The consul general congratulated Sher Bahadur Khan on organizing such a beautiful function and said it should become a regular feature. He said he would be going to Abu Dhabi in June and therefore the event had come like an icing on the cake. He thanked the community for promoting the culture and ethos of Pakistan here in the Kingdom.

The mushaira was conducted by Muhammad Ali and it also included local poets in Munawwar Hashmi, Naseem-e-Sehr, Umar Saleh Al-Aidroos and Naeem Bazidpuri.

Interview With Princess Reem Al Faisal (2006)


Note: The following interview with Princess Reem Al Faisal, writer, photographer and granddaughter of the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, first appeared in the Jeddah-based Arab News in April 2006. Princess Reem is a wonderful person and a great artist. I had a great time interviewing her at Jeddah's Al-Alamia Gallery on the sidelines of her exhibition of photographs, entitled "Al Hajj." — Siraj Wahab, Jeddah, Feb. 15, 2007


JEDDAH, April 3, 2006 — When you hear the words “Saudi princess,” the image that comes to mind is probably not that of a talented artist. That’s why when you meet Princess Reem Mohammed Al Faisal, granddaughter of the late King Faisal, it is a pleasant surprise because she is so different from the usual idea. The princess is a photographer and her work has been exhibited for more than a decade. Working always with a roll-film, medium-format camera and always in black and white, she has sought to capture images that play with light and shadow and also tell stories at the same time.

Princess Reem first tried to capture the essence of the streets of Paris and later focused on the port of Jeddah. In her current exhibit, which toured Europe before arriving at Jeddah’s Al-Alamia Gallery, she is sharing a body of work that tries to capture the essence of the Haj, an ambitious undertaking that required three years of photography to realize.

“In Reem Al Faisal’s world, all solidity is a reflection of the light which gives it form and content,” one critic wrote. “The orb is round because of the light that curls around it. The archway is tall because of the light that streams through it. Color is only a distraction. By working in black-and-white, the artist sees and renders to us the divine light of her vision.”

The princess explained the motivation behind her current exhibit, called “Al Hajj.”

“My objective in photographing the Haj was to take photographs from the angle of humanity. I wanted to project how humanity deals with an intense situation — a dramatic situation,” she said. “The Haj is a religious ritual that goes back to pre-Islamic times, all the way back to the days of Prophet Ibrahim. It is an ancient ritual and has been performed through the centuries in one form or another. I see Haj as a ritual that really created the Ummah. This is the one ritual that has given Muslims an identity more than any other because it occurs every year, and Muslims from around the globe come here every year. It was my aim to show that.”

To get the images required the affable princess to join the throngs of pilgrims, accompanied only by her driver. The fact that many people still have strong objections to photography and feel it is taboo made her task all the more difficult.

“The most difficult thing in the Haj were those people,” she said. “They come from all races — from all countries. Initially, I thought they were mostly Saudis, but that was not correct. These people take it upon themselves to defend their faith, and they were willing to do anything. They were willing to hit me and attack me... Oh yeah.”

This required some precautions. “I had one or two people constantly with me. The deal with them was that they would fend off anybody who came to attack me while I was taking a picture. It happened a lot of times; I was insulted and must have been declared an apostate a hundred times.”

Princess Reem is quick to point out that this behavior wasn’t only from men. “Women were equally harsh,” she said. “I was stopped at one camp by a woman. I just wanted to rest. She literally called the men and told them to get me out of there. I told her I wasn’t going to photograph her and that I just wanted to rest, but she wouldn’t listen; she was furious. She was a young woman and very well-educated at that. She simply kicked me out.”

Beyond that, there were the difficulties of becoming one in a crowd of millions. “The Haj is physically exhausting,” she said. “We were walking constantly — a minimum of 13 hours every day. We didn’t have any tents like the pilgrims have. We would sit down anywhere, grab a bite and drink water on the go.”

Princess Reem’s experiences, coupled with her artistic sense, also gave her some keen insights and a creative perspective about the Haj. “Arafat is the most dramatic. When the Hadith says that Haj is Arafat, it really is,” she said. “That is where you feel the intensity. One can feel the emotions of the Haj in the plains of Arafat. The energy is amazing. It is like electricity. In the Haj, humanity itself becomes an obstacle. You are in a river and sometimes you are really swimming against the tide. A lot of times you can get crushed. On many occasions, you have to just drop out of the way. The crowd has its own logic. You really have to be on the edge.”

After her first year of photographing the Haj in 2001, the princess realized the enormity of the task and returned in 2002 and 2004 to complete the project — and gain a new understanding of the ancient ritual and its traditions.

“The Haj isn’t different, and that is what is fascinating about it,” the princess said. “The only differences may be some new buildings go up each year, but the rituals themselves never change. They have remained the same down through the ages. The pilgrims’ mode of transport has changed. The pilgrim may have come by camel or air or simply on foot. But everybody has to perform the same rituals. So the reactions are similar. I couldn’t capture it in one season. Between Makkah, Mina, Muzdalifa and Arafat, you just couldn’t cover it all in one year. It is not humanly possible. Each year you go more deeply into the subject.”

Princess Reem says she felt she succeeded in capturing an aspect of the Haj, but she now plans on turning her camera in other directions. “Photography is a state of mind and being,” she said. “It is always there. It is like the volume — you turn it off and on. Sometimes it’s very frustrating. I am sick if I am not able to go out and photograph. Photography is a way to praise God’s glory in the universe.”

She also says sticking to the older medium of film becomes part of the essence of her art. “Black and white is a more artistic form of photography,” the princess said. “Black and white is metaphysical. It gives you the metaphysical side of art. People can get distracted by color and forget about the image itself, but a black-and-white photograph forces the people to focus on the image.”

Princess Reem laments that Saudi Arabia does not have more interest in fine arts and said there were neither enough galleries nor critics in the Kingdom to allow the arts to flourish. She also laments that the importance of artistic expression seems to be overlooked by many in the Muslim world. “One of the basic ills in our society is that we think art is a luxury. I say art is not a luxury — it is a necessity. The beauty of the Muslim world in earlier times was that art was an intrinsic part of society. Go to a village in Pakistan, for instance. Go into a mosque, and you will find that there was someone there who painted the mosque — who drew flowers on the walls. There is beautiful calligraphy. It doesn’t mean that the person had been through a fine arts school. It was part of society. It was a natural expression — down to the people who made the bowls, the chairs. The problem is we have separated art from utility, meaning what is useful cannot be beautiful. As a result, it is almost as if Muslim society no longer appreciates beauty.”

Princess Reem sees her perspective as an Islamic one. “The Qur’an in itself says you have to appreciate beauty. Part of the Prophet’s miracle (peace be upon him) is that he fascinated the Quraish with the language of the Qur’an. They were genuinely impressed with the beauty of the Qur’an language. That is also an art. The way you dress is also a form of art. Perfumery is a form of art. Just go back 100 years and look at many things in the Muslim world: So much of it was a work of art.”

Interestingly, however, the photographer still has a few reservations about photography. “Let my work speak for myself,” she said when Arab News asked to photograph her for this interview. “I don’t want to be in front of the camera; I am comfortable behind the lens.”

Interview With Mian Nawaz Sharif (2005)

Note: I conducted the following interview with Pakistan's deposed Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif in April 2005. He was then based in Jeddah, the Red Sea port city of Saudi Arabia. This interview first appeared in three parts in M.J. Akbar’s multi-edition The Asian Age newspaper. — Siraj Wahab, Jeddah, Feb. 12, 2007


