Monday, August 21, 2006

Saudi Hospital Errs in Cutting and Other Tidbits from ArabNews 

Saudi Arabia's online publication, ArabNews, is an often fascinating read. It presents news with the obligatory Saudi/Arab perspective, while at the same time showing amazing slices of Saudi life, with the pretty clear intent of exposing things which need to change. I often find myself torn between applauding and condemning their work, sometimes in the same article.

Given the present respite from the unrelenting focus on Lebanon and Gaza, I thought I'd take a few minutes to check out ArabNews, to see what I've been missing for the last month.

Commendably, they have not shied away from reporting the recent terror plot uncovered in London, even though there is a little ambivalence about fully accepting the obvious:

The BBC, quoting an "unofficial police source," said the martyrdom recordings — discovered on laptop computers — appear to have been made by some of the suspects being questioned. At least six laptops impounded by police during their searches, according to sources, have yielded a cornucopia of extremist literature including the martyrdom videos.

However, some observers caution against jumping to any conclusions for the simple reason that extremist literature is now common on the Internet and can be downloaded easily.
Loads of extremist literature indeed. Irrelevant I'm sure. Not to mention that we should also not jump to conclusions just because some of the suspects had actual martyrdom videos prepared -- you know, the ones where they say goodbye and tell everyone to be happy because they died while killing infidels and are going to heaven as a great reward. This is also quite common these days and so, like the "extremist literature" should be ignored. Doesn't prove anything.

One has to wonder who the "some observers" are; the article doesn't say. I do know that other observers cautioned against swimming less than 30 minutes after eating and that this might explain the whole mess. Even other observers -- thankfully unmentioned here -- probably blamed the Jews or George Bush or both, of course. This is not to imply that the entire article is unfair -- indeed, it gives a pretty frank description of the situation. Which is part of what makes me so curious of exactly who these "some observers" are, and how they got that little nugget of nincompoopery into an otherwise relatively sane article. Do Saudi censors or media monitors count as observers? We may never know.

But what is often more interesting than just getting the "other side's" view on the big stories of the day is the chance to see just a little of what the challenges are in Saudi society, and some of the amusing little things that capture the Saudi imagination. Take for instance the story of an 80 year old grandfather who had something very important accidentally cut off while he was in the hospital:

Relatives of an 80-year-old granddad, who is in intensive care at a hospital in Jeddah, were shocked to find the old-man's long beard had been shaved off by the hospital barber, the Al-Madinah newspaper reported yesterday.

The Saudi son of the man said his father is suffering from a serious illness and was in the intensive care unit at the hospital when his beard was shaved off. The man said that he came to visit his father and was shocked to see that the hospital barber had given the 80-year-old "the Gillette look."

The hospital issued a written apology to the family and said that the barber misunderstood instructions to trim the beard. The son, who has threatened to sue the hospital, said, "My father has never shaved his beard since he was born. This is so tragic, I can't believe they could be so careless."
No word on whether there is a way for concerned readers to make contributions toward beard transplant research.

In another story, we learn of a particularly radical new Saudi educational innovation:

"This unique and signature motivational tool is meant to encourage students to utilize their potential to the ultimate while enjoying the benefits of learning new skill sets, making them their own house heroes," Rami Abu Ghazaleh, CEO of Al-Baik, said in his address. "We've been truly humbled by the overwhelming response from parents and students alike. By continuously fostering and nurturing the students, we provide a platform for broadening their horizons and enhancing their skills that can be applied at home, school and the workplace," he added.
What is this "unique and signature motivational tool"? Money. They refunded 500SR to students with perfect scores and 400SR to students with 90% marks in a demonstration of skills learned. Some lessons last a lifetime.

Not surprisingly, there is also coverage of some big problems with the institution of marriage in Saudi Arabia. Polygamy? Spousal abuse? No. Foreigners:

Marriages between Saudi women and non-Saudi men produce a number of problems. Questions relating to the success and advisability of such marriages are common all over the Kingdom. According to some, the children of those marriages are doomed to a bleak future. Many people question the kind of education and jobs available to such children and ask whether they can grow up as integrated citizens.

The fact is that many Saudis take a negative view about Saudi women marrying non-Saudi men and they invariably cite examples of foreign fathers leaving the country and abandoning their wives and children.[...]

In the case of a Saudi woman marrying a non-Saudi, the children take the father's nationality. [...]

Nura Abdul Sattar, a psychiatrist, said that Saudi men drive women to marry non-Saudis by refusing to marry them. "Saudi men refuse to marry Saudi women for many reasons including unemployment, high dowries or because Saudi women are working in undesirable jobs such as nurses or in private companies..."
Despite all these marital woes, the focus is on not marrying non-Saudi Arabs? Without full knowledge on my own, I'm going to hazard a guess that for the ArabNews it is an accomplishment to get the actually objectionable problems even into print, camoflauged by the seeming attention paid to the foreign marriage cover story, and that they might not be able to print these things at all if they didn't encode the information properly.

Is there any chance that at some point in the distant future, there may be open consideration of the larger issues at play here, like the fact that Saudi men won't marry women if they are nurses or work for private companies? Or that demographic imbalances are almost inevitable in polygamous society? I'm not trying to be culturally insensitive, but in some cases I just can't help it.

If you really, really liked this -- or even really, really hated it -- there's lots more: