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Volume 23, Number 1January/February 1972

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The Town That Become A Family

The story of Abdullah al-Matrood: a "have" who remembers what it is like to be a "have-not."

Written by Mary Norton
Photographed by Ali A. Khalifa

In a world of contradictions, Abdulla Salman al-Matrood of Sayhat, Saudi Arabia, is something of a contradiction in himself.

One of Sayhat's wealthiest men, Abdulla has known bitter poverty. Moving freely in high places, he is utterly a man of the people. At 45 years of age, old men call him father. His schooling was minimal yet university graduates look to him as their leader. He was taught no math but in his head he can multiply and divide double figures faster than most can retiring yet he founded and runs two large and successful businesses and in his spare time he presides over a society in Sayhat that is perhaps the most effective charitable organization in the kingdom.

If you live in Arabia you will be at least partially prepared for Sayhat, the mini-oasis town 16 miles north of Dhahran, headquarters of the Arabian American Oil Company. So steeped in contrasts between the timeless and the timely are, in fact, the environs of Dhahran that soon enough duality becomes the norm. You scarcely note for instance, the camels in the shadow of Dammam's soaring TV tower, or the scruffy black sheep foraging at the gates of the electric power plant or the sun-bleached donkey cart that slows the sleek Mercedes.

You will not be entirely prepared though. For sprinkled throughout the town like sesame seeds, at the turn-offs to the Home for the Aged, The Happy Childhood Home, on the panels of two ambulances, a fire truck and the office on the main square is the legend Sayhat Society for Social Services. It is this signature that draws you up sharp, for the concept of organized social services is, in Saudi Arabia, rare. Nothing like it has gone before and nothing quite like it exists in or (one is tempted to say) out of the kingdom. Here, consummately, under the inspiration of Abdulla Salman al-Matrood, you find the timeless—the Islamic principle of zakat, the giving of alms—synthesized with the timely—social welfare projects which benefit the entire community, especially those in greatest need.

Every weekday morning, for example, driver Ali Jasim, boards a large blue bus, winds in and out of the town's dusty streets, collecting more than 250 pre-schoolers and conveying them to The Happy Childhood Home for a morning of classes, play and nutritional meals. At the same hour, across town in the Home for the Aged, Hilal Habib is preparing breakfast for a dozen or so elderly men who are stirring from deep dreams and squinting at the early sun which floods the large, airy, impeccably kept main room. And all over Sayhat, members of 176 families who receive monthly incomes from the society are greeting the day in the comfort of food enough, clothing enough, and if medical or other help is needed, somewhere to turn. Of these families even the most desperately poor no longer live in hovels but in pleasant concrete block homes.

These are a few of the services, provided by the Sayhat Society for Social Services, an organization founded, run and supported by the people of Sayhat under the direction of a dedicated coterie of young men led by Abdulla al-Matrood, the society's father, god-father and guru, a man once described as a "have" who remembers what it is like to be a "have-not."

Abdulla al-Matrood was not always a "have." Although his father owned a pearl-diving boat which plied the waters between Sayhat and the nearby island of Bahrain, and for a long time life was comfortable, not only for the al-Matroods, but for all of the people engaged in the industry, poverty was not far off. In the late 30's the market for pearls declined, World War II broke out and many of the men, including Abdulla's father, were left jobless. Abdulla remembers everyone being hungry, and there were times when he went two days without food, finally receiving for his ration a solitary date.

A few of the men, including his half-brother Hasan, continued to search for pearls and on one occasion with Abdulla tagging along, found a pearl of unsurpassing beauty which, in spite of the moribund market fetched a fantastic price. Hasan's share meant that for the family the cruel days had ended. For the teen-aged Abdulla, however, they were just beginning.

For a time he dove for pearls but the job collapsed when his vision was seriously impaired by trachoma. The only work he could find was as a scrubber in a laundry located at the edge of the newly founded oil camp at Dhahran. In Dickensian fashion, he worked 16 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week with no holidays or vacations, for the sum of four riyals ($1.33 at the time) a month, and after four years was raised to five riyals a month. At the end of five years, he took one day off to visit his family, telling his employer he would return the following day. His employer's response was to fire him.

