April 18, 2005
Letter #11 from Saudi Arabia
High noon at Chop Chop Squa
R.F. Burton
Private Papers

Last Friday I was invited to a beheading. Fortunately, it wasn't my own.

"They're going to chop one," Mohammed whispered, calling me on his mobile phone from a mosque in Deerah, "after noon prayer."

Renovated and remotely pleasant, Deerah resides deep in the black, clotted heart of old Riyadh. If anything approaches a tourist attraction in the Dead City, it would be Deerah. There you'll find a covered souk as colorful and picturesque as a Hollywood set, replete with cool, labyrinthine walkways redolent of spices, sandalwood, and rosewater. Old Arab men recline on piled Persian carpets, smoking hookahs and drinking tea, soft-selling everything from dusty chunks of frankincense and myrrh to coarse camel-hair saddlebags and scarred brass pots.

Around the corner is the gold market, showcasing enough of the metal to make a modern Midas mad with envy. Shop after shop groans with the weight of 18- and 24-karat gold fashioned into a constellation of sizes and designs. Crowns, tiaras, earrings, nose rings, studs, necklaces, chokers, chains, brooches, pendants, lockets, pins, gold belts, buckles, bracelets, bangles, charms, rings, anklets, toe rings, bars, money clips, coins, and key rings, all glittering like shards of the sun.

A short walk past the European-looking Clock Tower is the fully restored Masmak Fort, seized from the Turks at the turn of the last century. Past the fort and the mosque is a spacious tiled area called as-Sa'ah Square. In the evening locals gather there to talk, drink tea, and unleash their children to run amok in the moonlight. Come Friday morning the square is deserted until just before noon prayer. Then it is transmogrified into the bloodcurdling Chop Chop Square.

"If you leave now," Mohammed said excitedly, "you'll just make it."

"Thanks," I said, "but I think I'll have to pass." What could I say? The desire to see a human head lopped off—no matter how empty, vile, or evil—left me long ago.

When I first arrived in Arabia, a beheading was high on my list of must-sees. Right up there with gazing over Giza from the top of the Great Pyramid, watching funeral pyres on the ghats of the Ganges, and peeping from the perch of an elephant's back at randy rhinos frolicking on the steamy floor of a Nepalese jungle. Something cool to talk about at dinner parties when I returned to the so-called civilized world.

For six months my roommate and I drove from Al-Khobar to Dammam every Friday morning, had an Indian breakfast of masala dosa dipped in coconut chutney with cup after cup of sickeningly sweet, milky tea, and then wandered through the souks, killing time until noon prayer. At high noon we'd head to the old mosque in the center of downtown Dammam, next to Chopping Block Square, and wait around like vultures for a public execution.

One time an ambulance and several police cars parked near the mosque. The crowd became more animated. This is it, we thought. There was weird electricity in the air. Fifteen minutes later the ambulance and police drove off in a cloud of dust. It was another nonevent, another no-show. Human character being what it is, we grew impatient and gave up on seeing a beheading in Dammam. 

"You don't want to see one," an older friend of mine named Fred told me a short time later.

"Why not?"

"Believe me, you're going to see enough ugly stuff by the time you're my age without having to carry around the memory of a beheading the rest of your life," Fred said. "You think it won't bother you, but it's a hard thing to see. Harder to forget. Wish I never went."

Then Fred told me about the execution he witnessed in the Dead City back in the 70s. Aside from one small detail, his account was much the same as other accounts I've heard over the years from other expatriates.

After noon prayer a police van holding the prisoner parked in Chop Chop Square next to the mosque. Police cars blocked off the streets and pushed the growing crowd back. The prisoner—drugged, cuffed, barefoot, manacled, and blindfolded—was led from the van by a police officer to the center of the square and made to kneel down, facing the holiest city of Islam: Mecca.


Like all expatriates in the crowd, Fred was escorted to the front by a scrawny muttawwa to ensure he wouldn't miss a thing. A minor official from the Interior Ministry read out the charges against the kneeling prisoner. The executioner—a large black man with a scimitar—approached the kneeling prisoner from behind. After the sentence was read, the executioner jabbed the prisoner in the lower back with the tip of the sword, causing the prisoner to involuntarily jerk up. When he did, the sword flashed down. At that moment the head is sliced off and sent flying across the square. Blood jets from the severed carotid arteries and jugular veins, spraying into the air like a fountain. The frenzied crowd screams in choreographed unison, "Allah Akbar"!

Allah's will is done.

That's how it's supposed to go. The beheading Fred witnessed went off a little differently. The executioner botched the job.

"I don't know if the prisoner had a short neck or he just jerked funny when they jabbed him in the back, but the blade glanced off his shoulder and only cut through half his neck," Fred said.

"He fell over sideways," he said. "I never saw so much blood. It was squirting out all over the place from the gash in his neck. He started moaning. It was awful. Even though he was doped to high heaven, it must have hurt like hell. It took two more swings to hack his head off."

"When it was over, I'll be damned if a doctor didn't walk over to the body and check his pulse," Fred said. "It was weird, seeing him kneel down next to a headless body, holding the wrist to make sure he wasn't going to get up and walk away."

Then the head and body were thrown onto a stretcher and placed in the ambulance and the ambulance driven away to bury the body in an unmarked grave. The excited crowd milled around for a while, cooling down from the excitement, then dispersed.

"I hear they spread plastic on the ground now," Fred said. "Then they just roll the mess up and take it away. That wasn't the case with the one I saw. Some poor half-starved Indian with a mop and a bucket had to clean up the mess. Nice job."

"What was he executed for?" I asked.

"Dope," Fred replied. "Smuggled it in from Pakistan. He was real young too. Bet he never imagined he'd be getting his head cut off one day for a damn fool mistake. Arabs say cutting a head off is more humane than the way we do it. It's supposed to be quicker. Maybe, if it's done right. It'd be a sight quicker than strapping a man in a chair and making him ride the lightning until his organs cook. What I don't like about cutting off a man's head is all that oxygen stored up in the brain. There's supposed to be enough oxygen to keep a man conscious even after his head's been cut off. All I know is it wasn't over fast enough for that boy. God knows what ran through his mind when they finally got his head off. It was awful."

As on other occasions, I took Fred's advice, and scratched beheadings off my list of must-sees.

A day after Mohammed's invitation to the beheading, on the way to work, I spotted a small news item in the Arab Gazette, no more than an inch of type on page five. One Zayid Bin Ali Bin Saleh Al-Thabitiwas had been beheaded for, among other offenses, practicing sorcery and magic.

I can't speak for the rest of the Dead City's denizens, but I'm not going to sleep any easier knowing there's one less sorcerer wandering the wastelands of Saudi Arabia. The Devil knows what mischievous imps that wizard conjured up those last horrific seconds of consciousness as his head rolled across the sun-scorched square.