Monday, November 19, 2007

More on the Red Arrows

I wrote previously about the Red Arrows visiting Jeddah. I'm afraid I wasn't able to escape the cubicle farm to attend, but Alex Sykes did and was kind enough to provide me with a picture. Thanks Alex!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Holy Saudi Cows

I'm fuming.
Who wouldn't after reading this pretty piece of news (BBC News). And here's an alternate source (Arab News). And another (Al Arabiya).
A lawyer for a gang-rape victim in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to 200 lashes and six-months in jail says the punishment contravenes Islamic law.
Lovely. The poor girl gets gang raped fourteen times, and all the towel heads with big beards can think of was the girl breaking the taboo of Saudi sexual segregation. What about the rapists?
The sentences for the seven rapists ranged from 10 months to five years in prison.
To put things into perspective; a few months ago a man accused of raping a boy was sentenced to death. But of course the girl was somehow guilty for being an object of lust. She went out with unrelated man after all. She must be a slut! The poor rapists. How could they resist the temptation?

The Saudi society and its hypocrisy make me sick sometimes.

Oh and it gets better. This appeals court had actually doubled the girl's sentence from the last time the case went into court.
A source at the Qatif General Court said that the judges had informed the rape victim that the reason behind doubling her punishment was “her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media.”
How dare she speak against the most Holy of Holy Cows? Their words come directly from God after all? Oh, and her lawyer. He was behind all of this. Burn the Heretic!
Judge Soliman Al-Muhanna from the Qatif court told the lawyer (Al-Lahem) that the judicial committee had decided to suspend him from the case. They also confiscated his license which is granted to Saudi lawyers by the Ministry of Justice. To Al-Lahem’s surprise he received a call from the Judicial Investigation Department of the Ministry of Justice to inform him of a disciplinary session he should attend on 25th of the Hijra month.
The thing is, we've come to expect this kind of injustice from our esteemed justices. But what really really makes me want to pick up a chainsaw and go medieval and people's asses is the reaction from many people in the Saudi society. Most would just shrug it away citing that their Holinesses know best. Some even have the audacity to change the question into "Yeah, but what was she doing with that guy in the first place?". Seems everything can be forgiven in Saudi Arabia, except for going out with strangers. That and speaking out against Judge Dredd.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Book Review: "The Difference Engine" by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Scifi fans revere the name William Gibson. His classic book Neuromancer single-handedly started the cyberpunk genre, and introduced the word cyberspace. Films like The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell all trace their lineage to Gibson's vision of a bleak, dystopian, computer run world. And while I'm not too familiar with his work, Bruce Sterling is another cyberpunk author of some renown. So what are the two doing writing a book set in Victorian London?

Starting a new Scifi genre, that's what.

You see back in the 19th century, English mathematician Charles Babbage designed what is probably the first programmable computer. Made from gears and mechanical parts, Babbage's analytical engine was ahead of its time. Too ahead. Babbage died before his vision could be completed. But, what if Babbage had perfected his design? What if the computer revolution came a full century ahead of its time? Perfectly coinciding with the Industrial Revolution?

Say hello to Steampunk, where the 19th century is re-imagined into a more high-tech world.

Gibson and Sterling paint a wonderfully detailed world where the Engines have touched every facet of everyday life. From mechanized animated displays, to automated factories, to gargantuan government engines that store data about everyone in the realm. In this world three people, unrelated at first, have their lives changed and intertwined when a mysterious set of punch-cards, a computer program, makes its appearance. Shady characters stalk them and will do anything to get their hands on the cards. In the background, unrest boils as the rampant industrialization and the pollution it brings takes its toll on London.

Unfortunately, despite the teasingly good premise, the book fails to deliver. As typical of Gibson the world is vivid with detail, however the storytelling suffers. The book is basically a collection of three novellas, each covering one of the three major characters, and a small collection of short stories at the end. All three novellas end somewhat anti-climatically, and the characters failed to grip my attention and were quite forgettable actually. By the end of the novellas very little is achieved and many tantalizing questions are left unanswered. The book also had the chance to explore the effects of 2oth century tech on a 19th century world and values, but does very little of that.

Ironically, it was the last part of the book that I enjoyed the most. The short stories and news bites that compromise the book's final pages do a good job of fleshing out the world of The Difference Engine and go a long way into providing the book with actual closure. A somewhat chilling ending that is typical of Gibson. If only the whole book was in this format. Overall, The Difference Engine feels like an interesting exercise in speculative thought that found itself, clumsily, turning into a novel.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The RAF Red Arrows in Jeddah

Just got the news. The Red Arrows, the acrobatic team belonging the British RAF (don't you find it rather amusing that the Brits don't feel the need to explicitly say that it's the British Royalty they're talking about, it's just Royal this or that), will be conducting one of their famous air shows here in Jeddah. The show will be tomorrow (November 7th) at 3:00 pm and held in the Corniche near Al Nawras roundabout.

I have to question the timing though. I understand the need for having plenty of daylight for the show (hence the rather inconvenient 3:00 pm timing), but couldn't they have held it on Thursday?

Whether I'll actually attend is yet to be seen since I finish work at five, but if I can squirm away from work tomorrow I'll try to bring my camera with me to take a few shots.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Power of Names

"What's your last name?"

It may seem silly, but I dread this question. I dread questions that would lead to a long and involved answer which is something I don't like to partake of, especially when the interrogator is a (friendly) stranger. You see I don't exactly have what you might call a traditional Jawa last name. Not technically anyway but I'll expand on that bit in a sec. So what is a traditional Jawa last name? In 99% of Jawas in this country you can tell where they come from simply from knowing their last names. Indonesians and Malays in general don't have surnames in the Saudi sense. So when they migrate to the magic kingdom most of them use their point of origin as the surname. Felimban, Kalantan and Banjar are amongst the most wide spread. While most of us Jawas have very tenuous links with our ancestral homes, we still carry the old monikers.

I don't have one of those. Or rather I do but they're not on my identification papers. Long story short: when my father was naturalized some government regulation made him drop the surname (Or maybe dad just dropped it on his own. I don't know. He's not around anymore for me to ask) so we're using my great grand dad's name as a family name (which is actually more in accordance to how it's done in the old country). I have to go through that whole explanation every time someone asks about my surname and getting confused about it. Gets annoying and tedious after a while.

Recently however, I noticed my little brother using our long forgotten Jawa name whenever he could. Always identifying himself as an Ampenan. He also hinted to me once that he would like to make it our official surname.

