The sandal-less boy from ‘Unaiza, deep in the Qassim heart of the peninsula, was of the first generation in the region to be provided, albeit modestly, with a school, but it was not instruction that led him to the crossroads. Instead, it was the mere presence of teachers drafted in from Egypt that revealed to him the possibility of the existence of a whole other world.
By no means an outstanding pupil, Saad resolved to see that world and – he rolls his eyes - set about “memorizing the curriculum word for word”, earning himself a top four placing in the whole country, a scholarship and a ticket out. His subsequent 17-year sojourn in America took him into unimagined worlds, into the realms of ideas, into philosophy and history and legend and universal realities lying “beyond the surface, in deeper structures”. He found his intellectual home in the study of anthropology, channeling his new learning, boundless energy and child-like curiosity into the research and analysis of what he knew from personal experience.
Now retired from his university post at King Saud in Riyadh, Saad Sowayan – he squirms at academic titles which he says are all too frequently earned “neither in word nor deed” – is no boy made good. A boy made bad, maybe. As he approaches his seventieth year (give or take a bit – his grandmother was never able to say precisely when their black cow produced her calf), he is as sharp-witted, straight-talking and passionately curious as ever. Never a glad sufferer of fools, he continues to research and publish with the rigor for objectivity and analysis that has made him stand out in the academic community and, on occasion, beyond. His presence at the ‘Unaiza Festival in March – along with writers Ruqayya Al-Huwairaini and Muhammad Al-Suhaimi – brought objections from certain quarters and prompted organizers to retort with the verse “…let not hatred of any people seduce you that you deal not justly. Deal justly, that is nearer to your duty”. With so few outward signs of diminishing enthusiasm for the world and “every single thing in it”, it was therefore a surprise to hear him declare recently that he is giving up his personal library. Or rather, putting it up for sale for SR3.5 million.
“It’s mine. I’ve put a lot of money and time into it. But at my stage of life, I have no need for it anymore,” Saad says. “I don’t see why I shouldn’t sell it. Don’t forget, when other people donate their collections to public libraries and other places, they often do it out of self-interest as well. My collection is mine. I can do what I want with it.”
The glass doors reveal the works of the philosophers, ancient and modern, volumes of encyclopedias, well-thumbed tomes on anthropology and linguistic theory, the classic travelogues of Arabia, some of them first editions.
“My children have no interest in it.” He has six. “Doctors, engineers. But no subjects, in the end, are unrelated to the humanities, to the principles, the concepts and the processes involved. You’ll be a pretty limited doctor if you can’t apply different forms of analysis, problem identification and problem solving to more than one case and, by extension, more than one field.”
Of unique interest in his collection are the manuscripts and works – his own among them – on oral tradition, on folk poetry, on the Nabati poetry of the Bedouin tribes that has constituted a massive part of his research life and made him not just an authority but almost the sole guardian of what is arguably – although the argument would be heated – the true voice of the Arabs.
Saad is no celebrated figure among his peers. His vast fieldwork and documentation of the poetry of the tribes, particularly the Shammar and the ‘Anaza, has saved from obliteration veritable epics of the desert. He has sourced history and traced characters through living descendants, perhaps the very last of a universally cited, but academically scorned, culture. His application of the methodologies of anthropological and comparative theory in analyzing the structures, contexts and cultural and historical links in his material, has not earned him here the academic respect he gains elsewhere. While Arabic departments pore over the classical texts, the legendary history of the great tribes as told in their own dialects through their own highly-disciplined art has gone ignored, and often deliberately so.
“The problem we have in this society,” Saad says, “is that we always have to take sides. You either have to be for or against something. If you study something it means you must be promoting it, or at best want to personally live it. At best, and it’s university academics I’m talking about here, they think I’ll be great for a good yarn or two, and they expect to find me living in a tent reciting poetry and surrounded by goats all day long. It’s not about that. It’s about something deeper. Just because I collect and analyze a poem in dialect doesn’t mean that I want to do away with classical Arabic. Just because I study tribal life does not mean I want to promote the tribes or the tribal system. Life is full of complexities that cannot simply be looked at as black and white, as good or bad, or for and against. Life is more complex than that. We need to start doing more proper thinking and less taking simplistic sides which provide nice, easy answers. For this society to move forward we need to learn thinking skills, impartial critical thinking. We will not move forward by rote learning things we simply accept as being correct, or being the answer, or being the only answer.”
