Avoiding Mohammad

How To Keep Birding While Living In Saudi Arabia

Gary Bletsch

© Copyright 2002 by Gary Bletsch 

Photo of rare white collared kingfisher (halcyon chloris).

With the right techniques, a bird watcher can watch birds almost anywhere--even in Saudi Arabia. That benighted country boasts some of the most xenophobic, illiterate, ill-shod, and just plumb ornery lawmen a bird watcher will encounter anywhere. Still, by using techniques of avoidance, mollification, and feigned idiocy, the birder can outwit these officials and get on with the quest for birds.

Of course, one option for the birder who chooses to live in Saudi Arabia is to become a homebody. The police and coast guard will never impinge on his bird watching. Just by looking out the window of his villa and staying within the garden walls, an active observer can compile an impressive list of species. House Sparrow, Rock Dove, Palm Dove, House Crow, House Sparrow, Palm Dove, House Sparrow, House Crow, House Sparrow, Palm Dove, Rock Dove, House Sparrow, and House Sparrow are just a few of the species expected in an average morning, afternoon, week, month, or decade. The birder who commits himself to this strategy would identify nearly as many species as he would from an Alcatraz cell. Then, too, there are other ways a homebound birder can occupy himself. We live in what one recent reviewer called "The Golden Age of Bird Books," and a well-stocked shelf will provide the armchair ornithologist with ample distraction, as he stares dreamily at color plates of Black-backed Tody-Flycatchers in Peru, White-striped Forest Rails in New Guinea, or Pink-footed Geese in Iceland. Should he tire of lucubration, he can always quaff a quart or two of homemade wine or beer, or a glass of siddiqi and tonic, that panacea of the Westerner living in Arabia. Within minutes, the maudlin aspect will dissipate, and the rosy glow of good cheer spread its beneficent influence about him. Then he can pick up a world atlas or Lonely Planet guide and start planning the trajectory of his next escape from the grave gravitation of Planet Islam.

After a few sid hangovers, though, the intrepid birder will most likely opt out of the above salubrious strategy and head for the great outdoors. How, though, is he to avoid encounters with the Saudi police and coast guard? In a country that does not trouble itself with due process, this is no idle quibble. Hapless victims of Saudi justice may suffer confiscation of property, or waterless incarceration without representation, or lashes, or dismemberment, or even death by public decapitation. People with binoculars, telescopes, and cameras are presumed spies in this land, where bird watching is a virtually unknown pastime. The birder must take care.

Concealment might seem to offer some degree of safety. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. The wide-open terrain of Saudi Arabia offers few hiding places. Even to reach a hide, the birder would have to traverse open ground and risk detection. Moreover, a car is a virtual necessity--camels being inexpedient, climate inhospitable, distances long--and it is hard to hide a car in open terrain. Wilderness areas, where a birder could feel a degree of freedom, are far away, hard to reach, and often lacking in bird life. Just as in any other country, the best birding areas in Saudi Arabia usually favor human activity as well. Birds here crave water. Any place in Saudi Arabia with water also has people. With its "Society for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue," its police, and its coast guard, the Saudi government keeps a jealous and jaundiced eye on people. However, there is one situation where the concealment gambit works: birding in an oasis. Here and there, it is possible to drive to an oasis, park, get out, and walk swiftly into the midst of the thick vegetation. It is always a relief to sit in the concealing shade of date and luz hindi trees, peer out at the birds, and watch the police drive by, knowing that Abdullah is too lazy to get out of his cruiser and find out who is doing what.

