The Fire That Won't Die Out

The fire started among thrown-away books and papers. One of the teenagers at Girls' Intermediate School No. 31 in Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, was sneaking a cigarette before classes. A hall monitor spotted her on the trash-strewn landing at the top of the stairs and she tossed the butt away. Twenty minutes later, teachers smelled smoke. One shouted, "Fire!" Within seconds, panic more intense than the flames swept through the school. About 750 girls from the ages of 13 to 17 poured into the single narrow stairwell, but the door at the bottom--the door to the air and light--was locked and chained. The only person with a key was a man, an illiterate guard who'd left on a menial errand, closing everyone inside. The electricity went off. Screaming, suffocating girls began to die in the dark.

It got worse fast. Firefighters and ambulances arrived in short order, probably before anyone had died. But according to eyewitness reports, a member of the muttawa, zealous vigilantes who defend narrow-minded morality in the name of Islam, fought with the Civil Defense units that wanted to enter the building. The muttawa belong to the officially sanctioned Society for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice and make it their job to enforce head coverings for women and strict separation of the sexes. The fleeing girls had left their scarves behind, and their would-be rescuers were men. Some of the girls were actually forced back into the building to cover up. Finally, regular police subdued the muttawa leader, confiscated his ID and dragged him away. The school door was opened, the small fire extinguished. But by then 15 girls were dead or dying, and more than 40 were injured.

The tragedy that unfolded that morning was small compared with the September 11 outrage in New York exactly seven months earlier, which has profoundly affected the United States' view of Saudi Arabia and, indeed, of the Muslim world. But in Mecca as much as in Massachusetts, all politics is local. And what happened at Girls' School No. 31 had deeper and more immediate consequences for most Saudis than anything that happened in New York or Washington--or, for that matter, in Afghanistan or Israel.

It was an accident that needn't have been an atrocity, and probably wouldn't have been in any other place. The Saudi people knew that. And what's more, the de facto ruler of the country, Crown Prince Abdullah, knew they knew--and made sure they knew. "He's very intuitive, and very decisive," says one of Abdullah's fellow princes. A Western diplomat says Abdullah has been looking for ways "to modernize from the top." If so, then the process began at the bottom of that school's stairs.

None of the victims were spoiled princesses. None were raised in marble palaces or driven to school in Rolls-Royces. They came from families with little money, no connections, no influence. Like most Saudis. Although there are still thousands of Saudi royals who lead extravagant lives, the petrodollars don't trickle down to their subjects the way they used to. Many of the kingdom's people are poor and getting poorer. Estimated per capita income is now $6,800, a mere fourth of what it was 20 years ago. The population is exploding, opportunities are not and unemployment statistics simply are not compiled. Infrastructure is aging and public services are neglected. In some Riyadh neighborhoods water supplies are unreliable and people line up at taps near the houses of princes because they think the water there is purer. In Mecca, the street in front of Girls' School No. 31 is rutted, potholed, the pavement more a memory than a surface.

All women in Saudi Arabia live a kind of gender apartheid, separate and unequal, but it's much worse for the poor. School No. 31 was administered by the Presidency for Girls' Education, a bureaucracy apart from the Education Ministry, and No. 31 wasn't really a school building at all. An apartment block rented at suspiciously high rates, it has 20 bathrooms and 11 kitchens, but only five square feet of classroom space per student. There were no smoke detectors, no fire alarms. The windows were covered with iron grilles like a prison.

Suddenly, Saudis found themselves face to face with the implications of religious intolerance. The events of September 11 had set off alarms in the government: 15 of the 19 hijackers proved to be Saudis. So were thousands of Osama bin Laden's core recruits. But for people on the streets in Jidda, Riyadh or Mecca, that threat seemed distant. Now they began talking of the good old days when their traditions weren't so dominated by the intolerant Wahhabi fringe. In the 1970s, many remembered, Saudi society was moving quickly from a Bedouin desert culture toward a more open, cosmopolitan one. With the world's biggest oil reserves, the country was rich beyond anyone's dreams. Its sons--and even daughters--were being educated by the thousands in America. But fanatics stormed the Great Mosque of Mecca in 1979, and even though they were routed out and killed, a frightened regime called a halt to liberalization. The muttawa became a law unto themselves, with their own bureaucracy and police powers independent of the Interior Ministry.

Until March, Abdullah's efforts to open the country back up had been faltering. When Abdullah granted permission last year for women to have their own ID cards instead of appearing as wards on their husbands', sheiks attacked the measure as a license for prostitution because the ID photos would be unveiled.

When word came of a fire in a girls' school, newspaper editor Abdul Rahman Saad Alorabi decided to throw every reporter he had at it. His paper, Al-Nadwa, is distributed throughout Saudi Arabia, but Mecca is its hometown. Alorabi's subeditors started ringing around to women reporters, who work out of their houses since the paper doesn't have special segregated facilities for women. They were assigned to interview the girls who survived and the women in the dead girls' families. Again and again they heard stories that the muttawa had interfered with rescue workers. "They knew we were inside and didn't want to help us," cried one of the children interviewed.

