Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"No Refund Policy" Angers Middle East Customers

I've written about it before, but I really hate shopping in Saudi Arabia. Despite the fact that the countless sparkling new shopping malls are beautiful and amazing, and irregardless of the sad truth that because of cultural restrictions there is just not much else to do in the way of activities for women in Saudi Arabia besides shop, shopping in Saudi Arabia is not something I have ever really enjoyed - and it's just gotten a whole lot worse.

The large Middle Eastern retail conglomerate, M. H. Alshaya, has enraged customers with a new policy that does not allow refunds for returned merchandise - only store credits will be offered.

The big unique problem in Saudi Arabia with this policy is that most clothing stores in the country do not provide dressing rooms for women to try on clothing before purchasing it. Why? Because they are illegal! Since most sales positions in KSA are jobs almost exclusively limited to men, even in women's clothing and lingerie stores, there are just too many wild X-rated possibilities that could conceivably happen in these changing rooms. So the imaginative Saudi religious clerics have deemed these convenient little necessities as totally immoral dens of filthy lust. Their answer is to deprive women in Saudi Arabia the ability to actually try on clothing first before buying it, preventing sexual attacks on women in various stages of undress in retail changing rooms.

Many stores have routinely imposed a strict return policy in the past, limiting the time frame for a return to three days. Imagine the problems this creates for women in Saudi Arabia who cannot drive and do not have drivers at their disposal to run them back to the store to return an item that doesn't fit. It's more than just a hassle.

Across the Middle East, Alshaya controls over 55 different retail chains, managing more than 2,000 franchises in 15 countries. Here is a list of companies in Saudi Arabia that Alshaya manages (I've included some links to their websites or email addresses):

American Eagle
Claires - email: customersupport@claires.com
Debenhams - email: heretohelp@debenhams.com
Dorothy Perkins
Foot Locker
Justice - email: customerrelations@tweenbrands.com
Office Depot
Pottery Barn
Pottery Barn Kids
Vision Express

I would urge you all to voice your objections to these stores' unfair trade practices in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. Alshaya's phone number in Saudi Arabia is 920000-2482. For Alshaya's phone contacts in other countries in the region, click here. And here is the email address of Alshaya: customercare@alshaya.com

A Facebook group
has also been established to promote the boycotting of these stores under the Alshaya umbrella. Please join and show your support.

WOMEN OF THE WORLD, I ASK YOU: Have you ever been sexually attacked by a lusty salesperson while trying on clothing in a retail changing room? Whether you have or not, I want to hear it from you, so please add a comment to this post with your experience. What do you think of the Saudi religious establishment's position of forbidding women's changing rooms to prevent sexual attacks on women - justified or not?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Saudi Women's Suffrage Mired in Suppression

The following opinion piece was just published in The GlobalPost and was written by Saudi blogger, Eman Al Nafjan, who writes one of my favorite blogs, "SAUDIWOMAN'S WEBLOG."

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz addressed the 150 members of the all-appointed advisory council (Shura) in September to announce that he rejects the marginalization of Saudi women. He said that after seeking advice from religious scholars within the country’s highest Islamic council and others outside of it, he had come to the decision to include women in the Shura and allow them full participation in future municipal elections.

This announcement came as a complete surprise to most Saudis. When word got out that the King was to address the Shura, most thought it was to speak about the housing crisis, a major concern and a point of grievance for many. And although there is a women’s suffrage campaign headed by Dr. Hatoon Al Fassi and Fawziah Al Hani, it was recently overshadowed by the campaign against the ban on women driving. So women’s suffrage and their appointment to the Shura was the last thing anyone was thinking about then.

To outsiders, the king’s announcement may seem like an enormous breakthrough for women’s rights. However, the current status of women foretells that it will take a lot more than one royal announcement for things to change in Saudi.

As a Saudi woman, I was overjoyed to hear King Abdullah’s announcement. But since then, it has become apparent that misogynistic religious fundamentalists still have quite a hold on governmental decisions and public opinion. There has been little indication so far of any substantial change in processes and procedures within the government. And the tone and discourse of the Saudi religious establishment remains as conservative as it ever was, if not more so.

Sheikh Al Luhaidan, the oldest member of the highest Islamic council was probably the most shocked by King Abdullah’s speech. In an interview on an Islamic cable TV network, Al Majd, he said that he had no prior knowledge of the king’s decision nor was he asked his opinion on the inclusion of women. He also said he wished the King had not mentioned the highest Islamic council at all.

The Minister of Justice, Sheikh Mohammed Al Eissa, was quick to issue a statement the next day that women appointed to the Shura will not be allowed to be physically present on the floor. Instead, arrangements will be made for them to watch each session via closed circuit TV and only participate via microphone so they remain unseen to the Shura’s male members.

Shortly after the king’s announcement, a Saudi woman, Shaima Jastania, was sentenced to 10 lashes across the back for driving her car in the port city of Jeddah, and a young man was sentenced to 15 lashes and two weeks in prison for taking photographs of Shaima while she was driving. Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal announced that the king had pardoned Shaima and vacated the lashing sentence, but her case is still pending in court.

Two female reporters, Samiya Al Eissa and Nesreen Najm Al Deen, wrote about Shaima’s case in a local newspaper. As a result, the two reporters were referred to the Ministry of Information’s press violation committee — not for reporting an untruth, but for reporting a truth that the Ministry views as threatening to national unity. The Ministry’s accusatory letter was leaked and a scanned copy made the rounds on social media, where many pointed out that the two reporters were not the only ones to report Shaima’s case. A similar report by a male reporter was published in Al Hayat newspaper, no reports have surfaced that he was reprimanded or accused of causing national discord.

That my country’s stability is so fragile in the eyes of some that a woman driving her own car and two women reporting the injustice of her punishment is a threat to its very unity is an indication of how sinister the women’s movement is to them and how seriously challenging it is to speak out for women’s rights.

Last week, 17 members of a literary association in the Western city of Al Baha walked out of meeting in protest of a female writer and professor, Suaad Al Mana, addressing the association on stage with her face uncovered. This despite her wearing the full black cloak — the abaya — and completely covering her hair. The members who walked out stated that a woman standing on stage in front of men is the beginning of the moral disintegration of Saudi society. Before walking out, the group called those who remained “secularists” as if it was a dirty accusation and shouted that this type of gathering is what caused the fall of the Islamic Empire in Spain. A spokesperson for the group, Ahmed Al Amari, told Al Sharq Alawsat that their objection “is based on sharia, legal and social grounds.”

Replying to inquiries from members of the Shura, the Ministry of Justice spokesperson stated on November 14 that Saudi authorities cannot force their employees or judges to look at a woman’s face to compare it against her ID card. That’s why they will implement an electronic fingerprinting system to verify a woman’s identity without having her remove the cloth covering her face.

Recently, Saudi public elementary schools have allowed first through third grade boys to have female teachers. One of the last orders made by Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz as he was leaving his post as Riyadh governor to become Minister of Defense was that these schools must ensure the 6- through 8-year-old boys not be able to talk or play with their female peers in school corridors or during recess.

These examples demonstrate how long and treacherous the road will be for the cause of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Even decisions at the highest level of government in an absolute monarchy such as ours will only just begin to dent the armor of fundamentalism behind which many hide their misogyny.

As a country that is trying to modernize its economy and society, this fundamentalist mindset poses a unique challenge. Since the late 1970s, this faction of society has had immense decision-making power particularly in education and the courts — the two areas where interaction between the government and the average citizen is greatest. Three decades later, they have managed to make their ideology the foundation on which education and justice are based. Even appointing progressive ministers has failed to make any substantial change because from the bottom up, the system is sustained by people who have a religious conviction to resist change. Nothing is harder to shake than that type of conviction.

Steps such as appointing women to the Shura council and allowing them to participate in municipal elections, positive as they may be, are not as influential as enabling and empowering the average Saudi woman to represent herself without the obstacles of male guardianship, male drivers and strict segregation work codes. What’s the use of having a female Shura member as a representative to the government when a woman cannot represent herself in her own life?

This work was supported by a 2011 Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion and edited by Knight Luce 2011 Fellow Caryle Murphy. The fellowship is a program of the University of Southern California's Knight Program in Media and Religion.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Women Drivers Are Not Virgins

This is yet another post which falls under the category of:

In one heavyweight punch aimed at keeping Saudi women out of the driver's seat in Saudi Arabia, the country's religious establishment has apparently conducted a "scientific study" with surprising results, leaving the rest of the world reeling at the absurdity of it all.

In the continuing saga of the controversial battle between those who want to keep Saudi women at home (or in the back seat) and those who want to see Saudi women sitting behind the wheel, the study's findings seemingly show conclusive evidence that allowing Saudi women to drive would result in the loss of their virginity. How this magically happens is not exactly clear. But Saudi Arabia's religious scholars are convinced that in all other countries of the world where women DO drive, there are no more virgins left - so they can only assume that this would occur in Saudi Arabia too if letting women drive were permitted.

Saudi Arabian experts have long maintained that in the rest of the world where women can drive, all these women drivers have become immoral sluts - and now these experts allegedly have "scientific evidence" to back up these claims. Not only that, the study also supposedly proves that lifting the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia would also cause KSA to suffer other effects of moral decline as well, such as a rise in homosexuality, pornography, unmarried sex, and divorce rates.

With a divorce rate already as high as a jaw-dropping 62%, letting women drive in Saudi Arabia would spell certain disaster for the sanctity of marriage in KSA. On the other hand, since the divorce rate is already so high, maybe women drivers would have the reverse effect, who knows? Probably not though, since their study was "scientific," after all.

The campaign for women driving has gained steam over this past year, with women all over the country quietly taking to the wheel despite the ban. Earlier this year Manal al Sharif was jailed for ten days for driving, and another woman, Shaiman Jastaniya, was sentenced to ten lashes for daring to drive in Saudi Arabia, but was spared that fate by the Saudi king.

Saudi women must rely on male family members for their transportation needs, or are forced to hire drivers or take taxis - situations which place Saudi women in the precarious position of being alone in a car with an unrelated male, which is forbidden by the strict Saudi interpretations of Islam.

In a country where religious police are necessary to keep the population in line morally, this latest "scientific study" comes as no surprise. One of my first thoughts when I read about this study was that if women ever do gain the right to drive in Saudi Arabia, the old perverts in the country will flaunt this study to justify marrying 8 year old girls because there weren't any other virgins available.

Do they know how ridiculous all of this sounds to the rest of the world, or do they just not care what the rest of the world thinks?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Saudi Woman Makes Headlines - for Speeding in Dubai

It must have been a really slow news day for the Saudi Gazette and other newspapers in the region.

Articles with titles like "Speeding Saudi Woman’s Bentley Impounded in Dubai" and "Saudi Woman Fined for Speeding in Dubai" appeared in national Saudi newspapers and in Emirates 24/7 News. In fact the Emirates newspaper even published a lovely photo of the speeding Saudi businesswoman, Maha Makki.

