Monday, March 16, 2009

A letter from a friend in an Arab world

I received a note the other day from a friend in Saudi Arabia. These informal notes from a person on the ground are so valuable. They give you a sense of what is like to be there, how it feels, how one is touched by the sounds and sights of encounters with real people who are living under rules and strictures unfamiliar to us. This note requires not comment. RLC

I'm slowly adjusting to life in the Kingdom, . . . and I'm not quite as negative about it as I have been previously. With that being said, we have this acronym that we use to explain most things that happen in a day: TISA. This is Saudi Arabia. The credit card reader at a fancy restaurant suddenly crashes and you're expected to pay $300 in cash for your meal?

TISA. Your meeting with an important government minister can't happen because he has to have permission from his government to meet with you in the meeting he requested? TISA. Being confused with domestic workers because I'm not clearly identifiable as Arab? TISA.

The thing that really strikes me about this report is the part about controlling the roads, the internet, and the phones, because I definitely see the first part, lament the internet censorship, and try not to think about the latter. The checkpoints around this city are insane - all the major highways have them every mile or so, and most of the bigger city streets do as well. Cars usually get inspected. Some friends of mine who grew up here tell me that they're looking for a specific make of car, or a specific physical description of a person, or a specific ethnicity to pick on (the first two are security related, the latter is just Saudis being themselves). Most of these checkpoints are permanent, but roving ones pop up from time to time, especially in the worst neighborhoods. There's one notorious neighborhood that supposedly has checkpoints every two blocks.

Security has noticeably beefed up - the guards are wearing body armor now, and my friends and coworkers say that they're being asked a lot more questions when they come inside the compound where I live. At the compounds around town, security has been amped up as well, because the compounds are notorious for the debauchery (homebrew alcohol, swimming pools, women not wearing abayas) inside. The compounds all have Saudi military protection outside, as well as their own forces of hired guards.

It's an interesting time to be here. There's a definite sense that the king is shaking things up - a woman was just appointed to be a deputy minister in the department of education, which is a huge, huge deal, especially since in her photos in the paper she didn't cover her face (maybe 80% of Saudi women in the cities do that, and 95% or higher outside the cities do). Saudi Arabia has the ninth-largest contingent of foreign students studying in the US (and given that India, China, Taiwan, and South Korea are at the top of that list, being in the top ten is no small feat) due to the king's generous scholarship program that pays for pretty much anyone to study in the US, and the returning students are agitating for change. It's starting small - women with advanced degrees demanding spaces where they can work an honest job in the field in which they trained, people who learned to blog in the US asking for the right to do the same here, high school students in an international school trying to form an elected student council - but it's a growing movement.

When Saudi Arabia makes me cry with frustration, I try to think about the poor Shia kid I met through my job who gets to study chemical engineering so he can work at Aramco and have the first real job in his family, or the Bedouin girl who can only go study at Princeton if her brother goes along as well to chaperone her - she's the only Saudi I've ever seen get admitted to an Ivy League. He is in an English program so he can learn to fit in to the US somewhat while she studies for her undergraduate degree. They're the reasons why we have the hope that this country can be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the modern world. The question is just how quickly the
religious conservatives and the tribal elements will allow things to modernize without open revolt.

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