During the Iraq War of 2003, I was seated with a group at a coffee shop in the Sheraton hotel when we were approached by some American soldiers who had arrived in Saudi Arabia a couple of days earlier. “Hey, you ragheads,” yelled one of them, “Where’s some action around here?”
Ragheads? That was a new one to most of us, but it didn’t take us long to figure out the slur behind those words. Notwithstanding the fact that it was said by a cherubic and innocent-looking young soldier on his first overseas duty, we made it very clear to him that it was indeed a prejudicial insult to address someone in that manner. It smacked of ignorance and stupidity. After apologies were hastily tendered and reluctantly accepted, the soldiers continued on their way.
In Saudi Arabia, the term ‘Rafeeg’ was adopted by some Saudis to address the expat labourers and semi-skilled workers, a practice that began during the oil-boom era. In that it was not dissimilar to the word ‘Raghead’ in its usage, it was nevertheless unappreciated by the millions of guest workers in the country. It gave rise to a condescending stature adopted by some of the citizenry towards foreign workers.
Some time ago, my daughter burst into the house visibly upset. After calming her down, I managed to get to the reason. It seemed her friend Durshan had been slighted during a recent hospital visit for a routine check-up. It brought to the surface some of the undercurrents of human prejudice.
Now Durshan, from what I understand, hails from the northern province of Kashmir in Pakistan. She had, however, been practically brought up in Saudi Arabia, as her family had arrived in Jeddah when she was just four years old. She enrolled in a local school and quickly assimilated into Saudi culture. Although still a Pakistani, Durshan could easily pass for a young Saudi lady with her fluency in the language and the mannerisms of locals.
Anyway, the Saudi gentleman at the reception in the hospital was the cause of my daughter’s ire. As she approached him and handed him her patient card, he was all smiles and there was an air of courteousness. However, as soon as he punched her number on the computer screen and discovered her nationality, all that changed. He became arrogant, his mannerism was brusque and he told Durshan in a sharp tome to take a seat and turned away.
Poor Durshan. She was baffled. But she had an appointment and meekly made her way over to the waiting area. After more than an hour of waiting, she made her way back to the receptionist and inquired about the reason behind the delay. She had, after all, seen one Saudi lady after another being ushered into the doctor’s chamber. Once again, she was met with a blank stare and a rude attitude from the person at the reception desk. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore and walked out. She just couldn’t see the doctor. She was a ‘Rafeeg’, you see.
I remember an incident when I was at the Saudi Foreign Ministry, following up on an application for a domestic help’s visa. As I waited patiently in the queue, I kept hearing someone in the distance shouting generally in my direction: “Ya Rafeeg!”
I chose to ignore this imbecile who was dressed in a uniform. A low-ranked official at best, he lumbered towards me after yelling across the hall a few more times. He demanded of me as to why I had not acknowledged his retorts. “Oh, you are talking to me?” I replied rather sarcastically. “Yes, you”, was his reply. “This queue is for Saudis only. Show me your Iqama (residency card required of all non-citizens),” he demanded with lofty pomposity. At the time, I was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and this ignorant person, trapped within his own prejudicial environment, had simply assumed that I was a foreigner.
Wanting to push this matter further, I replied that I had no Iqama. “What?” replied the sergeant. “No Iqama and no sponsor? Get out of the queue and follow me”, he ordered. I did as I was told, and followed him quietly to the captain’s office where our sergeant expressed his satisfaction at having nabbed an illegal alien. The captain, distracted from his morning reverie, asked me to produce some form of identification. When I showed him my driver’s licence, that bore my picture in the national headdress and mentioned my Saudi nationality, the atmosphere became very apologetic. The official walked me out towards the window at the counter, ahead of all those waiting in the long queue. He ordered the official manning the counter to process my papers immediately. Then turning towards me with a gracious smile, he reminded me that he was at my service and I was not to hesitate in approaching him if I encountered any delays. Talk about a complete turnaround!
If we are of Adam and Eve, then why are we embroiled in calling names such as ‘ragheads’ and ‘rafeegs’? Should we not address each other with more respect, and not base our attitude on a person’s nationality or dress?
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena.