The Jeddah Jazz

As the countless Japanese cars snaked through the many flyovers of Jeddah, my Bangladeshi driver cum guide drove his new Sonata with an ease I had never before seen present in any of his counterparts back in Dhaka.

It is around 11 o’clock in the morning. But since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sleeps by the day and works at night in order to adapt to the high temperatures throughout the day, the offices and shops were mostly closed.

“There are so many cars here. But the traffic is always on the move. Unlike in Dhaka, where the traffic is mostly gridlocked into a standstill.” I mused more to myself rather than saying anything to him. But immediately, I was forced to regret.

“Huh, Dhaka. What a horrible city filled with the worst of humankind in this world,” came his embittered, callous response. “I would rather drive here in the 44 degrees Celsius desert than go back to that hell-hole of a place.”

With my pride of being me disheveled by one of my very own countrymen, I stopped pondering out loud and looked out through my closed windows to grasp in the concreteness of Jeddah.

But for my driver, silence happened to be one of the lowest issues in his agenda. As he drove past the countless air-conditioned cars and transited from the desert to the roads beside the beach bordering the Red Sea, he pointed to me Egypt.

“There’s Cairo, the land of the pharaohs. Only a few hours from Jeddah by the sea, but possessing none of the wealth and glitter of the city. Full of beggars and pricks, I tell you. And mini-skirted females as well.”

I chuckle and coerce myself against roaring into laughter. I had yet to see a Jeddah female without a veil, and the contrasting sight of Cairo only a few hours away but possessing mini-skirted females made me giggle.

“What happens on the roads at night? I mean if people here sleep during the day to work at night, but still the avenues and flyovers somehow manage to be flooded with luxury cars even at this hour it must be quite gridlocked in the dark.” I enquired after him, trying to make him see that Dhaka wasn’t as bad as he felt.

“At night all those jewelers’ markets open up,” he tells me pointing to the monstrous elegant shopping malls located inside the buzz of Jeddah, “and makes life harder for us drivers. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter. The traffic jams are always under the control of the police and you never have all those filthy public buses and rickshaws and CNGs loitering around.” Clearly, he had anticipated my lucid trials to uphold Dhaka in his eyes. “Oh and look at that”—- he cuts in all of a sudden.

I grasped in the direction to which he was pointing. And what I beheld made me feel like the smallest being of existence present in this universe.

“Behold: the KingdomTower under construction. The first 1 km long tower in the world. Built by Prince Waleed’s Kingdom Holdings and the Saudi Binladen Group, it will surpass Dubai’s mediocre Burj-al-Khalifa.”

Truly representing the oil wealth of this indolently luxurious Middle-Eastern city, the majestic skyscraper rose up into the sky symbolizing power and riches, and obstructing the views of the horizone. Any outsider who has never paid a visit to Jeddah is bound to think that the city is still sitting in the Middle-Ages. Thanks to all those stereotypes by the Western media. But nothing could be further from the truth. And the gigantic Apple adverts substantiated my aforementioned claim. Although it is true that Jeddah is a remnant of an Arab civilization that has been extant since the 600 AD, the grossly metropolitan city is a violent concoction of Western modernity and Eastern identity.

In a way, it can be justified by the fact that Jeddah sits in between the East and the West.

But then again, I had yet to find all those traditional Middle-Eastern bazaars here that I had seen in ‘World Café Middle-East’ on TLC where they regularly showed Syria, Turkey, Palestine and many other states in this region. Here the bazaars have all been replaced by vast chain super-stores like Bin Dawoud (which of course is the Saudi Binladen Group’s version of Walmart) selling every brand of European chocolates and designer dresses and outfits for both males and females.

As I reached my destination, my driver dropped me off. In the ancient civilizations and the tales from the Arabian Nights I am sure anyone would have referred to Jeddah as an oasis because of the huge amount of life it can support. But due to the heat and the invention of air-conditioners which is ubiquitous everywhere in oil-rich Middle-East, what my eyes were affronted to was definitely not life.