While I didn't explicitly agree (didn't explicitly reject either), I could understand where he was coming from. Names have power. They tell you who you are, where you come from. Gives you a sense of identity and history, and anchors you firmly on solid ground. It says you belong, are part of something larger. Especially in a country like Saudi Arabia where tribal law still rules the community. "Who are you?" is almost always followed by "Who are your people?" in this land. I've learned through the years not to let it bother me much. Yet still, like an itch that longs to be scratched, the longing is there.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

More on the Eid Crescent

As I wrote in an earlier entry many people have been distressed about the fact that it was astronomically impossible for Eid to be on the 12th of October, but now it seems it isn't just us crazy immoral liberals who have taken note. Several Saudi religious scholars lead by Abdullah Al Munaie (member of the Grand Council of Ulema) have made clear their suspicions. "Blindly accepting that the views astronomers are invalid puts the whole community on the Judiciary Council's conscience." Al Munaie wrote. "Even if we assume that astronomers are a bunch of dissolutes whose testimonies should be investigated first, that does not mean we have the right to completely not hear them." he continues.

But of course this is Saudi Arabia. The head of the Judiciary Council stated that "astronomy remains an inaccurate discipline" preferring the use of the naked eye to a science that is older than the pyramids. "How are we to ignore the testimonies of eyewitnesses and listen to a a man calculating in his home?" he adds. Like my dear departed father used to say: "They still think science is some kind of djinn operated magic."

Still, the fact that there is a rift between the high ranking Saudi ulema over the matter gives one hope that maybe sometime in the (hopefully) not too distant future we can stop being the laughing stock of the world.

For a full article over the matter (in Arabic) visit Al Arabiya

Monday, October 22, 2007

Craving Burgers

There's something about hamburgers that is just so damn addictive. Every day during Ramadan I'd spend the day light hours craving burgers, promising myself a quick trip to the nearest McDonald's as soon as the sun sets. Yet, like most stuff I crave during fasting, I change my mind when night comes (stomach still groaning from the traditional Ramadan breakfast) and postpone my date with patty for a later date.

So now it's Shawwal, and nothing was getting in between me and my burger. Ah but since I was in Jeddah now during the day and not fasting I thought I'd have a special burger. While I like fast food style burgers just fine, I adore the burgers made by local chain Capo Grillo (Don't you just love sites that use the Comic Sans MS font? *gouges out eyes*). What I like about Capo's burgers is that they both look and taste like they were freshly made, as opposed to the frozen stuff you get in most fast food joints. And they cost just as much as their fast food cousins. Win-win in my book.

So there I was at Capo Grillo's licking my chops, bringing a friend along (I hate eating alone), waxing poetic about how good their burgers are, when the friendly cashier lets loose the bad news. Capo have switched to frozen burgers. A whole month craving the damn thing. For nothing. I ended up having a grilled chicken breast sandwich (which was pretty good, and healthy), leaving my burger addiction unanswered. Guess I'll just have to pony up the cash and visit Fuddruckers. At least I still know their burgers are still good. I hope so anyway.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Eid Crescent Controversy

For people who have been following the new crescent debate (whether Ramadan and other Hijri months should be determined astronomically) this Eid has presented a rather delicate situation. You see, Saudi Arabia and Libya are the only countries to have sighted the new moon on Thursday (and thus had Eid on Friday). Many Muslims, including me, have chosen to follow that edict for conformity's sake. The problem stems from the unarguable fact that it is astronomically impossible for the new moon to have been born on Thursday. The fact that people from the majority of the other countries started Eid on Saturday only strengthens the already overwhelming pile of evidence. It's this sort of problems that give strength to the case of switching over to the more scientific method of moon sighting, rather than on the faulty vagrancies of human vision.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Eid Mubarak

كل عام و أنتم بخير

Happy Eid

Selamat Hari Raya Idul Fitri

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Ramadan Crescent: The Ongoing Battle for Modernity

Blue: "Ramadan Kareem!"
Red: "It's not Ramadan over here yet."

Blue: "But it started yesterday!"

Red: "Not over here it doesn't. We start tomorrow."

I'm pretty sure that we've all had this sort of conversation at one time or another, what with the internet tubes thingie breaking down distances. This year we were lucky, only one or two countries didn't fast with the rest of us, cause they didn't see the right kind of crescent.

To me that's extremely funny. I'm no astronomer but I'm pretty sure we only have one moon. And if it's a new moon in one place, it's still a new moon in another even if (for any number of reasons) you can't see it. And like all celestial objects we can pretty much plot the course of the moon for many centuries to come with astronomical (heh heh) accuracy, bar some catastrophic event like the moon being blown up by a
Uranium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator.

Yet it happens without fail every year. Muslims all around the globe start fasting in different times, and celebrate Eid al Fitr in different times. All because the highly conservative insist that the phrasing "fast when you see it" is to be taken literally and the crescent has to be seen with the naked eye. Since when do we see with only our eyes? We humans have reached a technological level where we have transcended the classical five senses in perceiving our world. We no longer see only with our eyes and reflected light. We see all sorts of things with electrons, radio waves, accelerated particles and humanity's single greatest achievement; mathematics.

People talk about Muslim solidarity, yet we can't even agree on whether a new moon has been born or not!

Fortunately I'm not alone in my concern. Unfortunately we lacked a voice. Thank god for Ahmad Al Shugairi, host of the highly successful program Khawatir (Thoughts) which promotes public awareness about the values of Islam as opposed to just the rituals. Mr. Al
Shugairi has recently started a campaign called "Our Nation is One, Our Crescent is One" through his show. The campaign aims towards raising awareness of the mathematical inevitability of the next Ramadan being on the 1st of September 2008, hoping that next year we would all begin fasting together. It's a lofty goal, and not unachievable, but requires lots of work and promotion. To help towards this goal Mr. Al Shugairi is selling campaign merchandise (a set including a T-shirt, a cap and a sticker) with the campaign's logo:

Even if you are not willing to buy the stuff, you should at least display the graphic on your blog or website. It's time people stopped associating Islam with ignorance.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Robert Jordan Dies

Robert Jordan has lost his fight with amyloidosis.

For those who have never heard of him (and are too lazy to click the link I provided to his Wikipedia entry), he is the author of the 'Wheel of Time' books. A series of highly popular fantasy novels that are regarded as amongst the most influential on the genre since Tolkien penned 'The Lord of the Rings'. Although gravely ill for some time now, he remained optimistic about finishing the twelfth (and final) book in the series. The actual quality of his books may have been questioned by many, especially the last few books, but none questioned the impact he has had on fantasy literature as a whole. Some even go as far as saying that he made the genre profitable again. One of my favorite authors, George R. R. Martin, surmises that RJ's positive blurb on the cover of 'A Game of Thrones' may have gone a long way in giving Martin's own fantasy series a head start.

