Riding the Wave

For some reason, the government here finds itself compelled to get involved in organizing cultural events even when they suck at it. Why? Maybe because they don’t allow non-governmental organizations that usually play such roles in other countries. Or maybe because they want to keep the matters of arts and culture under control. Anyway, they keep organizing these events and it is very rare that anything good comes out of them.

Recently, the Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI) organized in Riyadh what they called the second intellectual forum. The word ‘intellectual’ here is a vague term used to describe a diverse group of people who work in the fields of arts and culture: writers, novelists, columnists, artists, journalists, etc.

This forum that took place in the Marriott hotel included discussion panels and meetings with senior government officials. It was also a chance for these so-called intellectuals, many of them have known each other for years, to meet and talk. Like most of these events, the forum almost passed unnoticed. That is, until al-Watan daily columnist Saleh al-Shehi tweeted this:

Translation: What happened in the Marriott lobby on the margins of the intellectuals forum is a shame and a disgrace.. I believe that the so-called cultural enlightenment program in Saudi Arabia is centered on women

That tweet generated some angry responses by other people who attended the forum. Author Abdo Khal, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction aka the Arabic Man Booker, tweeted: “Your allegation has crossed the line. Either you prove it or face trial for libel. You should apologize before things get there.”

Abdul Aziz Khoja, the minister of information and culture, and whose this event is happening under his auspices, also took to Twitter to make his feelings clear:

Translation: For criticism to cross its goals and ethics and reaches the stage of libel and slandering, that is what’s shame. And I will say no more.

Al-Shehi was unapologetic. He insisted that as a good Muslim there was no way he could remain silent about what happened at the Marriott lobby. He also said that he plans to sue Khoja. This kind of talk struck a chord with the conservatives, who took his tweet and ran with it because it reaffirms their view of the so-called liberal intellectuals as a group of immoral men and women.

During a talk show on Rotana TV, Khal pressed al-Shehi to say what did he see exactly that he deemed too scandalous. The latter kept refusing to answer, but at the end of the show he agreed to provide one example: some women there did not cover their hair.

The horror. Seriously? All this fuss over a few strands of hair? People thought al-Shehi saw some orgy going on or something. I mean look at these photos: some really hardcore stuff, no?

Some people think the government must be thrilled to see the elite of society bickering over trivialities like this instead of demanding political reform. For a government that paid billions in money handouts and made some merely symbolic concessions to prevent the Arab Spring from reaching their shores, a controversy like this one is certainly a welcome distraction.

The past few months have seen a wave of conservatism that al-Shehi and his supporters seem more than happy to ride. Hardliners are on the rise, and that shows in the heavy-handed manner in which authorities are dealing with recent calls for reform.

Earlier this week, the interior ministry ordered the arrest of 23 citizens wanted in connection to last October’s unrest in the city of Awwamiya in Qatif in the eastern part of the country. The ministry held a press conference to make the announcement and released a list of names and photos in a way that eerily similar to how the government dealt with Al Qaeda cells few years ago.

Few days later, the organizers of an event for arts and culture in Riyadh were ordered to cancel all the musical segments in their program, and two days ago long-time activist Mohammed Saeed Tayeb was stopped at the airport when he tried to board a plane to Cairo to attend his daughter’s wedding there.

In July 2010, Saleh al-Shehi wrote about meeting Abdo Khal in a Parisian cafe, where “girls of all nationalities and ages were flying around us like butterflies in the Spring season.” Why is he now all worked up about some Saudi women not covering their hair? Halal in Paris, haram in Riyadh?

Saleh al-Shehi kept repeating the word “shame” to describe what he saw at the now-infamous lobby, but failed to provide any specific examples except for the uncovered hair of some women. If some free strands of hair offend his sensibilities that much, then he probably should not be there in the first place. However, there are many other things in the country that he, and all of us, really, should be ashamed of like injustice, corruption and discrimination.

For shame, Saleh. For shame.

About these ads

Are We Fine? Two Saudi Men Detained over YouTube Video

Two Saudi men were detained Sunday in relation to a YouTube video they produced about poverty in Riyadh, colleagues said. Feras Bughnah and Hosam al-Deraiwish were called by the police for questioning Sunday afternoon, and they are still in authorities custody in the police station in Sahafa district in northern Riyadh.

“We asked the guard at the police station if Feras and Hosam were inside the cell and he said yes,” said Asem al-Ghamdi, a reporter for the local news site Sabq who tried to visit the two men in prison yesterday. “The guard agreed to give them food that I brought for them, but he did not let us talk to them.”

Al-Ghamdi said he spoke with an officer at the police station who told him the issue is “simple” and that Feras and Hosam would be released Tuesday morning. However, as of Tuesday evening, the two men remain in detention.

Coincidentally, Monday, October 17, is when the world celebrates the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

While the detention appears related to the video, it is still unclear what was the exact reason for the detention, said one source who is following the case but asked not to be named for fear of retribution from authorities.

“One theory is that they have been detained because their YouTube video was shown on a TV channel owned by the opposition abroad,” he said. “Another theory is that authorities did not like the strong tone of the video and wanted to make an example out of these guys.”