An extension of the concealment method, the strategy of avoidance offers the birder's best hope of keeping his binoculars on the birds--and off the sandy floorboards of Mohammad's coast-guard 4x4 or the heat-cracked dash of Abdullah's police cruiser. Mobility is the key to avoiding these spoilsports. Even if the birder relishes spending an hour or two comparing the plumages of Northern and Isabelline Wheatears, that sort of dedicated study will surely expose him to unpleasant encounters with khaki-clad knaves. There are many places to look at birds in Saudi, and a commando-raid itinerary will take the birder to a dozen of them in a few hours. He must keep his eyes open, though. Properly adjusted rear-view mirrors and healthy cervical vertebrae expedite scrutiny of the surrounding roadways. Once every minute or so, the birder takes his eyes out of the oculars and sweeps them over the horizon, alert for Abdullah, who peers into every vest-pocket park, and Mohammad, who lurks around the next salty sabkha. Leaving the car windows open and the air-conditioner at its quietest setting, the birder can stay relatively comfortable and still hear a vehicle coming several hundred meters off. By the time Mohammad gets close enough to tell binoculars from bananas, the prudent birder has stashed the optics and picked up a piece of bread or a can of soda--no threat perceived, encounter avoided.

Forays outside the car are a little riskier, but sometimes the beauty, number, and variety of birds merit that risk. Such sorties make more sense in open areas where approaching vehicles reveal themselves at distance. Luckily, the Saudi coast guard keeps to a schedule similar to that adopted by night watchmen in low-budget movies. Knowing this, the birder drives to a birdy stretch of coastline, takes out a hunk of pita bread and a can of Mirinda, and waits for Mohammad to drive by. When he does, the birder smiles and waves. As soon as Mohammad drives a few hundred meters off, out come the binoculars and telescope. It is safe to bird now, even outside the car. At least ten minutes are available, because Mohammad's sentinel routine is almost as predictable as that governing his prayers.

Sooner or later, though, one of these zealous protectors of the faithful will spot the birder doing his thing, for Messrs. A. and M. have time on their side. Quick thinking can still obviate a nasty palaver, but if things go awry, the better part of a day can go by before they figure out that certain harmless people like to look at wildlife through complicated, expensive-looking instruments. A few simple strategies help. Wearing a bulky vest when venturing afoot can mean the difference between an afternoon explaining oneself and one spent listening to a Menetries's Warbler singing its squeaky ditty from a thorn bush. It is easy to slide the voluminous flaps of a vest over the binoculars. Most American and European field engineers working in Arabia wear these vests, so the officer may rub his eyes and pass the birder off for a respected employee--which of course he is, forty to fifty hours a week. Another trick, useful on bird-walks near the sand golf course of the Holiday Inn-Radwa Villas, involves carrying a handful of golf balls in the pockets of the vest. There are always a few balls on the ground along the wall, hard by a winter roost of Egyptian Nightjars. Just as Abdullah cruises up, the birder stoops and scoops up another Titleist. Then he playfully juggles a few balls, preferably dropping some to reveal his bumbling innocuousness. A smile, a wave (not too vigorous, for fear the binoculars will sway out from behind the vest), and Abdullah will usually drive on by. If all efforts to avoid and mollify have come to naught, then the birder must descend to actual conversation with Mohammad or Abdullah. An amiable, cheerful demeanor works best in this situation. Naturally, the birder has left all photographic equipment at home. In a country where "no photography" signs dot the landscape--even though the Israelis, Russians, and American all know what size bolts were used to put those signs in place--it is folly to be caught with a camera anywhere near a sensitive installation (the Saudis apparently define as sensitive any structure worth more than about $26.67). Even so, since neither Mohammad nor Abdullah knows the difference between a camera and a binocular or telescope, the birder will have to demonstrate this difference, once he's "busted." After looking through it for a few minutes, the lawman will figure out that photos cannot be taken with such devices. "Ma fee camera, hatha dirbeel!" the birder will chuckle--there is no camera, that's a binocular! With luck, Abdullah will not accidentally snap off a $450 Swarovski eyepiece, an operation which one of these helpful individuals has already performed on the author's behalf.

Throughout any ensuing unpleasantries, the prudent birder maintains his amiability and good cheer. Although some Western travelers advise an angry, impatient approach, this goes against the author's experience, at least in situations where the birder is at the mercy of officials. In a commercial disagreement, a little haughtiness may occasionally prove worthwhile, but nice and gentle wins the day with lawmen. Such confidence has this author gained in the value of an amiable, cheerful demeanor, that he recently put his to a test at Lake Yanbu. The Royal Commission police officers at Lake Yanbu are not known for jocularity. Still, approaching the shade of a tamarisk where Abdullah's cruiser stood with engine idling, the author strode boldly forward, binoculars bouncing against sternum, with a gladsome wave of the hand and a broad smile creasing his handsome, craggy, weather-beaten, craggily handsome, weather-beaten face. It was with considerable disappointment that the author discovered Abdullah fast asleep, snoring audibly above the nasal drone of the Arabic radio station's habeebee music.

