Maid of Honour

January 29, 2009

filipino-maids.jpgSunday is “maids day” in Hong Kong. We passed a flood of them pouring down the hill towards Central as we made our way to the tram terminus. Filipinos and Indonesians mainly. Like their sisters in the Middle East, Malaysia and Singapore. But my experience of them here in China is coloured by the abuse I know they suffer in Saudi Arabia (this BBC article only touches the tip of the iceberg)  and other places, and as they wave and smile at us I wonder how many suffer the same afflictions here. Read more

Transcending Cultures

August 10, 2008

commodorepush.jpgI was pleasantly, and genuinely surprised on my first visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to have a police car speed past me on the road from the airport – the surprise came from the familiarity of the car. It looked awfully like an Australian production vehicle. Sure enough, after a few days and plenty more sightings that indeed proved to be the case. The export of V6 and V8 Holden sedans to the house of Saud is an export success story, albeit an unsung one. On a subsequent visit I was amused to be caught in a traffic jam created by a broken down truck which was being shunted out of the way by one of those Holdens. The police car was not equipped with any bull bar with which to do this but had carefully nudged up then proceeded to carefully propel the truck off the freeway. It made me laugh – the Holden has been treated like this for decades back home but it did not require an Australian farmer with his Holden hack to show our Saudi friends how this car can can be treated. It was one of the few photos I felt safe taking of the police – shootings and killings of foreigners in the city (Riyadh) had everyone on edge and pointing a camera at law enforcement in that environment is not a good way of keeping a low profile!

Lashes for Being Raped – Saudi Hypocrisy

November 21, 2007

There is a breathtaking hypocrisy in the news floating around overnight that a Saudi woman has been awarded 200 lashes and a prison sentence because she was in a car with a man who was not her relative. Apparently she was gang raped in that trip. The lads get off with a comparatively light sentence but as a victim she suffers this. It is of course her fault – if she was not a woman and not in the car then the men would not have been provoked into raping her!! The hypocrisy is even more breathtaking when in Riyadh you watch the boys picking up the girls at the shopping centre. In broad daylight. Or sit in certain hotel bars on Dubai Creek and watch the Saudi men march in (usually in pairs) and pick up their East European hookers. One (loose) rule for the men. Lots of rules for the women – which damn them for being women just to start with.

Starbucks Religious Police

August 18, 2007

I am often confronted by people who are surprised I want to travel to Saudi, or other places in the Middle East. There is an assumption that it is not safe. Saudi is as safe as most other places and I was able to walk the streets late at night without any concern for my safety, other than that too often there are no sidewalks.

The religious police are another matter. I was warned to be careful around them but was not sure what that really meant. What the warning really meant was that they are an unpredictable lot with no set guide about what they are supposed to police. Any enthusiast can be a member of the religious police and you need nothing by way of training except the passion of a zealot. In any community that is a dangerous thing.

I was sitting outside a Starbucks enjoying a slice of cake and an iced coffee. It was 48degrees C (118 Fahrenheit) and the still dry air was being offset slightly by a fine mist blowing across the tables. I had tried sitting inside but the air conditioning was turned to the other extreme, to 15 degrees C. The heat was a better option. As I sat down with my drink I was vaguely aware of all the mosques in the area starting their calls to prayer. A couple of people got up and moved off. The store was supposed to shut operations for the time of prayer but did not and the crowd I was with continued to drink and socialise. Two very large Hummers had just turned up and disgorged small crowds of young men who milled around talking and joking and ordering coffee.

Suddenly, without any warning at all a Landcruiser crashed up over the sidewalk and stopped among the tables. Out piled a team of religious police waving their canes (one had a length of pipe). The Hummers evacuated in a heartbeat (though I saw them cruise past a few minutes later checking things out) and the crowd scattered for their cars. I heard the doors behind me snap shut and locks clattered home. The misters stopped misting. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the lights in Starbucks flick off and the last of the staff vanish out the back. Suddenly I was on my own, with a coffee and journal and all these religious police.

For a moment of foolishness I fancied I would finish the coffee, continue the journal and ignore these guys. After all, business would be humming again in twenty minutes and the circling Hummers would reappear and start over (the theory is that the police chase you off to prayers but they are like dogs disturbing seagulls – everything mills around while they bark but once gone everything settles into the original routine).

