Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Film Festival Finished Before it Started

O ne thing that my son and I miss the most since moving from the states to Saudi Arabia is simply going to the movies. There used to be movie theaters in KSA back in the 1970s. But when the big oil development boom arrived in the Kingdom, along with it came a more austere return to religious conservatism. Movie theaters were forced to close down and they have disappeared for the last thirty years.

The past few years have seen a growing movement toward a more progressive Saudi Arabia, but at every turn, calls for change have been met with opposition from the ultra-conservative and very influential religious faction. A few days ago, the 4th Annual Jeddah Film Festival was cancelled just hours before it was to begin. No reasons were given for the cancellation, which was handed down by the Interior Ministry. Many cultural activities are prohibited in Saudi Arabia. Any form of dance is non-existent (except at private functions, like parties or weddings where women dance but men are not present), music is frowned upon by many, and even simple innocent book fairs have been closed down here.

Cancelling the Jeddah Film Festival is a huge disappointment and a big setback for those who want to see social changes in Saudi Arabia. It must be a crushing blow to the fledgling Saudi film makers and promoters who had put their best efforts forward to make the popular festival a success. Months of planning went down the tubes in an instant. Over 70 Middle Eastern films were set to be shown and movie business bigshots had flown in from various MidEast countries to attend the planned weeklong event.

I certainly don't understand how on the one hand a cultural event like a film festival is cancelled, yet on the other hand, all types of movies on DVD are readily available in Saudi Arabia and we can view uncensored shows on satellite TV like Sex in the City and Nip/Tuck.

Saudi religious leaders have called movies evil and are adamantly against Western social influences which they feel will bring unacceptable lower standards to the Saudi way of life. They see the West as immoral purveyors of smut. They want to be able to control the population's behavior by restricting access to things that they see as indecent or against the religion. Within the royal family itself, there is disagreement about whether or not cinema should make a comeback in KSA. But one thing is for certain - the Saudi people themselves are avid fans of the big screen.

Last winter a Saudi comedy was shown to Jeddah and Taif audiences and was so successful that it was shown as many as eight times a day to accommodate the 25,000 people who attended. I read that the audiences consisted of men and women, which is another rare occurrence in and of itself, because in Saudi Arabia, unrelated men and women are restricted from socializing together. The same comedy was screened in June in Riyadh, but women were not allowed to attend. Only men and children were let in. There was a group of ultra-conservative men outside protesting the event in an attempt to discourage people from seeing the movie. Despite that, the movie goers enjoyed themselves - and the movie and the popcorn.

What strikes me often here in KSA is that some people seem to feel that having fun is wrong and that people should not do things that are fun - that fun is a form of decadence, and that in itself is against religious teachings so therefore it is wrong. Is this really what religion tells us? Or are we again just at the mercy of some misguided interpretations?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

In Paradise

I t seems the older I get, the less tolerant of heat I am. And as BAD luck would have it, I have managed to live in one hot place after another all my life. I grew up in the dry heat of Arizona and lived there mostly until I was 40, and suffered through chapped lips, cracked heels, bloody noses, and extremely dry skin. Then we moved to hot and humid South Florida, experiencing several summers when we lost power - meaning no air conditioning - often for weeks during hurricane season. My menopausal hot flashes were always embarrassing, always no fun and lasted for more than ten long years while I lived there. I could take a shower and step outside and in minutes, I felt as though I needed another shower again. My undergarments would always be soaking wet from sweat - yuk! And now I find myself living in one of the hottest places on the planet, Saudi Arabia! It is so hot there that most women simply just do not go outside unless they absolutely have to. Of course having to don a long black cloak over your regular clothes in 116 degree heat, plus having to cover your hair and neck as well, tends to make the women there even hotter - at least it does me!

I feel doomed to live in hot places all my life.