Sometimes, usually just before a flock of unidentified sandpipers flies away forever, Mohammad will insist on pressing issues of littoral state security. The birder watches wistfully as the little white sandpipers disappear around the curve of the mangroves. He smiles, then drags out his next trick. >From the back seat of his car or the recesses of his day pack comes a dark blue, oddly square, hardcover book, abominable for use as a field guide, but invaluable when khaki appears. Since Mohammad has completed at least one semester of what corresponds to fourth grade, the right picture book will sometimes serve as blandishment. Birds of Madinat Yanbu al-Sinaiyah and Its Hinterlands, by Peter Baldwin and Brian Meadows, is the tome of choice. Depending on how the reader looks at it, Baldwin and Meadows can be read backwards or forwards, in Arabic or English, for it is a double book. The same pictures and graphs are repeated in its two halves, with captions in the respective language. The result is quite impressive. Before Mohammad can heave into his lecture on the evils of industrial espionage and girl watching--the patently obvious twin objectives of this so-called bird-watcher-- he may be distracted by the illustrations in the book. The colorful paintings and photographs show the very refineries, coast guard bases, desalination plants, and Royal Commission Headquarters that Mohammad believes the birder is plotting to compromise. Bee-eaters, terns, flamingoes, ducks, gulls, and songbirds populate these pictures, and Mohammad can often be led to understand that the birder is looking at these feathered creatures, rather than at the sensitive infrastructure--much less the studiously unmentioned bodies of Saudi ladies, hidden as they be under yards of dense black fabric! After enjoying the pictures, the lawman will drive away, and the birder will have eluded once again the vicissitudes he so dreads.

The details of these vicissitudes lie beyond the scope of this little essay. When Mohammad and Abdullah cannot be avoided or mollified, there is no telling what might happen. Fortunately, by adhering to the methods described above, the author has managed to spend close to four years in Arabia without once viewing sand from behind bars. Avoidance and mollification would work for just about anyone who wants to bird in Saudi. However, the author cannot resist adding a third strategy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it always puts the entire subject into a happier light. The strategy is based on a well-known fact: no one likes to waste time talking to an idiot. This universal human antipathy can be turned to the birder's advantage in time of need. For example, one day the author had just parked his vehicle next to the seaside Hotel al-Hayatt, where he planned to inspect the shrinking remnant of a Phragmites reed bed. Mohammad drove up and stopped close by. This time, the author had left his binoculars in the vehicle, making a preliminary check to ascertain whether the reeds merited investigation. As Mohammad slid out of his 4x4, the author walked over to a pit that had been dug into the sand. Saline, murky, scum-foamed water had filled this pit, not fifty meters from the Red Sea shoreline. As Mohammad approached, the author pointed at the water in the pit and smiled, saying "Moya!" Mohammad was very quick to correct--"moya," the Arabic word for water, ought not be applied to such filth."Moya! Kwais!" repeated the author, gesticulating down into the pit with his canteen. No, Mohammad urged, this be no good water, this be unmentionable, brackish, non-potable poison! Still smiling, stooping to the pit, the author proceeded to stare down into it, opening up his trusty canteen. The last the author saw of Mohammad, that estimable gendarme was hustling to his vehicle, shaking his head, and driving away, obviously disgusted with the stupidity of unbelievers. There weren't any birds in the reed bed, anyway.


Keeping out of their way, being nice, opportunistically impersonating a twit--these are the ways to keep snoops from thwarting your birding while you endure Arabia. The adversary, though formidable, is also ludicrous. A little cleverness will allow you to return to freedom with a lot of new species on your life list, two hands still attached to your wrists, and your head still wobbling atop your neck.

Gary Bletsch taught English at a school in Saudi Arabia for four years before moving back to Washington State.

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