Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A New Dawn of Progress

One of the things that I have had a very difficult time with since moving to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been the extreme gender segregation that Saudis live by. Things like men and women working together or simply socializing at public functions - that are considered ordinary behavior in the West - have been forbidden because of the hard-hitting enforcement of this issue applied by KSA's religious police force. The ever-present religious police, which have the long official name of "The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice" (CPVPV), is also known as Haia. What I have personally seen and experienced of the gender segregation here has been so exaggerated, unnatural, and unnecessary - and I can only shake my head in disbelief.

In Islam, a man and a woman who are not married/blood-related to each other are not supposed to be “secluded” together - but in Saudi Arabia, this religious law has for years been taken a step further to include pretty much all normal open social contact between men and women, even in the most public of places and circumstances.

That's why I'm feeling encouraged by a recent action taken by The King of Saudi Arabia as he recently replaced the head of the religious police with a more moderate choice. Sheikh Abdullatif Al-Asheikh, who holds a degree in Islamic Studies, is the new minister of the Haia. He replaces Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Humayen, whose reign since his appointment in 2009 as the morality police chief, has been much criticized and plagued with controversy.

But not only has KSA’s beloved King appointed this fresh face to clean up the tarnished image of the CPVPV, he has also given the new appointee implicit instructions as to his expectations and desires, paving the way for what should be a kinder, gentler Saudi Arabia. Told to show leniency and respect to both Saudi citizens and foreigners, Sheikh Al-Sheikh said “King Abdullah stressed the tolerant and moderate nature of Islam” and asked him “to spread the correct understanding of Islam among people.”

In one of his first official acts as the new Minister of the CPVPV, Al-Sheikh dismissed the volunteer members of the Haia, who at times have garnered undesirable attention for their aggressiveness, misbehavior, and improper abuses of authority.

According to Arab News, “The sheikh is of the view that hardline approach in the issue of ikhtilat (mixing in public places or in the presence of others in a dignified manner) is unjustified.” The forward thinker is also against marriages of underage little girls and agrees that female salesclerks should be manning women’s lingerie shops, not men – issues that have caused controversy and have cropped up in the news for many years.

The implications of this new appointment appear to be ushering in a new dawn for the Saudi Arabian people. To some, it may not seem very significant, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a major development and a very welcome and much-needed step in Saudi Arabia’s evolution toward social modernization in the 21st century.

For more information about this topic:

Arab News article “Abdullatif Al-Asheikh is new Haia chief”

Arab News article “King tells new Haia chief to be lenient with people”

Digital Journal article “Saudi King replaces head of morality police with moderate”

Al-Arab Online article "Sheikh Abdullatif seeks to reduce violations of Saudi religious police"

Saudi Gazette article “Hai’a no longer needs volunteers: Al-Sheikh”

Wikipedia article on KSA’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Saudi Arabia)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

An Evening at Il Villaggio Restaurant

A few nights ago my husband and I had the privilege of attending a special event at Jeddah's Il Villaggio Restaurant which was celebrating its 5th Annual International Day of Italian Cuisines. About fifty invited guests feasted on this year's official specially selected dish, Ossobuco in Gremolata alla Milanese, made of tender veal shanks and traditionally served with risotto. The evening's menu also included Sprout Salad with fennel, orange, olives, lettuce, and almonds, and for dessert a delicious Grapefruit Sorbet with cinnamon fragrance.

Prior to the meal, Executive Chef Vincenzo Raschella began the evening with a live cooking demonstration on how to prepare the Ossobuco dish and gave tips about the ease of growing your own sprouts. He was assisted by Sous Chef Raffaele Cuomo.

Il Villaggio Restaurant is housed in a beautiful building on Al Andalus Street, in a bustling part of Jeddah which is home to many consulates, businesses, and other restaurants. The ceiling in the main entrance area is a gorgeous stained glass dome.

Inside there is a lovely courtyard open above to the twinkling stars and the deep cerulean sky where we served a choice of luscious fruit juices. There is also a lovely little shop where one can purchase special Italian ingredients.

