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The Cradle of Islam

Learning from Mai Yamani's new book about Saudi Arabia, Islam, and the Hijaz.

11:00 PM, Jan 11, 2005 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, Western publics have boned up on Saudi Arabia and its strict Wahhabi variant of Islam. In the process, some may have come to think of the Saudi kingdom, with its police-enforced public segregation of the sexes and total absence of religious freedom, as monolithic--a misapprehension for which the sociologist Mai Yamani has produced the antidote.

Her new book Cradle of Islam: The Hijaz and the Quest for an Arabian Identity (I.B. Tauris, London) is the story of a subtle resistance that has developed to the oppressive uniformity that the House of Saud seeks to impose on the country. Rather than a challenge to the Saudi princes' political power, this quiet defiance takes a cultural form. Yamani calls it Hijazification: a reassertion of regional identity by the elite families of the cosmopolitan western province known as the Hijaz.

Lying along the coast of the Red Sea, the Hijaz is separated by mountains from the Arabian interior. It boasts the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, as well as Taif and the port of Jeddah. Both trade and the pilgrimage to Mecca made it a crossroads for a thousand years, and it enjoyed a high degree of political and religious autonomy even under Ottoman rule, beginning in 1517. The sophisticated elites of the Hijaz, with their schools and libraries and foreign embassies and their Sufi-influenced Islam, looked down on the illiterate nomads of the Najd, the heartland that was home to the al Saud family.

The al Sauds' alliance with Wahhabism goes back to the 18th century (the Nadji preacher Muhammed bin Abdul Wahhab lived 1703-1792), and so does their romance with violence. Their first conquest of the Hijaz was brutal. In 1802, the al Saud armies "killed every woman, man and child they saw" in Taif, Yamani writes. There, and in Mecca and Medina, they indulged in the systematic destruction of domed mosques, mausoleums, and other buildings and burial grounds deemed "un-Islamic" under the extreme iconoclasm that would one day inspire the Taliban. Then in 1813, the Ottomans drove the al Saud from the Hijaz.

Not until the 1920s did the al Sauds succeed in finally appropriating the region, and in 1932, with the formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, they proceeded to impose Nadji customs as the Saudi norm. But it is the period since 1980 that chiefly occupies Yamani. It is in the last two decades, especially--after the first heady enjoyment of oil wealth and enthusiasm for modernization gave way to a "popular sentiment that Saudi Arabia's essential moral values were under threat"--that she locates the renewal of Hijazi tradition.

Yamani gradually unfolds an elaborate code of behavior relating to food and dress, speech and decorum, festivity and mourning that is distinctive to the leading families of the Hijaz, and whose exact observance influences social standing. To see all this as political, of course, it is necessary to appreciate the Saudi context, where the Hijaz has disappeared from the map, and even the use of the name is effectively subversive; where no Nadji would consider marrying a Hijazi; and where the privileges of the families long associated with the management of the pilgrimage and the governance of the holy cities have been usurped by Wahhabi yahoos. Yamani writes of the "privatization of resistance" and "the powerful latent challenge facing the Saudi authorities."

What she never does is invite any glib notion that the Hijazi elites, however dissatisfied with the current regime, are plotting to rock the boat. Instead, she portrays them as dependent on access to high officials for their political and economic well being. Thus, they "have a profound interest in the maintenance of social and political stability," even that provided by the al Saud.

Writing with controlled affection, Mai Yamani--the first Saudi woman to obtain a D.Phil from Oxford University--reminds us of the importance of the private sphere in a police state, and of the value of tradition as a flexible resource in adapting to modernity. Along the way, she cures the reader once and for all of any thought of Saudi society as homogeneous.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor of The Weekly Standard.