Growing up in Saudi

Shortly after my family moved to Riyadh in the early 1980s, we were having tea with our Pakistani neighbours when another guest arrived. After my father was introduced to the visitor, one Muhammad Schulz, my mother made to shake the hand of this burly, red-bearded American convert. “I’m sorry,” he replied evenly, “I can’t shake your hand, because I would burn in hell for a thousand years if I did.”

As we returned to our cockroach-infested apartment, my parents had good cause to reflect on the wisdom of bringing their young family to this strange country. Around the same time, we had been wandering round one of the souks when my father felt a heavy blow on his shoulder. “Our sister is not properly dressed,” said the mutawa (religious policeman) who had whacked my father with his stick, pointing to my mother’s partly bare arms. Next stop: a shop selling the long black cloaks, abayas.

Living in Saudi was a matter of rules. Always carry cash in the car: if you were in a collision with a Saudi, he (women couldn’t drive) would automatically be in the right. If you couldn’t pay compensation on the spot, you’d be put in jail until you could. And the Saudis were terrible drivers. (Licences meant nothing: one of Idi Amin’s sons often used to pull up in his Pontiac to take another neighbour’s son for a spin. The boy couldn’t have been more than 13.) At illicit Catholic services we were told to say, if asked, that we were part of a film club. The Italian priest, Father Eugene, eventually had to flee the kingdom after police stormed a nurses’ compound where he was saying Mass.

Alcohol was a prime instance of the rule “Do as I say, not as I do”. Expats brewed their own at home, a common concoction being “Jeddah gin”, a rough, fortified wine that fermented in 14 days (several litres
of which we once had to flush down the loo when we were warned of an imminent police raid). It was foolhardy to offer this to a Saudi. The other way round, however, was fine. A next-door villa caught fire
when we lived in Jeddah, and after the blaze was doused my father took a tray of fresh cakes to the owner, a wealthy Saudi. From the charred remains of his house, he immediately brought forth a bottle of Johnny Walker whisky. This, of course, was totally haram. But perhaps the Saudi thought it permissible under the circumstances – the fire meant he had rushed back from performing hajj in Mecca.

Poolside afternoons with my mother and little brother at the Marriott came to an end after there were complaints. Mixed swimming was not allowed, and a guest declared I looked “too adult” (I was ten). Obtaining my exit-re-entry visas (I boarded in England during term time) took for ever. “The visa must be stamped by Ahmed.” “Where is Ahmed?” “He is not here.” “When will he be back?” “Ah, bukhra ba bukhra, inshallah” – tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, God willing . . .

But once you accepted the terms of your presence – you were there to work; tourist visas have only been issued since 2004 – there was much to marvel at in this harsh, fascinating land. At weekends we’d camp in the desert, watching camel spiders scuttling by a late-night brushwood fire, after a day exploring the old ruined capital of Dirriyah. Or we’d drive up the Red Sea coast and snorkel over pristine reefs, alone on the beach apart from the odd 4x4 crawling along the shore, packed with young Saudis keen to ogle bikini-clad western women.

In Riyadh I’d walk to buy shwarmas in a long, white Saudi thobe, occasionally being addressed in Arabic by vendors who took me for one of those blue-eyed, fair-skinned Syrians. In between prayer times, when everything shut, we’d hang out at the new malls, freezing from the air-conditioning, whose shiny ostentation seemed joyous compared to the grim shopping arcades in Britain. I used to envy friends who lived in villas or compounds, instead of the basic blocks of flats in which teachers like my parents were housed. Actually, we were fortunate. We weren’t cocooned, as so many expats were. Our lifestyle was frugal, but we socialised with Saudis, Turks, Egyptians, Palestinians, Pakistanis and Indians. We went to their homes and were received with a warmth and grace that visitors to England – especially those of a different colour and creed – would have been lucky to encounter. So it was in this most extreme of countries that I learned from an early age that “home” can be found wherever strangers are greeted with hospitality. And, for that reason, I will always think of Saudi with an enormous affection that must baffle those who see only hypocrisy, cruelty and corruption behind the strict Islamic façade.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.