Wednesday, October 29, 2003

October 28, 2003 Back to Boston
Back home now, Saudi Arabia seems distant. I miss the warmth and generosity of new friends and strangers willing to drop their plans in an instant to host or help me. But I just discovered a new film student, a young Saudi woman at Harvard who reportedly believes speaking out is important.

Shervin, my new Iranian friend in Boston, says that the third most frequently used language on weblogs is Persian. (see his weblog here.) It is an important means of expression, and he notices especially young women who seem happy to speak anonymously. The internet may be the first venue for free speech in autocratic countries. Shervin is moving to a job at the World Bank tomorrow, and I am sorry to lose my resident blog advisor and Middle East expert.

The first public demonstration in memorable history happened Riyadh on October 14, the day before I left, and scores were arrested. IT reminds me of the civil disobedient protest of nuclear power (or was it U.S. foreign policy?) in Boston twenty years ago when over 100 were arrested.

Reform voices are multiplying, and a series of interviews with moderate clerics (formerly violent activists) have appeared in the equivalent of Newsweek there, Al Watan, and I mentioned earlier the petition signed by 350+, including 51 women in September. That called for freedom of expression, an elimination of corruption and the new election, rather than government appointment, of representatives to the local shurra councils.

Tonight on The Connection radio show on WBUR/NPR I heard an interview with the Chairman of the Saudi al-Islah (reform) movement, Saad al-Faqih, whose headquarters is in London. A surgeon, Dr. Al-Faqih has been an activist reformer for 13 years after being jailed for a month. See Clandestine Radio.

He says the movement began on the internet and has now become a radio talk show on which people now leave their names, risking being jailed for criticizing the regime. He claims that 700 people are in Saudi jails for speaking out. [How many is the US holding in Cuba without charges? And the charges against some are flimsy, as reported by US writers to the Gazette (articles not yet published). Another political football.]

Dr. Al-Faqih accused Saudi security forces of using violence and tear gas in Jeddah to suppress about 1,000 demonstrators who tried to gather and arrested perhaps 70. He felt the most successful demonstrations took place on Thursday in Hael that lasted from afternoon prayers until sunset.

Today I spoke with Faruk Aksoy in Jeddah, who shot the Inside Mecca special for National Geographic [here -- which for some reason was programmed on WGBH at 1 am and 5 am broadcast over the weekend.] At the beginning of Ramadan, I would be offended by buried programming of a special on Mecca -- were I a Muslim. Faruk was heading off to Mecca with visiting Muslim friends from the UK and Morocco.

October 20 Saudi Cell Phones and Smoking

Two things are remarkable about daily life in Saudi Arabia, on reflection. One is that the cell phone as standard equipment for everyone over 12, for about twice as many in cities in the U.S. School kids have them, women must have them, to summon husbands and drivers when they are ready to move from one place to another. They chat as they stride through malls and sit in McDonald’s or falafel bars, or on women-only floors of department stores, where they shed their abayas and look like women in the west, but more glamorous than any I've seen in malls.

Men talk as they drive or walk across streets, their thobes and gutras wafting in the hot wind. Wherever you go, cell tunes chime, and people check their phones to screen calls or to get a text message. During two hours of discussion at Club 25 three weeks ago, cell phones chimed every ten minutes or so, and most had turned them off. It is a highly connected culture, people checking in with friends and family by the hour, in this gender segregated society. Maybe that’s the reason.

Once when I was shooting video with an Indian friend in the old market in Jeddah, we walked into a chocolate shop, she asked for a candy sample, and her phone rang. She answered to tell her son he could not put up the bookshelves (they were painting the house) except where she had instructed him already. She talked on her way out the door and up the alley. She hung up, said something to me and checked another call coming in and said, Diane we are missing SO many calls now! and wanted to go home. But she stayed until the heat became unbearable even after the sun went down and the imam stopped chanting prayers. We left for air conditioned cars when the battery wen dead.

The only women I saw without cell phones that night were two Czech midwives who had come nine months ago for adventure and well paid work. They said they thought men had all the advantages and women had none and that two years would be long enough for their visit to this Arab world. They were surprised that men were not allowed to attend the births of their own children. Only three had come in nine months, with special permission from high ups.

The second thing that amazed me is how everyone seems to smoke in Saudi Arabia, as if they don’t know that smoking kills people in a half dozen ways, including children who inhale noxious secondhand fumes. In a culture that avoids alcohol consumption scrupulously, there is double the problem with smoking, and it seems a palpable public expression of stress.

