Almost ten years ago, I was a diplomat of sorts in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia when King Fahd died. After twenty-three years of rule, his death came and passed with a short service and a quiet interment in a local cemetery. At the time, I joined the rest of the world with anticipation and foreboding. This was a different death, as far as important figures go, and in the end, I felt let down by it. I had such high hopes. I remember that other Americans in the country expected the worse. Some thought that when he died, we would all be kicked out of Saudi Arabia or the half-brothers would revolt or someone would strap on a backpack full of explosives and walk into a crowd in the center of Riyadh.
Over the previous months in Riyadh I had heard rumors about the King’s slow approach to death. And when news came early one Monday morning, the rumors opened up even more. The security level on the compound where I live was raised immediately. Leisure travel was restricted. My mom emailed from Kansas asking if I was going to the funeral.
But nothing remarkable happened. Nothing.
Driving downtown before the funeral, we saw a few more police and a little less traffic. We met with our Saudi friends and drank the usual tea. The only time anyone spoke of the funeral was when I asked about it. The oldest man in the office, a sergeant who reminds me of a creative writing teacher I had in college, said, “He was king, yes. But he is just a man. A man who died. No biggie.” He has a great sense of humor; “no biggie” was an expression he teased me about using. But that was his only comment, no eulogizing, no loud expressions of the late king’s politics or reforms, no predictions of doom or revolt.
It was an attitude that seemed to baffle CNN as well. During the short, televised service in a large mosque, the headline read, “Only dirt and a simple stone will mark King Fahd’s grave.” And after the funeral, it changed to “King Fahd laid to rest after simple service.” Just a simple service? Simple? Simple is no way to do anything these days.
I remember the media coverage. The cameras followed to the cemetery and the reporters tried to fill the silence. All they had was a crowd of robed Saudis and dozens of rainbow-colored umbrellas. There was little to speculate about. As the reporters reported on a crowd crowding around, the anchormen and anchorwomen seemed astonished this funeral was so quiet; so they filled up the silence with banter about whether or not George Bush Sr. had been invited.
Surely they were as disappointed as I. That’s not the way to bury somebody. Where are the sidewalks stacked with flowers and teddy bears? Where is the twenty-one-gun salute? Where were the foreign dignitaries and the detailed itineraries? When the pope died earlier that summer, CNN got shots of people lined up for miles to file past the late pontiff. They could see it from space.
The CNN live report of the funeral made one thing clear about Western culture. We desperately love individuality, and we fetishize catastrophe. We expect major cultural shifts whenever the faces of those who lead us change or when an African disease infects an American doctor. We love to place blame and recognition alike squarely on the shoulders of one man or woman be it Hillary Clinton, George Bush, or Barrack Obama. We love to attach significance to every situation be it questions about undeserved war medals or a stain on a blue dress.
I still remember crawling into my bed in southern Riyadh during the summer of 2005; I was comforted by the smooth acceptance of one man’s death by a country that depended so much on him. There’s something to learn there about confidence and faith and hope. And CNN’s inability to turn that into a story was the perfect monument to such a perspective. Dirt and a simple stone seemed about right. They still do.
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