JEDDAH, April 16, 2005 — It has been nearly five years since Nawaz Sharif flew from Pakistan to exile in Saudi Arabia. Mystery shrouds him. Where is he living? What is he doing with his life? Is he planning a comeback? From his base at the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Sharif makes frequent visits to the Kingdom’s various cities where his supporters sometimes catch a glimpse of him, but not much more. Hardly a day passes without some function or another for the thousands of Pakistanis living in Jeddah — but without Sharif. The Pakistani government’s representatives to Saudi Arabia do not officially acknowledge him. But Sharif spends most of his time at his headquarters in Soroor Palace, off Madinah Road in the very heart of Jeddah. There, surrounded by high walls and vast gardens, he lives a comfortable life in what was once the residence of King Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s third ruler. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz has instructed that the palace is to be at Sharif’s disposal for as long as he is there.

Sharif is indeed in exile, but he is by no means a prisoner. He receives guests daily. Invited to dinner one night last week, I provided the exact spelling of my name to one of his close aides and appeared at the palace’s secure entrance at 7 pm with my official identification. After confirming my identity, I passed through the gate. To my right was the guest house Shahbaz Sharif had used before he moved to London. A little further along was the palace, a rare triumph of Arabian architectural style amidst Jeddah’s concrete austerity.

For a first-time visitor, Soroor Palace is overwhelming. Immediately beyond the entrance is a huge hall, furnished with large sofas and hung with enormous twinkling chandeliers. The marble floors are partially covered with oriental rugs. In one corner hangs a framed photo of Sharif and Crown Prince Abdullah, taken in happier times.

The hall where Sharif receives guests was full of people. Some were Sharif’s assistants and domestic staff, others were well-wishers or party workers. Sharif, in a fresh white Pakistani suit, rose from his place to welcome every new visitor. His greeting was warm and his smile genuine, even for those he had not met before. Guests were shown to their seats before Sharif returned to his. Even before Sharif sat down, a secretary was whispering in his ear. Another aide handed him a telephone. A servant went round the room several times pouring Arabic coffee for the guests as Sharif continued with business. Finally, he turned to his son, Hussain, seated to his right, and quietly made a final comment. Then he called for an aide to start reading the political columns. First, the aide listed the available selections and made notes of important news items. Then Sharif made his choices. The aide had already marked important paragraphs in each piece, and he now read them aloud.

Comments by Pakistani Opposition parties were of course highlighted. One particular story caught Sharif’s attention — about North Korea’s nuclear armament. The story said the North Koreans were coming up with a new kind of missile that would deactivate incoming enemy missiles. Sharif wondered how effective even Patriot missiles are, recalling how many Patriots were supplied in 1990 to the Gulf War allies of the United States and how many of those failed to work. He wondered whether the world was being made any safer by these missile races. Then the aide recited a famous couplet by Pakistan’s national poet, Iqbal, quoted in one of the columns. Everybody burst into "wah, wahs," but Sharif sat still and did not join the chorus. Once the hall quieted, the reading of the columns continued.

Far from being out of touch with Pakistani politics, Sharif these days has more time than ever to read about it, and also gets first-hand accounts of the situation at home from visitors to Saudi Arabia. His phone never stopped ringing that evening, although he was selective in what calls he took. It is obvious that Sharif is still popular and widely admired. But the personal rivalry with Pervez Musharraf will keep him out of Pakistan for the time being. Despite that, as demonstrated in the last elections, Sharif’s vote base has remained steady.

Once the review of current affairs was completed, the conversation turned to more distant history. Sharif has an enviable knowledge of the history of the subcontinent. He remembers in detail the backgrounds of many rajas and Mughal rulers. In response to comments from some of the guests about the burial places of various emperors, Sharif rattled off a list of the Mughal emperors, where they were born and buried and a few titbits about each of them.

The next day, we met in his study where he spoke at length about issues facing Pakistan, his time in jail and exile, his recent meeting with Benazir Bhutto, Kargil, Indo-Pak ties and "the turncoats who now surround Musharraf."

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: You have been away from Pakistan for a long time. In your absence how do you view the political situation in the country?