I've been following RJ's books for years. Like many fans I salivated at the wonderful adventures of Rand, Mat and Perrin. Like many fans I grumbled as the books descended in quality and spiraled into a mess of repetitive writing, soap opera plots, and too many loose ends. Like many fans I grunted with semi-contentment as I read 'Knife of Dreams' (book 11) which wasn't half-bad and knowing that we only had one book to go. Like many fans I gasped with dismay when I learned that this was not going to be. But like many fans I wallowed in bitter-sweet melancholia upon learning that the great storyteller had left notes (both written and vocal) detailing the final installment making it possible that we may yet see 'A Memory of Light' being published. His love for his tale will live on beyond the grave.

Thanks for everything Robert, and rest in peace.

"The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning." - Robert Jordan


A Belated Ramadan Kareem

Better late than never....

رمضان كريم

May your nights be worshipful and your days cool folks.

And don't over do it on the eating part. Remember, it's supposed to be a month of fasting. Just think of it as an excuse to go on a diet :)


Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Myth of the Islamic Caliphate

Going through my daily news hounding I came across this bit of news (BBC News). Here's a quick excerpt (my emphasis):

Some 60,000 delegates have gathered in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, for a conference hosted by the radical Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT).

HT has described the conference as the largest ever gathering of Islamic activists from around the world.

However, the group, which is dedicated to the revival of the Caliphate, a single Muslim state across the Middle East, is outlawed in many countries.

Ah yes. The Caliphate. That holy grail of Jihadists everywhere. If only these fanatics would spend half the time they use to chant hate poetry to actually read history. And I mean real history not the watered-down, propaganda-filled version we get in school and children's books.

These Jihadists (and let's be frank here, almost all Muslims) have this oddly skewed view of the Caliphate. They think it was this pristine, fairy tale, almost utopic era. Where fair yet iron stern Caliphs ruled over a land overflowing with pink fluffy bunny rabbits, enforcing Islam to the letter.

Few things could be farther than the truth.

Yes, the Caliphate started great. But it didn't take much time until the Ummayads turned it from a post chosen by committee to a regular hereditary monarchy in all but name. The Islamic conquests were no longer religion driven (at least not in the minds of the Caliphs calling the shots) and anyone thinking otherwise are deluding themselves. The Caliphs themselves were no saints either. They were greatly known to indulge in all their appetites. Great cities like Baghdad had plenty of sinful establishments. Alcohol, prostitution (both female and male) were common. Leaving dry history aside, You only have to read poetry and other forms of literature of the time to realize how common it was. Heck, Abu Nawas who is considered one of the greatest Arab poets wrote openly about his paederastic tastes, and he was far from the only one.

Yet people like to blind themselves to the truth. They even protest when that truth is told and it doesn't conform to the rosy version they believe.

Take last Ramadan. MBC showed a wonderful historical drama called "Al Amin and Al Mamun: The Sons of Al Rashid". Aside from the wonderful direction, brilliant acting, and beautifully recreated sets, "Sons of Al Rashid" was refreshingly honest about its subject matter. It showed Harun al Rashid and his sons as they really were. Flawed human beings. The Abbasids were no strangers to Alcohol and women, and there was no attempt to hide that facet of history in the drama. They showed the Abbasids fighting amongst themselves for power. Regicide, fratrecide, you name it they did it. They even took time to depict Al Mamun's (the drama's main protaganist) prosecution of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal and his followers who opposed his Mu'tazilla views. Something most people tend to try to forget. Most surprisngly the director was bold enough to hint at Al Amin's rumored homosexuality.

But of course the truth hurts. People were so used to reading about Harun as this peerless paragon of virtue that they screamed and howled when presented with real history for a change. Don't get me wrong. Harun was a great man. Islamic science and arts peaked during his reign, and the nation was never as strong politically and militarily. But he was a human being, not an angel.

Go read a book people.


Thursday, August 9, 2007

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

Ok, so it took me longer than usual to finish this book. Sue me, I've been busy :P

Anyway, this is a rather hard book to review. Over the years its has gathered up so much hype and expectations it was bound to disappoint in one way or another. Also I'll be trying to keep any spoilers out of my following review, so rest easy all you internet crazies. You can drop those pitchforks.

So does it disappoint?


And no its not all about the hopeful, doe eyed expectations.

Ok I'll try to be more specific, which is pretty hard without violating the holy non-spoiler act. Book 7 is a very dark book, especially when contrasted with the cheery and charming first three books. But people who've read book 4 (or seen the movie) know the dark turn the books had taken. Death, torture and other darker themes became more and more prevalent. And the final chapter is the darkest by far. Its not really a children's book anymore, and has crossed the boundary over to so called "Young Adult" fiction.

Which is pretty good. Until you start looking closer, and all the warts come out. That's when the book betrays its children's books roots. The clumsy world building, black and white characterization (with only a few notable exceptions), the rather immature and cheesy handling of death and other more adult situations, and the prevalent use of handy deus ex machina solutions without so much as foreshadowing.

The book starts out nicely paced at the begining. You can almost feel Rowling's relaxed state of mind. Then the second half starts, and things go high wire. The pace gets more rushed and clumsiness sets in. Its almost as if Rowling had a checklist of things to happen before the book ends, realized that she was almost out of space, then started rushing things through. Dramatic situations are shrugged off, and people die just because they need to die and are then glossed over in the mad sprint to the finish line.

And then comes a rather anti climatic end, and a rather silly epilogue.

Mind you, I still found Deathly Hallows to be a fun book. I mean Harry Potter was never high literature to begin with and that has never changed. For all her faults, Rowling is pretty good at spinning an enjoyable story and fun characters. I just wished that she had taken her time to flesh them out a bit more in this book instead of cramming every secondary and tertiary character in the series into one book.

If you're an established fan of the books I dare say you'll enjoy the book. It's a ... competent ... end to the story. But if you've never cared for the boy wizard from the start, this book won't change your mind.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Soak up the Sun

Me and the family spent the last weekend in a Jeddah resort enjoying the 3 S's; Sun, Surf, and being Steamed alive by the summer humidity! And to give it all a nice conclusion we rented a fishing boat and went for a little cruise around the Ubhur creek. I took the opportunity to flex my (unfortunately) atrophied photography muscles and put my expensive digital SLR camera to some real use. The boat's captain kindly gave us an exciting experience by going at high speed. An Exhilarating experience, but bumpy which made my attempts at immortalizing the moment in digital form a bit hard. So I did that thing with the multiple captures that I always see the pros do (*snap* yes beautiful *snap* *snap* gorgeous *snap* keep that pose *snap* *snap* flick those waves babe *snap* *snap* aaaaand I'm spent...). While I was browsing my catch I came upon this little pic above which I don't remember actually framing. Possibly the best pic I took all day, and I didn't even know about it. Makes you appreciate all those small little moments that makes life so beautiful, and gives you a bitter-sweet punch in the gut to know that except for a few chance photographs or mementos those moments live solely in your memory.

Cherish those moments. Cherish the memories and hope they live there forever. After all, you might not always get lucky and have a camera nearby.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter and the Finally Finished Franchise

It's finally here!!

