Friday, October 31, 2008

The City of Art

O ne of the reasons that I was excited at the prospect of moving to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the first place was because it is a city filled with art, mostly in the form of sculptures, everywhere.

There is no exact count on how many works of art grace the cityscape, but there are hundreds, with more added every year. They range in style from the religious to the whimsical, from historical to ultramodern, from nautical to heavenly, and from cast bronze to stone to gleaming marble to steel to colorful intricate stained glass.

A number of the sculptures are made of recycled aircraft, boats, and machinery. Many invite interaction with humans, others are stunning to behold, and some are just plain wierd. Reknowned artists from all over the world have contributed works to Jeddah's amazing display of art - like Miro, Moore, Lafuente, Cesar, Hollman, and Vasarely, as well as many talented Saudi artists.

During the second half of the 20th Century, Jeddah's growth exploded in an unprecedented spectacular fashion. Transformed from a totally walled-in seaport with its gates closed and boarded up every evening to keep its citizens safe, Jeddah's population burst from a paltry 25,000 to present day estimates of about 4 million residents. The oil boom brought Jeddah's walls crashing down and frenzied development ensued. In fifty years, Jeddah grew in both population and in land area more than 100 times.

Turning Jeddah into the world's largest open air free art museum was the vision of architect Mohamed Said Farsi. In 1972, Farsi was named its Mayor, which allowed him to develop the city's ambitious master plan while preserving its history and heritage, with art and culture playing a major role in the beautification of Jeddah. Mayor Farsi and his team tackled the project in an unconventional manner, forgoing the usual public art forums of museums and galleries and instead opting to take art out into the streets and merging it into the daily lives and business of all its residents.

Setting up the permanent placement for many of the larger sculptures turned many projects into engineering feats, with some taking as many as seven or more years from start to finish. Some of the works of art were created in other countries, shipped to Jeddah, and due to the sheer size, weight, and bulk of some of the pieces, took several days of logistical juggling just to get the components from the port to their designated sites. Another remarkable and noteworthy tidbit of information is the fact that the initial $150 million (US) spent on the art and landscaping was paid for by corporations and private donors, not out of the city's or the kingdom's budget, thanks to Farsi's impressive fundraising skills. I also thought it was interesting when I learned that the heart-themed sculptures around the city were in fact a result of Farsi's own open heart surgery, due in part to his grueling work schedule as Jeddah's Mayor.

As we have driven around the city, I have tried to take photos of as many of these sculptures as I can. It's not easy when one is whizzing by in a car, with other vehicles and signs in the way. Many of the sculptures are in the center of busy intersections. Many more decorate the Corniche, the boardwalk which stretches for miles along the Red Sea. There have been a few occasions when my hubby has taken me out to specifically photograph more of the sculptures of Jeddah. To date, I have photographed over one hundred fifty of them ... I still have a ways to go.

To see more of my photos of the city's famous open air art museum, visit my photo gallery of Jeddah's Sculptures.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Urgency in the U.S. ELECTIONS

I have felt strongly about presidential elections before, most recently the elections of 2004 and the one in 2000, but THIS election really has me on pins and needles.

So, I am urging all of you Americans to go out and vote - for OBAMA!

The United States cannot take MORE mismanagement, MORE wasteful spending, and MORE OF THE SAME at the hands of the Republican Party. And just the thought of the inexperienced and ill-informed Sarah Palin possibly at the helm one day in the next four years makes me shudder.

After living outside the United States for a year now, I do know one thing: if the rest of the world could elect the US President, OBAMA would win by a landslide! Do you think there's something that the rest of the world knows that many Americans don't?


1. The polls may be wrong. This is an unprecedented election. No one knows how racism may affect what voters tell pollsters—or what they do in the voting booth. And the polls are narrowing anyway. In the last few days, John McCain has gained ground in most national polls, as his campaign has gone even more negative.

2. Dirty tricks. Republicans are already illegally purging voters from the rolls in some states. They're whipping up hysteria over ACORN to justify more challenges to new voters. Misleading flyers about the voting process have started appearing in black neighborhoods. And of course, many counties still use unsecure voting machines.

