Monday, March 28, 2011

Cynical Cyclical History

Buffalo Springfield--Something Happening Here

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

I think it's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

There are lawyer strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when your always afraid
Step out of line the man come and take you away

You better stop
Hey what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

Funny how things stay relevant over time. Context changes, feelings stay the same. The youth have taken to the streets all over the Middle East in the spirit of collective activism for what they hope will be meaningful change. The questions which remains to be seen is whether they get the change they're asking for. Think back to Nasser and the "first" Egyptian revolution. There was indeed a change from monarchy to president, but then not more than thirty years later, the ideals of a people's Egypt had gone to the wayside under the emergency rule of Hosni Mubarak.

Saleh of Yemen, Tunisia's Ben Ali came to power around the same time. Assad's father held power in communist Syria and Qaddafi staged his coup in Libya a decade before. The 60's and 70's was another era of power transition in the Middle East, with leaders acceding their respective "thrones" through strength of arms, and staying there through repression, oppression and depression of various varieties.

We see a similar wave of discontent happening now with the people finding strength in both their numbers and their desperation. It does sound slightly histrionic, but the Middle East is at a crisis point, where the status quo just isn't good enough. I'll call it the "lack of" syndrome. Lack of freedom, lack of domestic opportunities, lack of employment, lack of future, lack of choice, lack of food, lack of self-respect--someone said once when all you've got is nothing, there's a lot to go around. For a long time, there's been a growing amount of nothingness.

I theorize that this nothingness, when taken into conjuction with Arab's natural pride, has lead to a lot of the conflicts that we've seen over the last several decades--or rather maybe the last few thousand years. Throw in the factors of oil, some water, geo-strategic placement in global affairs, power hungry leaders, and a few perceived invasions and boomdeyada! You've got yourself a hotbed, nay, a quagmire of epic proportions.

With all the external disctractions, it's been easy for these leaders to deflect attention from internal problems, especially when throwing money (be it oil money or foreign money) at the problems seems to have kind of worked for a while. But now there are not enough jobs for the masses, but still oodles of money for the rich, and that's just not going down well with the peeps. Can you blame them?

So the cycle of discontent continues. Will there be long-lasting, meaningful change in the direction of legitimate democracy and reform? Or will we see the results of these revolutions being overthrown twenty or thirty years in the future? The people have passed the point of singing songs and carrying signs. Things are going downhill in a hurry. Can we avoid this? Qaddafhi, can you recover your wits long enough to recognize that you're destroying your country? Saleh, can you step down while preserving the stability (tenuous though it is) of your country? Bahrainis, shwaya shwaya. Prove to the world (especially your next door neighbors) that your revolution is legit, and not at the behest or provocation of Iran. Assad, learn from Mubarak and Qaddafhi. You decide which way you want to go forward.

It's an exciting time to be in the Middle East, that's for damn sure. Saudi is hanging in there. Rather than protests, there was a huge street party a couple weekends ago celebrating the king and the lack of protests. My girls are happy because they got their checks from the King this week for being students. But these times, they are a changing. What remains to be seen are the results. Yallah ya shabbab!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Whoa Now

Well well well well well. It's certainly been an exciting month and a half here in the Middle East. Saudi is surrounded on all sides by protests, and rumor has it there will be a Day of Rage here on the 11th of March. We'll see what comes of that. General sentiments here are that Qaddafi is a lunatic murderer who really really needs to go.

This stands in stark contrast to the all out We-Love-King-Abdullah bonanza that took place here last week around this time. The king returned from his recovery hiatus in Morocco to bestow a $35 billion gift upon his people in the form of debt relief, infrastructure, education funding etc. etc. But the Saudis want more. They want a monthly subsidy like the Kuwaitis get. They think that the petrodollars belong to everyone. Not being Saudi, I would settle for a first rate public transportation system...

But Riyadh got it's flag on, lining all the major roads with endless rows of flags. King Abdullah's face was plastered on every available flat surface. Companies would cover their entire building with a huge poster of the King, websites gave thanks for his safe return, and my classes were interrupted so the girls would have a chance to write a letter to their monarch. Saturday we had off thanks to the king's beneficence, and then Sunday there was a presentation to give thanks for his good health, and some little girls did a dance, and a little boy in a thobe and shmagh recited a poem. It actually seemed a little cultish, which was kind of awkward. They do love their leader here.

Which leads me to conclude that protests would be both minimal and quickly dispersed. They don't have a whole lot of tolerance for dissent here, and most people legit like the king. But as we've seen, the status quo has gone right through the window, and things may get surprising.

