Ma, my soul feels parched. It quivers like a kite.
(`ma, amar attay pani nai, atta ghuddir moto khali orey’)
— Masud Hossain of Purbashinda village, Tangail, one among eight be-headed
in Saudia Arabia on October 7, 2011.
Chopped off in a clean stroke, his head rolled away. His body slumped, it hit the ground.
He had been made to kneel, to wait. A parched soul, quivering inside.
Alongwith seven other young men — Suman from Kishoreganj, Mamun, Suman and Shafiq from Tangail, Faruque from Comilla, Abul and Matiar from Faridpur — Masud was found guilty of murdering Hussain Saeed, an Egyptian security guard in April 2007. They’d allegedly been apprehended stealing cable from a warehouse. All eight were sentenced to death, the following year.
Faruk, the eldest among five sons, worked as a tractor-driver before going to Saudi Arabia as a cleaner. He was a very good boy, said Daudkandi’s union chairman. Twenty-seven year old Suman of Kishoreganj went when he was only 18, earnings sent back had not yet freed the mortgaged family land. My cousin and a muktijoddha union porishod member have been feeding us for the last six months, said his father. Abul too, had gone as a cleaner. His wife left him after he was convicted, say press reports, to re-marry (Kalerkantho, October 10, 2011).
Mamun rang his mother on the day he was executed. Take care, ma. Don’t cry for me. Don’t forget to take your medicine. I’ll call you later. False promises, made by a loving son.
What does it take to carry on a normal conversation with one’s closest ones, when death beckons impassively? To not betray, not even the slightest trace of the soul’s quiver?
I watched one of the be-headings on Youtube, twice. Each time, I cried. Who was it, I wondered. Shafiq? Abul? Maybe Matiar…?
Blue-tinted image, a distant kneeling figure, head bowed down. The executioner running toward his victim, sword held high. Over, in a matter of seconds. Life, over. Would a mother be able to tell if the be-headed victim was her son? Mothers can, they say. Or maybe, it wouldn’t matter. A shared grief. As one mother put it, what kind of justice is this? Eight mothers made bereft for one man killed. It’s a slaughterer’s country (‘jollader desh’).
Not all could have been guilty, some were framed, said fathers, brothers. We tried real hard, we went to Dhaka hundreds of times, we even held a press conference there. We went to the foreign ministry. To the expatriates welfare and employment ministry. We begged, we pleaded. I even met with Fakhruddin Ahmed during the caretaker era. We hired a lawyer in Saudia Arabia. We’ve been made penniless. We were even willing to pay the blood money.
Shafiqul had told his cousin, `I get scared when Friday comes.’ Abul rang his brother-in-law on Thursday afternoon, our heads have been shaved. Please pray for us. And please feed five orphans.
We weren’t told when the executions would take place. We learnt afterwards, only through media reports. Let us at least have the dead bodies. Let us bury them decently. In our midst.
Waves of shock and horror, of revulsion have swept the nation. Questions raised about whether government leaders, whether officials and the Bangladesh embassy in Saudi Arabia had done enough. Questions too, about the judicial process. Was it a fair trial? Were international standards followed? Since court proceedings are in Arabic, did the defendants understand what was going on? Were they adequately represented? Was confession made under duress?
The punishment was not illogical, says the foreign secretary. We may not agree with the penalty awarded but one cannot disagree with the fact that they were executed `upon completion of a judicial process’ (The Daily Star, October 16, 2011).
The International Business Times notes, it is unlikely that Bangladeshi officials will `do much to pressure the Saudis’ since an estimated 2 million workers send their cash remittances home, `important to the nation’s impoverished economy’ (October 10, 2011).
The president had appealed to the Saudi monarch, only to be informed that a pardon was the Egyptian family’s privilege, not his. They refused; even the offer of blood money, claimed government sources. But I remember coming across a press report somewhere which had claimed otherwise, blood money of one crore taka.