Alorabi knew it was an explosive story--and he ran it. "Today we publish articles that I might have been jailed for 10 or 15 years ago," said Alorabi. "It's OK sometimes to talk about what people want and people need." Until recently, says the former history professor, not even common crimes were reported in the Saudi press, much less scandals and tragedies that imply bad government. But since the gulf war, the walls of righteous ignorance around Saudi society have been stormed by technology.

A ban against satellite dishes in the early 1990s was ignored into irrelevance. According to a recently released survey by ACNielsen, satellite- TV penetration into Saudi homes is now 80 percent: "Amongst the highest in the world." The no-holds-barred Al-Jazeera all-news station in neighboring Qatar is the third most-watched channel in the kingdom. Internet use is soaring. Mobile phones are everywhere, spreading gossip, or news, as fast as the punch of a button. The tale of the fire in Mecca was going to get out no matter what the government did. "I thought we were the only newspaper that would dare to do it," said Alorabi. "But by the next day all the newspapers in the kingdom were publishing it."

This story had everything, says Jamal Khashoggi, deputy editor in chief of Arab News, the country's leading English-language daily. "It brought attention to corruption, run-down facilities, not only at that school, but others. And the most important thing: the popular reaction to the religious establishment." Khashoggi told the staff: "Don't look back, don't wait for them to say anything, just go for it."

The editorial pages went still further. Some even published poetry, which is peculiarly powerful in Arabic, a melodic and allusive language, where metaphors are well-understood weapons. Al-Nadwa printed a poem by one of the survivors, Ghayda Al-Sharif, about her sister, Shirooq--"Sunrise"--one of the smallest girls killed in the stairwell: "Sunrise said goodbye to us and left us in darkness. I was going to meet her after class, but now I'm going to meet her in heaven." Another poet, Abdul Mohsen Musalam, found the limits of the government's tolerance. He attacked the country's Islamic judges for bribe-taking and service to tyrants. "How many [Qur'anic] verses and sayings [of the Prophet] you have slaughtered," Musalam wrote, addressing the magistrates in the pages of the daily Al-Madina. "Your beards are smeared with blood." Musalam was jailed and his editor was fired. And authorities criticized the press for sensationalizing the charges against the muttawa.

Crown Prince Abdullah, the ailing King Fahd's heir apparent, is the country's de facto ruler. But just how he shares power with his many half brothers and potential rivals is a matter of constant speculation. The succession is by no means a done deal, and Abdullah has been a cautious player. Since 9-11, certainly, he's been more assertive. And after the Mecca tragedy, his government moved extraordinarily fast. Abdullah sent a sharply worded public letter to the next brother in line for the throne, Prince Sultan: "I want you to start now to investigate what happened in Mecca." The deaths were "unacceptable," said Abdullah, the work of "negligent, incompetent and careless officials." Prince Naif, the powerful Interior minister, said marginalization of women should end. "We all belong to the same country... and that goes for males and females."

The script was being written and the stage set for the head of the Presidency of Girls' Education, Ali Al-Murshid, to make an ignominious exit. But Al-Murshid, who affects the beard and robes of a pious zealot, didn't seem to get the message. He held a press dinner where he was photographed being led into the room by a servant carrying a censer, waving the perfumed smoke before him as if he were some ancient Oriental potentate. A sumptuous banquet was laid out, with Filipino servants in full livery, and each attending journalist was offered a sheepskin briefcase as a souvenir. "It was so disgusting and repulsive," wrote Nourah Abdul Aziz al-Kheriji, a well-known professor from Medina, and a woman. "What were they celebrating? Did they think it was a wedding?" Within a week, Al-Murshid was fired and his ministry abolished. The new head of girls' education is a man, Qaidir Ibn Olayan Al-Quraishi, but he is a respected academic and a well-known secularist.

Maha al-Muneef, a pediatrician and women's activist, says there are two big events that have put the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia on the defensive: 9-11 and the fire in Mecca. But at best they'll just hasten change that was coming in its own way, on its own time and largely thanks to Crown Prince Abdullah. "You can't believe how much people love him here, a pure Saudi man and not corrupt. He's a traditional man, but pro-woman."

The crown prince will need that reserve of good will if he's to continue his campaign of top-down reform. The sad fact is that most Saudis are deeply suspicious of change--and hostile to the West. Last October the Saudi intelligence agency produced a confidential poll of men between 25 and 41. Ninety-five percent said they approved of Osama bin Laden's cause. As one high-ranking Saudi said, "fortunately, this is not a democracy." Even so, changing it will not be easy. Reaction to the fire in Mecca was only one painful, small step.