It was buildings and cars everywhere. No sign of life. All locked up in their air-conditioned homes, offices and cars.

But as I strode off, I felt secured to find a middle-aged man sweeping off the grounds in front of an office with his broom.

I chuckled again as I noticed his brown skin.

A Bangladeshi again! I told myself, jubilant. My driver had previously told me that even if you are lost inside one of the worst desert-regions in Saudi Arabia you will surely find a Bangladeshi nearby. Three million expatriate Bangladeshis are living here and toiling under the glaring sun in broad daylight and struggling amidst desert-storms at night, while the Arabs slept soundly inside their air-conditioned rooms during the day and went to the posh shopping malls at night; with their Arab kids being taken care of by the Indonesian servants employed by these families. And in case you didn’t know, most of their expenses are paid by the government as well.

I inquired the Bangladeshi man for my address in Bengali. He smiled and gave me back the directions and then returned piously to his sweeping. I wondered for how long he will have to do that with the afternoon heat switched on with its full blow.

After my chore is done, as I come out of my destination I was greeted by a gust of extremely hot desert wind. My loose trousers and cotton T-shirt gave in to the dust-breeze and fluttered back and forth.

For the first time that day, I saw a Jeddah woman around two yards ahead of me; trying to get into the front-passenger seat of her car before the wind assaulted her.

Never before having seen women here dressing up without the burkha, I was quite taken aback on this particular occasion as the damsel in distress was fighting hard to prevent her veil from being flown off, because I noticed that she is dressed up like any normal European or American women with skin-hugging, above-the-waist T-shirt and jeans beneath her veil.

I chuckled once again. I had no idea what the woman was thinking of me as I had not lowered my gaze—-a custom followed by everyone in this extremely religious part of the world—-but under her niqab I thought I could discern a contempt for me.

By then the horizon had already been darkened by the shroud of darkness, and as the malls and offices began to open up, the streets began to be filed with men and women and cars—–a lot of cars. I noticed more women coming out on the streets dressed in European low-cuts and all forms of Western outfits, some of them having iPod earphones plugged into their ears. A large portion even without the niqab. I noticed men donning the traditional long Middle-Eastern shirt and the turban.

Conflicted with the fact that the Saudis had only recently allowed their women to work outside their homes in gender-segregated offices; the notion that women here aren’t allowed to drive legally; and weird laws that permitted an 80 year old man to marry a 12 year old girl, I got into my car and enquired my verbose driver about the traditional Jeddah culture.

“Jeddah is the Kingdom’s most liberal and modernized city. The Saudi families have big homes equipped with swimming pools, segregated discos and bars—-“

“Bars?” I cut in disbelievingly, knowing that alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia.

“Alcohol-free bars obviously. The population here is extremely Westernized. Half the women here on the streets wear low-cut European dresses and mini-skirts under their veil.”

With that he pushed on the ignition and drove off into the city of lights. By then, night had settled in and Jeddah was fully illuminated.

“If you feel hungry, there’s Al-Baik nearby. I will stop and you can have something inside your stomach.” My driver had somehow understood that I was feeling starved and dehydrated.

“Al-Baik? Is it good?” I asked ostentatiously, knowing about the quality of Al-Baik back in Dhaka.

“It’s the best in the country,” he returned confidently, “much better than KFC.”

So as he led me into a one-storied posh shopping center, I cashed out some money from the ATM booth nearby using my father’s international debit card and strode off into Al-Baik.

Standing in a queue, and worrying over how I will be able to converse in Arabic, I was absolutely ecstatic to find out that even the salesmen here are all Bangladeshis; thus sparing me the trouble of a language barrier.

I sat alone at a nearby table and picked at the delicious-looking chicken drumsticks. My driver was right. Al-Baik produces the best chicken here and their produce is also much better than the sprawling chicken stores back in Dhaka.

I was reminded of a few online articles about how Saudi Arabia is still stuck in the Middle-Ages like Morocco, while its regional enemies sitting in Tehran & Tel-Aviv are enjoying rapid boons and developments in terms of military, science, art and economics.