The president’s appeal for clemency was a mere formality, he just affixed his signature to a form-like-letter, said Syed Abul Maksud, writer and columnist, as he protested outside the Saudi embassy in Dhaka. Our citizens don’t go there to beg, they contribute hard labour. If it had been the son of an industrialist or a minister, would the government have been equally indifferent? And how dare the Saudi ambassador in Dhaka say that a whole village can be executed for the death of one man? How utterly immoral (Kalerkantho, October 13, 2011).
Others have been quick to add, if a Bangladeshi citizen commits a crime while abroad, since he is subject to the laws of the land, he must be tried. We are not against the rule of law. We are only raising questions about the judicial process in Saudi Arabia, how it is skewed against foreignors who are poor migrants, who lack power and influence. Against the nature of the execution. Against public be-heading. It is gross. People are downloading scenes of the execution, they’re watching it, it must be distressing for the families. It is so utterly barbaric! Downright medieval!
There were exceptions. Readers of Naya Diganta online commented, this is exactly how criminals should be punished (Saudi Arobey 8 Bangladeshir shirocched, October 9, 2011). Killers should not be pardoned (see, `Presidential clemency. But will the people forgive the president?’ New Age, July 25, 2011). It is because [Jashimuddin] Maniks are not punished that Porimols are born (see, `We are with you Viqarunnisa!,’ New Age, July 19, 2011). Western propaganda nourishes feelings of inferiority, what about the so-called war on terror which bombs to death hundreds of thousands in order to conquer other nation’s resources?
What I find missing in these accounts, in either set of accounts if one may phrase it thus, is a sense of history. A concrete sense of history. Is the western periodisation of history
— ancient, medieval, modern — universally valid?
But first, a few words for readers who may scoff at the idea of `the’ [west], who are likely to accuse me of homogenising and generalising. Is there such a thing as `the’ West? Who better to turn to than Talal Asad, who, while agreeing that the West is `spatially discontinuous and internally diverse’ — in other words, there isn’t an integrated Western culture, or a fixed Western identity, or a single Western way of thinking – problematises the West as `a singular collective identity [which] defines itself in terms of a unique historicity in contrast to all others.’ A historicity that `shifts from place to place – Greece, Rome, Latin Christendom, the Americas – until it embraces the world.’ (Genealogies of Religion, 1993).
And, when progressive Bangladeshi intellectuals speak of contemporary Saudi Arabia as being ‘medieval’ are they not universalising the particular (as western powers, including its historians, do)? For, wasn’t the medieval period different for Muslims? Weren’t they leading the world from the 9th to the 14th centuries in their pursuit of knowledge? Wasn’t the Islamic world the most scientifically advanced region of the globe, simultaneously contributing to philosophy and literature, by drawing on Aristotle’s philosophy, Ptolemy’s geography, Hippocrates’ medicine? On Persian and Indian works on astronomy and mathematics? Didn’t post-Renaissance scholars build on the contributions of Muslim scholars made centuries earlier? As is evident in the carry-over of many Arabic-based words in the English scientific vocabulary because western scientists were unfamiliar with the subject-matter, such as algebra, chemistry, atlas, monsoon, pancreas, colon etc. etc.
By referring to Saudi public be-headings as being [universally] medieval, and not, say, [westernly] medieval, are not Bangladeshi progressive intellectuals locating modern Saudi Arabia into Europe’s medieval past, thereby making the former appear unchanging? As being resistant to history, and thereby, outside of history? Which incidentally, happens to be beneficial to contemporary western powers.
I get the same sense of history-lessness from those who counter the human rights-based liberal discourses, both within and outside the pages of Naya Diganta. How can contemporary Western imperialism — bombs, raining death on Muslim women and children, conquering Muslim majority countries, not to `spread democracy’ but to gain control over its natural resources — be spoken of without acknowledging Saudi Arabia’s role as a chief US ally? Without, once again, turning to history to critically understand and appreciate the concrete processes through which Saudi Arabia became wealthy? Of how the Saudi monarch’s adoption of the official title, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques – worded as `an expression of his deep sense of responsibility toward Islam‘ — distracts our attention away from the believing Saudi/Arab ruling class’ deep-seated racism toward us believing non-Arab/others?
