By Waqaar Butt
3 days in Al-Ahsa: Food for thought.. literally.
(The following is a diary account of my weekend in Al-Ahsa which is to the East of Saudi Arabia. I wrote this to serve as a memory but sharing it in case one might benefit. My writing style is descriptive as I find it the best way to express things)
I turned up to Riyadh’s central train station after work, having been unable to reserve a ticket. Tired and without expectations I approach the ticket booth to be told the trains are fully booked. As I head back out ready to go back home I hear “Hasa Hasa” in the background. We negotiated a fare for a taxi to Ahsa. After a hour we set off, myself and three strangers; a teenager who is fixated on his phone, a stocky young man who leans heavily on me while sleeping and an Indian labourer who only knows one Arabic phrase, “Ma fee maalum” (Don’t know!). The driver, in his rough dialect, lights a cigarette every half hour keeping me from sleeping. We randomly stopped after 1.5 hours to swap cars and driver in a bizarre move. We reached Ahsa at 10pm and after being dropped off I rang my contact, Sheikh Muhammad (not his real name). I first met Sh Muhammad in Egypt in 2012 where he hosted me and some friends for a couple of days; a joyful character, fine host and a serious student of knowledge who always has his Sibha (beads) in his hand. He took me straight to a communal house where people gathered, more of a social setting, in the back streets of the old city to meet his teacher, Sheikh Yahya al-Mulla. Sh Muhammad had sought his teachers permission to bring me to the gatherings, and I considered myself fortunate having learnt he refused to allow someone to attend just a week earlier. We entered a small room where the Sheikh was entertaining a group of guests from Bahrain. It was evident they weren’t Saudi by their clothes and accents. Sh Yahya, on first glance, has a striking smile, unique white beard and a young face for someone in his 60s! I came to learn he’s one of biggest Hanafi scholars in the world, in all sciences. His father preserved the Madhab (Hanafi school) during the Saudi revolt. My eyes were on the food though, having not eaten since breakfast. Suddenly Sh Yahya calls me up, I resist and politely decline but Sh Muhammad tells me I must go if he’s calling me. I walked through the Bahraini group and sat beside the Sheikh. He put a piece of bread and some chicken in front of me. Nervously, I ate, piece by piece in a slow fashion. Sh Yahya started handing me pieces with his own hand which felt never ending, and every piece got bigger! Sitting there in my work attire I felt out of place. After tea the guests were seen out, and Sh Yahya gifted them several boxes of dates. Ahsa produces the best quality of dates in the world. As soon as they departed Sheikh turned to me, grabbed my arm and said “Forgive me but I just had to take care of my guests from Bahrain!”. We headed back to the gathering room where people started leaving. Sh Yahya tells Sh Muhammad, “Why are you taking our guest to a hotel? he can stay here in one of the rooms”. I preferred the hotel and we said our goodbyes after the 5th cup of tea.