“What a farce!” I muttered out so loud that the people sitting around began to stare at me disapprovingly.


The Politics Of Social Media

reempting the media has always been a big issue for every government in this world. This is because, giving the public the exact facts and the true nature of the details might just harm the government’s term in office. The media is an extremely effective and powerful tool and can soar someone’s popularity while at the same depose others from their thrones. Making everything public therefore has a lot of cons for politicians, businessmen, actors and business corporations, and this is why everyone places a lot of weight to everything demonstrated in all forms of media.

In the past censorship has been an extremely prominent issue. During the World War II and also during the Vietnam War, American and other Western powers had violently fudged with the true accounts of the wars. Figures had been manipulated and casualties under-estimated to make sure the public does not know about the horrible accounts of the war. Doing so would have polarized the situation at home and the families of the soldiers would have mounted pressures that would have breached their ‘national interests’. It was therefore considered better to hide everything from the general public.

Fast forwarding onto the 21st century, in today’s Information Age, it has become impossible to keep most of the information concealed in files and conversations. We have hackers adept at breaking through every security system in this world (makes me wonder whether security systems are made to be breached) and journalists who are eager to breach all sorts of protocol and hack into phone conversations (News of the World anyone?). But the power of the media has become truly manifested today through an extremely unorthodox yet revolutionary form.

Introducing: the social media. The Internet Age, along with a lot of pornography sites to destroy today’s teenagers, has also forged a powerful new tool called the social media. In this form of media it is impossible to keep any information hidden. No matter how censored the figures are or how much propaganda there is, a photo or a video taken through a cell-phone is enough to spread the issue into the social media and cause ripples across the globe. It is simply not possible for any government to keep any of its wrongdoings hidden and silenced due to this ubiquitous new revolution. ‘Time will open every hidden treasure’—-as the cliché goes, is really true for social media.

And this is why governments all across the globe are enraged at this tool. In fact they have a very good reason to be. Like for instance, if you haven’t been hibernating for the past few years you will have known that the Arab Uprising has been attributed mainly due to the existence of social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and the blogging world. In this virtual new Universe people are constantly sharing their opinions and ideas, and protesting at any occurrences which shake their conscience. And the result has therefore been revolutionary. The protesters organized themselves and recruited others sharing their cause, and together they created the largest wall ever: the People’s Wall. Whether it was the Arab Spring or the Occupy Wall Street Movement, people have truly been able to show the power they can yield if they are brought together under one roof. And a lot of credit goes to the social media sites for playing such an impeccable role in creating the People’s Wall.

Therefore the guillotine has been on social media for quite some time. As opposed to terms like ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘democracy’, many governments have implemented censorship on the social media. And the social networking sites, to help themselves do business with more comfy, have also decided to censor every thread or comment and are always deleting anything even remotely associated with ‘inspiring revolt’. In Egypt during the uprising, while the opposition leaders were hiding in caves, normal citizens, both males and females, were all abuzz on Twitter calling for protesters to organize and demonstrate at the required places. As a result bloggers like Mona Eltahaway were arrested for ‘inspiring violence’ while Facebook and Twitter were shut down temporarily to stop protesters from coordinating together before the regime finally came to an end.

Seeing what the social media has done in Egypt, neighboring dictators adorned all their alarms against the social networking sites. Bahrain has placed several bloggers under arrest for trying to demonstrate and recruit, and the military has crushed any opposition firmly. The famous Bahraini blogger, activist and human rights defender Zainab al-Khawaja(Angry Arabia) was arrested and detained when she staged an anti-government protest against the royal family. Another activist popularly known as ‘the Bahraini blogger’ has been sentenced to a lifetime imprisonment for ‘trying to inspire sectarian conflicts’ through his protestations.