For the next few years, living meant coping with obstacles. There was the "friend" who gave him a few feet of kitchen space to set up a laundry and demanded half the take each night, there were the attempts by his first employer, now a competitor, to have him shut down, and when Aramco conceded him the laundry for its Saudi employees, he had enormous problems raising money for materials and supplies. Honed on adversity, however, Abdulla endured and prevailed.

Today, as head of the National Laundry and also the National Dairy, a firm supplying reconstituted milk, ice cream and yoghurt, Abdulla is indisputably a success. He could afford now the lost vacations of his youth, could frequent, if he chose, the world's favored playgrounds from Sardinia to Singapore. Apart from three pilgrimages to Mecca, however, Abdulla has taken no time off and has no plans to do so. He is too concerned with a dream, too busy making it a reality.

Some years ago, out of deep distress over conditions of the poor of Sayhat, Abdulla, his brother Ebrahim and a group of kindred spirits conceived of an organization in which the sacred Islamic concept of responsibility towards family would be expanded so that the entire community could come to consider one another as family with concomitant responsibilities. That was a basic: responsibility for one another.

After drawing up bylaws and winning the approval of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, the Sayhat Charity Fund, later to become the Sayhat Society for Social Services, came into existence.

A campaign was initiated to acquaint the townspeople with the objectives and to invite memberships in the form of annual subscriptions which would be paid monthly. Inquiries were conducted among poor families, many of whom were entirely without income. Case histories were taken and an individual plan established for each family in accordance with its needs and the resources of the society. During the first year, monthly incomes were provided for 28 families, one-time emergency payments for 30 families and medical aid for seven persons. Instructions on sanitary and health procedures were stressed as an aid in combatting disease, and efforts made to find work for the unemployed.

The citizenry responded generously, and each year but one has seen an increase in the number of dues-paying members. To expect ordinary people to give month after month might seem a hazardous way to operate, especially as enforcement is out of the question. The society reports no difficulty in collections however; people come promptly and willingly with their share.

Recently a visitor observed an elderly man, his robes clean but shabby, hobble into the society's office and ease himself into a chair. Assuming he had come for his monthly benefit payment, the visitor was astonished to see the old gentleman dig deep into the folds of his thobe, extract three riyals and ceremoniously count them out for the clerk. As the transaction was recorded, the old man beamed toothlessly and at length, trundled off down the road. While it was clear that subscriptions of the townspeople must form the spine of the society, it was also obvious that help from interested outsiders, individuals and businesses in particular, should not be overlooked. Aramco, for example, which responded with a modest donation at first, found the society's first annual report such a model of clarity and accomplishment that it has each year adjusted its donation upward to keep pace with the increased activities. The government, through the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, has underlined its approval by subsidies in excess of those given any other charity in the kingdom.

In time, the activities became increasingly diverse. The cemetery was cleaned, aid given to the fire-distressed, not only of Sayhat but of surrounding villages, electricity was installed in the mosque and mortuary, asphalt ripple strips laid at a dangerous intersection (reducing to 0 the previous record of 37 accidents in 5 years). A widower with six small children received a grant so that a marriage could be arranged.

In the third year of its life, when receipts were relatively limited and the number of needy families considerable, the society discovered that one of its clients, Mohammad Ali Rabia, suffered from an advanced case of tuberculosis. Although it would impose a severe strain on the budget, the society decided to send Mohammad to a sanitarium in Lebanon. He spent seven months under care at a cost equal to a large share of the annual budget. When asked why so much had gone to aid one man when so many were in need, Abdulla replied simply, "If we had not sent him, he would have died." Today, Mohammad is back in his village, completely cured. The case, it is said, profoundly impressed the people of Sayhat, who saw for themselves the value the society attached to a single life.