A: Yes, I have been away for more than four years and although they say out of sight, out of mind, things have gone in our favour. The opposition to Pervez Musharraf is now stronger than ever before, although he tries his best to restrain our party. Our members are implicated in all kinds of false cases. Musharraf has used his agencies extensively for this purpose. Our people showed great courage when they fought the elections of 2002. We got quite a large number of votes. Given the circumstances, my expectations were much lower than what we actually achieved. Musharraf barred many of our leaders from contesting the elections. He even pressurised the election commission not to accept the papers of many of our candidates. Overnight, he promulgated an ordinance which prevented Benazir Bhutto from contesting the elections. Her nomination was rejected. Once her papers were rejected, I also withdrew my papers in protest to express my concern for national solidarity. And then he didn’t allow me, he didn’t allow Benazir Bhutto, he didn’t allow Shahbaz Sharif nor my wife to come to Pakistan to campaign during the elections. Despite our absence, our party did well in the elections, and ever since our position has become stronger and stronger.

Q: How long will the Musharraf government last?

A: I am not a fortune-teller and therefore I can’t really make any predictions. It is a question that you should be asking a jyotishi who might be able to tell you how long his government is going to last. (Laughs) But let me tell you, his position is not very sound now and he has problems all over. For some of these problems he himself is responsible because he believes in taking cudgels with everybody. His motto is to solve all problems through force. He perhaps doesn’t believe in sitting across the table with people and sorting matters out. You see, when he went to India (Agra), he made a mess of himself which prompted Mr Vajpayee to comment: "Woh bahot hi badqismat mezbaan hoga jiska mehmaan Musharraf hoga (The most unlucky host is the one whose guest is Musharraf)." So your question was...

Q: How long will...

A: ...the Musharraf government last? Yes, so I don’t know, but I think things around him are very bad today, and the sooner he realises, the better for him and also for the country. I now see disturbances all over. There is a lot of dissatisfaction among the people of Pakistan. Look at Balochistan. Look at the Northern Areas. Look at the tribal belt in the Frontier Province, Waziristan and other places. Look at what is happening in Sindh and Punjab. Look at the unprecedented rise in unemployment, poverty and inflation. There is a complete breakdown of law and order. The writ of the government is becoming weaker by the day. And his coalition of the very divergent vested interests is falling apart. People are vociferously and openly talking about their rights and civil liberties. And then of course what we have recently learned about certain people’s demands. These demands were really unheard of in the past. Only dictatorship in the country or military rule would give rise to these kinds of sentiments. Under a democratic set-up or under a political government, this would never happen. In a democratic set-up, whenever such feelings are expressed they would be handled politically. We lost East Pakistan because we had dictatorship in Pakistan. Had there been democracy at that time we wouldn’t have lost it. It was people like Yahya Khan who mishandled the situation. It was people like Yahya Khan who never accepted the mandate of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was the legitimate elected leader of the country — both East Pakistan and West Pakistan. It should have been left to him to decide. He had the mandate to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Yahya Khan never accepted that, and then he tried to solve the matter by force, and look what happened. Pakistan was dismembered. Again if we try to solve matters by similar means, we will have more and more problems on our hands.

Q: What is the deal with Benazir Bhutto?

A: There is no deal between me and Benazir Bhutto. Of course, we both are part of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD). We are jointly struggling for the restoration of genuine democracy in Pakistan. We have regular consultations on many issues. Benazir Saheba was very kind to visit us here in Jeddah recently and we had very good discussions. We discussed for the first time — face-to-face — issues confronting Pakistan and their possible solutions. We agreed on a code of conduct to be followed by us to ensure a smooth and continued democracy in Pakistan. We agreed on a code of conduct based on mutual respect and tolerance, strengthening of national democratic institutions, restoration of the 1973 Constitution, establishing an independent judiciary, providing good governance to the people, respecting the freedom of the media and human rights, particularly rights of women and minorities, safeguarding Pakistan’s sovereignty and holding free and fair elections under an independent election commission. The specifics about the agreed code of conduct are being worked out by a working group which will make them public in the near future.