Here is an excerpt from the Saudi Gazette article:

Maha Makki, a Saudi businesswoman, ran several red lights while speeding in her Bentley car in Dubai because she had an important business appointment she didn’t want to miss.
The traffic police however did not accept her explanation. She was fined heavily and her car has been impounded for 60 days.
Maha says she did not notice the red lights because she was in a hurry and that it was the first traffic violation she has ever had in her life. “Maybe I was driving a bit fast,” she said.

And why exactly is this news? Because the driver was a Saudi woman - no other reason. It's as if these newspapers are saying, "See? This is why we don't let women drive in Saudi Arabia. Women are bad drivers."

If this is truly news, where are all the articles which involve Saudi men who have committed traffic infractions? Because when men speed and run red lights, it's not news - but it is when WOMEN do!

Saudi Arabia ranks dead last in the entire world when it comes to traffic safety - gee, I wonder if that could be because only men are permitted to drive in KSA? It doesn't take a genius to figure that one out.

These newspapers should be ashamed of themselves for turning this incident into propaganda, for supporting discrimination against Saudi women, and for perpetuating the myth that women are not safe drivers. I am totally disgusted.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Can Muslims be Good Americans?

In this short video segment from Anderson Cooper's show, a woman expresses her opinion about Muslims in America not being able to be good citizens because of their religious beliefs. Four of the stars of the show "All-American Muslim" are panelists and respond to the woman's statements.

If you missed the first episode of "All-American Muslims," which aired this past Sunday evening, you can catch a re-airing of the first episode tonight on TLC (The Learning Channel). New episodes of "All-American Muslims" are shown on TLC on Sunday evenings, and are reshown on Mondays and Thursdays.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

"All-American Muslims" on TLC

TLC (The Learning Channel) will soon be airing a special eight-part reality TV series called “All American Muslims,” which will allow us all a glimpse into the private lives of five Muslim-American families. It was filmed in Dearborn, Michigan, a suburb of the metropolitan Detroit area, which is known for having America’s largest concentration of Arab-Americans. Boasting a population of almost 100,000, approximately 1/3 of Dearborn’s residents are of Arab descent. This also translates into a high concentration of Muslims in the area.

I went on the TLC website and watched five short enjoyable teaser segments of the show, and I was intrigued by the personalities and real-life situations of the families. It was interesting to see the clear religious differences and vast spectrum of how the show’s cast practice and follow Islam within their community. For example, while many of the women wear hijab (head covering) and dress modestly, other women on the show did not. In fact, one woman has tattoos, piercings, and pink hair.

From the TLC website:
“The show reveals how these individuals negotiate universal family issues while remaining faithful to the traditions and beliefs of their faith.”

The All-American Muslim Families:

The Amen family is featured as their daughter Shadia marries Jeff, an Irish Catholic who has agreed to convert to Islam, and other extended family members also face their own trials, like fertility issues.

Nader and Nawal Aoude
are a newlywed couple who are anticipating the arrival of their first child and have their own ideas about how they will raise it.

Nina Bazzy is a married businesswoman and mother of a young son. Although she was raised in a traditional Muslim household, Nina marches to her own drum and has plans to open a nightclub, the nature of which presents its own problems within her family and Muslim community.

Mike Jaafar is a deputy sheriff and his wife Angela is a consultant. Together they are the busy involved parents to four children, and they work toward promoting understanding of the Muslim community.

The Zaban family consists of dad Fouad, a high school football coach, mom Zaynab, who wears hijab and works part-time as a secretary, and their four children. Coach Zaban struggles with finding the right balance between his Islamic faith and working his mostly Muslim team during Ramadan, when Muslims are required to fast during the day.

If you’re looking for a racy TV reality show like the Kardashians or any of those Housewives shows, you won’t find it here. But in a climate where part of the American population considers all Muslims as terrorists, I’m hoping many people will tune in to see for themselves how normal and truly American these families are. This TLC project will put human faces and personalities to Muslim people, when in the past our main conjured up images of Muslims have been tinged with Orientalism or stereotypes to be feared.

"All-American Muslims" premieres on TLC on Sunday, November 13th at 10pm (9pm Central).

Click here to view five short sneak peak previews from the upcoming TLC series, "All-American Muslims."

Monday, October 31, 2011

Stirring the Pot of Controversy

The internet is abuzz with a religious controversy that at its core now appears to have no basis other than a lawyer trying to stir up trouble for Muslims.

When I initially read this article, I just shook my head in disbelief at the absurdity of the situation: a complaint under investigation by the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights about Muslim students attending Catholic University alleging that their human rights are being violated because they have not been provided a haven on campus free of Christian symbolism in which to pray. In addition, the complaint further says that Muslim students were also being denied the right to form their own Muslim student group.

Sounds rather absurd, doesn’t it? I mean, what exactly would one expect at a Catholic university?

Well, as it turns out, there are in fact no Muslim students at all behind this complaint. It is the work of an attorney and law professor at George Washington University Law School, John F. Banzhaf III. One would have to wonder what his motivations are. Is he truly concerned with Muslim students’ rights, or is he just trying to cause trouble for Muslims by making them appear to be demanding, frivolous, and unreasonable?