Working among the poor, the society found that certain elderly, disabled men, bereft of homes and families, had been reduced to beggary while others had families unable to cope with their special needs. Abdulla and his colleagues envisioned a place where these people could be gathered together and provided with proper food, care and gentle solicitude, where, above all, they could pass their final days in dignity. That vision is realized in the Home for the Aged, a tawny, double-winged building constructed on land donated by the Municipality of Sayhat and completed by the society in 1969.

Private rooms are reserved for those requiring isolation, otherwise the men rest in beds ranged against the walls of a long, cream-colored dormitory. They chat with one another now and then, but much of the time it is their pleasure to cuddle up and sleep. Many retain the kafiya, the turban-like headdress, and in their clean white thobes and linens they have about them a certain courtliness. One old gentleman—he must be 90—sits ramrod straight in his robes, his crumpled hands folded together, brown eyes twinkling as he surveys, one suspects, the terraces of his kingdom where milk and honey freely flow and fruits abound and everything is cool and fresh and green.

Through mists of memory, they all know Abdulla and call him and reach out to him with both arms in the way that children do. "Abdullabdullabdulla," one chants, and Abdulla moves to him, takes his hand. " Ya, Shaikh, kif al-hal?" ("Venerable one, how are you?")

In charge of the aged is Hilal Habib, a former nurse's aide at Aramco's Dhahran Health Center. Seeing to the needs and whims of the sick and senile, to their meals and baths and airings, putting up with what in their impairments may be abusive behavior, can hardly be considered cushy work, yet Hilal is more than equal to the task. He views the ancients as does Abdulla, as children, the children of God. In a recent annual report, the following note appears: "The society has the honor of catering for all the disabled people who have joined the home." For Hilal too, serving the helpless aged is an honor.

Board members are elected for three-year terms. Typical of the caliber of members is Vice-Chairman Ahmad al-Hilal, Preventive Medicine Advisor with Aramco, and a graduate of the American University of Beirut School of Public Health. As head of the committee for the Home for the Aged, Ahmad prepares the menus, frequently checks the patients, administers medications from the pharmacy he has set up, and keeps complete medical files on the residents. Further responsibilities flow from his membership on the Status Inquiry Committee, which is charged with preparing case studies on the poor families. From time to time the board members hold open meetings to acquaint the citizens with the aims and benefits and expanded programs of the society and to invite non-members to join. Finally, teams of board members visit the homes of those who may have missed the open meetings. All of this is clearly time-consuming, but when it was suggested to one of the board members that having already done so much, he was entitled to a sabbatical, the reply was, "Never! The work is never finished. The projects are finished, but the work is never finished."

Most of the poor are being taken care of now, through programs of cash, food, clothing, medical aid, home replacement and repair, counseling and other services. Life being fluid, however, families still apply or are suggested, some in permanent, others in temporary need. Case studies are carried out promptly, but still it takes a little time, and hunger as Abdulla knows, does not wait. If he happens to be in the office when an applicant appears, he will dig into his pocket and press some riyals into the person's hand, just to tide him over.

In vain does one search for the chink in the wall, for material detrimental to Abdulla. The closest one comes is the suggestion that in his zeal, his wife and 10 children see too little of him and his business falters. His colleagues agree that this may be so, but defend him on the grounds that Abdulla provides his family with comfort and security, and while he would like to spend more time with them, he feels he must first see to those other members of the community family, to those who have no security.

Such is Abdulla's charisma that last year when he was stricken with a rumored heart attack, people wept in the streets and filled the mosque with prayers for his recovery. By the hundreds they kept vigil outside the hospital several miles away in al-Khobar, as if hoping that from their numbers might flow strength enough to make him well.

Not so long ago, small children, in the manner of slum children everywhere, wandered about the streets of Sayhat ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-kept, tottering on the brink of disaster and disease, heedless of animals and automobiles, of stagnant pools and assorted debris. Today such children are a rarity; they are, most of them, joyously ensconced in The Happy Childhood Home, a combination day-nursery and kindergarten, and the undoubted jewel in the crown of the society's activities.

