Sunday, June 27, 2004

A different perspective of things

I read this article with amusement particularly when the author says,

In the section dealing with precautions that all travelers should take, she included the following statement: “Always use latex condoms to reduce the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.” I later checked other tourist guides published in the West and found most of them to have a similar advice.

This statement is truly fascinating because it indicates an assumption by Westerners that anyone visiting a country will naturally have sex with one of its inhabitants or a fellow tourist.

Think about that for a moment.

This brings to mind the behavior of the more gregarious members of the animal kingdom. Surely, a people who are incapable of controlling their sexual appetites for even a short time such as a visit or holiday are not worthy of the high regard that some of us have for all Westerners.

Is it just the Westerners that have sex when they are abroad? Then juxtapose them with the "vacation Time" blog when the author says,

There are 3 main reasons why we Saudis go abroad, and the Supreme Commission for Tourism can't do a lot about them.

3. The third reason applies to single men only, or those in unsatisfactory marriages. The Emirates is the favorite destination, although sometimes Bahrain suits the requirement. Young ladies fly in from Russia, on 3-month visas, and then head back home on the proceeds. A friend of mine once went to Bahrain with his family, tried to book in at the "Al xxxxx Family Hotel", to be told that they didn't take families, and only rented rooms by the hour! This form of tourism is very popular with young Saudi men, for obvious reasons, they also combine it with "alcohol tourism", although with the obvious limitation that Shakespeare warned against.

These two examples show the bipolar nature of the local society here. One does not want to acknowledge the existance of the other and yet they co-exist in the same space pretending that the other spectrum does not exist.

Then there is the Queer Sheik article by John Bradley about the homosexuality in the Kingdom.

I would have to say that the sight of young boys holding hands and men having their arms around each other is what I am not accustomed to seeing. I am not homophobic, just that I am not accustomed to seeing men being touchy feely with one another!

I guess we are all a product of our own environments.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Its been a month ...

It has been a month since I have moved to Saudi Arabia. Many have asked how the environment and situation is like over here. I'd still have to say that its too early for me to form a real opinion about this city and this country. As it is, I am learning more and more about the local cultures, customs, mannerisms and believes. It has been rather interesting so far I must say, and I am constantly having to make a distinction between religion and custom.

For instance the wearing of abayas for women. Yes women are required to wear the black overcoat in this country. The price range for these abayas are from SAR60 (less than £10) to SAR600 (just a little under £100) and upwards. Although they are mostly black, the abayas are sometimes adorned with some decorations (beading, embroidery, tassels, lace, crystals) while there are others which are very loose and shapeless. I was appalled by the choice of colour (black) at first but I do see why this colour has its advantages in this terrain. Firstly, it is very dusty here and the abaya does get dirty quite quickly. So it does make sense to wear an abaya as it does protects one’s clothes from the dust outside. Secondly, black is after all a slimming colour, so women don’t look so big and flabby here, just a blop of black abaya walking ;)

And the covering of the face. I’d have to say that I am considering covering my face as well. Firstly is the harsh rays of the sun. Barely 2 minutes, as I walked from the car to the Mall and I can feel my cheeks burning, despite me wearing an SPF 30 sunscreen lotion. Secondly, the men here do have a knack of staring! I don’t know why but their stares are so intrusive. Perhaps I am just unaccustomed to it, or perhaps because I have my face uncovered thus increasing their curiosity. In fact I do find that I am beginning to have this bad habit of staring at women’s faces whenever I see one that is uncovered. Its like finding a flower in the dessert and thus you just have to feast your eyes on its beauty while you can.

Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and most of the local women here don’t walk alone. Partly because they have a large extended family and partly well its not like she can drive herself out shopping anyways.

Yes this is a new way of living for me. I have been very much of an independent person. I am very comfortable in my own company. I can eat alone, watch a movie at the cinema alone and backpack alone. This dependence on company and the loss of one’s mobility is something very new for me. Having said that however, I don’t really see myself going out in the day in the hot sun alone! Shops are closed for the siesta during midday anyways and reopen at about 4:30 pm. Closed during the respective prayer times. Reopen about 30 mins after prayers and close as late at 10:30 or even midnight during the festive seasons and weekends.