In my case my theory evaporated very quickly. I was their only target and they were not impressed with my insouciance. Never mind that I was a visitor. Or that I was a non Muslim. Even my line about not knowing there whereabouts of a local mosque was lost on them. In the end they trailed me the thirty minute walk back to my hotel. The only pedestrian and the only vehicle on the road for about ten minutes of the walk. It was not the most comfortable of ambles – and amble I did, just to keep them crawling. Only a visitor, but without a Hummer with which to circle, I needed some other way to fight back.

By the time I got back to the hotel prayers were over and everyone was out and about again. After a quick lap of the foyer I walked back to Starbucks and finished my refreshments. From this point on of course I moved when all the other sardines moved and made sure I stayed lost in the crowd. Being alone with those zealots was not something I wanted to invite on myself again.

Girls of Riyadh

August 18, 2007

The book was making some noise last month, even though it was published more than a year ago. I confess to not reading it but the attention this book gets reminds me of the cultural differences that exist in a place like Saudi. For all its Western ways, and veneer, there are some things that happen under the surface that should not surprise anyone – but they do when they are revealed.

Some of those differences are intriguing. If you think of our own culture and then remove women from every facet of life, other than seeing them in the shopping malls, you start to get an idea of the main and obvious difference. No women in any of the businesses you deal with. Absolutely no women behind counters. Not even the perfumery or lingerie sections. That was something I never really got used to seeing. In some malls specialising in fabrics I saw material that was so luxurious and lush I was amazed that it was completely outside my ken – even outside any of my New York 5th Avenue experiences. Colours and sensations that I have never seen anywhere else. In bolts of cloth but especially turned into gorgeous garments. And not a single woman around to measure, fit or entice. Weird really. Almost as weird as having to stand in a “men only” line to pick up my burgers and fries in a food court. Women and children in another line, although some outlets are now allowing families to line up together – radical stuff. And if you want some idea about the challenges young men have in shopping malls this article from Arab News captures the weirdness nicely.

After a few visits to the Kingdom a Saudi colleague, who I had gotten to know well, confided the more well to do women in this place, though apparently repressed (can’t drive, work, move about on their own, have to take care when out shopping that their intentions are not misunderstood, even under all that black cloth) can live a very colourful, even hedonistic lifestyle. There are all sorts of undercurrents if you know where to look, which I guess is part of the point of the book by Rajaa Alsanea.

To help make his point he took me down to one of the shopping malls and suggested we wait at the parcel pick up drive-through. In a short period of time he pointed out to me a well tinted car drive past with a cell number in the window. He reappeared about five minutes later and helped a woman with her shopping and they drove off. No big deal except this was one way young men and women can meet each other (euphemism for “can have sex”) without the religious police, or their families knowing about it. If, when he drove past, she liked the look of him (or his car) she simply called his cell phone and he drove around the block to pick her and her shopping up. Then its off out into the desert for some dessert.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this will happen in a society that so assiduously represses sections of its community. You can’t be appalled by it. Indeed, there was a part of me that applauded their inventiveness and nerve – it was happening under the noses of the religious police, who all behave as if anything pleasurable is a sin. Even a cup of coffee. My bet is that as teenagers they never got a call on their cell phones when they drove past in their hot yellow, black tinted Supras.

Riyadh Foyer

October 25, 2006

The Saudi is a very nocturnal beast, sleeping late and only really getting going in the evening. Helped along by the restaurants being open until 11pm and the coffee shop even later the Saudi men, usually in the national dress, drift into the foyer, settle in to smokes and coffee and get down to business. Few have elected for alternate cell phone rings so a constant Nokia chorus interrupts the low rumbling murmur which arises from the dozen or so couches and paired seats which encourage these business couplings. Papers are pored over, laptops press out presentations, phones ring, hands gesture and smoke rises. Few Saudi’s raise their voices – that is reserved for the Indians who service the Avis desk propped in the middle of all this is. As I write this and glance down the foyer I can see prayer beads being fingered, heads bent across a table in earnest conversation, middle aged and portly gents reclining and pointing their bellies at each other in studied genteelness – which will vanish as they try to pry themselves free of their seats later. Silver haired Aryans flock around the Avis desk and laugh and jibe each other while white Saudi thobes and red dishadashas drift past offering murmured Salams as they go. The young Indian “coffee boy” with an accent so thick I have to point to the menu before we understand each other, flits from table to table. There are no tips but jobs like this would be tough to find and dressed as “labourer casual” will be the last thing he will want.

