Talisman Gate

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Follow the Mon(k)ey

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

November 4, 2004 Thursday


LENGTH: 1051 words

HEADLINE: Follow the Mon(k)ey

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Actually, the headline should be "Follow the Baboon." I hear that baboons consider the "m" word particularly derogatory. And to be specific, given the rigid social hierarchy of the ape world, it should be the Hamadryas Baboon, a creature worshipped by the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs. These baboons are found all over East Africa and spill over across the Bab Al-Mandab straits of the Red Sea into Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Yes, Saudi Arabia, a land that usually conjures up images of bleak and parched desert landscapes that would be inhospitable to such hilarious and cuddly creatures as baboons. But in fact, there is a region in Saudi Arabia where these apes call home. It is called 'Asir, which roughly takes up the whole southwestern corner of the oil-rich kingdom. It is, incidentally, also the place that 9 out of the 15 Saudi September 11 hijackers used to call home. Another four hail from southern Hijaz, to the immediate neighboring north of 'Asir.

The baboons, like the terrorists, are aggressive and menacing. 'Asir is pretty much like Yemen, the land the ancient Romans called Arabia Felix, or the happy part of Arabia. The only difference seems to be that the steep and ragged mountains of the Sarawat in 'Asir are crystalline while the highlands of Yemen are volcanic in geological origin. Today, that southwestern part of Saudi Arabia is administratively broken up into the provinces of 'Asir (five of the hijackers), Al-Baha (four of the hijackers), Jizan (part of the thin coastal plain called the Tehama that stretches along 600 miles of the Red Sea coast and culturally belongs to Africa), and Najran.

Najran is a large oasis town that is well beyond the plateau of the 'Asiri highlands, but it is the only part of Saudi Arabia where pre-Islamic Arab pagan religious beliefs still linger despite the best efforts to eradicate them. It is also where some 250,000 of the much-persecuted Ismaili Shias of the Bani Lam tribe live, who are not even mainstream Shia or mainstream Ismailis for that matter.

These four provinces would neatly fit as one block of the proposed 'Five State Solution' for the break-up of Saudi Arabia that was discussed in an earlier column. Of course, they not homogenous communities, but their major cultural variations seem to be that some build their houses of wood, some out of mud and straw, while others erect stone tower-like structures. But the commonalities they share are still greater than anything that would bind them to other regions of the Arabian Peninsula. Typically, the governors of these provinces are royal princes of the House of Saud or their relatives, hailing from their distant province and power-base of Nejd. Their grandparents occupied the southwestern region in 1934.

Getting back to 'Asir proper, one would get the impression that it is an unlikely place to breed Wahhabi-inspired terrorists. Wahhabism's puritanical essence mirrors the harsh and unforgiving deserts from which it sprang. 'Asir, on the other hand is lush and green, with juniper and wild olive forests, and plenty of monsoon-like rainfall. It even snows occasionally on the 10,000-foot high peak of Mount Sawda. The mountain sides are full of blooming wild flowers and Saint-John's-wort, an herb that tends to soothe people. The people, who hail from numerous tribes, are as colorful as the land they inhabit and the interiors of their homes are resplendent with color. The men wear striped kilts - never call them skirts - of hot-palate colors of orange, red, ochre and green. These match with their shirts that seem to have been the inspiration for last summer's merchandise at the Banana Republic.

The men wear wild flowers and freshly-cut sprigs of basil, lavender and mint in their headdresses. It is believed that these aromatic botanicals can ward off the evil eye. The women wear all of their intricately-crafted silver jewelry throughout the day while harvesting the tiny terraced plots of land along the hillside or while milking the goats. Both men and women outline their enchanting and distinctive hazel eyes with kohl, the aesthetic and chemical equivalent of mascara. Such displays of flirtatious appearances are anathema to the austere Wahhabi dress uniform of all-white for males and all-black for females.

This is a part of Arabia where the tribes did not feel it necessary to pack up and leave to greener pastures and "Arabize" the other parts of the Middle East through successive migrations over the millennia. These tribes are obscure in origin and one of the major ones, the Qahtanis, carry the name of an obscure ancestor from whom all 'pure' Arabs supposedly descend.

So how did the land of happy Arabia, awash with vibrant color and monkeys jumping up and down, inspire the youth of 'Asir and Al-Baha to become the foot-soldiers and 'muscle' of Al-Qaeda and head-off to world-wide jihad? The ratio of 13 out of 15 hijackers who hail from southern Hijaz and 'Asir is mirrored in the composition of the Saudi contingents that fought in Afghanistan and those currently creating havoc in Iraq.

What is going on, and is anyone working on finding the answer? Some blame it on poverty and some others on the gradual cultural domination of state-subsidized Wahhabi concepts in the urban centers as more and more 'Asiris leave their colorful highland villages, grow unkempt beards, and adopt the Wahhabi uniform. There is very little out there in print about the 'Asir highlands, and if the CIA is currently having trouble planting agents in cosmopolitan Beirut, then we are all far off from figuring out this puzzle.

The report of the commission on the September 11 attacks is full of references to Saudi-based financiers of terror. It easily follows the money from middlemen in Dubai and Pakistan to the hijackers, but the origin of the money trail is lost as they follow it back across the Saudi border. The report also carefully tracks the Saudi 'muscle' hijackers leaving training camps in Afghanistan to head to the United States, but fails to address how they were recruited from places like 'Asir in the first place. The investigators and intelligence officers, whose work is still far from done, are wise to further follow the money, but someone on their staff should be following the monkey up the narrow hill trails of the Sarawat Mountains in 'Asir.