But, life continues generally as normal (except for a relative increase in news watching). Our second semester has started, and we're off to the races. This semester is much calmer than the last one, so things are going pretty well. Trying to see what we can swing for fun in the sun and make our own entertainment. Grapeleaves on Friday? I think yes!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

It's A Whole New (Arab) World

I sit here in my room, jubilant about the recent developments in Egypt and watching songs of the current and previous Egyptian revolutions on the "hit music" TV station. The old songs are in black and white in the classical Arab style, heavy on the strings and drama. The new songs show footage of the last two and a half weeks of protest, and celebrate the courage and the will of the people. Tunisia went first, and now Egypt--the most populous and one of the most influential countries in the Middle East has a chance for a new start. We'll see what they make of it.

After Mubarak survived the "Day of Rage", I thought he just might be able to hold out until September. I thought that it would take a special set of circumstances for him to actually step down. In the meantime, I was worried about my friends in Egypt. How were they doing? Had they been caught up in the violence of the first week of protests? Were they affected by the looting that went on? The internet block was one of the most frustrating aspects of the events, because people didn't know if others were okay.

Freedom is an easy word to take for granted for those of us who were raised with the idea that it is an inherent human right. Only when you lose it do you realize how truly precious it is. The Arab world's got a taste of it now, and it surely is sweet. Saudi is surrounded on all sides by protests. Are you paying attention? It will take courage, and the same strength of will that the Egyptians and Tunisians have shown in their protests to lead these events to a successful conclusions: free and fair elections in both countries, and increased freedoms ALL around the Arab world.

I think that there is a certain incredulity all around the world that the Egyptians have actually pulled this off, though I still say no one does chaos and massive street gatherings like the Egyptians. You got your wish, Egyptians. So where do you go from here? For now, alhamdulilah my friends are okay and the future is bright, though uncertain. Don't blow it!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Control Issues

Let's just clear a few things up.
1) I am independent.
2) I am responsible.
3) I am strong.
4) I am a capable human being.
5) I am intelligent.
6) I am worthy of respect.
7) I am equal to anyone else in the world.
8) I do NOT like to be controlled, manipulated, looked down on, treated as a child, lied to or scammed. And I refuse to be treated thusly.

And therein lies our problem, Saudi. Cause you seem to think it's okay to do all of those things. And for what? What is the purpose? What do you gain besides control? Oh, that's what it is, isn't it? That's the point. You have control. Well, I really hate to break it to you, but when you bring in foreigners, we come with baggage, such as our own language, code of conduct and culture.

I wear the abaya and hijab. That's cool. I don't talk about certain things at school or with other Saudis that I meet. I try to be respectful of your culture and your laws. But for goodness sake, respect and cultural sensitivity is a two way street.

As people who have historically sought to achieve the "American Dream" through hard work and rugged individualism, we struggle with having every minute detail of our day to day life dictated by someone who neither knows nor cares about our wants and needs. We are not clay to be shaped by you, nor are we puppets to dance to your tune. Recognize that your expat community is not here for a joyride. We're here for a purpose, and that is to work and make money. So it's to your benefit to leave us alone to do our jobs, since you're clearly not ready to pick up the reins of dedicated work that needs to be done to keep your country running.

You all want to be managers, but who would you manage if the foreigners left? You want to be business people, but how would you sell anything if you had no one to complete the day to day operations for you? There's money to be made elsewhere in the world. We don't need to be here. Talk to us again when you've collectively decided as a society that it's not beneath you to work.

We chafe under the control. But what about your own populace? What happens when people get sick of the control? Then where would you be? Look to Ben Ali. Look to Egypt. Look around your neighborhood. Look to the dictators of South America. Control does not endear you to your people, and it's an unsustainable method of power. That's been tried and tested over and over and over in different cultures and countries. The more control you feel you need to exert, the more you are fearful of and the more you must in turn fear. And "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Ah, there's the rub. Excess control=fear. Fear=downfall. Therefore, excess control=downfall. Huh. Lighten up.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Attitude Adjustment Necessary

I have made an investment. It's a sign that says "Family Section" on it, so that wherever I go, I can create my own instant area that permits men and women to co-mingle in public. This is all theoretical, of course. I'm going to try it out tonight. I'm not sure if there's a limit to the power radius of my sign, but it's worth a shot. And here's why.