French and Spanish boutiques now sell glamour cigarette pack holders which hide the warnings against smoking from users so as not to distress them each time they reach in to pull another cigarette and light up. Untapped markets lie in Saudi Arabia.

October 17 Air Show, Abu Dhabi

Good advice from my Pakinstani cabbie led me to the Hilton Hotel, with ample beach access. Rahymon spends nine months working here, making a good living, then returns to his family in Pakistan for five months. Many people come for work to the Gulf states and live with fractured families to earn a living.

A Sri Lankan bank contractor offered advice on how to get from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and gave his business card, offering to find me work here. He’d left his family In Sri Lanka eight years ago and returns only once or twice a year, since his wife is a lecturer and specialist back home. Their house has been robbed at gunpoint, and he is flying home to see to moving his family to another house.

I have not seen a beach for a month, despite living in Jeddah for three weeks (12-hour work days). As I melted into a mass of protoplasm on my chaise lounge, four planes roared overhead, too close for comfort. Suddenly red, white and blue contrails lined the sky, and planes banked sharply in perfect precision, climbing straight up into the sky, painting it with contrails. I assumed this was a US airshow and decried my country for wasteful spending. The show went on for half an hour and was thrilling, I admit. Dramatic gasps of awe and approval rose from people pausing on the walkways which threaded the three swimming pools behind banks of beach chairs.

I met two couples and discussed the show. One Brit who married an Arab man has lived here for twenty years and loves it. Another Australian couple have come to advise the Abu Dhabi Defense Ministry on worker safety and are thinking about staying and starting a media production company in Dubai and targeting the business community for videos. Leon Kouts corrected me. This was the Abu Dhabi airforce celebrating and stunting for a prince. Their waste, my error.

October 16 Jeddah to Abu Dhabi

Here I am in Abu Dhabi, having come by taxi from Dubai (an hour away), one of the most glitsy airports I have seen anywhere, including the Riyadh airport, which is simply elegant and airy. I was eager to pull off my black abaya as we left the airport in Jeddah – I felt instantly freer and more relaxed.

The contrast between Dubai airport and the rabbit warren which calls itself Heathrow in London is a sardonic comment on the rise and fall of great empires. Leaders of the U.S.: take heed.

The difference between Saudi life and Abu Dhabi is palpable. Looking out my seventh floor hotel window I see a woman in a red shirt and jeans on the street. Not a sight you’d see in Riyadh or Jeddah, although you would have twenty years ago. Then non-Muslims had an easier time of it and Western women needn't bother with an abaya.

There are scores of women in black abayas streaming from the huge building across the street, edging the bay. It is a hospital, and a neonatal convention is underway there as well. Banners advertising another convention on the effects of the war in Iraq will happen next week. It feels more western here, and dress varies considerably.

With my camera I watch the preparation of a jet boat at the edge of the street seven stories below, as five or more men watch the painting, hug and touch and laugh together in the relaxed way men seem to in this part of the world. There’s a kiss, money is distributed, review of the boat is made, the inside is polished, and the apparent owner arrives in thobe and gutra to admire the artistry.

This goes on for a couple of hours as I turn in another direction to watch the sick and well go in and out of the hospital, while a gardener waters a block-long vegetable garden right here in the city between highrise hotels and apartment buildings, as people from Africa to America pass on the street below me. The residents of this Abu Dhabi city-state is roughly two million, 80% of whom are from Pakistan, India and Africa, among other countries. Among the westerners living here, most are from France or Germany, I’m told.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Oct 7, 2003 JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia

Our photographer said yesterday that people from Jeddah are like fish in an aquarium – they cannot survive for long outside the city, which is the most open and casual of any city in the Kingdom. It is full of crazy drivers, half of whom have nicked cars and come within six inches of others cars, blithely ignoring divider lines where there are any. Drivers hate restrictions.

The streets are full of men and women and small children late at night, with families shopping past 10:30 pm. I’m told that in two weeks during the month of Ramadan things slow to a crawl and come alive after sundown, with people up and wandering and partying and eating all night long. It’s great fun, they say, impishly.

Among others, a 28-year-old cab driver told me this in a drive across the city. He has the heart of a child and says that his father is a much better person than he -- much kinder, more generous and more ethical. This, from a young man very much in love with his wife of three years (an arranged marriage), and they have a one-year-old. His wife teaches English and he works two jobs, sometimes 20 hours a day. HE apologized for getting us lost on the way home, despite a fixed fare. The soft kindness of these people surprises me daily, from the “tea boy” who brings tea just as I like it to the person who brings a plst of dates each day from his yard.