I was at Jarir yesterday, and sure enough the seventh (and final) installment in J. K. Rowling's super mega hit series was on offer. Seeing that the worldwide release was the day before, Jarir had outdone themselves. I had learned long ago to trust them to make the latest Harry Potter available as quickly as possible. Something I learned the hard way, much to my discomfort. They have also promised me a 20 riyal gift certificate (part of the promo) as soon as they become available. Well, they have my phone number.

I've been reading these books ever since the release of the fourth book "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and the huge crowds it generated made the news. Book 4 was a huge book, especially in children literature standards, and I thought "any book that kids want to read despite the intimidating size must be good". So I bought all four, and I was instantly hooked. I flew through the first two (admitedly much smaller) books on the first day. I was a fan. A Pothead!

As soon as book five was announced I pre-ordered it on, and I had it in my greedt little hands a couple of weeks after its actual release. I glowed with pride that I had the book before everybody else, even though Jarir supplied the books not long after. Sure the difference was a week or so, but that's what separates the fans from muggles.

Then book six was announced. Confident in the power of my web browser/credit card combo I pre-ordered. This time Jarir gave me the ole' rabbit punch. Book six was available only a few days after the worldwide release. I had to wait for a whole week while my copy crawled through the trails of snail mail to get to me, all the while I had to fight the growing temptation to just buy the damned book and be over with.

This time I knew better.

Excuse me. I have a huge book to read.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Saudi's Racial Divide

I was reading some of the comments on my previous entry on racial stereotyping when I realized that though I may have taken the lighter side of the issue I've never actually spoken of the ugly side. The side we see every day. The side that spouts this kind of ugliness (Crossroads Arabia).

For the benefit of any foreign visitors (Hellooooo? Anybody out there?) let me paint you the racial landscape around here. You can take a piece of chalk and draw a very clear line between the two major racial groupings here in Saudi Arabia. On one side we have Saudi Arabia's original inhabitants; the various Saudi tribes, collectively known by the un-PC term "Bedouins" due to their nomadic past. On the other side you have the "Hadar" (city dwellers), mostly descendants (though not entirely) of non indigenous people from all over the Islamic world.

The two sides loathe each other.

Most of this is just plain old human-pack-mentality invoked response (yes, I do believe that racism is a natural impulse), but its more than that. Like many things, economics play a vital role.

Before we discovered we had this expensive smelly black liquid running under our sands the playing field was mostly even here in Saudi Arabia. The professions market was more or less neatly divided between the two groups. The Bedouins, being either nomads or dwellers of agricultural areas, were mostly herders or farmers. The Hadar, being city born, were mostly merchants and craftsmen. Then came the oil drills and everything changed. Suddenly there was all this money floating around. Trade boomed. And as in all economic surges it was the merchants who benefited most. The Hadar became richer, and as a consequence their children got better education and later held all the important positions. The Bedouins took several generations to catch up.

Money is the root of all problems, they say.

Although most of the old merchant families are still Hadar, the economic divide is long gone. Yet old prejudices are hard to kill. If you believe the stereotypes then Saudis are either uncouth covetous barbarians or immoral thieving money bags. I don't know about you, but barbarians are definitely not exclusive to one side or the other and I seem to have misplaced my hoard of stolen gold. We (Saudis) either pretend that these tensions don't exist, or we play the finger pointing game and try to lay the blame at others' door steps. When in reality we should be pointing the accusing finger at ourselves. Both sides are equally to blame for prolonging the long standing hatred. Both sides have contributed equally into making this hatred ingrained in our sub-conscious.

As a child I was warned against playing with those naughty Bedouin children. A dear friend of mine has been taught by his elders that those sinful Hadar have stolen his legacy.

Do you have any idea what kind of an effect this sort of talk has on a growing child?

Yet I still see this invisible indoctrination happening all the time.

I would love to see the culture of tolerance (both racial and religious) being taught in schools. I would love to see a Bedouin marrying a Hadar without any eyebrows being raised. I would love for all the surnames, stereotypes, racial slurs, and blind prejudice be part of a history book that future generations would laugh at.

But first, let's start with ourselves.


Thursday, June 28, 2007

Book Review: "Use of Weapons" by Iain M. Banks

In general, there's a tendency in the world of literature to look down on science fiction books and other "speculative fiction" literature. True, most scifi/fantasy is escapism and offer very little in the way of beautiful prose or other literary devices, especially during its infancy in the 50's/6o's when they were little more than "cowboys in space" or at best an interesting concept burdened with workman-like writing. But its been a long time since the days of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein. The genre has matured. And few books showcase this fact better than Iain M. Banks' "Culture" novels. Banks, already an established writer of "normal fiction" turns his literary skills to science fiction, creating an interesting world inhabited by the Culture; an extremely advanced race of genetically modified humans and sentient machines living in symbiosis and playing caretaker for the rest of the universe. I've yet to read all the books, but so far "Use of Weapons" is my favorite by a long margin.

Zakalwe is a highly regarded and skilled mercenary soldier who is constantly being recruited by Culture agent Diziet for jobs considered too dirty for the Culture to undertake by themselves. Riches beyond his imagination is constantly being promised, yet Zakalwe always asks for one reward, seemingly trivial. A reward that intrigues Diziet to no end. A dark secret lies in Zakalwe's past and Diziet is determined to find out what it is.

The thing I most like about this book is that it stands well by itself even without the trappings of science fiction. Remove all the space ships, robots and other paraphernalia and you would still have a very good and extremely well written book. The most interesting aspect is Banks' use of two narrative streams. One, traditionally enough, follows our protagonist's adventures forward in time. The other stream flows backwards, gradually delving deeper into Zakalwe's past. The two streams alternating chapters. If you've ever seen the movie Memento (if you haven't, you really really should) then this device might feel very familiar. Yes it can feel confusing at first, especially when you're not expecting it, but it flows logically afterwards. Both lines culminating, interestingly enough, into the same climax (in two different time lines).

For people who enjoy interesting to read books I can't recommend Use of Weapons enough, even if they don't usually read science fiction.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Ganging up on Saudi Vice

A few months ago there were troubling rumors making the rounds about turning the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (AKA Saudi Vice) into a full fledged ministry. As if these hard line extremists should have even more power than they already have. The prospect looked bleak to me. I saw what little hope I had of seeing this institution abolished withering in front of my eyes.

Then one day a brave brave lady dared challenge the mighty Saudi Vice. And suddenly the dam broke. That's the thing about Saudi society. Change takes a long time to come, but when it does come (usually triggered by a tragedy) it cascades through society at an amazing pace. It happened years ago when tragedy broke out in a Makkah school for girls and a lack of safety precautions meant that a simple fire cost the lives of many innocent girls. The tragedy and the rage brought down the Presidency for Girls Education, and prompted the long sought after merging with the (then boys only) Ministry of Education into one monolithic entity. For months after, the newspapers and the media hounded dilapidated schools all over the kingdom.