Men Only – Unfortunately

October 25, 2006

Notes from Riyadh

After making my third trip to the Middle East I finally attempt to put pen to paper. Unlike most trips when I manage to get a few notes jotted about what I have seen those made to the East have been without my muse. Its hard to know why exactly. Perhaps the intense business focus has not really allowed insight into the local and what he or she thinks. And that is what I am mostly interested in. Or is it because the local is not so very visible, or is reluctant to get engaged in the street with a Westerner? Perhaps they assume I am an American!

It is a couple of days before you realise that women are noticeable by their absence. And then you are startled by that vacuum. There are none circulating around the business premises. No secretaries, businesswomen or even clients. In the shopping mall every shop assistant is male. If you think thats not so unusual imagine a stroll through a David Jones perfumery or lingerie department, or any other part of the store for that matter. Instead of well dressed women in attendance find well coifed young men instead. Not a woman in sight. At least not until you are in the shopping precinct proper and the occasional cluster of women with a few young children stand out – for their presence as much as for their black covering. They seem furtive, disjointed, out of place, awkward. In and around the mall on another night a number of women are much more self contained and assured, bright and confident and brazen – allowing their faces to be completely uncovered and eyeballing us aggressively and not without some curiosity. But their heads remain covered. The occasional male berates them for their lack of respect but young, and with the advantage of numbers – five or six of them – they huddle up and scurry off. Columnists in the paper two days later kick around the need for women to be more liberated but I suspect that while ever men in the mall dislike an uncovered face we will be watching these sorts of confrontations for a while yet.

Interestingly the women have become art masters of the eye. With it being the only thing visible it makes sense – they love dark shades and metallic colours and these burnished jewels are doubly striking for being cast in the black frame of their chador. Later I walk down Olaya Road to the Kingdom Tower and am diverted into a couple of malls which sell dresses. I am completely startled by the lush, deep flashing colours and fabrics. Daring cuts and imaginative combinations of material I have never seen anywhere. We are all missing out if this is what they wear. Alongside these fabrics are a staggering array of jewellery as well, with deep Middle Eastern roots in their design and nothing like what we might see at home.

Butterflies in Riyadh Airport

October 25, 2006

Leaving Riyadh

A young soldier too skinny to be credible lounges on the side of an aircraft container loader. His olive green helmet rounds out his head, a dark browned one and incongruous in this place. Or perhaps not where the gritty jobs go to those not in the family. The sound of a fountain adds to the air of cool in this place but I know it is at least 34 degrees out there and his motionless posture – stooped back, flopped arms and careful slow movements reminds me of my own times on a hot tarmacs and thinking of other paces I would rather be. I fancied he had a rifle propped behind him but that appears to not be the case as the Lufthansa Airbus is pushed back and the wingtip giving him shade heads for parts unknown. To us at least. The thing he is no doubt briefed to secure no longer requires his attention and he slowly stands up. The rifle turns into a metal rod. He shifts the bulky bullet proof vest in a way that suggests it is uncomfortable and an irritant and hot. With carefully deliberate strides he lopes across the flight line area in front of me, hitching that darned vest around a few times and shrugging his shoulders into place. No weapons I wonder to myself. Stashed somewhere else maybe. But his trouser pockets are shaped by something large and square, one slapping against each thigh as he lopes off in gangling strides. And there is something propping up his vest at the front and I suspect it is not his lunch. Radio and batteries if my former security colleagues are any guide.