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where an 80-something King rules an economy with an average age of 19(yeah that is one big irony!) the thrashing has been more violent. A Saudi journalist who tweeted his misgivings about the Prophet on Eid-e-Miladunnabi was arrested by the Malaysian government in a Malaysian airport and extradited to Riyadh when he had tried to escape to New Zealand via Malaysia after receiving death threats in response to his tweet. Given the ancient state of laws in the Kingdom, which ironically is one of the wealthiest countries of the world, such apostasy will lead to a severe death sentence by the conservative Saudi court where the man will be beheaded in public. Armed with this tool of blasphemy, the Saudi Royalty and the pro-government religious leaders asked the religious Saudis to abandon Facebook and Twitter because they directly destroyed the Kingdom’s segregation and ‘Islamic customs’.

Tweeting to create a revolution!

However, along with such propagation of information the social media is also always abuzz with all forms of irreverence. The Internet is flooded with Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian sites. The aforementioned Saudi journalist should have known better than to tweet about his personal feelings about an issue that is likely to hurt the feelings of many others. After all, in a democratic country or not, this is what a responsible citizen should have done. And this man’s profession is supposed to be one of responsibility. Not of impiety.

Another Middle-Eastern scandal occurred when a female Egyptian blogger posed nude ‘to support her cause’ against the military. The girl, who calls herself an atheist, dubbed her action as appropriate ‘to ensure women’s rights and women’s struggle against the regimen’. Now, these are things that are horrendous for a conservative culture like that of the Middle-East and therefore attracted a lot of distaste from many societies. In short, ranting about rights is equal but people must know where to draw the line. I personally think this was simply a publicity stunt the girl undertook to make herself famous worldwide and increase her blog traffic!

I should also like to attract my reader’s attention to a recent event in Bangladesh which had caused quite a stir not in the traditional media, but in the social media. A professor who had wished for the country’s premier’s death on his facebook status was arrested and sentenced to six months in prison. Although most of you here will rant about this being a consummate breach of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom of speech’ in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh I will firmly disagree with you. Wishing someone’s death in public is not how a responsible citizen should behave no matter how much hatred you have for him or her. In a democracy people are supposed to learn to be responsible by themselves. Unlike a dictatorship you will not be forced to restraint yourself as much as possible. And this is our country’s prime minister we are talking about. The person might not necessarily be a paradigm of excellence but she is all we have. If we desire a change we should go forth and create a space for our ownselves, and not be a coward and wish the person to die. Most importantly I was awestruck that the status came from a professor, a person towards whom people look forward to and appreciate. Such irresponsibility should not be allowed to persist in the society.

Sharing is caring!

It feels quite weird when I think about the persistent role of social media in our everyday lives. And this is why propaganda has entered the virtual Universe as well. But no matter where we are or how advanced, manipulated, infiltrated and tainted by disgust this area becomes it is our responsibility to discern the good from the bad and allow the free flow of truth and justice to perpetrate. It is easy to be filled by propaganda but I should say that social media is one of the most wonderful inventions of the 21st century.

As an ending note I should like to add a quote I came across recently:

“… you’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change. People in power have misused it and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built and the only way it’s going to be built is with extreme methods. And I, for one, will join in with anyone, I don’t care what color you are, as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.”

—-Malcolm X

The writer is an active participant at The Stream. This is a live,interactive,award-winning political show of Al Jazeera English(yup he is that nerd!) where viewers can participate through the Internet.In case you are nerd enough like him you might like to join in this program.

Beheading?It still exists?

Beheading? Really?

Although one of the wealthiest  economically-independent countries of the world, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is still medieval in terms of its court proceedings. The recent beheading (yes you read beheading!) of eight migrant Bangladeshis in Riyadh caused quite a stir in the international media. The execution of eight poor Bangladeshis who had gone to Saudi Arabia to change their destinies and now lay dead with their heads ripped off from their bodies has caused ripples in the heart of every individual who heard the news. And being one of them I could not help but protest.

