Monday, July 25, 2011

Up in Smoke

A spectacular fire on July 9, 2011, of a Jeddah six-story office building that totally destroyed the structure has raised questions about a dubious policy that many Saudi employers follow. Ravaging the twin towers of Alesayi Plaza near Madinah Road, the blazing inferno also destroyed some 17,000 foreign passports belonging to expatriate workers employed by companies such as Panasonic, Moulinex, and over 60 other businesses which were housed in the complex. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

It is the policy of many employers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to confiscate the passports of workers and hold them until the employees leave the country. Unfortunately this policy has paved the way for many abuses to occur within the system with potentially disastrous ramifications, such as slavery, blackmail, withholding pay, and inability of workers to switch their employment to another company within Saudi Arabia.

There is no law in Saudi Arabia which requires workers to surrender their passports to their employers, however some companies falsely claim that they are following the law by holding their employees’ passports or may simply say that it is company policy. Companies explain that keeping workers’ passports is their way of protecting their investment by bringing workers into the country. The Kingdom requires that foreign workers have a legal sponsor, which would be the Saudi company they work for. According to Saudi law, workers are allowed to freely change jobs or employers and to change their sponsorship, however there is no government entity to ensure that foreign workers rights are protected.

For many foreign workers who had plans to leave the country, their departures will likely be delayed. This unfortunate event should be a wake-up call for the Saudi government to take control of this serious situation and enforce policy regarding the possession of foreign workers’ passports.

Related Arab News articles:

“Jeddah's Alesayi Plaza gutted by fire” – published July 9, 2011

“Second Alesayi tower on verge of collapse” – published July 10, 2011

“Alesayi fire burned 17,000 passports” – published July 18, 2011

“Your company is keeping your passport illegally” – published July 21, 2011

Photo Credits: Arab News and Abdul Sami Naik.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reel Bad Arabs

Hollywood has contributed for decades to promoting the images of negative and demeaning stereotypes of Blacks, Native American Indians, Asians, and other ethnic groups, including Arabs. While taking aim at many of these groups may have become politically incorrect in today's society, the assault on the representation of Arabs in movies continues. Even Disney's Aladdin, which targets a younger audience, contains sordid and biased images, songs and dialogue that can effectively taint children's attitudes towards Arabs. The opening song of the movie Aladdin, sung by an Arab bad guy, includes these lyrics: "I come from a land, from a faraway place where the caravan camels roam, where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face - it's barbaric, but hey, it's home." What's a child to assume when hearing this?

In the early days of Hollywood, as far back as the 1920s, Arabs have been portrayed as "thieves, charlatans, murderers, and brutes." Many movies often just throw in unseemly Arab characters or negative references to Arabs, despite the movies' plots or themes having anything at all to do with Arabs or the Middle East, such as 1985's film Back to the Future and 1995's Father of the Bride 2. Arabs are often depicted as heartless savages to fill the antagonists' roles when the plotline calls for bad guys.

"I think whenever we see anyone being villified on a regular basis, we have to speak up whether we are image makers or not. We have to take a stand and say this is morally and ethically wrong to demonize a people," says Dr. Jack Shaheen, author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.

Dr. Shaheen appears in the video below in this short synopsis of the film documentary based on his book.

If you are interested in seeing the full length documentary in its entirety, it has been broken down into several parts, each about 10 minutes long. Here are the links:

Part 1 - Reel Bad Arabs Documentary
Part 2 - Reel Bad Arabs Documentary
Part 3 - Reel Bad Arabs Documentary
Part 4 - Reel Bad Arabs Documentary
Part 5 - Reel Bad Arabs Documentary

Hollywood and Washington are forever linked in the movies. It's natural for Hollywood to produce movies about certain historical events. But what about movies that are just for pure entertainment? Is there a correlation between the large percentage of Hollywood power players being Jewish and the consistently negative portrayals of Arabs in the movies? (Joel Stein wrote this interesting op-ed piece about this topic.) Have we just become so conditioned to seeing this type of thing in the movies that it has made us insensitive to the harm that these stereotypes can do? Is Hollywood being irresponsible with its continuous negative depictions of Arabs in the movies?