Saudis online took to Twitter to comment on the issue and express their support to the two detained men. Using the hashtag #Mal3ob3lena (which is the name of the YouTube show), users posted more than 17,000 tweets in less than 24 hours since Monday.

“Those who say the truth are detained, while those who steal billions are free,” tweeted Sara Nasser.

Yasser Almisfer said he could never imagine that these two men would be detained because he knows them and he knows how much they care about the country.

“The idea of interrogating the creators of Mal3ob3lena is nauseating,” he tweeted.

UPDATE 10/20/2011 15:50 ET: It’s Thursday, close to 11pm Saudi time and no word on the release of #mal3ob3lena team yet. I spoke to another person familiar with the matter who told me he expects that Feras and his friends will be released in the coming few days.

“Police are waiting for the release order from the governate,” he said. Knowledgeable on the legal process in the country, this person described the detention as “strange,” adding that probably the reason for delaying their release is to send a message to bloggers and activists that there is a line that they should not cross.

“Come on!” he said, “where are we now? Why are these old ways making a comeback? Why are they trying to strangle the future of this country?”

UPDATE 11/1/2011 2:30 Istanbul: After two weeks in detention, Feras and his crew have been released.

Dancing, Reform, HRW Report, Arab iPhone developers

  • YouTube video mashups of Saudi folk dancing with Western music have been a popular item on this blog. Here is the latest in this series, courtesy of Mctoom.

  • Ahmed Ba-Aboud: “When would reforms in Saudi Arabia be real reforms and not the gift of the King? It is when those reforms focus on finding solutions to the real issues of the country rather than creating more fictional wars.”
  • Speaking of reforms, Human Rights Watch recently released their report on Saudi Arabia in which they try to review and evaluate the past five years. The report is well written and reaches a conclusion many of us already know: there have been some changes here and there, but there is still much more to do, and these changes need to be institutionalized to ensure their sustainability.
  • Jordanian blogger Ahmad Humeid writes about the new opportunities that the iPhone and the iPad offer to software developers in the Arab World, with a shout out to my good friend Bandar Raffah.

Abdullah al-Eyaf, Ahmed Bin Baz

  • If you enjoyed reading about Abdulmohsen al Mutairi and young Saudi filmmakers, you probably want to read this interview with director Abdullah Al-Eyaf. His latest film, “Ayesh,” has been well received and won the first award of the Gulf Film Festival that was recently held in Dubai.
  • In the second part of a series on Saudi Arabia, GlobalPost runs this piece by Caryle Murphy who profiles the upstart scholar Ahmed Bin Baz. I have been reading for the young Bin Baz for a while now, so I’m not surprised by the opinions he offers in this interview. However, I’m a bit surprised to see Dr. Mohammed al-Hodaif, father of the late Hadeel al-Hodaif, likens Bin Baz to Paris Helton in the sense that he is using his father’s name to become famous. Totally uncalled for.

Malik Nejer profile, King Abdullah & Obama meeting

  • After reading his name on this blog, Caryle Murphy decided to meet Malik Nejer and then she wrote this nice profile of him for The National daily, which is based in Abu Dhabi. “Sometimes it’s scary when you’re alone and you feel like you’re rebellious against a culture and an entire society,” he said. But I don’t think this is the case anymore. Thanks to the internet, Malik and other artists and activists who challenge the conventional wisdom of our conformist society have come to realize that they are not alone, and that there are at least some people out there who are like-minded and have similar ideas.
  • Abdullah Alami will be happy to hear this:

    “I want to also thank our friends, the American people, and I also would like to thank our friends here in the media,” King Abdullah said at the end of his statement. “May God spare us from all of the bad things they can do to us.” As Obama chucked, Abdullah added, “And may God bless us with all the positive things they can do for us and for humanity.” Obama chimed in: “Well, that is an excellent prayer. Thank you.”

    Here’s the video. The quote above starts at 8:35.

Abraj Al Bait

Saudi media was full of reports on the progress of construction in the Makkah Clock Tower last week, but today I came across this interesting infographic courtesy of Menainfra.com. The clock sits at the top of the Makkah Clock Tower Royal Hotel, which is the centerpiece of the 7-tower Abraj Al Bait Complex project. Once completed, the tower will be the second tallest building in the world after Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The project will also offer the largest floor area of any structure in the world: 1.5m sq meters of floorspace.

(via f)

The Saudi Moon Boat

The Saudi pavilion at Shanghai’s World Expo has proven very popular, some people who want get in started faking disabilities in order to avoid waiting time that could reach up to nine hours. “While the opening weeks at Expo saw surprisingly low attendance, Saudi Arabia’s pavilion has emerged as among the most popular,” WSJ’s China Realtime Report blog said. One of the main attractions in the Saudi pavilion, nicknamed the “moon boat,” is its 1,600-square-meter movie screen. Considering that movie theaters are not allowed in the country, this is actually pretty ironic. But hey, that’s Saudi Arabia for you: full of contradictions and paradoxes your head will start uncontrollably spinning. You’re welcome.

Bonus: Suzanne Seldess visited Mada’in Saleh in April, and she came back with some really nice pictures. Check them out.