I am quite acquainted with the Islamic laws and as far as I know Islamic law directly decrees that any murder should be answered by executing the murderer. And Saudi Arabia being the only country with the Al-Quran as its constitution has firmly held true to this law. But my point is before carrying out what the law says we must at first be fully aware of the offender’s position and perhaps also refer to the time that the Laws of the Quran were laid down in. The Quranic Laws were made at a time when modern courts rarely existed and when people were still extremely barbaric. Murderers back then could commit murders and still be at large, going about their day-to-day activities. To stop this injustice against the deceased the stern laws against murder, robbery etc were decreed and these laws were and are still extremely effective, making KSA one of the few countries with extremely low crime rates even in today’s world.

But when considering the legal proceedings we must at first understand that the murderers were not politically motivated, neither attracted by greed (or may be they were but that is impossible to know now). They were poor Bangladeshis who had gone to KSA to change their destinies and work towards a better future. But once they had gone there they had to confront themselves with the fact that they had been deceived. Yes, the entire visa procedure that KSA employs to take migrant workers from Bangladesh is extremely flawed. Time and again specialists in both these countries have made the two governments aware of this fact. When the impoverished Bangladeshis buy this expensive visa they are promised great jobs by the visa-sellers who thrive on guile and deceit. And thus when the illiterate, lower class Bengalis reach KSA they have to face the realization that the jobs assured would never be there, and the ones that were available for the Bangladeshis had extremely difficult working conditions coupled with low salaries. Forced to take up these poor jobs they see their dreams of a better tomorrow perish and most of them fail to reconcile themselves with the fact that their lives will never change for the better. In addition most of these people tend to be young, energetic and most importantly poor; so poor that they buy these faulty visas through loans and mortgages or sale of valuable personal assets and belongings. And plus they have really big families in their home nation to feed and clothe. Keeping these factors in mind when we judge their crimes in a court of law we must be liberal and sometimes listen to our hearts.

Although such a mass-execution of foreign nationals is one of the few of its kinds, the KSA government in the past one year has beheaded 20 foreigners other than these helpless Bangladeshis. The total number beheaded in the past one year amounts to 58. Of the aforementioned 20 foreign-workers, one includes an Indonesian house-maid who had killed her Saudi-Arabian master after suffering from severe ill-treatment and poor living conditions at his disposal. The Indonesian government was onerous in its efforts to save its active citizen—something which the poverty-stricken, corrupt and donation-dependant government of Bangladesh failed to do—–but the helpless girl could not be saved from the guillotine. The Indonesian government then boldly refused to give anymore labor visas for KSA to its female citizens. The stance was seen quite courageous, considering the power of the Saudi Arabian government in the current world, but nevertheless it was appreciated worldwide. Inspired by this move many of the developing countries have also stopped sending their female citizens on labor visas to KSA—fearing another incident like the Indonesian maid. But for Bangladesh this has meant more trouble. The Saudi Arabians are now looking for Bangladeshi female house-keepers!

My reader must not think that I am trying to talk in favor of the murderers—-they deserved to be punished for committing robbery and then killing the Egyptian guard but decapitating them in public is something I will never support. And why kill all the eight for killing one person only? In addition to this, the migrants were so poor that they could not even afford a defense lawyer or even talk for themselves—the reason for which Human Rights Watch and Amnesty condemned the trial. They did not even have much proficiency over the Arabic language either and as far as I know the Bangladesh government did not even attempt to drag the case to international court, fearing the exorbitant expenses of an international lawyer and a translator to boot.

So you might ask what the Bangladesh government is doing to ensure the welfare and security of its citizen abroad who are earning foreign income and sending them back as remittance to their home country. I will have to disappoint you here. The government is hardly doing a thing. The only thing it seems to be interested in is to send its extremely high working-class population to countries in the Middle-East, Malaysia, South Africa etc so that they can earn foreign currency for the rapidly-industrializing Bangladesh economy. Most of the ministers and members of the Parliament are even dominated by the idea that raising a voice against the barbarism in Riyadh will entail them to a loss of their highly-popular international market for workers.

Yours truly is just a blogger who is tired of all the pretense happening around him. He can’t do much really. But together if we can fight against such heinous acts I believe we can do some good to this world. May be then the Saudi government will be able to judge between criminals in a much better way than simply by beheading them.