Now its happening to Saudi Vice.

When a conformist sad excuse for a newspaper like Okaz prints something like this article (translated and published in English by Arab News) you just know that change is in the air. Even the Shoura Council has taken up kicking the down on their luck Saudi Vice.

You could almost feel sorry for them.


The Saudi people have finally spoken up. We no longer want a Big Brother-like institution to tell us what is moral and what is not. Change now, or be brought down smashing into the ground.


Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Warning to Car Drivers in Jeddah

Calling all cars. Calling all cars. Well ... Cars in Jeddah anyway...

If at all possible avoid the intersection of Prince Majid (Sab'een) street and Rawdah street, formerly known as Meedan al Tayara.

Aside from the stifling traffic due to the reconstruction work and the hordes of water tankers waiting in line to get filled up from the water station, there's also the Mother of All Potholes.

Now Jeddites are no strangers to potholes, dodging holes in the ground is the norm here, but boy oh boy is this one a woozy. I had just escaped the traffic around the congested square, and happy with my release I accelerated towards the intersection of Majid and Tahliya when I fell into the worst pothole I have ever had the misfortune of experiencing. My whole car jumped. Then I heard that dreaded sound. The rumbling sound of a ruined tire.


A quick stop and a look confirmed it. Luckily enough there was a tire repair shop nearby, so with the tire making that awful bumpy noise I drove in. The prognosis? Worse than I thought. The pothole not only managed to give me a flat, it also ruined my expensive aluminum wheel.


And I wasn't alone! I counted three other cars at the tire shop with ruined tires and/or wheels during the time I was there. Hmmm. That tire shop must be making an awful lot of money from all these repairs. Hmmmm.

If you find yourself in the stretch between Meedan al Tayara and Tahliya Street, watch out for Potholezilla.

Thanks for nothing city of Jeddah!


Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Expat Effect

As part of my job I get to visit Riyadh a lot. Now for those who are not too familiar about the ethnic distribution in Saudi Arabia the thing you should know is that Saudi Jawas (and other naturalized non-Arab ethnic groups) are almost unheard of outside the Hijaz region. Which is why I get plenty of stares when I'm wearing Saudi clothes and dismissed as just another Pinoy expat when wearing western clothes when I leave the comfort of my home region.

I admit, at first this bothered me to no end. Why should I be judged differently just because I look foreign?

But being the ultimate optimist that I am, I soon learned to have fun. Imagine the following scene:

Interior shot: It's a fast food restaurant. Saudi Jawa enters, wearing a pair of jeans and a Metallica T-shirt. The Egyptian clerk smiles and starts speaking in English.

Egyptian Clerk: Good afternoon, sir. How may I help you?

Saudi Jawa (in perfectly accented Saudi Arabic): وعليكم السلام أخوي. ممكن الوجبة رقم 3 الله لا يهينك (Wa alaikum assalam, brother. Can I have meal no. 3, may Allah never humiliate you?)

Pause and double take.

Egyptian Clerk (surprised Egyptian Arabic):!ده انت بتتكلم عربي حلو أوي (Hey, you're speaking excellent Arabic!)

Call me mischievous, but I just love the shocked looks I get when people get confused over exactly what I am. I once opened the elevator door for a Sudani guy and he thanked me in English and I voiced my "you're welcome" in Arabic, in a friendly attempt to inform him of my linguistic skill and preference. He didn't get the hint, or else he was just too confused. We had a whole conversation during the elevator trip where he spoke in English and I replied in Arabic! I loved it!

Another perk that has more practical merit is that when people think you're an Expat from a developing country you get better prices. Yes. Better prices. I remember the first time I came to Riyadh on business I had to stay longer than I planned to so I went to a nearby clothes store to get some extra changes. I piled my purchases in front of the Indian clerk and when I was informed of the total cost I did a half-hearted attempt at haggling (more out of habit than anything else). The clerk surprised me when he said: "Sadeeg*. You are not Saudi. Don't worry, I'm giving you the best price. I would never dream of over charging you."

To this day, whenever I'm in Riyadh and I happen to be shopping I always cheat and wear western clothes and stop speaking Arabic.

I love being a Jawa :)

*"Friend" in pidgin Arabic.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Cake Mix

"Would we still be in love five years from now?" she asked me.

I could feel a sense of dread behind that query. Just a hint, bravely disguised as a joke question, but it was there. I could feel that it was bothering her, that it bothered her to even think about it. A waft of bitter poison in a tranquil icy lake.

"Oh I know we'll still be in love." I assured her, then added: "But it would be different. A different kind of love."

That bothered her. "Different?" she asked, a tinge of fear poking its ugly head around the corner.

"Have you ever made a cake?" I said, "You know how good the batter tastes even before it gets baked? Our love right now is like that. Delicious, spontaneous, exciting and slightly messy. Five years from now the batter would be baked. It's a cake now. It's still delicious (some would say even infinitely more delicious) but now it's more mature, solid, comfortable ... more real somehow."

She laughed and we shared one of those rare Zen moments when every little thing feels perfect. A moment where you sing and feel the world singing in harmony with you for once. I felt the heavy air of trepidation lift, and I laughed back as the fresh breeze played with my hair.

"You think a lot about food don't you?" she giggled.

Yes. Yes I do. Damn this diet...

Monday, May 14, 2007

Saudi People vs Religion Police (Round 1)

Arab News reports on this Saudi first:

The Court of Grievances in Riyadh yesterday postponed until July 2 the first ever compensation lawsuit against a member of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice filed by a Saudi woman after commission members failed to respond to a court summons.
Al-Lahem is representing a mother and daughter who were stopped by commission members in 2004 in front of a Riyadh shopping center. They accused the women, who were waiting in their car together with their driver, of not conforming to customs of decency.

As you can imagine I'm watching this very closely, and I have to say that it fills my heart with joy that this brave lady is not willing to back off despite the setbacks. I remain only cautiously optimistic though. Should the Saudi Vice lose this case then it would set a precedent. The flood gates would open on full blast and somewhere out there a boombox would be playing "Who Let the Dogs Out?". It would signal that the Mutaweens are no longer above the law and are in fact answerable to it. Are they really going to let go of all that power without a fight?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Oh, the Pain .... The Agony

"This will be over very soon." my torturer informed me in his infuriatingly calm voice, "Just a little more."

