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The Pylon

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become disillusioned with just about everything.  More on that later.  In particular, meaningful political opposition, academia, social media, and traditional media have been my bugbears of late.  I realise nobody likely cares about this, but that’s partly my point…

I recently heard Jon Ronson referring to certain sections of social media’s obsession with having an opinion about everything as the “Pile on”.  If something controversial happens, or seemingly if SOMETHING happens, ‘everyone’ has to have an opinion…and I would add that everyone has to have a unique opinion. 24-hour exposure to the latest views on social media, and the fact that some people make a living out of disseminating their views, means by the time many commentators put their thoughts into writing, those thoughts have already been ‘taken’.  So, you have to find a new niche.

Then I saw this short doc by Adam Curtis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcy8uLjRHPM

I realised that this is what I’ve ineloquently been talking to people about for the past 6 months.  Maybe it would’ve helped if I had some Burial backing me.  The search for the niche has led to overthinking.  I appreciate there is a counter argument here, and that my views are biased by my falling out with academia, but it seems that there have become so many ways to view each “thing”, that having a coherent view and creating a coherent opposition becomes impossible.

I’ve seen this with Brexit – what was a great and passionate demo on Tuesday ended with me discussing the issue with a friend.  The discussion started with the question of whether (to paraphrase in more readable language) the snobs in London who weren’t happy with Brexit were creating a split with the left, and patronising the rest of the country with regard to their legitimate reasons for voting Leave. A group the London snobby lefty middle classes supposedly “support” is no longer even understood by them, and we are disrespecting their view by protesting.

I’m getting exhausted even typing this because basically my issue is – if you feel strongly enough about something, protest about it.  Is the way we feel the answer to oh-dearism?

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Welcome!

A quick post, mainly some links about women in the Middle East, sparked by this FP article (and it’s ridiculous cover): http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/23/why_do_they_hate_us 

This response is particularly intersting:  http://samiacharquaouia.wordpress.com/2012/04/23/dear-mona-eltahawy-you-do-not-represent-us/  

In my opinion it fits with the broad view of many left-leaning academics that ever-so-slightly gloss over the fact that women’s rights in the Middle East are appalling.  Yes, it wasn’t long ago that the West was in a similar position.  Yes, we shouldn’t be biased because of Saudi Arabia.  Yes, the Middle East isn’t a monolith.  And yes, the Hijab isn’t a bad thing.  But that doesn’t mean that we should avoid relativism entirely. 

There is some shocking behaviour and opinions of women that I see every day in Saudi Arabia, I saw every day in Cairo, and I have seen in Bahrain.  Not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, putting the region as a whole solidly at the planet’s rock bottom.   I’m not saying this is an Islamic trend, but a trend of the region, and we should not try to completely debunk those who draw attention to it.

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Roland Rant.

Working in Saudi Arabia is difficult enough for the majority of expats in terms of lifestyle adjustments.  But teaching contractors really don’t make it any easier.  From my experience so far they are inefficient, lazy, incompetent and generally rude.

I was prepared for this by my interview for the company I work for with it’s head honcho.  He asked me nothing during the interview about my teaching skills, abilities, experience etc…  (Although he did seem interested in my  “knowledge” of Saudi Arabia, which was refreshing and boosted my ego somewhat).   It was obvious here that the company was pretty desperate for teachers.   The only interview question he asked me was:

“What would you do if you were in a bar in London and someone knocked over your pint?”

I paused, briefly thinking this might be a trick question about alcohol.  No, just because I’m in a bar in London, doesn’t mean I can’t handle a year without alcohol.  Hmmm…  So I gave an honest answer, and one which I figured would also happen to demonstrate I’m suitable teacher material (ie patient):

“Well, i’d firstly check to see if this person had noticed they’d knocked over my dri…..”

At this point I was interrupted.  “No, that’s the wrong answer”, my soon-to-be-boss stated.  “You’re going to be working in Saudi Arabia.  Arabs like strong leaders.  They like to be put in their place and told what to do, it’s the only way they’ll get anything done”.  (Or words to that effect)  He then cited Saddam Hussein’s gassing of a Kurdish village, and the fact that the village had been interviewed a few years later and stated they still supported Saddam, as proof that Arabs like strong leaders.
Yes boss, Arabs love strong leaders.  It has nothing to do with a history of western colonial support for these leaders, or the fact that the resources of the region allow these leaders to stay in power, or the fact that strong leaders are seen as able to challenge Israel’s power.  Oh and those revolutions last year challenging those strong leaders?  Let’s just ignore those.  My boss had demonstrated his alpha male qualities from the very start.

Anyway, I was very keen to work in KSA, and it seemed most teaching companies who worked there were just as bad, so I took the job.

Generally working life has been pretty easy.  I work at a great little college, and my Saudi coworkers and Kuwaiti boss are great, and the hours aren’t too bad.  Dealing with my contractors, though, has been a nightmare.  Every month I have to leave the country for visa purposes.  Because it’s cheap, we are sent to Bahrain, often on 2 days notice.  The security situation there obviously isn’t great, but it’s not this that I mind…in fact it makes it more interesting for me.  It’s the fact that our flights are booked so late in the day that we fly at ungodly hours.  I’ve been here for 8 months and I’m yet to receive a shred of overtime payment.  My paycheck is often late.  Our salary isn’t broken down, so I have no idea if it’s correct or not.  We are yet to receive any visa or travel expenses. Contacting my boss is a nightmare, he never answers emails about simple queries.

My point here isn’t to moan about minor things.  It’s to highlight that there’s nothing I can do about any of these problems.  Saudi labour law is sketchy at best, and our contracts are probably not worth the paper they’re written on.  If I even suggest that I’ve spoken to the other teachers about the matter we could be changed with sedition.  The other company who contract teachers at our college have just told them that they’ll be stuck in KSA for the summer, with no work to do, and under the terms of their visas they’ll be unable to leave.

This is clearly nothing compared to the abuses that migrant workers from less developed nations face in the Kingdom, and there’s even less that they can do, as they will often have no contract, no passport, and often no means of escape.  My main contact with migrant workers has been through Filipinos.  The nurses as I know tend to be marginally happier than the male workers, janitors and gardeners who work at my college.  They live in a run down old tenement block nearby.  They get around one week holiday a year.  They are constantly borrowing money from us teachers.  Most of the day they are out in the sun.  When they aren’t, they’re being bossed around by Saudis.  I went on a beach trip with some Saudis, and two Filipinos came along to help out.  Basically working all day, ferrying food and drink.  They confessed to me that they didn’t know if they were going to get paid.

Again, they have no awareness of their rights, and whether these rights exist or not.  This subject has been written about extensively elsewhere (see this recent HRW article: http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/04/10/saudi-arabia-step-aid-migrant-workers)  , I’m just pointing to my experiences at the hands of what are essentially western contractors, buying into the Saudi way of doing things.

To finish something I hear someone say almost every day: “It’s no wonder they’re short of teachers”

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Propaganda and anti-semitism.

Last night I went to see a film in Jeddah. This, in itself, is unusual as there are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia (although there is talk that they are in the pipeline). It was on the roof of the Jeddah Cultural Exchange Centre” (http://www.jcec.com.sa/) and was also organised by the lovely Susie of Arabia (http://susieofarabia.wordpress.com)

The film was the Aramco Brat’s Story (http://bratstory.com), which had been billed as a look at expats at Aramco, and their attitudes towards Saudi Arabia, and whether perceptions of the kingdom are true. This, it was, for about 20 minutes of the film…the rest could’ve been anywhere and was basically a look at American life in a compound. This was actually kind of interesting to me as I have never set foot in a compound. As expected, life didn’t appear to be too different from life anywhere in the west. Perhaps because of this the Americans interviewed didn’t have a bad word to say about Saudi Arabia. Admittedly I agree with the idea that western perceptions of the kingdom are wrong, but anyone who believes things are as wonderful as the director makes out is clearly deluded.

The most hilarious part of the film came when an all-american blonde stated: “I think being brainwashed is just…um….really….stupid”. The director claimed he wanted to present an unbiased opinion of what KSA is like (unlike the news networks), yet ended up with a sickly sweet homage to America and Saudi Arabia (including pictures of Bush and King Abdulaziz together, set to cutesy piano music).

The film, as well as being a very interesting propaganda exercise by whoever payed for it, also gave me a chance to meet Susie…who is basically a Jeddah-celebrity. She informed me that, while I was away in Lebanon last week, the King had passed a decree allowing single men into malls (providing they behave themselves). This is actually quite a radical step and although it’s difficult anticipate good behaviour, the best way to learn is through trying. Much like the idea of women driving, the only way for men to get used to it is for it to happen (see my previous post). Susie and I agreed that the King is doing good things, step by step, and challenging the religious establishment. We just have to hope he stays in good health long enough to see things through.

In other propaganda news, I’m currently reading The Arab Lobby by Mitchell Bard, a response to the Israel Lobby. I feel I should point out somewhere that I in no way agree with the contents of this book, and if any muttawa find it on me I am not a supporter of Israel! I think this ranks as the most ridiculous book I’ve ever read…consisting of ways in which Arabists have influenced the US government to side against Israel. The argument against this should start and end with a simple look at Israel and the support and power it has been given by the US. The book does, however, have a point to make about the US-Saudi relationship…but it is not a new point.

The other ridiculous element of the book is the belief that everyone in the Arab world and every lobby group for Arabs is Anti-Semitic. NO! They are anti-Israel! That said, there are many Arabs who are genuinely anti-semitic. Bard argues against the ridiculous notion of the Arab lobbyists that the creation of Israel would result in the hatred of the Arab world (I’m yet to get to the point where he realises that this has happened, that the Arabists were right, yet ignored, and his whole argument falls on it’s face).

When I first came to Egypt several years ago, I was slightly shocked to see how many copies of Mein Kampf were on sale. I, myself, own one but this doesn’t make me a Nazi. Yet you never see it displayed in London bookshops, or hear people talking of their respect for the Nazis. One of my students once said “I love Hitler. What can you tell me about him?” I told him that he had killed 6 million Jews in horrific circumstances. When I realised that this was the reason why my student loved him, I explained that a) Israel probably wouldn’t exist if Hitler wasn’t around and b) if my student had lived in Germany in the 40s he, and his family, would’ve been on the train with the Jews of his town.
He went on to say that he still loved Hitler but he “didn’t know why”. Bard suggests brainwashing takes place in the Saudi school system. I have no idea whether this is true, and not many of my students express any admiration for the Nazis.

To bring things full circle, Bard does make the valid point that many oil companies were (and still, indirectly are) supporting discriminatory practices of the Saudi Kingdom   (although some would later go on to challenge them) including….being banned from hiring Jews.  Funnily enough the Aramco Brats story didn’t mention this part of their history.

“By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise” – Adolf Hitler

(PS – I am NOT a Nazi)

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What’s that white stuff?

I went to Jordan last week (for the weekend).  There’s not much to do in Amman, but it did snow which made a pleasant change from the unchanging climate of Jeddah.  I’m now ill as a result of having wet feet and being generally under dressed  all weekend though.

(The last picture is stolen)

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Interview and musings.

I was interviewed a couple of weeks ago by the lovely people at Our Other Sisters, a fascinating blog exploring Arab Feminism.  You can read it here: http://ourothersisters.com/2012/02/29/saudi-arabia-through-western-eyes/ but I suggest you explore the rest of the site, where you can find much more informed and interesting opinions than mine.

Since I was interviewed, I went for dinner with a couple of Saudis, and the discussion turned to Saudi women driving. All three of us agreed that Saudi women should be able to drive.  However, my two friends were of the opinion that it would be difficult to implement.  They stated that it would be dangerous for three reasons:  
Firstly, unleashing such a large driving force on Saudi’s chaotic roads would cause…well….chaos. 
Secondly, they were concerned for women themselves.  They expressed the opinion that women would become targets for men oggling them (ignoring the fact that half the population have blacked out windows), and perhaps worse. 
Thirdly, they fell back on the old argument that women are terrible drivers.  Something that, I was told, we could all agree on.  (All except virtually every scientific study conducted) 

Clearly the first and last arguments are clutching at straws, the car-population wouldn’t just double overnight.  Although there might be plenty of male drivers out of a job.
And the second argument is just men telling women what’s best for them.  Akin to “if you don’t want to be raped, stop wearing short skirts”.   It’s down to us men to change our behaviour.  Why should a woman have to worry about driving around?  Sure, she probably will have to worry about being oggled, but a) that happens anyway in KSA b) how else are we going to change that?

Anyway, I feel there are plenty of people more qualified to refute these arguments.  I merely aim to present them.

In other news, I’ve started private tuition of a Saudi girl.  I think I’m more scared of her than she is of me. 

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It is, indeed, Jummah

As a follow up to this morning’s post, I’ve just discovered that Amnesty are putting pressure on Malaysia not to return Hamza Kashgari to Saudi Arabia.  Worth a read: http://amnesty.org/en/for-media/press-releases/death-penalty-fear-tweeter-facing-forcible-return-saudi-arabia-malaysia-201
As for this video, words fail me:

 

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