Living dangerously: Aubert Van Sertima on life in Riyadh
Stabroek News
January 27, 2004

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Guyanese Aubert Van Sertima has been living in Saudi Arabia for the past 16 years and has no problem blending in. He also does not feel uneasy living in a country which has become increasingly dangerous because of the conflict between the Saudi monarchy and al Qaeda terrorists.

Stabroek News caught up with Van Sertima recently at his wine bar located at George and Norton streets and spoke to him about his experiences in Saudi Arabia, where he lives on a compound and works at an air base.

Van Sertima, who is 45-years-old, is employed with British Aerospace as an Aircraft Corrosion Control Specialist supervisor. His work involves training university students to maintain aircraft in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.

While his children are in England attending school, Van Sertima and his wife, a German who is a medical secretary at a hospital, live and work in Riyadh. He says his wife has only been living in Saudi Arabia for the past three years.

The man told this newspaper that he left Guyana in 1967 for England and later entered the Royal Air Force. Later, he worked in Germany before moving to Saudi Arabia. Though he has not really settled in the country, he has a well-paid job and the opportunity to play lawn tennis, which he loves, and which "is a big thing in Riyadh".

He recalled that when he was about to travel to the country he was told there would be no parties and such like. "But as soon as we landed there I got invited to a party two days after... and when I got there, there was alcohol and you know that is a big thing over there."

He explained that there are no nightclubs for one to party in. However, the different compounds sometimes hold private parties.

According to the Kingdom's information agency website, "Riyadh lies in the central region, is the capital city of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and rivals any modern city in the world in the splendour of its architecture. Broad highways sweep through the city, passing over or under each other in an impressive and still growing road network. Trees now bedeck the broad streets and avenues, giving pleasure to passers-by and shade to those who linger beneath them. Today, the city extends for some 600 square miles and has a population of more than 4.7 million."

The website stated that the name "Riyadh is derived from an Arabic word meaning a place of gardens and trees (rawdah). With many wadis (a former water course now dry) in the vicinity, Riyadh has been since antiquity a fertile area set in the heartland of the Arabian Peninsula. Of all the kingdom's developmental achievements, Riyadh is perhaps the most obvious and accessible to the foreign visitor. From the moment one lands at the King Khalid International Airport, which is itself a marvel of design wedding the traditional Arab style with the best modern architecture in a happy marriage of spacious practicality, the traveller is aware that he has reached a city that must be counted one of the wonders of modern times."

Asked about life in that far away land, Van Sertima said: "Right now everybody is on edge simply because of what happened the twelfth of May, when they had a big bombing (at a residential complex). I was actually there when the bomb went off, because the compounds are probably two feet away from us...

"What actually happened that night from what I gathered the guys, the terrorists ... just shoot all the guards there drove through the gates and let off the bombs. That evening I was sitting in my house watching television the next thing I hear was the door rattling, right. So I looked out the window and I saw the police[men] running up the road, thick smoke like clouds in the air and I said definitely a bomb went off. My wife, she was pretty shaken up by it..."

On May 12, 2003, assault gunmen and suicide bombers attacked three housing compounds in Riyadh populated by westerners and other foreigners. Thirty-five people died, among them were Americans, Filipinos, Jordanians, Saudis and one each from Australia, Britain, Ireland, Lebanon and Switzerland.

Van Sertima said that evening the gates were locked down, "so no one would get in and the next day we heard about what had happened, how many people died..."

There was another bombing last November and several smaller ones over the past few months and according to Van Sertima they are always waiting to see where the next one will come from. "What is happening now we have built barricades around the compound and we have guards with machine guns and tanks parked outside. We are living like prisoners. So every time you go in you have your cars checked for bombs and there are road blocks manned by the local police everywhere."

He said police are often engaged in shoot-outs with terrorists.