I did a story about abayas here with a designer who makes handpainted pieces pasted on the back, with buttons and metal sewn to the sleeves – a most original and outrageous clothing designer, like someone in northern California. Another designer imports abayas which are sheer and see-through from Dubai. The originality and style of some of them are impressive. Still, they cost less than most of dresses in the New Yorker or Sunday magazine of the NYTimes.

Everyday I wear the same $16 abaya I bought in Danube, a variety store that sells groceries and household wares too. The same Afghani boy is there at the door, selling hand towels and making his living. I hear there are gangs of Asian and Afghani beggars and sellers who are abused by their 15 year old leaders, and that every month they change the products they sell. These are illegal aliens and refugees surviving and sme suffering the effects of darkness.

Oct 5 The Gazette

After 12-13 hour days putting out a daily newspaper, it’s hard to summon the energy to write about the experience. Thank God for the swimming pool in this expatriate compound where I calmly stroke the Olympic length each morning in water of bathtub temperature to make up for lack of sleep.

Not today, though, after the misquito fogging machine woke me at 5 am and I had visions of chemical warfare. Those things were used in Minnesota forty years ago when DDT was sprayed over children at picnics, blithely ignoring the toxic effects.

Yesterday we interviewed one of two reformed clerics who spent several years in jail for burning down a video store for carrying offensive materials—Mansour Nogaidan. He’s a maverick and loner, unusual in this culture of family and community. He failed to sign a petition of 351 (51 women) calling for reform of the Shurra Council and immediate dismissal of corrupt officials and asking for freer discussion of religious precepts. He said it was a matter of principle that he did not sign. Says he was a bad student, memorized the entire Koran in religious study. He is from a conservative region and seems to relish being on the “other” side of issues and action. He much admires the USA for what it has done for its people.

Most people I meet here want to come to the USA or have already been there. It is hard to get a visa from the Kingdom, whether you are Indian or Saudi, and even if you have family in the USA. Everything changed on September 11, although some say it only changed in the USA. The rest of the world knew what we learned then. All of us are vulnerable, none is invincible.

Nogaidan’s friend, Mishari Al-Zaidi, his partner in the video store burning and in jail for the offense, was to come for an interview, but he stood us up for a Pan-Arab radio discussion of a survey of Arab attitudes done at the time of the Iraqi invasion.

Most callers to the satellite show saw no connection between Hussein and Bin Laden, and many callers viewed Bin Laden as a hero. It is hard to underestimate the hatred of US support of Israel’s policies against Palestine and the benighted blindness of US leadership in that regard. Everyone without exception views US foreign policy as foolhardy and shortsighted.

In contrast, most in the US seem to defend the Bush administration. Even an Indian woman here whose sister lives in DC blames the Middle East for the difficulty her sister in Jeddah has in getting a visa to the US for a family visit.

I am trying to reach Al-Zaidi for an interview but am in search of the right translator. These two young men are polished in their presentation, very canny but not inclined to open up to strangers, I suspect. This will be a hard nut to crack.

Saturday, September 27, 2003


Last Monday I interviewed a Syrian woman in the mall who said she feels much safer here than in Syria. She is the mother of a two year old whose family left Syria 18 years ago. She met her Syrian husband in Saudi Arabia. He is loose, open and friendly and wears jeans and T-shirt, having learned English on his own while living here for 25 years.

I have already had a couple of arguments about my attitudes toward women in abaya and not driving (I said something in exhaustion which I woefully regret) to my friend. A woman in his family does not want women to drive, but her husband feels strongly that women should drive.

Women in Saudi Arabia generally will not be photographed and can be firm in supporting the role of the religious police who they believe protect them from the very things I would like to be protected from in the USA.

As for me, I am increasingly uncomfortable with the marketplace of media in the U.S. which I believe is unique in the world (please correct misperceptions). I hate getting a half dozen porno messages each day in email. I hate white slave trade too, traffic in women and children used in porno, the sexual images in every magazine and many billboards. I would prefer not to see it but am unwilling to lose the freedom its existence implies. I am appalled at the way the Catholic church has protected its clergy in attacks on children. We Americans have double standards we apply to others, as do Saudis.

The question of just what “freedom” means warrants weeks of discussion and thought, since I wonder whether the extremes Western culture has evolved is not toxic to children. Sex among ten year olds, the way children dress for school, the incidence of violence and lack of education in our schools? No wonder Muslims worldwide are appalled. Of course we have no corner on corruption and toxic culture, yet we promote our “freedom” and “family values” to every nation around the world as if we have found the ideal formula, which it seems we have not.