Reel Bad Arabs website.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

My Niece Louisa in the Sahara

My niece Louisa, a university student, is spending part of this summer in Morocco taking an intensive Arabic language course. She started blogging about her experiences on her blog called "On the Streets of Fes."    Her latest entry, "A Trip to the Sahara," is an interesting account of a trip to the Sahara with great photos which I thought you would find interesting...

This weekend turned out to be the most amazing weekend of my life. It was the Sahara Trip, which was organized by the school so about 30 students all went. We drove about 7 hours through the Moroccan country side which was amazing in itself. Our destination for the day was a luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere. At this point in the program, everyone was hot, tired, and a little bit sick of their homestays. This hotel was absolutely amazing. It had two pools, a disco, and real showers. The food was amazing and we pretty much had the hotel to ourselves. After a night of drinking and swimming, we were able to sleep in and then the next morning we took off again for our second destination. We stopped at the Kasbah Tombocktu and swam while we waited for the sun to get lower in the sky.

Around 6 pm, we started loading onto the camels. Please take into account that camels are not the most beautiful animals and they also make odd sounds. Once I put one leg up onto my camel, it immediately stood up, which caused me to lurch forward to the top of its back. Finally I was settled and I tried to ignore the camel behind me which was slobbering on my leg. Camels are extremely uncomfortable to ride and they are roped together in groups of 3-5 with a Berber man walking in front.

The Sahara is amazing. The red and yellow sand in huge dunes around you for as far as you can see. There are snake and scorpion tracks in the sand and when we stopped to watch the sunset, we climbed one of the dunes and took in the beauty around us.

We reached the Berber Oasis shortly after sunset and were welcomed to rugs laid out on the sand with tents in a circle. The Berbers served us tea and a few of us climbed up the huge sand dune behind the camp in hopes of sand skiing. We ate dinner at ridiculously short tables and then listened to some of the Berbers drum and sing. Since we were in the middle of the desert, there were no lights except for the candles set up around the camp. This way, we could see thousands of stars. The entire Milky Way was visible and there was no moon, which made it especially dark. We started dancing to the Berber drums and I was extremely happy. After, a few of us sat down with some of the Berber guys and started to talk. I realized they all spoke Spanish so I was thrilled that I could communicate with them. I met Asou, who was 21 and lived in the larger town near the hotel. He has been leading camel treks for 10 years in the Sahara and knew about 5 languages just by listening to visitors in the desert.

My friend Gabrielle and I made our way out to the “bathroom” and on our way back, we ran into Asou and another Berber guy. They explained that they were about to climb the dune behind us which was about 600 meters and made completely of sand. Gabrielle and I looked at each other, shrugged, and followed these guys up the side of the mountain. At this time, it was pitch dark, none of us were wearing shoes, and the dune was just about as steep as possible. Every step you took, you slid down another step. After about an hour or an hour and a half, we reached the top. The view was absolutely breathtaking. Since this was the tallest dune for miles and miles, you could see everything. To the North, there was a small town with lights. To the South, hundreds of meters below us, was the camp, which was impossible to see because it was very late at night and all the lights were out. To the East, you could see the black mountains that made the Algerian border and to the West, you could see the dunes going on and on for hundreds of miles.

It was the most incredible experience being able to stand on the very tip of this dune, by ourselves and get caught up in the Sahara wind watching hundreds of shooting stars. We spent the entire night up there, walking on the ridges of the dunes and learning words in the Berber language. At 4:20am, the mosque in the town to the North announced the call to prayer. This consisted of a flashing light from the mosque and the call which you could faintly here through the wind. Around 4:30 am, the guys had to head down the mountain to start getting the camels ready because the sun was about to rise. We sat up there as other students from our camp slowly made their way up to where we were sitting. They were amazed and jealous that we had spent the night up here and watching the sunrise was incredible sitting there with all of our friends. After the sun rose, we quickly jumped and slid down the mountain so that we could get back before the heat set in. I was so tired on the camel ride back that I actually fell asleep at one point, which I thought was impossible. We arrived at the hotel, showered and ate, and then started the long drive back to Fes. As I am writing this, I am sore everywhere, dehydrated, and exhausted but I am extremely lucky to have had this experience and I will never experience my night on the top of the dune for as long as I live.

To see more photos from Louisa's trip and to read more about her experiences so far, please check out her blog, "On the Streets of Fes."