To read more about this topic:

Charges Agsinst Catholic University Were Not Made by Muslims,
by The American Muslim

Attorney: Crosses at Catholic University violate human rights of Muslim students, at Syracuse.com

Catholic University's Muslim Students Should Have Prayer Rooms Without Crucifix, Complaint States,
on The Huffington Post

Monday, October 24, 2011

Hijab in the Workplace

The topic of hijab (the cloth which covers the hair of Muslim women) has been garnering attention around the world for many years, affecting law in France, causing conflict in US courts, spurring cries of discrimination at an amusement park in the US, even inciting a woman's murder in a court in Germany, as well as a multitude of various other worldwide incidents linked to wearing hijab.

Are you a woman who has worn hijab in the workplace? Has your experience been positive or negative?

If you didn't wear hijab and then later decided to do so, did you place it on one day and show up to work with it unexpectedly? If so, how did your colleagues react?

Did you tell a superior or other colleagues that you wanted to start wearing hijab first? If so, what were the responses and how did they react once you started wearing it?

What are your thoughts on discussing your plan to begin wearing hijab first verses just showing up one day with hijab on?

Have any of you interviewed for a position without hijab and then later began working with hijab?

Are there certain working environments that seem to be more hijab-friendly than others? What environments have seemed hostile?

If you do not wear hijab but have experienced interaction with a hijabi worker, what was your impression of the encounter?

If you'd like to participate in this discussion focusing on hijab in the workplace, please be sure to indicate in your comments what country your encounters occurred in, since this factor can greatly influence one's experience.

For great tips and demonstrations on wearing hijab, check out HijabTrendz Channel on youtube.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

KSA's Crown Prince Sultan Dies

Saudi Arabia is a country in mourning as its citizens learned of the October 22nd passing of Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who was next in line to the Saudi throne. The news opens up major speculation as to who will be named to replace him as Crown Prince of the oil-rich nation. The Prince's health in the past few years had been failing, as he reportedly battled colon cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

Reports of the age of the Crown Prince range from 81 to 86 years old, a common dispute for many older Saudis. My own husband actually has three different official birthdays. Saudi Arabia uses the lunar Hijri calendar, which is 11-12 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar used in the west. This can create disputes about someone's birthdate when trying to convert the Arabic dates into the western calendar. The Islamic calendar is purely based on the moon and does not take into account the seasons. The cycle of the seasons repeats itself in the Hijri calendar only once every 33 Islamic years.

Crown Prince Sultan was a half brother of KSA's ruling monarch, beloved King Abdullah, who himself last week underwent yet another back surgery and is still recuperating. Sultan served his country in many varied capacities over the years - as First Deputy Prime Minister, Inspector General, Minister of Defense, Minister of Aviation, Governor of Riyadh, Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Communications. A Wikileaks document of a diplomatic cable dated March 2009 revealed that the Crown Prince was "incapacitated," due to the effects of dementia or Alzheimer's.

Crown Prince Sultan was fluent in English, married at least ten wives, and was father to at least seven sons. His funeral arrangements have been set for October 25, 2011, in Riyadh.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Extreme Gender Segregation

This is a sign on the door of a Subway sandwich shop in Saudi Arabia. Women are not allowed in restaurants that do not have separate entrances and sections for families.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Saudi Women's Lives Full of Contradictions

It's difficult to explain the daily contradictions Saudi women face living in their male-dominated ultra-conservative Islamic country. Fellow blogger EMAN AL NAFJAN, who writes SAUDI WOMAN, has managed to express how utterly confusing life really is in the following article she wrote for the Guardian...

Life for Saudi women is a constant state of contradiction
Saudi Arabia's political paradoxes mean that a woman can be elected to parliament – but she'll need a man to drive her there

What's it like being a Saudi woman? A common question I've come to expect from outsiders – even fellow Arabs. The restrictiveness of the guardianship system, gender segregation and a persistently sexist culture add up to create an exotic and mysterious lifestyle that is difficult to not only explain but also to comprehend.

How do you explain the ingrained paradox of the driving ban on women? The point of the ban is that women avoid situations that lead to them mixing with and meeting men. However, the ban then leads to the necessity of hiring a strange man and getting into the car with him on a daily basis.

How do you explain the huge amounts of money the government spends on educating and training women, so much so that 60% of college graduates in Saudi are women – educating and training all these women, despite the fact that gender segregation laws makes employing them virtually impossible.

How do you explain that this is the way of life that the average Saudi wants for his or her country, when anyone getting on a plane leaving Saudi cannot help but notice how quickly the Saudi passengers abandon their abayas and conservative mannerisms?

A country of contradictions; Saudis have coined an Arabic phrase to explain the unexplainable that translates into "Saudi exceptionality". This past week Saudi exceptionality did not disappoint.

After years of Saudis campaigning and petitioning the king to lift the women driving ban and ease the restrictiveness of the guardianship system, King Abdullah decreed last week that women would be allowed as full members of the Saudi parliament and would be allowed to vote and run in future municipal elections. In bafflement, we celebrated the decree.

Then, within a couple of days of the decree, a Saudi woman was sentenced to 10 lashes for driving her own car. Although women are banned from driving, they have never been sentenced to physical punishment for it. The usual is signing a pledge and in extreme cases paid suspension from their jobs and prison sentences that are never more than a few days.

Local political analysts believe that this lashing was some sort of reaction from the judicial courts to the king's decree. A national and international outcry soon followed and the woman was later pardoned but the contradiction still stands. So in 18 months' time a Saudi woman can be a member of parliament providing that her male guardian allows her to and she finds a man to drive her there.

How do Saudis explain that? It depends on where they stand concerning women's rights issues. Those for women's rights commend the wisdom of empowering women at the highest levels of decision-making so that their voices will trickle down to create real change in the everyday life of the average Saudi woman.

Women members on the Shura council will help bring issues such as child marriages and the unemployment rate for women to the forefront. However, those who oppose the decision see it as the government bending to international pressure. To them, the recent campaigns by organisations such as Amnesty International and Change.org have pushed the government to go against the will of the people.

Either way, the end result is the same, another paradox. Another item to add to the list of things that make explaining what it's like being a Saudi woman difficult; another illogical milestone in Saudi history. The only consistency is "Saudi exceptionality".

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Woman Caught "Driving While Female" to be Lashed

I am outraged.

Two days after the King of Saudi Arabia declared that his country would no longer "marginalize" women, a Saudi woman who dared to drive her own car has been sentenced to 10 lashes.

This is barbaric and unacceptable.

Photo Credit: NPR Michael Bou-Nackie

Saudi women are denied the right to drive in this society. Some fortunate wealthier Saudi women can afford to hire drivers who are at their beck and call, but many Saudi women are not in the position to do this. Many women must depend on their husbands, fathers, or brothers to drive them to places they need to be.

This is degrading and undignified - and certainly it marginalizes women.

Men like to use the argument that women are prohibited from driving for "their own protection." After all, it is much safer for a woman to stay at home than to be out in a car where the streets are overrun with angry stressed-out testosterone driven cars. Saudi Arabia is an extreme gender segregated society. Women are not supposed to be alone with a man who is not related to them. Women who hire drivers or who take taxis are forced to be alone in a vehicle with an unrelated man. THIS IS HARAM! (Haram means forbidden, against the religion.)

King Abdullah, I beseech you - stop this barbaric madness!

Grant the women of your country their dignity. Women drive safely all over the world. Why not in Saudi Arabia? First it was Manal Al Sharif who spent 10 days in jail for driving while female. Now your country has upped the punishment to 10 lashes. Sentencing a woman to ten lashes for merely driving a car is insane. Driving a car is not a crime. What about all the little boys in your country who drive without any repercussions? Aren't they more dangerous behind the wheel than a grown woman?

This unfair, sexist and discriminatory practice against the women of Saudi Arabia must stop now! LET THE WOMEN OF SAUDI ARABIA DRIVE!!!

Further reading:

Ahmed Al Omran for NPR "Saudi Woman Sentenced to Lashes After Defying Driving Ban"

SaudiWoman's post "Saudi Women Driving Movement"

Washington Post: Saudi Woman Sentenced to 10 Lashes for Driving

UPDATE: Apparently King Abdullah has overturned the lashing punishment for the woman who was sentenced to 10 lashes for driving while female in Saudi Arabia.

King Says Saudi Women Can Now Vote

Photo Credit: TNT Magazine

It's big news. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia made an announcement yesterday that Saudi women will be allowed to vote and run for office in the next municipal elections in 2015. In a country where women cannot drive, are legally considered children their entire lives, and must have their male guardian's approval to do things like travel, get an education, or work, getting the right to vote may sound like a really big victory for Saudi women on the surface. Outwardly to the rest of the world, this may seem like a major development, but before we get too excited, in actuality, is it really?

I hate to put a damper on this astounding development or to minimize the strides King Abdullah has taken in support of women, but I can't help but wonder exactly how big of a step this action really is? Now don't get me wrong - I was thrilled when I read the news. But let's face it. Saudi Arabia is a "KINGDOM." Political parties do not exist in Saudi Arabia because they are not allowed. What kind of power are the people in a kingdom like Saudi Arabia really given? Let's examine that.

Do you know how many "elections" there have been in Saudi Arabia's history? Three! These elections have occurred sporadically, about every 30 or 40 years! There were initially elections in 1939, then in the 1950s, and then not again until 2005. And yes, each time only Saudi men were allowed to vote in these elections. Another election had been slated for 2009, but it was cancelled. These are municipal elections that decided local governmental positions - not laws or rights or policies, and certainly not higher up national government positions. Important government positions are all appointed by the King, and most are filled by his closest, most loyal, and most trusted male relatives.

The part of the King's announcement that I was actually more excited to read about was that women would now be appointed to the Shoura Council - which has been made up of 90 male members appointed by the King. However, the Shoura Council serves only as an advisory board and has no real power at all to enact anything. While influential, all they really do is discuss issues and make recommendations. I was pleased when I read that the Shoura Council "applauded" the King for giving women the opportunity to be appointed to the council. I can only hope that the women who will be appointed to these positions will be effective, forward thinking, and will truly represent the issues, needs, and the desires of Saudi women.

King Abdullah was quoted as saying: "Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Shariah, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulema and others to involve women in the Shoura Council as members, starting from the next term." I just have to ask, exactly what do they think they have been doing all these years, if not "marginalizing" women in KSA society? What about refusing to allow women to drive - isn't that marginalizing women? Or requiring women to have a legal guardian all their lives - marginalizing women or not? Not allowing women to leave the country without her male guardian's approval? Refusing a woman admittance into court without her legal male guardian? Discounting a woman's testimony in court just because she is a woman? Shall I go on?

I remember the excitement in the air when in 2009 the country's first female Deputy Minister of Education, Nora Al Faiz, was appointed with the creation of a newly formed branch specifically for female students. This too was big news because no woman had ever before held a position in Saudi Arabia's government. Controversy immediately arose, however, when the appointee's photo of her uncovered face appeared in the newspaper. Really? Yes, this was scandalous. Many Saudi women wear veils and never show their faces in public. So how does she work with her all male colleagues and underlings in this society where gender mixing, even at work, is prohibited or discouraged by the religion? Why, via closed circuit television, of course! One can only wonder exactly how effective this veiled woman on closed circuit TV can be with this type of set up. But with people focusing on insignificant matters like a photo of her showing her face, instead of the real issues regarding girls' education in Saudi Arabia, how much will she be able to accomplish? Only time will tell.