To view Saudi women’s situation as harmful to them without question or examination is to impose a Western template on my experience here. As two American women in the airport offered, they are having a “blast” living here, meeting Saudi women and men, and they put up with wearing the black abaya because as they said, “It’s their culture, and I’m a foreigner.” One has lived here since 1979 with her banker husband and teaches in the American school. Another western women I met in the hotel restaurant has been here eight months and was talking about recipes with her Indian friend, and was not happy, feeling much at sea.


Saudi men are elegant and a bit intimidating at first. I’ve met a couple dozen in a week and they seem serenely courteous and thoughtful in their long white thobes (loose robes which mostly hide expanding waistlines, they say) and red and white checked gutras (head piece).

Those I've met are well spoken, sensitive, tasteful, highly civilized, and immensely charming. They do not make insulting remarks about others, and are not given to slights or criticism. As if a code of conduct is embraced by the culture -- which it is, actually. Kindness and concern for others is part of Muslim practice here, an ethic of "right behavior," which chafes many from other regions and even puts some in danger, granted. Saudis seem mostly to conform to community and convention, and do not hold individuality as sacrosanct. Family and concern for the group seem paramount.

The most surprising feature of the Muslim men I have met is their dedication to helping their mothers and women in the family and to creating family harmony. I seem to be a surrogate here and have been helped with tools, work and clothes, shopping for an abaya and for groceries; fixing my computer, advising me on cultural niceties, history and Saudi culture, feeding me and offerings of help only now imagined. I see how having wives who cannot drive and a culture which expects men to solve most problems can be a burden.

My government escort said to me (after my friend asked why I was so suspicious) that he was not an inspector but an assistant, a helper. and it was true. He made things easier when the religious police stopped to ask why I was shooting video outside a mosque. Someone had complained.

Abdullah said he has family problems and everyone looks to him to solve them. I said that back home we use therapists to work out such things. [If women could drive they would not rely on men for so much.] Finally my "recent arrival" culture shock and paranoia are slowly subsiding.

These are religious people and they live in as much denial about social problems as we do in the USA, I think, but they are far from oblivious and buoyed by a nation built on extended family.

That seems enviable to me, coming from a tiny dysfunctional unit myself. I have things to learn and to dislike as well. We have talked after Club 25 about the mixed blessings of extended families.

I was invted to tour a comfortable family compound where four brothers have houses connected to their father's. In teh courtyard, they asked me what I thought would happen to the two sheep which stood munching grass under a sapling. O, maybe you will knit a sweater, I laughed in the 38 degree celcius heat! No, they smiled, Khalid's wife had a baby last week and we will be eating these guys in a couple of days.

There is an inexplicable warmth and heartfeltness about this place, coming as I have with contacts and a work context. Behind it I sense the rigidity that flows from very conservative religious protectiveness. The Saudis are said to be secretive. I'm not sure yet.

In any culture, paradox lives. At my hotel in Riyadh one day I asked the concierge how he was. He took my question at face value and answered, “OK,” and made a face. “You feel bad?” I asked. “No, I have a problem in my heart,” he said with sad eyes. Touched, I said, “Well, I hope your heartache leaves soon.” The emotional walls of home do not exist at times.

Men bond in touching ways when they go to prayer or stand around in social circles in hotel lobbies, at the Club 25, in the street and in malls. They seem much more comfortable in small groups of men and greet each other more warmly with kisses and conversation than any men I ever saw in the West.

On the other hand, formal communication seems stilted. I am told by Ahmad -- who grew up Saudi, was educated in England and returned to live in Jordan where he became a technology journalist -- that companies here are hierarchical and often uncommunicative and secretive, as if they need to protect themselves from marauding journalists who have or will ruin reputations in a country where tribal loyalty is paramount.

Saudi men can be stern, like my U.S. Southern Baptist father, and insulting, no doubt, as I sensed when arriving at the airport without my abaya. No Saudi man offered to let me in front of him while debarking the airplane in Jeddah, but an Indian took my bag from the carrier above, handed it to me, and let me in front of him, no doubt taking some pity on this strange, unprepared single woman in a family-dominated and rule following culture.

I saw only an instant of severity in the airport when a portly man thwacked his son who hopped into the chair in front of a customs inspector’s computer. Children do not misbehave in Saudi Arabia, according to what I’ve seen. They are quiet on airplanes and are also smiling, lively, bubbly and apparently happy. They tend not to wander far from their mothers, and a quiet word pulls them in close so as not to disturb others.