Built partly with volunteer labor, on land given by Abdulla and his brother Ebrahim, the desert-yellow building opened in September 1970. With its portico of white columns and decorative bricks, it is long and low and cool and designed to grow with the children. Here in the front yard, the small ones gather each morning except Friday, the Muslim sabbath, to romp and run and vie for swings and kiddie-cars, until the teachers signal them to assemble for the recitation from the Koran before entering for classes.

They have come on the bus, waiting like clusters of dates for who knows how long for it to lumber up, for driver Ali Jasim to open the door and Ahmad Hamood to swing them aboard, waiting for the chance to crowd one another and frolic and holler and chant until the teacher shouts, not unkindly, "Bas! Bas!" "Enough! Enough!" Some come running, smocks half-buttoned, clutching flat circles of Arab bread to nibble on the way, and there is one little fellow who, in full view of the waiting bus, saunters slowly down the road, magnificently composed. The essence of a happy childhood is indeed taking things for granted.

All of the more than 250 children are of similar coloring and size, all wear the same light-brown smock, yet by some unaccountable alchemy, Ali Jasim knows if even one child has failed to materialize. Before the day is over a call will be made at the home of the missing child to see if he is ill, to see if there is anything the society can do.

Not all of the children are poor; many are from middle-class families and some are drawn from among the well-to-do. All are welcome and pay according to ability, from nothing (more than half pay nothing) to 20 riyals a month, which covers only 15 percent of the cost per child. The society deemed it important that the school be open to all children, not only to avoid the ghetto syndrome but to provide an atmosphere where the poor could mix naturally and freely with the more advantaged, where by accepting and being accepted, the poor child might come to accept himself.

Certain steps were taken to assist in the process: the smart, completely new little wardrobes given the poor children, the daily showers for those in need, the nutritional meals. The soundness of the approach is evident in the fact that it is impossible to distinguish which children come from three-story villas and which from waterless, lightless palm-frond shanties. Every one of them is clean, well-dressed, well-fed, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

It is this, the individual improvement in each child that gives attractive, 28-year-old Jordanian headmistress Hala Duzdar and her staff their deepest satisfactions. Wife of a UN agricultural engineer stationed at the nearby town of Qatif, Hala arrived, with a kind of divine felicity, just as Abdulla was pondering the knotty problem of staffing the school. In Arabia women, as a rule, do not work outside the home, but permission was granted not only to hire her but two other Jordanian and five Saudi young ladies as well. In addition to administrative duties, Hala oversees the morning's activities, checking on meals and classes, and meets frequently with the teachers to discuss problems and consider ideas for improving the program.

Perhaps the most touching aspect of the home is to be found not in the present but in the future. Certain children of the poor, lacking the necessary accoutrements, have been unable to accept the free government schooling, the results of which are all too obvious. The home's children, having been set on the path to education and with the society standing by to assist with any difficulties, are virtually assured of schooling, and it is Abdulla's hope that when the first crop is ready for higher education, a program of society scholarships will be waiting to speed them on their way.

One of the spin-offs of the Sayhat experience has been the flowering of other societies, on a smaller scale, in other villages. Presently there are seven such groups in the Eastern Province alone, but the bellwether continues to be the Sayhat Society. Abdulla Salman al-Matrood, with his boundless and buoyant faith in God and man, his uncanny gifts for sensing the moment when people are ready for a new idea, has several innovations in the works—public baths for women and children, evening homemaking and literacy classes for the ladies (to be held at The Happy Childhood Home) and an ambitious program of cooperative farming designed to provide jobs, money and food for the poor and a profit for the society to pursue its goals.

The people of Sayhat are proud of their society, as well they should be. They are, after all, a family now, and their baby, born of compassion and action, is thriving, with untold promises to keep.

Mary Norton, formerly associated with the Ford Foundation "Omnibus" television series, has lived in Saudi Arabia since 1958. Mother of three young children, she has contributed to Aramco's TV productions and publications.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the January/February 1972 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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