3. October surprise. In politics, 15 days is a long time. The next McCain smear could dominate the news for a week. There could be a crisis with Iran, or Bin Laden could release another tape, or worse.

4. Those who forget history... In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote after trailing by seven points in the final days of the race. In 1980, Reagan was eight points down in the polls in late October and came back to win. Races can shift—fast!

5. Landslide. Even with Barack Obama in the White House, passing universal health care and a new clean-energy policy is going to be hard. Insurance, drug and oil companies will fight us every step of the way. We need the kind of landslide that will give Barack a huge mandate.

I have voted in every election since I have been old enough to vote. In 2000 and again in 2004, I felt that my vote did not count. More than ever before in history, there is a sense of urgency about this election.


Monday, October 20, 2008

The Best Birthday Ever

Yesterday was my birthday - the second birthday I have spent here in Saudi Arabia. I arrived here last year just two weeks before my birthday. Most Muslims do not really celebrate birthdays, or even remember them. So last year's birthday was very low key. We had dinner at my mother-in-law's, and my sister-in-law brought a cake for dessert, and that was about the extent of it.

This year was EVER SO MUCH BETTER! First of all, this past weekend (weekends here are Thursday and Friday), my husband took us to a resort out of town for three days and two nights - and it was so nice that I will do an upcoming post about it. (Hint: We had a fantastic time!)

So on my birthday, I slept late and then after my son got home from school, my hubby took us shopping and I got some nice new things, mostly clothes. Then we came home and freshened up and went out for a wonderful dinner at a favorite restaurant of ours with Adnan's brother and his wife and son. And then we enjoyed the best cake for dessert at the in-laws home, and my SIL had bought me a beautiful fancy costume jewelry set. It was a really lovely day.
But that's not all! There were some other things that happened that made it even more special.

My dear friend and fellow blogger from the Netherlands, Aafke, wrote a whole Happy Birthday post for me, with the greatest photos in it. Please take a look at Aafke's special post about me by clicking HERE. And don't miss her recentAdam and Eve post - it's hysterical!

If that weren't enough, one of the local English language newspapers here, the Saudi Gazette, published an article about bloggers, and I was one of the featured bloggers! The fact that it was actually published on my birthday was just a coincidence. You can read the whole article by clicking HERE.

I also received many emails from friends and family wishing me a Happy Birthday. I honestly can't remember a birthday that has made me feel so special.

Thank you, everyone!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

"No Reservations" in Jeddah

"No Reservations" is a hit TV show on the Travel Channel, in which charming chef Anthony Bourdain travels around the world sampling exotic local dishes and slices of life. The show made quite a splash in Jeddah earlier this year when an episode was taped here. A Saudi-American woman originally from Bismarck, ND, Danya Alhamrani, won the first-ever "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations FAN-atic Special" Casting Call. Her prize was to showcase the flavors of Saudi Arabia by treating Mr. Bourdain to the local sights, the distinct tastes, and the traditions and culture of this misunderstood, sheltered and mysterious land.

Out of some 1200 entries, Danya's video and personal interview clinched the deal for her selection as the enviable winner. Despite Mr. Bourdain's original knee-jerk apprehensions and uneasiness at the thought of taking his show to the strict Muslim country of Saudi Arabia, Danya's entry was a stand-out. So throwing caution to the wind, Bourdain chose Danya and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as his contest winner. You can read his entertaining thoughts about the selection process HERE

I think that Mr. Bourdain's choice of Saudi Arabia took a certain amount of guts and I applaud him for his decision. Too often, America and much of the rest of the world have a fear, and even a loathing, for this diverse country of which there is a very limited understanding. By crossing that cultural bridge, Mr. Bourdain has shown a kinder, gentler, and more human side to the complex world of Saudis by giving people around the world a peek inside this mysterious shielded country.

This television event had all of Jeddah abuzz. Some friends of mine happened to accidentally run into Mr. Bourdain this past spring while he was in town taping the show, and boy, was that exciting for them! The show aired in July and again in September, and the excitement in Jeddah could be cut with a knife. Through Danya's efforts, this proved to be great PR exposure for Jeddah and the country of Saudi Arabia, as well.