Saudi is a completely segregated society. And I do mean completely. There's a section in the food court of every mall for the "singles"--read men--and for the "families". There's a different entrance into banks for women, and travel agencies have a specific time when they are open to women. Fast food restaurants have two different lines, divided by a wall, for the men and women. Reception areas are divided and closed off, and when we transfer money, it's like a parting of the manly Red Sea when we walk in the door. You'd almost think we had a plague of the worst sort of girl cooties imaginable.

And here's the thing. It's economically damaging to the country. When the women--who have a LOT of time (and money) on their hands--are hindered from spending money, it restricts the spending of a lot of expendable income. When a woman isn't permitted to move freely either, it is personally AND economically hindering. And it just don't make no sense. As quoted from the Arab News:

"For example, businesswomen registering public businesses (businesses that serve both men and women) have been required to appoint a male manager. The lack of relevant business licenses for many popular business activities, such as day-care centers and beauty salons, further complicates the registration process for Saudi businesswomen. In addition, restrictions on women’s mobility due to the absence of public transportation and the ban on driving, as well as restrictions on international travel, may cause delays, extra costs and/or limited options for training abroad.

Recruiting international women specialists to provide training courses within the Kingdom also poses a challenge to business management, due to restrictions on obtaining business visas for foreign women."

I had a few segregation-tastic setbacks today. The first came when we discovered a bowling alley. We (myself and another woman) were SO happy!! Bowling! How fun/normal! How exciting to find something new to do here that doesn't involve a mall!! So we went in to inquire about prices etc. etc. We decided that we had time for a quick game, and were ready to play. We were taking out our wallets when the little worker told us to wait a minute while he called his manager to make sure it was okay. Turns out it wasn't okay for two women to go bowling for a half-hour in an otherwise completely deserted establishment. It's only okay if we come in between 10am-3pm, and we have to call a day ahead. Huh. So they lost 26 riyals.

Then we went to console ourselves, and were debating between Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin Robbins. We peeked into the donut store and saw a ton of men, and nary a single woman. So we figured we weren't allowed in there, and went to the now-abandoned ice cream store. There was a sum total of one table, and Chris quickly claimed it for us, as we were determined to sit there until booted out. Turns out the Indian man working there was super nice, and let us stay. We were rather put out by the runaround at this point, but the story's not finished.

We hailed a cab to go back home, and all three of us piled into the cab: two in the back, one in the front. The cab driver refused to go until all three of us were in the back seat, because if the Mutawa (religious police) caught us, the taxi driver would be in big trouble for having a woman who is not is wife in the front seat. So we all smooshed together in the back and just shook our head.

This whole adventure was inspired by another friend who wanted to go to the dentist. It involved 6 people to get her to the dentist: the driver, the person who had to give the driver permission to take us, two people who had to give the driver directions, two of us for moral support/propriety and the patient. And such is daily life. Just like our route to the dentist, we just seem to go round and round and round in circles to get any small thing accomplished. What would usually be a one person deal to make and go to an appointment suddenly required a whole contingent of people. And that's ludicrous. In addition, it's wasteful.

The women are smothering, especially in the younger generation. They need to be able to go out for what they need. They need to be able to enter public places of business in order to, you know, conduct business. They need to be able to get into a car when they need to and go where they need without the interference and intervention of a horde of other people. There's nothing improper about getting your teeth checked, or going to a medical appointment, or going to the grocery store, or meeting a friend for coffee. By placing so many restrictions on daily life, every small thing becomes an event, and therefore gets blown completely out of proportion. And that loss of perspective, I believe, leads to some of the dangerous attitudes we see not just here but all over the world.

Let's take a mental step back and remove ourselves from the perceived need for control over every minuscule facet of daily life. Women are very capable when they are given the opportunity for responsibility. Look at how they have found ways to flourish despite the restrictions placed on them! Let them go, Saudi, and watch them thrive! I think you would be surprised by the benefits--monetary, social, developmental--that you would reap. You'd finally allow your women to grow up and reach maturity, which is something they are sorely lacking in now. Lighten up, and watch your country bloom, just like the desert after a storm.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

First Times

Today was a very interesting day. After getting one friend out of the country after an epic, protracted and thoroughly unnecessary war with our company, another friend and I were able to visit and enjoy the hospitality of a Saudi home. What an experience! Here's the story. Last week, we all went to one of the biggest malls in Riyadh. As we were wandering around, a couple of women came up to us and said they wanted to "communicate" with us. I, being the naturally suspicious person that I am, was at first very hesitant to accept any invitations or get tied up with anyone. Then, I decided that it would likely be one of my few opportunities to get to know Saudi women.

