Sad in Saudi

Syrians in Saudi Arabia encounter numerous social barriers but the financial reward of emigrating there can be tempting. 

Illustration by Ghalia Lababidi
Illustration by Ghalia Lababidi

Nothing could have prepared Mohammad Ghannam for what he witnessed at age 12. A drug dealer was beheaded in the courtyard of a mosque near his house in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh. Ghannam, a 32-year-old Syrian who grew up in Saudi Arabia, said he could not sleep for days after the incident.

“Although executions are public, the Saudi authorities never inform people beforehand that a beheading will take place in the mosque. Since children in Saudi Arabia start going to mosques at age three, they often have to witness executions,” Ghannam explained. By the time he was 18, he said he had witnessed six beheadings, adding that they “become less shocking with time”.

Saudi Arabia is governed by a strict, Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia law and a conservative social code that prohibits interaction between the sexes. Thieves can have their hands cut off and adulterers can be stoned. Despite this stark reality, many young Syrian men move to the oil-rich country to save money to pay off the approximately SYP 300,000 (USD 6,500) fee for avoiding military service or to cope with the rising cost of living. Today, Saudi Arabia hosts 400,000 Syrian workers, thousands of whom are investors, he said.

With high unemployment back home, working in Saudi Arabia offers a better future for some young Syrians. Socially, however, life in Saudi Arabia can be stressful, Syrians living there told Syria Today.

“My job makes me financially comfortable, but, psychologically speaking, I am growing weary of it,” Moonzer al-Bitar, a Syrian who moved to Jeddah in 2007 to work for a medical company, said. The tradition of young Syrians travelling to Saudi Arabia for job opportunities goes back to the early 1930s, when oil was first discovered there. The country was developing rapidly and, with the lack of local expertise, it provided a job market for skilled workers from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt – many of whom eventually settled there.

Strict upbringing
Ghannam’s family moved to Riyadh in 1979, when he was one month old. The severity of punishments there teaches obedience from a young age, according to Ghannam. Missing prayer can result in lashes to the feet or detention by the moral police. Approaching unrelated women in public can lead to three days in jail. Ghannam said that as a teenager, he never spoke to women outside his family.

“It was too risky,” he said.

Ghannam’s family moved back to Damascus in 2007. While today he leads a liberal life, he said his family still practices the conservative lifestyle they grew accustomed to back in Saudi Arabia.

Anoud Souhail, a Syrian English literature student at the University of Damascus who grew up in Saudi Arabia, said that Syrians in Saudi Arabia often assimilate to the local culture.

“Some Syrian families I know in Saudi Arabia reorganised their houses to have two sitting rooms – one for men and another for women,” Souhail said.

Limited outlets
Life in Saudi Arabia has some enjoyable aspects, too.

Syrians living in Saudi Arabia enjoyed access to modern technology and fashionable cars. Even today, Syrian expatriates often show off their high-tech purchases when they come from the Gulf to visit their relatives in Syria.

“I had my first computer when I was in fourth grade in Saudi. Back then, computers, mobiles and internet, among other things, were not available in Syria. I used to feel that Syria was way behind civilisation,” Ghannam said.

In addition to his access to gadgets, Ghannam had a few social activities in Saudia Arabia that brought him enjoyment. For example, he enjoyed attending hunting trips in the desert with his school.

“Saudi Arabians are experts at hunting,” Ghannam said. “We used to hunt for jerboas (a desert-dwelling rodent with long hind legs), dhubs (a type of spine-tailed lizards) and locusts.”

Entertainment possibilities remain otherwise limited in Saudi Arabia, according to Syrians living there. Bitar said foreign embassies sometimes organise cultural events worth attending. Other than that, segregated visits to the beach, cafés and restaurants are the only social outlets. Women’s activities are restricted to shopping and to visiting female friends in their homes and they are prohibited from taking public transportation.

“Most Saudi women have a car with a private driver to take them around,” Souhail said. “As for Syrian and other Arab families, they mostly moved to Saudi Arabia to save money and cannot afford such luxuries. With no car at hand, women can only take taxis in groups or accompanied by a male relative or family friend.”

Foreign discrimination
While at an official level, foreigners are treated as equal to Saudi Arabians, Souhail said foreign workers, including Syrians, feel discriminated against by the Saudi society.

“In general, Saudi people never fail to highlight that you, as a foreigner, are working for them and they treat you accordingly,” she said. “My teachers at school used to think I was Saudi because I come from the Mushawwah family which is also famous in Saudi Arabia. When they found out I was Syrian, they treated me differently and started giving me bad scores at school.”

Ghannam, however, pointed out that only poorer school children face discrimination.

“Syrians who could afford to study at private schools did not face this kind of discrimination,” he said. Nevertheless, even affluent Syrians never fully assimilate. “Saudis are very loyal to their community. If there is an argument, they always side with the Saudi against the foreigner, regardless of who was wrong.”