It was in America, Saad says, that he was introduced to those forms of thinking. “There I realized what learning is, what education is, what scholarship is. It began to grow with me, not necessarily from the classroom, but from discussions with my American colleagues and fellow students. Everything was questioned.”
Still only 17-ish, Saad grabbed his scholarship, put on some shoes and left ‘Unaiza to study English for a year in Bloomington, Indian. At the end of the course, he and a couple of fellow scholarship Saudis decided it wasn’t enough, and sought a second year, landing themselves in Cisco, Texas.
“They accepted us over the phone!” he laughs. When they arrived, they found out why. “It was a tiny town, an old mining town with a population of around 4,000 that had fallen on hard times. It was quiet and everyone went to bed early. Us being Saudis, we were up all night. We bought ourselves Mustangs, the automobile du jour, and the local police chief brought in extra officers as a precaution for ‘these Saudis who drive like crazy Indians!’”
Capers aside, ending up in an ‘Unaiza-like backwater of America helped Saad immerse himself in the language and “realize that everything is relative”.
“Any place can be backward or developed, it’s what you make of it. A place is what the people make of it.”
Saad made much of it, unafraid to admit that he spent a fair amount of his time conducting what might euphemistically be called “life studies”. (“You learn just as much, if not more, than at school…”) It would be four years before he set foot in his homeland again, but when he did he got a shock.
“A far bigger shock than when I left for America, where I was confronted with a new people and culture, but more importantly whole new ideas, new ways of thinking, and a whole different attitude to approaching different ideas and responding to them or handling them or using them. ‘Unaiza hadn’t changed. To be fair, it had only been four years, but I now saw it with different eyes. I saw the whole world with different eyes. I knew the possibilities the world offered. I knew I couldn’t ignore them, nor did I want to.”
After three months of listlessness in ‘Unaiza, Saad went back to America. He earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s in Illinois before going on to acquire a doctorate in Anthropology, Folklore and Eastern Studies at Berkeley, California.
A puzzle you want to solve
Saad’s extensive list of works includes two books written in English: “Nabati Poetry – The Oral Poetry of Arabia”, and “The Arabian Oral Historical Narrative”.
Both are specialist but highly readable. The second is a close study of a translated and transliterated Arabic text of an epic poem of the Shammar tribe relating a real-life killing and act of inter-tribal revenge. The poem and narrative have, for the purposes of the study, been constructed from seven versions as recorded in the field and amalgamated to provide a single all-encompassing version. The copious notes address issues particular to the form as well as linguistic, social and historical factors. For desert boffins it’s an absolute gem.
“Nabati Poetry”, meanwhile, is as fine an introduction to the subject the foreign reader could ask for. Without shirking his commitment to scholarship, Saad also provides a compelling account for the non-specialist reader, giving an overview and historical development of the genre, its composition and performance, and its place in classical literary tradition. His own fascination is vibrant on the page as he interlaces the academic with the bizarre, tragic and humorous, leaving no stone unturned.
It was his own background that took him into the field.
“At Illinois I had to do a course in sociology, but I didn’t really identify with many of the issues involved, there were many urban issues that had no relevance to the Saudi Arabia of that time, and so I started taking courses in anthropology, in folklore and traditional cultures, and while the material didn’t involve Saudi Arabia I realized that the methodology could be applied to it, and with my background I felt a pull towards that traditional environment because I had lived it. I had and have a sympathy and appreciation for it, but I’m not captive to it.”
His grandfather, while illiterate, was something of a master storyteller.“Instead of being just stories, through anthropology you see them become symbols, codes that require decoding, so I started taking a completely new look at it, and finding a different meaning in it, and realized that things I thought were different from everything else were in fact, deep down, the same. Bit by bit I went from surface structures into deeper structures, to realize the real meanings of things and the links and connections between things, especially when I started studying Chomsky and Lévi-Strauss, and others who go beyond that surface and into the underlying structures.”