Like Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker's Darcula I was trapped in that hellish chair, held down by the sadist's three lovely assistants as he looked over the tools of his trade. He picked a hook, a needle, then a scalpel, then a power tool; a friggin drill! Even as these instruments left their marks on me, I couldn't help noticing their excellent craftsmanship. Top quality stainless steel. The man might have been a cold calculating torturer, but he took pride in his tools. I wanted to yell at them, to stop, to have mercy. After all, what have I ever done to deserve all this pain? I was no saint, but to be subjected to this purgatory? But I didn't. I knew my pleas would fall on deaf ears. Not even the assistants, lovely as they were, would bat an eye at my supplications. In fact, they showed great curiosity and interest at my tormentor's work. Like apprentices learning their trade. I only prayed that none would be subjected to the horror of their care.

Just when I thought the man had done his worst, out comes the real instruments. A small rotary saw and, I swear I'm not making this up, a chisel and a pair of pliers as a makeshift hammer. "Open him," he ordered his assistants, as coldly as he might've done had he asked them to make his dinner. The ladies of the landscape of pain pulled my mouth wider than I ever knew was possible. It's not supposed to open that much, I could've told them with a nervous laugh. If my tongue and face weren't numb that is. If I wasn't staring madly at the new tools, my imagination running rampant with the possibilities. Curse my over active imagination!

The chisel entered me and the man started hammering. I could feel it all the way to my brain. Blood splattered. My blood I thought coldly. It stained my clothes, and sprayed the man's face. It filled my mouth with that oddly metallic taste. Iron I thought, trying desperately to fish inside my head for all those insignificant factoids they crammed into our heads back in school. Hemoglobin, red and white cells, platelets. Anything to keep my mind away from the rising crescendo of pain. It was a losing battle I knew, but one that I knew I had to fight or else go insane. Then I heard the crack of bone. The sickening crunch as my torturer's target finally gave way after three hours of work.

"Congratulations sir. We have successfully removed your wisdom tooth." the dentist said, looking at the x-ray, "It took some work but you can now finally rest. It won't trouble you ever again."

I sighed with relief so much that I was afraid I was going to blow my lungs inside out. It was over. It was finally over. I can rest now.

"Now, sir." he added with a malicious glint in his eyes, "Let's schedule another appointment for the other wisdom tooth."

I told you he was a cruel cruel man....

Monday, May 7, 2007

Jeddah Water Shortage - It's Getting Ridiculous

Here I am. Sitting in the modern cyberpunkish high rise that is Jeddah's newest jewel; the Jeddah Municipality. And there's no water in the bath rooms.

I'd laugh if I didn't really really need to go to the little boys room.


Farewell Prince Abdul Majid

The body of Prince Abdul Majid should be arriving in Saudi Arabia any day now. Like many Meccans and Jeddaites I am profoundly saddened by the passing of this great man. The first I've heard of the name was when I was a young lad living in Madinah, and Abdul Majid had just taken up office as governor. At that tender age I was more interested in cartoons and computer games than I was in the wellfare of my city, yet even my youth clouded eyes couldn't help noticing the changes going all around me ever since he took charge. My fondest memory was the complete overhaul of a public park that I used to pass on my way back home from school. I remember it was called Al Majd (The glory) park and I immidiately associated it with Abdul Majid.

Many years later, and after a major house move, I re-encountered him. This time as governor of Makkah. At the time the region (especially Makkah) were in a terrible state of stagnation. Once, Abdul Majid arrived things finally started to move. Thanks to his work, he earned a double edged reputation. The public adored all the reforms going on under his governance. The parasites who lived on the corruption of the previous government absolutely hated him. The latter is reason enough to saint the guy in my book.

A couple of years ago I had the honor of meeting him face to face. It was a graduation ceremony and my little brother (I don't care how old are you kid, you'll always be my "little brother"!) was to be honored as the top of his class. There was Abdul Majid giving away smiles, certificates and words of encouragement to our newest batch of Saudi auto technicians when my brother's turn came. Abdul Majid then did something I never expected. He took my brother to his side and sat with him, completely ignoring the protests of his aides and henchmen. They sat there for quite a while, Abdul Majid congratulating my brother and joking with him, playfully pulling his ear like a fond uncle. As I took photos I could feel my chest bursting with pride (and yes, royal loyalty). Here was my little brother, a young Jawa boy hobnobbing with the nobs. Made me wish my dad was alive to see it.

When Prince Abdul Majed returned from his vacation (just before his relapse) my mom took one look at his face on TV and mournfully stated: "Your brother's prince is dying". He wasn't just my brother's prince. He was ours. People will mourn him and remember him as a man who believed in change. Me, I'll remember the fatherly prince who pulled my little brother's ear.

Good night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!


Saturday, April 28, 2007

Out of Control Tribalism - The World is Watching

MEMRI (The Middle East Media Research Institute) has published this article entitled "Public Debate in Saudi Arabia Over Forcing Divorce When Status Of Wife's Family Is Superior to That of Husband's Family" in their site (Thanks go to Crossroads Arabia for pointing it out).

Do read the entire article as it does a wonderful job of summarizing the different points of views on this highly controversial case. It quotes several scholars, journalists and writers and is a very interesting and eye opening read, especially for people like me who have been too busy to scour the papers for all these tidbits.

I'm afraid that my sense of doom and gloom (which I constantly try to repress) couldn't help flaring as I read some of these points of views by some well respected people in the Saudi society.

"Any marriage that causes any problem in terms of [tribal or] social status incompatibility must be examined, and there is room for the judicial system to deal with the matter." - Sheikh Abdullah Bin Mani', member of the Senior Council of Jurisprudents in Saudi Arabia

Once again our high profile scholars hide behind that cowardly age old excuse. "The ulema consider status compatibility to be part of the conditions of marriage - that is, the wife's status must not be superior to that of the husband" he also states. Where the hell did these people come up with that one? It might be a social condition, but never before have I heard of that particular (and quite detailed) condition as part of the Islamic tradition. Don't these people ever read history of the Prophet's life? Or is this just another case of selective blindness? Another attempt to pass a local tradition as an Islamic one?

"A logical reason can be found for such a decision... Although we accept the dynamic of our time, and its developments and progress, we remain imprisoned by tribal concepts, and cannot rid ourselves of them. The mistake in the breaking up of this marriage lies not in the ruling [itself] but in the initial consent to the marriage..." -Turki Al-'Asiri, Okaz columnist

Logical? Does this man have a different understanding of logic than the one I have? I can accept that we are imprisoned in our social taboos and have a very hard time bypassing them, but is that really an excuse for something as drastic as ending an already established (and by all reports - loving) family? Then he does the same sort of blame shifting we are all too familiar with in this case and relieves the judicial ruling from any wrong doing. So let's get this straight; what you are saying Mr. Asiri is that because we live in an imperfect world its alright for injustice to reign? That it's somehow the couple's fault because they dared challenge a social taboo that, by the Mr. Asiri's own admission, is wrong?

I love the way this man thinks.