A policy issued in 1995 capped the number of foreign workers and also limited certain positions to Saudi Arabians.

“No matter how highly educated a Syrian is, he will never be promoted to a leading position in his company,” Souhail, the student in Damascus, asserted. But, she added, the high salaries mean she may return to Jeddah after graduating.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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Marriages of Convenience

Some Gulf men use a moral and religious loophole to exploit both Syrian women and their children. 
Caricature by Ala Rustom
Caricature by Ala Rustom

Many men from the Gulf travel to Syria during the summer. While here, a few pay dowries to the families of young women in exchange for brief marriages. These so-called ‘summer marriages’, in which the partners live together temporarily, provide none of the legal rights associated with marriage, such as inheritance and alimony, making vulnerable both the women involved and their resulting children.The lack of legal rights stems from the way the marriages are arranged. Although they are primarily a Muslim phenomenon, most Muslims consider marriage contracts with expiry dates to be invalid and immoral, so they are agreed upon privately between a man and a woman’s family. Official documents are either forged or never filed. As Syria’s personal status law is based on Islamic sharia, temporary marriages cannot be registered in court.

This has a nasty consequence for children of the unions. Since the aim of them is sexual pleasure rather than starting a family, the ‘husbands’ rarely recognise any child as their own. Under Syrian law, Syrian mothers cannot pass on their nationality, leaving the children of summer marriages stateless.

Few Islamic leaders acknowledge these unions, according to Younes al-Khatib, a sheikh at a mosque in the village of Saasaa, south of Damascus. Despite this, these marriages are common. There are no accurate estimates of how many summer marriages occur in Syria, although it is believed to have the highest rate in the region. Likewise, the specific nationalities of the men involved remain unknown.

Summer marriages are a well-established practice in Syria. Gulf men started marrying young women from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq in the 1970s, according to Bassam al-Kadi, the founder of Syrian Women’s Observatory, a prominent women’s rights group. He believes the number of summer marriages in Syria has grown in recent years, due to the country’s economic crisis.

“Some families think of summer marriages as an opportunity to provide their daughter with a financially-stable future in return for a few months of marriage,” Kadi said.

These marriages are organised through a khattabe, or matchmaker, who links suitors to families that would like their daughters to marry Gulf men. Once the amount of money to be paid as dowry is agreed upon, the couple marries with the consent of a sheikh willing to give religious approval and receives an unofficial marriage contract.

Sex trade

Activists in Syria believe the marriages are an unrecognised crime. The short period of the marriage and the expensive dowry make these arrangements a form of sex trade, Kadi said.

He argued that summer marriages also violate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as, in most cases, men in their forties and upward marry young teenagers under the age of 18.

“I wouldn’t call this marriage, it is sex trade,” Kadi said. “I have never heard of a Gulf man who married a nurse or an engineer. I have never even heard of one who married a 27-year-old woman. They are mostly old men marrying teenagers.”

In many cases parents agree to the arrangement without the bride’s consent, which also violates international human rights standards. Further, the young women often do not know the marriages are temporary, said Daad Mousa, a Damascus-based attorney and women’s rights activist who is often consulted by families on issues resulting from summer marriages. In some rare cases, parents are also unaware.

Stigma is another consequence of the practice. Women who have been involved in summer marriages often become ostracised by a disapproving society. Unable to marry traditionally, they can find themselves with no option but to become long-term sex workers, cast into repeated, temporary marriages to Gulf men, Kadi said.

“If the parents are ready to sacrifice their daughter for as little as SYP 50,000 (USD 1,087) why wouldn’t they do it again after she gets divorced?” he asked.

Abandoned children
Summer marriages have other long-term negative effects. Since such marriages are usually not legally registered, fathers do not have to pass their nationality to their offspring. That means that children born out of summer marriages who are not acknowledged by their father remain without citizenship.

The only way to grant the child citizenship is to sue the father for paternity and demand a blood test. If the man’s DNA matches the child’s, the mother can force her husband to legally register the marriage and the child can obtain the father’s nationality. However, few Syrian women have access to the documents to prove their marriage, preventing them from initiating such proceedings – which can be long and costly when they do occur.

Saudi Arabia, however, rejects citizenship for children born out of wedlock, the country’s ambassador to Syria Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Aifan told Syria Today. The United Arab Emirates embassy in Damascus declined to respond to Syria Today’s requests for further information.

There are no official statistics on the overall number of children that come from summer marriages in Syria, but Mousa estimates the figure is at least 200,000. Ambassador Aifan admitted last summer in an interview with the Saudi newspaper Shams that 400 cases have been identified in Syria, and that many more remain.

“The cases mentioned by Gulf embassies are only the ones that actually have written proof of their marriage,” Mousa clarified. “There are many mothers without evidence who are not counted in the figures.”