Also discouraging was the fact that on the very same day this historic proclamation granting Saudi women the right to vote was announced, Saudi activist Najalaa Harir had to appear in court on charges of "driving while female." This is yet another example of how Saudi Arabia famously manages to take "One step forward and two steps back" at the same time.

As I see it, Saudi Arabia still remains very much a man's world. These teeny baby steps come much too slowly for me.

Or as one Saudi woman, alfadlmiranda, tweeted, "Will soon be selling t-shirts in #Saudi that read: Other countries went through the Arab Spring and all i got was this crummy voting right"

Further reading:

Rob L Wagner's post "Saudi Arabia’s Municipal Elections: Tough Lessons Learned from Islamic Conservatives"
- an interesting and in depth look at Saudi elections and politics.

TNT Magazine article "Saudi Women Win Right to Vote" - Also TNT photo credit of Saudi women marching with flag

Saudi Woman's post "Prominent Saudis: Mrs. Nora Al Faiz" - written when Al Faiz was newly appointed to her Ministry position.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Arab News: Blogging About the Saudi Experience

Arab News just published an article which interviewed four female bloggers who blog about Saudi Arabia.

I am honored to be included as one of the four bloggers.

The other three bloggers are my friend Carol at American Bedu, Laylah who writes Blue Abaya, and American Girl, author of Under the Abaya.

It's a really well written article about four women who are at very different points in their lives.

Please have a look.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Fareed Zakaria: A Decade After 9/11

This explains a lot. Fareed Zakaria talks about a report on the Arab World's standing in the world regarding its wealth, education, governments, women's rights, freedom and other issues. Very interesting.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Libertarian Vent: Do You Remember 9/11? I Do.

I found the following essay as I was reading various articles about 9/11. It was written last year on 9/11 by a young man who writes as J-Victus on his blog called "A Libertarian Vent." His understanding of why 9/11 really happened impressed me and I wanted to share it with you...

DO YOU REMEMBER 9/11? I DO.by J-Victus

I was a child when a gorgeous Tuesday morning turned into a day of confusion, fear, and anguish. In an English class, the intercom from the front office called me down for an unexpected "doctor's appointment." No school? Great. I walked with a spring in my step down to the office and as I walked out with my mother, her face turned grimmer than when I first saw her and she said, "I won't keep you in the dark. The Twin Towers have been destroyed. We're under attack." In the mid-90s, my family visited the Windows on the World restaurant a few times.

I immediately imagined the people who were up there, and my worldview expanded in a day from Pokemon and yo-yo's to international relations. As I listened to George Bush acknowledge the day's tragedy, I was enraptured with the response he promised to deliver to these killers. I was suddenly an ardent kill-em-all neocon that would make Terry Jones blush. From here I derived a fun motto: "I am a recovered neocon. I was in puberty, what's your excuse?"

Until into 2004, I was aggressive, anti-Muslim, and unapologetically pro-Bush. But I am not an idiot. No WMDs were found. Call me crazy, but that was the reason we were given to invade in the first place. As I watched my elder Americans fall for the script rewrite that declared the objective of the war to be the liberation of the Iraqi people, an anti-government sentiment brewed in me and grew more intense with the week.

I regret only that it took until nearly the end of high school to solidify this universally anti-war position. I wish I could have warned more of my peers about the evils of empire because I did not and do not want to see anyone from my formative years die for our criminal overlords. But it is happening, and will likely get worse.

I find it deeply disturbing that my peers are choosing to enter the military in such a day and age. Two recent enlistments are college just-graduates who cannot find jobs in their area of study. Their case is not unique, but is actually a deliberate policy by the criminals in Washington. Known as military Keynesianism, it is the program of offering the military as an "employer of last resort" during economic downturns. The scum who pursue this despicable strategy then tout the lower unemployment rate.

It's a diverse bunch that are going to fight. Another is a former party girl who just recently left for Iraq. Another notable classmate is a young man whose father was killed in the Twin Towers. He is now a skilled marine sniper. His anger is perfectly understandable. I cannot imagine losing a father so young.

But our feelings have no bearing on facts, not even grief. Nine years on, I would tell this young man that the best way to honor his father's memory is to ask and understand why the attack that killed him happened. Warmongers framed the debate in the early years to make it seem that those who questioned aggressive policies were unpatriotic. While emotionally effective in a traumatized nation, it is typical neocon nonsense. Police always investigate the motive of a crime. That does not mean they sympathize with the killing! It's just good detective work.

Osama bin Laden himself told us why he ordered the 9/11 strikes: "Why are we fighting and opposing you? The answer is very simple: Because you attacked us and continue to attack us...Your forces occupy our countries; you spread your military bases throughout them; you corrupt our lands." When he was ignored, he implored Americans to listen to their own intelligence community, which concluded that bin Laden was not lying to himself or to Americans when he explained his motives. It is impossible to leave an honest examination of the facts and history with a pro-war position because a look at reality shows unambiguously that the blame for this strife falls squarely on the United States government.

Yes, America started it. While the Bush gang decries "blaming America for everything," it doesn't change the fact that many terrible events are the fault of American policies. It shouldn't boggle the mind too much. We have a worldwide Empire, and imperial actions will have consequences.