This airport is a third world effort and despite the press noise about terrorists being hounded here with vigour, and the French President making lots of noise and slapping the Crown Prince on the back for his efforts in curbing the scourge of the international community this place gives me no assurance that the net is tight and precautions effective. Nothing is checked with any thoroughness. X Ray operators chat among themselves and are distracted by the sergeants that drift around with nothing to do. My passport was stamped and flicked back to me by an officer who at the time was greeting another like long lost brothers and in the Middle Eastern way with lots of backslapping and cheek kissing. My backpack, containing cameras and lots of CAT5 cable and other odds and sods, was not looked at but my shoes needed a thorough examination. Perhaps the experience is coloured by my being here along with three hundred Indians and a similar number of Filipinos. The former are their old familiar selves, plunging to get in front, pushing and shoving to get through the inspections only to wait for an hour for their flight. I think the Filipinos are nicking off with the Saudi silver. One chap had five enormous cartons he was trying to check in. The first two totalled 80kg. He tried to pile the third on top, but Filipinos are not known for their tall build and he was unable to reach that high. The by now agitated check-in clerk directed him to place them on one at a time but he tried to pile on a different two – also coming to about 80 kgs. His excess baggage bill must have been enormous. I was delivered from what happened next (the check-in clerk was ermeging from behind his counter with a scowl on his face) as the First Class clerk waved me over and I was checked in and done in minutes. Even though I was not travelling up the pointy end of the plane.

In any other place you would be viewed askance for noting who entered and departed the women’s toilets. But in this airport lounge – well, let’s call it that for the moment since it really has the air or a 1960s run down hospital, despite the bright lights and vaulted ceilings and being only ten years old – black cacoons shuffle in and long haired, bejewelled, heeled butterflies float out. The transformation is, at an academic level not surprising. At another aesthetic level it is a pleasant surprise. After three weeks of not seeing a woman – apart from her eyes – and that, only in the occasional shopping centre (not even at Starbucks) the transformation is pleasing, delighting not only the eye but the slightest sense that these girls are breaking the rules.

The (Saudi) Punjabi Cricket Club

October 23, 2006

The heat hammers off the asphalt and at 45 degrees everything shimmers to attention. Or sags completely. The last puddles, quite deep enough to sodden socks in shoes last night are now mostly gone. Indeed, footprints left in a mud patch last evening are now fossilised. None of this is allowed to get in the way of the weekly cricket game. Played by a group of young men, salted with three or four seniors and a boy of about ten, they seem oblivious to the heat although those fielders with a tree nearby quickly sidle from assigned positions to a shady spot.

The field is non existent save for some vague spot in the imagination. It is about as far from the village green as you can get. Except maybe that wicket I once found in the slums of Mumbai (another story for another time). The wicket is a wide section of road and car park. The occasional vehicle disrupts play but as a general rule traffic is non existent on this holy day. The asphalt merges into the clay and gravel which marks most of this part of the world. Not a stitch of grass in sight. But laid out after the fashion of an orchard is a surrounding grid work of small trees, not too dissimilar to olives but lacking that distinctive sheen.

From my side of the wicket, perched atop some stairs and under some convenient tree shade the fielders are only vaguely present in the game, becoming only visible as they dart out from under their protective trees if a ball comes near – like small fish departing the safety of a pile to snatch at some loose bait and whipping quickly back again to their shelter. The normal cricket banter, sledging and good humour is obvious even though the language is indecipherable. A lot of humour is had at the expense of one young bowler who appeals at every swing at his ball.

Now here is a curious thing – the ball has the appearance of a solid, leather clad, red cricket ball. But in fact it is a well taped tennis ball. I watched as one was thrown in from the “field” and refurbished. Stripping the tape from the ball a young man adroitly wound a fresh two layers of red electrical tape around the tennis ball and returned it to the umpire. Batters managed to thump these a fair distance and reactions by some of the fielders suggested they could still nip you if your fingers were allowed to get in the way.

The group was primarily Pakistani although there were some Indians in the mix and a socks and sandals wearing Saudi joined the sideline and the lively spirit of the competition. Come prayer time (a nearby mosque let us know in loud and strident terms but there are so many mosques in this town the calls are echoed forever in every direction) the mats were dragged out and Mecca aligned but to my surprise, and delight, the game was not allowed to stop. Prayers were conducted in shifts and those on the field bowed, stood, bowed, stood and otherwise carried out their ritual only once their team was bowled out and they returned to the sideline. There is something refreshing about the way they accept each others practise of their religion. Equally there seems to be no rancour aimed at those who do not pray.