Q: Supposing there were elections tomorrow, would your party and Benazir’s join hands to defeat Musharraf?

A: The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) have been, and are, long-time political rivals. Whenever they have been held, elections have been mainly between these two parties and sometimes they win and sometimes we win. The same position continues up to now and if free and fair elections were held in Pakistan, then the two parties would again be contesting the elections against each other. And then of course the Pakistani people would continue to put their confidence in the same manner as they have done in the past. So whichever side won the elections, they would respect each other’s mandate. For example, if the PPP won the elections, we would respect their mandate; if we won, we would expect them to respect ours. We would not try to bring down any government: this is one of the things that the code of conduct will mention, and I think it is a very positive development, because in the past, examples can be quoted where each other’s mandate was not respected by the other party. We have agreed that the party in power will also respect the party in Opposition — and the Opposition will respect the party in power.

Q: What are your chances of going back to Pakistan? Musharraf recently said that you will not be allowed back until 2007.

A: Every now and then Musharraf finds it necessary to issue such statements to keep the shaky King’s Party intact. If he doesn’t make these statements, it will fall apart like a house of cards. I belong to the people of Pakistan. Nobody can deny me the right to return to my country. And the challenges that Pakistan faces today require the return of the genuine national leadership to play its role. Only genuine representative leadership can steer the country out of the present morass. The sooner it happens, the better. However, if Musharraf tries to repeat the 2002 rigging drama, then the ARD constituents will decide about a future course of action. It will be difficult for Musharraf to establish the legitimacy of the next general elections by denying the national leadership full participation in the electoral process. So such statements are basically a sign of nervousness on the part of Musharraf and his party.

Q: How long will America tolerate Musharraf?

A: I don’t know. But I am very concerned. America must support the Pakistani nation and not one single individual. America must support the democratic process in Pakistan. America must ensure that Pakistan comes back to its democratic path. It should not support somebody who has derailed the democratic process in the country, somebody who has abrogated the Constitution of Pakistan, somebody who has forcibly and at gun point dismissed Parliament. I think America must see to it that it does not support any such person or any such man ... because supporting one such man alienates the rest of the nation. I as a leader of a political party feel very disturbed about this. When President Clinton visited Pakistan he made sure that he reprimanded the man in charge — of course Musharraf. He expressed his displeasure and refused to be photographed with him. That was the policy that should have been carried forward by the new American administration. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Also, I often wonder while democracy is being supported in Afghanistan and Iraq, why it is being denied in Pakistan. There can be no two opinions that it is not the people of Pakistan but the men in uniform who are calling the shots. Will the American people ever accept this kind of "uniformed democracy"?

Q: What are Benazir Bhutto’s contacts with America? Is she equally disturbed about the American support for one man?

A: I think she is also trying to convey the same thing to the Americans.

Q: Are you in touch with India? And what difference do you see between Vajpayee-Advani and Manmohan-Sonia? Who would you prefer to deal with?