My husband and I enjoyed meeting many of the invited guests which included dignitaries from the Italian Consulate, representatives from news sources, as well as other expatriates and Saudis.

I would like to thank the management for including us at this very special event and the finely trained service staff at Il Villaggio Restaurant, who were ultra-attentive and ever-present without being obtrusive.

Stay abreast of what's happening at Il Villaggio Restaurant of Jeddah: LIKE their Facebook page.

For an in depth interview with Chef Vincenzo Baschella, including his recipe for Ossobuco in Gremolata alla Milanese, check out this Arab News article written by Amjad Parkar.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Jeddah's Il Villagio Restaurant Celebrates Italy

ATTENTION JEDDAH RESIDENTS: It's that time of year again when Il Villagio Restaurants and Lounges celebrates its 5th annual International Day of Italian Cuisines - with a Gala Dinner on January 17, 2012, featuring this year's official dish, OSSOBUCO IN GREMOLATA ALLA MILANESE. The Gala Dinner promises to be an exciting and tasty event - there will be a special demonstration about the Ossobuco dish by Executive Chef Vincenzo Raschella and Sous Chef Raffaele Cuomo.

The menu for this special evening features:
2012 Sprout Salad
Fennel, orange, Taggiasche olives, lettuce, almonds and a mix of fresh garden grown sprouts
Ossobuco in Gremolata alla Milanese
Braised veal shank, sprinkled with chopped parsley, garlic and lemon zest on Polenta Incatenata made of corn flour with herbs, cabbage and beans
Grapefruit Sorbet with cinnamon fragrance

ACT QUICKLY FOR YOUR CHANCE TO WIN A DINNER FOR TWO at Jeddah's Il Villaggio Restaurant. Just LEAVE A COMMENT on this post telling me what your FAVORITE ITALIAN DISH is. Be sure to include your NAME and EMAIL ADDRESS. The deadline for entering is 12:00 noon on Tuesday, JANUARY 17. If you are unable to attend the Gala Dinner that evening, the lucky winner will be able to enjoy your free dinner another evening of your choosing through January 31, when the Il Villagio celebration ends.

For more information about International Day of Italian Cuisines online, click HERE.

Il Villaggio Restaurant & Lounges, Al Andalus Street, Jeddah - Telephone 02-668-8233

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Victory for Saudi Women

It was one of those head-scratching confusions about Saudi society that was impossible to wrap one's head around - a strictly religious and gender-segregated society forcing its black-cloaked women to purchase bras and panties and cosmetics from a men-only sales force. It was common for the salesmen to size up their customers, telling the women things like, "You need a 36C not a 34B." The whole situation was distasteful, undignified, embarrassing and shameful for a country that claims its women are not oppressed and are protected and insulated from the morally corrupt West.

Since the passage of a law in 2006 banning men from selling lingerie and cosmetics to women in Saudi Arabia, it was "business as usual" for the last five years as business owners chose to ignore the law in hopes that it would just be forgotten. But the women of the country would not allow it to just fade away.

What it finally took for the law to be enforced was a Royal Decree and threats of penalties and loss of business.

So finally, after years of protests, boycotting lingerie shops, and outcries about the absurdity of it all, a significant change has come to the holy land of Islam. One may not think that employing women in sales positions is a big deal, but in a place like Saudi Arabia, it presented major headaches and additional expenses for business owners. In typical Saudi fashion, it's much more complicated than it needs to be. The interior of female-only shops must not be visible to anyone from the outside. There must be a minimum of at least three women working each shift. Keeping men and women separated in a working environment, providing security for female employees, and other extra measures are required to employ women in sales positions.

I remember in 2010 as the Saudi religious police objected vehemently when Hyper Panda (a mega-supermaket chain in Saudi Arabia) hired female cashiers on the basis that the move was an effort to "westernize" Saudi society. And now, apparently, the religious police have done a complete about face, cooperating with the Labor Ministry to ensure the success of this new measure which champions women's rights.

This is indeed a huge victory for Saudi women, who increasingly seem to yearn for more rights and a more active role in their society despite opposition. While gaining every inch is a hard-fought uphill battle, Saudi women should be proud of this achievement.