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Death in the market
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

It was one of those baking hot days in Jeddah when the humidity was... well, to be conservative ... eighty-five per cent. The sweat was in free fall with soaking backs and arm pits, trickling down the face and leaving the taste of salt on the lips. Sweet and sour smells of the Jeddah sukh permeated the air, a mixture of cooking, garbage and oriental scents. From the mass of humanity that fills the city centre every Friday morning, we emerged from the maze of alleyways that make up the sukh and did a right turn in front of the Queen's building on the square.

There was a larger crowd than usual. We moved slowly through crowd’s outer fringe with our morning's shopping in search of a taxi. It was a noisy, jolly buzz in the air; unusual for Jeddah with its cosmopolitan population sober behaviour – in public at least. We didn't realise until later that we were the only Europeans in the crowd or we might have thought twice about going on. Magically, the press of men parted to give us passage and in our innocence we moved towards the front. We were newly arrived and were not familiar with the ways of Jeddah.

Now we were on the inner edge of the gathering multitude, standing before what was evidently a stage set for some public performance. The inner circle was fringed with armed soldiers and movement back through the crowd was now impossible, The press of humanity at our backs was solid. A toothy Saudi on my right, his akool head dress cocked at a rakish angle, grinned and said something I couldn't understand. To our left were three impassive Pakistanis, their faces masks of neutrality.

When the procession of performers came into view from around the corner of an adjacent building, we thought we were to be treated to some kind of Moslem nativity or passion play. Guards led the way followed by a muezzin clutching an uncommonly large, worn and ancient copy of The Koran. In his wake came more armed guards, a brawny swordsman in red flanked by two retainers in flowing green and white robes, the national colours of the realm. Behind this trio, at some distance, appeared two Pakistanis men in their late twenties with their elbows bound behind their backs. They move under an escort of more armed retainers.

The solemnity of the procession once it reached and mounted the stage was relieved by the antics of the swordsman who, following the public announcement of the muezzin, began a dazzling display with his scimitar in the manner of Hardy’s Sergeant Troy. The scimitar flashed perilously close to the prisoners, which gave us cause for alarm. Yet we were fascinated by the skill and dexterity of the swordsman, his footwork, his astonishing leaps. The movements of the sword left one breathless with admiration.

All this time the prisoners, acting out their parts, were in a state of mesmerised stupor. They were a sight to behold. The position of their elbows and the tightness of the bindings caused their chests to puff out unnaturally proud like pouter pigeons with their heads thrust forward on their extended necks. They stood a little apart from one another, each with a guard position to their rear.

The sword play continued for what seemed an eternity. In reality, it could not have been for more than a minute. Suddenly and without warning, the guard behind the Pakistani nearest the crowd jabbed a knife into the prisoner's ribs and his head jerked even farther forward. At that instant the executioner struck and severed the prisoner’s head from his body in one swift stroke. The headless torso remained upright for a moment then collapsed into a heap.

Nauseated beyond belief, I closed my eyes in a conscious effort to wipe the scene from my memory. The effort, the strain, the shock and heat and humidity only heightened my sense of revulsion. All about was the cloying smell of humanity. The plastic bags of shopping were like cannon balls in my sweaty hands. I glanced at my companion. His complexion had turned a to deathly pallor. By mutual agreement and without exchanging a single word, we pushed and pushed and pushed our way back through the pressing our sickened hearts and stumbling steps. What was this land of horror to which we had come? I had come to Saudi Arabia in 1949 and found it to be a land of stark and inexpressible beauty. What sense of national inhumanity had led to the beheading of two young men who, as we later learned, had being living with an unmarried woman?

Such scenes in the cities of Saudi Arabia were then commonplace. The previous year two men and a woman were dealt with in a similar fashion. One had his hand severed at the wrist for thievery; the other was beheaded for murder; and the woman was publicly whipped and stoned to death on the charge of adultery.

Discussing this particular case with me later, a Saudi Arabian businessman said, “We have professional stoners of course. They know how to put the condemned to death quickly so that the agony is short-lived.” But as I pointed out, the professionals don't set about their work until the public has thrown stones for anything up to half an hour or more, so the businessman’s point was academic.

Stories of the brutality of Saudi Arabian justice appear from time to time in the world press and, in the market place of world opinion. The repressive Saudi Arabian government reacts with astonishing naivety, not to say brutish disregard for world opinion. The story of the Saudi Arabian princess who was publicly executed by her own father in Jeddah the previous year was a case in point.

This Princess Misha, a 23 year old young woman, was the daughter of a member of the Saudi Arabia's ruling family, the House of Saud. She had been attending the American university in Beirut. She fell in love with the son of the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, but was summoned by the family to Riyadh to marry a man old enough to be her father. Eloping with her lover, she was married in Jeddah and from there made plans to flee the country. Discovery of her in disguise waiting for a flight at Jeddah Airport was the end of her sad journey. The harsh and unbending justice of Koranic law followed. Misha and her husband were taken to the Jeddah market place where her father shot her before her husband and in the presence of her sisters and cousins. Her husband was executed by the sword. A grisly tale indeed.

The reaction of Saudi Arabians to the kind of publicity this type of story brings is one of dismay and injured innocence. They cannot understand accusations of barbarity which, they say, are unjustly leveled. Western writers commenting on the case reported that many Saudis and other educated Arabs were appalled over the ban last summer that prevented travel abroad by unaccompanied women. As long as the barbarity of public executions continues one has to conclude that there is gross misuse of the word educated.

Journal entry (1976)

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