Again and in caps: YES, AMERICA STARTED THIS WAR. Is it not obvious that before the 1950s, the Muslim world had either friendly or no relations with the US (except for the Barbary Pirates, who were a problem because they were pirates, not because they were Muslims)? What changed this? Our coup in Iran in 1953. It is a fact of history that the once-arrogant and warmongering British, who were watching their Empire disintegrate in the aftermath of WWII, came whining to the CIA about some kind of communist revolt in Iran when they asserted control over their oil. In response, Operation Ajax overthrew the popular government and installed the tyrannical and hated Shah (just another one of "our bastards"), ensuring continued western control of the oil supply. Of course, the Iranians are a powerful people, not to be underestimated, and they took their nation back not 30 years later.

The aftermath of Operation Ajax was ever-widening US intervention in Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, on and on) and unbending support for Israel, which made the Zionist regime all the more aggressive. Deepening parallel to the expanding meddling was Muslim anger seething against the interference. Is this unjustified? How would we react to foreign interference in the United States? What if our nation was occupied (By some army vast enough)? Would we not expect Americans to form militias and build improvised explosive devices? The most patriotic Americans would put the foreign soldiers through daily hell. The longer the occupation lasted, the more angry Americans would get, and with it their capacity for violence would grow. Is anyone deluded enough to think the American people have some unique moral buffer that would restrain the viciousness of any response? In the final months of WWII, AT LEAST 300,000 Japanese civilians (<---read boiled.="" br="" canals="" incinerated.="" that="" the="" were="">
Indeed, the March 9-10 Firebombing of Tokyo was deadlier than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Don't make me laugh and say that Americans would show an ounce of mercy to occupiers in their own backyard. Americans are humans and humans are violent, especially angry humans.

Of course foreign-occupied Americans would become enraged, and their actions would mirror that rage. They would kidnap occupying soldiers. They would torture and murder them on video and release the tapes to terrify all others. Don't deny it, my friend. Insurgency fights not the physical army face-to-face, but attempts a deeper assault on the will of its members. Insurgents who fight occupations seek to terrorize the troops who walk on their land. Therefore, it should not be shocking that Iraqi and Afghan insurgents are terrorizing US troops who walk on their land.

Especially since, lest you forget, America started it. Whether we want it or not, blood is on our hands because our tax dollars paid for every bomb that has hit a wedding and every bullet that has ended some bystander's life. And while the blood of those 3000 Americans is on the Al-Qaida thugs who murdered them, also to blame are the officeholders and lobbyists who pursued the unnecessary, stupid, and evil policies that made the attack possible in the first place.

So many Americans see 9/11 as some kind of declaration of war that came out of nowhere. This would be news to millions of Middle Easterners whose memory includes 50 years of American intervention. 9/11 was retaliation. It may be hard to accept--indeed it seems that some Americans (Especially those named Hannity, Bolton, or Limbaugh) are simply incapable by nature of accepting this truth--but it is historical fact that five decades of American intervention preceded the destruction of the Twin Towers. While the neocons speak of spreading democracy, all they really spread is bullshit (Sorry! Not really...) to obscure historical truths that cannot be refuted, but can most certainly be ignored to pursue more war. They have been ignored since the 1950s, they were ignored on September 11th, 2001, and they continue to be ignored as the stupidest war in American history --and likely our last-- is in the making.

So yes, remember 9/11, remember the victims. But the most important thing to remember is why. As I sat in confusion and fear watching over and over the images of devastation that ravaged our country, I asked,"Why?" like millions of my fellow Americans. The answer should be obvious. The CIA explained it and Osama answered us as well. Why were we attacked? Because we attack.

And our countrymen only died in vain if we ensure others will share their fate.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Wham! Bam! Islam!

Move over, Spiderman and Wolverine! There are some new superheroes in town.

The 99 is a cast of superheroes, each one representing one of the 99 virtues of Islam. They are being brought to the world in the form of colorful high-quality comic books by Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa and will soon be coming to your television screens as an animated series.

Each of The 99's superheroes, who possess a variety of super powers, hails from a different country and are portrayed in both male and female form. The very first episode, called "Origins," goes back in time to the 13th century and depicts an important Islamic library being destroyed. Somehow the 99 virtues of Allah manage to remain preserved. Ensuing issues involve each of the superheroes battling for the cause of good over evil. Al-Mutawa has been vigilant about keeping The 99 free of political overtones. It is important to note that The 99 characters are not all Muslim either. They represent the virtues of Islam, not Islam itself.

But combating crime and evil doers are not the only challenges facing The 99. Saudi Arabia's clerical community has not embraced the idea of The 99 and has forbidden the comic books from entering the country. Comic books have never really been as popular in Muslim countries as they are in other places around the world, and the Islamic world has certainly never endorsed superheroes of any kind. One of Al-Mutawa's wishes is that The 99 will transcend its emphasis on Islam, and that the virtues The 99 extolls will be seen as relevant to every child, no matter what their religion.

On October 2, New York's Lincoln Center will be hosting the New York Film Festival's World Premiere of "The 99 - Unbound."

Mark your calendars for October 13. On that day, PBS will air the documentary "Wham! Bam! Islam!" in the US about Naif Al-Mutawa and his creation of The 99. Check your local listings for the airing time in your area.

