Miskeen — by
The writer is purportedly a brigadier in the Pakistan army.
Miskeen is a spoken Saudi equal of ‘poor wretch’ used to denote mainly the Asian labour force, coloured workers and expatriates from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Philippines, Indonesia, etc. For those of African and North African origins, they have different titles. More than a word, it shows a whole Saudi racial, social and national attitude and a rancid hubris. In this context, Ummah is either a misnomer or merely a convenience for the Arab. They are Saudis, Iraqis, Egyptians, Yemenis, Kuwaitis Bahrainis, Emiratis or whatever, but brothers in the Ummah. That notion is basically a political convenience. We, in the subcontinent, are emotionally more transparent and excitable. An Arab, like his camel, is emotionally frigid except when he is slighted or his female space is threatened. Despite a strangely adversarial disposition towards females, they count them among their possessions like the black tent, camels and cattle. One realised that the Saudi men’s honour and prestige seem to be tied more to their ability to control their women by diamond necklaces and gold biscuits than any equation of a sublime human relationship. Their family canvas is a sorry mess because of institutionalised licentiousness through a flood of divorces and multiple marriages. A society short of familial affiliations and internal gravitation disintegrates sooner or later.
Saudis, and Arabs for that matter, have an obsessive love for money, matched in our part of the world by the Pathan or the Sikh somewhat, if not fully. The difference is that Pathans and Sikhs both have plenty in the lands they live in, not the Saudis. Less the oil, they have always been short of food and means of livelihood as hardly anything grew in their deserts. Their harsh unsupportive environment forced them to become highwaymen for hire, ferrying the trade goods of richer nations on the ends of the desert and beyond. Those who were not involved in running trade caravans were busy raiding the same. Their land bridge geographical location between productive Asia, Africa and Europe helped them to become exchange traders or midway transit men. Since they produced literally nothing but had to sell others’ goods, therefore they developed excellent linguistic skills, which is why Arabic is such an eloquent language.
Arabs are racial exclusivists and the Saudis, a degree more, arrogant too. However, Kuwaitis excel in both fields. This racist arrogance does not stem from any real world class achievement but their age old ability to ply one’s merchandise to the other at exorbitant rates, making the other believe that the deal was fair, employing a clever-merchant syndrome. The other reason has been the inelasticity of their bare bones social capsule, which was unable to absorb any external influence or people. Their mercantile ability was polished after the advent of Islam with a large dose of missionary zeal and truth on the pain of divine condemnation forever. However, a few centuries on, this zeal waned and skillful statecraft replaced the art of salesmanship. Both required nearly the same neuro transmissions.
I have been Director General (SPAFO) of Pakistan Armed Forces deputationists, mainly, doctors and engineers, to the Saudi Armed Forces from 1998 to 2002.This was one of the most privileged positions for a non-European/American military officer in the Kingdom. I used to sit in the Ministry of Defence sharing the floor with US, British and French military missions. Another unique privilege that I enjoyed was that I could move anywhere in the Kingdom without the indispensible written permission and saw them closely in both urban and rural landscapes. That regretfully shattered many a myth that we Muslims in the subcontinent carry almost as articles of faith, and along with that a part of my better self too. However, it was an invaluable education in reality and measurement of one’s worthiness or otherwise.
Within weeks, I realised that for a self-respecting person, it was nearly impossible to work honourably with those men. But for the call of duty to the fellow deputationists and mutuality between our two countries, I seriously considered repatriation. Hardly an occasion goes by without making an expatriate realise the tentative nature of his lower stature among these stiff-lipped, stuffy men. Our best, even a PhD in Space Sciences, weighs invariably less than a Saudi camel-herder from the Empty Quarter.
Saudi Arabia was almost the last to end slavery officially in 1974 yet by nature retain all the instincts of slave-running alive. The Iqama (work permit) is the principal instrument and is issued on behalf of the Saudi employer (Kafeel) for one year at a time. This is literally a dog collar that provides the Saudi master unlimited and rather coercive powers over the hapless expatriate. Regardless of innocence, merit, right to be heard and the number of years of hard work, one could be packed off and deported within hours. An expatriate has practically no legal stature, let alone the much talked about basic human rights. I know of a senior Pakistani banker who helped set up a renowned Saudi bank, rose to the position of vice-president and after 29 years was ordered out at a week’s notice, his invaluable service and lifetime of hard work notwithstanding. His fault? None except the sweet pleasure of his employer and the weapon, the guillotine of Iqama. Once your Iqama is withdrawn you are an immediate nonentity and must leave the country posthaste before they imprison you for an indefinite period. Moreover, one could see horrible exploitation of female expatriates by their masters, particularly that of Sri Lankans and Philippinas. Pathetic insensitivity that was. (why you people keep coming here? reply I got from a close Saudi friend)
Peculiarly, Saudis have a cold and impersonal system of designating expatriates that they hire. Miskeen is a derisive phrase of pity and loathing that tends to massage their ego in a kind of perverted manner. It tends to be a device of superiority, distancing from the mass of toiling expatriate men and women working in the Saudi households, farms, factories, shops, hotels, offices and all places where an ordinary Saudi considers it below his dignity to work. The next lower phrase in their not so civil glossary is siddique, which very eloquently conveys: ‘You work for me but mind your place. No liberties to be taken.’ Siddique is a belittling way of directly addressing one out of innumerable expatriates already held as miskeen.
European and American expatriates are a different and far superior category. For them notions of pity are transformed into a view of admiration and longing. They are considered and addressed as rafique, meaning ‘dear friend’. Americans top this list, followed closely by the British and other Europeans, depending upon how much they can benefit materially. There are cogent reasons for this preferential treatment. Americans and Europeans negotiate their terms of reference very carefully and hard. They are better networked, bring in more lucrative business, have better work ethics and their parent governments are unrelenting should Saudis maltreat one of their citizens.
There is a third but unspoken class who are mentioned with a smile and a wink. These are fair-skinned Central Asians, Lebanese, and blonde-haired Syrians. They are neither miskeen nor rafique but have the privilege of being the pleasure mates of a superior sort but not equals. They have half an access to the privacies of Saudi households; some even married in. Late Rafique Hariri was a kinsman of the Saudi royal family.
In all this business of labelling who was who in the shoddy Saudi esteem, they missed the forest for the trees. They know but never acknowledge that all of the Kingdom’s infrastructure, services and amenities were built by expatriates from all over the world. Saudi oil money drew the best of the foreign societies into their service but tragically, they failed to absorb them into their own society. It was because they were unfortunately blind to the power of diversification, induction of new talent and ideas. Their genetic disability had been that want and scarcity of thousands of years had made their tribal society grow inwards with no scope or space for expansion and accommodation. The net result is that not only the Saudis floundered a once in centuries chance to enrich their country and society with a mix of talented foreign men and women but also have a huge rootless foreign mass in their midst that can go out of hand any moment. The consequences could be devastating. More about this some other time.