History which tells us that the House of Saud’s (modern) rule was consolidated through its willing supplication to imperial oil interests in the early 1930s. That the British helped Abd al Aziz’s army drive the falling Ottoman empire’s forces out of eastern Arabia in 1913. That the formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 was massively aided by the discovery of oil in the late 1920s, by huge royalties from imperialist oil companies which gave the Al Saud family the decisive financial edge over its rivals (Sam Manuel, Saudi Arabia: fruit of imperialist carve-up of region, June 16, 2003).
History which tells us that the giant American oil conglomerate Aramco was in charge of exploration and production in the 1930s. That they built a racist order in Dhahran and other company campsites, one that has been termed the `Jim Crow system’, whereby `white American executives pursued a purposeful, planned project of discrimination and forced segregation’ contrary to the Aramco myth: the company has dedicated itself to developing the kingdom, to uplifting Arab workers and training them to take over the running of the oil industry (Robert Vitalis, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, 2007). In reality, Aramco instituted the `racial caste system’ which operated in the American south between 1877 and the mid-60s. At its heart, was the racial wage, `all firms paid miners, drillers, and other skilled and unskilled labor different wages according to race.’ The labour control regime was buttressed by a full panoply of Jim Crow institutions: segregated housing, differential access to services, degradation and humiliation of white supremacist thought. Not surprising, as the Jim Crow system must not be understood as `a series of rigid anti-Black laws’ but, as a `[modern] way of life.‘
And more recent histories, of the ’60s and the ’70s, which inform us of shifts in the practices of recruiting workers, away from Saudi citizens to migrants from the Middle East: Palestinians, Yemenis and Egyptians (nearly 75%), because radical and left-wing organisations – who were opposed to Aramco, to the Saudi monarchy, who demanded greater national control over oil — had organised strikes and demonstrations during the ’50s and ’60s. These were heavily repressed (through modern means) `in collaboration with American and British advice’ (interview with Adam Hanieh, author, Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States, by Paul Jay of The Real News Network, May 19, 2011).
Histories which help us understand further shifts, which occurred in the ’70s, ’80s, and particularly in the ’90s. Away from Arab migrant labour — the Saudi monarchy’s show of solidarity with the Palestinians ended, they were `too radical’ — toward workers from South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines) who now form nearly 75% of the labour force.
But although the demographic features of the workforce has changed, the Jim Crow system hasn’t. `The vast pool of migrant workers…are often, if not always treated little better than modern slaves and dogs.’
How can one criticise the war on terror but not acknowledge Saudi Arabia’s role as a chief US ally, or else, how can we understand why Saudi Arabia recently sent its (well-equipped, modern) troops to Bahrain? Or, why the UAE has hired Eric Prince, formerly, Blackwater, to create a (modern) private army? Why else, but to put down internal revolt.
Unless one acknowledges the Kingdom’s imperial ties, we are likely to forget that the operatives of the CIA and the French Foreign Legion had suddenly converted to Islam in end November 1979. How else could they have entered Mecca (forbidden to `kafirs’) and provided assistance to the Saudi monarchy to quell the two week long seige of the Grand Mosque by mahdist i.e., millenarian insurgents? The CIA’s plans to gas out the jihadists had backfired, knocking out the Saudi forces instead. `The French Foreign Legion then came to the rescue, pumping gas through specially bored holes before overpowering the rebels.’ (John R. Bradley, review of The Seige of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov, Financial Times, January 5, 2008). Nearly, a thousand people had died.
Both accounts, drawing on particular versions of history — the liberal Western Enlightenment version, and the Saudi Kingdom as the practitioners of authentic Islam/the guardians of the faith version — hide more than they reveal. In both, be-heading is de-contextualised from the tangled web of racism and imperial power, enabling its objectification: constructing for one, essential `barbarism’, for the other, `authentic’ Islam.
I pray for my Egyptian and Bangladeshi brothers. May their souls rest in peace.
Identity Bangladesh, Death, Exploitation, Human rights, Law, Photography, Politics, Poverty, Rahnuma Ahmed, USA
Magic Movement organised a mock execution of 8 publicly executed Bangladeshis in Saudi Arabia, outside the National Museum in Shahbagh, Dhaka on October 15, 2011. © Monirul Alam