This game was also notable for the variety of flannels allowed by the “club”. Some players turned up in tracksuits and runners. These are the fanatics and led the sides. Others were dressed in “labourer casual”. But a handful were dressed in their traditional robes and sandals and these seemed to be struggling in the heat. Hey, they were all struggling in the heat. Having just learned that shorts were verboten it was interesting to see that, despite the heat all were in long pants or otherwise had their legs covered. Or was this really “club rules”?

I almost forgot – as light hearted as this game was, the serious edge was reflected in the fact that a scorebook was carefully kept. Beautifully embossed on its mock leather cover was the title of The Punjabi Cricket Club. I had to laugh. Entirely appropriate pretense, inappropriate place. And filched from someone’s storeroom in another country and reverently attended to like a holy book in this holy land.

But this bearded Taliban-look-alike bunch of cricketers are extremely friendly and engaging. When the fielding team arrived off field they all walked up and shook hands with those who had arrived after the game had commenced, myself included. Improperly clad I had to turn down a handful of invitations to play. Next Friday I should be better prepared.

Riyadh, August 2005

An Arab Lunch

October 19, 2006

The sand and dust create a haze around the sun but not sufficient to ease the 46 degree heat or the glare that radiates off buildings, and walls, even those whitewashed ones on either side of the lane down which we bounce. Acacias bend in the oven wind and move their shade from one side of the street to the other, their fine leaves coated in dust and adding to the sense of oppression. The streets are deserted even though it is the middle of the day. Turn down a narrow, wind whipped, dusty lane with high whitewashed walls, sad acacias, barred doors and few windows. We pull up at a bronze coloured metal gate with bulky levers and bolts. For a brief moment we are the only ones in the street but are quickly urged inside and the bronze door, as heavy as that on a vault is silently pressed shut to keep out the heat. Immediately in front of us is the arched ceiling of a fairly cavernous house, the main accommodation. In the hall is an old Bell and Howell projector, gathering dust. It is sitting on an equally weathered Phillips turntable, the timber of its base warped and split. When was a turntable last made with timber?

The main house is not our destination. Like lions the men always eat first and we turn right and stoop through a doorway into the “men’s room”, a cool pleasant place with cushions lining the walls and a TV screen running a movie in Arabic. Seven men are standing and welcoming us, all with the air of guilty children having been caught out. They shuffle their feet, all bare, and are very self-conscious. I try my “salams” and offer my hand to the closest person. He offers his hand but the minor gaff soon sorts everyone out – I should have shaken hands with the host. He presents himself immediately for to embarrass a guest is a sin. From there I am introduced around to everyone after which I am asked to take a seat on a cushion. Everyone relaxes rapidly, taking their cue from my “salam” and having a shot at “hello”. They laugh and grin and reveal themselves to be a very friendly bunch. Carefully bend towards the cushions in a kind of knee cracking squat, then collapse, making sure every move you make does not have you point the soles of your feet at anyone. Try that in a crowded room and see how much a conscious effort it becomes. A plate of dates is offered and a small cup. Unlike in China quaff the hot contents as quickly as you can and accept the offer of more. They call it coffee but it is not like any coffee you have ever tasted. A dash of powdered herbs is thrown in your cup before the hot fluid is added, a mix that I have yet to completely discern. Cinnamon, yes. The rest, I have no idea. But it is hot and sweet and spicy and nicely mulled and you can’t get enough of it. But you have to wait as one of the men offers a dash and a dollop to everyone else.

Pleasantries are offered. Everyone tries one or two words of English then offer, in English, an apology for not knowing any more English. A bit like my own trick of having my own most fluent Bahasa being an apology for not being fluent in Bahasa. But somehow we all get through. Our host is a Saudi diplomat based in Yemen. We share jokes about the drug chewing Yemeni’s, my puffed cheeks emulating a qat chewing Yemeni and immediately everyone is laughing and doing the same thing. One of the younger fellows is a cadet in the air force. He knows Tornados and F-15s but when I show him photos of Soviet aircraft in Yemen he is lost. But no less intrigued, and later I draw pictures and scribble names in an aircraft recognition lesson that gets across the language barriers and has everyone engaged. A drawing pencil is a catalyst for much humour, usually at my own expense, and a good way to bring down barriers. Short of being able to speak the lingo in the first place which would always help.