Turns out that one of the women is a journalist, and her daughter is a college student. They both want to improve their English, and followed up with me earlier this week to meet up today as a "get to know you" type thing. The mother met us at the mall this evening, and then invited us to her home. I was more reticent, but since I had a buddy with me decided to go for it. We braved the Thursday night traffic and driving by the son-without-a-driver's-license, and got to their villa. It was kind of what we'd seen before when we were house-hunting, with several sitting rooms, a large kitchen and maybe 4-5 bedrooms. The whole house was painted a vivid yellow, and the furnishings were plush. The hospitality these women showed was lavish. First there was juice and water. Then cake and tea. Then Arabic coffee and dates. Then a large plate of fruit each. They also gave us a package of dates each and sent a driver for us to take us home.

Our discussion ranged from the beauty of English to the difficulty of Arabic to what everybody studies/d in school to how women in Riyadh are not particularly open to new ideas and don't try to improve themselves and don't look to the future.They loved hearing about all of our "firsts", and were so pleased that they were the first Saudi home we'd been to, and wanted to serve us our first real kabsa. They also told us that we were the first foreigners they'd known, which was I suppose flattering for us.

We were rather surprised and pleased that we seemed to have gotten ourselves involved with a more liberal family. The mother explained that because her English wasn't very good, all the important assignments for the newspaper went to men. Both mother and daughter want a driver's license, and feel that English is the gateway to the world. Inside, I was cheering them on, thinking that they will be the catalyst for change in Saudi Arabia. But they're from Medina, which I think has some very different attitudes from Riyadh, which is much more conservative. I think it will take an attitude adjustment here in the capital for change to happen. But we'll see.

I think the general consensus is that change is happening in Saudi, slowly but surely. Letting Blackberries in, and having women actually live in dormitories on some college campuses are only the tip of the iceberg. Letting women in the workplace is also a step in the right direction. But I think that change will come at the behest of the women, and it's hard to get people who have lived so long without something to imagine themselves having it. Some of the women here have lived without freedom, so they don't know what it is. As such, they are happy with what they have, and being humans are resistant to change. Others have traveled outside the country, and see things they wish were different. Of course not everyone feels the same way--some will have traveled around and seen what's wrong with the world, and not want that brought to Saudi. But the thing is, it IS here in Saudi.

The strict and forced adherence to Islam covers a layer of society that is rotten. It covers the covert parties, drugs, drinking, rape, slavery, incest, murder, racism, greed, domestic violence and xenophobia. Image, money and influence are so important in this country that all of the bad is hidden away so that the world will see only the perfectly Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But God knows the truth, and He'll see through the lie. None of the above are Islamic, Saudi, and you know that but are too afraid of losing face to admit it. Get a grip, understand your own religion and start solving your problems. Don't just ignore them.

The hope for Saudi lies in its women, but not all of them have recognized that yet. Tradition and progress are not mutually exclusive. Neither are religion and equality. Knowledge is power, and the women are rapidly outstripping the men despite huge obstacles. It's only a matter of time, I think, before Saudi will be visibly different, and what you'll see is a public presence of women in charge. That'll be a wonderful first!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Um, Merry Christmas?

So here we are, two days after Christmas, and it's hard to remember a)that it is and has been the Christmas season and b)that in other parts of the world it's winter time, and, you know, cold. The weather here is lovely, which is one of the only positives I can come up with at the moment.

We are losing staff left and right at school, which is hard, so we're all taking more and more classes. People are also sick a lot, so we're covering extra classes for them as well. The disaster continues, and we're not looking forward to the end result of everything. Finals are coming up though and then we have a vacation, which is also very exciting. I think that I'm going to end up staying in-country again, and will try to do more traveling around Saudi.

I've had some very interesting discussions with my girls these last few days that have ranged from whether school uniforms should be required to whether it's better to be single or married. We had a raging debate today about which came first, the chicken or the egg. It was quite funny, actually. I wish that they were as passionate about grammar as they were about their discussion. We've also had some interesting talks about Islam, and their attitudes towards Shi'as (negative) as well as the ins and outs of the marriage process in Saudi (complicated). Every day's an education on both sides, that's for sure.

Christmas has been interesting, with attitudes ranging from open to very very closed. Some seem to completely refuse to acknowledge it or take part in any sort of celebration because, "If we celebrate, it means we believe, and we don't believe." That's a whole debate in and of itself. Others of my students and fellow teachers were saying Merry Christmas and were very conscientious of the holidays. Huh. Shwaya-shwaya, I guess. Anyways, Happy Holidays to my people everywhere!