The weather is very hot and very dry. The outside temperature was 47oC yesterday, and one can easily be dehydrated without one realising it. (Especially a fragile woman like me ;)) So having company would help in this situation.

Food here is simply fabulous! Fact that everything is Halal also makes it easier. I find myself eating lots of junk food which I could not have tried before. Hardees, Macdonalds, Burger king, Fudruckers, KFC, Taza etc etc. You just name it and chances are they have it here! And best (or worst) of all they have drive throughs! Which means I walk less and get to eat more. Definitely a disaster for weight gain! And the middle eastern rice, with its delicate flavours and the kebabs and the kabsah! I have gained about 3 kg since I arrived! Will need to hit the gym real soon.

So do I like Riyadh? Aside from the terrorist threats and the current inherent fear that the expatriates are feeling, I feel that I can learn to like this place. I am hoping to be able to learn some Arabic, have a deeper understanding of Islam and be able to visit Makkah and Madinah and perhaps be able to learn and appreciate more of the history of Islam and its people. Whether or not I would be able to achieve all this, only time will tell. Insyallah.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Paul Johnson beheaded

The American hostage was beheaded. It is a gory sigh.

I may not be a learned person in Muslim theology, but I cannot accept what they did to him is in the name of Islam.

The local ISP here blocked most of the sites that carried the pictures of the beheaded man but I managed to find one which the ISP missed. Thanks to Google of course.

What has this world become? Have we reverted back to the dark ages where men were beheaded and their heads put on show?

Monday, June 14, 2004

The heat is on

Its been two weeks since I arrived in Saudi Arabia and many have asked me about my views on this country. I have always maintained that its been too early to tell and its been partly clouded by terrorist acts.

Unfortunately I havent had the chance to meet many Saudis myself. Partly because of language, partly to where I live and partly due to the culture here. I encountered my first Saudi salesperson/shop owner while purchasing my abaya. Otherwise the sales people have been mostly Indian, Filipinos or other men from the Gulf.

But from what I gather there is a growing restlessness in the youth of this country. With figures of unemployment as high as 30%, and a population of 17 million Saudis and 8.8 million foreigners (Source AP) I can understand why the youth are restless and angry. One source reportedly said that it took a new University graduate 7 months to get his first job. 7 months for the terrorist network to recruit a new follower.

There is also a wide discord between the ruling rich, and the lower class poor. All the attacks on the foreigners is a direct attack on the al-Saud family.

And their strategy is working.

As each expat return to his bed each night, they start wandering if they should tender their resignation the next day. Many have sent their families home, others are taking no pay leave and many are looking for an alternative job.

What I found most scary is that the terrorist really believe that what they are doing is right. I read "ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF INTERVIEW WITH LEADER OF KHOBAR AL-QAEDA CELL". The acts that the men did were very distressing and barbaric. Yet they were able to reason that they got away doing what they did with divine intervention.

My take is that, if the transcript was really genuine, these men are angry, disillusioned and crazy men. They have a hunger to kill, a thirst for blood.

More scary than that is a goverment that does nothing to prevent them from doing so.

Am I moving towards support for the ISA?

Saturday, June 12, 2004

What is it about Saturdays that the terrorist choses to terrorize on Saturdays? Perhaps they all have their rest on Thursday. Congregate on Friday after prayers and set their plan of action for Saturday?

Another man, thought to be American, is shot today. News are a bit sketchy at the moment.

Perhaps they just want to inspire fear in the foreigners. And they are successful.
I so don't get it! Is it a cultural thing that I just don't understand?
The following article is taken from the Arab news.

Camera Phones Stir Controversy
Staff Writer

KHAMIS, 12 June 2004 — A number of parents of high school girls have complained to the school authorities about a student taking photos with her mobile phone camera, reported Okaz. The girl was caught taking pictures of students and teachers without their knowledge and without them being covered.