A: I should not be making any comparisons between the Indian leadership. I don’t want to make any distinctions between one and the other. I respect every democratically-elected Indian leader. I had very good rapport with whoever was in power in Delhi. Even if I didn’t know the man, we developed understanding and a rapport. I started off with Mr Chandra Shekhar on the other side. I think at that time he was the caretaker Prime Minister and I found him to be a good man. Then came Mr Narasimha Rao with whom I also built a good relationship. I had no problems in dealing with him. Then came Mr I.K. Gujral who was a wonderful man and still is. We are still in touch with each other. He is a very well-meaning person and a man with a great many good qualities; I had a very good relationship with him. Then came Mr Vajpayee and I had a wonderful relationship with him too; I felt very comfortable dealing with him, and he was very kind to visit Pakistan. What he said about Pakistan during his visit to Lahore was a matter of great pride for me. I haven’t actually dealt with Mr Manmohan Singh although I have heard a great deal about him. He seems to be doing well as Prime Minister of India. I had the opportunity of meeting Mrs Sonia Gandhi when Mr Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and I went to Delhi to attend his funeral. I called on Mrs Sonia Gandhi to offer my condolences. I was then the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the early days of my first tenure. I was very impressed by her courage and fortitude and how bravely she faced the crisis. The beauty of India is that it has genuine democracy. Whoever comes up through that process, we respect him or her and the party, whether it is the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress party or anybody else. India has moved forward on the path of democracy without any hindrance or interruption. In the year 2000 there was a debate on BBC television in which almost all the former Prime Ministers of India participated, including Mr V.P. Singh, Mr Chandra Shekhar, Mr Narasimha Rao; perhaps Mrs Sonia Gandhi was also there as the wife of a former Prime Minister. The subject of the debate was what India has achieved in its 50 years of independence. The unanimous view was that the biggest achievement in the last 50 years was that the country has upheld the sanctity of the ballot box ... democracy... They didn’t say economic development, they didn’t say nuclear power, they said democracy, and I think they were absolutely right. I wish we in Pakistan could also say that. As to your question about whom we would ideally prefer to deal with, it is not for us to make choices. Of course, we have to deal with whoever is chosen by the people of India. Similarly, the Indian leadership should make it incumbent upon itself to talk to only those who are democratically chosen by the people of our country because real peace will only come about when democratic leadership talks to each other on both sides.

Q: Do you think democracy will ever take root in Pakistan?

A: It will. It has to. Otherwise the country will not move forward.

Q: Have Musharraf’s men approached you with the offer of a deal? And if they do, what will be your response?

A: They came before the elections of 2002. That was a serious move from Musharraf, and he wanted some sort of a settlement with me. They came with a proposal but I didn’t accept that; I refused even to entertain that proposal.

Q: What was the proposal?

A: The proposal was that I should support the PML faction which was created by Musharraf and headed at the time by Mian Azhar. Musharraf said Nawaz Sharif should merge his party with this faction so that it became one party, and Nawaz Sharif should step down as the president of his party. He should nominate somebody whom Musharraf recommended and this party should then contest the elections as the King’s Party. Musharraf felt that if Nawaz Sharif stepped aside and lent his full support to this party, the party would do well in the polls. After that, whoever headed the party was to be decided by Musharraf. This proposal was brought to me by a very dear friend of the family, a very elderly person. He was asked directly by Musharraf himself to come to Jeddah to meet and discuss the proposal with me. Musharraf said this deal could only work if Nawaz Sharif agrees officially to announce his support for this proposal. Meaning thereby that we should forget about the Pakistan Muslim League and turn our party into the Musharraf League. In return, Musharraf said he would allow both Shahbaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif to come back to Pakistan. Shahbaz Sharif could have come back just after the elections of 2002, and after a short period, Nawaz Sharif could also return to Pakistan. I rejected the proposal outright. There are three things that I will never compromise on. I will never surrender.

Q: What are those three things?

A: One, the Constitution of Pakistan should return to its original form. It must be restored as it stood on the day of the military takeover, October 12, 1999. Short of this, nothing is acceptable. Two, immediate free and fair elections under a neutral set-up. Three, these elections should be conducted by an independent and effective election commission whose head should be appointed in consultation with the Opposition.

Q: Was your coming to Saudi Arabia part of a deal with Musharraf?

A: I have no knowledge of any deal between the government of Pakistan and the Saudi government. I have no knowledge of this at all. There is no deal between us and Musharraf whatsoever. I want to make this very clear.

Q: So your coming to Saudi Arabia was not your decision?

A: Actually it was Crown Prince Abdullah who took the initiative and got me out of Pakistan. And I am very grateful to him. When I was the Prime Minister of Pakistan, he said it in a very affectionate manner, "I am like your real brother and you are like my real brother." The way in which he took the initiative was a clear manifestation of what he said. He thought of me when I was in trouble. It was good of him to remember me during difficult times.