The 99 Facebook Page

Newsweek Pakistan article "New Age, New Heroes" (April 2011)

The Atlantic article, "Super Muslims"

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

9/11 Coloring Book Controversy

While the publisher of this coloring book for children maintains that it is historically accurate, I can't help but feel that the graphic images are disturbing and inappropriate for children who are young enough for coloring books. Are there other coloring books out there that depict burning buildings and people killing others? Since when did terrorism, death, and violence become suitable fodder for children's coloring books?

This can only serve to worsen the discrimination, hatred, and stereotypes that exist toward Muslims. Aren't there better, less inflammatory, ways of teaching young children about 9/11?

By the way, just last year this same publisher brought American children The Tea Party Coloring Book for Kids.

Sign the petition to discontinue the 9/11 coloring book at Change.org.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Celebrating Ramadan 2011

Palestinian women stand in front of a window decoration of Islam's crescent moon and star on the eve of Islam's holy fasting month of Ramadan in the West Bank city of Jenin, on July 31, 2011.
(Saif Dahlah/AFP/Getty Images)

As Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan, their annual holy month of fasting, enjoy this amazing collection of images of Ramadan from around the world - from TheAtlantic.com

Eid Mubarak!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Alicia Ali: A Kinder, Gentler Saudi Arabia

Alicia Ali's name might sound familiar to you if you are a regular reader of this blog. Back in June of this year, I published an interview with two "Doulas" in Jeddah, and one of them was Alicia Ali. Now I want to introduce you to another side of Alicia - her creative, artistic, and passionate side. Through her colorful, bold art and her ethereal poetry, Alicia's expressions are an inspiration for Saudis and people abroad. She emphasizes "the need to embrace culture and adopt a pluralistic outlook, and encourages Saudis to share their artistic talent with the global community."

A native of Canada with Hijazi roots, Alicia and her Canadian husband have been living in Saudi Arabia for the past ten years. This busy mom of three founded an artists' network in Saudi Arabia called Arabian Jewel, which in collaboration with vital voices, hopes to profile artists (Saudi and non) in the Kingdom. Alicia also offers holistic services and education through her website called Your True Nature.

Noting the negative images that come to mind when people think of KSA, Alicia has a passion to present "the other side" of Saudi Arabia - a kinder, gentler side, if you will. Yet she says it can only be done by when artists work together sharing the same vision. An important part of her work here is to help bridge cultural gaps between expats and locals through the medium of culturalization. Promoting art and culture has served as an excellent tool in the education process. Her carefully selected themes such as love, wine and the soul, to name a few, may raise eyebrows here, yet she says she is adamant in "crossing ideological boundaries through the art of poetic expression in order to achieve a sense of humanistic equilibrium and unity. The hearts and minds open up when words encapsulated in tablets of love touch the soul, a healing effect." All her works are expressions of her personal experience in the "Land of Love," which is the title of a poem she wrote and recites in the video below.

If you are an artist in the Kingdom and would like to get your work profiled, Alicia welcomes you to contact her personally at: essentialfitra@yahoo.ca

Alicia Ali, artist for non-violence from Tayie Rehem on Vimeo.

Embrace Culture
... A Poem by Alicia Ali

To embrace culture is to embrace humanity
Embrace humanity and live in harmony
To achieve harmony within humanity
Is to live in a state of Unity
We are one human family
With all our diversities apparent and hidden
In essence we all come from the first man.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Bravest Man in Saudi Arabia

Who is the bravest man in Saudi Arabia?

Many Saudis say that it is Khaled Al-Johani, a 40-year-old school teacher and father who has been languishing in a Saudi prison since March. His crime was speaking out in favor of freedom and democracy to a BBC News crew on the much touted (but fizzled) "Day of Rage" earlier this year on March 11 in Saudi Arabia. Although hundreds of protesters demonstrated in several cities in the Eastern Province of the country, Khaled Al-Johani is the only known person who actually showed up in the designated spot in the country's capital city of Riyadh to voice his opinions and his desires for change regarding the future of Saudi Arabia. An overwhelmingly strong and well armed police presence, along with threats of jail or loss of citizenship, discouraged other citizens from participating in the planned Day of Rage. In fact, no one at all in KSA's second largest city, Jeddah, took part. Criticism of the Saudi government is not permitted and is met with harsh consequences. While many Saudi citizens might agree with what Khaled said, they are too afraid of speaking out for fear of being jailed, tortured, or worse.

I am re-posting the below video called "Where is Khaled?" to keep his story alive. Khaled's family was not allowed any contact with him for almost two months. In May family members were allowed to visit him in prison and reported that "he had lost weight and was depressed." As far as I have read about the case, he is being detained as a political prisoner without any legal recourse.

In the video, Khaled says, "We need democracy. We need freedom. We need to speak freely. The government doesn't own us. There is no free media under a monarchy state. The media cannot report freely. They only report the statements of the Ministry of the Interior. They didn't expect that anyone in Saudi Arabia will dare to speak to the media because he or she will be jailed. We don't have freedom. We don't have dignity. We don't have justice. The whole world is free except us under this country."

My personal experience living in Saudi Arabia tells me that Saudis love their country and are extremely proud of their country. Khaled spoke out because he loves his country and wants it to be even better. Is this wrong? Should he be jailed for wanting his country to be better? A country that doesn't allow criticism of its government or policies is an oppressive government.

AOL News Article, "Imprisoned Father of Autistic Boy Called 'the Bravest Man in Saudi Arabia'"

Saudi Arabian security forces quell 'day of rage' protests (Guardian.co.uk)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Ramadan Kareem

As Muslims around the world began this holy month of Ramadan, I wish all my Muslim friends and family peace, love, and prosperity.
Ramadan Kareem.

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."