Monday, November 03, 2008

Two Opposing Forces

I went to Jeddah on that specific weekend because Joe had arranged a dinner get-together with the staff of the Ethiopian consulate and the American consulate in Jeddah. It was very informal; about ten of us and about ten of them, just having dinner at their place - or at least this is what we expected. Turns out, we were invited to the community night, which is an opportunity for any of the 1500 or so Ethiopians living in the city to get together in a comfortable place, eat familiar food, and hang out with their countrymen. We got there long before anyone else did, so we enjoyed a leisurely meal with our Ethiopian counterparts before people started arriving. (For the record, Queen Makeda's is better than the otherwise quite good food I ate at the consulate. You really should try the place when you're next in DC.)

Once the locals started trickling in, a DJ got up and started playing music videos of popular Ethiopian music. People slowly started moving in their seats, and then a few brave people jumped onto the dance floor. The diplomats stayed in the back, being stuffy, while twos and threes moved onto the floor song by song. Eventually, the younger diplomats had had enough, and they took off for the dance floor with me and one other American in tow. So let's check the score card: me, a Mexican-American woman, and forty Ethiopians all shuffling in a circle to wonderful E-pop. I like to think that I was doing my part to build good will between nations, even if the other Americans thought we were crazy. (In my defense, the heads of both consulates got a big, friendly laugh out of it.) As we left at nearly 1 AM, the Ethiopians said that they'd love to have us back, but not too frequently, because they didn't want to be targeted for having Americans there regularly... a somewhat jarring end to a lovely evening.

I spent a good deal of the night talking to the head of the Ethiopian community in Jeddah, a local man elected in the biannual elections to be the community's spokesperson to the city government and the consulate. He was a fascinating man, talking about the plans to build houses near Addis Ababa for second- and third-generation Ethiopian-Americans to buy so that they could spend part of the year in their home country, which many had never visited. He also could not contain his enthusiasm for the Obama campaign, telling me excitedly that they were from the same ethnic group and how proud he was that his American citizen children could vote for him. He said something interesting, that it was every human's duty to defend and to protect America, because even if they disagree with its policies or never get to visit it, it's still the one place where humans could be freest and most successful. I have to say, while I don't necessarily agree with his logic, it was refreshing to hear something so positive about home after feeling like I have been the face of bureaucratic, unfeeling America to Saudis for two months.

The Ethiopian party was just getting started when we left at 1 AM, but Joe and I had further plans that night. He had been invited to a party near his home by a Saudi friend of his.   What party scene, you may ask? Why, the one that throws parties with disco balls, world-class DJ and light show setups, and booze a-flowing in borrowed buildings in Jeddah every weekend. I'm serious - I can't upload the photos right now, but I assure you that this was the most surreal thing I have ever seen. We were two blocks from the Red Sea, , and the dance floor was packed with Saudis wearing things I would blush to wear in a lingerie shop. We finally left at 3 AM, when the revellers ran out of alcohol and decided that it was time to move to another party happening elsewhere in the city.

Obviously, we were dealing with the richest of the rich in Jeddah, the ones most westernized and ready to get out - nearly everyone had a perfect American accent from all of their time in the States in high school and college. Clearly, the religious police were either paid off to stay away or knew that they would get in trouble themselves if they attempted to disrupt these untouchables. But I can't really think of a better metaphor for Saudi Arabia than the sight of seeing these women wearing little more than postage stamps, hairspray, and stilettoes throwing on abayas and veils and hopping into their waiting cars to be driven home at 2 or 3 in the morning. Public morality here is a joke, especially in the cities. Society largely condones this - public piety and private insanity. It makes my complaints about growing up an atheist in rural Arkansas seem quaint and mild.

1 comment:

  1. You were in the Saudi version of a speakeasy... I love it.
    It's sort of bizarre to think of an underground "movement" to subvert the religious law. I guess you hear about these groups on the news and assume that most people are just putting up with the laws, if not willingly following if they were nothing more than traffic laws. It's hard to make the whole situation seem real. Anyway, you're certainly getting an interesting view into the real Central European/Asian world...