Now a Jeddah resident, Danya attended school in southern California and is Muslim. She is an accomplished and remarkable individual, a TV director and producer, having formed a film production company with her partner, Dania Nassief. You can read more about these two extraordinary ladies and their Eggdancer Productions collaboration HERE in this Arab News Article and additional information HERE.

Please take the time to watch the following entertaining look at life and the cuisine of my new hometown of Jeddah, courtesy of Anthony Bourdain and the Travel Channel's "No Reservations" program. There are five short videos which make up the hour long show. You'll see many things I have previously written about and photographed - this just serves to bring it all to life even more. I'm sure you'll enjoy it!

And one more thing: take a look at just one more really good article written by an American female producer of the show offering great insight and perspective on her experience in Saudi Arabia. It's worth reading!

No Reservations - Saudi Arabia, Part 1

No Reservations - Saudi Arabia, Part 2
(Although I could not get this segment to play on my computer, I hope you have better luck!)

No Reservations - Saudi Arabia, Part 3

No Reservations - Saudi Arabia, Part 4

No Reservations - Saudi Arabia, Part 5

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Preserving Virtue and Preventing Vice

usually try to avoid religious topics in my blog, mainly because I don't want to offend or appear insensitive. So I just want to start off by saying that the intent of this post is not to offend anyone or any religion. The opinions expressed here are solely my personal feelings and beliefs. I realize that some people may not agree with me. I am comfortable with how I feel about this whole religion thing. But I am no expert in Islam or any other religion, so I apologize if I may get something technically wrong.

The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency here in Saudi Arabia that employs religious police, called Muttawa, to make sure that the citizens adhere strictly to the teachings of Islam, especially those pertaining to dress, socialization, morality, and prayer. Within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), this Commission is comprised of approximately 10,000 Muttawa and has nearly 500 centers within the country.
There are just so many things that keep getting in my way in my attempt to embrace and learn about this religion of Islam. And just the thought of the necessity and power of religious police here in Saudi Arabia is one of them. I have always believed in freedom of religion and also in the separation of church and state - blame it on my American upbringing. My respect for the religion is seriously undermined here in a country that requires actual enforcement of religious doctrine, such as monitoring people’s behavior, dress, and morals, and harsh penalties, like extended detentions, physical beatings, and even death, for those who don’t abide by these codes. Sheesh! Do I really WANT this in a religion?
 Of the many religious laws that the Muttawa are charged with enforcing, the ones regarding sex and the sexes are the most alarming to me. The Muttawa have the clout to apprehend anyone who engages in prostitution, homosexual acts, or individuals having sex outside of marriage. Taking it a step further, any unrelated man and woman who are caught simply socializing can also be detained. Absolutely no dating or social interaction between the sexes is allowed here. So I can’t help but wonder that since there is no contact at all with the opposite sex permitted, doesn’t this unintentionally breed and encourage homosexuality here in the Kingdom, in reality? Of course they won't admit to this, but from what I have heard, this is what happens.
The Muttawa randomly patrol the malls seeking out women and girls who are not dressed modestly enough. Only the face and the hands are allowed to be visible, although the vast majority of women here cover their faces when out in public and many also wear gloves! The Muttawa also enforce proper moral conduct and make sure that youth behave themselves. The Quran does not specifically, to my knowledge, say that women must wear black floor length abayas, and indeed in other countries, Muslim women manage to dress modestly without wearing long black cloaks. I would love to wear other colors than black here in this brutally hot climate, but ALL the women here wear black. Even though I could wear a different color, I don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb, so I wear black too.

