It was during a social function last month that word filtered through the guests that a Saudi was being interrogated by authorities in Boston, and some news and print media were naming him as the prime suspect in the Boston marathon bombings. Fortunately, events later disqualified such allegations, but raw emotions could be measured in those early moments. The event I was attending was a get-together of Saudis and expatriates to foster inter-cultural dialogue, a novel idea by one of the city’s social activists, who felt that there was a need to meet and bridge the chasm that often exists between hosts and their guests.
As the news spread, I could sense a change in emotions. Taking the opportunity to dig deeper, I asked a few fellow guests their reaction to the groundbreaking news.
Abdullah, retired Saudi professor, appeared distraught: “I just cannot believe this. We have barely gotten over the horrors of 9/11 and now this! Who are these sick people? Do they really breed and grow in our midst? If indeed what I heard is true, the authorities must get to the bottom of this and arrest them all, and finally hang them. People who have no regard for innocent lives are nothing but murderers.”
Mona, a Saudi principal at a leading girl’s college, was somewhat more reticent: “Let us not jump to conclusions. This could be a rumour or some attempt by US media to smear our citizens. We have hundreds of Saudi students studying in Boston, and I am certain that they are there for that purpose and no other; to get an education and return home safely back to their families. The media has often jumped to conclusions and this may very well prove to be the case as well.”
Hans, a European, was more sombre: “If this is true, it will set back efforts to repair the image of Saudis by years. It then becomes imperative for the government to recognise that tolerance to any form of extremism has end results and more often than not, they are not pleasant or expected.”
Mohammad, a Saudi trader, said: “This boy, whoever he is, has just brutally scraped a wound that was healing. Whoever teaches them that bombs are cool — the brains behind these youths — must be ferreted out and brought to justice. It is a national shame if it is true.”
Bilal from North Africa was blunt: “This is just a plot to discredit some innocent Saudi. The western press has been very harsh on your people ever since the New York bombings and they try to link every act of terrorism to you. Perhaps having Osama Bin Laden as one of your own did not help matters. But why the collective guilt? Why should good people like you suffer for the dastardly acts of a few misguided and crazy people?”
Salem, a Saudi industrialist, was very sombre: “I am almost emotionless right now. I felt like my blood has stopped running when I heard that it was one of our boys. I just cannot think straight right now. What do you want me to say or feel? I feel worse than terrible, not for myself as much as for those who were injured and killed by the acts of madmen. It is ironic that we are here to foster inter-cultural ties, and we hear reports that one of our boys has been busy blowing people apart. What a shameful chapter if it happens to be true.”
Balan, an economist from Malaysia, interrupted: “Do not jump to conclusions. Following such acts, the media looks for scoops and many such reports prove to be false. Maybe the press over there is taking things out of context. One must be calm and patient and wait for all the facts through official authorities.”
Bilal, a successful Afghani carpet merchant, was blunt: “What do you expect after eight years of George W. Bush’s crusade against the Muslim world? He claimed to be fighting terrorism, but unfortunately all that his aggressive actions did in so many countries was to create more terrorists. Look at my country now. Whoever tells you that it is better than before does not know the truth. And look at Iraq too. Are you going to say that they are doing much better now? They have lost hundreds of thousands of good and honest people in bloodbaths following the invasion, and there is no sign that things will settle for the better. Boys have grown into young men during those times, and unfortunately a few of them have bloody vengeance in their hearts. It is a sorry matter.”
Salma, a Saudi who heads a PR agency in Jeddah, said: “I travel to Boston two or three times a year. It is my second home. I admire the American people and their values, and right now I am very upset by what I hear. Who does this Saudi think he is? That he is speaking for all of us. Rubbish! He should be shot for even considering such an act let alone going through with it. Is there no value in innocence any more?
There was no masking the flood of emotions that evening. Needless to say, the evening which began on a promising note soon petered out as many left shortly after hearing the news; perhaps to go home and seek the facts for themselves, be it on TV or the internet. Or they just wanted to be left alone in their thoughts.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena