Monday, October 19, 2009

Ethnicity, Citizenship, and Self-Identification - Part I

After 6 years of studying Arabic, Arab culture, and Middle East history, and after a year of visa interviews almost exclusively with Arabs, I feel like I've got a pretty good handle on how Arabs identify themselves, at least in the Gulf and in the Levant. There's citizenship, which is the passport or travel documents one carries - of course, some people are dual nationals and have two passports, then there are the Palestinians with no citizenship, only travel documents issued by the Palestinian Authority or more commonly the first country to which their family fled in 1948. Then there's national identity - Palestinians usually identify themselves as that first, followed by any secondary identity. For example, "I'm a Palestinian with a Jordanian/American/British/whatever passport." Jordanians with no Palestinian family members will be very clear about that - "I'm Jordanian Jordanian."

I'm not sure if this double appellation was borrowed from American English, with its plethora of hyphenated origins (Italian-American, African-American, Chinese-American, etc), or if it arose on its own in Arabic, but to say that you're Jordanian Jordanian (or Saudi Saudi, or Egyptian Egyptian, and so on) means that not only do you have that citizenship, but your family originates from the territory now covered by the modern country, with no immediate dilution of another nationality in the past few generations. Amusingly, we at the embassy picked up that phrase and used it in our own way - to mean if someone is an American-born, -bred, and -raised, or if they are American by chance (born there while their parents studied in university, but hasn't been back since), or if they are an immigrant. While there isn't a distinction in the services we provide each category, knowing the citizenship history of each person who comes to us for help allows us to understand their particular needs a little better. The Idaho native ("American American") who converted to Islam and moved to Mecca last year will have different needs than the woman who was born in Urbana-Champaign but hasn't returned since the 1980s ("Saudi American") and now wants to get her first US passport, for example.

Someone who is from a blended family will be very clear about that, but he will almost invariably identify himself with his father's nationality. There's an overlap between culture and citizenship law here: in every Arab country I know of, citizenship is passed exclusively through the father. If a Palestinian man married a Saudi or a Syrian woman, the children of this marriage would have no citizenship and would have to carry the same type of travel documents as their father. Also, a wife can usually gain her husband's citizenship, but not the other way around. For the people we dealt with in Saudi Arabia, there seemed to be two categories of citizenship: Arab nations and Western nations. It would be a problem for a Saudi girl to marry a Syrian, or even a Syrian-Saudi, but no one would blink at her marrying a Saudi-American or a Saudi-British. Those nationalities just don't fit into the equation of regional ethnic hierarchies. (I speak of social preferences here, not about the value of marrying a child into an American family as a way to gain citizenship over time for the non-American family. That's a different case entirely.)

Because I talked mostly to Saudis, I got a good grasp of the social categories inside Saudi Arabia. Saudis whose family originates from the area that modern Saudi Arabia encompasses will tell you what tribe they are from, then that they're Saudi - "I'm an al-Anezi, and I'm Saudi." Usually (though this has gotten somewhat more flexible in recent times) tribal Saudis are expected to marry someone from their own tribe. If they don't, relatives can force the dissolution of the marriage or even decide communally (sort of) to evict them from the tribe. Some tribes are from territories that were divided between nations when borders were drawn after World War I with little regard for social realities on the ground (Winston Churchill, I blame you). Recently, there has been a move to grant dual citizenship to these particular tribes in recognition of their family ties to land that is in another country. So you can have a man from the al-Dossary clan who carries both Bahraini and Saudi passports but who will insist that he's Saudi Saudi - because that's the side of the line the majority of the tribe ended up on.

Now, for one's family to originate from Saudi Arabia, as they view it, you have to look back several centuries: someone whose family immigrated to Arabia 300 years ago, who carries a Saudi passport, and who speaks nothing but Arabic will very likely still have a surname such as al-Bakistani, al-Masri (Arabic for Egyptian), al-Bukhari (city in Central Asia), or al-Hindi (Indian subcontinent). Moreover, they will be expected to marry within that same community of "counterfeit Saudis," as some Saudi children will taunt them. They'll tell you that they're Saudis, but they aren't tribal - and that's a big deal. Rough estimates are that about half of Saudi citizens are tribal. This doesn't mean that they live in tents and herd goats for a living out in the middle of the desert, but it does mean a lot in terms of how these Saudis identify themselves.

Sometimes Saudi men marry women of other Arab nationalities (technically it's illegal for Saudi women to do so). Usually the wife will get a Saudi passport, because it's a lot easier to live in Saudi as a citizen than as a foreign national, and the children will, of course, be Saudis. However, it's usually known if someone's mother isn't a "real" Saudi. It doesn't matter much on a day-to-day basis, especially in recent years, but it still has lots of relevance in certain circles - in the Saudi royal line of succession, for example, some princes have been excluded from ascending to the throne because their mothers were not Saudis (Moroccan or sub-Saharan African, for example). The worst cases, it's whispered, are the princes whose mothers were slaves. That's a pretty harsh insult in a Kingdom where slavery was only outlawed in the 1960s and where so much of your social stature depends on your family.

One is supposed to know who one's paternal forebears are, going back at least seven generations, because names are essentially patronymics: A son of B, son of C, son of D, etc, etc. Tribal names now serve as what we'd call a surname for most people, but within tribes, especially larger ones, there are sub-tribal names delineating specific branches of the family. For a tribal Saudi, both the tribal and sub-tribal name are indispensable parts of his identity. (One interesting effect of this is that when an Arab woman gets married, she does not take her husband's name, as that would completely disrupt the naming system and disguise her social status. Children take their father's genealogy and family name.) In other Arab countries, even if a person isn't tribal, usually at some point in the last three generations a stable surname was picked for the family and is used on official documents. However, in some places (Egypt and the Horn of Africa, notably), stable surnames aren't used at all. Let's say we have an Egyptican guy named Sami, son of Mohammed, son of Ahmed. His legal name is Sami Mohammed Ahmed. When Sami has a child, that son will be named Abdullah Sami Mohammed - looks to us like there's a different last name there, but in reality there is no "last" name, just a series of generational names.

In summary, identity is complicated in this part of the world, much more so than we Americans usually perceive. I can't tell you how many Saudis I've met who were dumbstruck that I don't know where my family lived 100 years ago, or from what part of Europe we originally immigrated.

All of the above was supposed to be a prelude to my understanding of ethnicity and identity in Turkey... but that's a lot of information to digest! I think I'll pause here and return to the issue in a few days. If you're confused, you will definitely understand how I felt when I realized just how differently things work in Turkey. I suspect I will be having a lot of these moments in the next few years!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

It's cold. And rainy.

No longer thrilled by winter rains... it seems that I forgot through my year in Riyadh that humidity makes my hair extra-curly.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Yesterday, winter weather struck - it never got above 55 degrees, and it rained off and on most of the day. Today looks to be the same, but colder and wetter. Now, I'm sure the novelty of this will wear off soon, but for the moment, I'm still rather thrilled. I don't even mind that my heater is broken and my apartment gets no warmer than 63 degrees - it gives me an excuse to wear cashmere sweaters and comfy pants around the house! Beej, we're not in Riyadh anymore!

Post-Riyadh, I'm not really prepared for winter. I didn't turn my heater on at all while I was there - I merely turned the air conditioner off for a few weeks. My winter clothes were never unpacked in Saudi and were sent straight on to Istanbul. I'm not even sure where my wool trench coat or fluffy goosedown coat is.

So, anyone up for winter clothes shopping this weekend?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Noticeable Changes

After I came home from Saudi, I discovered many small changes in American daily life that amused me - I never would have noticed them before, or I wouldn't have been as tickled by them. I went to the bank the day after I got home to cash a check for US dollars (I didn't use my debit card while overseas and had forgotten my PIN). I asked for a mixture of bills, and I was shocked to see the crisp, new fives and tens I received. What the hell happened to the greenback, and why is my money peach and purple now?!

Once I returned to DC, my first day of work at FSI was an orientation for the thousand or so (!) people beginning language training that day. We were told, in no uncertain terms and almost before the welcomes and platitudes were completed, that if we experienced flu-like symptoms we were to stay at home, and that flu vaccines would be available for free at the earliest opportunity. This is significant - when you're in training at FSI you aren't supposed to take leave, as missing a week of a language course there is like missing five weeks of a college course. There are now automatic hand sanitizer dispensers in every bathroom and at every hallway junction at FSI, and at the lunch tables in the cafeteria, small bottles of sanitizer now sit next to every set of salt and pepper shakers.

Bizarre. I'm still adjusting to normalcy here, such as being able to throw my beer bottles into the regular trash can (we had separate alcohol-product trash cans in Riyadh, as a fig leaf), but the hand sanitizer thing is still tripping me out.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Washington Again

I must say, it's absolutely glorious to be back in DC, with its attendant transit woes, traffic nightmares, and hordes of tourists. I've settled into my apartment in Eastern Market, and the Beej has come to live with me in our new home. He's quite taken with the squirrels that he can see from his window perch.

I've been in Turkish for four weeks now, and I'm really enjoying it - it's so similar to Azeri that almost all of what we're covering is familiar. The Turkish teachers are all quite good, and we've had a number of fascinating conversations about ethnicity, religion, and politics in their home countries. Suffice it to say that I've had a good primer in the politics of Turkish secularism!

I feel like I've finally made some substantial progress in getting over Riyadh. When I see a paper bag on a park bench, I no longer think IED first; I assume I'm back in wino-ridden DC. I've finally gotten used to putting a beer bottle cap into my regular trash can, since I don't have to keep a separate receptacle for alcohol-related products. My last day in Arkansas, I spoke to a group of fifth graders about living in Riyadh and daily life in the Middle East more generally. It forced me to look at the past year through a different lens, and I think it was healthy for me. I'm hoping I'll write more in the coming months as I continue to decompress and as I learn more about Turkey. Here's to more regular posting!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Riyadh on My Mind

I've been gone for three weeks, but I still carry pieces of the Riyadh mindset with me. Last night, I was eating dinner with my parents, and I wanted to sit at a table where I could watch pedestrians outside - because I was so excited to see people walking around normally, wearing normal clothing. I woke up one morning last week and drove to the grocery store just because I could, revelling in the fact that I could drive myself to a store where I could buy cheap, fresh produce without putting on a stifling black cloak.

Being vehicularly independent has its mental costs, though. Last week, I was driving in Memphis when I realized I was boxed in by slow drivers in front of me and beside me. I panicked and nearly jumped the curb onto the median of the parkway before I realized that neither the granny in front of me nor the workmen beside me were likely to have snipers in the back seat, waiting to pop up and attack me. The worst was a few weeks ago, when I was riding with my parents somewhere in Memphis. We were laughing and talking, and everything was fine - until I saw a plastic bag in the roadway, over which we drove. I instantly thought bomb, but since I wasn't driving, there was no way I could swerve. I didn't tell my parents until later what caused me to shut down for the night - no more smiles, no laughter. Evidently I also was rude to someone who asked a friendly question about my hometown, because I didn't want to reveal any personal details.

It's not that Riyadh is extremely unsafe - after the wave of attacks in 2003 and 2004 the government cracked down on domestic terror, arresting anyone who sneezed in a way that was likely to cause suspicion. However, there's still an active undercurrent of ill intent in the Kingdom, and I've had a few too many friends experience close calls in the past year. Better to have sharp nerves that fray from time to time than to be caught napping.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Home Again!

Beej and I finally made it to West Memphis safely. We've acclimated to life on home leave quite well - sleeping late, catching up on reading for fun, reacquainting myself with the finer points of American culture, such as draft beer and fresh vegetables.

Having time to recharge my batteries is amazing, and much needed.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Stuck in Chicago O'hare

Currently sitting at my gate in Chicago, waiting on my flight to Memphis... This has been the absolute worst series of flights I have ever experienced. Sheer incompetency all around. United Airlines - congratulations, you are terrible.

I'm taking a boat to Turkey. No way I want to go through this madness again.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Last Interview Ever - In Sha' Allah!

In what will hopefully be my final visa interview ever, I refused a tourist visa to the wife of an American citizen. The husband then proceeded to heap verbal abuse on me, calling me a bitch, an asshole, and a racist for refusing a visa to his lawful wife - how dare I presume that she would overstay her visa? How dare I make an American citizen change his vacation plans?

Ahh, consular work. Never boring.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Commence to Panicking in Five... Four... Three...

Somehow, I always manage to forget just how stressful moving is. Right now, I've gone into stressed-out overdrive: my travel order drama has been resolved, but I now have approximately twenty-eight hours to put my house in order before the movers arrive. Eeep. I never even unpacked half my stuff when I got to Riyadh, so at least that is working in my favor... I'm just using the same boxes I had before. Still, it's depressing to see my books and other possessions disappearing for another year. Everything I own in the Kingdom is piled inside masking-tape boundaries on the ground floor of my house, waiting to be sent to Istanbul or Antwerp or DC or Arkansas.

I'm shelling out a little bit of extra cash to ship some things with a private carrier to DC (above and beyond what State will ship there on its own dime), such as some well-loved decorations and certain prized bits of cookware. I wouldn't do this normally, but after this tour I am feeling the need to pamper myself with things I love, so the bizarre, storied accoutrements of my life (a ceramic banana, Oaxacan carved horses, a floor tile stolen from the Silver Spring metro station, a papier-mache demonic cow, a single pink leather-and-steel stiletto) will be taking up residence in DC when I arrive. Assuming I survive this move, you're welcome to stop by to hear the stories behind them all. I promise you'll be entertained!

Another Year, Another Move

Well, here I am, a few days away from leaving Riyadh for good. I'm preparing to face the tempestuous hell of packing out... sorting out what goes into storage for another year, what goes to Washington, and what goes into my suitcases. For someone who hates moving and instability, I really think I'm in the wrong career!

Reflections on Riyadh might come later. I think I'll probably just be happier to shut the door on this chapter of my life and not look back. I've learned a lot here, much of it in the form of negative reinforcement. Getting back to DC for a year to learn Turkish has been the light at the end of the tunnel for some time - I can remind myself of what it's like to live a normal life when I'm there, without being beholden to motor pool for transportation, or dodging the religious police, or constantly being on the lookout for potential attackers.

In the meantime, though, I have mounds of books and clothing and cookware to sort through, as well as a minor administrative challenge in actually obtaining my travel orders - my legal authorization to pack up my stuff to leave. I'm dependent on some nameless, faceless paper-pusher in DC... god help us all!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Ordering Pizza in Riyadh

In a normal workplace, if you work past closing time at the company cafeteria, you call in for delivery of some food. In Riyadh, if we interview past 2 PM when the cafeteria stops serving food (this happens far more frequently than I would like... six hours of visa interviews without stopping is no fun), we will sometimes order in pizza from the shop across the street. It's actually pretty good - if I had the choice in the States, I'd order Baak Pizza over most of the delivery chains there. The best part is that the store will deliver to the embassy within half an hour, unless you call right before prayer.

However, there's one small step we have that most office buildings can skip: we have to put the pizza box through the X-ray scanner. Once it's determined to be free of all suspicious objects and potential explosives, the box is cheerily stamped X-RAY SCANNED by the guard, and we're ready to take lunch back to the office, where we can munch on our all-beef pepperoni.

Just another day in Riyadh.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

How I Spent My Fourth of July Vacation

I spent the long weekend in Antalya, on the Turkish Mediterranean coast. I met up with a friend from Riyadh there, and we proceeded indulge in the greatest form of decadence, to wit: all meals and all drinks (as long as we consumed Turkish beer/liquor... not a problem) were included in the very reasonable price of the hotel. We had two large pools at our dispense, along with three or four different restaurants and a pristine stretch of sandy beaches just beyond the swim-up bar. Oh, and there were massages, Turkish baths, kayaks free for the taking up and down the coast, and drink service at the lounge chairs. We did take one night out in the old city, and there's little I can think of that's more relaxing than sitting at a cafe on top of the Ottoman ramparts overlooking the moonrise on the Mediterranean harbor while sipping a beer and smoking shisha. I'd like to go back to Antalya and see more of the city, since so much of our time was spent at the hotel, but I recognize that I will have two years of weekend trips I can take around the country. I have plenty of time to plan those!

Now, normally this sort of stationary cruise wouldn't be my thing - I prefer more active and more solitary exploration if I'm in a new place, and the hotel's Entertainment Team (yes, it's capitalized) was quite insistent on dragging people into various hotel activities, such as pool games, dance parties on the pier after sunset, and other things that outgoing people enjoy in a large group of strangers. However, there's something pleasant in not having to worry about finding a cab to get to some restaurant from a guidebook that may or may not have been updated in the last ten years. I'm not sure I'd want to spend more than a long weekend in such a Stepford vacation - but for someone running on the fumes of her mental energy, this was a good way to recharge in preparation for my last month in Riyadh.

For that happy time has nearly come! I will arrive back in Riyadh on 4 July, and I should be leaving on 4 August to go back to the States. I start Turkish training on 8 September, and I should move back to DC around the 4th of that same month, which will give me time to spend Labor Day at my favorite East Coast haunt, Chincoteague Island. I spent a few days in DC before I came out to Turkey, and while I was there I managed to sign a lease on a great apartment in Eastern Market. Beej and I should be quite happy for our ten months there.

But before I can rhapsodize over my eighty-year-old apartment on a tree-lined street, filled with handmade Kazakh rugs and furnished with antiques and fine kitchenware.... I have to make it through another month in Riyadh, which will be filled with paperwork leading up to the move, and God only knows what other stressors may emerge. I got an extra treat on my flight back from Istanbul to Riyadh - the plane was 3 hours late, and by the time I was finally allowed on board, I realized that the 15 children who might have behaved themselves at 5 PM have no interest in doing so after being stuck in one room for 3 hours with nothing to do. Nor do their parents have any interest in keeping them corralled.

Please, a plea from a business traveller stuck in economy: If you are travelling with children, do not allow them to run wildly up and down the aisles, trying to flip up and down all of the armrests. And the lower-back massage I'm getting from the kicking toddler behind me is not appreciated. Also, if the child is of the screaming sort, I understand that it is difficult to know what to do in that instance. I suggest force-feeding Dimetap; it worked wonders on me as a child. Finally, if you're not willing or able to control your children, don't have them.

This message brought to you by the curmudgeon in 39L on Saudia Flight 213, Istanbul to Riyadh. As I write this, I only have 60 more minutes until touchdown, and my headphones are turned up as loud as they can go. It doesn't drown out the infantile madness.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Accoutrements of Home

I am back home in Arkansas on my second R&R. I could have gone to some new exotic place, but honestly, I just need to recharge my batteries, and home's a comfortable place to do so. It's always funny coming home after a long time away, because I forget about little things that I take for granted in the US. Diced tomatoes in a can, shaving cream that doesn't make me smell like a man, certain cuts of meat, canned Cokes that have regular pop-tops, not pull tabs - all things that I can't easily acquire in Saudi Arabia. There are many other things, of course, that I can't get there (draft beer, unexpired beer in a bottle, pork chops), but I've come to terms with those. I just miss the little things that one doesn't think to miss.

I had a small revelation as I was flying in to Memphis on Monday night. I'd spent 25 hours in planes and airports across three continents with no sleep, and I was justifiably a little out of it. We approached the city from the west, and we flew right over my hometown. I crowded to the window, looking for buildings and places I knew, and as we came across downtown Memphis, I realized... wow, this is a very small city. I knew I didn't exactly live in a bustling megalopolis, but it really hit me just how small Memphis is. That's something I didn't truly appreciate until I'd flown into Shanghai (18 million people) or Chicago (nearly 10 million) or even Riyadh (6 million). We travel to learn about ourselves as well as the new places we see, and I learned Monday in a way that I didn't quite understand before that I've outgrown Memphis. It will always be home, and I love coming back home, but I don't know that I can ever live here again. I'm too used to big cities now.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Duly Noted

I learned yesterday that, if you are allowing a socialite friend to plan your schedule, when you go to work do not leave your abaya at his house thirty miles away, as he will plan three events immediately after work.

Yesterday I walked around one of Jeddah's biggest markets, went to a restaurant, and attended the Ethiopian National Day celebration all while wearing a skirt suit. Jeddah hasn't seen that much leg (the skirt fell just below my knees) in decades, I'm sure. At least I was popular with the Ethiopian diplomats...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dating Around the World

I've heard from many of you that you enjoyed/were horrified by my most recent post about the religious police and how they affect our personal relationships here. Thanks for your comments, both online and offline - I'm glad I wrote something captured your attention. Now I want to write about another form of dating that I've experienced overseas.

Last week, one of the local hires in my office showed me a photo of him in his home country as a kid, playing in a zoo that was later destroyed in a war. I idly flipped the photo over and saw that it was dated 1977. "How can this be?" I asked. "You're only a few years older than me, you weren't alive in 1977." He then reminded me that the Ethiopian Orthodox church runs on a different calendar, seven years and change behind the calendar we use in the US. This got me thinking about the various calendars that are used in the world, how the calendars indicate the priorities of a society, and how we take the Gregorian calendar for granted.

Saudi Arabia runs on the Hijri calendar, the Islamic lunar calendar that counts time since the prophet Muhammad fled with his followers from Mecca to Medina in the Gregorian year 622. (The word Hijri comes from hajara, to flee, or haajara, to immigrate.) We're in the Hijri year 1430 now, and it began on 30 December 2008. The Hijri year is about ten or eleven days shorter than the Gregorian year, so holidays move "backwards" every year - last year Ramadan started on 1 September, and this year it will probably start around 22 August. I say "probably" because each month must begin with the sighting of the new moon - if the moon isn't seen (perhaps due to clouds or dust storms), then the month hasn't started. This has led to a number of interesting tensions in the global Muslim community - can Ramadan start on different days for Muslims in Detroit or London or Jakarta? There's no central religious authority for the community, so is it acceptable for Muslims in India or Morocco to rely on the sighting of the moon in Mecca, as some have suggested? The general consensus is that the calendar cannot be calculated in advance using astronomical tools - so even though we can predict when the new moon will occur for the next thousand years, we still cannot say with certainty on what day Ramadan will begin in 2009.

Additionally, depending on which date conversion program you are using, dates that we would consider fixed (a birthday, for example) might wiggle a little bit from passport to passport. To confuse matters even more, the calendar here uses the Islamic names for months, whereas in the rest of the Arab world two additional sets of names are used for months, each corresponding neatly to the Gregorian months we know. (One series of names is ancient, going back to Persian or Babylonian names; the other series is just a transliteration of Western month names.) This means that when I had my birthday in January, I could say that I turned 24 on 22 Muharram of the year 1430, but that I also had a birthday on 20 Kanun Al-thani or 20 Yena'ir of the year 2009. The implications of these calendar differences are pretty big in my workplace, as we constantly juggle these competing systems when comparing documents and information given to us in an interview. Many Saudis have to struggle to convert mentally their graduation date or travel history into dates that we understand - they just don't use Gregorian dates that much. (Amusingly, the word in Arabic for the Gregorian calendar is miladi, which comes from the word for birth - as in Christ's birth. Arabic is so much more literal than English sometimes.)

What does it mean that Saudi Arabia uses this calendar system, whereas most of the Arab world more or less operates on a Western calendar? I don't mean to imply that Saudis are more observant or more religiously correct than other Arabs or Muslims; one need only walk around Riyadh to see that piety and ascetism are not values everyone treasures. I do think it is closely related to how Saudi society sees its role in the Muslim world - as the guardians of the most sacred mosques in the Muslim, towards which all Muslims turn in prayer. It's no coincidence that the king is never just called "the king" in media reports here - he's called the Custodian of the Two Holy Sites, King Abdullah. In other countries, people seem to use the calendar system most appropriate to the context. For religious documents in these other countries - wedding contracts, birth records, etc - the dates are likely to be given in Hijri as well as Gregorian terms, whereas business will be conducted entirely in Gregorian dates.

When I went on R&R in January, I didn't expect that I would discover more calendar novelties - which just goes to show that my head is stuck in the sand, proverbially, of the Middle East. I should get out more. When I arrived in Taiwan on 6 January, I noticed week-old signs wishing people happy new year for the year 99 - which confused me. I finally got Jacob to explain it to me. He said that many Taiwanese will use an alternate system of numbering years, based on how many years have passed since the revolution to overthrow the imperial order in China. Once I knew this, I started observing where this calendar system was more prevalent. Anecdotally speaking (and I'm sure Jacob could correct this as well), I saw this system in more provincial areas, perhaps in places where fewer Westerners go. I didn't notice the signs in Taipei at all - perhaps because Taipei is so well plugged into the global economic system that it has bought in to the Western calendar system. Of course, I left Taiwan just before Chinese New Year - the lunar new year when all of East Asia goes berserk in a cloud of red banners and firecracker smoke.

In Japan as well, I saw a different way to count the years, based on how many years the emporer had been on the throne. As Leslie and I wandered around a park filled with Shinto gates, we paused to read the inscriptions on them, indicating the name of the person who had donated the gate and when it was erected. Leslie found gates constructed during the reign of three or four emperors, which is no laughing matter, given that the current year is 21 in the Heisei period, and the previous emperor was on the throne for over sixty years.

These calendars give indications about the priorities of the societies who use them. In Taiwan, the emphasis is on the break from the imperial period and the subsequent civil war that gave rise to the Communist Party in China - obviously the antithesis of the Taiwanese idea. In Japan, the emperor may no longer be divine, but the idea of the imperial family and its relationship to religion is clearly important in how these donors showed their piety. It was good food for thought, especially as I boarded my plane in Osaka bound for Saudi Arabia. The ticketing agent checked my Saudi visa to make sure that I could enter the country, and she was confused - my visa showed that it had been issued on 28/7/29. I tried to explain to her that it was issued in the year 1429, which was the equivalent of 31 July 2008, but she was even more puzzled by my explanation. I finally had to show her my residency permit (which she of course couldn't read, being all in Arabic) and tell her that if I was turned around at the border I would pay for my return ticket out.

There are a lot of other calendar systems that I know about, all religious (Russian orthodox, Jewish, Ethiopian orthodox), but I don't know what other calendars are in use outside of strictly liturgical ones. I hope I can find more as I travel - I get a lot of insight from these small details when I travel.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dating in Saudi Arabia

A caveat before I start. Part of the goal of this blog is to stay away from the blatantly personal: the tales of my daily routines, frustrations in the office, and my private life. However, this is too illustrative of a story to hold back - if you want a good idea of what life is like in Saudi Arabia, this is the best I can give you. Some identifying details have been changed to protect the reputations of those involved and to ensure that they can continue to defy the authorities. And, as always, this is just my personal view and in no way represents what the US government thinks about the religious police. I'm not even sure what our official policy is in that regard...

Nothing's easy in Saudi Arabia, especially if it involves appearing in public or the opposite sex, so it shouldn't be a surprise that dating is a logistical nightmare here. I could have taken the easy route of dating someone in the embassy community, but having seen a few intra-embassy relationships disintegrate very publicly, I thought it wise to avoid that. I could also have sought the affections of someone at the US military installation 45 minutes away from the embassy, where there is a population of largely unmarried officers looking for distractions as desperately as we are, but due to security restrictions and transportation limitations, arranging to visit the base by oneself is surprisingly difficult. So I took what is clearly the easy way out - I found someone outside the embassy community. And not only that, I found a non-American from a country whose nationals are usually assumed to be basic laborers in Saudi Arabia. What this means is that anywhere we go, we automatically look out of place - white women are always associated with European embassies or with the big military contracting firms, and he is always assumed to be a laborer, no matter that he's an educated polyglot with a white-collar job.

About the only thing we can do in public in Riyadh is go to dinner at one of the handful of restaurants that aren't patrolled by the religious police, individually known as the mutawwa (volunteer) or collectively as the haya (commission, from the official title of the Commission to Prevent Vice and to Promote Virtue). Mutawwaeen are easy to spot - they don't wear the iqal (the black cord on top of their headdress), they have massive beards, and their robes fall to the mid-calf, as opposed to the ankle-length robes most Saudi men wear. I wanted to show you a full-length photo of a mutawwa, but such photos are surprisingly hard to find online.

A room full of mutawwaeen (angry glares are standard issue for them).

A normal Saudi guy.

In theory, a mutawwa by himself (no females work in this position, unsurprisingly) can't arrest anyone without an accompanying policeman to enforce the order. In practice, the mutawwaeen have been known to travel in packs, to chase down suspects by car, to shut down by noisy disruption any event they deem sinful, and to launch public campaigns to discredit people who challenge their authority. Better yet, these are just the "official" mutawwaeen who work for the CPVPV - there are also vigilante bands of mutawwa wannabes who aren't actually employed by the Commission but who take on those prerogatives anyway. What we're left with is a group of government employees whose job is to enforce a phenomenally strict code of social behavior and gender segregation, and a group of unemployed louts who think that the government isn't doing enough to enforce this code. Every week there are new reports of mutawwa going overboard somewhere in the Kingdom, so here's a selection to show you what's been in the news recently.

On a more personal level, here's the story of what happened to a friend from the embassy. He was out with an American, non-diplomat friend for a ride around town. Evidently they'd just turned up the radio to hear some song that both particularly enjoyed when three cars appeared from a side street and boxed them in - one in front, one behind, and one forcing his car against the curb. My friend, being a diplomat, couldn't be arrested, but his friend wasn't so lucky, and she was booked for the crime of being alone with an unrelated man and for dancing in public. (We're still waiting to hear how she'll be sentenced; if her charges are reduced, she shouldn't face any lashes.) One mutawwa asked them both where the third person in the car was, the person in the back seat that all of the mutawwaeen had seen. The two of them were very confused, and denied that there was another person in the car. Ah-hah, you're wrong, said the mutawwa. The Devil was in the car with you.

The most common crime with which the haya charges people is khulwa, or being alone with an unrelated person of the opposite sex. Basically, a man and a woman can be alone together if they are A) married to each other, B) siblings, C) parent-child, D) grandparent-grandchild, or E) aunt/uncle-nephew/niece. Pretty much any blood relationship farther apart than that - two first cousins, say - is fair game for marriage, and thus it's illicit for those two people to be together unchaperoned. Now, if this is the level of scrutiny applied to two people from the same extended family, you can imagine what people of different ethnicities experience. We're clearly not related, and in the Saudi racial hierarchy no one can conceive of a white family consenting to their daughter's marriage to someone with darker skin. Therefore... there must be some sin going on behind the scenes if the two of us are out in public together. It's like all the joys of interracial dating in the American South, but with the added chance of being arrested by the Taliban.

It must be said that a lot of Saudis despise the haya as much as the Westerners do - and in truth, they're much more likely to deal with them than I am. The only reason I'm likely to run into them is because my relationship doesn't make sense - there's no way they'd believe we're married. Two white people out at a restaurant together? Not a problem, it's just Americans or Brits being themselves - just ignore them and they'll go away soon. Among college-age Saudis and recent college grads (especially those who have studied abroad), the mutawwaeen are a sign of the forces holding back Saudi progress. The haya is openly vilified and mocked in many publications, from national papers to student blogs. Even many religious conservatives disapprove of them, believing that a police force whose goal is to enforce public morality undermines the moral motivation to obey religious commands. However, the haya still has a lot of public support outside the cities and among older generations everywhere, who see the changes happening in the cities as a threat to social stability.

But back to the restaurants. Thankfully, some places in Riyadh owned by people so powerful that the haya can't afford to offend them, which means that in a precious few spots - mostly the big hotels - there are restaurants where the tables in the family section aren't hidden away in individual booths and where we can be seen in public together. However, getting to these restaurants isn't easy for me. He can't come pick me up at my house, because getting into the DQ after working hours is very difficult for non-diplomats - the Saudi soldiers who work the gates try to keep the general population away from us as much as they can, and it's six-five, pick `em whether that's for our own safety or to keep our dirty Western morals from rubbing off on the locals. And bringing me back to my house after dinner? Absolutely out of the question - the Saudis would hold him until the haya arrived to arrest him for being out with me. Unfortunately for him, my diplomatic immunity would protect me - but the same doesn't apply to him, and if the mutawwa were in a particularly bad mood, he could be deported for his crime of driving me home from dinner. (Also, most of the major roads have random checkpoints, and we'd raise suspicions there for all of the above reasons.) So, when we plan a dinner out on the town, I have to take motor pool to the hotel and call when I'm ready to be picked up to go home. However, you can imagine how this makes me look to our motor pool drivers, a sweet group of men who are not the most highly educated people in the world: every week, a young and unmarried woman goes to one of the big hotels by herself, and she always looks happy and sated when she's picked up three hours later. Telling them that it's the tryptophan from dinner that makes me so sleepy doesn't really seem to work. Motor pool gossip has already had me married off to two embassy personnel and dating three or four others, just since I got here in August; however, once I started going to my weekly rendezvous - I mean dinners - at different hotels in town, the gossip has utterly ceased. I think the drivers believe something so horrible is going on that they can't even discuss it.

The logistics inside the restaurant are pure tragicomedy. We always try to find a table that affords us a view of the front door but that doesn't put us in the direct line of sight from the entrance, so that we can detect and evade any bearded threats. The waiters - always expatriate workers, usually Filipinos - refuse to make eye contact with me and ask him what I would like to eat for dinner, as if making eye contact with me will call out the mutawwaeen hiding in the lamps. (Interesting side note: our word genie comes from the Arabic djinn, a supernatural creature in which most religious Arabs believe, because the djinn are mentioned in the Qur'an.) A few times we've had close calls, where we'd see a mutawwa in a place we thought was safe, and he'd sprint off to the bathroom in the middle of a sentence. I can't fault him for a that; the worst the mutawwa can do to me is yell at me, and since they generally don't speak a word of English, I can feign ignorance, wave my diplomatic residency card, and just walk away. We try to alternate paying for meals, and I haven't yet decided which is worse: when he pays, I get a look of admonishment from the waiters, who assume that I'm a prostitute; but when I pay, I am clearly a wealthy Westerner using him as my playboy. Even when we deal with no Saudis (or indeed, any Arabs or Muslims) in an evening, it's clear that all of the staff in the restaurant have absorbed some Saudi ideas about what is appropriate and what isn't.

Luckily, I can usually get him into some of the parties that happen within the embassy community, so there at least we can have a semblance of normalcy. Last weekend we went to a party at a Saudi friend's house, just outside the DQ, and we decided that we were so sick of the restrictions and sneaking around that he'd drive me over - I'd ride home with other embassy people once the motor pool shift had changed, so no one would remember that I hadn't taken embassy transportation to the party. Since it was so close, I didn't bother putting on an abaya - we'd be between the DQ and his compound for a total of four minutes, maybe. As we left the DQ, it started to rain, and by the time we exited the highway, it was coming down in buckets. While we waited a stoplight, he turned to me with a huge grin on his face. "You know the haya is never out in the rain, and the checkpoints aren't manned when it rains. Let's go for a ride around town!" So off we went, giggling like idiots at our unspeakable bit of rebellion in driving around together. We did a huge loop around the city, driving through residential neighborhoods so he could point out where mutual friends lived and showing me sites that I'd heard about but had never had any reason to visit - the most famous restaurant in the city, for example, which has no family section, so I can't go inside. At one point we hit a low spot in the road and hydroplaned, nearly hitting another car with the same problem. We both looked out the window and froze - the car was filled with bearded men with no iqals, glaring at us for crossing into their lane. I don't think either one of us breathed until the carload of mutawwaeen turned onto another street, after which he quietly turned his car towards our friend's house.

Update, 1 May: Today we decided to be bold, and we tried a restaurant that isn't in a hotel but in the posh area of Riyadh. We timed our meal for 3.30 PM on a Friday - between prayer on a day when most people are at home with their families or at a mosque. The meal was wonderful (seasoned, perhaps, with risk) but when we got ready to leave, the sunset prayer had just started. Not a problem, our waiter assured us - the front door will be locked, but go out this side door. This is pretty normal; you can stay in restaurants if you're already there when prayer starts, and someone loiters nearby to let you out if you're ready to go. But when we tried the side door, it was bolted and barred shut, as was the front door, and the keys were with the wait staff, which had completely disappeared. Seriously - we were the only ones in the restaurant, and I could see my car out the front window, waiting for me. We finally found the kitchen and went out through the back door between the refrigerators, which luckily was unlocked. I darted around to the front to catch my driver and saw the reason why this restaurant was more stringent than most - the large mosque across the street that I had failed to notice on my way in. Whoops.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Principles 0, the Law 1

Yesterday, during immigrant visa interviews, I came across a case of clear marriage fraud that I hated to refuse. The applicant, a Saudi male, wanted to go to the US to marry his sweetheart, an American woman 25 years older than he. He didn't know details about her, like what she does at work or where her children live. It was clear that he was not in a bona fide relationship with her. When I asked how he'd met her, he spoke about his friend from college, an American man, who lived next door to her and who had introduced them. I asked how frequently he goes to visit this friend, and the applicant spoke warmly and in great detail about the friend, including how frequently he goes to visit him and what they do for fun.

When I looked up the man's prior tourist visa information, notes indicated that he had gone to visit the same friend numerous times over the last two decades. It's obvious what the case is - the Saudi man's true relationship is with the male friend, not the female neighbor. Unfortunately, there's no immigration benefits for that, nor is he legally even able to marry him at the state level. I disagree with this, strongly... but what can I do? I don't condone fraud, even if I don't like the underlying law.

Rough day.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Compound Living

Right now I'm in the middle of a two-week stint in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, covering a staffing shortage at our consulate in the Eastern Province. I'm right across the causeway from Bahrain - it's about a thirty-minute drive to downtown Manama. It's been an interesting experience - I'm the only person doing visa interviews, so a lot of the work I'm doing is self-directed, and I'm enjoying the relative freedoms that come when one is outside of Riyadh. I'm also enjoying being around many more Americans, as the vast majority of the American expat population in Saudi Arabia is here, where the oil wealth and jobs are. I'm living in the recently vacated apartment of the person I'm temporarily replacing, as will my colleagues from Riyadh who will be cycling through here every two weeks until the person who is permanently assigned to Dhahran arrives. It's my first time living in "normal" embassy housing: that is to say, this is the first time I've lived in a privately owned home that the US mission leases for its personnel, not on the grounds of the chancery itself like my home in Riyadh (I can see the embassy from my front door). This is the norm in most of the world, I understand - in Riyadh all of my neighbors are embassy personnel, but here there are just four of us in my building.

I often refer to the Diplomatic Quarter, where I live in Riyadh, as a compound, but in the strictest sense it's not - outsiders can get inside without knowing someone who lives inside (for a visa appointment, for example), and Saudis are not actively prevented from going inside. In Saudi Arabia, most Western expats live in their own compounds, usually affiliated with their employer. The word "compound" brings to mind the Waco siege or breakaway Mormon fundamentalists, and if you take the concept to mean a group of heavily armed people living together in an attempt to ignore the outside world, it's not too far off. Of course, I doubt that David Koresh's followers had stills running in their bathtubs to produce the Saudi expat nectar of life, homebrew alcohol, or that the homes of Mormon splinter groups are guarded by an array of Saudi military checkpoints and mercenaries from South Asia. (Nepal is the preferred source of hired guards here, for whatever reason. Maybe it goes back to the gurkha tradition?)

The larger compounds in Saudi Arabia are designed for and wholly owned by the HR department of a large firm that needs to bring in Europeans or Americans to work in the Kingdom. The biggest compound by far belongs to Aramco, the state-owned oil company of Saudi Arabia that brings thousands of Americans here every year to run its plants and to train its employees. (Aramco used to be known as the Saudi ARabian AMerican Oil COmpany, hence the name and the historical ties to the US, even after the American shares were all bought out.) Other big compounds are run by BAE, Lockheed Martin, Shell, and Exxon Mobil - the usual suspects in Saudi Arabia. Smaller compounds cater to the expats who work for other Western firms but who aren't here in enough strength to justify having their own walled-off city. Inside these compounds, anything goes - western attire is allowed, women can drive, people drink the PGA that they brew in their spare bathrooms, and they generally try to forget that they live in Saudi Arabia. Saudis cannot live in these compounds, and people from countries other than those in the EU and North America have difficulty moving in. Everyone knows what goes on inside the compounds, but the Saudi government appears to be happy to keep the Westerners locked away and apart from the locals. Wealthy Saudis have their own semi-compounds, neighborhoods with guards to keep out the riffraff, but theirs aren't quite as licentious as ours are.

Styles that are considered normal in Saudi Arabia would be called ostentatious or even gaudy in most people's eyes back home, and housing is no exception. I had never used the word "villa" outside of a discussion of medieval Italian architecture until I came to Saudi Arabia, yet here it's the term that's used for large single-family homes. (And yes, I have had such discussions about Italian architecture. You probably already knew, or suspected, that of me anyway.) A villa in Saudi Arabia means a large home, two or three stories, in a nice neighborhood and with its own perimeter wall. Ideally, it will have ornate flourishes on the exterior in an attempt to set it off from the other homes around it, even if they were all built by the same developer at the same time. The interior of these homes is also given the star treatment: high ceilings, ornate moldings, expensive tile floors, and gold hardware - lots of gold. Oh my God, Saudis love the color gold.

However, like much else that I've noticed in the Gulf, a lot of attention is paid to the external appearance at the expense of true quality. The ornate "gold" doorknob on my front door? The gold lacquer has worn off in parts. The lovely wooden floor? Cheap laminate that is peeling up in heavily trafficked areas. The fancy carved glass screen on the shower in the master bathroom? It doesn't disguise the poor design of the shower that funnels water into the floor if a shower takes more than thirty seconds. There are two thermostats in the apartment, one by my bedroom door and one in the living room. Neither one is connected to anything. (I completely disassembled both in failed attempts to turn my air conditioning on when I first arrived.) Instead, the actual thermostat is on the compressor, hiding in a dark, cool closet in the back of the house, and it resets itself to 80 degrees every three days. Sound insulation is a fiction - I can tell what TV program my neighbor watches every night. The apparently granite countertop in my kitchen has split along the edge of the sink - and better yet, it's been "fixed" with a rubber sealant, so there's now a flexible hinge of faux stone in front of the sink. This is in a building that's fewer than ten years old, in a compound that is considered one of the most lavish ones in town! So many things that could have been fixed relatively cheaply, especially in comparison to the price of the apartment itself, but the attention to detail just isn't there.

Of course, no gated community would be complete without its own set of rules. I was idly flipping through the welcome book in my apartment when I discovered the residents' code. Strictly "international" attire is to be work on the grounds - which I take to mean no abayas and no niqabs, since I've seen some women in my building wearing the veil over their hair. While visiting the compound's private beach 30 miles away (because of course, why wouldn't it have its own stretch of beach?), only Western clothing may be worn - anyone not adhering to this rule will be asked to leave. While we aren't explicitly told not to bring Saudis onto the grounds, the strong implication is that locals have no reason to come inside, nor should we have any reason to want them to be inside. The very name of my compound, Oasis, implies that we are separate and isolated from our environment.

Of course, the notion that living in a compound keeps you separate from reality only lasts as long as everyone agrees to suspend their disbelief, and not everyone is thrilled about these anomalies. In 2004, there was a series of coordinated attacks in and around Dhahran, and one of the worst sieges was in the building next to mine, inside the same compound. I found this out when I was googling the site trying to find a map to give to a friend coming to visit me last week - instead of the compound website, all i found were news reports and photos. Whoops. On the plus side, US consulate personnel have been moved back in to this facility in the last year, according to what I assume is the barn door principle: once a place is attacked, it's going to be safer than everywhere else for several years thereafter, as the authorities give it extra security patrols and attention.

All in all, I have no real complaints about my accommodations here. I miss my cat, and I don't like living out of a suitcase, but I'm still in housing that's far bigger and plusher - even with the warts - than any housing I've ever had in the States. However, I will be glad to get back to the States, where my home will be smaller but more livable, less ostentatious.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Wherein the Author Gives Up on Long Expository Pieces

Okay, I admit it, I'm a lazy bum. What do you want from me.

Here's the news from the Kingdom.
  • We had a bomb scare last week - a live duck-and-cover, "this is not a drill" event. Embassy guards heard an explosion outside the Diplomatic Quarter, and they sent us under our desks until they figured out what was going on. Turns out it was a controlled demolition in a construction site nearby - how nice of them to warn us in advance! (I imagine the contractors responsible for this snafu have already been deported; the last thing the Saudis want is for us to get any jumpier.) I am rather proud of the fact that I stayed calm and didn't panic during the scare, like some of my colleagues were starting to do. All I did was put my running shoes on, had my gas mask at hand if it was necessary, and sent text messages to people in the States to let them know I was okay, in case something hit the news.
  • We had our national day celebration on Tuesday, which is like the 4th of July but held at a time when the weather is actually tolerable. It was a fine event from all accounts, very little of which I actually got to see because I was working outside at the check-in tables for most of the night. I did get put on escorting-drunk-guests-out duty at the end, and while I've heard that this level of intoxication is normal at all national day events worldwide, I've also heard that ours is a little more out-of-control than most, since all of Riyadh turns out to have access to the open bar(s). Supposedly we ran out of whiskey in under 90 minutes. Suffice it to say that Saudis, while often very sweet and hospitable, get very touchy-feely when they've been drinking for several hours.
  • We're doing record numbers of visa interviews - we hit 350 people interviewed on Tuesday, which is a country-wide record. My friends at other posts will probably laugh at such a relatively low number, but when you spend 5-10 minutes on each person, going over 300 in a day feels pretty good. Other nations' embassies issue far higher numbers of visas than we do, but after 9/11 we switched to a system where almost everyone must be interviewed (diplomats, critically ill patients, and the very young are exempt), which is beneficial but does go much slower than merely adjudicating paper applications, as happens for most visas at the EU embassies, for example. At any rate, we're gearing up for the summer rush, which promises to be more fun than anyone could ever dream of. If you ever want to meet a Saudi family, go to Disneyworld - I swear this country is obsessed with Mickey Mouse.
  • A few weeks ago I had one of the most surreal experiences of my life - I interviewed one person in a thirty-member midget dancing team, who regularly accompany their employer on his business trips around the world in his private jet in order to keep him entertained. I'm still struggling to come to terms with this concept.
  • I have 121 days, or 36% of my tour, left in the Kingdom. Not that I'm counting or anything.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

More Realizations from Shanghai

Well, aren't I a lazybones.  Evidently this is the laziest time of year for me, judging by my similar disappearance in 2008 around this time.  Before I move us all on to Beijing, I just remembered something striking that occured to me one night in Shanghai.

I was sitting around with my friends one night, and we were listening to a recording of Democracy Now that Hannah had downloaded the day before.  The entire clip was of a speech that Howard Zinn had given a few years before about the need to withdraw completely from Iraq and the futility of the war.  Becky and Hannah were nodding along, adding comments of support periodically.  At the end, they both said how right Zinn's stance was.  I felt rather uncomfortable, and I said that I wasn't so sure I agreed.  Becky stared at me as if I'd grown a second head - she was one of the participants in the antiwar rally I organized in Hot Springs in March 2003, and I know that's what she was thinking of.  I found myself trying to explain my position, that for better or for worse, we broke Iraq and that we can't let it get worse than it already is.  As I kept talking, trying to explain that it looks a little different when you're staring at a tour in Iraq in the next few years, I could see them trade glances and shut down - right, we forgot, she works for the government now.  She's One Of Them.

It's a strange feeling.  Did I sell out, have I swallowed the company line that effectively?  Or are they the ones who are out of touch, the ones who put ideology over pragmatism?  I've been thinking about it ever since then, and I'm still not sure I know who has the right of it, or at least the greater share.

Anyway, imagine me now making my way through the cool Shanghai night to the old railway station, preparing for my overnight ride to Beijing.  I'll be departing from an international city of banking and consumerism, heading towards the heart of inescapably Communist China.  

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Pearl of the Orient (and of My Vacation) - Part III

I spent four days and change in Shanghai, and I got through most of my mental detox there.  (I can hear your fear already – if she wrote this much about only four days, how much worse will it get?  Well, I never claimed to be a concise writer, as those of you who've had to proof my papers can well attest.)  By the time I moved on from the city, I was already feeling more like myself than I had in a long time – I wasn't visually tracking every person who could be following me or observing every car and cyclist for suspicious behavior, and I wasn't obsessing over what emails I'd gotten from my DoD contacts while I was gone or which of my problem cases had cleared.  There's one vignette about my detox that's worth sharing, though.  

A few hours before I left for Beijing, we were walking around the city in a group, talking about the things that a group of expats will often discuss – the products we miss most from America, crazy things that foreigners do, the bureaucratic hassle of residing in a foreign country, and the like.  Someone asked me what I missed most about the US.  I thought for a few moments and replied, “People.”  They initially thought I meant that I just missed American culture, but then I clarified that I miss seeing groups of people in public, wearing distinctive clothing, talking and laughing loudly, and doing interesting things.  I miss people watching.  I miss seeing the distinctions between individual strangers, whether it's ethnic, cultural, economic, or merely physical.  Saudi Arabia is visually boring – no public spaces, no vegetation, blank walls around all residential buildings, no variation in clothing color, no audible conversations or visible emotions, no way to distinguish among any of the individuals in a group at the mall or grocery store.  My eyes must have been popping like a country bumpkin's when I first got to Shanghai (well, the description's not too far from the mark, I suppose).  Just so you know, a response like that is virtually guaranteed to kill a casual conversation with awkwardness.  Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I would suggest lying and saying that Chipotle's burritos are what you miss most about the US.

Next up - Beijing!

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Pearl of the Orient (and of My Vacation) - Part II

People from all over China flock there to find work, perhaps as many as a thousand new immigrants a day (!).  I tend to believe that number, if only because of the sheer variety of restaurants I saw and the many accents our cab drivers had – distinct enough that even I, who only knows four words in Chinese, could tell the differences.  I got to try Xinjiang food when I was there; it was the only time in my trip where I was more of an expert on the food we were eating than my hosts.  It warmed my heart to see familiar Central Asian food in the middle of Shanghai!  My friend, knowing that I was spending almost all of my China time in Shanghai, took me to a restaurant with a different regional specialty every day, which was as fascinating as it was delicious.  At other times we just grabbed a snack off of one of the portable grills which seems to pop up at dusk on every street corner, selling skewers of grilled meat, vegetables, or tofu in whatever style the entrepreneur was most comfortable cooking.  Really, culinary tourism is the only way to go when you travel, and I maintain that calories consumed as part of a cultural experience do not count.

Becky had another friend visiting her at the same time, a friend from college who is currently working on a PhD in art history, specializing in cityscapes and urban visual language.  I spent a day wandering the city with Fredo while Becky was at work, and discussing our observations of the city through the lens of his studies was as refreshing as it was eye-opening.  My coworkers in Riyadh are all very intelligent, but we simply do not have time for the kind of academic, meandering conversations I enjoyed with many of my college friends – when you work fifteen hours a day doing paperwork, your brain gets a little fried, and the last thing you want to do is talk to the same people you see all day long about more serious things.  I realized after Shanghai and Taiwan how starved I've been for that kind of intellectual stimulation.  

Fredo, who'd been in China for a few weeks before I got there and who'd travelled to several other cities during his stay, pointed out the differences I would notice between Shanghai and Beijing (more on that later).  In Shanghai, like many cities in China, there is a rapid push to modernize the city.  The city is planning on adding two entire subway lines in 18 months – work zones for them are everywhere, shouldering aside the plebes who might complain about lost homes and detour-choked streets.  The construction schedule for these lines is ruthlessly efficient.  Shanghai has the world's only commercially operating maglev train, connecting the main international airport to the city's subway system.  Is it necessary?  Probably not; it's not so far to Pudong Airport that a regular commuter train couldn't do the job just as well.  However, it's an exciting bit of prestige for a city that seems to crave recognition as modern.  The financial district's skyline, along the river that bisects the city, is breathtaking – if you can see it clearly through all of the smog.  People's Park, in the center of the city, is home to a phenomenal museum showcasing archaeological and cultural treasures of China dating back centuries, such as the development of bronze tools and art across millennia, or the changing uses of jade in Chinese culture since the year 2000 BCE.  To complement this history, there is a museum next door dedicated to the future of Shanghai – an urban planning museum laying out the goals and potential results of the current modernization projects.  The park itself is ringed by pointy towers of office buildings, covered in the logos of big electronics firms and international banks, but these  compete for attention with the cranes that can be seen in every direction, building more towers even as the construction economy in the US skids to a halt.  

Many of the ongoing projects we saw in Shanghai are unimaginable in the US, either as a matter of course (is any US city expanding its subway system?) or just right now, during the economic crisis.  Yet Shanghai builds on, and damn the consequences of pollution, crowding, illegal immigration, and land expropriation.  Fredo came up with a phrase that I think describes Shanghai perfectly – “The future is right here.  It's dirty and a little scary.”  It would be interesting to return in ten years to see if there's anything left I recognize.  

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Pearl of the Orient (and of My Vacation) - Part I

Written at 6 PM Tokyo time, 22 January 2009

I arrived in Shanghai in the early afternoon on 2 January, to stay with my friend Becky, who graduated the same year I did from ASMS. She's been living in China for the past two years, improving her Chinese and teaching English. Out of all the big cities I visited during my trip, Shanghai is my favorite, probably because it managed to feel comfortably familiar while at the same time offering lots of new experiences – it was a good way to ease out of my Riyadh mindset and to start myself on the road to remembering who I am. 

A caveat: for all of the places I'll be describing to you, my impressions are based on the briefest of visits in combination with the historical and cultural context I gleaned from my hosts, all of whom have lived in these cities for at least a year and have impressive commands of the local languages. I don't pretend that I'm an authority, but I do think that my observations aren't far off base. 

Shanghai has been one of the traditional entry points for foreign traders into China, and as such it has a much more international character than one of its two rivals, Beijing. (I didn't visit its other competitor, Hong Kong, so I can't evaluate how they compare.) It's bigger than Beijing, and it is a major financial hub, drawing expats by the thousands from all around the world to work in a very lucrative market. The street scene feels very westernized, and I don't just mean the endless blocks of Western clothing stores and the locals wearing the latest fashions from New York, Los Angeles, and Europe. The cityscape itself feels Western – the skyscrapers look like anything you could see in the big cities of the US or Europe, the old buildings that survived revolutions and wars were built by European powers a hundred years ago or more, and the subway feels like the New York system to me (efficiency barely covering a seedy underbelly). Open spaces are green and filled with parents strolling with their children, old men flying kites, and students flirting with each other after classes end.

However, just when I would get used to the sights, something jarring would happen to remind me that I was in the People's Republic of China. As Becky said, you can go for days thinking that you're in the first world, and then you come across something that reminds you that you're still in the developing world, such as the smell of raw sewage being carried away from an apartment building in a bucket strapped to a bicycle because there's no building connection to public sanitation systems. Other jarring things included the large exhibition hall built as a gift from the Russian government in the mid-1990s (one wonders if the money might have been of more use at home) that looks for all the world like something the Soviet Union would build, down to the shiny red star on top – although perhaps the USSR wouldn't have built it next to a huge mall. One evening when my host was busy, I wandered through Shanghai's heart, a pedestrians-only street that seems to be the place to shop, to eat ice cream and to drink bone-achingly sweet tea, to see and to be seen until the early hours of the morning. There were still holiday decorations up on this street, and let me tell you, there is little that compares to seeing a huge, fake Christmas tree flanked by a set of PRC flags.

One of the most amusing things to me about Shanghai is that it is so brazenly a consumerist, capitalist city. I have a photo of a sign for People's Square, the large park in the center of town, flanked by Christmas trees and signs advertising end-of-the-season sales on clothing at the mall across the street. Obviously, there's only one show in town with real power, and it's not Adam Smith's invisible hand. As I write this, I recall reading a story about China censoring parts of Obama's inauguration speech, editing out the part about Americans of prior generations fighting fascism and communism with our ideals. However, the ideals of communism seem to be getting only lip service in the glitzy, fast-paced Shanghai that I experienced. 

To be continued in a few days...

Friday, January 23, 2009

What I Did During My January Vacation

Written at 3 PM Tokyo time, 22 January

Right now, I am sitting in Tokyo's Haneda Airport, waiting for the first flight of my two-day journey back to Riyadh. I've had an amazing vacation that's left me physically drained but mentally rejuvenated. I've tried to stay upbeat in my writing here, but over the past few months some of you may have caught on to just how demoralized and exhausted I'd become after four months at Embassy Riyadh (perhaps the weepy phone calls at odd hours of the night clued you in). I finally understand why in a yearlong tour we get two lengthy vacations outside the Kingdom. Getting away from Saudi Arabia and from work has enabled me to regain my mental balance, to let go temporarily of my constant paranoia about security threats, and to reevaluate what I need to do to keep myself happy and healthy. (An aside: is it paranoia if there are legitimate threats?) I have no doubt that as soon as I return to the office, the countdown to my second R&R will begin, and the stress will begin accumulating again. However, I've made some resolutions and thought through a lot of problems I've been facing, and I think that things will be better than they were. What's even better is that over a five-day period I talked through all of my problems and complaints about my job with a friend, and in the end not only was he still determined to take the Foreign Service entrance exam, he made me feel proud again of what I'm doing and excited about what I will do with my job once I leave Saudi. In short, I feel like me again, for the first time in six months or more. I have a lot to record, both in terms of the sights I've seen and the realizations I've reached so far in 2009. (It feels like I've been gone for much longer than three weeks!) As I can't seem to access the wireless in this airport, I will write up as much as I can now and post stuff intermittently once I can do so. I look forward to sharing my thoughts, memories, and photos with you. Some of my photos will probably go up on Facebook sooner than they go here. However, more background on them will be given here, with fewer snarky comments – Facebook isn't really conducive to intelligent discourse!  

Thursday, January 01, 2009

On the Road Again...

I'm leaving home in two hours for the airport to catch my flight out of the Kingdom.  I'm taking my laptop with me, but I'm not sure how frequently I'll be able to check in here.  At any rate, the next time I write, I'll be out of Saudi Arabia!