As the school year draws to a close, many wedding festivities and other social occasions are eagerly awaited, but many people concerned about having their photo taken without their knowledge.

“I attend weddings now feeling tense and wondering whether someone is taking my picture,” says Muna Taib. “It’s really uncomfortable”. Lina Ahmad adds, “Sure, I may be sitting in a public space but there is a principle at stake. No one has the right to take your picture without your knowledge and consent.”

“But then again,” says Muna’s father, “having your mobile phone taken away just because it has a camera raises the question of personal privacy. It may equally be viewed as a violation of individual rights.”
The weekend

I am still getting used to the idea that the weekend here is on Thursday and Friday. When Saturday comes I inevitably refer to it as Monday. Old habits die hard it seems.

It has been quiet in the "killing" front, but the damage is done. Many expatriates have sent their families home. Others are counting the days to their summer vacation and may not be coming back.

Went to an Embassy do last Wednesday, it was to celebrate the Agong's birthday. It was definitely interesting to see more Malaysians and their views about living here. The bulk of the Malaysians here are nurses. As one nurse told me, the difference in salary between here and Malaysia is 7 times. So much so, they are willing to leave their family behind and work here. Most are women, very few were men. In fact, you could have counted the number of men in that gathering. The Malay Malaysian men mostly were from the Telco industry. And the rest, including HR, IT, Chef etc etc.

One thing I really liked was that the people at the gathering had no airs about them! They were nice, friendly and chatty. I did have fun!

I did ask a few people if they were getting nervous living here. The general feeling I get is that yes, it does make them feel somewhat nervous but they felt that since we are not white, perhaps we would be less of a target.

Is that really true I'd have to ask?

The Philippines Embassy did produce an advisory on its citizens that the Embassy received two letters of threat to its citizens in the Kingdom, due to President Arroyo's support for the US.

And the people here think we are Filipinos. Even the Filipinos think we could be Filipinos; would the terrorist know any better? And should they decide to shoot on sight, then that would mean that we could be under siege too!

Another lady advised the denial approach. She said, don't you listen to the news. Just do what I do, go to work, come back and listen to the music. No point in making yourself upset by listening and reading the news. Relax.

Can a news junkie ignore the news?

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

When I was much younger, I had once envision myself to be a journalist. But now I have come to a realisation that I am not cut up for it. I am too thin skinned and get scared easy! But I still admire the journalists who risk their lives to give us an opinion of what happens at various parts of the world.

Here's a report by Frank Gardner, filed one day before he was shot at in Riyadh.

I am beginning to think that it was a hit rather than a random act of violence. I read somewhere that there were 5 cars that surrounded his, not just one. And many do question how is it that the terroritst knew that he and the cameraman will be there. And their unofficial guide, totally unhurt? I guess only Frank can now tell us the true story.

If you were looking for my entry about the security meeting, sorry I had to take it down.

I don't really believe in censorship (although my local ISP here does! I can't get even to some blogs because the ISP obviously thought that the contents were questionable.) But anyways I have been advised to take the article down. Not for anything, the residents are all tense at the moment.

With another shooting yesterday, people are getting more and more restless. Some of the advice I had was really unnerving, left me quite depressed. But I would have to respect the wishes of my neighbours as they feel that the article would make the compound more vulnerable and perhaps more of a target.

Another American was shot last night. There hasn't been a let up which makes many people ask, when will this all end? Others have made arrangements to leave.

BC-Saudi-Shooting, 8th Ld-Writethru,0654
American working for U.S. defense contractor shot dead in Saudi
Eds: AMs.
AP Photo XAN109
Associated Press Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — An American who worked for a U.S. defense contractor was shot and killed Tuesday in the Saudi capital, the second deadly shooting of a Westerner in the kingdom in three days.
An unknown assailant killed the man in his home, said a spokesman for the man's employer, Vinnell Corp., based in Fairfax, Va. "He was found by another employee at his apartment and taken to a hospital, but did not survive," said the spokesman, Jay McCaffrey.