All this occurred for Saad while he was in Illinois and California at the height of 1960s flower power and hippy communes, when interest in eastern cultures surged, and a new regard emerged for native American-Indian cultures.
“I used to hitchhike in the summer vacations to Indian reservations in Arizona and elsewhere, and despite the huge distance I could see certain similarities (with Saudi Arabia) in ritual, etiquette and politeness and so on. For those who live it, it’s a matter of life and death. As a spectator it takes on different meanings.”
Another major door into those meanings arrived through his readings of the Swiss linguist de Saussure.
“I learned from him that language is more than simply subject, object and verb and noun and so on, that it’s completely different. Everything for me suddenly turned into a language or a form of language, or a code, and the idea is to find how to decode it. Then everything becomes interesting. Everything becomes a puzzle that you want to solve. You never pass judgment, you go beyond bad and good, and start to put things in their proper context, you are always looking for context. Nothing has meaning unless it is put in its context. If you take things out of context they look crazy, meaningless, irrational…Anthropology led me into structuralism, and structuralism to philosophy and so on, and everything leads you to everything else. That’s why studying medicine and engineering and everything else is fine, but you are in danger of becoming merely a technician and just learning how to fix things, it doesn’t lead you to the bigger questions. If you go out of your own field there is nothing of interest or importance, but if you really take the humanities seriously, then everything in life becomes interesting and worth examining.”
Despite being as busy as ever, still “trying to make up for years lost”, Saad has a patent sense of regret that he has always been “playing catch-up”.
“I wish when I started out I’d had a better grounding in mathematics, for example, and in science. Even when I went into the humanities, which is what I love the most, I soon realized that so much of science and philosophy lie behind them. I wish I’d had a better grounding in philosophy, learned to philosophize and think logically and train my mind along those lines. It would have made what I do now so much easier. I wish I had begun earlier.”
That might never have been possible in the very unpromising ‘Unaiza of Saad’s youth. But that ‘Unaiza is no more. His grandparents’ old mud house is long gone, the entire area replaced by modern, planned residential districts. Saudi Arabia is not what it was. In those 50 years it has seen change with few parallels anywhere, change which continues to this day in all areas of life. Private and public arguments rage over whether that change is happening too slowly or too fast. Saad sighs.
“Sometimes you feel we might need to move faster just to keep the rest of the field in view. If we don’t they’ll disappear over the horizon. We need to move fast. We can’t begin to imagine what the world will be like in another 50 years’ time, things are developing so fast. It won’t be like the last 50 years, even though they brought unimaginable changes. It’s accelerating exponentially.”
He believes there are many like those who objected to his presence at the ‘Unaiza Festival and do not welcome the new or the different, but insists that all logic and empirical evidence says they have no choice but to accept it.
“Change is inevitable. It’s global, universal. It occurs throughout the whole universe. Yet some people think things don’t change, or that they shouldn’t change. I have never been able to convince Saudis that change is an inevitable necessity. Don’t fight it! Let’s go with it! Change comes to you, you can’t keep it away, you can’t stop it. But there’s a difference between directing change and being a victim of change. It’s how you handle the change that counts and how ready you are for that change. All you have to do is prepare yourself instead of denying it. One of the big problems we have is denying change and not planning for it.” It is, he admits, not an easy task, requiring “a strong will, expertise, open-mindedness, mental agility”.
“A lot of conditions have to be in place. And it takes time. But the biggest hold up is not realizing that you need to change in the first place and thinking that you’re okay as you are, and that the whole world is wrong and that you’re the only one on the right track.
You have to be in sync with everything around you, otherwise you’ll be left behind and you’ll lose out. Saudi Arabia is lagging behind everyone else, and doesn’t want to lose sight of everyone else. But it also doesn’t want to catch up. It just wants to keep on the same track, keeping them in sight, so it doesn’t lose its way.”
– Saudi Gazette