In the London Review of Books, Safa al Ahmad wrote about her visit to her ancestral village in Hasa in eastern Saudi Arabia. It is a Shiite area, and has faced constant oppression and intimidation by the majority Sunnis that rule the kingdom. Hospitality, however, is honour, and food is a major part of it.
Lunch was ready. Set on the floor was a square plastic mat with a big platter of white fluffy rice, fried fish and chicken on top. Around it were plates of salad, vegetable stews and the Hasawi signature – sticky dates, to be eaten before, during or after a meal.The Saudi leadership has tried a carrot and stick approach to Hasawis. They pumped money into the area to help build up the infrastructure. At the same time, they clamped down on any sign of dissension.
As the men started to leave, I remembered a friend’s story about his encounter with a fisherman. To catch grouper fish, the fisherman would use a three-pronged hook with a shiny bit of metal attached to it. The fish would be attracted by the glitter. ‘Don’t you worry the fish will catch on to your trick?’ my friend asked. The man laughed. ‘One fish I caught was covered in these hooks. The fish make the same mistake over and over again.’ ‘Shia in Saudi Arabia,’ my friend said, ‘are a bit like grouper fish. The government knows exactly how to catch us every time.’