Coffee and date aperitif behind us our hosts motion us to the centre of the floor. Someone jumps up to wash his hands and we all follow. Then we are back on the floor, mindful of where the soles are pointing. Most sit on one foot and lean on the other knee to avoid causing an offence. Others tuck their feet away and I copy them. It costs me later when I try and stand up. We are spaced around a large shallow dish a little over one metre in diameter, all under the wraps of aluminium foil. Other smaller dishes of hummus are placed around and each is given bread to rip apart and otherwise use as a spoon or vehicle for getting various foodstuffs into your mouth. The foil comes off. For some reason I was expecting chicken. It is mutton. With a difference. The cadet, with some command of English, proudly declares “sheep”. I smile and nod and try not to look surprised. The sheep’s head is lying in a bed of rice. My grandfather was a butcher and would have been appalled at the lack of finesse in delivering this meat to the table. The nostrils have been cleavered off and the face bones remain splintered up the nasal bridge and across the forehead. What has been the skin is drawn tight across the head and has been reduced to a highly psychedelic yellow, no doubt the result of however many herbs and spices infused in the fat. The eyeballs are blackened and shrunken but remain in place. And the cheeks have been smashed off to reveal the teeth and lower jaw. The effect is that of some bizarre animal grinning at us while we eat. Sweetmeats, as in our own European heritage, are delicacies and various cooked pieces are placed among the sea of rice. Liver was the obvious and I happily chewed away on these, knowing that while I was doing so they were unlikely to dig out something more exotic and insist I try it. I was content to let them prize the jaw open and squabble over the tongue at the end, pushing their hands into the grinning maw and getting their fingers around whatever slippery tongue they could. Right hand only and no utensils. A bit tricky. Apparently the eating of the tongue signalled lunch was over.

Indeed, observe through all this that you are only allowed to use your right hand. Use one hand only to try and pull mutton of splintered shanks. An extra set of fingers would help sort through those bone fragments. Try and separate tendon from muscle with one set of slippery fingers. It’s all good fun. Fortunately a large plastic sheet has been spread under us so spillage is expected and accepted. Plunge your hand into the bed of rice, crimp it into as tight a ball as you can and get it into your mouth. The rice is laced with saffron, and sultanas and pepper, and is as light a feed of this grain as you will ever find. I love it. But that fist full never quite compresses correctly and if we were outside the pigeons would have been in heaven. I had rice all over the place although careful watching of the others helped me refine the technique to the point where most was getting to my mouth on the first attempt. Alternate mutton with rice with hummus, take a swig of Pepsi to remove the taste of the hummus and start the cycle again.

Signalling you are done is easy but only if you have any circulation – simply push back from the centre of the room and recline on the cushions. I discovered I couldn’t push back, my legs were so locked up, so did the most idiotic thing and tried to stand up – those rice covered hands needed a wash after all. Rising to low couch was about all I could do before falling back and realising I would have to wait until the blood got going again. After washing our hands one of the men went around splashing a perfume into them, which everyone vigorously rubbed across their necks and arms. The moment we were so scented and all back on our cushions the uneaten food was whisked into the main house where the women and children took over. Hot, sweet, honey tan coloured tea is then poured into shot glasses and a few of these see the ritual complete.

However the visit is not. The diplomat’s father takes me into an adjoining room where he proudly shows off a collection of old bits and pieces which he calls his museum. Old grain grinding stones, ancient looking tools, not so ancient record players (he has a thing about these), swords, a 1929 .30 calibre German Mauser, medals from goodness knows where and more fabrics with family stories than I could take in. A heart stopping moment when he threw me a plastic bag of old cartridges to admire, most corroded with lead salts, but including several large 48 calibre Holland and Holland elephant busters along with the usual Enfield .303 suspects. I relaxed a little once I was able to see that all of the primers had been impacted. We “talk” guns and swords and old times and admire all sorts of flotsam and jetsam before repairing back to the cushions to smoke, pick toenails and shoot the breeze. Then all of a sudden it is “shookrans”, “you’re welcomes” and “come again”s and we are out the door and into the oven of a street where, after the dim light of the men’s room (there are no windows), the light hammers off the walls and out of the dusty sky and makes you pause to consider. The street is still deserted.