In addition, the religious police make sure that prayer times are properly adhered to, can shut businesses down for not closing for prayers, and apparently can command people to attend prayers at mosques. I read an account recently of a man who claimed that he was beaten by the Muttawa as he was on his way to the mosque for prayers, but the religious police didn't give him a chance to explain where he was going. They just beat him because he was out and about during prayer time. To me, this is scary.
You might recall that I did a post back in February about how the religious police had banned all things red for Valentine’s Day, in an attempt to thwart Muslim couples from exchanging “haram” (forbidden) gifts or cards for this holiday, which is not recognized in the KSA. They even go so far as to conduct inspections in hotels, restaurants, florists, gift shops, malls, and coffee houses to make sure that these places are devoid of all immoral red contraband, such as red flowers, red boxes of candy, red clothing, red balloons, red stuffed animals, red cards, red hearts, and red bows and ribbons. Any prohibited red items are confiscated and the business owners and employees are subject to arrest.

Back in 2004, the Muttawa even tried to have the sale of cell phones with cameras banned in the Kingdom. See, camera phones make it too easy for men and women to take photos of each other. Unfortunately for the Muttawa, this ban was immediately quashed. I even read that there was talk that the Muttawa wanted to prohibit the sale of ice cream cones to women because a woman licking an ice cream cone was just too sexual! What's next? Bananas? Hot dogs? Give me a break!
Recently the Muttawa have issued a decree banning the sale of puppies and kittens - dogs and cats - in the KSA. Apparently these cute little creatures are now considered as lethal “babe magnets,” an enticement used by boys to lure girls to talk to them. So, this MUST be stopped! Not only has the sale of these animals been declared illegal, if you already have one, you are forbidden from taking it out for a walk. If you do, your pet will be confiscated and you will never see it again. I wonder what happens to the fuzzy creatures once the Muttawa get them into their clutches!

But I’ve got to hand it to them - the Muttawa have the vision to see beyond all the normal excuses/reasons that people purport to have pets in the first place, like companionship, pure joy, or teaching children responsibility, and are able to see pet ownership for what it really is: just another way to promote immoral behavior between the opposite sexes. The Muttawa keep flexing their muscles to control the animalistic behavior and urges of males and females within the Kingdom. Men and women here in this society obviously cannot be trusted to behave or control themselves or to conduct themselves properly and morally without having rules and enforcement like this to ensure that they do.

Another of the Muttawa’s duties is to make sure that no other religion is practiced or promoted here in the KSA. I understand that the Kingdom is an Islamic country, but it makes me wonder exactly how insecure can a religion be in itself that it so strictly prohibits those foreigners of other faiths from practicing their own religion within the country? The religious police also oversee the enforcement of the banned sale of other prohibited products, like pork, porno, and alcohol, and exercise strict censorship of all media including books, magazines, art, DVDs, TV programming, and music. The CVPVP fervently take black markers to objectionable images of women’s bare arms, necks, or any other exposed skin and have even been known to black out images of Piglet in the popular children’s books of Winnie the Pooh. It’s one thing to forbid pork products, but to deny the existence of pigs altogether is a bit much! Using modern technology to their advantage, the CVPVP has even launched their own website where people can report violations of others' un-Islamic behavior.

Not surprisingly, many actions taken by the at-times over zealous Muttawa have come under fire and intense criticism. For example, less than two months ago, a Muttawa murdered his own daughter by cutting out her tongue and then burning her to death. Why? Because she supposedly rejected Islam and became a Christian. Every Saudi citizen is automatically born a Muslim. There is absolutely no choice. For a long time now, religious scholars have taken jabs at the Internet and satellite TV stations where Muslims can read and learn about other religions. The murdered girl apparently used the Internet to learn about Christianity and was a known presence in online religious chat rooms and a commenter on various spiritual blogs.

In my own personal experience, almost every day I am blocked by the CVPVP from entering a particular website online. Generally when I am Googling for images on the web, many of the websites containing the images have been blocked. And NO, I am NOT looking for porn! The blocked websites can include, among others, some religious websites, of course anti-Islamic websites, violent gaming websites, those that feature gossip or women not Islamically dressed. Of course the CVPVP is not able to ban every single "unacceptable" website from access in the Kingdom, as hard as they may try.