Sh Muhammad meets me early for breakfast and we head to pray Jumuah (Friday prayers). After prayers we noticed a group gathering around a man, some kiss his forehead, others kiss his hand. It’s Sheikh Yahya! He gives time to everyone, old and young. This kind of affection would probably not be seen in Riyadh, the capital. Sh Muhammad takes me to Sh Yahya’s house and we entered although no one was in sight. We sat in his front room, his two sons arrived and offered us dates and coffee. The Sheikh arrived and we were joined by two young men, an Emirati and Yemeni. The men ask Sh Yahya to read the Hadith awaliyya (a tradition where the first Hadith you hear from any teacher is: The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Rahman has mercy upon those who show mercy. Have mercy upon those who are on the earth and He who is in the sky will have mercy upon you”). He granted everyone general Ijaza (permission) in it and the burning incense beautified the occasion. We headed to another room where a feast lay forth. The traditional ‘kabsah’ dish is eaten by a group from the same plate, containing slow cooked lamb and rice. The Sheikh divided the lamb pieces himself and kept putting them in front of me “Blessed! Blessed!”. We didn’t stay for long but after Maghreb (sunset) prayers we headed to his teaching house where his private students come and read. They were about to begin a lesson in Usool al-Fiqh so I prepared to sit at the back and benefit. Sheikh, again, called me up, “Igra hadithayn au thelatha” (Read a couple of Hadith!). I walk to the front and sit on the chair next to him, all the students are in front of me, on the floor awaiting my words. I opened his book and read a Hadith, anxiously! These are serious students who have memorised many texts, and here I am reading a Hadith in front of them in a t-shirt and jeans.. miskeen, it was embarrassing momentarily. I stumbled on a few vowels, any student of Arabic will tell you the feeling of getting a word wrong is painful. I read the Sharh (explanation) too and Sh Yahya checked if I understood it. After that they began their actual lesson. I felt honoured at this point. The Usool al-Fiqh lesson was difficult to follow and the Sheikh listened to the student read, and added his commentary. Sh Abdulraheem read from the book, a thin Bahraini man with protruding cheeks and a wirey beard with exquisite pronunciation of Arabic. Post-lesson we headed to a large house in the neighbourhood, as I entered the room Sh Yahya said “Ah Sheikh Waqaar, marhaba (welcome)” whilst pointing to the seat next to him. Again, slightly hesitant, I went up and in front of me were the young students of knowledge looking towards my direction. We started a group dhikr and then were practically force fed, lots of meat! They feed people well! An Egyptian man approached me and introduced himself as Dr.Adel. I could tell from a mile he was Egyptian, thick black glasses, clean shaven with a thin moustache and being the butt of the jokes all the time. I witnessed the mannerisms of the young kids, they would sit in front of Sh Yahya and press his feet, almost competing in grabbing a foot. They would walk around and fill empty cups with more coffee and always check on me to see if I needed anything. After 10pm we headed to the desert where a tent was set up, tea was brewing and everyone took their shawls. Sh Muhammad began reading Hadith on the chapter of illness. Sh Yahya added his unique commentary and would often say “hafithoo ya awlad” (Memorise it guys!). The night ended with ginger tea.
Before Dhuhr, Sh Muhammad took me to a Shafi’i gathering and explained that students have their own personal teachers but they meet collectively once a week to see other students and teachers. The large room is decorated with the colour green and the smell of incense. The main Shafi’i Sheikh is from the Naqshbandiyya and probably close to 70 years. Again, looking like the odd one out, I was subjected to a few questions, more out of curiosity. Sh Salman was insistent on introducing me by saying I studied in Egypt, whilst true I was worried people imagined an Azhari graduate! As the room filled, the owner of the house began reading from Ibn Khaldun’s Al-Muqaddimah. This was followed by group poetry in praise of the Prophet. Sheikh Fahd, a young slick PhD graduate from Manchester University, introduces himself and insists I join him in the desert for lunch. I was in awe of the hospitality shown to a stranger like me. We drove 30 minutes from Ahsa into the actual desert and were welcomed by Bedouin-like people. Sheikh Talal, the owner of the tent and a jurist & expert in inheritance, welcomes me to the front and offers dates and tea. He knew my name, although I don’t remember telling him. If you saw this man you wouldn’t believe he is over 50, not a single wrinkle or mark in his face. Sh Talal uses clear Arabic when speaking around me, instead of the rough dialect, and this is something I noticed from others too. He tells me lunch is prepared by the same Imam who we prayed Jumuah behind yesterday. I could taste the blessing, so I ate and ate and ate. We bid farewell thereafter, Sh Muhammad took me to the train station and gifted me books.
Conclusion: I learnt and did so much in the space of a weekend. I just opened myself to new experiences, new culture and people and was treated like a king. No expectations, no preparation, no hotel booked, I just turned up and trusted God. Sh Muhammad emphasised that the soul needs to eat, either you feed it with good soul food or it is fed through wrong means, either way it will eat. Accompanying righteous people changes the way you see things. These people are in a constant remembrance of God, every other sentence mentions God. They had a presence with God. And it was infectious. I pray that God benefits the reader of this piece.