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 :)