Mohammed, the founder of Islam, actually said, “Whoever leaves his religion, kill him.” Which brings me to a question: There are so many converts to Islam from other religions. What about them? They have left their original religion, haven’t they? Maybe someone would care to explain. Mohammed’s quote does not specifically say “Whoever leaves Islam, kill him.” Then why is it okay for someone else to leave their religion and become a Muslim, but someone should be put to death if they leave Islam for another religion? Isn't this being hypocritical? I would love to understand this because this is one of those areas of Islam that really turns me off.

So, this quote from Mohammed essentially justifies in the eyes of Islam the right of this father to kill his own daughter for espousing another religion – so I ask, do all Muslims really agree with this and think this is right? Why does there seem to be this fear that Islam cannot endure on its own merits and intrinsic worth, and why support such drastic and barbaric measures to ensure that it does? Muslims promote Islam as the religion of peace, but actions like this seem to seriously contradict its message. And it’s very confusing to someone like me who is trying to understand. Do I really want to belong to a religion that would have me killed should I renounce it?
Another example of the religious police exercising their frightening power over people’s morals here happened in 2007 when they beat a man who was caught with alcohol to death. And earlier this year, a married American Muslim woman on business in Riyadh was detained, threatened, called immoral, and strip searched by the Muttawa for conducting a business meeting in the family section of a Starbucks with a male colleague, not her husband. Do I really want to be in a religion that threatens me with bodily harm, insults, or detention if I don't follow it to a "T?" Another troubling event I mentioned in a recent post was about the fifteen school girls who perished in a fire at their school because the Muttawa prevented them from escaping since the girls did not have their hair covered. If I were a parent of one of those girls, I would seriously question my faith.

What I would like to know is - who exactly is in charge of policing the Mutawwa here and how much are they getting away with beyond their authority? I know they are only human and they make mistakes, but many of their mistakes are HUGE and only serve to further tarnish the image that much of the rest of the world has that Islam is radical and dangerous to them. What happens to the Muttawa who make these mistakes? And if these Muttawa can and do make mistakes themselves, why are they allowed to kill someone else, like the man with alcohol, for making a mistake?
My husband told me that the Muttawa were wrong to act as they did in the girls’ school fire incident, and that the Quran even says there are exceptional times when the religious teachings should be set aside. Like for example, even though eating pork is haram, if there is only a pig available to eat, then Muslims should eat it if their lives depend on it. But in actuality, I wonder how many Muslims would be able to bring themselves to eat pork in this case, since all their lives they have been told how bad it is? I know my husband could, but could others? Would others? When my son was little, my husband told my son that if he ate pork, he would die. How deeply is this ingrained into Muslims?

When I discussed the incident regarding the girl who was killed by her father for leaving Islam for Christianity, my husband immediately said that the man's own tongue should be cut out and he should be executed. Whew! My spouse went on to say that the man was wrong to take matters into his own hands like he did – that the girl should have been brought before a court and tried. Huh? And then, if she was found guilty of forsaking Islam, he said, the government should have been the ones to put her to death. Yikes! Even this explanation still baffles me. Knowing that my husband actually agrees with killing someone who leaves Islam just because Mohammed said it, makes me wonder a little about the man I married and even more about the religion itself. As I said before, I believe in freedom of religion. I do not think it is right to kill someone for rejecting a religion, so therefore I disagree with Mohammed on this issue. I am of the notion that what a person believes and feels in her heart, including religion, cannot and should not be controlled or dictated by a government or anyone. To do so minimizes the innate goodness of the religion itself.

The Muttawa here seem to be against anything that might be fun to do. They seem to be against people having a good time or enjoying life. And they really seem to be obsessed with SEX ALL THE TIME! It seems that the only articles I have managed to find in my research about the Muttawa are all very negative. What good have they done? What exactly does it say about a society that cannot be trusted to believe in and practise its own religion so much so that it has to be forced upon them by religious police? If the religion and its principles are THAT good and perfect, then why the need for religious police at all? I would love to wholeheartedly embrace a religion because I truly WANT to, not because I am forced to. I just don't think I really want to belong to this club...

For more information on the Muttawa:
Wikipedia - Mutaween - Religious Police Terror
American Bedu - Muttawa Observations