Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Irish in Saudi Arabia--Shamrocks Amongst the Palms

An Irish presence in Saudi Arabia is not so obvious from the outside, or perhaps even from the inside unless one knows the expat community well enough to know Irish men and women from the Fair Isle, or from the Irish diaspora to the Americas, Britain, the Continent, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. However, on March 17, St Patrick's Day, as the saying goes "Everyone is Irish!", and so we wonder about our fellow Irish in Saudi.

A diligent search reveals evidence of the Irish presence in Saudi Arabia even to the uninitiated. At the very least, there is a diplomatic presence, in the form of the Embassy of Ireland, in the Diplomatic Quarter of Riyadh. Their website--in addition to suggesting by the presence of services to their compatriots and advice on living and working in Saudi Arabia that there must be an Irish populace within Saudi Arabia--provides very helpful sites on Ireland, both for adult readers and students with school projects to do. However that presence is sufficiently small, that the Embassy also serves, or is "accredited to", the Gulf countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar.

Saudi Arabia, of course, also has an Embassy in Dublin, Ireland, with the customary and highly informative information about Saudi in multiple dimensions, services to Saudis and foreigners, and information for Saudis about Ireland. Ongoing trade relations, as reported here and here, and most comprehensively at Enterprise Ireland,  newer initiatives about training Saudi students on Saudi government scholarships in IT at Irish colleges and universities, a Saudi students in Ireland Facebook site, and the planned creation of a Saudi-funded Islamic high school--though not without controversy as described here, and here--suggest growing ties.

Those ties further include the development of relationships with the prestigious KAUST, and the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education, as described here by the President of Athlone Insitute of Technology. And of course the possibility of the Saudi Ambassador to Ireland buying an Irish football club is newsworthy.

Closer to home, or at least closer to the Saudi blogospheric home many of us share, Irish Eyes KSA, or Irisheyesksa, is a regular commentator on various blogs, where she long ago began preparing her upcoming move to KSA, in light of her husband's appointment to KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology). She has her own blog,  Irisheyesksa's Weblog: Moving to KAUST, which traces that journey, and describes her current experiences in the Kingdom. Her About page gives her own details as a 20 year resident of the USA, with a wide variety of interesting careers, and as the mother of a 19-year-old, Noel, also with the family in Saudi.

Farther from us in time and space, but omnipresent at least spiritually on March 17, is Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, for whom the Catholic Encyclopedia provides a detailed biography, including highlights of his ministry. While this includes elements of history and hagiography, often historians and hagiographers differ in their perception of a saint, even if they agree on some details. In the case of St Patrick, it seems as if, like described for St Valentine in an earlier post, his current image is the conflation of 2 saints, the older and first Bishop of the Christians of Ireland (431-to his death) Saint Palladius (408- ca457/461) also the subject of a detailed biography in the Catholic Encyclopedia, and the later Saint Patrick (387?-March 17, 493; alternates 340-440;  or 387-460 which many current historians believe is most likely) whose ministry in Ireland began in 428, yet who was prominent in the mid to later 5th century.

While the exact dates of Saint Patrick's life and ministry are uncertain, there is agreement that he was a Romanized Celt, a Romano-Briton born in the Roman province of Britannia. His father was a priest and his grandfather a deacon (this was prior to the edict of celibacy for priests and Catholic clergy). At the age of about 16, St Patrick was captured by Irish raiders, and taken to Ireland where he was held in slavery for 6 years before escaping back to his family.

After living at home for a number of years, and becoming a priest, St Patrick felt a calling to return to Ireland to minister to the lapsed Christian Celts there.  While there, he also converted thousands and founded churches, primarily in the North West of the island. Two written documents exist proving the historicity of his life and mission. The first is his declaration of faith and description of his ministry; and the second is his explanation of his ex-communication of King Coroticus and his soldiers,  for raiding and taking slaves amongst St Patrick's Irish converts: Declaration (or Confessio) and Letter (or Epistola), respectively. The Declaration also references St Patrick's trial on charges of a financial nature. As he had converted a number of wealthy women who became nuns against their family's wishes, and in light of his condemnation of Coroticus, these charges may have been social retribution.

St Patrick is often pictured with a shamrock, the 3 lobed leaf of a clover plant that served for him to teach the Holy Trinity to converts and converted alike. He is also pictured with the staff with which he is reputed to have driven out all the snakes of Ireland. While historically this seems unlikely, metaphorically it maybe that he was considered to have driven all the sinners, or non-Christians out of Ireland--by conversion.

As the patron saint of Ireland, St Patrick is revered amongst the Irish at home and wherever they settled, particularly among the descendants of immigrants fleeing the great potato famine of the mid-1840's, and the later turn of the century poor immigrants to a number of countries where today  March 17th is feted with parades, traditional dances, and parties, which include the consumption of green beer, green foods, and green sweets.