"This [court] ruling has struck fear and anxiety in the hearts of us Saudi women, because it gives a relative [of the wife - her father, brother, or son] or anyone [else] in her family absolute authority to demand that her marriage be legally annulled... Thus, the life of every married Saudi woman is under threat from any relative - direct or otherwise - who can destroy her home and force her to separate from her husband and children due to status incompatibility..." -Petition to King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, signed by 116 Saudi women.

As if we need any more misogyny in this society.

I'm hoping this case gets more international interest, national pride be damned. The only way some people in this country wake up is when they are prodded awake. And there's no prod sharper than an outsider's.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Book Review: "A Hat Full of Sky" by Terry Pratchett

Whenever a Terry Pratchett book comes into my possession it disrupts my reading habits. As a bibliophile I usually buy more books than I can read, so I have something of a reading queue that I try to stick to as firmly as possible. But then comes the occasional book by a highly favored writer and it jumps to the head of the line amidst the grumbling of the other less fortunate books. But this one was even more special. I practically chewed through the packaging, fished the hardcover out of the box (totally ignoring the other books that came with the shipment) and started digging into the book, not even reading the blurb in the back. After all, this is the sequel to "Wee Free Men"!

But enough waxing poetic. On with the review...

"A Hat Full of Sky" is the third Discworld book aimed at younger readers, the previous two being "The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents" and this book's prequel "Wee Free Men". It continues the adventures of young Tiffany Aching and her friends, the Nac Mac Feegle. Ah the Nac Mac Feegle! Sort of like Smurfs. If the Smurfs ever drank, spoke in Scottish brogue, stole livestock, and generally got into fist fights with anyone and everyone (including themselves).

In her last adventure Tiffany's qualities were noticed by Granny Weatherwax, Discoworld's mightiest witch. Now 11 year old Tiffany is an apprentice witch, learning that witching isn't all its cracked up to be. But an evil, invisible, un-killable thing called the Hiver is stalking her, and its up to Rob Anybody leader of the Nac Mac Feegle to rescue his "big wee hag". If only his wife would let him.

"Wee Free Men" is a tough act to follow. Not only did it shed light on the fan favorite Nac Mac Feegle (who first appeared in "Carpe Jugulum"), but it also introduced Tiffany Aching who is quickly becoming one of Pratchett's most loved female protagonists. A protege of Granny Weatherwax herself. And while "Hat Full" stumbles a bit, it manages to be a worthy successor.

The problem with "Hat Full" is that it takes a bit too long to get into the main plot. Most of the starting chapters are devoted to Tiffany's "coming of age" if you will, while the Hiver's evil plans are put on a back burner. We mostly just read about Tiffany's conflicting feelings over her new life and the gradual slip of her confidence in herself. Worthy subjects, but you can't help feeling that more time could've been devoted on her antagonist. I'm not saying it's bad at all, on the contrary the character development goes a long way into making the book more enjoyable and it becomes more essential as the plot unveils, but I guess I was spoiled by the break neck pace of "Wee Free Men".

Otherwise the book is topnotch classic Pratchett. His famous humor, satire and acid wit shine throughout the book. Ranging from the physical slapstick of the Nac Mac Feegle to the social satire of her job as a witch, helping people who need to be helped as opposed to those who just want it. Some people feared that Pratchett's YA books would be watered down, but once again he proves them wrong. Apart from the omission of some of the more violent themes and the too-obvious of the adult humor, the books remain highly readable. The theme is dark (though not as dark as "The Amazing Maurice") and Pratchett never shies away from the big philosophical questions or his disdain for "fairy tale" fiction. After all, these books have been called "anti-fairy tales" before. It is his intelligent writing that elevates Pratchett from the ranks of the humorists (like the late great Douglas Adams) into the ranks of the satirists.

The Discworld books have been in something of a slump recently (though Pratchett's worst is still a lot better than most writers' best). But "Hat Full" (and "Going Postal" in the adult line) prove that Pratchett still has the magic.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Bye Bye Tayara

As Jeddah art structures go, the Meedan Al Tayara (Plane roundabout) has never been one of my favorites. Still it will be sad to see it go. For the un-updated, the famous roundabout is being demolished. The plane has already been removed a couple of weeks ago (I wonder where) and the cloud structure is already a pile of rubble.

On the positive side; this is the first step of turning Prince Majid Rd into a signal-less expressway ala Madinah Rd. Something that will go a long way in improving Jeddah's rapidly worsening traffic.

Attacks on Religious Police Increase

Al Watan newspaper is reporting (Arabic) a sharp increase in reported assaults on members of the "Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" (AKA the religious police), ranging from verbal abuse to assault using sharp weapons. Last year 21 confirmed cases had been reported.

First of all I do not, and have never ever, condoned violence against anyone no matter how repulsive I find them (I'm a hippy pacifist).

Yet these sort of incidents are indicative that the Saudi populace is chafing under the iron tight control of the religious police. While many of its defenders liken it to the "Vice Police" units in other countries, what they don't tell you is that unlike those peace keepers the Saudi Vice Squad (Riyadh Vice! Queue in 80's TV theme music! Starring Don Johnson!) have almost unlimited power when dealing with the public. Stories of assaults by the religious police on the unsuspecting public based on a slight suspicion are all too common place. And more than that, corruption runs high amongst its members. It's not unheard of for a mutawee to abuse his powers for personal gain.

The religious police have been steadily losing popularity (not that they were in any way popular from the start), especially after the popular backlash on extremism following the string of compound bombings a few years ago. These incidents (and I'm sure there are many more being hushed up) are just the tip of the ice berg. The religious police need to learn that while they might still have a place in a modern Saudi society, it won't be one of an enforcer of a narrow minded ideology.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Some Good News on the "Fatima" Case

Fatima Shifted to Shelter Home (Arab News)
JEDDAH, 18 April 2007 — Fatima, the 34-year-old mother of two who preferred to remain in a Dammam prison for nine months after being forcefully divorced by an Al-Jouf court in absentia, has finally moved to a shelter home last Sunday, her lawyer Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem said yesterday.

While it's not exactly incredible news (the forced divorce has yet to be reversed) it's still good to hear that some people are trying their best to help, and that at least Fatima and her child are in a more comfortable and secure environment now.

What really disturbs me about this case is the almost deafening silence from the religious elite of this country. People who are outspoken when it comes to their opposition to such basic rights such as women driving and higher education, who let their rage deafen anyone near when it comes to small "vices" such as music and satellite TV, are suspiciously quite in such a high profile case. I don't like to put words in people's mouths, but this silence is furthering the reputation our scholars have of being intolerant, racist and misogynist. Hell, some of the lower profile ones (and many loud mouthed individuals) are already taking the side of the judges who annulled the marriage and started the whole travesty, citing some vague and ambiguous Hadiths.