The U.S. Embassy confirmed the death of an American in Riyadh. The victim's name was not released because Vinnell has not been able to reach his next of kin, McCaffrey said. Seven Vinnell employees were among the 35 people, including nine suicide bombers, who died last year in an attack on a Riyadh
foreigners' housing compound. Vinnell, which has several dozen Americans in the kingdom training
Saudi security forces, maintains a secure residential compound for its employees, but the victim chose not to live there, McCaffrey said.

The official Saudi news agency said police were investigating the death. Saudi security officials declined immediate comment. "I am shocked," said Bandar Al-Ajmi, 29, a Saudi who lived round the
corner from the victim. "He was our neighbor, and neither God nor the Prophet (Muhammad) would accept that something like this would happen." An orange police bus blocked the street leading to the apartment in a villa in the Khaleej neighborhood of eastern Riyadh. Besides training security forces, Vinnell Corp., a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Corp., also provides other services ranging from construction to supply and transportation work. Last year, it was awarded a $48 million contract to train the new Iraqi army. Islamic militants have carried out a series of attacks on Westerners,
government targets and economic interests in the kingdom during the past 13 months. The government has blamed the attacks on people inspired by, or belonging to, the al-Qaida terror network led by
Saudi-born Osama bin Laden. Insurgents shot a British Broadcasting Corp. team Sunday while it was
filming a militant's family home in Riyadh. The cameraman, Simon Cumbers, 36, an Irish citizen, was killed and security correspondent Frank Gardner, 42, a Briton, was critically wounded. The attack occurred in a low-income neighborhood that has been the scene of numerous confrontations between government forces and militants. The scene of Tuesday's shooting was an upscale district of
schools, clinics and housing compounds where Westerners live. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday the attack on the BBC journalists demonstrated the threat terrorists pose around the world.
"We have to be vigilant and get out and get after them and make sure we deal with this issue," Blair said. The British Foreign Office has advised Britons against all nonessential travel to Saudi Arabia. The United States has gone further, urging all its citizens to leave the kingdom. Militant attacks have surged in the past two months, despite a high-profile campaign against terrorists the government began after last year's suicide bombings.

On May 29, militants stormed a resort in the eastern oil city of Khobar and took hostages. They killed 22 people, mostly foreigners. One attacker was captured. Saudi security forces are still looking for three others.

On May 22, a German chef was shot and killed outside a bank in Riyadh. The assailants remain at large.

On May 1, terrorists attacked the offices of an American energy company in the western city of Yanbu, killing six Westerners and a Saudi.
AP-WS-06-08-04 1458EDT

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

This was how my garden looked like at the end of May. By now my roses would be blooming and by next month, the apple tree will start to bear fruit. My lavender will be flowering as well. C'est la vie. Posted by Hello

Picture of downtown Riyadh with the Kingdom Center Posted by Hello

Monday, June 07, 2004

Women without discretion Part I

What is it about we women, when we gossip that all discretions are forgotten? Is this just Malay women or all women? Frankly I don’t get that much revelation from the British women.

Because I move a lot, there has been many opportunities to make new friends, especially Malay women. Somehow apparently I was told “Kita Melayu ni suka bermasyarakat.” (We Malays like to live in a community.) Which probably is why the Malays in UK generally all like to live in the same areas and neighbourhoods. Areas which I would normally avoid because with too many Malays, then there will be too much gossiping and backstabbing. If I wanted to stay in areas full of Malays, eat Malay food everyday, speak Malay everyday then I might as well live in KL! Don’t get me wrong, I love KL, its just that I feel it defeats the purpose of me staying abroad and experiencing different cultures and languages if I live my life how I would do it in KL, minus the perks of being in KL.

Anyways, two women whom I met on while leaving on the road just stuck to my mind.

The first will forever be remembered by me as Mrs Condom. Mrs Condom is married to an English bloke. (“He’s just a regular English bloke who likes football,” she says convincingly to me.) She is very happily married to him but yearns to go back and live in Malaysia again.

I did ask her before, didn’t you discuss the logistics before you got married? Her answer was, “Alah sebelum kawin, semua boleh saje, dah kawin ni lain cerita.” (Before we were married, he agrees to everything, but things changed after we got married.)

