An Irishman at a beheading

FRIDAY is the Islamic Holy Day in Saudi Arabia, a rest day for the kwaji expatriate and Moslem populations alike

FRIDAY is the Islamic Holy Day in Saudi Arabia, a rest day for the kwaji expatriate and Moslem populations alike. It was mid morning, and at home in my apartment the telephone rang. The caller was David, a jovial English colleague, whose Friday morning priorities invariably focused on the pursuit of the best brunch in town.

"Fancy a chop?" came the predictable inquiry. I was indifferent, with a modest breakfast already behind me. "No, not that," he interrupted. There was a purposeful tone in his voice. "I mean Chop Chop Square! It's on today, they sealed off the car park last night!"

Saudi law is unambiguous on the punishment for serious crime, with murder and drug trafficking both carrying the death penalty. Media reports regularly confirm the discharge of death sentences in various cities. I had long grappled with the decision to attend a public beheading, this overwhelming expression of cultural difference, and had become increasingly disposed to the inevitability that one day I would do so.

David - a veteran observer of public executions over his many years in the kingdom - had previously described occasions of beheading and indeed, dismemberment. For today though, he had no knowledge of what punishment was planned, or for what crime. Confirming that proceedings would take place immediately after mid day prayer, he advised me on access, and we agreed a meeting point. An hour or so later, I set off with some unease on the 10 minute drive into downtown Jeddah.


I arrived at the Al Manaqabah Lagoon well after noon, just across the road from the imposing Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I had missed David in the race to find accessible side street parking. Skirting the entrance to the mosque, still packed with worshippers I walked on towards the adjoining, expansive car park. There wasn't a vehicle in sight. Some small groups had already gathered on the elevated lawn by the mosque to claim their vantage point. Below them a squad of police stood smartly in three ranks facing into the car park in the bright summer light. In the centre of the cordoned area a lone policeman paced slowly up and down beside a large, elevated marble plinth. This was about a foot high with a surface area large enough to carry three cars. It was immediately apparent this was the spot where Justice would be dispatched.

The scene was quiet, interrupted only by the mullah in the mosque, whose voice was audible on the public address. I took up my position adjacent to the still water of the lagoon, standing on a low wall to ensure viewing clearance to the plinth.

I finally caught sight of David up on the lawn, but his eventual acknowledgment of me was suddenly cut short. Dozens, then perhaps hundreds of people suddenly began pouring out of the mosque and raced for vantage points on the lawn and at the barriers. Within minutes the air was heavy with the babble of talk. The few women present in black abayas and head covering shaylas, made a striking contrast to a scene dominated by the long white thobes of the men, with their red and white checkered yashmakhs.

A white van arrived at the cordon and was waved through into the car park, drawing up near the plinth. Moments later a second, then a third, identical vehicle arrived. I spotted a policeman holding a clipboard, and assumed he awaited some official to sign for delivery. Away to my left, I caught David's eye. He motioned three fingers to me. Three.

In anticipation, I began to feel my heart thump, and wished I hadn't worn jeans in the 40 C heat. The rear doors on the vans were now open. A prisoner was led out, handcuffed behind at the wrists. Incredibly, a second, then a third came into view. Barefoot, all three were dressed in grey, kneelength shirts. They were blindfolded with white gauze bandage, particularly thick over the eyes, and all moved unsteadily as if sedated. I would learn on tonight's news they were Nigerians, convicted for drug offences.

The escorts led them gently up on the plinth, where they stood silently amid the bustle of police and officials. Intensely, my eyes scanned each man in turn, fruitlessly searching out any sign of fear or distress. Now perspiring heavily, I selfishly turned my face briefly towards the lagoon to enjoy relief in the light sea breeze. I could see under the motorway bridge at the far side, where a ship leaving port steamed north in the haze.

Perversely, I needed a context to ease my growing anxiety, and rationalised that this water lying just a few feet below me stretched all the way up the Red Sea to Suez, across to Gibraltar and right up to Dun Laoghaire home. Silly, but it seemed to help.

A new figure appeared on the plinth. A stocky man with a well trimmed moustache, and resplendent in his brilliant white thobe and yashmakh. he differed from all others by virtue of the black strap slung over his right shoulder coming together at his left hip. As he turned, I could see his left hand rested on the grip of a long curved sword, neatly sheathed in its scabbard.

He looked on as the prisoners were knelt in a line, one or two metres apart, with police using cords to tie the handcuffed wrists to their feet. Pausing to assess the line up, the executioner approached the first man, bent low by his ear, and simultaneously pressed the head a little lower with his right hand. He finished by patting the blindfolded prisoner gently and then withdrew. The clipboard man had moved off, his delivery papers now presumably in order.

A voice bellowed out in Arabic on the public address. All those present knelt in prayer. Even the ranks of police turned and knelt, and I realised the condemned men too, would take the sword facing Mecca. With the conclusion of prayer, the assembly resumed its babble, and the executioner gave his now drawn and glittering sword a final inspection. I wondered how he could comfortably fit between each prisoner to effect the dispatch. The solution, as I was about to witness, would be impeccable.

Standing to the left of the first prisoner, and a little behind him, the executioner focused on his quarry. The crowd, sensing the imminence of the moment, fell totally silent. I watched as the sword was drawn back with the right hand. A one handed back swing of a golf club suddenly came to mind. Christ, he's going to do it! I can't believe this. Dun Laoghaire is right behind me, distanced only by the countless billions of water molecules between the East Pier and this lagoon. The down swing begins. How can he do it from that angle? What will beheading sound like? The sound, I must remember the sound. The blade met the neck and cut through it like, what. . . . I know, I know that sound. It's just like a heavy cleaver cutting through a melon . . . a crisp, moist, smack. The head fell and rolled a little. The torso slumped neatly. I see now why they tied wrists to feet. Oh God, the brain had no time to tell the heart to stop, and the final beat pumped a gush of blood out of the headless torso onto the plinth.

The executioner paused only to wipe the bloodstained blade on the shirt of the torso. No point in having drops falling onto his thobe during the next back swing: the man had done this before. Not a whisper from the crowd. He moved on to the second prisoner in a measured pace, simultaneously back swinging and bearing down while still moving. Another identical crisp, watery smack, another identical bloody finale. Again the pause to wipe the blade before moving to the third prisoner. In two seconds more it finally ended. Three limp torsos were the residue of the day's work. A round of applause broke out among the crowd - no cheering, just an acknowledgment justice was done. The applause cracked the moment. People turned and talked, and already began to move away. Some adult and children's eyes sought out the kwaji's for a reaction. I could read what their eyes told me - "that's how we do things here.

Three stretchers appeared, the restraining cords and handcuffs were undone, and the bodies and heads then gathered onto the stretchers. I saw David moving away, and I gestured a commitment to call him later.

WALKING back to the car in the now subdued and departing crowd, I tried simply transposing the spectacle to my home environment. It was akin to rushing out of Sunday Mass to get a good viewing spot to see a few people get throttled in the car park. It was impossible for me to rationalise. It just didn't fit, which perhaps might be the key to understanding the spectacle I had witnessed. Alongside me, a young Saudi asked what did I think, to which I replied that, for me, it was really much too soon to think.