Buraidah — a misunderstood Saudi city

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By Tariq Al-Homayed

Published — Monday 2 December 2002

Last Update 2 December 2002 3:00 am

Buraidah is the principal city in the Qasim region north of Riyadh. It has produced a number of individuals and theories that are sometimes looked upon as contradicting each other. Its inhabitants laugh out loud at the idea of its being “the misunderstood city”. Dr. Turki Al-Hamad, a controversial thinker and author who is from Buraidah, said of the city that is his home, “How did such an idea escape me? It is a phenomenon worth contemplating.” The differences concerning Buraidah are not limited to mere matters of conservatism and liberalism. Its people have been equally interested in whether the Americans or Russians were first in space; in short, they are interested and curious about everything.

The story begins with the city’s name — Buraidah is the name given to the entire area of 80,000 square kilometers with 380,000 inhabitants. Stories about the origin of the name are many: One is that it was called Buraidah because of the abundance of water and its cold climate. Another story is that it was named after one of the Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him), Buraidah ibn Al-Haseeb. According to historical accounts, it is a relatively new city, having been founded in the 9th Hijrah century. It is also said that the city was named for Buraidah, the daughter of Ibn Hazal who was sold at the beginning of the 11th Hijarah century to Rashed Al-Duraibi, an ancestor of the Abu Olayan family, ancient rulers of Buraidah. Just as there are many stories about the origin of the name, so too are there many variations in the thoughts and ideas of its citizens. There has always been a tendency among the citizens of Buraidah to hold tightly and uncompromisingly to their roots, traditions and beliefs; there has also been another equally evident tendency which supports change and is willing to go beyond what is presently imaginable. Our topic here, however, is not about these tendencies but rather about the city’s natives who have achieved fame not only on the Saudi stage but on the Arab one as well.

Who among us has not heard of Abdullah Al-Qasimi? His books have been sold in Beirut, London and Paris for more than 30 years — and they are books which have shocked many readers by criticizing Islam in a way which no Saudi had done before. It was he who, in a famous quote, described Arabs as a “phenomenon of sound” — in other words, verbosity without action. A German researcher wrote a doctoral thesis on Al-Qasimi who left Buraidah for Cairo in the first quarter of the 20th century when he was only 18. Of him, Dr. Khalid Al-Dakheel, a professor of social sciences at King Saud University in Riyadh and also a native of Buraidah, says: “Al-Qasimi’s ideas did not come from Buraidah; he defended Salafia — traditional Islam — for the 19 years after leaving Buraidah.” In fact, Al-Qasimi wrote a famous book explaining Salafia which was entitled: ‘The Struggle between Islam and Idolatry’.” Dr. Khalid added that Al-Qasimi’s ideas came about as a result of a meeting with his conservative father, a traditional businessman — known in Buraidah as “agaylat”, a word which refers to the businessmen who imported goods to the city. Of the different ways in which the city is described, Dr. Khalid says, “These are not contradictions but varieties and variety is the spice of a life and of a city.”

Another Buraidah native, Ali Al-Amim, is an important critic of various Islamic movements and the author of a book, “Secularism and Opposing Islamic Trends”. Al-Amim says that Al-Qasimi was affected by the Al-Hadi movement (Communists who did not believe in God) of Cairo in the 1950’s and 60’s and that there is no trace of Buraidah in his thinking. It is worth stopping and considering Al-Amim as well; he describes himself as a critic of Islamic movements. “I have not left the playing field at all”: this is an expression that people in Riyadh apply to the young men of Buraidah who leave the city at 18 and then begin to criticize the region’s Islamic environment.

He explains, “I do not criticize Islamic movements out of ignorance or a difference of opinion, but from my deep reading and a profound understanding of religious culture.” Of the city he says: “I cannot say that the differences are contradictions but I can say that it is a city given to extremes.” Al-Amim explains this at least partly by pointing out that Buraidah’s position — halfway between Riyadh and Hail, the second largest Nejdi city after the capital — makes it a city in search of a role.

In Buraidah there are a number of individuals worth looking closely at — for example, Sheikh Hamoud ibn Aqla Al-Shuaibi who died about a year ago. Before he died, he issued a fatwa sanctioning the killing of Abdullah Al-Ruwaished, a Kuwaiti singer, because of a song. He also issued a fatwa in support of the Taleban. In a meeting with a journalist from the Washington Post, he said that it was ordained for Muslims to fight Americans. He has to his credit a number of other fatwas, no less harsh, against his fellow Buraidah citizen, Dr. Turki Al-Hamad.

On the other hand, one of the most prominent sheikhs in the city is Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Misnad, the first Salafi sheikh to appear on Saudi television — and at a time when television itself in the Kingdom was controversial. He became famous for his television program “For You and From You”. He has many admirers because of his pleasant appearance and moderation and how he approaches and deals with social issues. As for the religious ulema (scholars), we cannot overlook Sheikh Abdul Karim ibn Saleh Al-Hamid, a man who gave up everything after achieving success as a translator in ARAMCO. He now lives in Buraidah in a mud house, without electricity, and prefers riding a horse to driving a car; in fact he sold his horse not long ago. The sheikh abhors the modern world and all its outward manifestations. He has issued many fatwas, the latest a month ago to Arab leaders. He is also the author of some 50 books and one of his most famous statements denies the existence of the atom. He has just finished building a mosque using blocks which some consider modern. Despite all his stands against modernity, his fatwas are widely available on the Internet and he even has his own website!

Let’s look at Dawood Al-Shiryan, a well-known journalist and commentator. He is described by many in the Saudi media as sharp-witted and very daring in his criticisms and demands for modernization. He sharply criticized the Saudi Shoura Council in an unprecedented way when it was chaired by Sheikh Mohammed ibn Jubair. This led Abu Abdul Rahman ibn Aqeel Al-Zahiri, a sheikh and a poet, to ask the Saudi government to strip Al-Shiryan of his Saudi citizenship. As for the Shoura Council itself, we must say that Sheikh Dr. Saleh ibn Humaid, its current head, who is from Buraidah is an example of a religious person who is tolerant and open-minded.

Mohammed Al-Athim, a prominent exponent of opening theaters in Saudi Arabia, says of him: “Sheikh Saleh ibn Humaid is Buraidah’s most upright son, a moderate, religious, open-minded man. Many respect his opinions on all religious and cultural matters; he is an excellent role model.”

If you ask Al-Athim about Buraidah which is his home, we will hear him speak of some who are interested in establishing a modern society, such as Dr. Abdullah Hamid. Others have been sharply critical of Islamic movements, especially after Sept. 11. The harshest of them is the columnist and author Sulaiman Al-Naqidan. There is also a group known as “enlightened Islamic moderates” such as Mashair Al-Zayidi, Sulaiman Al-Dahiyan, Abdul Rahman Al-Lahim and Mansour Al-Naqidan. At the same time there are also those who must be described as intransigent. Sheikh Sulaiman Al-Oda, the preacher who was recently deported by the Jordanian authorities and not allowed to give the lecture he had come to deliver. Some who are prominent in Buraidah are not citizens by birth — for example, the Syrian-born Mohammed Suror Zein el-Abidin, an extremist belonging to the Islamic Brotherhood.

How come the writer and journalist on the Saudi economic daily, Al-Eqtisadiah, Al-Athim, finds himself in a city that many are convinced is against art or so they think? He says that Buraidah had a theater in the time of King Abdul Aziz and that history shows a person by the name of Midyan performed for the king. Al-Athim adds that the theater was never forbidden in Buraidah.

As for contradictions in Buraidah, Al-Athim says that there are reasons for them. First of all, the city is one upon which winds from every direction blow. It sits astride an ancient caravan route and was, and is, a meeting place for ideas — from the north, the Arabian Peninsula itself, from the south, from Syria and from the east, Iraq and Iran.

Al-Athim believes that in order to understand Buraidah’s ideological components, you must look at the composition of its population which falls neatly into three categories. The first are the farmers. In the past, they were isolated in hard-to-reach areas; they lived by farming in what Al-Athim calls a “deeply religious culture attached to the earth, believing in fate and goodness.” The second category are the businessmen, the traveling merchants — the agaylat. It was they who came “in contact with the outside world, they who came back bearing new ideas.” The people of Buraidah ostracized them for a time because of those ideas. But despite that, the agaylat remained a source of ideas that contributed significantly to the idea that Buraidah is a city of contradictions. The third category are the bedouin.

Buraidah is a center for bedouin who, according to Al-Athim, are the most open group because of the desert and their travels and for dealing with new ideas which they have not had time to absorb because, as they constantly traveled, they were not concerned with ideas. Al-Athim says that “During the time I lived in Buraidah, people discussed philosophical issues that we seldom read about in books. In Buraidah there are three ways of thinking: one receptive, one very open and one very closed.”

However, he emphasizes an “important point.” He points out that despite the existence of closed and inflexible minds in the town, the citizens only clash in their ideas — i.e. they are not violent people.

Differences of opinion do not result in intolerant violence. He reminds us, “Buraidah has produced no one like Bin Laden,” nor does it contribute to the modern culture of violence. However, Al-Athim notes that extremist Islamic organizations “always come to the sheikhs of Buraidah in search of legitimacy and identity, seeking backing in the garb of Salafia.”

In Buraidah’s recent history which many are unaware of, in the town in the 1960’s, there was a lending library supervised by students. People could borrow books that were not available in many Arab countries at the time: for example, translations of Russian literature such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as well as the works of Khabri Hamad and Munir Al-Ba’albaki. This was at the same time when Buraidah was the only Saudi city which required a police presence to maintain public order when the first girls’ school was opened there.

Though Buraidah has acquired a reputation for opposing all that is modern, the first private radio station in the Saudi capital 40 years ago was set up by a man from Buraidah, Abdullah Al-Owayid. He established a station called “Tami Radio” using a wireless transmitter that he transformed into a short-wave radio station. According to a study by Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Shibli, the radio station began in 1961, transmitting entertainment and comic advertisements. It stopped broadcasting a month after Saudi radio went on the air. Al-Owayid was born in 1924 in Buraidah, into an agaylat family. He joined the French Army in Syria and later worked in the Ministry of Information in Saudi Arabia.

Dr. Hana Al-Mutlaq, also from an agaylat family in Buraidah, is a professor of psychology at King Saud University in Riyadh as well as being a brilliant author, journalist and broadcaster. Her interest in the field of healing by energy began about five years ago. She says after lecturing on the subject that most of those who come to her clinic are primarily women from Qasim and Buraidah. “They don’t come because of an illness but for the love of learning something new.” Based on her experience, Dr. Hana believes that the people of Buraidah are ready for anything that is new. Mashari Al-Zobidi says: “I don’t think that Buraidah’s producing such a variety of cultural examples is as strange as some have said.” He adds that many cities which seem strict are often lenient beneath the surface.

In the face of all this, the question remains: What kind of city is Buraidah? We have still not answered the question.

It is not easy to do so because of a lack of sociological studies. Al-Athim says: “Buraidah is a city of contradictions that are ‘home-made’, meaning that it does not import either its ideas or its contradictions.” (Asharq Al-Awsat)

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