Questioned about what it was like following the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which left around 2,800 dead and placed Saudi Arabia under the spotlight because many of the hijackers were from the kingdom, Van Sertima said: "Well the response from the Saudis was joy. They were over the moon. They felt it was great and our guys who had to teach them were so disgusted that a lot of them left. For me, right, because I am like their colour they see me like one of them, whereas the other people that I work with, right, it is a different story... The white people take it to heart and a lot of them left because of the response by the Saudis."

According to Van Sertima the religious police in Riyadh really clamp down on westerners especially the women. "They harass the women so much that they don't even go shopping anymore. That is how bad it is." The religious police do not carry guns and cannot effect an arrest without the presence of a member of the country's police force. He said they are so many religious police that they out number the regular policemen. He explained that they are well paid by the royal family and they are universities especially for them.

"I remember walking through one of their shopping malls with my wife and sons and one of my sons had an earring in his ear. [The religious police] spotted it and came over with three other police men with guns... He said, 'you have to take that earring off,' then he told me that I had to take my chain off... So I said to him how is it I have to take this chain off, you have got a watch on? That's jewellery. And he told me that he does not understand." Van Sertima said his son, who was 17 at the time, was shocked by the incident although he had warned him.

He explained that all western women living in that country are forced to change their entire lifestyle, adding that there is not much for the women to do in the evening. They are forced to always wear a cloak down to their ankles and they also have to cover their heads. Saudi women have to wear a veil over their faces.

However, he said, over the last few years some women have been taking their veils off. "Only a few weeks ago I was in a Sony shop and there were two Saudi women without their faces covered. A [religious policeman] walked in and shouted at them and they shouted back at him, but in the end they covered their faces. They are trying it now [to reveal their faces] the younger ones they are trying it."

Van Sertima recalled an incident where one of his colleagues was in a car with a woman he was not married to and they had both consumed alcohol.

"When these guys realised that [the religious police] and the police were chasing them, he drove his car into this girl's compound where she was living and drove off. So the girl got into her compound before the police [caught up with] the car. They caught him and locked him up and my company had to get him released. He was lucky. However, the police were watching them from then and they caught them together and locked both of them up. She got deported and the company sacked the guy. She was in prison for about four to five weeks before they deported her. They call all western women prostitutes."

It is difficult for women to work and even when they do it is only in certain areas like hospitals and special shops where women only can shop.

"But if you go to any other shops in Saudi Arabia you are served by a man even ladies shops. It is pretty embarrassing for a woman if she is going to get lingerie."

Women are also found working in schools, which are specially designed for girls.

Women are not allowed to eat in restaurants with men. If they are found in the same restaurants they have to sit separately. And single persons cannot be found in public together.

He said that he could not operate an establishment such as Auby's Wine Bar publicly in Riyadh, but maybe on the compound where persons brew their own drinks, since purchasing it on the streets is very expensive as alcohol is illegal.

He described the area as being very affluent, "it is amazing the amount of money that country has and what they spend. You can get anything in Saudi Arabia. You name it and you can get it there. And you find everybody driving these big four-wheel drives. The roads are big and open. The place is clean so they don't want for anything." He explained that a lot of the families are in tribes and each has a leader and the government has to give them money because they provide a support base.

Nearly every man has a car, and according to Van Sertima, children from the age 12 are driving cars. "If they are the only boy child in the family the young boy will have to drive his mother and sister around as women cannot drive over there." Some have tried it before but they got themselves locked up while some disguise as boys and drive.

He said they are lots of shops and the streets are always filled but the men shop on their own and the women on their own.

Persons are executed if they are found guilty of murder or other serious crimes.

Van Sertima said there were amazing and impressive buildings in Riyadh.

Asked about his future plans, Van Sertima said while he has a house in England, after retiring he wants to move to the Caribbean to do something. He said he had planned to remain in Riyadh for another five years by which time he should get his pension from his company. However, with the arrest of his bar's manager, Mark Thomas, for the murder of Shafeek Bacchus his plans might change. He might return and operate the bar and change the name since it is now tainted. The bar is now closed until he decides what to do.

He also had plans to travel to Trinidad since his wife does not mind spending a few years over there.