Racism exists everywhere. There's no escaping it. It's part of human nature. Especially in a country that has a tribal structure like Saudi Arabi does. But when racism becomes institutional, when it becomes law, when it starts affecting personal lives, that's when we need to stop and take a good look at ourselves.

It's high time Fatima and her family are brought together again. After all is said and done we are all one big family despite our differences.

"Are you sure of mother's lineage?"
Source: Al Watan Newspaper

Monday, April 16, 2007

King Abdullah's Address

Before I go on with my rant I want to make one thing clear. I'm a big fan of King Abdullah. I like his reformist outlook. Changes might be going a bit too slow, but I've always been a believer in baby steps, especially when it comes to a society like ours; stubbornly ingrained with traditional values. He's a simple man with none of the pomp of his fellow royals. I especially find it endearing the way he laboriously plods through speeches like an eager beaver, his limited linguistic skills be damned!

Still I have to say I was quite disappointed with Saturday's "State of the Union" style address.

Plenty of promises for reform in the rhetoric, but no actual details. I've always categorized myself as a rather naive optimist, and this case was no different. In my deepest heart I suppose I was hoping for reform of the laws regarding granting the Saudi nationality.

Ever since the widely publicized rumor (Arabic) reported by Al Arabiya a couple of weeks ago (which has since been denied by the government) about opening the gates of citizenship for the thousands of non-Saudis born here, this issue has been paramount in my mind being myself part of the immigrant population. Not all of us have been fortunate enough to have the Saudi nationality. There is a substantial population of residents who are Saudi in all but paper. They barely know their parent culture and have lived here literally all their lives. They were born here, they were raised here, they speak the language, they live the culture, they know this society inside out. But without the security of the Saudi nationality many of them have fears about their future. Jobs are hard to come by as it is without having the stigma of an Iqama, and forget about government related jobs.

Yes there are defined laws and regulations now governing the granting of the Saudi nationality, as opposed to a few years ago when it was hinged on the whims of the higher ups and how connected you are. But the "points" system is a draconian set of hurdles that few except a select elite can pass. Sure you get a few points for having Saudi relations, but to really get the big points you'd need to have a Masters degree of higher in a science or technology related field. That leaves a whole lot of people out in the cold. It really pained me to see all these people (some very dear friends amongst them) get their hopes dashed once again.

Guess that's what you get when you trust the tabloid style reporting of Al Arabiya.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

You know you're a Saudi Jawa when....

C'mon every ethnicity based blog/site needs one of these! And I'm a firm believer that if you can't make fun of yourself then you have no right to make fun of others. So without further ado...

You know you're a Saudi Jawa when....

  • 1. You have been asked by the police at a check point to show your "Iqama" (residency papers).
    • 1a. You get extra points if the officer looks embarrassed when you show him your Saudi ID.
    • 1b. You get even more extra points if you've ever replied in broken Arabic "ana mafi iqama sadeeq!" (I have no Iqama sir!).
  • 2. You're addicted to white rice. If you don't eat white rice at least weekly you get withdrawal symptoms and start tearing bread into rice sized morsels.
  • 3. When you're talking with a Jawa friend and a non-Jawa is listening you pepper your conversation with Indonesian terms (even though you barely speak the essentials).
  • 4. When you meet a true "from the old country" Indonesian you pray that he speaks passable English or Arabic.
  • 5. If you're a guy you think Jawa girls are cute. If you're a girl you think Jawa boys aren't.
  • 6. You have been mistaken for a Chinese at least once.
  • 7. People think you know martial arts.
  • 8. People ask you where your eyes are and what the heck happened to your nose!
  • 9. You have so many siblings, cousins, second cousins and people from "the old village back home" that you can start a political movement, but you don't because you haven't figured out what a political movement actually is.
  • 10. You rent a small hotel room for the weekend and immediately fill it with all your siblings and immediate cousins (something around 60 people).
  • 11. No one can stuff as many people into a Toyota Corolla like you.
  • 12. You think the smell of dried fish and belacan (pronounced belatchan) are normal.
  • 13. You think that a fruit that has mace-like spikes, can kill you if it falls on your head, smells like rotten garlic and turpentine, and banned in some airports is the epitome of bliss.
  • 14. You think fruit with hair are pretty normal.
  • 15. You think adding kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) to anything automatically makes it better.
  • 16. You think batter fried chili peppers are great.
  • 17. You think that food that doesn't have at least 10 types of spices, 6 types of weird vegetables, 2 types of fish or creepy crawlies, consists mostly of coconut milk and chili pepper to be boring and bland. Oh, and it needs to have kecap manis somewhere.
  • 18. You think smoking cigarettes with cloves and spices in them to be normal.
  • 19. You listen to Indonesian/Malaysian songs and say they remind you of home, when in reality you just think the singer is cute.

And finally...

  • 20. You know you're a Saudi Jawa when you read this list and say: "Bleh! Poser!"

Saturday, April 14, 2007


Fans of the scifi opera Starwars might conjure up images of small creatures in brown hooded robes and glowing eyes that yell "Ooteeny!" to the droids they just salvaged from the desert. While I think it would be fun to drive a Sandcrawler on Tatooine and dodge Imperial Troopers I am not one of them.

In the Saudi vernacular the term "Jawa" refers to a person of south east Asian descent. It comes from the name of Indonesia's main island Jawa (known in English as Java) where most of Saudi Arabia's Indonesian immigrants come from. Like many general use terms it's not exactly accurate. Many Indonesian immigrants come from one of the other islands (there are more than 17,000), I myself am half Sasak half Madurian. Close to Java, but no clove flavored cigar :). And the term has also been expanded to include other East/South East Asian races such as Malaysian, Thai, Philippino and Chinese.

While the term can be used in a derogatory manner, it is not considered in general to be an offensive one. Compare to the use of the word Black to refer to a person of African descent. While considered offensive by the overly politically correct (I'm not) it is still the general usage and mostly inoffensive, as opposed to using the N word or Chink or Gook.

Since most Jawas have arrived in Saudi Arabia as result of Hajj (pilgrimage) most of them reside in the Hijaz region and Makkah in particular. Makkah is a true melting pot of the Muslim world, compromised of people from all over the globe that include Asians, Arabs, Africans, Turks, East Europeans and others. All of these people also brought their own distinctive cultures, languages and foods, resulting in the unique Hijazi culture that is quite different from anything you might find elsewhere in Saudi Arabia.

As consequence of becoming part of the homogeneous whole most young Jawas rarely speak the languages of their countries of origin, this is also true for other ethnic groups. But parts of their Asian origin still prevail. Indonesian cuisine is an integral part of the Meccan culinary landscape. Many Indonesian words have found their way into the Meccan vernacular as well. Say "Apa Kabar?" (How are you?) to a Meccan and chances are he'll smile and reply "Alhamdulilah" (Praise be to God).

So have a skewer of Satay on me and enjoy your stay :)