I can hardly remember the insufferable behavior of American children who are loud, chaotic, obscene, and often affected by temper tantrums with parents unwilling to quiet them. I wonder how much of the difference has to do with regular meals and staying close to attentive mothers. The energy and chaos of American cities is replaced here by serene order, and the gates of homes and extended family compounds where families spend many hours inside, protected from the sun.

There is far more of course. Forgive the superficial observations based on only a week’s exposure. May my visa be extended for a couple of months to allow for more learning.-- inshaAllah (godwilling).


Since I am here to learn what I can about a culture which is most diametrically opposed to my own except in wealth and civility -- if not human rights -- my friend arranged an evening’s discussion with eight Saudi men who have lived, studied and worked in the USA for some years and have returned home.

One is a doctor, one an IT/computer specialist, and a director of a mobile technology company, a scientist a marketing and two other businessmen. We had a free-floating conversation about politics, US foreign policy, media bias, cultural and social values, religion in the US, women’s roles, the Saudi "uniform" dress, family life and education in the US and Saudi Arabia.

It was two and a half hours I’d like to broadcast in the U.S. to trigger discussion of public affairs and policy. They loved the U.S. in many ways but are confounded by the Neocons and international behavior since 9-11. They are afraid of irrationality in the White House creating dangerous situations worldwide.

We drank camel milk and ate dates and palm fruit in what they call "Club 25," a beautiful, cushioned room named for the address of the families living in the compound who meet here every night -- open to men who drop in for talk, politics, and connection to countless cable channels from around the world.

Coming from couch potato land where I watch TV alone most often, this seems a paradise of social life and glowing hospitality. Being a foreign woman journalist was my only ticket to Club 25. Ironically, as a native woman here, I could not share that camaraderie. They urged me to talk to women, and several said their wives were the ones who insisted they return to Saudi Arabia and the comfort of extended family and tradition.

I hope to plan a similar women's salon and have met a PhD who lived and studied art in Britain for many years and returned with her new Saudi husband. She offered to explain some of the 500 public sculptures of Jeddah, which reflect modern and traditional styles, some slightly obscene. She met recently with American embassy people and women in Riyadh eager to explore cross cultural dialog between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Most of those I talk with have lived and studied in the west and have come home again, happily.

First week in SAUDI ARABIA

Whew. The week since my arrival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and flying to Jeddah five days later may be the most packed of my life – with elation, paranoia, panic, lost sleep, revelation, and camaraderie. My experience so far is superficial and naïve, of course.

The obligations and generosity of Saudi friendship is touching. My friend Mousa (my introduction to the country and to Islam) has made generous efforts to introduce me to his friends and to solve all problems I have, from nonworking equipment to cheap food to successful meetings with people. When I’m discouraged or panicked, he assures me that my problems will be solved even when I know he cannot fix them (but does, often). Saudi men try to fix everything and also to hide their own fear and confusion, especially when out of control. I’m too often an arrogant, impatient and outspoken American, trying to adjust to a culture where men and women are mostly gracious.

On arriving five days later in Jeddah, I met Sabria, a bright young twenty-something woman who said, "welcome to paradise. I want to see her face but a black veil and abaya (black robe/dress these days, used to be red a generation ago) cover all but her eyes. More liberal women leave their faces uncovered (to protect them from wandering eyes and advances from strange men). Her eyes are expressive and her voice is animated, mischievous and laughing. She's an intern I will be working with at a newspaper for some weeks and seems opinionated and articulate, still single, which she says she likes.

I told her after the men's group discussion (see the next posting) in Riyadh that I want to arrange a women's group to discuss life here. In what I now view as Saudi fashion, she offered to arrange it all. Two other women from Palestine and India have volunteered to leave their children and families to shop for me and prepare a feast for women at my home. Such generosity!

I gave them the Time Magazine (9/15) cover story on Saudi Arabia, filled with slurs and innuendo. Of course there is corruption at the highest levels here (and more refined in the US) but they suspect the U.S. may be paving the way to take over the world’s richest oilfields, after bungling efforts in Iraq. Could the Bush Neocons be that stupid, people want to know? “That would mean a third world war, since the Muslim world would not put up with it,” Sabria says. "I am not a politician but I am not stupid.”

One sentence in the Time article says that SA is financing new mosques around the world and "recruiting" people to its religious values. Excuse me, but that's what the Christian church has done for millennia without complaint from the Western world. This is a new age of religious warfare…later… called to a meeting.

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