It is interesting to compare 5th century Europe with 5th century Arabia. Both were at the time part of the declining Roman Empire, with Roman soldiers withdrawing from Britannia mid-century, under an onslaught of Germanic tribes there and on the continent, even as the fifth century on the Arabian peninsula was witnessing a transition from the prominence of the southern Roman province of Arabia Felix, in what is now primarily Yemen, to the growing prominence of the northern part of the peninsula under the spreading influence of the Byzantine Empire.  This shift would eventually evolve into the Golden Age of Islam (7th to 13th centuries), as Europe was entering the "Dark Ages" or the early centuries (5th to 8th)  of the Middle Ages (to the 14th-15th centuries) which eventually led to the European Renaissance (15th and 16th), prepared for and fostered by the Islamic Renaissance, particularly in Al-Andalus (to the 12th, and some argue the 13th centuries). [more on these topics in later posts]

Arabia Felix

The Byzantine Empire and the Arabian Empire/Arab Caliphate 650 CE

While St Palladius and St Patrick were ministering to the Irish, Christianity was making new converts in Arabia, from the Abyssinian influence in the South during the 4th century and later, to the 5th and 6th century influence in the north through the Byzantines. Thus, at the time of the Prophet Mohamed, there were already numerous Christian Arabian tribes. Some Christians converted to Islam, and some tribes sided with the Prophet in his battles, and negotiated agreements to live as Christians within Islamic Arabia.

Of course today, Saudi Arabia permits non-Muslim worship only in private homes without overt religious symbols, nor clergy, and so any St Patrick's Day festivities would most likely be highly private and on compounds. I have no doubt there is plenty of greenery, especially given that the holiday has not drawn the same attention and restrictions of Valentine's Day, and that indeed, on March 17th, "Everyone is Irish!".

In that spirit:

Happy St Patrick's Day!

How will you be spending St Patrick's Day?
What celebrations are customary where you are?
Will you go to work dressed in green, or with a green accessory?
If you are in Saudi, what manifestations, if any, are there on this day?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?


Qusay said...

In Saudi the religious police go around and collect the Saudi flags because they are green :)

No, nothing really happens...

Chiara said...

You mean no one dances in the streets singling "When Irish Eyes are Smiling", or "Oh Danny Boy", dances a jig or makes green saliq? I'm SHOCKED! LOL :)

Anonymous said...

In Leeds, the city is 'going Irish' for this year's St. Patrick's Day, but I haven't done anything special for it. We do have lots of people of Irish origin here (in Yorkshire), but very few celebrate it.

People have started to celebrate it more, but it's more due to the influence of American culture, rather than the influence of Irish culture. With the N. Ireland troubles a thing of the past, it's just become another reason to celebrate.

It's a funny and unique little celebration that seems to cause little controversy, which is always a good thing

Chiara said...

Shafiq--thank you for sharing what your celebrations (or non-celebrations) are like locally. I had never considered the impact of the North Irish Troubles on the English enthusiasm for the holiday.

The Irish were such a prominent demographic in 19th century Montreal that the shamrock is on the city flag,and Montreal had the 1st St Patrick's Day Parade, which is a continuing tradition.

I think you are right that many of the traditions come out of North America, especially the US.

Most celebrations here happened the Saturday night before, and then the parade on Sunday. Aside from cards and decorations for sale I didn't see much evidence of the celebration. The parade is relatively small and often new immigrants to Canada from various non-Irish places attend, especially families and teenagers.

I wonder if others had a more flamboyant and green time than we seem to have had. LOL:)

Susanne said...

Festive post! I hope your St. Patrick's Day went well enough. No, I didn't celebrate. A lot of folks wear green though - so they don't get pinched. :)

Some people also eat corned beef and cabbage as they think this is something Irish.

I think the biggest celebrations here are in Boston and other places that are full of folks with Irish ancestry.

Enjoyed this - thanks!

Chiara said...

Susanne--thank you for sharing your experience and for your kind words.
I never knew about the pinching, but then I always were something green even if an accessory.

And I forgot about the corned beef and cabbage (happy to forget it actually LOL :))!

I agree that Boston and NYC are probably the biggest celebrations with historically the greatest number of Irish immigrants. Oh and I guess campuses where an excuse for beer, Guinness, green, or otherwise is always welcome.

It is rather nice to have an occasion to be festive in March which can be a stormy month.

My own March 17 was quiet except for some green greetings! LOL:)

Thanks again.

Susanne said...

You got me curious since you hadn't heard of the pinching. That's the ONE THING I always heard growing up. You gotta wear green or you'll get pinched. :)

Sooooo, I googled it and found this which was kind of amusing. Not sure if it's totally accurate, but in the interest of sharing Irish-American culture, here ya go! :) Oh, the ideas of the origins based on Wiki participants is funny, IMO.


In a Pinch
It's thought that the pinching started in the early 1700s, about the time that awareness of St. Patrick's as a holiday came to the fore, too, in Boston, in the Massachusetts colony. They thought if you wore green, it made you invisible to the Leprechauns, which was good because they would pinch anyone they could see. So the pinching is to warn and remind you about the Leprechauns.

Pinching those not wearing green on St. Patrick's Day is an American tradition, having really nothing to do with Ireland or St. Patrick Wrong. I have lived in Ireland. The truth is, Irish people think Americans are crazy. St. Patrick's Day is not even remotely celebrated over there as heavily as it is in the US.

WikiAnswers users share their ideas on the origin:

* Many years ago, playful Irish children began the tradition of pinching people who forgot to wear green on St. Patrick's Day and the tradition is still practiced today.
* You get pinched because you're a nonconformist.
* Pinching gives you a bruise so you can have some green on you.
* The act of pinching on St. Patrick's day began in America with Irish settlers who tried to get their kids to behave by telling them that fairies would come pinch them.

Chiara said...

Susanne--LOL :) thanks for sharing!
Hmmm maybe it is a Southern Irish American thing? LOL :)


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