Now everyone has their own idea of what paradise means to them. Many people think of heaven as paradise, but I'm not talking about heaven. Here on earth, my idea of paradise is a place with cooler weather and plentiful rain, lots of green trees and colorful flowers and friendly people, and near a body of water. I arrived in paradise yesterday. I have been here many times to visit family and I always have felt a sense of belonging whenever I come here. I am now in the state of Washington in the Seattle area, and this part of the country is my idea of paradise.

The weather forecast here for the coming week predicts not one day over 76 degrees. The lows will be hovering in the mid-50s. And this is July! I just spent a week in Florida, where the temperatures usually don't reach 100, but guess what? The week I was there, they had record heat, over 100 degrees! It was brutal. And then I was in Arizona for about ten days, and Arizona is nothing BUT hot in the summertime. And of course I had to be there during the monsoon season, which means that the swamp coolers in many Arizona homes (different from air conditioning) don't really function well in the humidity, and it's hard to cool down.

So to arrive here yesterday to a cool 60 degrees - well, it just feels like heaven to me. I love sleeping with the window open and feeling cold enough that I can snuggle under a blanket at night. I love being outside in the summertime and not sweating like a pig. I love this cooler weather!

The photos in this post were all taken at my brother's home in the Seattle area where I am staying. There are wild deer and raccoons that visit the grounds frequently looking for food. The dahlias are among the most beautiful flowers I have ever seen. And the view is undeniably spectacular! See why I feel like I am in paradise?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Reverse Culture Shock? Nah!

S ome of you may know that I am traveling in the states now. I arrived almost two weeks ago with my son Captain Kabob. He wasn't able to travel with me last summer when I traveled to the states for my first trip back home since moving to KSA, so he had been gone from the states for about two long years. We set foot on US soil at JFK Airport in New York. The temperature was a cool 60 degrees and it was raining. Both of us reveled in the chilly air and moisture - something we have both missed tremendously living in Saudi Arabia. When we arrived in Florida, a group of my son's friends greeted him at the airport, holding up signs and screaming when they saw him. It made him feel like a rock star! I rented a car, and felt a tad nervous when I first backed up out of the parking space, but I was fine after that. I hadn't been behind the wheel for almost a whole year. Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.

During my week in Florida, we went to the movies - there are no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia and this is one thing that my son and I have missed the most. I have visited with various friends, went malling, and ate at a few restaurants. The fast food restaurant that Captain Kabob had missed the most was Taco Bell, so of course we ate there. I really didn't have enough time to do everything that I had hoped to do and feel like I could have used another whole week there, but my time did not permit it.

Right now I'm in Arizona. Dear friends have hosted a couple of parties for me, enabling me to see more people at once, instead of me having to go around visiting people individually. I was thrilled to meet three fellow bloggers who came to one of the parties and also to see several old friends I hadn't seen in decades. I've also been able to spend time with my daughter and my two grandkids. Although the temperatures have been extremely hot, I am thankful that I do not have to wear the black abaya or cover my neck and hair here.

I have been waited on by females working in restaurants and in the malls - these positions are only filled by men in Saudi Arabia. There hasn't been any need to plan shopping excursions around prayer times. I have spoken with ease with men I'm not related to - I'm not supposed to have contact with men I'm not related to in KSA. I have totally enjoyed being able to get into my rental car and drive myself to wherever I need to go without having to ask my husband to drive me. I have pumped my own gas, something men don't even do in Saudi Arabia because there are gas station attendants to do it for them. I have gone places by myself and loved every minute of it.

Before I left on this trip, some people expressed that I might feel some reverse culture shock being back in the states, but I haven't felt anything like that. Seeing people dressed in shorts and sleeveless tops in this hot weather doesn't shock me or make me feel wierd. To me, it seems a more sensible way to dress in the brutal heat. Driving feels pretty natural to me and so does being able to go out on my own. Maybe because I've only been living in Saudi Arabia for just two years, I'm not feeling the reverse culture shock yet. What I am feeling is renewed joy at the simple freedoms I used to take for granted. Somehow I don't think reverse culture shock will happen to me though even if I give it a few more years...