Q: Will there ever be a commission to look into what happened during the Kargil affair? And will the guilty ever be punished?

A: A commission will be set up when the circumstances allow, no matter if I am there or somebody else is. Setting up a commission is a must. It will look into how and why the Kargil episode took place and who the people were who were responsible for it. It is not only my demand; it is a public demand. The media has talked about it. It has also been demanded by various leaders of the political parties in Pakistan. You can’t evade it for too long. Under Musharraf of course there is no question of any Kargil commission being set up. But once Musharraf is off the scene, a commission will be set up. The people of Pakistan have the right to know the truth. If India can have two commissions of inquiry into Kargil, why can’t we have one?

Q: Can there be lasting peace between India and Pakistan?

A: A genuine effort was going on to mend fences with India, and a peace process had been initiated by both sides. It was sincerely backed by Prime Ministers on both sides. Mr Vajpayee said during one of his meetings at Lahore, "Nawaz Sharif Saheb, let us declare this year 1999 as a year of resolution of all disputes between Pakistan and India, including Kashmir." We were trying to find an honourable solution to the Kashmir dispute. There can’t be a solution which is acceptable to either Pakistan or India alone. It can only happen if it is agreed upon by all three parties, Pakistan, India and the Kashmiris. We were moving forward and there was also some back channel diplomacy. Meetings were taking place in Pakistan, India and Dubai. Progress was being made. Had the momentum continued, the efforts would have made some headway. Unfortunately, the Kargil episode took place and Mr Vajpayee said he was let down by Pakistan. I think he was right to say so. He also said that he was stabbed in the back. Not only he was stabbed in the back, I too was stabbed in the back. I am not a man who will betray somebody or stab him in the back. That is not my way. But I have a reservation about one thing. Although I have great regard for Mr Vajpayee, he shouldn’t have opened any channel of communication with a man who was responsible for subverting and derailing the historic Lahore peace process. Remember what Mr Vajpayee said, "Woh bahot hi badqismat mezbaan hoga jiska mehmaan Musharraf hoga." (Laughs) Maybe he realised that much later.

Q: Exile is a painful thing, but does it also teach you important lessons?

A: Of course, it is painful... These are the moments of soul-searching and also reflection. One should think about mistakes that one may have made in the past. We are all human beings and human beings do make mistakes. But in these five years I have done a lot of soul-searching — and not soul-searching confined only to politics. One looks at the whole spectrum of global, regional and national issues with fresh perspectives, thoughts and ideas. And this is what I have been doing. This period in exile has also provided a broader perspective. It has given me an opportunity to analyse the successes and failures of other countries and to draw inferences for Pakistan’s future.

Q: How do you feel when so many of your associates have switched sides?

A: All those who were responsible for the downfall of my government are today sticking with Musharraf. I think one day they will also be responsible for his downfall. (Laughs) I am happy that they have gone away because they were all opportunists. But then, you see, if you compare the total number of these people with the number of our supporters, it is insignificant and negligible. We will not accept these turncoats back in our party. Some of the turncoats try to call me but I don’t encourage them. I hate hypocrisy. They say in politics there are no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. For me there are no permanent interests but permanent principles. When Musharraf seized power, he talked about the seven-point agenda and talked about good governance. Look at the good governance that he is now employing in Pakistan. This government has the largest Cabinet in Pakistan and most of them are the most corrupt elements, and the majority of them are those people who are turncoats — cases have been filed against many of them. Let me tell you that many of the cases filed against them are by NAB (National Accountability Bureau) — a bureau created by Musharraf himself which itself has become a centre of corruption. Where is his promised provincial harmony and the other tall claims? They have all evaporated into thin air. One can say without any fear of contradiction that this is the worst government in Pakistan. The media is full of stories about the land grabbing and real estate dealings by Musharraf’s coterie of generals.