Possible ways for mothers to register their children’s nationality entail stigma. Without a valid marriage contract, the mother must give up her parental rights and register her offspring as an abandoned child.

“In this case mothers can still arrange to keep their children with them,” Mousa said. “However, the social stigma facing abandoned children in Syria keeps them from doing so.”

Stricter laws required
While summer marriages have been occurring for decades, little has been done in Syria to prevent them. This stems from the government’s reticence to interfere in the private sphere of the family.

“The government can’t prevent people from getting married,” Kadi said.

It can, however, raise the legal age of marriage. Article 16 of Syria’s current personal status law permits girls to marry at the age of 17 and boys at 18; though Article 18 stipulates that under “judicial discretion” if they have reached puberty and have permission from their guardians, girls age13 and boys age 15 may also marry.

“Why are girls aged 13 considered grown up enough to get married but not mature enough to vote?” Kadi asked, referring to the legal voting age, which is 18.

Civil rights activists advocate imposing stricter penalties on unofficial marriages as another form of deterrence. Currently, a couple and a sheikh who officiate an unlicenced marriage outside the courts are liable to pay a meagre fine of SYP 250 (USD 5.43), Mousa said.

She believed a stiffer penalty is needed.

Although a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Syria has not responded to several campaigns organised by Syrian civil rights organisations calling for Syrian women to have the right to pass on their nationality.

“This is a Syrian problem not a Gulf one,” Kadi said. “Syrian women should have the right to give their nationality to their children.”

   

  This article was published in Syria Today magazine

Springtime for Saudi Cinema?

from the set of Shrouq/Ghroub

 

When I finally met Abdulmuhsin Almutairi, co-founder of the Talashi Saudi Filmmakers’ group, I was on the verge of frustration. I had spent three days searching the corridors of the Emirates palace, the press office and the guests’ hotel for the young Saudi filmmaker. Coming across Saudi film screenings in international film festivals is usually not easy either. Not so at the ADFF this year: there are a total of nine short films from Saudi Arabia competing in the Emirates Competition.

The few Saudi films which make it to festivals often carry off awards. Take for example The Shoemaker by Ahd Kamel, which was recently awarded Aleph Best Short Film gold prize at the Beirut International Film Festival, Aayesh by Abdullah Al-Eyaf, which won the Gulf Film Festival award for best short and The Fabricated Crime by Tawfik al Zaidi, which was granted the best editing award from the Jeddah Film Festival.

from Aayesh by Abdullah Al-Eyaf

It is thanks to young filmmakers like Almutairi that, with some difficulty, Saudi cinema is making a place for itself on the international art scene. Saudi Arabia has no local or governmental film fund, cinema schools, academies or professional film crews. Even cinemas are very few and far between. That’s why Almutariri and eight young Saudi filmmakers decided to support themselves and establish Talashi. While the filmmakers prefer to call it a group, Talashi is in fact an independent film production company.

We don’t have a license”, the 20-something says hesitantly. “And we are not making any profit anyway”.

But they are making films good enough to be screened at international festivals like Rotterdam Film Fest and San Fransisco Film Society among others. One of their films Shrouq/Ghroub by Mohammad Aldhahri also got the Dubai International Film Festival’s FIPRISCI Best Short Film award. Talashi produced 12 short films so far, all self-funded.

None of us could afford to work alone so we decided to invest in buying film equipment that the whole group can use”, Almutairi says.

As the Talashi group includes directors, editors and cameramen who are willing to work for free, Almutairi says one film’s budget does not exceed USD 1500, which is usually paid for the actresses.

There are very few Saudi actresses, and even these few ones rarely agree to work for a bunch of young men like us who do not have a well-known film production company”, Almutairi says. “As it is very hard to find actresses, those who agree to act charge a lot.

They even tackled the difficulty of recruiting actresses in Saudi Arabia in their short film Three Men and One Woman. Other Talashi films criticized early marriages and forcing women to wear the chador, amongst other taboos.

The most important thing about our films is that they reflect reality. Some people criticize us saying that we should paint a good image of Saudi Arabia abroad and I agree with that, but that doesn’t mean not to tell the truth”, says Almutairi, who believes that there are few red lines in Saudi Arabia. He also believes that having to apply for special permission to shoot in public areas doesn’t impose any restrictions on film production in Saudi Arabia.

You get permission to shoot anywhere you want except for the areas which have a sign that readsDon’t take photos”, Almutairi says. “If you respect the law then you are fine.

Even so, according to Almutairi although some Talashi films can be critical of Saudi Arabian society, they are well-received and even supported by the ministry of culture, which screens them on public TV and in cultural centres.

Society started to accept Talashi. We were actually surprised how well they received our films”, Almutairi says. “You just have to have the guts to do it.”

For more information about Talashi log on to www.talashifilms.com

This article was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi film festival’s daily bulletin and in Mas y Mas monthly newsletter, both published by NISI MASA.

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