I find Mr Condom a very weird character. He would be one of those blokes I would classify as an Asianphile. Or perhaps in his case it’s a Malayphile. Apparently before marrying her, he had another Malay girlfriend. He works with a Malaysian company and his officemates were predominantly Malaysians. And according to Mrs Condom, he enjoys eating nasi goreng everyday. Perhaps he was a Malay in his previous life.

Why, you might ask, do I call them Mr and Mrs Condom?

So the story unfolds, Mrs Condom and I were exchanging views on things. We both don’t have kids. So the discussion of why we choose not to have kids at this time came up. According to Mrs Condom, Mr Condom tells her that he is not yet ready to have kids. He wants them to have a closer relationship first before embarking on the journey and commitment of parenthood. Ideas, which I agree and share.

So next Mrs Condom decided to ask me what sort of birth control methods we are using.

Is this really appropriate??? Its only like the fourth or fifth time we met and hung out??

She candidly said, “Alah kalau XXX tu dia pakailah Condom dia.” (My husband uses condom.)

And she told me with a straight face! Then proceeded to ask, “You plaks gunakan apa?”

I was toooo flabbergasted!!!! Because I am a very graphic person you see. My mind will give me an illustration in my head of the things I hear and read. And at that very moment I have a very vivid image of her husband, whom I met once over dinner at her house, putting a condom on with a smirk on his face!

And I could not get that image out of my head!!

“I don’t really like to discuss my sex life, thank you very much.” I said.

And I think she was shocked. She was shocked that I refuse to share with her our bedroom secrets. But what did she expect????

I have to tell you Mrs Condom has not contacted me since that conversation. I think we talked on the phone once, me wishing her Selamat Hari Raya, and later I sent her an email which she did not reply to.

But I’d have to say I am not too heart broken. Because I don’t know how long I would be able to keep a straight face, with the image of Mr Condom putting a rubber sheath on his male part with a smirk on his face, as I try to hold a decent conversation at the dinner table.

Saudi Arabia, it appears, to be shifting into a war torn zone.

RIYADH, 7 June 2004 — The BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner
was critically injured and his cameraman Simon Cumbers was killed
yesterday when they came under fire in a Riyadh neighborhood
notorious for militants.§ion=0&article=46416&d=7&m=6&y=2004

I am one of Frank’s new fan and was alarmed to hear that he was shot in Suwaidi district.

The recent spate of events has made many expats, who have not already left, to consider how worthwhile it is for them to stay here. That includes us. How much is our lives worth to us?

Perhaps, some of you may wonder why many expatriates chooses to come to work in Saudi. The answer is simple – money. Most good contracts in kingdom of Saudi Arabia offers a tax free salary, accommodation in an expatriate compound, air tickets to one’s country of origin once a year and a generous annual leave. Considering that a country such as the UK has a taxation rate of 40%, this offer is very lucrative indeed!

But many have packed their bags to go. Perhaps they have made their money over the years and decided that this is the last straw and will take no more of it.

But I have only just arrived.

Many asked me, why Saudi Arabia now? My answer to that is because the opportunity has just come up recently. Well I wanted to try Europe first, and after three years I thought well, why not. Its not fair to say that I want to try living in Europe and not the Middle East. If given the chance yes I would like to try living in every continent in the world. Only to see the greatness and the diversity of the different cultures and terrain of this world that we live in. And it will be unfair to say that I am only attracted to North America and Europe, and not try the Middle East.

Some asked, why not just visit? Well when one visits a place as a tourist, one sees the place only from one side, the touristy places, the people in the tourist industry and the shopping, not able to experience the richness or the culture of actually living in that place and understanding the psyche of the people there.

And normally the first month living anywhere is difficult because one goes through a culture shock, due to unfamiliarity to the environment of a place. (I had a culture shock when I first lived in Kuala Lumpur, I call KL home now but it sure didn’t feel that way my first month there.)

But with all this shootings and attack, I begin to wonder, is it worthwhile to try living here?

For now, I’d have to say we will wait and see. (I have only just finished unpacking my luggage that arrived yesterday.)

I have been in denial for the past week. I have focused all my energy in making my new abode home. But I am beginning to ask, how worthwhile is it for me to try it out here?

Sunday, June 06, 2004

The rest of my clothes came in today.

Hooray. The rest of my clothes and books are now in my house! Allright, all in all the 113 kg cost us £550 and SAR60. Everything looks intact. This place begins to feel more like home.

But we may be packing up to leave again. Who knows. With all the unrest and attack on foreign compounds here, I'd be lying to say that I am not the slighest bit worried.

Such is life. Its never going to be perfect. I was looking forward to trying to live here but apparently they don't want us here. Well apparently they are only targeting "infidels" and Westerners, neither of which we are. But that's besides the point, should they decide to attack the compound where I live and decide to bomb the whole place or randomly spray the area with bullets, whose gonna say we will be protected?

Of course I believe in predestination and Allah's will. But, then again, all these troubles are manufactured by men. Nothing to do with religion or otherwise.

I was hoping to do my Umrah before we leave. But I am not ready. Not this week anyways. I guess it will all be about rezeki, if I am given the invitation to visit Mekah, I will go soon. Insyallah.

I have lots to write, my observations and reflections since my arrival here. And the people I met and the locals.

Will try to make time as soon as I finish unpacking (if I dont need to pack and move again that is.)

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Hope for womankind

This I found on the Arab news. How many men here think as he does, this I don't really know. But personally I thought the fact that he had only one child and that being a daughter, is an anomaly. Kudos to him and hope that if more people do think like him in this country, there might be hope for womankind here!§ion=0&article=46288&d=5&m=6&y=2004

‘I’ve Lost My Daughter!’
Tariq A. Al-Maeena,

Hisham called me up the other day in a rather perturbed state of mind. A middle-aged man whose roots are in Jeddah, Hisham is a father of an only child, a daughter who just turned 23. The source of his anxiety, it seems, was that his offspring had decided to move to a neighboring Gulf state to pursue her professional career.

A recent graduate of media and communications from Stanford University in California, his daughter had decided to call it quits in her job search in the local market. I suggested we meet over a cup of coffee to discuss this further.

That evening, Hisham began by imploring me to highlight in one of my columns this disturbing trend whereby Saudi graduates are giving up hope of finding suitable jobs and looking to nearby countries. “Get off the political bandwagon for a while and focus on this social issue. I am not getting younger, and the thought of my only child leaving me through no fault of her own is causing me and my wife a great deal of concern,” he added.

“But Hisham, there seem to be plenty of employment opportunities here for the qualified, from what I see. Besides, only last week there was an announcement of a nine-point plan approved by the government to create more jobs and allow more opportunities for women. I sense the government is serious about it.”

“Yes Tariq, the government may take such steps, but who is going to implement these laws?

Bureaucrats who sit on issues for years until they are dead and buried or long forgotten? You should know better. How many laws have been passed over the years, and how many of them have been actually carried out?”

I had to nod my head in agreement. I have to add that we have one of the slowest and most ineffectual bureaucracies around, one that inherently promotes frustration rather than execution. And judging from their success so far, an unproductive group of civil servants has grown in numbers due to a lack of public accountability.

“Besides, Tariq, my daughter did try. She knocked on many doors. But the media outlets here are limited in scope and imagination, and even more limited when it comes to women.

Saudi women have proven time and again that they are far more efficient than their male counterparts, but the ‘she can’t do this, she can’t do that’ attitude that prevails in the minds of these dull-minded men has resulted in very meager offerings.

“For a young qualified graduate ready to take on the world, it was very depressing and disheartening to have to go through this kind of mental abuse. And all because of her gender. Why did I bother to educate her, I’m beginning to wonder. For her to be told that?

“And while it pains me to see her leave, I now want her to go. To soar with eagles rather than be shot down like clay pigeons. And if she falters, we will be there to help her fly again.”